Dark Matter
By LoneWolf
(kodoku na okami)
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COMMENTS: I believe linainverse posted the idea for this fic. That was the outline of the beginning. I saw the outline of the ending before I finished reading her post. The rest, though... that was hard.

BGM: "Angel Standing By" by Jewel.

WARNINGS: yaoiness, violence, rape, murder, guilt, angst (obviously, huh?), revision of Duo's past

SPECIAL WARNING: This story includes characters who are violent, sadistic and sociopathic in varying degrees and combinations. It contains descriptions of rape, torture, murder and other unpleasantness. If you think you may not be able to handle this, please take the safer course and don't read this fic.

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"I've found him. He's alive."

Quatre's soft voice whispered through my ear piece and told me almost everything I wanted to know. "Where?"

"There's a door in the basement. The entrance is in the kitchen."

I had memorized the house's floor plan and was on my way before he finished. It was everything I could do to wait fifteen seconds for Trowa and Wufei to arrive from their parts of the house. Damn! I should've done the mission alone. I should've known the shit would make me with the others around.

Quiet, painfully slow, we crept down the stairs to the basement. It was small and a Hell of a lot neater than most. Shelves of books and tools and several old chests-of-drawers lined the walls. A small home gym sat in the middle of the floor. Under other circumstances I would've found the lack of clutter interesting and begun to investigate the contents of the various drawers and shelves. But this time, there was only one thing on my mind.

Quatre motioned us over and pointed to what looked like a closet door behind a curtain. Peering through the keyhole, I could see it was a damn sight more than a door into a closet. It was an entrance to Hell. I quickly took in the bright lights, the video cameras set up to capture everything that happened, the carefully arranged blades, the whips, chains and straps, the medical equipment whose intended use here was anything but healing. But my attention was drawn primarily to the blood encrusted body spread-eagled on the table, tilted head-down at a forty-five degree angle. I swear my heart stopped for a second and my stomach clenched so hard I almost puked.

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

He'd been missing for a week when, by some dumb luck, Dr. J heard what'd happened and contacted the Preventers, giving us the information we needed. Thank God that bastard'd seen fit to plant a tracking device in Heero's skull. It took us all of an hour to locate him -- a large house on a large lot near the San Dimas Reservoir. I wanted to bust in and rescue him. The others prevailed on me to wait.

I hate waiting.

They found out about the shit's "human" identity. They got the plans for the house. They laid out the whole operation in less than a day. I was along for the ride because they knew I'd be there one way or the other and it was safer if they had me with them where they could keep track of me, even if it was against regulations because I was too personally involved to be safe.

Fuck regulations. I cared about him. The cold bastard didn't realize it, of course. It didn't matter. I was determined to save his ass if it was the last thing I did. Because I cared about him.

And because it should've been me.

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The sight of IT broke my reverie. IT was the shit that had started this whole thing. If God ever made a mistake it was this sick... thing that looked like a human but was about as far removed from humanity as a tapeworm. Currently, it was naked, sitting on a stool, smoking a cigarette that reeked so strongly of clove I could smell it through the door. Before I could collect my thoughts enough to reach for the doorknob to open the door, dive in and shoot it dead, it was standing beside the table, adjusting a dial on a machine. I traced the thick tubes that ran from the machine up, over an IV stand and down to the victim's anus before they disappeared. I knew what the machine was. The machine was how it killed most of its victims. If I surprised it now and its hand slipped...

It picked up one of the knives and held it against its victim's genitals. With the other hand, it pressed against the victim's distended abdomen. Then harder. Then punched gently, drawing a moan. "That's it. You're a lot tougher than my other toys. You don't break as easily as they did." It drew the edge of the knife up the penis, barely breaking the skin, drawing fresh blood.

Hatred surged through me. I knew my eyes must be almost black with rage, made worse because I could do nothing but wait. Wait as I watched it fondling its victim's testicles. Wait as I watched it drawing an unwilling and painful response from the freshly sliced penis. Wait as it tilted the table vertical, head down, and knelt and forced itself into its victim's mouth, taking its victim in its own, the knife tracing fine, red lines along legs and torso. Wait as I heard a faint, gasping sob. Wait as it pulled back and spat white liquid mixed with blood out of its mouth onto the bloody body, then masturbated itself, adding its own ejaculate to the mix. Wait as it adjusted the table again. Wait as it spotted a flashing light on the machine.

"You've made it to three in fifteen minutes. Most toys need at least another two days before they can take that much that fast." He twiddled the dial again. "I'll bet you can handle another slow liter. If you can and can hold it all for two hours, I'll drain you and give you an hour's rest before filling you up again. If not..." It laughed. Its laughter was a sound the memory of which sends shivers up my back to this day. "I'll just have to get another toy to play with, won't I?" Its tone became mock soothing. "Don't worry. If you don't break, you'll hold it. The bardex will make sure of that."

The victim shuddered at the words.

You fucking shit, I though. Just wait until you are'nt close enough to hurt him. I looked at Hee-- the victim again and saw him squirming, teeth clenched against the pain of a cramp.

I closed my eyes for a few seconds, seeking the distance. I had almost slipped there. I was walking a fine thread across a deep chasm. I had to remember it was Heero so I could stay angry enough to do the thing I had come to do. I had to forget it was Heero or I'd break down and cry and be useless. Because it should've been fucking me that was taken, not him.

I opened my eyes again. The victim was squirming as the machine hummed softly, pumping more fluid into him. The shit stood, watching, feeling its victim's belly, grinning its sick grin.

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

A criminology student had found a pattern in ten years of old data. She'd been researching crime in the gay community, trying to determine if certain "types" experienced higher incidences of gay-on-gay violent crime. It was her masters' thesis. While crawling through old files, she'd tied together seven bodies and fifty other disappearances over ten years and found a monster in hiding. She'd shown how the monster started in the hard-core S&M community before moving on to victims with less extreme tastes. About five years ago it'd settled on sixteen to twenty year olds with lithe bodies and beautiful features, none of them into S&M by all accounts. It took one every two months or so. Usually new boys. No one who had connections. No one with a lot of friends or a steady lover. No one who'd be missed enough to draw serious attention.

And it had a little trick that always took care of things if someone did happen report the victim missing. A few days after the kidnapping, when it'd gained sufficient control, it called the victim's landlord, or a friend, or his work, or someone the police would talk to early in their investigation and forced the victim to tell the person about an opportunity in another state, or a sick relative who needed long-term help in another state, or just that the victim had gotten tired of LA and moved to another state.

It sounds flimsy in retrospect, but the ploy worked because the shit was careful choosing its victims.

It hadn't bothered to call this time. That had worried us. I'd thought... the worst.

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The humming stopped. The shit pressed against its victim's belly again. This time, the victim made no attempt to conceal the pain the pressure caused. "Good. Good," it said. "Now." It set a small kitchen timer on the lip of the table near its victim's head. "Two hours." It watched for a moment, seeing the pain in the victim's eyes. "Yes. I think you're going to be the best toy I've ever had. I think you'll last much longer than the others." It shivered with anticipated pleasure, then turned and walked away.

This was the chance I'd been waiting for. As I tried to stand, I felt hands on my shoulders. I almost lashed backwards to drive away my attackers, then I remembered I wasn't doing this alone. It was Trowa and Quatre. They'd put their hands on my shoulders. I realized I was shaking. Damn the old memories. Damn the shit for stirring them up.

I took a deep breath to clear my head, putting the past back in the place I kept it. I didn't want them to see Heero like this. "I'll do it," I whispered, knowing they'd hear it through their earpieces. "If I need help, I'll call. Otherwise, wait twenty minutes, then call the cops."

Trowa started to protest, but Quatre's hand moved from my shoulder to his arm, silencing him. Quatre had seen. Quatre understood.

I turned and saw Wufei frowning. He was always tight on procedure. But we'd all seen the files. Read the forensics on the few bodies they'd recovered. Seen the pictures. I stared into his dark eyes, mine probably almost as dark. He finally nodded. I waited until they'd gone up the stairs. I wasn't going to need any help.

I pulled my gun, offing the safety. I peeked through the keyhole one more time. No sign of the shit. Just the victim, writhing slightly as his drum-tight belly cramped around the mass of liquid that had been forced into it. Crouching, I turned the knob slowly, feeling for any catch that might create noise. I felt the friction change, pushed the door open an inch. Two. Three. Spotted it, gaze locked on the victim. Aimed, two-handed. My forearms locked tight. I glanced at the table again, seeing Heero lying there. My finger pulled as I looked at Heero. Three soft whumps through the silencer. I looked away from Heero. The shit was dead. It wasn't procedure, but procedure applied to criminals. Criminals were human. This was a monster.

I closed the door behind me and walked to the table, my body blocking any view from the keyhole. I knew they wouldn't come back down. I knew they wouldn't look if they did.

But it made me feel better to protect him this way.

I'd failed to protect him earlier.

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

It'd gotten lazy over the last two years, picking its prey exclusively from among the young men and boys of four gay bars, rotating so the disappearances from each would be spread out far enough in time that people would've mostly forgotten the previous boy who'd "moved away". The cops had staked out the "next" bar in the rotation, but the shit skipped it and took a boy from the one after it. They realized "he" -- they referred to it as "he" -- must've made them. They revised their profile. "He" was smarter than they'd thought. "He" was more dangerous. "He" might think they were onto him. "He" was probably taunting them.

