6-24-2001

Welcome to the final part of the "Crossing" series. Hope you have enjoyed reading these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them. As usual, I usually only hit the ML to post stories, so any comments you want me to see should be sent to my email address.

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Simple Truths
Crossing Part 3
By LoneWolf
(kodoku na okami)

COMMENTS: This is the conclusion of "Crazy" and "Meant For". Read them first or you'll be lost. Note that most places outside the USA, "football" is about the World Cup, not the Super Bowl.

BGM: "What's Simple is True" by Jewel.

WARNINGS: yaoi, moderate angst

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As I sat floating in the shadow of L1, my teeth chattering slightly from the cold, words from a month earlier came rushing out of my memory. I opened my eyes slowly and listened to them again in the dim light from the computer screen. Then again. Nothing changed. I was sure I was wrong, but I had to know. My fingers began moving thoughtlessly, mechanically over the keys.

The assignment was only one day -- couriering a level ten classified report. That was enough to get me where I needed to be. I booked a late afternoon return to L1 so I wouldn't be rushed.

I waited outside until the men she was dealing with left, then slipped quietly through the door and into the office. I cleared my throat and she looked up, surprised.

After a moment she said, "Heero." Her voice wasn't welcoming, but it wasn't hostile like it had been before.

"Hilde. I... I need to ask you something." I didn't bother taking a seat. It wasn't going to make me any more comfortable or her any happier to see me.

She wasn't impressed with my uncertainty. "You could have called. I know you have the number."

"Aa."

"So it must be important." I saw her hand move toward the drawer with the bottle, then stop and move back to the desk. That was good. She had stopped using the bourbon to cope. "How can I help you?"

I watched her for a moment and realized I was afraid. "You said... You said he hadn't figured out a lot of things." I remembered her exact words. "What?"

She sighed. "Why don't you tell me what you think I meant."

There was a sharp edge beneath her voice. That was when I understood that this was as difficult for her as it was for me. Somehow, that made it easier to say. "Do you think he loves me, Hilde? Is that why you--"

I stopped, letting the silence fall between us. So quiet we could hear the children playing in the street outside.

"Damn," she whispered. "Why is this so hard?"

"I never meant--"

"I know, damn it. I know you never meant for anyone to know. I told you I saw how careful you were. He doesn't know, and he still loves you." She slammed her fist on the desk, but it was frustration, not anger. "He likes me. He could live with me and be okay. But he loves you, and I saw it every time he said your name. I wish you'd told him. I wish you'd seduced him. Then I could hate you and be done with it."

I nodded.

"Bastard," she muttered. "I wish you weren't so honorable."

I remembered Relena saying something similar, and I remembered feeling the same sense of regret then. Once again, I had destroyed the thing I had wanted to protect, and the people I cared about were paying for it. I wondered if this was how he felt about MaxwellChurch and the war and all the other unpleasantness that had been his supposed childhood. I wondered if this was why he had been so afraid to love anyone. And in the back of my mind, I wondered if I could ever tell him.

"He needs to find it out for himself," I said, reaching my conclusion aloud. The sound of my voice snapped me back to the office and Hilde. "Gomen nasai." I wasn't sure if I was apologizing for thinking aloud or coming between them or for dragging up the old life while she was still trying to find the life after. I wanted to tell her all the things I had wanted to tell her a month ago, but I knew she didn't want to hear them now any more than then. I laid my card on the desk, knowing that act would say all those things without pissing her off, then turned and left. She would be okay.

I had a flight to catch and a tired friend who needed someone to listen while he talked himself to sleep.

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Preventers' Basic is a seven day a week, fourteen hour a day thing. Cadets are due at the training facility at 06:00 every morning and never leave before 20:00 at night. They follow a rigorous exercise program, run an obstacle course at least twice a day, learn to survive raw space for ninety seconds, attend classes on everything from battle tactics to legal issues, weapons to disguise, urban assault to evading a tail. Week nine is the worst for most, though. It is the first week of night skills. The trainees leave at 20:00 on Saturday and aren't due to return until 16:00 Sunday. One day off.

That is what most of them think it is.

We hadn't seen each other except over the vid screen for nine weeks. I had spent a lot of time in Wing Junior or laying on the bed thinking about what Hilde had said and what I was or was not going to do about it. He called me at 07:00 that Sunday morning.

"Hey, I have a day off and tickets to the morning football game," he said as soon as I picked up. There was a reason he was in a hurry. The game started in ninety minutes and the first round of the L1 championship was always packed. "Won 'em in a poker game during lunch yesterday."

I hated to say what I had to say next. I would have liked to see him, and there was a lot of good strategy and tactics involved in moving the ball into the goal. It was like a small war in which no one died. I said it anyway.

"You need to sleep today."

"Huh? Heeerooo, I bet this girl a week of doing her laundry, and you'd know what a horrible concept that is if you knew her. She has some weird disorder that makes her sweat like a horse. She changes clothes three times a day. Probably more. I don't wanna waste these tickets after that kind of a risk."

"Tell me that at 22:00 tonight when your body is saying you should have gone to sleep an hour before and you have eight to go."

He stared at me, quiet for a minute. "Damn. I bet that's why she let me get off only betting a week. I was sure she was gonna make me go for a month." He sighed. "Oh well, you want 'em?"

I shook my head. "I don't have anyone to go with. I can watch it on the vid."

"Hm. Now how am I gonna get to sleep?" he muttered.

That was easy. "What are the legal rights guaranteed to a person suspected of treason against the peace?"

He grimaced. "Oh God, not legal--" Then grinned. "Yeah. That'll put me to sleep." His face disappeared from the screen as he lay back on his bed. "A person suspected of treason against peace has the right to a thorough gathering and review of evidence to demonstrate the truth or falsehood of the charges."

He was quoting. "Meaning?"

"Umm... You can't just go shoot 'em, you have to prove it. Hey, is that what we were doing with what's-her-name? The woman who had the party."

"Aa. What are the probable cause criteria that must be met before a treason investigation can begin?"

It took nearly two hours, but eventually I heard it, that slight blurring of his voice and, five minutes later, in the middle of explaining the function of the advocate's office in a case of suspected treason, the soft snore began. I hit the mute button so I wouldn't disturb him, then sat on the sofa listening to him for an hour before I realized I had missed most of the game.

