5-9-2004

Title: Simple Human Contact
Author: Calic0cat <calic0cat@fastmail.fm>
Story Started: January 2004
Story Completed: May 8, 2004
Genre: Yaoi, Friendship, Romance
Pairing: 1+2
Rated: PG-13
Warnings: OOC, Swearing
Archives: Lev's Lair http://www.gwaddiction.com/levlair/ and at http://calic0cat.freeservers.com/ (my site) and at Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat. Those with previous permission to host my fics, help themselves.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: Duo POV.

*** Time passing or scene change

Author's Notes: This is somewhat of an experiment for me. It is *very* different stylistically from anything else I've written.
Feedback is appreciated.

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The first time that it happened was fairly early in the war. A mission went bad - very bad - and there were civilian casualties. I wanted nothing more than to be sharing a safehouse with Quatre instead of Heero. The blond would have known exactly what to say and do to help me get through those first awful hours of shock and self-hatred.

That wish for Quatre's empathetic presence was strong enough that when someone wakened me from nightmares that were a horrific muddle of people and incidents from my past combined with recent events, I didn't stop to realize just who it was that must have woken me. Instead, I just flung my arms around the individual and hung on tight, gasping for air.

I didn't even notice the utter stillness and rigidity of that person at first. Not until arms closed around me very tentatively and a hand patted my back uncertainly did it register just who I must be clinging to.

My first instinct was to pull away and apologize. Fortunately, the contact and slight, awkward attempt at reassurance and comfort felt good enough that I didn't immediately do so. And once my brain actually started working again and I gave it a few seconds of thought, I realized that would be absolutely the worst thing that I could do to Heero. The other pilot was trying to rise above his training, trying to be comforting, trying to help. Despite the fact that simple physical contact tended to leave him tense and uncomfortable. There was no way that I would scorn that attempt, awkward and uncertain as it was, and push him away. I'd already put too many hours into trying to make friends with Heero; I wasn't about to risk destroying the fragile link that was all I'd succeeded in forging so far.

So instead, I simply buried my face against Heero's shoulder and stammered out my guilt, just as I would have if Quatre *had* been there. It didn't matter that Heero didn't know what to say or do and just silently and hesitantly rubbed my back. That was the most that Heero knew how to offer and it was far more than I would have ever dared to expect from him.

It was enough. More than enough. It was the first real sign that all of my efforts weren't going to waste. That underneath all that seemingly-cold control there really *was* a human being, one with feelings beyond the rage of battle. One who could, just maybe, become a friend.

That was the first time that it happened but far from the last. There were other times that Heero offered comfort to the best of his limited ability. And when he returned from a sabotage mission after I'd gone to bed and simply stood watching me, I realized that maybe Heero needed the same in return. Needed it - but wouldn't, or couldn't, ask for it. So I simply tossed back the covers, stood, and gently - cautiously - pulled Heero into my arms.

The bruises would linger for days.

Heero grabbed onto me as if I were a life preserver and he a man going under for the third time. I fought down the panicky urge to escape created by that tight grip and drew Heero right into the bed with me, holding him and rubbing his back soothingly. My T-shirt rapidly became soaking wet under his cheek and his body shuddered with silent sobs. He never made a sound and after a single abortive attempt to question him - I shut up immediately when he stiffened and started to pull away - neither did I.

I never did learn the details of just what went wrong from Heero; I could only guess. But there was a news report about a take-your-daughter-to-work day and some sort of tragic chemical accident at a - supposedly - private research facility. That was more than enough for my imagination to fill in the blanks. If he didn't want to talk about it, I certainly wasn't about to press the issue. I had my own ghosts and some of those were too damn painful to discuss too. Plus, we were friends by then and I knew better than to nag at him.

As the war continued, the nightmares got worse for all of us pilots. The things we'd seen, done, had done to us... all of those had a cumulative effect. We hated - Oz and ourselves. We sought vengeance as much as freedom. We grew bitter and disillusioned and tired - god, so damn tired. Tired of the fighting, tired of living on the run. Tired of living sometimes. Even Quatre and I had difficulty maintaining so much as a pretense of expecting a normal life - whatever the hell *that* was - after the war was over. Of expecting a *life* after the war was over.