They weren't dumb. They called in the Preventers. It was a bit out of the Preventers' usual charter, but Commander Brekkan had agreed to help given the magnitude of the crime and the obvious need for the particular skills of the Preventers. They also had us, all based in west-coast offices. Five eighteen-year-old boys who could work well as a team. Five boys who were some of their best agents. Five boys who knew what gave a cop away first-hand, and knew how to NOT look like a cop. Five boys who fit the shit's target profile. I was the bait. I was the best match. The shit seemed to like long hair. The other four were there to keep an eye on me. I don't know if it made me or if it noticed one of the others watching and was suspicious of me or what.

Two weeks after we started going to the bars, entering separately, leaving separately, we convened at the safe house for our nightly debriefing and discovered Heero missing. Heero never missed a debrief.

I almost lost it then.

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I tilted the table flat. He looked at me with cold, blue eyes, and I knew something wasn't right. It was the blankness in those eyes. They were cold and blank as wind scoured snow instead of cold and something. Anything. Hell, I would've been happy if he'd wanted to tear me limb from limb at that point.

But what did I expect? The shit'd kidnapped him, tortured him, humiliated him, used him... And he'd seen the same reports and pictures the rest of us had. He'd known what he had to look forward to. He'd prepared himself for it. Slow, painful death, probably by a belly rupture when the shit pumped too much into him. Maybe from infection or blood loss as the shit sliced him, or cut off parts of his body -- fingers, toes, nipples, ears, whatever. Maybe from some internal injury as the shit beat him.

I shivered, looking at those eyes that'd been waiting for Death.

Now Shinigami had come to give him back his life.

"It's okay, Heero." It was something of a lie. There were a lot of things that I knew weren't okay. A lot of things that would never be okay again. But he was going to live, not die. He was going to get out of this. And, damn it, I was going to do whatever I could to help him be as okay as he could after going through this thing that should've happened to me, not him. That was what I meant. "The others've gone to get the cops. We've got time to get you cleaned up before they get here."

He said nothing, just tensed as I reached toward him. That hurt. Almost made me cry. I took surgical clamps from the tray of instruments beside the bed and used them to clamp off the tubes that ran out of his ass, then took the knife, trying to ignore his flinch, and cut the tubes between the clamps. I didn't want him leaking. That would be embarrassing for him and therefore for me. I didn't want the machine leaking because I didn't want him to think it was him.

When I moved away and he realized I wasn't going to cut him, was here to help, he relaxed as best he could and let out another faint sob. I unbuckled the straps that held him and tilted the table again, putting his feet down this time, and helped him off onto the floor.

It wasn't easy. He was slippery with blood and sweat and God knew what else. He was weak from the torture he'd endured. His muscles were so full of stress toxins that they could barely fire. His belly was bulging, throwing his balance off. But I managed to maneuver him to the shower area in the back corner of the room. The shit had doubtless installed it so it could clean up itself and its victims without taking telltale evidence into the public parts of the house. I balanced him against the wall and quickly stripped to my boxers, thought about it for a second, then took them off too. We should be on equal footing. It might reduce the humiliation just a tiny bit. Anything that might help was worth doing. I turned on the water, just slightly warm.

He cringed away when he felt my skin against his, supporting him against my body. "Heero, it's just me." I don't know if that reassured him or not, but he let me help him into the shower and move him under the water, let it begin to wash the stains off his body. The cuts were mostly superficial, just deep enough to bleed good and hurt like Hell. The shit didn't want to kill its victims too soon. It seemed to enjoy dragging things out.

I knelt down behind him and examined the tube in his ass. I tugged gently. It didn't budge. I remembered what the shit had said about a bardex. Looking a little closer, I found the release and pushed it, hearing the hiss of air as the bulb inside him deflated, then I pulled the whole assembly out and threw it across the room.

I had expected him to empty as soon as the blockage was gone. I'd expected him to do it all over me as I knelt there. It wouldn't have mattered to me. I'd been through worse, and a minute under the shower would have me clean again. I stood up behind him, realized he'd tensed again and was holding it in with all his might, fear in his eyes.

Fuck.

The shit had tortured him by making him hold it without anything plugging him. I turned him around to face me, both hands on his shoulders, holding him half an arm's length away. Close enough he wouldn't think I was pushing him away. Far enough he wouldn't feel threatened by my closeness. "Heero, it's over." It wasn't. Not by a long shot. I knew that, but this part of it was over.

A minute passed as we stared at each other. Then another. Then a small trickle, which quickly became a gut-wrenching gush -- gut-wrenching for both of us. It was thick and syrupy, almost gelatinous. I knew it had to be a Hell of a lot heavier and more uncomfortable than straight water. And it was clear all the way to the end. I knew the shit had done this to him every day for hours on end, but to see it like that, to have it shoved in my face like that... God, that was awful.

I didn't want to, but I couldn't help it. After all the Hell I'd been through this past week, I knew it was nothing compared to what Heero had endured, knew how horrible he must have felt. I had to let it out. I knew he needed to too. And I knew he couldn't. Not yet. So I did it for him. For me. For both of us. I cried.

It took me at least fifteen minutes to regain my composure. By then, Heero had begun to do the same. He'd taken a sponge from the rack beside us and begun to wipe off the stains that wouldn't come off with the stream of water alone. At least, the physical stains.

He paused, and we looked at each other, then he handed me the sponge and turned around. I gently wiped away the blood on his back, revealing the marks where the shit'd beaten him with a whip and a riding crop. Uncovering the electrical burns down the line of his spine. Moving down his legs, cleaning his feet, I saw the brand burned into the bottom of his left foot. A stick-figure boy with a circle for a swollen belly. I'd have to find some way to remove that, or conceal it. I knew Heero didn't need that reminder, tingling with every step he took.

After finishing his back, I stood again and handed the sponge back to him. He began rinsing out his hair, and I stepped out of the shower and began drying off with a towel from the stand beside the shower, then dressed. I handed him another towel a few minutes later when he got out. He dried, a few of the fresher cuts oozing blood where the sponge had torn the scabs. Finished, he stood there naked, waiting, and I realized that, in our turmoil and worry and finally haste, we'd forgotten something important. "We don't have any spare clothes. I'm sorry. We were so concerned about rescuing you..." Words were useless. I pulled off my windbreaker and shirt. "Here. Put these on and wrap the towel around your waist." It was an attempt to balance us again so he wouldn't feel he was at a disadvantage.

He pulled the towel around himself, watching me. "The jacket is enough," he said, voice quiet, rough. He took the windbreaker and slipped into it and zipped it to the neck. I didn't say anything about that. I understood. It made him feel safer, protected, hidden. Instead, I put the shirt back on, not bothering to button it, and let myself be relieved he'd finally spoken. I'd begun to fear the shit'd done something to his throat.

"C'mon. Let's go outside and wait. This place gives me the creeps." I knew he needed to get out of here and start forgetting. I did too. I put a hand to his elbow, a gentle guide, and led him out of the room, up the stairs, through the house. We walked past the others where they stood on the front porch, waiting for the cops. They watched silently, but made no move to follow us. I'd told them before we left headquarters that when we rescued Heero -- I hadn't allowed myself to say "if" -- I'd be the one taking care of him and would let them know if I needed any help. I hadn't explained that I had experience with this kind of thing.

I paused long enough to grab a couple of folding canvas chairs before taking us down the porch steps and around the side of the house, where I set up one chair, sat him in it, then set up the other and sat beside him, close. We waited there on that warm, last night of summer, faced mostly away from the road and the silence made me feel cold. It was like he was made of ice, unmoving, with the blank face of a glacier and eyes as lifeless as an Antarctic snowfield when the Katabatic wind rips across it, sculpting the rock with ice crystals. Finally I couldn't stand the silence. I whispered, "I'm sorry. It should've been me."

He came to life then, grabbed my chin, yanking my head around to face him, so fast and rough it made my neck hurt. "Never say that again," he snapped out in his "omae o korosu" voice. The moon was full, and I could see the cold light reflecting even colder from his eyes. They were no longer blank. The fury of the ice wind was in them. "Don't you ever say that again." Softer, but no less angry. I waited for him to cry. That should've come now. Instead, he let me go and turned to look up at the moon, silent again.

Does this seem odd? After what he'd just been through, the first thing I did after cleaning him up and making sure he didn't need real medical attention was take him out to watch the moon. Hell, I didn't care if he watched the moon or the stars or the clouds or the trees, just something calm and beautiful to counter all the evil he'd been forced to experience. Something to remind him that there was a reason to live. Something that was in no way connected to the week of Hell he'd survived. It was a first step. A simple step. The step we could take right then while we waited for the cops to come and tell us we could go home. I knew he was going to need a lot more help getting past this, even if he didn't know yet. I knew I wanted to give him any help I could. It made sense. We spent most of our waking hours together. Who better?

And because I cared about him.

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

We both joined the Preventers within a week of each other, neither knowing the other was thinking about it. It was four months after the war. We'd lost track of each other, or maybe we hadn't really tried to keep track of each other. I know I was surprised when I found out who my partner was going to be. The shrinks said we'd make a good team. We did.