But it was just a football game. At least I wasn't missing him as badly as I had been before he called. I kept the line open for three more hours as I cleaned up the living room and made a sandwich for lunch. By then I knew he had had enough sleep that he wouldn't be hating cadethood worse than usual tonight. I dropped the line.

Ten minutes passed, sitting there, staring at the screen as if I thought an assignment would appear at any second. Old habits die hard. I got up and dressed and took the 'rail to Wing Junior's hangar. I didn't go out, though. Just sat in the cockpit with my eyes closed, imagining it. I wondered if this was what withdrawal was like.

Even though I desperately wanted to be near him again, I knew I had done the right thing.

It struck me that the song hadn't intruded on my thoughts. And didn't, even when I thought about it.

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I did the right thing that day, but I did the wrong thing four days later.

Because I knew what a bitch the first week of night training was, I went to his apartment Wednesday after work. He wasn't there, of course.

I had planned to clean the place up, but was surprised to find it in decent shape. I swept the floors and did the laundry and cleaned the mirror in the bathroom, but there really wasn't much else to do. Hell, he even had his towels hanging up.

I made a simple beef stew for dinner, enough for me that night and for him the rest of the week, then I pulled out my palm comp, read a couple of reports I was supposed to review by Friday, made some notes on them and went to bed.

I woke up at 05:45. He should be home in about half an hour. I made the bed, took a quick shower, pulled on a pair of his denim shorts. They were snug in the waist. He may be four centimeters taller than me, but he weighs less, and would even if my muscles and bones weren't engineered to be denser than a normal person's.

I went to the kitchen and began warming the stew.

At 06:17, I heard the door open, a long pause, then I heard it close. "Ohayo," I called as I dished up a bowl of stew for him and quickly poured cereal for me. "Sit down. I have your dinner ready." I heard the sofa squeak softly, followed by one shoe, then the other hitting the floor and a sigh.

"So are you my houseboy or something?" he called.

"Iie," I said as I walked out of the kitchen carrying two trays. I set the one with stew, bread and butter and the small glass of red wine on his lap, then sat beside him with my cereal and orange juice. "I thought you might like a break."

"Thanks." He was looking at me a faint frown on his face as he ate the stew. As if he was trying to remember the name to go with a face.

"You look good," I said. "Basic seems to be agreeing with you."

"Yeah. I feel like a teenager again."

I shook my head. "You are only 24." He would turn 25 the week after Basic ended, but is six years really that long? I guess it was nearly a quarter of our lives, so maybe it was.

The frown suddenly deepened. He put his spoon down and reached across to me and grabbed my dog tags, fingering the violet ribbon. I felt icy fear sinking deep inside me, turning me into a glacier as the shockwave of recognition spread across on his face. "This is--" He let it go as if it had bitten him. "That's my ribbon. From--" He stared at me.

"Duo--"

"That's my ribbon."

"Duo, I--"

"What... Oh." His eyes, the same color as the ribbon, suddenly went wide. "Oh." Then started to turn dark. "Is this... Did you... Oh. Shit. Are you gay?"

I looked at him, knowing I couldn't lie, but knowing he wasn't ready for the truth. I wrapped myself deep in my loneliness and said, "I don't know."

"Do you..." He struggled for a moment then said, "Do you... like me?"

Well. There it was. I could answer the question he had asked or I could answer what he had meant to ask. I chose both. "No, Duo. I love you."

I will never forget us sitting on the couch that day, looking at each other. Him shocked, angry, scared, completely lost. Me dreading what I knew would come next, terrified, holding myself there by will alone -- my face calm, my voice quiet, both lies -- waiting for what he was going to say next as I felt myself getting colder and colder inside.

"Look, Heero, I don't have a problem if you're... Oh. God. We slept together."

"I never touched you Duo, and you know it. It was no different than any other friends sharing a bed."

He thought about that for a minute then said, "Yeah, but... Oh shit. You left Relena for me? Why didn't you tell me she ditched you because you're gay?"

"Aa. Iie. She didn't--." This was all wrong. I had been careless and now the little act of kindness I had planned had turned into a thing of horror for both of us. Damn! And he thought he screwed everything up.

I chose retreat again. Funny, isn't it? I never retreated on the battlefield, but when it came to him and me and how I felt about him, I was always retreating, always hiding, always on the run.

"I need to go to work." It was true. "I need to get dressed. Call me."

Before he had a chance to answer, I stood and hurried to the bedroom. Seven minutes later, I took a deep breath, opened the door and walked as quickly as I could to the front door and out it, not looking at him. Not wanting to see. Not hearing anything even if he did say something.

Behind me, on the bed lay the ribbon. It had taken three minutes to get it untied from the chain.

Only three minutes.

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He didn't call me that day. Or that night. Or the next morning. I kept hoping. I couldn't focus at work. I put classified materials that should have been shredded in the regular trash. I snapped at the friend who noticed and told me. I snapped at everyone who spoke to me. I couldn't eat. I felt sick most of the time. It took me hours to fall asleep at night, if I was lucky enough fall asleep, and when I did, I woke up with nightmares of him looking at me, horrified.

I had only thought I was going through withdrawal before. This was the real thing. A few days into it, Commander Okamoto summoned me to his office and said, "Tell me about it, Lieutenant Yuy."

"Sir?"

"You have been obviously distracted this week. That isn't like you."

"Sorry, sir. I will try--"

"You won't try anything. Take a week off and get whatever it is out of your system, then come back and be my best agent again."

"Yes, sir." I knew it wouldn't be that easy. I knew I would never get him out of my system, because he was part of my system. I was meant for him. I needed him. ... And I had scared him away.

Damn, I was such a fool.

"Take care, Lieutenant. And if you need anything or need to go somewhere or whatever, expense it."

"Thank you, sir."

I picked up a week's space rations from supplies on the way out and spent a week in Wing Junior. And, while I still felt like a raw wound at the end of the week -- and smelled like a rotting wound -- I had found the edges of the cloak again and drawn it around me. I felt more alone than ever.

Even more alone than my first day on Earth.

I went back to work. Commander Okamoto seemed satisfied with my performance, but I noticed he wouldn't assign me to anything vaguely dangerous -- just surveillance, basic security and the like. I was in Purgatory, trying to earn enough points to get out.

