1-19-2004

Title: Knowing
Author: Calic0cat <calic0cat@fastmail.fm>
Beta: Sunhawk
Story Completed: November 12, 2003
Genre: Yaoi, Friendship, Romance, Action/Ops
Pairing: 1x2
Rated: R
Warnings: OOC, Swearing, Lime/Implied Lemon
Archives: Eventually at Lev's Lair http://www.gwaddiction.com/levlair/ and at http://calic0cat.freeservers.com/ (my site) and at Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat. Also at Moments of Rapture http://zerotwofan.com/rapture/ under the Fall 2003 Contest. Anyone else - please ask.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: Post Endless Waltz. Duo POV.

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

Author's Notes: Thanks go out to Sunhawk for beta-ing this for me. This was written for the Moments of Rapture Fall 2003 "Fic for a Pic" contest. Feedback is appreciated.

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Working at the scrapyard with Hilde had been a godsend right after the war. A chance to rest my battle-weary mind and body and try to figure out where the hell I fit into this thing called peace. Maybe I didn't get too damn much actually figured out and the job itself wasn't exactly a thrill a minute intellectually *or* physically but at least *I* didn't go looking for a way to restart the goddamned war, unlike a certain other individual. I don't know what the hell Chang was thinking but then I'm not entirely sure that *he* knows himself. Maybe he wasn't thinking at all; he always was a bit hotheaded.

But after being back in action during that little conflict, I just couldn't seem to settle back into the routine of daily life. Where before I had been content to just drift from day to day sorting scrap and salvaging parts, now I was restless. Discontented. Something had changed. Whether it had been the fighting itself or simply being back in contact with the other pilots, back partnering Heero, back piloting, or something else entirely, I didn't fit in there anymore. The job at the scrapyard was like wearing a pair of outgrown shoes; it pinched and rubbed and made me irritable and miserable as hell.

When Heero came to L2 and asked me to join the Preventers with him, it seemed like a damn good idea. The solution to the lost, restless feeling that had been plaguing me. I would be back in action, putting all of my hard-earned skills to good use, and partnering my best friend. I never even hesitated over my answer. It was "When do we leave?" and, while I'd like to say that I felt bad about moving out of the apartment that Hilde and I had shared, I have to admit that I never felt so much as a twinge of regret. Not for leaving the apartment - the only place that I could remember living as long as I had at the church - nor for leaving behind Hilde. She was a friend, yes - but Heero was my best friend. My partner. My friendship with Hilde was a frail wisp of a connection compared to the strength of the ties between Heero and me.

If the Preventers - or at least a few at the top - hadn't wanted Heero so damn bad, joining up would have been a hell of a lot harder. As it was, they let us test out of all of the physical training and most of the classroom stuff too. Une even signed off on an exemption for my hair; she wanted Heero in the Preventers, he refused to accept anyone but me as his partner, and I refused to cut my hair.

In retrospect, all of those exceptions that were made for us may not have been a good thing. Maybe they were to blame for all the resentment we faced. Maybe if we'd gone through the tedium of the training academy, started out as cadets and worked our way up instead of starting off as officers, maybe if I'd cut my hair to the regulation length, maybe then we would have been able to overcome the suspicion and resentment and outright hatred.

Or maybe things would have been just as bad.

Why any of us had expected soldiers and officers of the former Alliance, Oz, Romefeller, White Fang, and even Mariemaia's army, to welcome former Gundam pilots into their ranks, I don't know. But we did. Not just Heero and I, but Une and Sally and the others who had wanted our expertise under their command. We'd expected people who'd lost friends, comrades, commanders, soldiers under their command, to accept if not welcome those responsible for their losses.

We were wrong.

***

"Oh *crap*. Not *again*..." I groaned, surveying the flat tire on my car. The *second* flat tire *this month*. The sixth within less than six months. And that was just on *my* car; Heero had had his sixth flat last week. I'd known it was my turn again but hadn't expected it quite this soon. An acceleration in frequency of harassment was *not* a good sign.

I pulled out my phone and called Heero; he was in the office redoing some paperwork that had mysteriously gone missing.

"Preventers. Yuy speaking."

"Heero, sorry but I'll have to take your car or I'll be late for the interview. Mine's got a flat again."

"Damn." Depressingly, his voice was more resigned than anything else. He sighed, then said, "Go ahead, I'll try to get one of the mechanics to take care of it before I have to leave."

I couldn't help a cynical snort in response. I knew damn well that they would all be much, much too busy with *far* more important things than taking care of the tire on a personal vehicle even if said personal vehicle was the one used for work by a Preventer Captain. 'At least as long as said Captain is a former Gundam pilot...'

"Good luck," I muttered as I walked over to Heero's car. I was very glad that we'd driven in separately today. The man I was supposed to be interviewing was leaving the planet on business later this afternoon and would be gone for several weeks. If I was late, I'd miss the chance to interview him and that could severely delay our investigation into one of his contractors. "If I get back early enough, I'll change it myself," I promised. "Or if I'm late and you don't mind waiting, I'll still change it. My car, my flat tire, my... Oh *shit*."

"Your 'oh *shit*'? What's wrong?"

I swallowed hard and stared disbelievingly at Heero's car. "Heero, you'd better come down here. *Now.* I'll wait till you get here but it looks like I'll be taking a cab..."

There was a startled grunt of acknowledgement before the phone went dead. I folded it up and stuck it back in my pocket as I walked slowly around Heero's car, surveying the damage. It was pretty bad. Not only had it been keyed all the way down *both* sides, the tires had been actually *slashed* this time.

All four of them.

I winced at the words gouged into the paint of the trunk. The harassment had *definitely* escalated. "Terrorist", "killer", and "fucking murdering Gundam pilot" were the *nicer* of the things that had been written there. Shock, dismay, and anger were all struggling for dominance right now and plain old "pissed off" was starting to win. 'I will *not* lose my temper, I will *not* lose my temper,' I recited silently. The damage was done; I would not give those behind it the satisfaction of seeing me lose my cool.

"Oh *shit*..." Heero had arrived and was staring at his car in horrified fascination. Of course, to anyone else he would just look like his normal stoic self but then no one else knew how to read him the way that I did.

"Yeah," I agreed abruptly. "Sorry to leave reporting this to you, buddy, but if I don't leave *now*, I'll be late." 'Which might very well be the whole reason that *both* cars got hit today...'

"You're right. Go. It'll take forever to get Forensics down here," Heero said flatly. "You don't have time for that."

"Call if you need me," I told him needlessly. I squeezed his arm supportively as I headed past him towards the elevator. Leaving him to handle this mess on his own made me feel lower than pondscum but I could *not* miss this interview appointment. And it wasn't as if reporting the vandalism would do any good. Despite the security cameras in the Preventers' parking garage, I knew damn well that there would be no real evidence found either on the security recordings or from an examination of the scene by Forensics.

Not when the odds were very, very good that the perpetrators were fellow Preventers.

***

"The recording media for the security cameras was faulty; today's footage is completely unrecoverable," Heero told me bluntly.

I flopped down on the couch and muttered sarcastically, "Oh gosh, what a surprise. And don't tell me - let me guess - there were no fingerprints other than ours on the cars and Forensics couldn't find any evidence that might lead back to the perps, right?"

Heero nodded silently.

"So why are both our cars still in Impound?" I asked. "Just for the hell of it? Or is Forensics actually going to take a second look?" I wasn't surprised that Heero had insisted on waiting until we got home to fill me in on things but I *had* been perturbed to discover that we'd have to take a cab to get there.

"Because I pulled rank and spoke to Commander Une herself about this," Heero said with a grimace. "Ignoring the harassment hasn't helped. And the issue of the security cameras is too big to let pass. She's ordered a full investigation."

"Not that it'll do any damn good," I muttered bitterly.

The harassment had started right after we began working for the Preventers. At first, it had been pretty minor stuff. Petty. People "accidentally" spilling coffee on us or on our paperwork. Paperwork going missing. Requisitions for office supplies not being filled. Whispered slurs and insults that we were intended to "overhear".

We'd followed procedure. Reported the incidents through the proper channels. And for what?

For a fucking *memo* reminding everyone that "we're all on the same side now". Gee, *thanks*, Commander. That was just *oh* so helpful. Regulation, yes, but helpful? Not particularly.

Oh, there was a temporary lull in the anti-Gundam-pilot campaign at the office. Instead, we'd taken a lot of digs for being "oversensitive babies" and not being "good sports" about a little "good-natured teasing". Uh huh. Sure, guys. Whatever you say.

A few weeks had gone by, then the harassment had started all over again. Though we'd dismissed the first flat tire initially. It was only when I'd ended up with a flat as well before the month was out that we had started to question that first one of Heero's. When we'd each had our second flat, we'd reported it. Again.

But there was no way to prove that any of that had happened in the Preventers' parking garage. They were slow leaks and the tires could have been damaged anywhere. This time, though, there was no denying the facts. Heero's car had been vandalized at work. In a supposedly secure location.

I couldn't help wondering what would happen next. From one flat tire to four slashed ones and a scratched-up paint job - complete with words sufficient to change the situation from "vandalism" to "hate crime" - was one hell of a fast escalation of hostilities.

It wasn't as if *everyone* at Preventers hated or resented us. There were plenty of people, agents and support staff alike, who got along just fine with us. Though even then, it was hard to be sure that they weren't just pretending. There was enough hostility around that we were both a bit - paranoid lately.