As spirits darkened, Heero and I grew closer. We needed each other's support more and more all the time. But there was a point at which I became frustrated by his refusal to talk about things. Irritated by his willingness to accept comfort or to give it to me while refusing to initiate it on his own behalf.

So I tried to force the issue. Tried to *make* him ask for comfort, for contact. I pretended not to notice the slight shift to one side so that there was room on the couch beside him. Pretended not to notice the tiny hesitation before going to his own bed.

It was an incredibly stupid, petty thing for me to do, something that I realized lying in bed listening to the slight unevenness in his breathing. I was being terribly unfair. Heero couldn't openly make that first move on his own anymore than he could sit down and tell me everything that he was thinking and feeling. Why he couldn't didn't matter. I was asking too much of him. Attempting to manipulate him like this was a betrayal of our friendship.

I crawled out of my bed and crossed the room to Heero's. Pulled back the covers and slid in behind him, ignoring the tension in his muscles. I wrapped my arm around him and hugged him to me tightly. "Sorry," I whispered simply. He didn't say a thing but he *did* give a silent, shuddering sigh and relax against me.

From that point on, I accepted whatever Heero could give and offered as much as he would take. And I discovered that he would take far more than I'd ever expected. In fact, he would take everything that I offered. If I flopped down on the couch and ended up sprawled half across him, he would not only allow it but shift position to make me more comfortable. If I flung an arm around his shoulders and rested my weight against him, he leaned into the contact. If I matter-of-factly crawled in bed with him every night rather than just after one or both of us had an exceptionally rough mission, he just cuddled against me and relaxed.

Yes, *cuddled*. Heero Yuy was a cuddler. No one would ever believe me if I told them - but then I would never violate his trust and privacy by doing such a thing in the first place.

Heero soaked up bodily contact like a damn sponge. Or rather, he soaked up contact with *me* like that. Contact with the other pilots, he tolerated but made no attempt to initiate. He didn't show up in the Peacemillion lounge and ever-so-slightly nudge one of *them* to move over and make room on the bench for him then sit thigh-to-thigh like he'd started to do with me.

The few times during the war that Relena got close enough to touch him, Heero didn't exactly waste much time getting away from her. I think she confused the hell out of him. Shit, I think girls in general confused the hell out of Heero. I'd gathered that Heero's training had started at a very young age and somehow I doubted that "Social Interaction with Teenagers of the Female Gender" was one of the topics J had covered during said training. I didn't exactly have a ton of experience interacting with teenage girls myself and I hadn't been nearly as young when G'd gotten hold of me. Add in the fact that Relena was an ardent pacifist and - no matter how much Heero might respect her for standing by her ideals - he could never be truly comfortable around her. He was always far too aware of the blood on his hands.

As for anyone else - well, Heero pretty much managed to avoid touching other people entirely. As much as Heero needed the contact to remind him of his humanity and reassure him that he wasn't alone, he was struggling against major trust issues in order to allow someone that close. His relative ease in letting *me* so far inside his barriers probably had a hell of a lot to do with the fact that I'd let him see me in a vulnerable state first. I'd trusted him therefore he was able to trust me. The trust and friendship had just kept growing from there.

Eventually, the war ended with us all miraculously alive. Hilde offered me a job and I coaxed her into making an open job offer for Heero as well. I wasn't sure whether he would ever take her up on it but I wanted to give him the excuse he would need if he wanted to see me again. I knew that he probably wouldn't be able to just show up purely to visit. He'd broken training in some ways but in others he was still tightly bound. And that was okay; I certainly didn't expect him to change into a "normal" person overnight just because the war had officially ended. Hell, *I* wasn't "normal", why expect him to be?

Months of "peace" passed. I managed to stay in at least occasional contact with Heero through considerable effort. And then - just when Heero had finally gotten around to showing up for a visit - the shit hit the fan and we were headed back into battle again.

The less said about *that* goddamned mess, the better. Anything that includes my best friend's Gundam literally disintegrating around him and ends with said best friend in the hospital, comatose, stress fractures in virtually every bone in his body, is something that I'd just as soon forget. Nor are the subsequent weeks spent at Heero's bedside, talking and reading aloud in an attempt to reach him, a particularly fond memory.