The first year and a half we traveled a lot. And I do mean a lot. We were always on an assignment. Usually in a different city at least once a week. Preventers headquarters delivered our mail to us through whatever local office we were working out of. We stayed in hotels or, in the larger cities, in Preventers housing. Our assignments were mostly security work, and that meant we did a lot of diplomatic and government gigs, which meant Heero would be Relena's escort at some official function at least a couple of times a month. And I... Well, usually I'd play escort to some female diplomat and we'd double date. But sometimes, when I couldn't take watching Heero and Relena together, I'd go out to the bars and the clubs and cruise the guys and dance and drink and leave alone because I never found anyone I wanted to go home with. When I couldn't take being alone in the hotel room with him anymore, I'd do that too.

I usually went out at least once every week or two.

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

The cops arrived about a half hour later. Quatre gave them a quick report on the situation and led them into the house. As he did, a couple of them moved toward us. I was ready to give them an earful, but Wufei stopped them, told them they could get a statement later. I'm not sure what else he told them, but they backed off.

It was almost dawn, and Heero was sleeping, lightly as always. I heard footsteps, turned, ready to verbally assassinate the asshole cop who was coming to question us, saw Quatre approaching with a lady cop in tow. They paused. I sighed, stifled my anger, waved them over. Quatre left the cop there and came alone.

"The lieutenant wants to talk to you about the body."

"I'll send her a written report by noon tomorrow." I didn't want to deal with this right now.

He shook his head. "She doesn't want a report -- definitely not a written one. She wants to tell you what happened so you'll have the story straight."

A cover up. I should've expected it. The shit had made them look stupid.

"Go," Heero said, sounding dead tired, even though I was certain he'd been asleep for the last five hours. I guess he hadn't gotten much sleep during the past week. I pushed the thought aside and looked at him. He was watching me. What I saw made me hesitate. I didn't want to leave him alone. Not with the blankness there again.

"I've been on my feet all night," Quatre said. "I need to sit down for a while."

I stood up and caught his eye. Silent thanks. Then walked over to the waiting lieutenant, buttoning my shirt as I went, but not bothering to tuck it in. She was older, probably close to retirement, and had that hard look about her that told me she'd been doing this for a lot longer than I'd been alive. She was hunched, I noticed, as I followed her back into Hell. Probably from all the shit she'd seen. I hoped I didn't end up like her one day.

She showed me how the shit had pulled a gun, and what kind of gun. Showed me where two bullets from the gun had hit the door frame inches from my head when I tried to arrest "him". Showed me how I'd fired four shots, not three. The first in "his" shoulder had spun "him" so the other three entered the side of "his" head, killing "him". She introduced me to the evidence technicians who were helping them get the final details straight, right down to the powder residue on the shit's hands.

I thanked her for her help. She told me not to worry about it. I'd saved them the expense and the risk of a trial. The shit had money and could've bought a good legal team. Maybe enough to get "him" off, even with the video.

I'd forgotten about the cameras, but they'd taken care of that too. The discs from tonight were all "defective" and had nothing on them but static. She showed me the second room, the one I hadn't seen. Racks of meticulously labeled discs, and a small editing suite. Enough to convert the raw video into nice little home movies for when the shit had broken its latest toy. I saw another technician taking notes and caught a glimpse of the screen. Fortunately, we were only a few feet from the shower. I made it there before I puked. As I turned on the water to wash away the vomit I'd just spilled, I heard the lieutenant's voice behind me. "Everyone who's seen them has done that. I've been a cop all my life. I thought I'd seen everything after thirty years in homicide and sex crimes."

I'd've pegged her as late sixties, not early fifties. "I'm going back to my partner now," I said. "You won't be needing anything from him." It was a statement, not a question.

"No. We have what we need to close this one. Just remember the story if anyone asks how you killed him."

It, I thought, but didn't say.

"L-T, I think I've got a grave map over here." It was one of the technicians.

I didn't stay to see the map. I'd seen too much already.

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

After a year and a half, I requested a long-term assignment to the Los Angeles office. LA had its problems, but we'd been there on a dozen assignments in our travelling stint and I knew it better than anywhere else on Earth except maybe Osaka. LA was home to the world government's trade and commerce bureau, which meant the Preventers had a major presence too.

Heero surprised me by going with me. I'd figured we'd split up and he'd go to Osaka or Tokyo or maybe one of the colonies. That was part of why I'd chosen LA instead of Japan.

We were eating lunch in the cafeteria the first day when he handed me a small book. It was one of those free apartment guides. "I thought we could share an apartment," he said, face that bland mask he usually wears. "I was looking through the book and realized rent is too high for either of us to afford anything decent alone."

He was right about that. I'd already checked. The best I'd found that I could almost afford was a one-room efficiency about a two-hour commute from work. I knew they weren't paying him any more than me. "Uh--"

"Did you want to stay in Preventers housing?"

"Hell no," I said. Preventers housing wasn't bad, it was just too... work. About three seconds later my brain kicked in, telling me I'd missed an easy out, but Heero was moving on with his argument.

"Aa. We already know we can live together and get along, so it shouldn't be a problem, ne?"

Except there was a problem he didn't know about. Living together in a hotel room because work required it was one thing, but choosing to live together... I would have to tell him. So I hemmed and hawed and ummed and ahhed. I'd never told anyone this before -- not anyone I cared about. Finally I blurted it out. "Heero, I like guys."

He shrugged. "If you mean you often go to gay bars and flirt and dance and occasionally grope, I've known that for the last seventeen months."

In other words, almost the whole time we'd been partners. I wanted to deck the bastard for being so smug and for following me as he'd obviously done more than once.

"You never made a pass at me, so I must not be your type."

He was definitely my type, but I was afraid to make a pass at him because I didn't want to piss him off. I liked having him as my partner and roommate... and friend, even if it never led to anything more.

He pointed at the little sticky-notes tagging a half-dozen pages of the guide. "These are the decent places we can afford."

I wanted to hug him because, knowing, he was still willing to share an apartment with me.

I think that's one of the things about Heero that always attracted me. He would make me furious, then, a few seconds later, he'd do or say something that showed me the part of him I loved seeing and leave me -- ME -- emotionally confused. Maybe that isn't as difficult a thing as I think -- confusing me, that is.

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

We were working together and living together, if not living in sin together, much as I would've liked that. He was my friend and my partner and, in a manner of speaking, he'd taken a rather nasty bullet for me. It only made sense that I should be the one to help him through the recovery. "Ninmu ryoukai," I mumbled to myself as I stepped out onto the porch. That was what he would've said if things had turned out the way they should have.

The sun was a red-orange ball hanging an eyelash above the horizon, painting the smog below us a sickly shade. Quatre and Heero were waiting for me with a plain-clothes officer. I didn't need to be told. "Let's go home," I said to Heero, making his unspoken wish my request. We followed the cop to his car. We were both tired. As I sat next to him in the back seat, I laid a hand on his towel-covered leg, just to let him know I was there. He tensed at the contact and I started to move the hand away, but he stopped me with his own hand on top of mine.

It felt so good to know he was there and that I didn't have to deal with this alone. That was when I realized he wasn't the only one who'd been hurt by this disaster.

Nightmares woke me a half dozen times that day. It wasn't all that unusual for either of us to have them. I mean, we'd been through more Hell in our eighteen years than most people saw in a lifetime, but that many in a day, that was a lot. And the nightmares were different. Usually my nightmares were about Daya in one way or another. I hated them. I'd tried so hard to push those things away so I could live a happy-- No, not exactly a happy life. More like so I could avoid the depression they usually brought and tell myself I was reasonably happy. This time, they weren't about Daya. This time, they were about Heero. They reminded me of Daya nonetheless. I couldn't be gloomy, though. Heero didn't need a gloomy braided baka right now. Especially not after I had to go to his room and wake him up a dozen times to pull him out of his own bad dreams. They'd never been that bad, even during the war. I was afraid to ask what they were about.

About 18:00, Quatre woke us up with dinner from some gourmet restaurant I knew ran about two hundred credits a plate. He may have essentially abdicated from the Winner family, but he still had connections and plenty of money. He waited long enough to see we were eating, told us we'd been put on paid leave for a week and that Commander Brekkan had said it could run as long as we needed it. He left, telling us he'd be by with lunch tomorrow.

We ate, then stared at the walls for a while. I knew Heero needed to talk, but he didn't say anything. Finally, I suggested he might want to take a shower. He'd sweated a lot from the nightmares and I know how nasty that can leave a person feeling. He didn't need to feel nasty right then.

He was quiet. For a minute, the freezing wind emptied him again, then something I barely recognized -- uncertainty. "I might need some help."

I knew that must've been hard for him. Heero is not the kind to ask for help. I didn't understand what he meant. He seemed to be able to stand and walk unassisted now, but if he wanted my help, I'd give it.

I understood when I saw the lather on his chest turning red. He was scrubbing the skin off. I didn't say anything, just took the cloth from him and washed him gently, not looking at his face because I knew he'd be embarrassed if I did. When I finished, I handed the cloth back to him and asked him to wash my back. He did, and he didn't remove any skin in the process, so I knew I'd done the right thing.

I wanted him to know he wasn't going through this alone. I wanted him to know I wasn't carrying him. As much as he depended on me, I was going to try to depend on him so we'd be equals, friends helping each other instead of one supposedly together person pulling a mangled wreck up from the mud and trying to fix it. I didn't know enough to fix either of us, just that we needed each other to make it through this in once piece.