I wondered whether Chang had had things quite so rough. He and Sally Po had quit the Preventers shortly after Heero and I joined. They had been asked to spearhead the L5 revitalization project and had jumped at the chance. While he *was* in the Preventers, though, Chang had been paired up with Po who was ex-Alliance and he of course had been in Mariemaia's army, so he might not have had to face such universal resentment. It was hard to guess how much of a role harassment had played in his decision to leave. Though the last time that I'd seen them in a televised press conference for the project, they'd admitted their engagement when questioned about the ring on Sally's finger, so the Preventers' fraternization policy might have played an even bigger role.

Heero and I really hadn't kept very closely in touch with any of the others. Quatre and Trowa were both trying very hard to put their soldier lives behind them. The last that I'd heard, Trowa had left the circus to work as Quatre's personal assistant. Sort of a bodyguard-slash-secretary, I guess. And Quatre himself was very busy with Winner Enterprises, particularly the portions of it involved in postwar reconstruction.

It wasn't that we didn't get along with the other Gundam pilots, we just all had our own lives and there was very little common ground between us. Maybe someday we'd all reconnect but for the time being, none of us seemed to have much interest in doing so.

Regardless of the others, Heero and I had each other, and thank god for that. Our friendship was pretty much the only positive thing we had going for us right now. And without our partnership, working for Preventers would be - difficult. There wasn't really anyone there that I would trust at my back. If I could count on their ability to do the job, I couldn't count on their loyalty, and vice versa.

Yet neither of us wanted to quit. As an organization, the Preventers filled an important role. Weapons smuggling and sales, narcotics smuggling and sales, anything illegal that crossed governmental borders or potentially involved multiple law enforcement agencies, all that fell under the jurisdiction of Preventers. And the agency did a good job of handling it. Despite occasional infighting between the former members of Oz and Romefeller, between those of Oz and White Fang, between those of White Fang and Romefeller, between those of the *Alliance* and Oz, and so on. The very fact that every group had both former enemies and former allies - and those various alliances and enmities were convoluted and tangled - working with them kept things from getting out of hand. But in one thing, all of those groups were united. That one thing - their enmity towards the former Gundam pilots.

Because the Gundam pilots were never part of *any* of those groups. And we fought against every last one of them. Fought against them - and survived while their troops did not.

We had coworkers who had sent troops into battle against Gundams with odds overwhelmingly in their favour only to be defeated. Humiliated by teenage kids. Was it really so surprising that they resented us?

No. Not really.

Especially not when the blame for so many deaths was heaped on our shoulders as well. Deaths of soldiers. Of military support staff - janitors, technicians, maintenance workers, mechanics. Deaths of civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rather than blaming the nameless, faceless multitudes of their other enemies, each of the groups found it easier to blame the names and faces that they *knew*. Heero Yuy, Gundam Pilot 01, and his partner, Duo Maxwell, Gundam Pilot 02.

So they blamed us and they resented us and they harassed us, and we gritted our teeth and ignored them and kept doing our jobs and hoped that someday they'd ignore us back.

And if sometimes a waitress at a restaurant or a sales clerk at a store would give us an ugly look and refuse to wait on us, it wasn't anything new. Or if a witness would refuse to talk to one of us and insist that someone else be sent to interview him, that wasn't new either.

And if sometimes we got a little pissed off at the whole damn universe and needed to let off some steam before we exploded - well, that was why one tiny bedroom was crowded by two narrow beds and the other "bedroom", small though it was for the purpose, was well-equipped with mats for sparring and other workout equipment. We never really cut loose in the Preventers' gym; neither of us was comfortable fighting all-out in public.

Some things were meant to be a surprise. Preferably a damn *nasty* one.

"I need to let off some steam," I stated abruptly, bouncing up from the couch. We'd both been sitting here brooding too damn long.

"Barehanded?" Heero suggested, rising from his chair.

"Bos?" I countered. There was something distinctly satisfying about the solid thwack of two bos connecting.

A feral grin was all the answer I needed.

***

Several weeks passed. The workout room at the apartment was in use virtually every night. It wasn't unusual for Heero and I to end up a little stiff and sore and sporting a few honestly-earned bruises. We were stressed out, pissed off, and thoroughly frustrated. Even the successful wrap-up of several cases wasn't enough to improve our mood for long.

The investigation into the vandalism of Heero's car and the flat tire on mine went nowhere, as expected. The small office that Heero and I shared was thoroughly trashed when we arrived for work one morning - file cabinets emptied all over the floor and the few personal items from our desks broken - and that investigation was equally fruitless. The only tiny speck of progress made came about when my car was, inevitably, again a target. Heero and I had privately - supplemented - the security equipment in the garage by mounting our own monitoring equipment on our vehicles. The footage was useless; whoever did the vandalism had been carrying an electronic scrambler, which wasn't really much of a surprise. But the spray paint cans were discarded inside the office building and that was enough evidence of an inside job to land the whole thing in the hands of Internal Affairs.

And then things escalated again.

***

"Shit!" I swore, ducking behind a huge shipping container. Bullets cracked and whined as they ricocheted off the side of the metal box. "Where the *hell* is our goddamned *backup*?!!"

Up on the catwalk on the far side of the hangar, I could see Heero darting from one skimpy bit of cover to another, trying to find a clear shot at the men holding us off while the shuttle prepared for takeoff. We'd been here strictly on reconnaissance - the bust was supposed to go down tomorrow after the buyer arrived to make payment and take possession of the weapons. Unfortunately, either the intelligence was bad or there was more than one buyer because *this* load was shipping out *tonight*.

We'd called for backup and waited, hoping that they'd arrive before the buyer left; there were too damn many armed guards for the two of us to want to take them on alone. Unfortunately, backup hadn't showed up in time and we'd had to announce our presence in order to try and stop the buyer from leaving. Which led to Heero and I playing dodge-the-bullets. And backup *still* hadn't arrived.

From the catwalk, Heero waved to get my attention. I groaned as I interpreted his hand signals. He wanted to drop one section of the catwalk onto the shuttle, hoping to damage it enough to ground it. Which meant that I was going to have to cross the open space between my current shelter and the nearest access ladder, then climb the damn thing - fortunately at least partially shielded by a support pillar - in order to release this end of the catwalk. This was *not* going to be fun and it was probably going to be damn painful since the odds of making it through this without getting hit at least once by a bullet were very, very slim. The bulletproof vest would protect my torso - though a hit would still hurt, bruise, and probably knock the wind out of me - but that still left arms, legs, and head vulnerable.

I signalled my acceptance with a nod and waited for Heero's signal to go. He gave it and I saw him toss something down towards the shooters as I started to run. Judging by the flicker of flame I'd seen as it fell and the sound of the resultant explosion, he'd found some alcohol or gasoline somewhere and rigged a Molotov cocktail. A fierce grin pulled at my lips as I leapt onto the ladder and started to climb. I'd known Heero must have had *something* in mind to make this feasible; neither of us took chances quite as insane as those we'd taken during the war. We were a little too fond of living for that. He wouldn't ask me to take an unacceptably high risk over one lousy shipment of weapons, regardless of the buyer's presence.

I barely noticed the stinging tug that swept across my thigh. It took a few moments for the pain to hit; I waited until I was off of the ladder before sparing the wound a glance. A graze, nothing more. Barely even bleeding. Certainly not worth the time to bandage right now.

Moving quickly, I loosened the bolts holding the central catwalk section to the one that I was standing on. On the other side of the hangar, I could see Heero doing the same. We finished at the same time and, on Heero's signal, I released the pulley system that was still supporting the central section after it was freed from the outer perimeter. The mass of struts and grating started to drop, then stopped with a jolt, tilting at an angle.

"God *dammit*!!" Part of the pulley system had frozen up. Not down here where I could *do* something about it, but up at ceiling level.

I resisted the temptation to just jump up and down on the damn catwalk and try to get it moving again. I was pissed off and frustrated, not suicidal.

I could see Heero's dark scowl from where I stood. After an instant of thought, he raised his gun and fired at the cable, just where it emerged from the jammed pulley overhead. His first shot missed. The second hit and I could see the cable fray, though not enough to break.

Raising my own weapon, I turned my attention towards the men below. They had been getting bold while Heero and I were directing our attention elsewhere. A shoulder shot knocked one off the ladder up to Heero's side of the catwalk. The gunman who had been heading for my ladder hastily retreated back to the shuttle; I only managed to wing him as he ducked behind cover. Someone else got careless and leaned a little too far into the open in order to take a shot at Heero; judging by his shriek, I suspected my own shot had shattered his hand.

With a final, sharp twang, the cable gave way after another bulletstrike from Heero's gun. The catwalk plummeted down, crashing onto the shuttle before it could make it out through the hangar door. One cockpit window cracked under the impact and a wing-flap bent. The shuttle kept moving, dragging the catwalk with it until it reached the door. The metal encumbrance caught on one side of the doorframe. Metal shrieked in protest. Both the wall and catwalk bent and the shuttle slewed to one side.

I scrambled to get down to floorlevel, aware that Heero was doing the same. The entire hangar was shuddering and vibrating under the stress being applied to it; it was entirely possible that the old, rundown building might start to collapse.

And it did. By the time we made it outside, the continued pressure from the shuttle had buckled the entire end wall. With a torturous, drawn-out shriek and the pop of failing rivets, the wall began to twist and pull away from the side of the building. The hangar started to sag. With the shuttle blocking the hangar door, the truck inside couldn't get out, essentially leaving the suspects on foot, assuming that they finally decided to abandon the trapped shuttle.

Heero went after several of the men who hadn't been on the shuttle as they made a run for it. This time, when he shouted, "Preventers! Freeze and drop your weapons!" they obeyed.

I yanked out the radio and, with almost complete disregard for protocol, snarled into it, "Dispatch. Preventer Shade wants to know what the *fuck* is keeping our backup! Over."