But when Heero was finally on the road to recovery, Sally Po showed up at the hospital with job offers for the two of us. Heero didn't waste any time accepting. No surprise there; he'd been pretty much at a loss ever since the first war ended. A legitimate outlet for his skills, a chance to be productive and useful and maybe even assuage a little of that guilt he was carrying around, was a godsend for him. I wasn't nearly as eager to pick up a gun again - but one look at Heero's too-expressionless face as he and Sally waited for my answer and I knew that my decision was made.

Heero needed a partner, one that he could trust. That narrowed the choices to a very, very small group of possibilities. Just four, really, and one of those had other commitments that made it highly unlikely he would be joining the Preventers' ranks. That still left three; I wasn't the *only* one Heero trusted.

But I was the only one who fit an even more important criteria. Heero didn't just need a partner that he could trust. He also needed someone who knew that beneath that stoic facade of his was a real, living, breathing, fallible human being, not an emotionless, indestructible "Perfect Soldier". Even the other pilots had a disturbing tendency to see Heero in a less-than-realistic way. To forget that he was just as human as they were, just as vulnerable to exhaustion and stress, just as capable of making mistakes.

Heero's training hadn't made him invulnerable. It hadn't made him infallible. It hadn't made him indestructible. It hadn't made him invincible. It simply had taught him to *appear* to be all of those things. And far too many people - people who should damn well know better - bought the act.

I didn't.

I flashed a Shinigami grin in Sally's direction and casually flung an arm around Heero's tense shoulders. "Hey, who the hell else would I trust to watch my best bud's back? Count me in." The muscles beneath my arm relaxed infinitesimally and Heero leaned into the contact slightly, warming me with his subconscious gesture of trust and appreciation. That was all the confirmation I needed that my decision was the right one. For both of us.

***

Heero and I ended up renting a small apartment together. It wasn't that we couldn't afford to live separately; we wouldn't get rich on our Preventers' pay but we weren't paupers either. Sharing a place was my suggestion - I didn't want him sitting home alone working in all his off-duty hours - but he certainly didn't raise any objections. There were some rough spots at first when his near-obsessive need for order ran headlong into my tendency towards - organized disorder, shall we say? - but we eventually reached a compromise that we could both live with. Life was, for the most part, comfortable.

Even for a couple of ex-Gundam pilots, working as Preventers turned out to involve a lot less gunplay and a lot more investigative work than I'd expected, so I certainly had no need to regret my decision to partner Heero. Oh, there were still times when things went wrong. Times when lives were lost. Times when our old ghosts came back to haunt us. Times when comfort was offered and accepted, requested and given. We each had our own room but there were occasions when the need for human contact drove us to share. I stuck to my wartime resolution and never tried to force Heero to put his needs, either for comfort or simple human contact, into words, accepting those subtle bits of body language as his request.

For the next few years - yes, *years* - Heero and I worked together, played together, ate together, lived together. I made a few casual friends but the other pilots remained my only close friends. And Heero was still my best friend.

Heero didn't make new friends easily - his reserved nature and the caution so deeply instilled in him by his training made sure of that - but a few people did manage to earn a status slightly higher than mere acquaintances. And although Heero didn't let anyone get quite as close as me, he did become closer to the other pilots. That very degree of closeness between Heero and me was the source of recurring speculation on the exact nature of our relationship, especially since neither of us dated. The speculation was completely unfounded but it didn't particularly bother either of us. We just ignored it; it wasn't enough to push us into dating. Heero - well, I suspected that he simply wasn't prepared to open up to someone else to that extent. Not yet - and maybe not ever. As for me...

Well, for a long time I was simply content with the way things were. The job was challenging enough to keep my interest and Heero and the other guys kept my free time occupied. I had a home, enough to eat, and Rosy Palmer and her five sisters took care of my, uh, other needs. I saw no reason to change the status quo. As far as I could see, dating was a hell of a lot of work for rather minimal returns. I figured that it would take somebody pretty damn special to make me reconsider that evaluation.

Then Agent Kim Patterson transferred in. She was intelligent, competent, witty, charming, and easy on the eyes to boot. So when she called and asked me out one weekend - I accepted.