We dried off. I slathered a thick layer of antibiotic ointment on his chest and on the handful of cuts that had reopened. I suggested that we were both still tired, and led him to his bedroom and put him to bed. In a way, I was treating him like a child. In a way, I knew he needed it. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched him drift off to sleep -- or so I thought.

When I stood to go to my own room, he grabbed my hand. "Sleep here tonight. You won't have to get out of bed when you have to wake me up." From the nightmares. I knew that was the rest of his thought, and I knew he was right. They would be back again tonight for both of us.

I was reluctant. Oh, the bed was big enough -- we both had queen size beds. But I can only sleep naked. I'd tried everything from long flannel pajamas to a thong, but I can't sleep if I'm wearing anything. Heero knew that. You don't live in hotel rooms with someone for over a year and not learn things -- everything -- about each other. So I stood there, torn between my risk and his need.

My risk? Damn it, he's... He's utsukushii and kawaii both in one perfect package. In my book, at least. I'd gotten hard thinking about him on many occasions, and I was afraid I might do something that would damage our friendship, and God knew he didn't need that right then and I didn't want it ever. But, the little voice inside my head told me, he needed someone with him. That was what he was really saying. He needed a presence.

My presence.

I gave in to his need, and, keeping my boxers on, slid under the sheet beside him, carefully staying on my side of the bed. A half hour passed. I thought he was asleep again when he said, "What's wrong?" It was almost too faint to hear.

I looked over, seeing his face in the light from the window. LA is never dark. There's always light enough to see by, even if it's merely what's diffused by the smog and reflected from the clouds and buildings. I saw fear. I thought the light was playing tricks on me. I watched a moment longer and realized it wasn't. I'm one of the few people in the world who has ever seen Heero afraid. Rare though it was, I knew it when I saw it. Even so, I allowed myself to doubt until it became deeper and I couldn't trick myself any longer.

I wondered why he was afraid. He was safe now. The abuse and humiliation... My mind caught the word and connected it with bits of my own past that I'd buried -- and quickly buried again. Now I knew why he was afraid, but how did I put him at ease without saying something that might scare him worse? "Heero, it isn't you. You're my friend and my roommate and my partner. I want to help you through this." That was all true. But he was waiting for the answer to his question. "I'm just not comfortable sleeping naked with you." Period. Not just now. Not ever.

He was too smart not to know I wasn't telling him everything, but he knew I hadn't lied to him, and just as I hadn't pushed him to talk earlier, he didn't push me to talk now, only said, "Please. Take off the boxers and get some sleep. I might need you awake tomorrow." To keep him from hurting himself. Damn. He was right. Again. I sighed and pulled off my boxers under the sheets, then turned over, my back to him for safety. It was another tough night for both of us -- in more ways than one for me.

Waking up the next morning was worse, though.

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

I woke about 09:00. He was laying on his back as he had been when we went to sleep. I'd moved during the night. I was curled up against him, head on his shoulder, one arm along his side, the other elbow resting on his belly, the hand on his ribs. I wondered if I'd done anything else. But, no, if I had he'd've reacted.

I wanted to pull away, but it felt so good to be next to him like this, and if I moved, I knew he'd wake up, and I didn't want him to think I was pulling away from him because of what had happened to him. I knew I was mixing things up a bit with that thought, but none of it was really untrue. The truth was, I'd always wanted to lay like this and feel him next to me.

I lay there not asleep, but not really awake, reveling in the feel of cool, smooth skin next to mine imposing itself on my semi-dreaming thoughts. The soft, fine hair on his legs like down against me. The hard, comforting curves of ribs under my fingers and against my chest. The scent of sweat -- not entirely pleasant, but part of him, so pleasing. The subtle movement of his belly as he breathed slow and steady. The muted sounds of his body, blood flowing, heart beating, lungs filling and emptying, all mixed together in the ear that lay against him.

I came fully awake when I felt him move to get up. I hadn't known he was awake. Suddenly knew he'd been awake the whole time. I looked up at him, embarrassed that he'd caught me taking advantage of him that way. A quick glance at the clock showed I'd been laying there for a little over an hour.

"Quatre said they'd bring lunch about 11:30. I want to get cleaned up a bit." He'd been sweating again, and the raw place on his chest had oozed during the night, and I knew it would take a Hell of a lot more than a few showers to make him feel clean again after what he'd been through.

"Do you need a hand?"

He nodded, a grave look in his eyes. At least there was no polar wind to scour them blank this time. I got up and followed him to the bathroom. We showered again. Me washing him because he needed me to keep him from hurting himself. Him washing me because he needed me to help him feel strong again. And because I needed to know that he was still my friend after I'd failed him.

I paused at the door to my bedroom and watched him walk to his and noticed he wasn't putting any weight on his left heel. He was trying to hide it, but I saw it and remembered what was there. The brand. I needed to find a way to get rid of that.

I suddenly thought better of letting him get dressed alone. He still had a gun in his room and a small collection of Japanese swords, which he kept razor sharp. I quickly pulled on a pair of boxers, grabbed a shirt, jeans and socks and cat-footed to his bedroom door, knocking on the frame as I entered. The scene wasn't as dire as I'd feared. He had his briefs on and was pulling on a pair of knee-length knit shorts.

"Need a hand with anything?" It was an attempt to give him an out, and make me look a little less like a worrywart.

"No." He slid the shorts over his waist and pulled on a tank top.

I decided I'd made a fool of myself, which is nothing new, and set about dressing while turning my thoughts back to the brand and how to get rid of it. Some research was in order, but it would have to wait until I could do it without him watching.

"But thank you for asking," he said quietly as he stood in front of the small mirror on his chest-of-drawers, combing his hair.

It was another one of those confusing moments for me. In the end I just said, "No problem."

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

I wasn't surprised that Trowa came with Quatre, but Wufei was unexpected. They brought plenty of food. Quatre'd imposed on the Winner residence in LA to provide the meal. It wasn't as fancy as the night before, but it was better than what Heero and I usually ate -- which was pretty good because I'm a decent cook.

We shared the meal in the living room because our small dining room and equally small table were designed for two, maybe three in a pinch. We never really had guests for a meal. It was difficult at first. For Heero because he was trying to figure out how he fit in after what had happened. For me watching Heero struggle. Finally, he realized that they weren't the ones treating him differently and things went smoother from there.

We talked about work for a bit. That was inevitable. They didn't have anything to tell us about the case, though. The cops were handling the wrap-up. The Preventers were providing some forensics support and working up a profile on the shit for the records, but no regular agents were involved. I was glad for that.

Quatre told us Commander Brekkan wanted Heero in for a full physical tomorrow morning, leave or no leave. Heero said that was okay because he wanted to get into the gym for an hour or two. I told Quatre to tell them both of us would be having a physical. Heero looked at me, bland-thoughtful for a moment, then nodded that tiny bit most people miss.

Otherwise our conversation was about weekend plans and a new tea Quatre had found at a little shop in Petaluma, and a book about the war that Trowa was reading, and an old Chinese painting Wufei was trying to find a print of for his apartment in Puyallup -- he was on a two year assignment at the Seatac office where rent was more affordable. Small talk. Harmless stuff. The kind of things old friends talk about when they get together for a chat after they haven't seen each other for a while. The kind of thing Heero needed.

About 14:30, Trowa mentioned that they needed to get back to work. I had no doubt Commander Brekkan had sent them to check up on us and they were due to report, but I knew that they would've come even without the order. Quatre put the leftovers in the refrigerator, and we saw them down to the street. It was the first time either of us had left the apartment since I'd brought Heero home. Less than two days ago, but it seemed like two weeks.

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

We idled away the afternoon, me hoping Heero would talk, Heero not talking. Finally, we went to bed. Heero again insisting I sleep with him. The nightmares seemed not as bad that night, but I woke up to cool skin against my body again. I was laying next to him exactly as I had been the morning before. I looked up and saw him watching me. I started to pull away, ashamed that I'd done it again, but paused when I saw the pain and humiliation steal into his eyes. "I just don't want you to think I'm trying to take advantage of you," I told him.

He looked at me for a few seconds. I saw the transistors switching behind his eyes, but didn't know just which circuits were opening and closing or what the resulting calculation said. His face relaxed slightly. "Maybe I'm taking advantage of you." That was all he said. I didn't understand it. He said a lot of things I didn't understand. But this... He wanted it. I wanted it. So I laid my head on his shoulder again and hoped it was enough.

I must've dozed off again because the next thing I knew he was shaking me awake. "08:00," he said. We were due for the physical at 10:00.

We went through our bathroom routine, showering together, me helping him shave and him helping me with my hair, dressing in his room. I drove us double on my bike to Preventers HQ. To tell the truth, I didn't trust him to drive his bike. I asked Heero to sit in with me while Dr. Cabezas examined me first. I was fine, of course. After he was done with me, he turned to Heero. I stayed in my paper gown while Dr. Cabezas examined him. Cuts, bruises, nothing we didn't already know about. He got through the prostate exam well enough, then Dr. Cabezas came to his left foot, pressing slightly on the mark on his heel. Heero's leg jerked out of his grasp.

"The shit branded him," I said. "Is there any way to remove it?"