There was a moment of silence, then a cool voice replied, "Preventer Shade, this is Dispatch. I see no record of Preventer Shade calling for backup. Over."

I bit my tongue hard enough to draw blood and counted to ten before replying, "Dispatch, the call for backup was placed at precisely 2207 by Preventers Shade and Sky. Request was acknowledged and Dispatch confirmed backup was on the way. It is now 2332 and backup has *not* arrived. Over."

"There is no record of Preventers Shade and Sky calling for backup," the voice repeated. "Is backup required? Over."

Fighting down the urge to scream obscenities at the radio - not only would that not help, it would probably get me severely reprimanded and a suspension to boot - I managed to reply levelly, "Yes. Backup is required at the abandoned Langdon Base, Hangar 2. Along with at least two ambulances for injured suspects, transportation for at least nine prisoners, and we may need the meatwagon too." I strongly suspected that the man I'd picked off of the ladder was dead; he'd fallen a long way and I'd seen no sign of movement after he hit. I added, "Both officers injured and in need of medical attention. Over." Heero's left biceps was bleeding fairly heavily and the wound on my own thigh had opened up more from the exertion. Neither of us was in any immediate danger but we were going to require treatment.

I waited for acknowledgement for several minutes without receiving it. While I waited, I took over three prisoners from Heero. He had used the shoulder straps from their own surrendered rifles to tie their hands but I kept my gun on them anyway. I wasn't taking *anything* for granted at this point. Finally, I called again, "Dispatch, this is Preventer Shade. Is backup on the way or do I need to call the Commander's home number? Over." I was only half bluffing; I'd gone well beyond pissed off and was nicely into icy rage at this point. Backup had been a little slow arriving a few times before but there had always been a legitimate excuse and they *had* always shown up. I'd never even considered it as possibly being related to the harassment problem.

I don't know whether it was my threat to call Commander Une or if it had genuinely taken that long to dispatch backup but the response finally came, "Preventer Shade, this is Dispatch. Backup confirmed. ETA is fifteen minutes. Over."

"Acknowledged. Shade over and out."

The trapped shuttle had finally shut down its engines. No one emerged from it; by unspoken agreement, Heero and I just left its passengers alone. Backup could deal with them; we had our hands full as it was. Heero had caught four of the gunmen, which left two unaccounted for, one of whom was the one who had fallen. He was probably still lying where he fell but we weren't counting on it. Nor were either of us going back inside the sagging, listing hangar to check.

By the time Heero prodded the fourth prisoner - the one with the shattered hand - over to my position, I'd managed to wrestle my temper back under control. This was neither the time nor the place to be discussing the seamier side of internal Preventer politics, personality conflicts, and power struggles. "Dispatch said in fifteen," I said shortly.

Heero scowled, "Chopper or shuttle, then, unless they were enroute."

"Chopper or shuttle," I agreed. It was impossible to make it from HQ to here in less than an hour by car, even under ideal conditions and with a damn good driver.

Heero's scowl darkened at the implications. I inclined my head slightly, my jaw tight with tension. Being on our own during the war had been one thing; being unable to count on backup now was something else entirely. Now, we were supposed to take prisoners, not shoot to kill. During the war, we'd have just blown the damn shuttle full of weapons and been done with the whole mess. Hell, we'd have blown the fucking *hangar*, not screwed around trying to get the assholes to surrender or to at least manage to take them alive.

Partners have to rely on each other. Have to trust each other. Heero and I did. Unconditionally. Our close friendship was an extension of that partnership, one that we both treasured.

But as Preventers, we should have been able to rely on other Preventers. Should have been able to trust our fellow agents on a professional level even if we weren't exactly best buds on a personal level. And we couldn't.

***

I slammed the apartment door shut so hard that the latch didn't catch and it bounced back open again. "I do *not* fucking *believe* this shit!!"

Heero stopped me from slamming the door again, pushing it shut himself and making sure that it latched and locked.

"I *know* I placed the damn call and that Dispatch confirmed backup was on the way, dammit!" I continued furiously, "Where the *fuck* does IA get off claiming that *I'm* the one who's lying! Shit, Heero, *you* heard the confirmation too!" I yanked off my uniform jacket, wadded it up and threw it across the room angrily. It knocked over a tall torchiere and *that* nearly hit Heero in the head. He managed to dodge it and the lamp crashed to the floor, bulb exploding in a shower of glass and shade denting under the impact.

"Duo, settle down!" Heero ordered sharply. He grabbed me in a tight bearhug, pinning my arms between us. "*I* know you made the call. I *know* you didn't lie. I *know*."

I struggled against him for a few moments, still needing to *move*. Still wanting to throw things and break things. But I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting out of Heero's hold and I finally gave in and slumped against him. "I *hate* this, Heero," I mumbled against his shoulder. "I fucking *hate* this."

"I know," he repeated, his arms loosening a bit. "I know."

Internal Affairs, in their *infinite* wisdom, had decided that since Dispatch's story and ours didn't match up, they were going to believe *Dispatch*. Just because the first call for backup that I'd made didn't show up on the call recording for the night. As if it would have been *so* incredibly impossible for the recording to have been tampered with. But no, it made *so* much more sense to decide that the former Gundam pilots were glory-hounding, bit off a little more than they could chew, then lied to cover up for it.

Have I mentioned how much I hate IA?

I'm not sure how long Heero and I stood there like that. Long enough for my temper to cool off. Long enough that my own arms had shifted to circle Heero.

Long enough for me to suddenly realize that Heero was rubbing my back soothingly and I had my face buried in the crook of his neck and that the whole comforting hug had somehow become something just a little too intimate, a little too much like an *embrace*, for friends and partners.

Reluctantly pushing away from Heero, I apologized, "Sorry, buddy. Not your fault and I know you're in just as much trouble as me. We both got an official reprimand on our record and a week's suspension. It's just..."

"They hit one of your hot buttons when they said you lied." The corner of Heero's mouth quirked into a half-smile. "I know."

"Yeah." I offered him an apologetic half-grin of my own.

"Need to spar?"

I opened my mouth to agree and realized much to my surprise that - I didn't. That somehow the - hug? embrace? - well, whatever the hell it was - that had just taken place between Heero and I had taken the edge off my anger and frustration. "Uh - actually - no," I admitted. "You?"

Heero shook his head in silent response.

"Huh." I really wasn't sure what to make of this turn of events. I wasn't too sure that I wanted to think too closely about it either. "Uh, I guess I'd better change and clean up this mess..." I grimaced and gestured towards the broken torchiere.

"That would be a good idea," Heero said drily. "My turn to cook - stirfry sound good?"

"Yeah, sure." As I headed off to change out of the uniform I was beginning to develop a real dislike for, I wondered whether maybe that - whatever-it-was - hadn't gone on quite long *enough*. Whether if it had gone on a little bit longer, I would have known exactly what to call it.

Whether maybe I wouldn't be left wondering whether Heero had been as reluctant to let go as I had been.

***

That week of suspension passed almost *too* quickly, much to my surprise. Heero and I didn't go out much; we were both hypersensitive to being recognized right now. A little - paranoid. A little raw. A single sidelong glance, a whispered conversation, all of those things left us on edge, wondering if we were about to encounter another bout of anti-Gundam sentiment.

So we stayed home. Read a lot. Watched movies. Worked out.

And partway through the week, I came to another one of those startling realizations. No matter what we were doing, we somehow ended up in the same room. Frequently, in very close proximity to each other. We weren't doing it *consciously* - or at least, I wasn't - but it still kept happening.

Sure, the apartment wasn't all that big; it was inevitable that we'd be in the same room at least *some* of the time. But that didn't explain why I'd curl up on the couch to watch a movie while Heero was using his laptop at his desk down the hall and a little bit later, he'd be on the other end of the couch, my feet pressing against his thigh, still using his laptop and paying absolutely no attention to the movie.

Nor did it explain why I'd be engrossed in a book one minute and find myself drifting into the workout room the next, only to discover Heero exercising. And I'd end up joining him, despite the fact that I'd *already* exercised - and showered - earlier on.

The next time that I found myself wandering into the kitchen, book in hand, and discovered Heero getting ready to start supper, I forced myself to go back into the livingroom. After ten minutes of trying - and failing - to concentrate on my book, I gave up. I was too restless to read. I kept wanting to get up and move around. And I knew damn well exactly where I'd end up if I gave in to that urge. Back in the kitchen. With Heero. And the restless feeling would be gone.

And when I thought about it a little more, I realized that this wasn't something new. That we'd been unconsciously gravitating to each other's presence for quite a while now. Being home together this week had just provided more opportunities for it to happen and thus brought it to my attention.

Maybe my restlessness at the scrapyard had had more to do with Heero's absence than job dissatisfaction.

And maybe I'd better not think about this too closely. Especially not right now. We had enough problems at work; we didn't need to add breaking the fraternization policy (which, simply put, translated to "don't") to the list. Particularly since there was absolutely no way either of us wanted to change partners. This was definitely *not* the time to discover that being partners wasn't quite enough anymore.

Absolutely, positively, *not* the time.

***

For the first couple of weeks after our suspension, things were pretty quiet. Not case-wise - in *that* respect, everyone at Preventers was absolutely swamped; double shifts were the norm. But harassment was virtually non-existent. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; I couldn't believe that last incident had been enough to satisfy our detractors permanently. Sooner or later, something else would have to happen.

And eventually, it did.

Heero and I had just closed a big fraud case. Unfortunately, we'd drawn a *lot* of media attention in the process; one of the victims was the elderly father of the editor of the city newspaper. The publicity all took a pretty positive slant for a change; not a single bit of anti-Gundam pilot sentiment and lots of praise for how quickly the Preventers - specifically the ex-Gundam pilots in their employ - had caught the guy behind it all.