Heero didn't say much when I told him that he was on his own for dinner, that I was going on a date with Kim. He just nodded silently and removed one place setting from the kitchen table. He didn't say anything the next time it happened either. Or the next. Or - well, you get the picture.

It wasn't like I totally abandoned Heero. We still spent time together, at home as well as at work. Just not nearly as *much* time. Those quiet evenings spent curled up at opposite ends of the couch, our feet just touching in the middle, watching TV and relaxing, gradually became fewer and farther between. Instead of Heero and I going to Quatre's weekend get-togethers, Heero would go alone. Sometimes I'd take Kim and join him, other times she and I would meet up with some of her friends instead.

I thought that everything was fine; that my best friend didn't mind that I'd suddenly started dating. But, to my eternal shame, I had forgotten something important. I'd forgotten that there were times when Heero wouldn't - or couldn't - say anything. I'd forgotten to watch for that subtle body language that would have told me that things weren't fine at all. That far from being fine with me dating Kim, Heero was absolutely miserable.

Remember what I said about Heero only being human? Well, when human beings are stressed and unhappy, they make mistakes. And when a Preventer agent makes a mistake during a raid on an illegal ammunition factory... Well, unless said agent is completely invulnerable, he's bound to get hurt. And Heero is *not* invincible. No matter what anyone else may think.

I spent most of my off-duty hours during that first week in the chair by Heero's hospital bed. Kim was sympathetic and understanding. She had a partner too and she knew damn well that partners had to look after each other. So she didn't complain when I cancelled our dates for the following week as well. Heero was home but under strict orders for complete bed rest. I got up early every morning to take care of him before work. Skipped breaks in order to take long lunches, dashing home to help him to the bathroom and make sure that he ate. Stayed home every evening, watching TV and keeping Heero company. For once, Heero actually followed doctor's orders to the letter. He let me take care of him, rested, and recovered with his usual rapidity.

Once Heero was back on his feet, things gradually went back to their previous state. Kim and I were dating just as frequently as before; if anything, I spent even more time with her in order to make up for my neglect of her while Heero was recuperating. I really appreciated the patience and understanding that she'd demonstrated during those weeks.

But Kim was a little less understanding when, over the course of the next few months, my "Perfect" partner became perfectly accident-prone. If it wasn't a sprained ankle from slipping on the stairs at Headquarters, it was a fractured rib due to a sparring accident while training new agents or a dozen stitches thanks to a kitchen accident while chopping vegetables for stir fry. I spent more time nursemaiding my partner than I did dating Kim.

In retrospect, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out what was going on. But when I caught my highly lactose-intolerant partner in the midst of chugging an entire carton of milk less than a week after the stitches came out of his hand, things started to make a certain twisted kind of sense.

I snatched the carton out of Heero's hand. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Yuy? That's regular milk, not soy or lactose-reduced! You *want* to spend the whole damn evening being sick?" The glare he gave me in response was half defiant, half something else. And that something, I realized an instant later, was guilt. He *did* want to spend the whole evening being sick. He knew damn well that I wouldn't leave him alone like that; I'd call Kim and cancel our date then spend the evening looking after him instead.

Swearing furiously, I grabbed Heero's wrist and dragged him down the hall behind me. "Take your damn pills while I call Kim," I ordered, shoving him into the bathroom and towards the medicine cabinet. "Then you and I are going to have a nice, long talk, buddy." The medication wouldn't be as effective taken now as if it had been taken prior to consuming the milk - though even then, it wouldn't have made drinking a whole damn carton of the stuff a particularly *good* idea - but it would still help.

Kim was distinctly not happy that I was cancelling yet another date. She jumped to the correct conclusion immediately, pinning the blame firmly on Heero. I refused to deny or confirm her guess, which made her even more displeased with me. I didn't waste much effort on placating her. If my suspicions regarding Heero's recent tendency to be accident-prone were correct, then I'd be breaking things off with her anyway. I liked Kim - a lot. Liked her in a way that could probably lead to a lot more than just "liked" if I let it. But given a choice between making Heero happy or making Kim happy, Heero was going to win out every time.