Dr. Cabezas ignored me as he had through the rest of Heero's exam, simply grabbed Heero's foot and pulled it gently but firmly back down to the end of the table so he could study it more closely. I wanted to punch him, but I knew he had to check it. "This is not a brand," he said. "It's an implant. He cut the design in the foot and pressed a steel wire into the incision. See. He left the end exposed. Probably so he could attach an electrode. The discs show him doing that on several of the later victims." So, he was involved in the forensics analysis. That's why they'd pulled him in for the physical. He already knew what'd happened, and knew what kind of damage to look for. He looked up at Heero. "I can remove the wire now if you'd like, Heero."

Heero looked at me. I kept my face carefully neutral. It was his decision. I knew what his decision needed to be, but I couldn't force this on him. He needed to start taking back some of the control he'd lost.

"Hai."

Thank God he made the right choice.

I sat in a chair beside the exam table, hand on Heero's arm while Dr. Cabezas carefully opened the mark and removed the wire. Fifteen minutes and it was over. He held up a mirror and showed Heero that his work had destroyed the image. There would be a scar, but it looked like a random arrangement of lines instead of the humiliating sign that had been there before. I was sure that was intentional.

He taped up the cuts and put a gauze pad on the heel. "You should have no problems from that in a couple of days." He dug in his coat pocket and pulled out a bunch of those little sample packs doctors always have, sorted through them and gave a handful to Heero. "Antibiotics, just to be safe. Take two a day, morning and evening, for two weeks. You can get dressed now, gentlemen. The test results will be back in a couple of days. I'll let you know if anything significant turns up." Meaning, if the shit had given Heero some disease. He left while we were pulling on our clothes.

We walked out the door to find Commander Brekkan waiting for us with a woman I vaguely remembered but couldn't place. "Yuy, glad you made it out alive. You and Maxwell are two of the best agents I have and I'd hate to lose either of you. And Maxwell," he said turning to me. "The next time you break the rules like that, there *will* be Hell to pay, and *you* will be paying it."

I hung my head and tried to look suitably contrite.

"That's the official line. On a personal note, you overstepped the bounds, but I understand why and I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have done the same if it'd been my partner that bastard had taken. Let's step back into the exam room for a minute." The four of us went in, me still trying process Commander Brekkan's waffle. He closed the door behind him.

"This is Dr. Laira Kinlan. She's the head psy--"

"I prefer counselor." She looked at us. "My degrees are in psychiatry, psychology, social work and counseling."

Damn. Now I knew where I'd seen her before. The initial psych eval when I'd signed up.

Commander Brekkan must have seen it in my eyes, or maybe Heero's. I couldn't see Heero's face without turning to look and instinct told me I didn't want to do that just then. "I know you've both been through Hell recently so I've asked her to talk with you to figure out where you are and if we can give you any help."

He meant she was going to decide if we were bonkers and if they needed to put us in a padded cell.

I knew I was being harsh, but I didn't like shrinks. One of Dr. G's "associates" had been a shrink and had fucked with my mind for cheap thrills when it'd found out about my past. Had until Dr. G got wind of it and dumped the shit out the nearest airlock without a space suit. "I don't tolerate people messing with my protege very well," he'd explained, giving me that twisted little smile of his before wandering back down to the machine bay where he'd been working on Deathscythe's ECM before the distraction.

Heero nudged me just as Commander Brekkan called my name for what I realized was the second time. "Uh, yes sir?"

"I want to talk with you outside for a few minutes."

"But..." I looked at Heero. He didn't look at me. Damn. I'd zoned out and now I wasn't sure what was going on.

Outside, Commander Brekkan chatted about the weather, described a couple of new programs they were about to put in place, showed me pictures of logos they were evaluating for the programs and asked my opinion -- which I shared. They were all shit and I could design better blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back. He didn't miss a beat and told me to have them in his email within a week. I finally realized he was stalling me -- though he was serious about the logo -- and asked him what he'd wanted to talk to me about. He looked at me for a moment, searching for something to say, then the door opened. Heero walked out and Dr. Kinlan stood at the door. "I'd like to talk to Duo now."

So that was it. She wanted to talk to us alone and Commander Brekkan had been running interference for her. I walked into the room, leaving Heero with our boss as the door closed behind me.

"You don't mind if I call you Duo, do you?"

"Call me whatever you want."

"How are you feeling, besides hostile toward me?"

Ouch. Not that I was being subtle or anything. "Sorry." It was true enough. "I'm feeling fine. The doctor says I'm in perfect shape." She just looked at me. "Okay. I'm a little frazzled. He wakes up with nightmares. They weren't as bad last night, but they're a Hell of a lot worse than they were during the war. And he--"

"Duo, I asked about you, not Heero."

She had me again. I sighed and gave up. I'd get out faster if I told her what she wanted to hear. "Frazzled is about it. I'm not getting enough sleep, but I don't want him to know that. And I worry about him. I know what he's going through. He needs to talk to someone about what happened, but he won't. I'm glad the doctor was able to get that wire out of his foot. I hated seeing him trying to hide that he wasn't putting weight on the heel because it reminded him of what that shit did to him."

I rambled on for a few minutes until she suddenly said, "How do you feel about Heero?"

Before I knew what was happening, I answered, "I love him." I heard the words and glared at her. "You bitch! You tricked me."

She ignored my outburst. "You've never admitted that before, have you?"

She was right. I hadn't. I'd admitted everything else, but love... love was too dangerous. Too late now, though. Now I knew I loved him, but what the Hell was I supposed to do about it? And what did it really mean?

I knew the answer to the second question. It meant I was following true to form -- fucking everything up for the people I loved. I sighed and shifted the topic. "So am I crazy, doc?"

"Laira. You're no crazier than the rest of us." She chuckled. "But I'd like to see you once a week for the next few weeks. You are going to tell me what really happened -- not the story the police cooked up to save your ass. I'll also be meeting with the two of you together once a week." She paused, considering the next thing carefully, then said, "I'm going to stretch the bounds of doctor-patient privilege. If you're not comfortable with that, tell me now."

"Shoot."

"He says you're uncomfortable sleeping with him. Don't be. Listening to you just now, you're too afraid of losing him and care about him too much to do anything you shouldn't. He needs someone with him at all times. He's borderline suicidal."

"Oh. Shit."

"Not quite that bad," she said, shaking her head. "He knows you care about him and he desperately needs you to be his friend right now like you've always been. You worry about that part so he doesn't get worse than borderline. I'll worry about the suicidal bit."

She opened the door and waved me out. "I'm going to suggest you both come back to work next week, but not in the field for a while. Commander Brekkan can find an appropriate assignment." She glanced at him and he said, "Mission planning."

It could've been worse. We could've been assigned to answering phones or staring at satellite photos for hours on end looking for any telltale signs of anti-peace activity. At least we'd get to play on the edges of the real world while we were waiting for the all-clear from the shrink -- Laira. I'd get points if I could call her that.

"That's just a suggestion, but I think it would be best. I'm also going to set up the appointments we discussed. Those will start next week. And Dr. Cabezas left orders for you both to workout in the gym for at least an hour three times a week starting today."

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

As we walked down the stairs to the gym, I thought about what she'd told me. It suddenly dawned on me that she knew I was gay and that when I'd said I loved Heero, she'd known I meant more than just as a friend. When I asked him about the gay part, Heero said he hadn't told her. I had no reason to doubt him. She had access to the two days worth of psych tests I'd taken when I signed up. No doubt it was buried in there somewhere, perfectly clear to a shrink.

At the gym, I changed into shorts and T-shirt, Heero into Spandex shorts and a tank top. Hey, at least he didn't wear them to work. We followed our usual workout routine. Some light stretching followed by a brisk half-hour of aerobic exercise -- we chose the treadmill that day.

Actually, that isn't true. I chose the treadmill. Heero just aa'ed and took the one beside and slightly in front of me.

I spent most of my time on the machine wondering why he'd acquiesced so easily. Heero usually preferred heavier aerobics than a fast walk on a treadmill and usually gave me a hard time about it -- often downright refusing and insisting we do something more strenuous, like one of those damned class things where the instructor made me feel completely inadequate even though I knew I was in decent shape. I eventually decided he must be tired or not in the mood to argue or something. Near the end of our walk I realized I'd been staring at his ass the whole time and hadn't noticed. You've got to understand, Heero has a most attractive ass, and seeing it, especially covered by tight Spandex, is usually enough to get me at least a little excited.

Then I thought back over the past two days -- showering together, sleeping together, laying next to him. Those should have been more than enough to set me off, but they hadn't.

The timer on the treadmills went off and we moved to the weights, working legs, torso and arms in that order -- our usual pattern again. When I was on the machines, I spent the time wondering why Heero wasn't arousing me anymore. Why spotting for him as he lifted left me unaffected. I wondered what was wrong with me. Then I thought about the way he'd looked that morning when I'd pulled away from him, and how bad I'd felt knowing I'd hurt him. I knew what had happened hadn't diminished my feelings for him -- had maybe made them stronger in some ways.

It was as we were showering in the locker room that I finally came to my conclusion. What had happened had affected how I reacted to Heero, but not how I felt about him. He just didn't need me horny for him right now. I knew all too well that sex isn't the "cure" for a rape victim. He needed time, and he needed someone there to help when he needed help and to be a friend when he needed that and to offer comfort when he needed that and to leave him alone when he really needed that. He didn't need a friend who was really just trying to get into bed with him.