But all of those nice comments triggered an ugly backlash from our coworkers. The missing paperwork and whispered nasty remarks picked up all over again. Tires mysteriously went flat. Water turned up in my gas tank; sugar in Heero's. And of course, we couldn't prove a damn thing. Our own fingerprints were the only ones Forensics could turn up. IA started making none-too-subtle remarks about attention-seeking behaviour, paranoia, and psych exams. Heero just kept getting colder at work; my temper had a progressively shorter fuse. And at home...

At home, we found ourselves substituting those comforting embraces for the heavy-duty sparring sessions more and more. We didn't discuss it; neither of us was quite ready for that yet. It just became a part of our routine. The apartment door would be closed and locked, we'd shed our jackets and shoes, then one of us would take a step towards the other and we'd spend the next god-only-knows-how-long just holding one another. Sometimes clutching painfully tight, sometimes cradling gently, but always drawing comfort and reassurance from each other. Temporarily forgetting the hostile world in the security of that embrace.

I knew that sooner or later, we'd have to actually acknowledge the change that was taking place in our relationship. Eventually, we'd have to admit that we weren't just friends and partners anymore. Just - not yet.

Not. Quite. Yet.

***

"*What?*" I demanded incredulously.

The woman from IA cleared her throat and repeated primly, "Allegations have been made that you and your - partner - are in violation of the Preventers' fraternization policy. Until such time as these allegations have been fully investigated..."

I seethed silently as she went through her explanation of the procedure. Heero and I were both being assigned temporary partners. All based on the fact that we shared an apartment and "someone" claimed to have seen us "embracing".

"Someone" was either lying or spying on us because the *only* "embracing" that Heero and I had done to date had taken place in the privacy of our apartment. We swept the place for bugs regularly - old habits die hard - but I intended to do an extra-thorough job the minute I walked through the door tonight.

***

Heero emerged from the hallway and shook his head, shrugging. I answered his enquiring look, "Clean out here too. But..." I pointed to the livingroom window - or rather, to the building on the other side of it. "I think we'd better shut the blinds from now on." The windows were supposed to have a reflective coating and we *were* on the thirtieth floor but - well, sometimes paranoia pays.

Especially when you're not really being paranoid. After all, it isn't paranoia if someone really *is* out to get you.

I crossed the room to suit actions to words. When I turned away from the blinds, Heero was standing very close to me. I don't know which of us closed that final distance - maybe we met in the middle - but an instant later, there wouldn't have been room for a sheet of paper between us. Tonight was one of the "painfully tight" nights, which really didn't surprise me after the god-awful day we'd had.

"God, Heero, what are we going to do?" I fisted my hands tightly in his shirt, holding on for dear life. "We're *partners*, for god's sake. I..." I faltered for a moment, knowing that I was about to take an irrevocable step over that invisible line that marked off the "things we don't talk about" from the "things we do". "I... I don't know if I want to be a Preventer if we aren't. Don't know if I *can* be... But... but I don't want to give *this*," I tightened my arms around him, "up either..." The last words were whispered against his throat.

Impossibly, Heero managed to pull me even more snugly against him. "I know. Me too," he breathed against my temple. I barely had time to register his words before his mouth closed over mine, hot and urgent. And then we were both trying to climb down each other's throats and our bodies were moving against each other and there were no more words until we were lying tangled on the floor, still fully clothed, sticky, temporarily sated, temporarily content and secure, and *knowing* that everything had just changed but not having a damn clue what we were going to do about it.

***

"I said, I'm *fine*, dammit!" I impatiently knocked my so-called partner's hand away as she tried to help me to my feet. My breath hissed between my teeth as I tried to rise. Okay, maybe I wasn't "fine" after all.

"Captain Maxwell?" she quavered.

I sighed and corrected her for what felt like the hundredth time, "Shade. I'm Preventer Shade in the field. Just like you're Preventer Rain." Personally, I thought Cloud would have been a better choice; that's where the girl's head was most of the time. Not that it was really her *fault* - she was just really young (okay, chronologically she was the same age as me...) and inexperienced (straight out of the academy, for god's sake) and had a really, really bad case of hero-worship (sometimes I thought that was harder to deal with than resentment) and a god-awful wish to prove herself to me. I suspected the poor kid had the ridiculous notion that I might actually choose to keep her as a partner if she could manage to impress me. Unfortunately, she was probably going to get me killed in the attempt.

I gritted my teeth and probed gingerly at my thigh. Damn, no exit wound. And a hell of a lot of blood. I slid my hand further down my leg to the knee and nearly passed out. Evidently that tire iron had hit a little harder than I'd realized. "Shit."

"S... sir?"

"Rain, what part of 'do not approach the suspect' did you not understand?" I asked irritably.

"But sir - Preventer Shade - it was the perfect opportunity! He was alone and..."

"Alone? Ah, well that would explain how you ended up on the wrong end of your *own* goddamn gun and *I* ended up getting the hell beaten out of me by the suspect's tire iron-wielding buddy then getting shot by the suspect - with *your* gun, of course - all in order to save *your* ass."

"But... we did... we did get the suspect," Rain offered meekly.

"Just - go call for backup," I told her wearily. "Not *that* way!" I yelped as she started to move between my gun and our prisoners. "Walk *behind* me..." I knew damn well just how little hindrance a pair of handcuffs could be; I did *not* want her getting too close to those two, regardless of the fact that they both still appeared to be unconscious.

"Yes sir..." she answered in a subdued tone as she obeyed.

Damn, I missed partnering Heero.

IA was still "investigating". Heero and I were now violating the fraternization policy on a daily basis at home but we were careful to keep things professional at all other times. We wanted our working partnership back and we were both perfectly prepared to lie to IA in order to get it. The single beds in the bedroom were pretty good evidence that we were just roommates. No one needed to know that we spent most nights on the folded-out couch - it made into a double bed. As long as we conducted ourselves professionally at work, we didn't think that what went on in the privacy of our home was any of their damn business.

Right now, we were both pretty thoroughly miserable at work, though for very different reasons. My temporary partner was inexperienced, flighty, and reckless. Heero's was bitter, resentful, and downright nasty. We were counting the days till IA let us resume our partnership. Or at least we *had* been. Regardless of IA's decision, I was going to be out of the field for weeks now; my knee and thigh were both a mess.

***

"I don't like this," I repeated. "Undercover with a partner that hates your guts?"

Heero leaned over and kissed me, hard. "I'll be careful," he promised. "I don't like leaving you on your own right now either. You're barely mobile, even *with* the crutches. But refusing the assignment because my roommate is injured would be too suspicious. IA would be all over us again. And claiming that my assigned partner hates me would be almost as bad; it would be just like the whole no-backup investigation. My word against his and IA insinuating that I'm making things up."

"I know," I sighed. We couldn't risk setting Internal Affairs off; they'd just finally given up on the "fraternization" investigation. As soon as I healed up, Heero and I would be back together again at work. We just had to make it through the next month or so. Half of which, he'd be undercover investigating a narcotics operation.

Half-rising from my chair, I grabbed Heero and dragged him down to me again, kissing him fiercely. "Watch your damn back," I ordered, tangling my fingers through his hair and tugging gently. "I don't trust Sorenson."

"I know."

"You'd damn well better come back in one piece or I'll kick your ass," I threatened.

"I know..."

I kissed him again, long and tender and loving. "I love you..."

Softly, lips brushing mine, he murmured again, "I know." He kissed me back, then tore away reluctantly. "Love you..."

I swallowed hard and managed to smile for him as he backed towards the apartment door. "I know."

And then he was gone.

***

A week passed, painfully slowly. I graduated from "barely mobile" to "mostly mobile", still using crutches most of the time but managing with a cane around the apartment. I did a little reading, watched a little television. Worried - a lot. Thought about the future and worried some more. Was lonely as hell. Went from half-time to full-time at work, though I was obviously still on desk duty only.

And then, towards the end of the second week, I spotted Sorenson on his way to Une's office. Alone. My stomach knotted and my heart pounded. He and Heero weren't due back for another two days. And they should have been reporting in *together*.

I waited through his meeting with Une, ever-wilder scenarios running through my mind. Waited while he walked away from Une's office. Tried to convince myself to wait for her to summon me and failed.

The elevator doors had barely closed behind Sorenson before I was opening Une's door, ignoring her secretary's attempt to stop me. "I saw Sorenson. Where's Heero?" I demanded.

"Maxwell."

Une gave her secretary a dismissive wave. "Close the door on your way out, Rose."

She waited for the door to latch before motioning me towards a chair. I shook my head stubbornly and remained on my feet. Being on crutches left me at enough of a disadvantage, I wasn't about to sit down. Une's lips thinned. "I was just about to call you in."

Yeah, right. Nice try, Commander, but somehow I don't quite believe you.

"There was an... incident..."

Oh god. I changed my mind about the chair. I sank into its welcome support as Une explained. Heero's cover was blown. He'd been shot. Captured. Was presumed dead. Rescue mission...

"What do you mean, 'no rescue mission'?!" I hissed furiously.

"Sorenson reported that Yuy's injuries had to be severe, quite likely fatal. And these suspects do not make a habit of holding prisoners, let alone critically wounded ones. Sorenson feels that they believe Heero was working solo. In less than a week, we'll have a new team ready to infiltrate and finish the investigation. We don't want to tip them off that someone got away or that won't work. If, by some small chance, Yuy survived, he'll have to take his chances till then. He knew the risks when he signed on."

I flung myself to my feet, ignoring the crutches, and leaned over Une's desk. "When he signed on, he had a partner who wouldn't have damn well left him behind in the first place! One who *will not allow* him to be left behind *now*! Commander, you're talking about a fucking *narcotics* sting here, not a goddamn rebel *army*! Black Ops rules *don't* fucking *apply*! Order the damn rescue mission!"