I counted off the remaining two weeks of Basic, waiting, hoping, and spending a lot of time in Wing Junior when I wasn't at work, wondering if Hilde had been wrong about how he felt.

He never called.

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I wasn't able to attend his commissioning.

I was on a security assignment, watching the Agriculture Minister as he toured a new hydroponics module on one of the L1 adjuncts. I hadn't done my research on the man or I would have known that he was consistently late. His shuttle was an hour late. He dawdled on board for another half-hour before coming down the ramp. Then he made us stop the car twice so he could shop for gifts for his wife and daughter. We arrived at the hydroponics facility ten minutes before noon, so we had to delay the tour for lunch. Then he spent hours asking questions -- most of them reasonably intelligent questions, but unnecessary. He had received a full briefing before leaving Earth.

Finally, at 16:00 the man was ready to return to his shuttle and proceed to L4. Tomorrow, the Winner zaibatsu was scheduled to present a new strain of rice that produced twice the grain in half the growing area -- and suggest a government-subsidized program to sell it at a fraction of a credit over cost. I pitied Quatre.

I had hoped we could get him back on-board the shuttle by 16:30, which might give me enough time to race to the commissioning ceremony, but he had to stop for dinner and more shopping. It was long over by the time we dumped him.

Rather than go home, I went to headquarters and the gun range where I emptied a dozen clips into the target which, in my mind, looked suspiciously like the Ag Minister.

I sent him a note that night congratulating him on completing Basic. Half the trainees dropped out, so I knew his classmates would be getting similar messages from people they knew. I kept it purely friends. Apologized for missing the ceremony. Explained an assignment had run late.

A week went by. Still nothing.

So I was surprised Monday morning when a body thumped down into the chair at the desk facing mine and I looked up to see him sitting there, eyes wary. "Duo?" He wasn't even trying to put on the fake grin.

He shrugged. "They assigned me to work with you, like you requested." A careful, noncommittal voice.

"That was before--"

"I know." He sighed.

"You can request a different assignment." He could have done it during Basic. "If Commander Okamoto won't approve it, I can talk to him. Tell him we tried to work together before but were always at each other's throats."

He looked at me for five seconds, face blank, then shook his head. "I don't want you to lie. Besides, don't you think he'd be suspicious since you requested me in the first place?"

"We did come close to killing each other more than once."

That almost got a smile, but he caught it and turned it back into a serious face and said, "Look, I'm... I'm not sure I'm really comfortable with this, but... well... you've never tried anything. But if you do..." His eyes were tainted with that dangerous darkness.

I nodded. "Ryoukai."

He took a deep breath, let it out. "Okay, so what's our assignment?"

And that was how it went between us. Business. We worked together -- worked well together like we always had. He seemed to truly enjoy the work. He did it well. I was always careful to avoid assignments that involved travel. Almost six months passed before he noticed that.

"If we travel we have to share a room," I explained.

"Oh ... Well... Can't we get two beds? I mean, I'd kinda hoped to, y'know, see the Colonies and Earth a bit, like they tell you in Basic."

I shrugged. "Aa." If he could deal with sharing a hotel room, I could. I hoped.

Three weeks later we went to L3. It was officially a run to ferry some documents each way, but the L3 office also wanted me to give a presentation on computer security to a group of new agents. I convinced Duo to demonstrate "Street Sleight of Hand" -- not the usual fare for Preventers, but that was why I thought it would be good. At first, none of the rookies seemed interested, but then Duo started producing, seemingly from nowhere, their wallets, badges, guns, even one man's class ring -- things he had lifted as he greeted them at the door. He had their attention after that.

We spent three days there.

On the flight back I asked, "Did I do anything that made you uncomfortable?"

He looked at me as if I was crazy, but then, I knew I was. "I'm still not comfortable with the whole idea of how you think you feel about me, but you didn't do anything that made me more uncomfortable than I already am."

I wanted to shout at him that I didn't think, I knew, damn it. I wanted to make him understand how hard it had been not just to recognize how I felt, but to accept it and live my life in the face of it. That the simple truths are the hardest. Instead, I said, "Aa." What he had said was the best I could hope for under the circumstances. "Still want to travel?"

"Hell yes." He smiled faintly, and I could see the truth behind it. "Think we can go to Earth next time?"

"This isn't a vacation, Duo."

He nodded. "I know, but there's nothing that says we can't choose missions that happen to take us to places we want to go anyway, ne?"

"Aa." My destination of choice had usually been L2.

From then on, I talked to him about assignments and we chose them together. At first he wanted to accept a whole series of assignments that amounted to a tour of Earth. I suggested we could legitimately take maybe one or two travel assignments a month.

I didn't explain that our trip together had felt like an extended date to me. I knew he couldn't handle that.

Hell, I couldn't really handle it. I had been so sorely tempted to say something or to touch his hand or his face or ask him to hold me so many times those three days... I had seen the boundaries of my self-control and knew not to walk too close to the edge. That is how you keep your self-control.

So we went somewhere roughly every month. Sometimes nothing assignments like our trip to L3. Sometimes boring assignments like the CTB security check. Sometimes important assignments like the surveillance we had done. Sometimes dangerous assignments.

Always work.

It wasn't like it had been before he found out. I didn't dare suggest we share a bed on an assignment because I knew he would suspect I was trying something -- in the back of his mind, even if he didn't admit it, even if he knew better. We never went out drinking and remembering any more. If we had, I knew I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much or found it as cathartic because I would have been too afraid of losing control and would have held things back from fear or sobriety. Even the work was different. We were friends, but on a professional basis. The times I saw him when we weren't working were pure coincidence. I never let him know I had seen him, and I moved away quickly, hoping he wouldn't see me and think I had been following him.

But every night as I sat watching the blank vid, wondering if he would call... That day, when he had found out, I had told him to call me when he was ready to talk about it, but he never had. Every night as I sat there, I knew what that wanting was telling me. I was meant for him, and even facing the wall that had grown between us, I loved him and wanted him and even if it wasn't everything I wanted, I got to see him every day and spent less time in Wing Junior.

Maybe because seeing him every day made me less likely to imagine. Maybe because the distance in our relationship made me want him less.

No. Neither of those was the reason. It was because I kept us under a heavy workload and didn't have as much time for that escape.

Only on the weekends.

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We were on a dangerous assignment nineteen months later.

I had infiltrated a group of smugglers based on L1 and found they were moving Gundanium to L4.