Okay, so we were sleeping together, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, I realized that I cared about him so much... No, I didn't just care about him, I loved him. Because of that, I had shut off all the things he didn't need from me, even though they were the things I had always wanted and always needed. Even though I could have easily taken them now.

I didn't want to take them. I wanted him to give them. He was doing that some. Not as much as I'd dreamed about, but more than I'd ever hoped for. I decided I would be happy with what I had and would keep putting aside the things he didn't need. I'd done enough damage to my friends in my life, including Heero. This time I was going to be the one who made things right instead of the one who ruined everything. Well, instead of *just* the one who ruined everything. This time, I was going to do something right.

On the way home, we stopped at the little farm-fresh produce store a couple of blocks from the apartment and I picked up some edamame, fresh ginger, onions and carrots. When we got home, Heero started rice in the rice cooker while I cleaned the vegetables and defrosted some chicken, then we talked off and on about mission planning and what we might be doing there while I made stir-fry for dinner.

Heero helped me clear the table after we ate, then went to the living room while I turned on the dishwasher. He picked up his palm comp as I walked in and glanced up at me and nodded when he saw the crosswords. They had started as a way to improve his English, but had become either a habit or an addiction, I've never been sure which. I'd diligently downloaded his puzzles from "The New York Times", "The L.A. Times", "The Chicago Tribune", "The Washington Post", "The London Times" and "The Financial Times" every day lest he miss one -- and lest I feel like I was admitting he was lost.

He did a couple of days worth of puzzles -- with a little help. His English is great, but idiom still gets him sometimes. Except when I was sitting beside him to look at a troublesome clue, I spent the evening in the chair across from him with my legs curled up under me, a glass of spiced Cabernet Sauvignon on the table beside me, my sketchbook in my lap and my pencil in my hand, watching, relaxing, sketching him, and glad my favorite subject was back, even if he did have a lot of things to work through.

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

Several things fell into place for me a couple of weeks later, and when they did, I wanted to kick myself for being such a fucking idiot.

It was Friday. After work I suggested we rent some videos and spend the weekend watching them. I got the "Aa" that'd become annoyingly frequent of late. Twenty minutes later, I pulled us into the parking lot on the way home and we hopped off the bike and walked into the video store and wandered along the outer wall where the newer discs were.

Heero stopped, reaching for one of those epic dramas he likes -- the kind that run at least six hours and seem like they last six weeks. I confess, I usually fell asleep before the half-way point in most of them. He started reading the description, turning as he did. He saw me, looked a little nervous -- the uncertainty that had become almost as annoying as his constant agreement -- then turned and put it back. I realized I'd been frowning faintly.

"I think I may have seen that one," he said by way of explanation.

"Oh." Alarms went off in my head. I knew he hadn't. The display said it'd just been released last week. Something was definitely wrong. In the past when we'd done video binges, he'd always stood up to me, insisting that we get one of those monsters. Now, it was like he was... afraid to disagree? Deferring to me?

And that's when it clicked.

I decided to test the theory that had suddenly gelled in my brain. I led us over to the anime section and picked up one that I knew we both hated. "How about this?" He nodded. I put it back. "Nah. Now that I think about it, I can't stand that one." He followed me back to the wall, looking a bit confused. "Here," I said, grabbing a video at semi-random -- just making sure there was only one cover on the self, which meant it wasn't very popular.

He looked at it for a moment. "O-- Okay."

I took it from him. It was one of those slasher horror movies. We both hated them. "Nah. ... I know what..." A minute later I'd handed him three of the hardest gay porn discs I could find -- and the store carried some pretty heavy stuff.

Heero was definitely confused and definitely not comfortable with my selections. He looked at them. Looked at me. "These should be interesting," he said, quietly.

"Who... the Hell... are you?"

"Nani?" I could see a little distress creeping into his face -- something I'd only seen a few times before the past two weeks.

"Who the Hell are you? The Heero Yuy I know would have argued for that damn drama you picked up -- which is new, in case you thought I didn't notice. He'd have spat on me for picking up an English dub, much less a bad English dub of an anime he once described as 'more damaging to brain cells than Wing Zero's beam cannon'. He would have thrown the horror flick across the store and through the window, and as for those..." I pointed at the porn discs in his hands. "Heero Yuy would have told me where I could shove them sideways. So who the Hell are you?"

He looked at me, stunned for a moment, then put the movies back on the shelf. "I don't really want to see those."

"Then why the Hell didn't you say so?"

"I... I..." He frowned.

I saw the store clerk looking in our direction, but he knew us, and knew what we did for a living and wasn't making any moves in our direction.

In a quieter voice, I said, "I'll tell you why. You're afraid to be in control again. You're afraid someone might take it away from you again, so you think if you just don't take it back you can never lose it again. Ever since..." I didn't need to go into details in a public place. "Ever since then, you've been this way. Damn it Heero, I want the old, arguing bastard Heero Yuy back. I want the guy who isn't afraid to tell me to fuck off when he thinks I need to be told to fuck off. I can't write mission plans alone. I need you, and I need you willing to tell me I have my head up my ass when I'm being stupid and stubborn. I need you willing to take control sometimes. And, for God's sake, it is so damn boring living with someone who just says 'aa' and goes along with whatever I say." That last slipped out. It was true, but I sure as Hell hadn't meant to say it. Maybe the rest had knocked him far enough off balance that he hadn't noticed.

He stood there, looking at me. I wished I could shrink a couple of inches so we'd be eye to eye. It's always harder to stand up to someone when you're looking up at them. But he'd done it in the past. He could do it again now. I hoped.

Finally, he said in that quiet, matter of fact, "fuck you if you think you're changing my mind" voice that I hadn't heard in weeks, "I want to watch--"

"No."

"Fuck off, Duo. I'm going to get it."

"But Heero, it's so damn long and B-O-R-I-N-G boring."

"And you'll think the same thing about me if I don't get it." Damn. He'd heard it. He interrupted my embarrassment by handing me a disc. "Here. Rent this and we'll be even."

I studied the package briefly. It was a porn flick. A lot softer than the three I'd picked earlier, but gay. "This is only an hour. Your damn drama runs at least six, I bet."

"Seven hours, twenty-eight minutes. But you'll fall asleep before the end of the first hour."

I grinned. "If I didn't think you'd deck me, I'd kiss you I'm so glad you're back."

"What makes you think I'd deck you?"

I blinked, looked at him, saw the bland face that usually accompanied a joke or a serious pronouncement, which is why it was always so frustrating because I never knew which it was. I decided it was a joke. "Let's go find some more movies." I put the porn disc back on the shelf.

"You don't want that?"

"I'd rather find something I can watch with you. I was just trying to make a point."

"Aa." He was quiet for a minute, as if he was trying to decide how to say something he wasn't sure how to say. "I'm still getting 'AC180'."

"Good." I was pretty sure that wasn't it, but didn't really care. "Now let's find some more."

As we walked back to the display to pick up his movie, he said, "I would have thrown the slasher movie at you, not the window."

"Huh?" Then my brain regsitered what he'd said and I knew he was trying to make a joke. I gave him my sly smile. "But I'd've ducked and you'd've hit the window."

"Aa."

This time, the "aa" was right.

As it turned out, Heero's seven and a half hour monster -- which was mostly about the other Heero Yuy -- had a major subplot dealing with a handful of gay characters. I was so busy pointing out where the writers had them wrong and right that I stayed awake for the whole thing. In fact, we spent so much time on the gay part that we had to watch the movie again to figure out what was going on. Then we had to skip sleeping Saturday night to make up for lost time. By the time we crashed into bed late Sunday afternoon, we were so tired neither of us had nightmares that night.

Or if we did, we were too worn out to wake up for them.

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

It was during our fourth session with Laira -- I'd taught myself to call her that by then -- that my patience began to fail me.

Began. Hah. It did fail me.

I'd been half-listening as Laira once again worked up to asking Heero what had happened to him. She would build these seemingly innocuous, perfectly logical idea structures in front of Heero, then use them like siege engines to shove questions over the wall. Unfortunately for her, that didn't always work. In this case, he ignored the question, waiting for the next.

"Damn it, Heero," I said, whining. I hate it when I whine, but sometimes that's how I really feel. "You've got to quit this shit. You need to talk to me about it. I know how you feel, but--"

I've seen the famous Yuy self control relax a few times. This time, it shattered. "You don't know anything, baka." The cold, deadly ice wind was back in his eyes and voice with more force than a hurricane.

It was too much, and somewhere inside me, something snapped. I don't have the famous Yuy self control, so maybe that isn't surprising. He was sitting next to me on the couch. I grabbed his shoulders and started shouting.

"Like Hell I don't, you bastard! I know what it feels like when one of them touches you the second time and you know what they're going to do and you feel so dirty you don't know how you can ever be clean again. I know how it feels when it's inside you and the pain in your ass is so bad you think you're going to be ripped apart, and you wish it would happen so you didn't have to go through it again. Or when it's on top of you, punching you into submission, or just punching you because it enjoys punching you, and your brain is screaming to fight or run away but your body has given up and is just laying there, betraying you, letting the shit do it to you and you wonder if you'll ever be in control of your body again. Or when you walk down the street, trying to make yourself small so maybe they won't see you, and then one of them just looks at you in passing and you know, you know if it wants to use you it can and you can't do anything to stop it. It can do anything to you it fucking well wants just because it's stronger than you. So don't you fucking tell me I don't know what it's like! I've been there!"