When Heero finally ventured back into the livingroom, I took one look at his tense shoulders and inscrutable expression and knew that I had an uphill battle ahead of me. He'd shut down as completely as he used to when we first met. Pressuring him would get me nowhere; issuing ultimatums would only make things worse. Demanding to know why he hadn't just asked me to stay home, why he hadn't just told me that he was feeling left out, was equally pointless; I already knew the answer and it wasn't one that he would actually *give* me anyway.

Heero either couldn't or wouldn't talk about anything related to emotions; it really didn't matter which was the case, the end result was the same. Dealing with Heero on an emotional level meant relying on non-verbal or, at best, indirect communication. I *knew* that. It was my own damn fault that I'd managed to overlook the early warning signs and he'd ended up going to extremes to get my attention. I had to deal with that somehow. But the "nice, long talk" was out; a different approach was needed.

I grabbed Heero by the shoulders and started off with, "I'm sorry I didn't realize that I was neglecting our friendship." For an instant, his surprise at the apology made him drop his guard ever-so-slightly. Taking advantage of that slight gap in his defences, I continued, "You have every right to expect me to spend time with you and you don't have to be sick for that to happen." I gave him a single, admonitory shake. "So don't pull that kind of crap again, buddy." Before he had a chance to turn defensive, I dragged him over to the entertainment centre and pulled a random movie off the shelf. "Just - put one of these by my place at breakfast and we'll have a movie night. Or leave the basketball on my chair and we'll spend our day off shooting hoops. Okay?"

Heero shrugged very slightly, only a faint trace of wariness in his eyes slipping past his stoic facade. I dropped the subject, at least for the moment. It would take time to reassure Heero that our friendship was still my top priority, that I wasn't going to abandon him. Words alone wouldn't convince him. Only my actions over a prolonged period of time would do that. Starting with spending the evening curled up on the couch watching a movie and keeping an eye on Heero while he suffered through the consequences of his milk binge.

***

I didn't break up with Kim immediately; part of me was hoping that Heero would be okay if I just made a point of spending a little more time with him. But it didn't take long to eliminate *that* possibility. Having been assured that he had a right to expect me to spend time with him - and given a way to request that time without actually having to talk about it - Heero wasted no time in making use of the system.

A few days after our broken date, Kim and I went out again. Things were a little strained at first but by the end of the evening, we were getting along pretty well again. She was going out of town on assignment for a few days and suggested that we take our lunch break together on the day she returned; I agreed. By the time I dropped her off and headed back home, it was getting pretty late. The apartment was in darkness and Heero's bedroom door was closed. But when I popped into the kitchen to get a glass of water before going to bed, I discovered that the table was already set for breakfast. And there was a movie laying beside my place setting.

Okay, no problem. Heero was obviously testing my promise; wanting to make sure that I'd follow through on my words. Making sure that he got his share of my time. Fair enough. I could do that.

And I did. We spent the next evening curled up at opposite ends of the couch, watching the action flick that Heero had rented for the occasion. And by the time that the credits rolled, he had relaxed and let his guard down ever-so-slightly, the faintest hint of content visible in his expression. Things were back to normal, right?

It certainly seemed like it the following day. There was nothing by my breakfast place to make a silent request and the next few days passed like any others over the past several years.

But the morning that Kim was due back, there was a basketball waiting for me at the breakfast table. And when Kim arrived at my desk at lunchtime, Heero informed her that he and I were having a lunch meeting with Wufei and Sally to discuss one of their cases that appeared to be linked to one that we'd closed a few months ago. I gave Kim an apologetic shrug and waved her off to have lunch on her own. She went - but not without an irritated glare at Heero. She'd have been considerably more than irritated if she'd known that I'd *told* Heero I was going to lunch with her today. And that this "lunch meeting" was news to me.

If I'd had any doubt left regarding Heero's feelings about my relationship with Kim, the following morning erased it. Once again, a movie awaited me at the breakfast table. And Heero made sure that we were out of the office when lunchtime rolled around. Splitting my time between my best friend and my girlfriend obviously wasn't going to cut it; Heero wasn't prepared to share. That left me with just one option.

I had to break up with Kim. Dammit.