Gundanium has uses besides mobile suit armor. I have a set of Gundanium chef's knives in the kitchen. But no one smuggles Gundanium to make knives.

We discussed approaches -- by then I had become comfortable asking him for ideas. In the end, I played my cover and planted a tracer isotope in a shipment. Then we went to L4 to pick up the trail.

We followed the trail through four handoffs before we lost the original shipment. This group was ex-Sweepers, so he infiltrated them and planted another tracer. I wanted to do it myself, but he knew how to act like an ex-Sweeper far better than I did. I waited nervously for every check-in, stayed close in case he needed bailing out, and was relieved six weeks later when he finally left them.

The ex-Sweepers passed the shipment to an unmarked shuttle. We followed it to Earth, Africa, Western, and finally to an abandoned furniture factory in the heart of Dakar. We knew neither of us had a chance of blending in, so we spent a week observing security, noting license plates on the trucks going in and out and determining that there were only four. They had spread a cover story that they were disassembling the factory, and they actually were, but that didn't explain why our traced load of Gundanium had gone into the compound.

The weakness we chose to exploit was a stop sign two blocks from the factory. We waited until one of the trucks stopped on its way into the factory, and then dove under it, grabbing onto the undercarriage. It was an old trick I had used before. We hung there until we were inside the factory compound, dropping off near the door of an abandoned lumber room, then ducked inside and waited for nightfall, pulling our night gear from our packs and changing into it while we waited, reviewing the plan.

When it was dark outside, we slipped out into the shadows and made our way to the building where the trucks made their deliveries, carefully avoiding the cameras we had spotted. There were no guards outside -- they might have drawn attention -- but we didn't know what or who or how many of either was inside. We had determined that it wasn't an open space. There were abandoned offices and conference rooms behind each of the four stories of windows. We climbed a service ladder to the roof and went in through the air ducts. Standard procedure.

At each junction, I stopped and thought, and chose a direction based on where we had started and where I thought we were going. It wasn't quite guessing. I have a head for location and could have pinpointed us within two meters in the space of the building. He used a paint marker to draw an arrow pointing the direction I had chosen and two pointing back the direction we had come.

Two hours of crawling later, we came to a vent overlooking a brightly lit room. By my estimate, we were on the first floor, about fifteen meters inside the northwest corner. I motioned him forward, then crawled up to the next air vent so we could both watch the people drawing on CAD systems, others soldering together circuit boards and others assembling those boards into an electronics package of some kind. The finished packages were carried through a door beneath us into another room we couldn't see.

He was frowning through his vent. I waited until he looked at me then I hand signed that we should move on. The next room was empty. I backed into a tee in the pipe so we could talk.

"The guys at the computers are designing targeting systems for beam weapons," he said.

"Aa. You see the cameras?"

"Yeah. We have to stay in the ducts. Let's find a way to the other room."

I crawled out of the tee, backed up, then followed it. Ten meters later the airshaft turned down. I peered down it. A good thirty meters before it became too dark to see. We had a set of drop-ropes left but it would only give us twenty meters -- we had used four others and left them in place so we could climb back up them when we returned to the roof. But there, about fifteen meters down was light reflecting against the metal. The building had a basement and it was in use.

I reached behind me and motioned to him for the rope, hooked it into my climbing harness, then handed him the end. I waited until I felt a tap on my heel. He was ready. There was no room to turn around and go feet first, so I climbed headfirst down the shaft, one leg wrapped in the rope to keep me vertical while my hands kept me from bouncing off the sides as he slowly played out the rope.

The light I had seen from above was from a vent teed half a meter off the main shaft. It wasn't much space, but it was enough for me to turn around. Climbing back up wouldn't be as hard as it could have been. I leaned into the space on my elbows.

What I saw through the vent was terrifying.

They were building robots, maybe four meters tall. Not truly mobile suits, but dangerous nonetheless. There were hundreds of them. I pulled a small, digital camera out of my belt pack and snapped off a dozen pictures, several close-ups of the machines plus wide views to give an idea of the scope of the project. Then I stowed the camera, pushed out of the space and began pulling myself back up the rope.

He frowned when he saw me. I guess my face must have hinted at what I had seen. I leaned forward and whispered in his ear, describing it. When I finished, he began crawling backwards along the airshaft. At the tee, I took point and we headed back to the roof, pausing long enough to photograph the electronics room in case anyone doubted the robots' military intent.

We reached the roof about ten minutes before dawn. We had taken longer than we had planned. We hurried.

That was when things began to go bad.

On the last rung of the ladder, my right foot slipped and twisted behind it. I fell, my foot caught between the rung and the wall. I tried to spin so I could catch myself on my hands, but I couldn't get enough leverage. I could hear the bone snap. He looked down and saw my leg bent seven centimeters above the ankle and winced, looked away quickly, shuddering.

He didn't say anything, letting me save my focus for blocking the pain, simply climbed down, then jumped the last half-meter, slid my arm over his shoulders and helped me out of the ladder and back to our hiding place. We ran out of dark long before we got there, but the door was on the west side of the building, so it was heavily shadowed in the sunrise. Inside with me laid out, head on our packs, he said, "Do you need help setting that?"

I knew he hoped I would say I didn't, but I couldn't reach my ankle and apply the counter-traction necessary. "Aa." And now came the part he really wasn't going to like. "I can hold my leg still but you have to set it."

He looked slightly ill for a moment, then swallowed hard, nodded. "Tell me what to do."

"Elevate the leg." He raised my leg so I could wrap my arms around my thigh. "Feel the break and determine the relative positions of the bones." I saw his jaw tense as he touched gingerly, then, when I didn't scream, with enough pressure that he could find the break.

"Okay. They aren't... apart. They're just not lined up right."

"Aa." That was good. When I had freed my leg, I had been careful to reverse the motion that had broken it for exactly that reason. It would make his job easier. "Grasp the leg firmly above the ankle. Now, pull." I pulled hard against my thigh, then said through gritted teeth. "Now, slowly release as you guide it back."

I waited until I had the pain firmly under control before I
said, "Now, check it again."

"Uh. It's a lot closer."

"Okay. Do it again. Hold it just below the break. Don't pull as hard. Put your fingers on the break and use them to get it right." I pulled on my thigh again.