"Were you raped, Duo?" Laira asked.

I had forgotten about Laira. I ignored her, holding Heero's gaze instead and daring him to tell me I was wrong, because I knew I wasn't. I knew. Even if we'd been through it in different ways, I knew exactly what he felt.

We sat that way for a long time before he finally choked out, "When?" He didn't have to ask if I'd been raped. He knew because I knew -- had described things that only we could feel, and in no uncertain terms.

I'd calmed down a bit by then. Knew I'd just dug up the thing I'd kept buried all those years to hide it from everyone, even myself. When I spoke again, it was in a quiet voice. "L2. It's a hell hole. And when you're a kid on the streets you do what it takes to survive. They say it isn't rape if you get paid. I don't believe it. And there were plenty of shits who took a freebie because they were stronger than me."

"I... I'm sorry?" There was no hint of the Antarctic wind about him. Instead there was the instability of a cool, still day in early spring or late autumn a few seconds before it starts to rain cats and dogs. I'd gotten to him. I could see it. Maybe he'd talk now.

"Tell me about it?" I put a definite request into the words, not a command. Even if I had just exposed something Laira would be asking me about later, it was worth it if he'd talk. But he had to do it himself, not because I'd forced him in a moment of vulnerablity.

He shrugged, opened his mouth, "I... He..."

I saw the tears coming, I had been waiting for them for the past decade-long month, but I still couldn't believe it when I saw them start to form in the corners of his eyes. Luckily, part of me was running on automatic friend pilot and pulled him against me, holding him close as he began to sob softly. I recognized the sound. It was the sound he'd made when the shit used him that night. God. That hurt. But he needed to do this. Had needed to do it since that night a month ago. And me? I just sat there holding him, letting him cry on me, rocking him and whispering that it was going to be okay. That crying about it was okay because it did hurt like Hell and I'd done the same thing back then. Most nights. And for a lot of nights after. I told him that sometimes, boys do cry.

I'm not a human clock like Heero, but in Laira's office, I always knew what time it was. Knowing when my outburst started, I can say we must've sat like that for about twelve minutes because the next thing I remember was Laira standing up from her chair and Heero, hearing her, tensing in my arms, and me holding him tighter, protecting him from her, letting him know that I would take care of this.

"I have another appointment in five minutes," she said softly, directing her words to me. "I'll use one of the other offices. There will be a 'Do Not Disturb' tag on the doorknob outside. Remove it when you leave. And, Heero..." she said, her voice picking up a subtle hint of command. "You are not to leave until you tell Duo about it. You both have the rest of the day off."

And she was gone. Just that quickly. No questions we didn't want to answer. No formal words about our mental state. Just instructions to talk and take our time. Maybe she wasn't so bad after all.

He stopped crying a minute later, but I held him for another half hour before he began to talk.

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

"When he came up to me in the bar, I thought he was just another guy hitting on me."

"What?" Guys in the bar had been interested in him? I was glad his face was still against my shoulder so he couldn't see the trace of jealousy I knew was on my face.

"Lots of guys there thought I was attractive." He shrugged. "I didn't see the... I don't know, the hunter in him. That part bothers me a lot. I've been trying to figure out why. At first I thought I was so busy half keeping an eye on you that I didn't notice, but now I think it was because he was too good at hiding it."

He lifted his head and looked at me. "He knew exactly who I was. After he'd drugged my drink and taken me, he told me he might go back later 'for your braided partner'. That scared me. I didn't want him to touch you. He took me to... that place, and stripped me. I was still half-drugged and tied up. He put me in the shower and took a hose and put it--"

"Heero, I don't... you can tell me whatever you want, but you don't have to tell me all that -- what he did to you -- if you don't want to. Commander Brekkan gave me a copy of the final report and I just dumped it in the shredder. I... I guessed enough from what I saw." I blinked as I realized he'd said he hadn't wanted the shit to touch me, but that was simply because he was my partner and my friend and he cared about me. And if I'd died he'd've had to break in another partner and I knew there wasn't anyone in the Preventers who fit him nearly as well as I did. The shrinks had said so, right?

He nodded. "Thank you. He did things to me, beat me, other things. And... I couldn't do anything about it. He had me tied down or tied up so all I could do was take it. I tried to fight back. The first time he... stuck his... his dick in... my mouth, I tried to bite it. I guess some of the others..." He paused. His cold, barren eyes told me he was remembering what had eventually happened to them -- what he'd thought was going to happen to him. I was remembering thinking that too, and how glad I was when we'd found him and rescued him.

He tried again. "Someone had done that before, because he yanked it out before I could bite him. That's when he put that wire in my foot. After he'd done it, he pulled my foot up to my face and showed it to me. I thought he was trying to rip my hip out of the socket it hurt so bad. 'This is my mark,' he said. 'You're my toy to play with until you break and I have to find another. Like your gorgeous little partner.' And I knew... I knew..."

His voice caught. The tears started again. I knew what he'd known, that there was nothing he could do. I knew how awful that felt, and I knew that telling him that wasn't worth the breath, so I sat there and held him and rocked him and told him it was okay now. Daya had always done that to make me feel better when I was a kid, and it had always worked... for a while.

"He soldered one wire of an extension cord to the wire in my foot -- it burned inside my heel -- and connected the other wire to a metal rod with a rubber handle. He ran it up my back. When I stopped shaking, he said I could have another taste of punishment or a taste of his cock. I told him to go to Hell. The third time he did it, my heart stopped for almost a minute." He paused. "Have you ever felt that?"

"No." For a beat, maybe two, but not for that long.

"Your body is suddenly so quiet. I never really heard my heart beating until it stopped. I thought he'd killed me. I thought he was going to go back for you like he'd said he would. Then he punched me in the chest and it started again. I think... I think I've heard every beat since when I'm awake. ... After that, I knew I had to do whatever he wanted, because I was more afraid of the silence when my heart stopped. Because... because I knew if I died too easily he would go after you."

I let one of my hands come to rest gently over his heart and felt the faint throbbing. I had this strange thought that if anything ever happened to him again, I could keep it going by thinking about it if I could just memorize the rhythm. It was silly, I knew, but it made me feel a little better. Feeling it beating, I wondered why he'd been so concerned about me. I could have taken care of myself. Then I remembered I'd always thought Heero could take care of himself too.

He must have seen the thought on my face. "He would have gone after you. Even if you didn't go back to his hunting grounds."

I nodded. "Thank you." God. Such pitiful, inadequate words. As he laid his head back on my shoulder, I realized I had more than words to offer and was glad.

"All those things you said. Dirty. Helpless. Betrayed by my body. Terrified. And used. Especially used. I felt like a rag someone used to clean a toilet, and all I could do was lay there and take whatever he did to me." He cried again, and I comforted him again, but this time, it was only for a couple of minutes, then he said, "After the war, I swore no one would ever own me again. No one would ever have that kind of life and death power over me again."

"Heero, sometimes..." I knew what he meant. It was easier to explain it than to say it. "When I was a kid, I got off the streets and swore I'd never go back. A couple of years later... well, I fucked up and got bounced back out on my ass because of my own stupidity, and there I was, stuck doing the same shit again to survive." I looked at him. "You did what you had to do to survive. Now it's time to live again. I'm sorry you had to survive like that. I'm sorry he took you instead of--"

His hand covered my mouth, cutting of the last word. "Don't say it." This time, he had the anger under control. It was still there though. Still very clearly there. "If you really care about me, don't ever say it."

I nodded. How could I refuse him that after what he'd been through for me?

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

After six weeks of therapy I was completely pissed off.

My normal session with Laira was on Monday, but Monday was a holiday -- what had once been a day of remembrance had been absorbed into the new calendar as a nameless day off, but everyone who'd ever been in a war knew what it was. Anyway, she'd moved me to Friday. That was not why I was pissed off.

I walked out of her office that day angry -- a lot angry -- because our sessions weren't going anywhere. I mean, for six weeks, all she'd ever asked was to hear what'd happened at the house that night, and week after week I recited what the shit had done to Heero. She asked questions about it that I mostly ignored. I was tired of it. I wanted to quit reliving it every week. I wanted her to help me begin to forget it. I thought that was what she was supposed to be doing.

I walked into the hall -- wondering if I should tell her or if telling her would get me bad marks and more visits -- and ran into Heero... and landed on my ass. "What the Hell are you doing here?" Pause. "Sorry," I said as he offered me a hand up. "I didn't mean it like that."

He nodded, turned and we walked down the hall together. He usually ignored my little faux pas -- or missed them. I was never sure which. "I finished the mission plan we were working on. Eduardo said we could take the rest of the afternoon off since it's Friday before a long weekend." He said that just as we got to the door that led to the stairs.

"Sugoi!" I've never been one to turn down an early Friday afternoon. I followed him through the door and we trotted down twenty flights to the garage. I figured that counted as a major part of the evening workout we were skipping. We walked through the vehicles toward the motorcycle.

"I thought we could catch an early movie. Maybe dinner," he said.

A few seconds later, I realized I'd stopped walking and was just standing there, staring after him with my mouth hanging open.

"We can just go home if you prefer," he said, looking at me over his shoulder, but not stopping.

I hurried after him, catching up. "No! No. I mean. Did you just ask me out?" It wasn't that us going out together was so unusual, but it had always been my idea.