"Maxwell! There will be no rescue mission and that's final!" Une snapped. "You're out of line, Captain! I'll have your badge if you keep this up! I will *not* tolerate insubordination."

I opened my mouth, ready to tell her exactly what she could do with her fucking badge. Then closed it with a snap. I couldn't do that yet. I needed access to files. Supplies. Transportation.

I snapped off a sarcastic salute and spat out, "Yes, ma'am!" before grabbing my crutches and leaving. Hopefully, I'd been *just* insubordinate enough to keep her from being too suspicious of my capitulation. But in case I hadn't, I'd have to work fast.

***

The day lasted for-fucking-ever and yet passed in the blink of an eye.

I sent Rain digging through paper file archives that Preventers had inherited from half a dozen other government agencies, looking for connections that probably didn't exist between decades-old cases and our current official assignment. That kept her the hell out of my way while I hacked my way into Sorenson's mission report and all of the other files pertaining to Heero's undercover operation. By midafternoon, I knew everything that the official records could tell me.

I'd also filed a formal protest of Une's handling of the situation. It wouldn't do any real good - I knew that - but she'd be expecting that much from me, though probably not a hell of a lot more. The fact that Heero and I had been such obedient agents, following every fucking regulation, not rocking the boat and busting chops when things got a little ugly around the office meant that - like everyone *else* around here - she'd gotten a bit complacent. Forgotten that I made my own damn decisions. Forgotten that Heero was the half of our partnership who tended to actually follow orders.

I seriously wanted a little time alone in a dark alley with that asshole Sorenson but I didn't think I could afford the luxury right now. My leg wasn't in the best of shape for pulling off a rescue mission in the first place; I couldn't risk causing it further injury by a pointless confrontation with Sorenson. And it would be pointless, I seriously doubted that he had anything worthwhile to add to his official report.

Although I'd been distinctly suspicious initially, I didn't really think the man had deliberately blown the mission. He was actually a damn good agent with a solid solve record and I couldn't find any evidence of suspicious income. I was pretty sure he was clean. Hell, he wasn't even on our shortlist of those we suspected were behind the vandalism of our vehicles. Sorenson was just an ex-Romefeller asshole with no inclination whatsoever to go out of his way to save the life of the former Gundam pilot he'd been partnered with. Beating the shit out of him would do nothing but get me hauled in on charges of assaulting a fellow agent.

Well, okay, so it might make me feel ever so slightly better about the whole mess, but not nearly as much as getting Heero back would.

And I *would* get him back. I refused to believe that he was dead; Sorenson had watched as Heero was gunned down but he hadn't hung around to see what happened next. He'd been too damn busy saving his own worthless ass to bother trying to save his partner. Simpler to just assume he was dead or dying and get the hell out of there before anyone noticed him.

Sorenson would be on slightly shaky ground once my formal protest went through and a review board took a good hard look at his report; he should have made *some* attempt to find out Heero's condition. But although standard procedure - assuming a safe place to wait - would be to monitor the situation and put out a call for extraction and/or backup, it was up to Sorenson to determine whether it was indeed safe for him to do that. He'd decided it wasn't. I disagreed. IA - well, it was a tough call. They were getting pretty damn sick of dealing with problems stirred up by Heero and I and there were a couple of officers in that department who *really* didn't like us, so they might just let Sorenson off the hook without more than a warning. I hoped not. But right now I had more important things to worry about; I'd worry about making life miserable for Sorenson once Heero was back safe and sound.

Somehow, I managed to wait out the interminably long afternoon. Much as I would have liked to take off after Heero immediately, I knew that the odds of managing to - appropriate - the necessary equipment would be far better after regular office hours when there were far fewer people around. Even with the extra delay required in order to discreetly "requisition" a shuttle from the Preventers' fleet, doing so would get me onsite faster than driving, taking a commercial flight, or chartering a private craft could.

I needed other supplies too; I had no intention of running a rescue mission with nothing more than the Preventer-issue gun that I carried. A full field first aid kit, smoke and gas grenades, bulletproof vest... Briefly, I debated whether to opt for the actual body armour but decided that its bulk would be more hindrance than the protection was worth, especially with my bad leg. I couldn't really afford either to carry the extra weight or to cripple my already-limited agility even further. Even the vest would be awkward and uncomfortable.

Running down my mental checklist yet again, I wished for the hundredth time that there was a way to get at least *some* sort of backup on this. But there weren't any other Preventers that I trusted to that extent. They were either of Sorenson's ilk or else like my own temporary partner. I didn't doubt that my all-too-enthusiastic "partner" would help if I asked - she was a good kid at heart - but she was just too damn inexperienced to be of any use to me. Hell, the average beat cop who'd been on the job for a few years would be a better choice.

I paused in the midst of closing down the files I'd hacked into. Of course... The local cops.

Sorenson had been lead on the case, not Heero, and he'd done a damn good job of alienating the local law enforcement. *They* had been investigating the drug operation long before Preventers ever got called in. Heero had been kind of pissed over that; he'd said that they'd been running a solid investigation and deserved their share of the credit but Sorenson had totally shut them out once Preventers stepped in. A lot of Preventers agents had that attitude; they just took over cases completely once they got involved. I'd always been inclined to work *with* local law enforcement in those circumstances; they almost *always* had valuable insight. It was no different than during the war; better to work *with* rebel cells in a particular area than end up at cross-purposes with them. At first, Heero had just humoured me but he'd discovered the benefits of cooperating with the locals fairly quickly and was now just as eager to have their involvement.

If I called Detective - shit, what the hell was his name... I hastily pulled the file back up again, glad that I hadn't completely shut down yet. It only took a moment to locate the information I needed.

Jackson. Detective Jackson. If I called him, told him Sorenson - Preventer Stone to him - had blown the case and I'd been assigned to clean up the mess...

A fierce grin spread across my face. Maybe I *could* find some reliable backup after all. There was nothing local cops loved more than showing up the hotshots from out of town.

Time for a change of plan. And a whole truckload of bullshit.

Maybe even two.

***

I slipped silently - despite the damn cane that I didn't dare discard quite yet - through the darkened halls of Preventers HQ. Dispatch and Holding were the only departments open at this time of night. Getting into the building without being spotted had been easy. Breaking into the Armoury and Medical had been even easier. The pack on my back now contained all the supplies that I needed except the bulletproof vest. I was wearing that because it was too bulky to squeeze in the backpack. Now the only thing I still needed was transportation. And for that, I was heading out to the Service Hangar.

I knew damn well that I'd be through at Preventers when this was done; hell, I'd count myself lucky if all Une did was yank my badge. But the longer I could delay them finding out what I was up to, the better. I didn't want to take the chance that they would somehow manage to stop me. So I was taking every possible precaution to hide my actions as long as possible.

I'd managed to "trip" over Rain's purse before the afternoon was over and had spent what little remained of the workday complaining about how much my leg hurt. No one would be the least bit suspicious to discover that I'd called Human Resources late in the evening and left a message that I wouldn't be in because I had to go get my knee checked. If I was lucky, no one would even realize that I was missing, let alone that I'd "requisitioned" a whole shitload of supplies without going through proper channels. I'd been careful not to leave visible gaps when I'd grabbed those supplies; with any kind of semi-decent luck their absence wouldn't be noted until the next inventory.

The tricky part of keeping things quiet till it was too late for anyone to stop me, however, was the transportation. If I took a shuttle from the fleet, the lack of proper authorization would turn up right away in the morning. A missing shuttle was a little hard to overlook.

Unless, that is, the shuttle was one that they *expected* to be missing. Such as one that had been sent over to the Service Hangar.

I'd searched the Service database for shuttles that needed really minor repairs. Things that I could repair myself, quickly. There weren't any. But there *was* one that only had a dead radio. Since I had no intention of *using* the radio even if it had worked, that wasn't a problem for me. That repair hadn't been assigned to a mechanic yet, so I simply deleted it from the repair queue. Now the shuttle was essentially non-existent. Service had no electronic record of it but the fleet scheduling database had it logged out to Service. It could be days before anyone realized it was gone. I only needed *one* day.

Picking the lock to the Service office took seconds. Grabbing the shuttle's passcard and paperwork took a few more. I was out of the office and had the door relocked in under a minute. Now there was no physical record of the shuttle being in Service either. Another few minutes had me onboard and running systems checks. Other than the radio, everything passed.

I smiled grimly and prepared to take off. No need to worry about air traffic control; with no flights scheduled, the Preventers airfield was shut down for the night. Airstrip lights remained on in case of emergencies but the control tower was unmanned. One more reason that I'd waited till after midnight to get the hell out of here. With the flick of a few switches and a pull on the control yoke, I was in the air.

Hang on Heero, I'm on my way...

***

"Preventer Shade?"

I nodded in acknowledgement and closed the shuttle door before holding out one hand in greeting. "Detective Jackson?" I inquired.

"Yes," he replied as he shook my hand. He eyed the cane in my other hand with a certain degree of surprise.

I met his questioning look calmly. Shrugging slightly, I told him, "I can get by without the cane when I have to but the doctor made me promise to use it as much as I could." And he had. Except that he'd meant to use it instead of the crutches, not instead of doing without entirely.

The very best bullshit inevitably contained at least a kernel of truth. It sounded a hell of a lot more convincing that way.

Except that it evidently wasn't enough to convince Jackson. Damn. Okay, time for Plan B.