Fifteen minutes later I opened my eyes. I hadn't passed out, but I had dropped out of what most people recognize as full consciousness as I fought the roaring waves of red that rolled up from my leg. "Okay. Check it."

"Already did. You're splinted too."

I looked up and him and tried to give him a weak smile. It may have come out as a grimace. "Efficient." He would understand that for the compliment it was. "Thanks." Then I let myself drop back into blackness for a while.

I woke up at 14:25 and considered our situation. Our original plan had been to wait for night, then walk through the front gate. There were cameras on it, but it wasn't lit at night -- this was supposed to be a secret operation. With a little care, we could time the blind spots and slip out unseen. Worst case, we would have to make a run for it near the gate.

That was out of the question now. As the sky began to grow dark, I informed him of my new plan. "Take the camera and get out. I will be here when you get back." It was a simple plan.

"Yeah, right. And what are you gonna eat for a week while I round up an assault force? This is gonna take more than the local cops, y'know. And what if someone finds you?"

I hadn't said what state I might be in when he got back. I had considered it, though, and if saving the peace meant I had to die, well, I had tried that several times during both wars. Why should I believe I would succeed this time? I didn't bother explaining that to him. "Duo, we have to stop these people, whoever they are. What will happen when those robots walk out of here and start shooting? Remember the Mobile Dolls?"

He looked at me, shivered. "Yeah. But I don't want to be the one that tells Commander Okamoto that his prize agent is dead because I abandoned him." He looked at the door as he said it. "My plan is, we walk out the front gate together, just like we planned."

"And if we have to run for it?"

"We'll be careful."

I could hear the anger rising in his voice, but we didn't have time for that. "Duo--"

"Shut your fucking mouth!" he snapped. "If you think I'm gonna abandon your cold bastard ass and let you die on me just when I--" He stopped, face distressed. It took him less than three seconds to regain his outward composure -- all those years of hiding behind the smile.

He didn't smile this time, though. Just looked at me, calm, serious. "We're going out the front gate together or we're staying here together or you're gonna come up with a better way to get us both out. Your call."

For all the quiet tone, there was a ferocity in the way he said it. I had heard the "shut up, just accept it" voice before, but that was someone's slightly miffed pet cat. This voice was a furious tiger. I knew I wasn't going to win the argument unless I knocked him out, but then he wouldn't be able to escape.

An hour later, I hadn't been able to come up with another plan, so I closed my eyes and nodded. "Gate." We had to get the information out so the Preventers could shut these people down. I helped him resplint my leg with shorter boards so I could hobble. It wasn't the best splinting job I had ever done, but it would have to do.

It took us two hours to get near the gate. Our original plan had called for fifteen minutes, but I slowed us down and threw off our timing on the camera coverage so we had to plot a different path through the islands of shadow. As we lay in the shadows fifteen meters from freedom, watching, we saw guards.

"Where did they come from?" I whispered.

"Dunno. Doesn't matter, does it?"

"Take the camera and go, Duo."

"If you say that again I'm gonna stand up and start shouting." We watched for a few minutes more. "There." He pointed to a small shadow about five meters southwest of the gate. "We'll get you there, then I'll work over to the other side of the gate and create a diversion. You go through while they're busy."

"Duo--"

He stood up and took a breath. I yanked on his leg and motioned him down to the ground.

"Ryoukai." I said. "But if you do something stupid, I will find you and make your afterlife miserable, Shinigami."

He grinned the wild grin I had seen sometimes when he was scared to death but didn't want to admit it because if he did, he wouldn't be able to do what he had to do. "Deal. Now, let's get you in position."

The best laid plans...

As we dropped into the hiding place, his foot kicked a scrap of metal that skittered into another, clanging loudly. The guards began to walk toward us, guns at the ready. "On my signal," he whispered.

They were almost on top of us when he tapped my shoulder. We surged up from the ground, knocking them down. My leg screamed from the strain. I could feel the bone grate slightly, slipping, but I put it aside and tried to run. He paused to kick them, then caught up with me four steps later, threw a shoulder under my arm and helped me along. The guards started shooting behind us. "Run," I shouted.

"I am," he shouted back.

Before I could explain that I meant he should leave me and save himself, my left shoulder exploded with pain, as did my left thigh.

Then I felt the bone in my right leg slip again...

--------------------

I woke up in a hospital.

I knew it was a hospital even with my eyes closed. They sound and smell the same no matter where they are. I could feel an IV needle in my arm. There was that a slowness to my thoughts, as if they had to cross twice the distance between each neuron as they formed. That told me I had been sedated. My broken leg was tightly wrapped. Bandages on my thigh and shoulder... and my right biceps? A strange sound that didn't belong in a hospital.

I opened my eyes, stared at the ceiling for a moment, but it didn't tell me anything new, then I looked at my right arm. Definitely a bandage. Looked to the left and up, searching for the IV label. It was turned away from me, so I couldn't read it, but it was definitely the remains of a liter of saline plus something. There were two smaller, dark red bags beside it, empty. Blood. That made sense. I must have been shot.

Yesterday. It was 23:00 the day after... I sat up, which wasn't hard because the head of the bed was already at thirty degrees. He was asleep in a chair at the foot of the bed, snoring softly. That was the sound I hadn't been able to place. He looked very pale and definitely worse for wear. Not surprising, I guess.

I leaned forward to grab the chart at the end of the bed, and winced. My left arm was bound against my body, immobilizing the shoulder, but the muscles pulling against it hurt like Hell. When my vision cleared, he was awake looking at me. "Back among the living?"

I nodded. Something like that.

He handed me the chart. "The right arm was a deep graze. A few centimeters to the right and it'd've been my head. The left thigh was through and through, but the shoulder hit bone. The doc says about two months on the broken leg, but knowing you, I'm betting a week or two. I wouldn't let him put it in a hard cast."

"IV?" My voice sounded horrible. My throat suddenly decided to tell me it was hurting like Hell too.

"You've had two units of blood, two liters of saline with some kind of sedative. They wanted you to sleep for at least 24 hours after the surgery. Some of the rounds were popping off some kind of tear gas or something. You got a face full of that, but the doctor doesn't think there's any permanent lung damage."

"Mission?"

"Kanryou. I sent the pictures and a report to Johannesburg and copied Commander Okamoto. J'burg has the factory under surveillance and plans to take it out in a couple of days. The trucks are still going in, so they must think we were just locals."