***

Breaking things off with Kim was... difficult. Painful. For her - and for me. Especially since I didn't really have a good explanation for my sudden change of heart; I certainly wasn't about to tell her the *real* reason. She made it pretty clear that she'd been thinking in terms of rings and houses and that she'd thought that I was too. And I had to admit that what she was describing had a certain appeal. But it didn't change anything; Heero needed me and that took priority. So I shook my head and offered an apologetic, "Things have been moving pretty fast. Too fast. I'm sorry but I'm just not ready for that kind of commitment."

I'm sure you can guess how well *that* went over. Kim didn't get particularly nasty but she was hurt and upset and I felt like the biggest jerk in the whole damn Earth Sphere. But I didn't back down from my decision.

Kim was bright and attractive and outgoing and independent; she had plenty of friends to help her get over me and would have no problem catching someone else's eye whenever she started looking again. She'd do just fine without me.

Heero had friends too. Not as many, but he *did* have friends. But his life and mine were so tightly entwined that even a partial withdrawal on my part left him unhappy. Maybe we were *too* close, maybe he depended on me too much. Probably a shrink would think so. But I wouldn't hurt Heero by pulling away, not when he'd actually trusted me sufficiently to let me close enough *to* hurt him. And I knew that getting him into counselling was a lost cause. Even if I *could* somehow persuade him to go, it would be useless.

All five of us had undergone extensive training in resisting interrogation and not all of those interrogation techniques had involved brute force or drugs. We'd been taught every trick of psychiatry and psychology in the textbooks and quite a few that weren't. We knew the "right" way to respond to every possible approach; could make a doctor produce whatever diagnosis we wanted. Could turn everything a therapist said right back at him without letting his words affect us whatsoever.

We - or at least those of us *in* Preventers - were, according to every shrink in the agency's employ, "therapy-proof".

It drove them nuts. We always gave all the "right" answers during our mandatory counselling sessions. They couldn't *prove* that there was anything wrong, that we weren't being completely on-the-level, so they had to keep signing off on our clearances. But it irritated the hell out of them.

Even if Heero could be persuaded to actually cooperate with a counsellor of some description, it would never work. He wouldn't or couldn't open up emotionally around people that he knew and trusted; talking to some therapist about personal issues would be utterly impossible.

And it wasn't as if he were *totally* dependent on me. He had other friends and acquaintances. He spent time with those people, just not as much as he spent with me. And he functioned just fine in a social setting - perfectly polite in a very formal, reserved kind of way. He didn't particularly *like* being in those kinds of situations - but he could handle them. Heero wasn't socially incompetent by any means. He just - preferred solitude over crowds. And apparently, preferred my company over only his own.

Which was okay - hell, more than okay, it was great that he'd reached that point, that he'd let himself need someone else that much, and I was flattered and proud that that "someone" was me... and it wasn't like I hadn't been perfectly happy *before* Kim came along...

It was still rough breaking up with her.

But hey - that didn't change the fact that Heero came first. He was my partner and my best friend. I would never knowingly hurt him and my relationship with Kim *had* been hurting him. So while I might be sorry that it was *necessary* to break up with Kim and even more sorry that I'd had to hurt her... that didn't mean that I regretted doing so.

Especially not when Heero's newfound tendency to be accident-prone completely disappeared after that.

***

I'd expected the wordless requests for my time to end once I stopped dating Kim. But they didn't. They weren't *frequent* but they did make an appearance every so often. And they diversified a bit. There were tickets to a hockey playoff game one time. And on another occasion, it was Heero's binoculars and bird field guide that awaited me. Birdwatching wasn't really my thing but he enjoyed it and if he wanted my company on one of his trips, I didn't mind tagging along. It was nice to have Heero asking me to do things with him instead of me doing all the inviting. Okay, so he wasn't asking me with *words*. Big deal. Actions were easier for him; as long as I could figure out the request, I'd gladly give whatever he could manage to ask for.

Things went on that way for quite a while. The fact that Heero had made some small gains in expressing his own wants and needs provided me with some much-needed reassurance that I'd done the right thing. Much-needed because I missed dating Kim and seeing her at work - especially once she started dating again - was uncomfortable at best. I think she found it difficult too because she finally transferred to another city.