I sighed heavily and admitted, "Okay, so I'm really not supposed to be on field duty yet. But it's *my* damn partner that Preventer Stone left behind. And the only reason he was stuck with Stone in the first place was *this*." I gestured disparagingly at the cane. "If I'd been back on duty, things would've gone down a hell of a lot differently."

Jackson nodded warily. "You mentioned on the phone that Stone had blown the case and you were going to have to fix his mess." He cleared his throat and observed, "I suppose that I shouldn't ask if he's officially off the case or whether you're officially here."

I could see why Jackson had been Officer of the Year in his district for the past three years running. And why he had the best goddamn solve rate in the region.

"Probably not," I said blandly.

He took a deep breath and held it for a moment, then blew it out slowly, looking off into the distance. I waited patiently. If he decided that he didn't want to get involved, there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop me from going ahead with the rescue alone. I could take him down without causing any serious damage and be back on the shuttle in ten seconds or less.

But if I was reading him right, that wasn't the way things would go down. He wanted that narcotics operation shut down and he wanted it to happen *now*. If his department was going to get credit for it, so much the better.

I really couldn't fault him on that. This operation was producing a damn nasty designer drug that was addictive from the first hit but took a long time to show its ugly side effects. Its users would truly be "feeling no pain" while high yet they could function *almost* normally. It was virtually impossible to overdose on it. In short, it *seemed* the ideal drug. And from a seller's standpoint, it was. "Freebies" resulted in virtually guaranteed repeat buyers. And buyers could keep taking the drug for a very long time with no immediately apparent negative effects. They would gradually build up a slight resistance to its effects and would need larger and larger hits but that was about it.

But tests had proven that as the addict's liver worked to breakdown the drug, the liver itself was damaged. Not to the point of immediate failure - but enough that it couldn't repair itself as quickly as the damage was being done, especially as the size of the hits increased. And as liver function deteriorated, the kidneys were inevitably affected too. Eventually, equally inevitably, one or both would fail.

This was *not* the sort of operation that any law enforcement operation wanted in their backyard. And we had enough evidence to shut them down. What Une was still digging for was proof of something beyond the narcotics operation. Despite all evidence that this was strictly drug-related, she kept looking for ties to rebel groups or weapon smuggling. After reviewing everything that the Preventers had on the case, I honestly didn't think there was anything there to find.

Jackson sighed heavily and turned his gaze towards me. "So, what's the plan?"

I couldn't stop the grin from spreading across my face. "The plan is simple. You tell me *your* plan, then I make suggestions."

He gave me a decidedly startled look.

"I told you on the phone, Stone and I don't do things the same way. I've got a plan if you don't have one ready but I'd rather see yours.

"You're the locals. You're the ones with the knowledge of the area and the way these people operate. You're the ones who can tell me where they're probably holding my partner. I'll help you as much as I can but getting him out is my primary objective." Assuming, of course, that Heero was in any condition to *get* out. All I had to base that assumption on was a gut feeling that he was alive and the knowledge that he was the most damn stubborn, hard-to-kill man I'd ever known.

Jackson gave me one last considering look before starting towards a blocky van parked at the edge of the landing field. "Follow me. There's a map of the area in our mobile command unit. I'll show you what we had in mind."

***

Given an excuse to move and move fast, Jackson wasted no time getting an operation underway. He had the respect of his superiors and that meant that what he asked for, he got. Not without a certain amount of bitching and moaning, but he got it. Watching him interact with his superiors - and his fellow officers - made it more than clear just how fucked up a situation Heero and I had been putting up with. Our solve rate was just as damn impressive as his but in our case, we didn't get either the support or the respect that should have warranted. Not from our fellow officers and sure as hell not from our superiors.

Commander Une had no compunctions whatsoever about using our abilities but that was the only value she placed on us and every other agent. She still thought in military terms. Black Ops terms, at that. Everyone under her command was just another soldier, all equally expendable in the course of achieving whatever goal was being pursued. Every case, every mission, no matter how nonthreatening, was equally critical. Be it gunrunning or gambling, if it was of sufficiently wide scope to be handled by Preventers, each and every case was treated as a threat to peace. That was the kind of thinking that had led to Une's decision not to send a rescue mission after Heero immediately. A full investigation of the narcotics operation was more important to her, despite the fact that there had been no evidence that the key suspects were using their ill-gotten fortune for anything other than the personal indulgence of living in the lap of luxury.

I made up my mind. The Preventers was, by and large, a good agency. They fulfilled an important role. But with so much ex-military brass at the top, it was less of a paramilitary organization and more of a military one. One that was in danger of perhaps becoming a bit - overzealous - in its fulfilment of its purpose. "Quis Custodiet Custodes Ipsos?" I murmured softly as I pulled three sealed and addressed envelopes from my pack of supplies. The age-old question. Who guards the guardians...

"Detective Jackson?" I handed the envelopes to him. "Just... in case," I shrugged in response to his questioning look. He leafed through them, his eyebrows rising higher at each successive address revealed. Not surprising. While Chang Wufei wasn't exactly a household name, he *was* in the news occasionally thanks to his role in the L5 revitalization project. And it would be tough to find any reasonably well-informed adult in the Earth Sphere who didn't know who Quatre Winner and Relena Darlian were.

"If I don't reclaim them - mail'em," I told Jackson simply. If Heero and I didn't make it, someone was going to have to make sure that Preventers came under some careful scrutiny. We might not be close to any of those three personally at this point but I knew where they would stand on the less-than-ideal conditions at Preventers. The agency needed someone to take a serious look at its priorities. It wasn't a case of actual *corruption* - not yet, anyway - but this last incident - Une's decision to treat Heero's mission as if it were Black Ops and essentially abandon him based on Sorenson's opinion that he was either dead or dying - was one hell of a warning flag. Preventers needed some long, hard looks directed at it and its daily operations; those three had both the position and the drive to make damn sure that it came under that kind of scrutiny.

Jackson nodded slowly and turned to place the envelopes somewhere safe. I finished reorganizing my pack, shifting the first aid kit to the bottom and placing the smoke and gas grenades on top. I rechecked my bandaged knee, making sure that it had enough support, then downed a precautionary painkiller. I knew damn well that my leg was going to hurt like hell in no time flat; there was no fucking way that I could use even the cane once we started to move in.

"The last units are moving into position now. You ready, Shade?"

I gave Jackson a rather grim Shinigami grin in response. "Let's get this fucking show on the road."

Apparently, the winery we were moving in on was producing something other than wine. It had been a legitimate business up until a few years ago when the owner died and his son inherited the place. Now, there was no way that the vineyards produced enough grapes to be responsible for the heir's income. Nor did the vats produce nearly enough wine to fill the extensive underground cellars. They would make an ideal location for a drug lab.

I was hoping that they also made a virtually ideal location to hold a prisoner.

"We move in fifteen minutes," Jackson told me. "Make the most of it."

I nodded once, sharply, and adjusted the headset he'd provided me with. Jackson had offered one of his men to partner me on this but, even with my bad leg, I'd move far faster alone than with a partner unused to working with me. So while they were busy presenting warrants and starting the official search in the winery's main building, I would be searching the cellars for any sign of Heero. They were giving me a fifteen minute headstart to get in position and start my search before they made their move. Other cops would be watching the perimeter to stop any escape attempts - or attempts to dispose of an inconvenient prisoner.

Slipping out of the command van, I froze in mid-step as a quiet, "Good luck, Shade," came over the com channel. It had been a long time since anyone other than Heero had directed those words in my direction. Just as long since anyone other than I had directed them in Heero's. It brought home to me yet again just how fucked up of a situation we had been living in for far too long. Something was going to have to change. Heero and I deserved a better life than the one we'd been living.

But first, I had to get Heero back.

***

The loading dock in back of the facility provided my way in. I headed straight for the access door alongside of the big bay doors. It was locked but only with a standard commercial passcard-based lock and alarm, nothing that provided even a modicum of challenge. I had the cover off, wires yanked and shorted, and door open in under a minute. I then spent a few more precious seconds cramming the wires back inside and wedging the cover in place again. It would pass a casual glance and with the raid beginning in less than fifteen minutes, I wasn't worried about it holding up to a more careful examination.

The winery accepted deliveries and loaded trucks in the early morning hours only. *Very* early morning. That meant that at this point in the late afternoon - almost early evening - there was no one in the loading area. Just stacks of boxes waiting for tomorrow morning's shipping schedule. Probably at least some of the cartons contained more than the bottles of wine that they appeared to. I didn't waste my time checking; that would be up to the local cops.

Slipping through the access doors leading towards the wine cellars, I visualized the blueprints I'd memorized of the winery's interior. They dated back to the previous owner's time so there would doubtless be some discrepancies. It was highly likely that a portion of the cellars had been sealed off to prevent visitors from stumbling across the winery's real primary operations. Health inspectors and buyers from various stores and restaurants would be in and out on a fairly regular basis; the public areas would have to be kept completely innocent in appearance.

Once I was within the cellars themselves, I had to keep a careful ear open for any indication of workers. The vats themselves were aboveground, thank god, or I would be dealing with a *lot* of employees since there were grapes being processed right now and that involved constant monitoring. That did not rule out the presence of workers - legitimate winery employees - in the cellars entirely but it reduced the probability of encountering very many this late in the day.

Though there were certainly a *few* people around... I ducked quickly into one of the storage rooms and hid in the shadow of a rack of casks as I heard footsteps approaching. I held my breath as the individual passed the doorway, the light from the hallway momentarily darkened as it was blocked. I waited while the footsteps receded before cautiously peeking around the corner of the doorway. A brief glimpse of a coverall-clad back was all I saw as the worker headed back the way that I had came in. Despite my impatience and sense of urgency - my lead-time was slipping away rapidly - I forced myself to wait a few more moments before resuming my search.