"How here?" Speaking hurt so bad I was trying to be even more economical with my words than normal.

He frowned. Looked up at the IV bag over my left shoulder, mumbled, "I told you I didn't want to tell Commander Okamoto how I got out and you didn't." He had dragged or carried me after I passed out, risking his own fool neck to save mine. Baka. There was silence for a moment, then the air conditioner kicked in with a soft rumble. "Commander Okamoto wanted to know when you woke up. I'm gonna go call him, then get some real sleep. See you tomorrow?"

I nodded, watched him walk out, stiff, slow, unsteady. Probably from sitting in the chair so long. Maybe tomorrow my throat wouldn't feel like someone had sandpapered it. I lay back and closed my eyes, thinking about--

I woke up again, when the doctor came in the next morning.

"Good morning, Mr. Hiroyuki," he said. He had a French accent that wasn't quite French. "I am Dr. Mbaye. How are you feeling?"

Hiroyuki, I thought. He had given them false names. Probably not necessary, but smart. "Like I was shot three times." Then. "My throat feels better."

He smiled at me. "You have a sense of humor about it, unlike your friend. That is good. Now, I need to check your injuries." I lay there as he unwrapped my arm and thigh, then swabbed the areas down with alcohol. He wrapped my leg again, but the arm apparently satisfied him. "You are healing quite rapidly, Mr. Hiroyuki. I am impressed." He removed the IV needle and applied a small band-aid to the spot. "Please turn on your right side so I can examine your shoulder." He helped me flip myself in the bed. "Please do not move your shoulder. It is a miracle that it wasn't shattered by the bullet." He began removing the bandages, but not the wrapping that held my arm against my chest. "Do you have any questions about your injuries or treatment?"

"No."

"Well, I have one." He gently pressed against my shoulder, feeling the scapula. "How did you get shot?"

"Hunting accident."

"Ah. That is what your friend Mr. Marswell said, but what were you hunting that carries a 9.76 millimeter assault rifle?" He began bandaging my shoulder again.

I didn't answer, just noted that the name Marswell was a good substitute for Maxwell.

"Ah. That was his response too," he said. "Well, I must tell you that you are lucky Mr. Marswell was with you."

He finished wrapping my shoulder and I turned onto my back. "Aa. He got me here."

"No, Mr. Hiroyuki. That is not what I meant. Your blood type--"

"Is O-negative."

"Yes. So is your friend's. You are the best donors because anyone can accept O-negative blood, but you are the worst recipients because you can accept only O-negative. The afternoon before you came in there was a school bus accident at a train crossing. We used our entire supply of O-negative. The bullet in your leg grazed an artery, which ruptured after you arrived. We were able to auto-infuse you with two units of your own blood, but we needed more blood for surgery. Your friend donated two units for you."

I kept my face blank. No wonder he had looked so pale and tired. One unit was bad enough. "You shouldn't have let him do it."

Dr. Mbaye shrugged. "I did not want to but I had no choice."

"I would have died?"

"Probably. But I was far more concerned about the gun he was pointing at me when he insisted I take the second unit."

I frowned. I suspected I knew how he had convinced Dr. Mbaye to put a soft cast on my leg too.

He smiled again, genuine but serious at the same time. "Do not worry, Mr. Hiroyuki. I have no intention of calling the police about two Preventers agents." He tapped the dog tags under my gown. "I have worked for them sometimes. The lack of names on your dog tags is a dead giveaway." He scribbled on my chart for a moment. "Given how fast you're healing, I think you should try to get out of bed after lunch. Try to walk the length the hallway if you can, otherwise, sit in the chair. You can call the nurse if you need help with either."

I nodded.

Lunch came at 12:05. He came ten seconds later. I waited for the food service man to leave, then said--

"Here," he said, reaching into his jacket. "Real food." He put a bag on the table beside the hospital tray. "Would you believe they have a Japanese restaurant just a couple of blocks away?"

"No." I had scouted the city. There were no Japanese restaurants.

"Oh. Well, I made fried rice and pepper steak and some vegetables, but I couldn't find any noodles. You need to get your strength up after all that blood you lost."

Which got us back to what I had wanted to start with. "You do too. The doctor told me about your stunt with the gun."

"Oh."

"Arigatou."

He smiled.

I glared at him. "If you ever do anything like that again, I will kill you."

He looked at me, thoughtful, then said softly, "No. I don't think you will."

He was right, damn it, and he knew it. I gave up trying to glare and turned my attention to the bag of food he had brought. I opened it and shared it out between us and, as I did, I began to think. He was acting oddly.

No. He was acting normal, and that was odd. He hadn't acted this way since the day he had seen the ribbon on my tag chain. I watched him while we ate, careful not to let him catch me watching. I was enjoying the sense of normalcy between us and didn't want to spoil it. So we ate, and I watched cautiously, and when we were done, I threw my legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand up.

"Hey," he said, rushing to catch me and help me sit safely -- and almost falling over himself. "Fucking idiot," he snapped. "You trying to kill yourself by breaking your neck after I busted my ass to save you?"

"The doctor said I should walk." But between the soreness from the break on one side and the bullet wound on the other and my left arm out of commission for balancing, I wasn't as steady as I had hoped I would be. "I will call the nurse."

"Let me," he said, calmer. He sat beside me and put my right arm over his shoulders.

He tried to stand, but I just sat there, holding him down. "You can barely walk yourself."

"So? We can hold each other up."

"This doesn't make you uncomfortable?"

His eyes snapped up and I found myself looking straight into soft, beautiful violet. "Are you trying to make a move on me?"

I wasn't but that didn't mean I wouldn't like to -- maybe. Hell. I knew I wanted to. By then I had dreamed about him often enough to know. But not right then. I was sure of that. My body hurt too bad. I didn't need my heart hurting too. "No."

"No it doesn't." He shrugged. "I've had a lot of time to think the past couple of days and I realize I've been an ass. If you're okay with it, there's no reason we can't... Heero, I'd like us to be friends again."

I looked down at my legs, sticking out below the hospital gown, and nodded. I tried to find words that would let him know how much I appreciated his friendship, how glad I was that we could move back to something more like what we had been before. That he trusted me.

I decided there are times when words are meaningless patterns of vibration in the air.

"On three?" He would understand.