Much to my own surprise, I sort of missed the whole dinner-and-a-movie-with-someone-I-like kind of thing. So a few months after Kim's departure, I started thinking about dating again. Nothing steady enough to make Heero feel threatened - just occasional casual dates, ones where it was understood upfront that I wasn't looking for a serious relationship. I figured that as long as I kept it down to once every couple of weeks, Heero wouldn't get worried.

Yeah, right.

I found out in a hurry that Heero wasn't about to take any chances. Just one date with the lawyer who lived two floors above our apartment resulted in a whole week of breakfast plate adornments. And when the cute new member of the secretarial pool asked me to join her for lunch, Heero managed to keep us out of the office at lunchtime for the next two weeks. Apparently even occasional dates were too risky as far as he was concerned.

Oh, I didn't just give up on dating. It's not like spending the next week (or two) after a date keeping my best friend company was a hardship. I thought that eventually he'd get used to me going on dates once in a while and he'd stop overreacting.

Eventually.

But he didn't. In fact, the time between dates gradually got longer as Heero extended the period during which he would keep my days fully occupied following me spending time with someone else. (Yes, some*one* else, singular. Group activities didn't have the same effect, even if Heero wasn't part of the group. He obviously didn't consider those a threat.) And frankly, it didn't really bother me that I was down to maybe one date a month, max. After all, a lot of the things that Heero and I were doing together were the same sort of things that I'd have been doing on a date anyway.

Okay, okay, so I was missing the obvious. I just - hadn't ever seriously *thought* about Heero that way. And the fact that other people thought that Heero and I were dating didn't mean anything to me because those rumours had been around for *years*. So I kind of - err - overlooked - the fact that I *was* dating.

In retrospect, I'm not sure whether that's more amusing or embarrassing. Looking back, I can see the gradual shift from "best friends hanging out together" to "dating" but it wasn't nearly that obvious to me at the time. I chalked the switch from curling up at opposite ends of the couch to stretching out and sharing up to another improvement in Heero's ability to "ask" for what he needed. I was so used to just giving him whatever he asked for that I never stopped to consider *why* he stretched out full-length on the couch and quite obviously positioned himself to leave room for me to join him. If I had stopped to think about it, I'd have probably blamed his apparent need for more contact on the fact that I'd been out of town visiting Hilde for a few days.

Of course, that didn't explain why we never did go back to the previous status quo.

There were lots of little things like that. Changes in the degree of intimacy between Heero and I. Changes in how open he allowed himself to be with me. Things that I was happy to see but that I didn't *notice*. That I didn't think about the meaning and ramifications of.

Which explains why that first kiss was such a damn shock.

It was a simple, chaste touch of lips, so light and so brief that I thought at first that I'd imagined it. Was sure that I must have imagined it. Until the hopeful, expectant gleam faded from Heero's eyes as I stared at him speechlessly, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. "Wait," I said hurriedly. He was shutting down, fast and hard, and if I didn't do something *now*, the question of exactly what had happened would be a moot point because it would never happen again. Reaching out, I caught his arm before he could move away physically too. "Heero, wait. I'm sorry; you just caught me by surprise." I tilted my head and coaxed, "How 'bout a do-over?"

He hesitated, a faint flicker of emotion crossing his face too quickly for me to read it.

"Please?" There was no time to consider whether I was doing the right thing in encouraging Heero. No time to think about this shift in our relationship. No time to decide whether my own feelings for Heero could take this particular direction. I'd worry about all of that later. For now, all that was important was undoing the damage I'd just done with my failure to respond to that tentative, hopeful advance.

The second kiss was just as brief and light as the first; the merest brush of dry lips. I smiled gently as Heero drew back, then I leaned forward and returned the caress. He made a small sound - a tiny, strangled gasp - then threw his arms around me in a grip that I knew would leave bruises. He didn't kiss me again, just ducked his head into the crook of my neck and hung on, tiny tremors shuddering through him. Opening up this much had taken an incredible effort for him and my initial fumble hadn't made things any easier.

I managed to work my arms free enough to get them around Heero so that I could rub his back soothingly. I knew better than to talk at all, let alone ask questions. So I just held him, rocked us back and forth slightly, and wondered. Wondered how on earth we'd ended up in this situation and why the hell I hadn't seen it coming.