There had been considerable debate over the timing of the raid. In theory, it would have been better to hit the place either in the early morning hours while a pickup or delivery of questionable nature was being made or right in the middle of the day, while the maximum possible number of employees were onsite and could be detained for questioning. Both times were ultimately ruled out due to one simple fact: the probable imprisonment of a Preventers agent, one who was believed to be injured, possibly critically. Instead of delaying the raid until the next day in order to hit at one of the optimum times, the operation went into action absolutely as fast as the necessary units and equipment and warrants could be scrambled.

A distinctly different decision from Une's. And even more proof that the Preventers agency was seriously overdue for a reality check.

Glancing at my watch, I grimaced. Nearly two thirds of my lead-time was gone and I hadn't even located the drug lab. I was certain that Heero would be held in its general vicinity, well away from the possibility of casual discovery.

I picked up my pace, ignoring the immediate protest from my knee. Once the raid began, Heero would become a major liability. Hell, the whole lab would be and the quickest way to destroy the evidence would be to blow it. There would be more than enough chemicals in there to incinerate the actual lab equipment and any existing stock of drugs as well. If an inconvenient prisoner were to be taken care of in the process - well, there wouldn't be anything left to prove it.

Five minutes left. I pushed myself into a run, gun in one hand and smoke grenade in the other. Caution wasn't an option now. I had too much ground left to cover. Best guess said that the drug lab would be in the furthest portion of the wine cellars. Rather than wasting time checking the rooms opening off of the corridor I was running through, I headed straight down it. Abruptly, the corridor ended. Considerably sooner than it should have according to the blueprints.

I swiftly checked the wall for any sign of a hidden switch or release. Nothing.

Reviewing the blueprints in my mind, I realized that there should be wine storage rooms on both sides of the hall here. There weren't. One side had a closet labelled "Cleaning Supplies". I gave the closet door a cursory check for alarms, found one, and shorted it. An instant later, I was inside and searching for a way out.

Finding the latch for the concealed door was easy. Too easy. I couldn't find any sign of an alarm but the inconveniently located broom holder - no one would ever hang a broom or mop or anything else in that corner, it was too awkward to reach - was just too damn obvious. I didn't much like the fact that I had no way to know what was on the other side of the door either.

No choice. I had to trigger the latch and hope that Shinigami's luck hadn't quite deserted me.

Before I could do so, however, there was a sound and the door began to move. Crap. Nowhere to hide.

I stepped back as far out of sight as I could get and waited. I didn't want to use the smoke grenade then find out there was only one person there; the smoke would undoubtedly set off detectors and draw a whole lot of attention that I really didn't need. On the other hand, if there were more than two or three people coming through... I was going to regret not having already tossed the damn thing.As the door slowly opened, voices became audible. Three for sure.

Fuck. I yanked the pin on the smoke grenade, counted, tossed, counted, then sucked in a last deep breath and dove through the narrow opening, door jamb scraping shoulder and hip painfully. I didn't care, I'd overcompensated to make sure that the opposite knee *didn't* hit anything; it was giving me enough trouble already.

Rolling to my feet, I came up with one shoulder blade pressed against the wall and kept moving forward. I had to get clear of the smoke before I ended up handicapping myself as much as my opponents by getting too much of it in my eyes or inhaling it. I caught a split-second, hazy glimpse of motion before one of the men was on me.

This was where being a Preventer really sucked. I couldn't shoot the guy except in defense of myself or an innocent and even then, I couldn't do so until he indisputably proved he deserved it. And if I *did* shoot him, I was still supposed to try to keep him alive for questioning. Things had been a hell of a lot simpler during the war.

It was a foregone conclusion that when the guy slammed into me, my bad knee would twist and give out. I knew that. Was prepared for it.

It still hurt like hell.

I decided that as far as I was concerned, having his hands around my neck and trying to throttle me was pretty indisputable proof that the guy was indeed trying to kill me and I was therefore entitled to use deadly force to stop him. By some miracle I had *not* dropped my gun in the scuffle and I managed to bring it up against his side. I don't think he even registered its muzzle pressing into his gut. I couldn't afford to wait for him to notice it; I was already seeing spots. I pulled the trigger. His hands tightened for an instant in reaction then slackened and I managed to shove him off of me.

Before I could drag myself to my feet, another gun went off. I instinctively rolled even as it fired and the shot ploughed along the surface of the Kevlar vest before striking the wooden floor of the cellar. I kept rolling until I was facing the shot's source, then returned fire without taking the time to aim. While the woman was ducking in reaction to my first wild shot, I took aim and fired again, a solid heart shot that dropped her instantly. I looked for the third person but the door back into the closet was closing.

Suspect number three had gotten away. Crap. And after all of this noise, any chance of sneaking through the place was shot to hell.

A glance at my watch confirmed that sneaking wasn't going to do much good anyway. The raid had started by now. I was certain that it wouldn't take long for word to get down here and then all bets would be off as to how things would go down. I didn't know whether it was just paranoia that made me so sure they'd decide to blow the lab or if that was a legitimate evaluation of the situation but I was pretty damn certain this place would be going up in a fireball.

I switched my headset mike on and warned, "Shade to Command. Come in Command. Over."

"Command to Shade. Go ahead. Over."

"Shots fired. Two suspects down, one at large, headed into main winery. Drug lab entrance through cleaning closet at end of hallway in wine cellars. Broom hanger in northeast corner probable latch release. No sign of Sky. Continuing search. Over."

"Acknowledged. Primary team sweeping main building. Secondary entering cellars in two. Over."

"Acknowledged. Shade over and out."

Two minutes before the team would be entering the wine cellars. It would be another five to ten, depending on resistance, before they reached my position. That was too long; I couldn't wait.

Gathering my nerve, I cautiously tried to rise. It hurt. A lot. And I could feel the swelling puffing out around the edges of the support bandage which was definitely *not* a good sign. But despite the pain, the knee bore my weight. Speed and agility had definitely taken a nosedive but I was mobile. Though I intended to keep that side next to the wall if at all possible; I doubted that the knee would handle another fall. Best to keep support in easy reach.

I barely glanced into the rooms I passed. Just enough of a check to ensure that Heero wasn't there and there was no threat waiting to nail me the instant that I turned my back. The first couple of rooms just contained boxes of the type used to ship the wine. Whether they were empty or filled with drugs, I didn't know and I didn't waste time checking. I just kept moving. Much more slowly than I liked - but moving.

The next rooms were filled with chemical drums and gas cylinders. Shit. Even a cursory check was enough to make it quite clear that if they torched the place, it was going to be one hell of a big bang.

Pressing onwards, I could see a bend in the corridor ahead of me. Comparing my location to the blueprints and the map of the area, I realized that this was where the cellars turned to run along the edge of the cliff overlooking the river. Jackson had remarked that according to local legend, they'd been used by smugglers back when the water level was higher and the cliff less unstable. Now, however, the caves along the cliff had almost all collapsed and the river was so low that it was at least a thirty foot drop from them.

The section of cellars running along the cliff had been condemned and ordered sealed years ago; Jackson's sources hadn't reported anything about them having been reopened and put to use. But they obviously had been. The actual drug lab had to be down there. As did Heero. I could hear anxious, excited voices coming from down that corridor. I was going to have to get down there fast. But first, I had to report in. This was too big to leave for those behind me to discover on their own. They needed to be forewarned.

I ducked back down the hall and into one of the chemical storage rooms. "Shade to Command. Come in. Over."

The response was gratifyingly prompt. "Command to Shade. Go ahead. Over."

"There's enough chemicals here to blow the whole damn place off the map. And the condemned cellar section is open and in use. Believe lab and Sky both in that area. Voices confirm presence of suspects. Over." I gritted my teeth and eased my weight off of my bad leg. Maybe I'd have to take the support bandage off; the swelling around it was getting pretty bad. I wasn't sure it would hold me without the bandage, though. And if I took it off, there was no way I'd ever get it back on again; there was too damn much swelling. Hell, there was too much fucking swelling to get it *off*, I'd probably have to cut it off.

"Warning acknowledged. Putting fire and rescue on standby. Will advise teams to proceed with extreme caution. Your status? Over."

While Command was speaking, I was busy transferring smoke and teargas grenades from the backpack to pockets and belt. I wanted them out and ready for use. There wouldn't be time to be digging for them once I started around that corner towards the drug lab.

"Continuing search. Shade over and out." My breath hissed out sharply as I put weight back on my bad leg. I'd have popped another painkiller if there was any chance it would kick in soon enough to do any good. But it wouldn't. I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood, the sharp pain from that providing enough distraction from my knee to get me through that first agonizing step. Once that first one was out of the way, momentum and sheer mulish stubbornness kept me going.

As I walked - well, limped - towards the corner, I donned the protective goggles and readied the thin, self-adhesive membrane that would serve as a gas mask. It had a pretty short useful life; the teargas would saturate it to the point of uselessness fairly quickly. But it was better than nothing and a hell of a lot more convenient than the more effective but very bulky breathers that provided the next level of protection.

I peered cautiously around the corner. There was a lot of frantic activity taking place but it seemed pretty disorganized. I pulled the pin on the first gas grenade and started to count as I walked towards the activity. By the time someone noticed me, I'd already tossed the grenade and slapped the membrane over my nose and mouth. It immediately adhered, conforming to the shape of my face. Breathing through it was like trying to breathe through a heavy blanket. Possible but stuffy.

Shouts started. I threw a couple of smoke grenades and forced myself to a faster pace. The pain in my knee flared - it felt like I was grinding it into broken glass with every step that I took and at the same time the muscles and tendons were tightening dangerously, twitching and threatening to spasm. The silhouette of a gun barrel had me firing instinctively. The man's forehead blossomed red and he dropped. Someone reached for the dropped gun and I shot again. The chest shot flung her against the wall. She slid down it to lie in a crumpled heap.