He nodded. "One... Two... Three." And we stood together, neither of us particularly stable, and made our way out into the hall.

--------------------

Three more days passed before Dr. Mbaye would let me go. We caught an afternoon flight to Cairo, stayed in a hotel that night, then took the morning shuttle to L1. He took me home, helped me unpack, fixed a quick pasta dinner, then went home, taking my laundry with him. "I'll bring it back in a couple of days," he said. I wanted to tell him I could do it myself, but every time I had tried to get him to let me do something he had given me that "Shinigami waiting in the wings" look and told me to shut up with varying degrees of rudeness.

He brought my laundry back two days later as promised, washed, dried and neatly folded or on hangers as appropriate. My leg, thigh and right arm were only giving tiny twinges by then, so I grabbed the hanging clothes from him when I opened the door. I ignored his protests as I carried them back to my bedroom.

"You are one of the most stubborn, pig-headed, annoying people I know," he shouted as I hung the clothes in the closet.

I said, quietly, "You being the most stubborn, pig-headed, annoying person you know?"

For once, I rendered him speechless. As he spluttered, I took the folded clothes from him and began putting them away.

"Baka." He finally said.

"Aa." I was. So was he. "Takes one to know one."

He blinked, chuckled. "Damn. I'd forgotten you have a sense of humor."

I looked at him. The silence grew uncomfortable. We both knew he had been the one who had put the distance between us. I would never say it. He would never forget it. "Thanks for doing the laundry."

He shrugged. "You'd've done the same for me if I'd been the one shot."

"Aa."

Silence.

"Uh, well, I need to get to work." He started back down the hall. "You think I could get a couple of days off if I got shot?" He grinned.

"Maybe, but don't try it. I'll be back next week."

"Commander Okamoto says the week after." He stopped at the front door. "He asked me to take an assignment alone. I'm gonna be busting my ass for the next week, but call me if you need anything. I'll do whatever I can as soon as I can. ... Partner."

It was the first time he had used that word to refer to me since... Since he'd asked me to help him get into the Preventers. Nearly two years.

I nodded and he left. When the door closed, I went back to the bedroom and lay down on my bed and tried to find the quiet darkness. It wouldn't come. After an hour, I gave up. I dressed and limped to the 'rail station and took the 'rail to the hangar bay. I was well enough to maneuver Wing Junior, and the zero-G would be good for my injuries.

That is what I told myself.

--------------------

I spent two days in Wing Junior, hanging in the darkness of L1's shadow, letting the cold burn into me. At long last, it came and I felt all the wanting, all the hunger for his presence begin to subside as I dropped into the pit of loneliness that I had rediscovered. I felt the familiar blankness reclaiming my face as my teeth chattered.

It was a wonderful, horrible feeling.

I floated there for another hour, eyes closed, letting it all vanish below the threshold of consciousness. And just as everything reached that precarious point of stability, I heard a banging sound.

After a moment, I realized someone was beating on the hatch with a wrench. I checked the exterior views, but all they showed me was a space suit at the hatch and, fifteen meters away, a joy-ride shuttle that anyone could rent from half a dozen places in the hangar bay. "Who is it?" I snapped over the standard comm channel. Some idiot tourist who didn't know enough to tune the comm, thinking he was going to play salvage master.

I tried a dozen other channels, but the banging continued. I considered jetting away, but that might break his safety tether and leave him stranded and I wasn't going to do that -- besides the fact that it was illegal. I sighed, sealed my suit, and opened the hatch, then unhooked my harness and climbed out, because there was no way two people could squeeze into Wing Junior's cockpit.

Space suit masks are opaque from the outside, so I still didn't know who I was facing. "Who are you? What do you want?" I switched through four more channels. Still no response. He launched himself across the fifteen meters separating Wing Junior and the shuttle, beckoning me to follow. That was when I noticed he wasn't wearing a tether, which meant he was either out of his mind or very good or both. Since he floated dead center into the shuttle's one-man air lock, I decided he was at least very good.

And why the Hell did this asshole want me in his shuttle instead of simply talking over the comm? If he thought he was going to mug me he was in for a surprise. Though I was injured, I was far from helpless.

The lock closed. I waited. Three minutes later, it opened again. Empty except for a stowed space suit. I looked across the short distance. I could climb back into Wing Junior and leave, but I had a feeling it wouldn't do any good. I pushed off and floated. In the lock, I keyed the cycle, staring at the space suit hanging next to me as if it might tell me something about the pilot.

Who would bother to come after me in a joy-ride shuttle? Joy-ride shuttles are called that because they are short- range, designed for no more than four people and are primarily used for sightseeing, certification flights and people visiting the Colonies who have heard legends about the wonders of zero-G sex. Quick joy-rides. No serious travel.

The light went green. I removed my helmet, then opened the inner door and stepped into the tiny cabin space behind the pilots' seats, the magnetic boots keeping my feet on the floor.

"This had better be good," I said, letting the anger I felt be heard in my voice.

The pilot swiveled his chair to face me.

It was him.

Damn!

"I thought you had an assignment. You could get yourself fired for this." He was the last person I wanted to see at that moment. The balance I had struggled so long and hard to find shattered, letting the wave of wanting come rushing back in on me.

"I'm on my assignment. Commander Okamoto told me to make sure you didn't injure yourself trying to go it alone while you're recovering -- not that I wouldn't have done that anyway. I don't think he had suicide in mind, but--"

"Nani?" I stared, feeling my eyebrows rise with surprise, then, "I was just floating. I do that a lot." It sounded defensive to me, but it was true.

"Yeah. So I've noticed." He stood and floated over to me, the braid trailing behind him twitched with every motion of his head as if it were alive. "But I call it trying to catch pneumonia." He laid the back of a hand on my cheek. "You're freezing. You're actually blue, y'know."

I pulled away and the hand fell to his waist. "Why did you come here, Duo?" He could have called. He knew that. And I knew he knew it.

"I, uh, needed to give you something." He raised the hand he had put against my cheek, turning it over and lifting the thumb as he did, then stopped it letting inertia carry a violet ribbon slowly into the space between us. "You forgot this."

No. I had left it. He knew that. I was sure he knew why I had left it too. It was part of him, and I wouldn't hold it against his will. I watched it rising between us, suddenly feeling the chill in my body, shivering. But I didn't reach for it.