***

It was pretty late but we eventually did get to bed that night. Heero didn't seem to want me out of reach, hovering in my doorway until I held up the covers and patted the mattress in invitation. I spent the night with his arms tightly wrapped around me. He slept, so deeply and peacefully that he never stirred. I know, because I did not. Sleep, that is. Instead, I thought.

I reviewed the past months and years, my mind filled with a confused tangle of questions.

What was Heero really feeling? Sure, I'd gotten pretty good at reading him over the years but this was new territory. I knew he trusted me, cared for me. Loved me?

Yeah, he probably did. He was far more open with me than with anyone else, even the other pilots. If I was sick or injured, he took care of me just as carefully and thoughtfully as I looked after him when the circumstances were reversed. He looked to me for comfort and affection and would readily offer the same in return.

But was he in love with me? Or was he just trying to ensure that I wouldn't need to date anymore, to make certain that he would always come first in my priorities and that he would never have to share me with a lover or lifemate?

That was a tougher call. But...

His expression had gone from hope to hurt to total shutdown when I hadn't immediately responded to that first kiss. There'd been nothing calculated about the whole thing; he would have been more confident and assertive if he'd been less emotionally involved.

How far did he intend to take our relationship? Did he really desire me? As kisses went, the ones we'd exchanged were pretty damn tame but he *had* just been testing the waters, more or less.

How did *I* really feel about all of this? Could I fall in love with Heero?

Sure, I loved him; he was my best friend. There was no question that I was willing to spend the rest of my life with him; I'd decided back when I broke up with Kim that I would stay with Heero for as long as he wanted and needed me there. But in love?

Gender wasn't an issue. Okay, so Kim had been female but it was the person not the plumbing that I cared about. And I wasn't worried about what people might say; they'd been saying it for years now anyway thanks to those persistent rumours about Heero and I. It hadn't bothered me before; I certainly wasn't about to let it start now.

Did I find him attractive? Desirable?

Heero was good-looking, no doubt about it. Not drop-dead gorgeous but definitely attractive. Moreso in private, when he let his guard down a bit and traces of emotion slipped through.

Could I imagine making love with him?

Well... no. Not really.

But my imagination fell short on the "making love with a guy" part rather than on "with Heero". What little knowledge I had was vague and rather nasty, bits and pieces of things seen and heard on the streets as a kid. Some factual research was definitely in order.

Simple touching though... I had no problem imagining Heero's hands on my body. I knew from countless back rubs and careful tending of awkwardly-located injuries on several occasions that Heero's touch was gentle but firm, his fingers quick and sure. A shiver ran through me at the thought of those hands exploring my body with pure pleasure in mind. And as for returning the attentions...

I smiled in anticipation. Heero had always soaked up bodily contact from me and making him feel good - happy and content - was one of my ongoing goals. Giving him pleasure would give me pleasure as well.

Okay, I wasn't so sure about everything else, but touching in an intimate way wouldn't be a problem.

Could I live with the fact that I would probably always have to guess at his emotions, that I would probably never hear him openly say, "I love you" or ask outright to be held? That I would always have to pay very close attention to his actions, always be on watch for hidden trouble signs?

Always paying close attention to his actions and watching for subtle signs of trouble - that I could live with. I'd been willing to live with it as best friends, after all. Never hearing him say "I love you" though... That was a tough one. Too tough?

Listening to Heero's steady breathing, feeling the moist puff of his breath between my shoulderblades and the warm weight of his arm wrapped around me, remembering the all-too-brief flash of joy and relief that I'd glimpsed before he hid his face against me earlier, I decided that no, it wasn't too tough. Words weren't the only way to say, "I love you".

Could I fall in love with Heero? With my imperfect, so-very-human best friend and partner?

I closed my eyes and considered the question for a very long time. I had to be sure, very sure, about this. A failed relationship with the one person that he occasionally let inside his emotional defences would convince Heero never to allow anyone that close again. If I screwed this up, Heero would pay the price.

Could I fall in love with Heero?

I let my breath out slowly in relief as I realized that the answer was a resounding affirmative.

Yeah, I could fall in love with my best friend.

No, not "could".

*Would*.

I *would* fall in love with Heero. He was already the most important person in my life. Falling in love with him wouldn't be hard at all.

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