Ahead of me, at the edge of the area affected by the grenades, someone got smart and disappeared from the hall for a moment. When he returned, he was using Heero as a bodyshield. If the asshole could have seen my face under the mask, he'd have wondered why I started to grin at the sight.

Heero didn't look so hot; he was damn pale and the bandage wrapped around his head was stained with dried blood, a lot of it, but then that was typical of scalp wounds. His hands were bound behind him and his shirt was torn and stained on one side. A hint of bloodstained gauze showed through the tear. He obviously wasn't too steady on his feet - it looked like the arm wrapped around his throat was actually holding up some of his weight. His captor had a gun pressed against his temple. Heero's eyes met mine and I could see him struggling to focus. His lips moved silently, counting down. On one, he went limp. Staggering slightly under Heero's weight, his captor swore and was forced to shift his hold. The gun left Heero's temple for an instant and I fired.

My first shot shattered the man's gun hand. The second silenced his shriek of pain permanently. Heero went down with him and rolled to pin the gun down and prevent anyone else from grabbing it. I was at his side in an instant, one hand keeping the gun ready for use despite the hall's sudden emptiness, the other pulling a knife from an ankle sheath. Heero raised his hands away from his back and I sliced through the plastic bindings around his wrists with a certain amount of difficulty. His wrists were so swollen that it was difficult to slide the tip of the knife between skin and plastic without cutting skin in the process, especially with only one hand and half of my attention on our surroundings. I managed to only nick him slightly with the tip.

Hands freed, Heero rolled over and sat up slowly, wincing as his arms dropped limply at his sides. "Your knee?"

The smoke and teargas were already clearing, sucked away by the ventilation system. I pulled off my membrane mask; its usefulness was pretty much gone anyway.

"Don't ask," I muttered grimly. "Gonna need a hand up." I'd dropped down on the good knee in order to cut Heero loose but I really didn't think I could make it back up again.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Heero said as he struggled to his own feet, "but what the hell are *you* doing here?"

I knew what he meant. At the start of this, I'd been far from field ready. At this point, if I looked half as bad as I felt, I probably looked at least as bad as Heero. "Stone's an asshole and Une's an ice-cold bitch with a conspiracy fixation," I told him flatly. "I'm - not exactly here officially. Jackson and the local cops are making the bust. Jackson's smart enough to know what questions *not* to ask. He'll get the bust and I'll take the heat. Une's gonna be real pissed. If I'm lucky, she'll only take my badge."

I grabbed Heero's outstretched arm and he managed to drag me to my feet. I clutched at him and swayed for a moment before the nausea and dizziness faded. "Shit." I blinked a few times and the spots finally faded.

Abruptly, the headset crackled to life. "Command to all units. Evacuate immediately. Repeat, evacuate immediately. Fire in chemical storage. Repeat, fire in chemical storage. Please acknowledge in order."

Swallowing hard, I held up my hand in a "wait" signal as Heero started to question me. I headed back to the bend in the corridor, Heero following close behind. He'd appropriated a gun and had it in his hand but I doubted he could use it yet; the circulation in his hands had been pretty damn restricted.

We didn't really need to look around the corner; the heat was intense enough to curl the hairs on my arms before we even got there. But a glance around the bend was enough to confirm that the passageway was completely blocked by flames and they were spreading rapidly.

I listened as the other units all acknowledged the warning and reported their positions. They were all on the other side of the fire. Finally, I was the only one left to report in. "Shade to Command. Located Sky, injured but mobile. Acknowledge evacuation order but cannot comply. We're on the other side of the fire. Over."

There was a long moment of silence, then the response came back, "Acknowledged. Will send fire crew in immediately. Over."

"*NO!*" I shouted desperately. "Do *not*, repeat, do *not* send in a fire crew. It's too dangerous." I thought rapidly, searching for a way to convince them. Jackson wasn't the type to abandon anyone but those chemicals would blow long before a fire crew could contain the flames enough for us to pass through. "Check the lab analysis for details on chemicals involved. Fire department will confirm hazard level. Over."

Heero caught my elbow and turned me away from the fire. He prodded me into motion so I limped along beside him, still monitoring communications. Finally, a reluctant response came back from Command. "Fire department confirms. Jackson wants me to ask..." The voice broke off and I could hear a faint, horrified demand, "*What?* I will *not*..." There was some crackling from the headset and after a moment, Jackson's voice came over it. "You still have your gun and ammo? Over."

Oh. No wonder he'd freaked out the dispatcher. "Yeah," I answered. "We won't go slow," I assured him. And we wouldn't. We both knew how to make it quick and virtually painless. Better that than burning to death. But the speed that Heero was forcing me to match was giving me a faint hope that maybe we wouldn't "go" at all. He knew how bad I was hurting; he wouldn't be asking me to practically run if he didn't have a damn good reason. No point in mentioning that to Jackson though until we knew for sure that there *was* another way out.

"Don't forget to mail those envelopes," I added as an afterthought. "Shade over and out."

As soon as I slid the headset off and draped it around my neck, Heero said, "There's been heavy rain for the past few days. One of the men was complaining that there'd been another cave-in down this way. Somebody else made a crack about taking his girlfriend down to watch the sunset through the gap. I don't know how big it is but..."

"It's definitely worth a try," I agreed readily. Behind us, there was a boom and a blast of hot air washed over us. A quick glance back showed the flames spreading down the hallway towards us, licking hungrily at the wood flooring and spreading up the walls. We both managed to force our battered bodies into a jolting run.

Everything from that point on was a complete blur. I have the very vaguest memory of finding the gap. Of frantically digging with knives and bare hands to enlarge it. Of looking at that god-awful drop and hoping like hell that the water here wasn't *too* shallow.

But I have no memory whatsoever of jumping. And although the water wasn't too shallow, it *was* full of rocks and I had the incredibly bad luck to crack my head on one underwater. So it's not surprising that I have no memory of anything that happened after that. Nothing until I woke up in someplace that felt a hell of a lot like a safehouse. I had a pounding headache and a throbbing knee and I felt like I was going to throw up any second. But Heero was sleeping restlessly beside me, alive and looking at least marginally better than he had before, so absolutely nothing else mattered. I closed my eyes and willed myself back to the healing embrace of sleep.

***

"I - you said you'd be lucky if Une just took your badge. I wasn't sure how much trouble you were in..." Heero hesitated uncertainly, avoiding my eyes. He took a deep breath, then blurted out, "No one knows we survived. We're in one of J's old safehouses. The supplies were still usable so I haven't had to leave since we got here. Your concussion had me worried, though. I was afraid that I'd have to take you to a hospital..."

Holy shit. We *were* at a safehouse. And everybody thought we were dead?

"Umm, I don't think I was in *quite* that much trouble with Une..." I ventured hesitantly.

On the other hand, I *had* essentially stolen a fucking *shuttle*. Not to mention a whole shitload of teargas and smoke grenades... I'd violated a direct order... Wrecked Une's plans for further investigation and ruined any chance of finding a link between the narcotics operation and rebel activity... Put the credit for a major drug bust in the hands of a bunch of local cops instead of Preventers...

"On second thought - maybe I was," I admitted. It simply hadn't been an issue worth worrying about at the time. Getting Heero back was all that really mattered. I propped myself up a little further on the window ledge and stifled a yawn. Damn, I hated concussions. The effects lingered for fucking *months* sometimes. Especially the headaches and general weariness.

"We're legally dead. We could - start fresh. I still have accounts from the war. Blank identities that were never used..." Heero said, watching me carefully as he restlessly paced the room.

A fresh start. Well, it wasn't like we'd be leaving anything worthwhile behind. Jobs we'd learned to hate. A handful of casual acquaintances that were at least polite and a lot of other people who hated or resented us because of who we were. A few former comrades who'd drifted out of touch due to the passage of time and physical separation.

I took a sip of hot chocolate from my mug to delay my response a bit longer. It seemed strange that there really weren't any reasons *not* to stay dead and start over as someone else. Just a lot of reasons why we *should*.

Turning my head, I said softly, "Heero." He stopped his uneasy prowling immediately and turned towards me. "Yes."

He smiled, bright and beautiful, and crossed the room in two quick strides, kneeling on the window seat and leaning over to kiss me so gently and tenderly that he left me yearning for more. "We'll need new names," he murmured quietly. "You pick for me and I'll pick for you?"

I nodded my agreement. That would be better than trying to choose for ourselves. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes for a moment, testing my resolve. Yes, I was sure. "Haircuts," I stated firmly. "Drastic ones. You cut mine and I'll cut yours."

Heero gave me a look that was part shock, part horror, and also just the slightest bit intrigued. "Duo?"

I pulled my braid over my shoulder and stroked it lightly. "It's way too recognizable, Heero. And... it's part of the past." I struggled for the words to explain more clearly.

Heero stopped me with another kiss and a soft, "I know."

And meeting his eyes, I could see that he did. I managed a smile and informed him, "Buzz cut for you."

He laughed.

"I'm not joking," I warned.

"I know." The asshole laughed again. "Jaw length, I think," he said, tilting his head thoughtfully.

Yikes. Well, I'd said "drastic". "Okay," I agreed. "Go get the scissors." Before I could lose my nerve.

Heero gave me an understanding smile and started out of the room. He paused in the doorway to look over his shoulder and murmur, "Love you."

I smiled, slow and soft and loving. "I know... And I love you."

"I know."

And with that, he was gone. Only this time, I knew that he would be right back again. Back to take the first step towards our new life together.

I could hardly wait.

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