"And I needed to tell you... I've been thinking. Since I... Since we... Since you left this." He took the ribbon, then caught my tag chain. I watched him tie the ribbon onto the chain, then push it back toward me. I couldn't move. I couldn't think. Looking back now, I can see the nervousness in his face and the way he was standing, hear it in his voice. He was never nervous. Or, I should say, he never let it show. He always covered it with the grin. He wasn't grinning. But all I could do was stare at him and let his words wash over me and through me like the wanting had moments before.

"Hilde said my heart wasn't in it. I wondered what she meant for a long time. And... You said you don't know if you're gay. I don't either. ... About me, I mean. ... I mean, that day you told me to sleep instead of going to the game with you I felt bad. And then when I woke up and realized you'd helped me fall asleep I felt good. And when I came home that day and you were in my apartment I felt really good because I was going to get to see you again in a few seconds. But then I... And in Dakar, I was scared because I thought you were going to die... And that's when I really... And working with you the past couple of years. And the last two days out here watching you freeze your ass off..." He stopped, looked at me. "Damn it, you aren't making this any easier. Do you have any idea how hard this is?" He shook his head, sighed. "Sorry. I guess you do. Look... Heero... I know the times I'm with you are more... fun, I guess, than anything, even if we are just working. I really like it when we're together and I've been staring at it for a long time trying to figure out what it means and I... Oh, fuck the speech." He grabbed me and pulled me against him, leaning his cheek against mine and said softly, "I think I love you."

I had thought I was in shock before. He proved me wrong. After a moment, feeling his warm skin against my face, I moved my arms slowly around him. Gently. Afraid he might try to pull away. I didn't know why except that I thought this might be my only chance and he seemed willing. And I loved him.

And I remembered the first time he had hugged me and how it had felt.

"Hmm," he sighed. "This is nice."

I didn't say anything, just drew him closer bit by bit, ready for him to break away. He pulled his face away from mine. I loosened my grip, then pulled tight again when I realized he was still holding me against him. Sometimes, the truths that are the hardest to accept are the simplest. I was beginning to accept this one.

"Y'know, we could... uh... find out if we're... y'know."

I shook my head. "Let's go home." I was sure I was, more or less. I still wasn't so sure about him, but I was sure he loved me, otherwise he wouldn't have done so many stupid things for me. It was the simple truth and the hard truth and the truth we had both been looking at for a long time from different directions but had never truly seen before.

It was all I needed.

"No need to rush." I didn't want to rush things and ruin them. I had done that too many times in the past. So had he. Doing stupid things for someone because you love them is one thing, but being stupid and rushing when you have so much to lose, that is another.

"Yeah." He leaned against me again. "Why don't we go get a little drunk and talk like we used to?"

I nodded, then understood what he had said and smiled faintly. "Why don't we?" Maybe, given a little time, I would find more than just what I needed. Maybe I would find some of the things I wanted.

"Besides, I bet holding you feels better without the space suit." He grinned and pushed gently away to the pilot's chair. Then he added, "Uh, I didn't mean... Well, I did mean that. But I'm not planning on inviting you in tonight... y'know. You're right about taking our time to figure all this out. And I may flirt a lot, but I don't just hop into bed with someone on the first date... Not that I thought that's what you were thinking... Or that this is a date... Damn. It is a date, isn't it?"

Dates are mostly perception, in my opinion, so if he thought it was, it was for him. I knew it would be for me. I had given in to the perception a year and a half ago when we were on an assignment in Japan and on every trip since then, but I had never told him.

I nodded and decided to make this first time easy on him. "A few beers, a few hours remembering and a goodnight hug at my door." No need to rush. I disengaged the magnets in my boots and floated toward the front of the shuttle. "Do you still like that microbrew? Kirohana wasn't it? We can go to the brewery."

"Yeah. Sounds good." Then as I sat in the seat next to him and strapped myself in for the ride home, "Uh, what about your mobile suit?"

I looked through the window at Wing Junior. I heard him breathing next to me. Looking at me. I felt calm, quiet and warm, even though I was still shivering slightly from the cold. I waited for a moment to be sure, then I smiled. It really was a sense of peace. This time, I wasn't going to let it go so easily.

I turned to him and said, certain, "I don't need it anymore."

He watched me for a few seconds. At first, I saw that faint narrowing of his eyes that told me he was estimating salvage value, then his face softened. He understood. He turned the shuttle back toward L1.

As we came out of L1's shadow, a brightening arc spread along the limb of Earth. An instant later, the sun burst over the edge, spilling light into space in a classic diamond ring. My sense of time told me it was dawn over the Pacific.

"Wow. I never get tired of sunrises in space," he said.

"Yes." I nodded and smiled and made a mental note to write Quatre and tell him he was right about sunrises -- and that they were worth seeing not in spite of the crossing, but because of it.

----------------------

D: <blink> ... <blink> But... But... What happens next?
H: <shaking head>
LW: What happens next isn't the point.
D: <fume> Well it bloody well would be if *I* was writing the story.
LW: <looks at Heero> How can you put up with him? He has such a one- track mind.
D: Hey, I--
H: <shrug> I was trained to endure severe torture.
D: <splutter> Naaniii??? But I though you--
H: <smirk>
D: <frown> Uh huh.
H: <big smirk>
D: So now you want to make it up to me?
LW: <rolls eyes>
H: <very big smirk>
D: Hmmmmm... I'll have to think about that.
H: <wanders down the hall>
D: Okay. Enough thinking. <scampers after him>
LW: <shakes head>

And now, without further ado, BGM.

"What's Simple is True"
(From Jewel's album "Spirit")

Turn to me with frozen lips
Your hands are icy cold
Your eyes burn bright against the frost-bit sky
You never seemed more lovely than you do tonight
Pale on the horizon
Like leaves frozen in the snow
Our two shadows merge inseparably
Will time stand still if it's pierced with cold

The more I live, the more I know
What's simple is true, I love you

There's a warmth in my heart
It haunts me when you're gone
Mend me to your side and never let go
Say "Time knows nothing, we'll never grow cold"

The more I live, the more I know
What's simple is true, I love you

Twilight descends on our silhouette
How soon spring comes how soon spring forgets
I wanna hold time, say it'll never begin
Old man winter be our friend

The more I live, the more I know
What's simple is true, I love you

 

Oh yes, you knew it had to be something like that, didn't you? <g>