He shrugged. "We used to do things like that at least once a week before..." His voice trailed off into a faintly nervous look.

I frowned. "Laira told you to do this." It suddenly made sense. She was forcing him out again. He didn't need that. Wasn't ready for it yet. And with me. She fucking well knew how I felt about him and the bitch was sending him out with me. I was turning around to go tell her just what I thought of her idea and her vaunted "counseling" when he caught my arm.

"Laira helped me see that I was avoiding going out of the apartment. She didn't suggest anything. The movie was my idea and dinner just makes sense. Why are you mad at her again?"

Subject change in midstream. That was typical Heero. And damn if he hadn't seen it. Which meant I must be fairly screaming it. Which meant she knew exactly what I was thinking when I was sitting in her office. I was suddenly embarrassed instead of angry. Damn! Well, time enough to deal with that later. "She just isn't helping. All she does is make me tell her what happened over and over again."

"Aa."

"What's that supposed to mean?" It is amazing how smug a simple, "Aa," can be.

"She isn't hearing something she needs to hear."

I didn't have a chance to ask what *that* meant. We were standing beside the motorcycle by then and he reached for his helmet and straddled the front of the bike. I almost made him get on the back, but remembered what I'd said a few weeks earlier about control and living your life when you got it back and I knew I couldn't make him ride if he wanted to drive. I handed him the key, pulled on my helmet and climbed on behind him.

It was an okay movie, and a good dinner at a little seafood place near the apartment. I was a little quieter than I'd been the last time we'd gone out... before...

Damn! He had me doing it.

I was quieter than I'd been before he was kidnapped. I was still thinking about why I was becoming so hostile towards Laira, and wondering what she wanted to hear me say. I think he liked the quieter me, in a way.

After dinner we wandered around for while. The local mega-mall complex provided a good place to get lost in the crowd for a while. I like to walk when I'm trying to think, and he knew it and I knew he was humoring me because he was watching me, not scanning the crowd for threats. Eventually, we ended up at one of those high-priced designer coffee bars in a bookstore and spent a bundle on two cups of coffee and a chocolate chocolate-chip muffin, which we split. I should say, he had coffee -- Costa Rican, at my suggestion because he didn't know what was what and asked me. I had a double double mochaccino with vanilla, honey, cinnamon, extra whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles on top. Hey, if I'm going to pay five credits for a cup of coffee, I might as well get something I don't get every day.

We talked for a while over the coffee and muffin -- work and what we could do over the long weekend and that kind of stuff, then wandered around the bookstore for a while killing time and looking at the art and architecture books. I was trying to explain the difference between Art Deco and Art Nouveau, when the fifteen minute warning sounded over the store's speakers. On the way out, he bought a copy of the book Trowa had been talking about when they came over for lunch. It was after midnight by the time we made it back to the apartment and into the bed.

His bed. Me on my side, facing away from him.

I woke up the next morning curled up next to him. He was awake, but quiet. I just lay there and wondered why this happened every night, but knew he didn't mind. Seemed to like it. Which made me speculate about why for a minute or two before I put it out of my head as wishful thinking. This had become our usual routine, though I was still a little uncomfortable with the waking up part.

That morning, he broke the routine.

"Tell me what happened that night."

Oh. Shit. I'd been half-waiting for it all this time, but now... "Heero, I--"

"Tell me, damn it." He sat up against the head of the bed. I didn't sit up, laying with my head in his lap. In the past, that had been a wet dream of mine, now those thoughts stayed far in the background, not because I wanted him any less now after all the casual intimacy that had become a part of our lives these past few weeks. I was stressed out by what he was asking. Intimacy was the farthest thing from my mind at the moment -- which is unusual for me. "Hearing it can't be worse than living it," he added.

He was right. So I flipped onto my back and rested my head just above his knees and looked up at him and told him. About seeing him through the keyhole and feeling helpless as the shit tortured him. About watching it use him. About looking at him as I killed it.

He was quiet for a minute, then asked, "Why did you look at me?"

"Because I needed to remember what it did to you."

"Why?"

"So I could kill it."

"Why?"

I knew he was onto something. I didn't know what, but I knew I didn't like it whatever it was. "You sound like a damn kid. 'Why? Why? Why?' " It was an evasion.

He was quiet again -- long enough for me to decide it'd worked -- then said, "You haven't answered my question," in that calm, imperturbable tone of his.

It hadn't worked. He'd waited on purpose. Giving me time to think about the question. Knowing it would be eating at me. "Because I had to remember it was a fucking monster, not..." My snarling voice trailed off. He waited for me to finish. I sat up, looking at my feet. When I spoke again, it was the frightened child speaking. "I need a shower."

"Duo." He grabbed my arm as I started to move across the bed, trying to pull me back to him.

That was a mistake. When I get angry, I shout. When I get really angry, I go cold. Before he could ask, "Not what?" I was on him with that hissing whisper I hate. It's the whisper that speaks in my mind those times I am more Shinigami than Duo. "Get your hand off me, you fucking shit. You think you can control me like all the other--" Then sanity broke through. "Oh God... Heero I'm... Oh shit." I yanked away from him, or maybe he let me go, and I ran to my room and locked the door behind me and sat with my back against it, afraid, crying softly.

How could I talk to him like that? I knew he wasn't like the others who'd grabbed me once. What the Hell was wrong with me? I loved him. I mean, by then I knew that Laira's question when we'd met that day after the physical really had provoked the truth. If he was interested in me, I'd have let him know in a heartbeat that the feeling was mutual and done my best to make sure we stayed together. As it was, he wasn't interested in me that way, but seemed to like being my friend. Had gone through Hell for me. And then I talked to him like he was one of those shits that'd raped me. Like he was the shit that'd raped him. That was even worse. God. How could I do that?

I cried. I sat with my back against the door and cried, and occasionally pounded my head softly against the door frame, and walked around the room trying to understand what I'd done and why and how that voice had ever found its way into my throat when I was talking to Heero, and laid on the bed and wondered what I was going to do now... What we were going to do now, because it was more up to him than me after what I'd done.

After about forty-five minutes, I heard him rattling pots around in the kitchen. Oh, God. He was going to try to cook. This wasn't going to be pleasant. I forced myself off the bed and out the door. He was waiting for me when I came down the hall.

"You had to remember he was not what?"

"How can you call it 'him'?" I shouted. And I knew he had me. And I knew I'd just told him I knew. I leaned against the wall, eyes closed.

"Why did you have to remember what he did to me so you could kill him?"

I sighed. He was being damn stubborn. He wasn't going to let me off this time. I opened my eyes and looked him in the eye. "Because I--" I could hear Daya screaming in my head. It hurt. I focused on Heero's blue eyes instead. I owed him this. After what he'd gone though, I could put up with a little mental agony. "Because I had to forget he was a person and that I was killing him in cold blood." The words popped out of my mouth like bullets, each one hitting me center-of-mass.

I waited for him to flinch. Or to tell me I was evil. Or even to walk out of the apartment and never come back. I would've understood that. Instead, he did something I didn't understand. He nodded, the corners of his mouth turned up in satisfaction that microscopic bit that only I had seen enough times to recognize. "That's what she's waiting to hear." Then he turned, and walked back into the kitchen.

This time, there was no noise of pots and pans. He poured himself a bowl of corn flakes and milk and sat at the bar and ate it, watching me out of the corner of his eye. When he finished, he poured another bowl, walked over to me, led me to the stool and sat me down. "Here. I made breakfast for you."

I looked at him for a moment, stunned by the non-sequitur, then realized it was perfectly in context for Heero. It drew a twitch of a smile for just a second before reality took it away again. "I think I need to think about this for a while."

He shrugged, watched until I'd finished the cereal, then said, "I'm going to the beach this morning for a walk." I knew he was offering for me. There is only one beach for me in all of Southern California, and that is the Silver Strand in what was San Diego a couple of centuries ago -- it's now more like extreme South LA. It's a minimum three-hour drive from Pomona through brutal traffic, even on a Saturday. But the Strand is my favorite place for walking and thinking, and he knew it. Well, at least I hadn't lost his friendship for my admission, or for my outburst earlier. I realized he must've known for a while what I was struggling with.

"Did Laira put you up to this?"

"Laira never talks about you except as you relate to me. I just... knew something wrong, thought about what I knew about you and how I felt and how you must feel and did a little reading." He shrugged.

That was exactly what I needed. Heero "Couldn't Understand My Own Feelings If My Life Depended On It" Yuy playing amateur shrink on me. Well, I'd done the same with him, and we both knew he was getting better. Turn about is fair play. I nodded. "Shower first. And..." Damn, this was hard to say, but it was true. "I, uh... could you, uh, maybe give me a hand? Y'know." You try facing the fact that you killed a person -- no matter how evil -- and tell me it's easy.

Heero didn't. He just gave me that indifferent shrug again. "Aa." Acceptance.

We headed toward the bathroom.

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

After the shower, Heero really surprised me. He pulled out a duffel bag with a couple of days worth of clothes for both of us -- I'd moved most of mine into his room since I was sleeping there. He'd been packing while I was beating my head against the door. "If we're going to go to the beach," he said, "we might as well stay for a few days and make the drive worth it." He was right, of course, and it would be good for both of us to get away from the familiar trap of the apartment.

We found a cheap hotel in Coronado, not quite a roach motel, but definitely not the kind of place we'd've stayed in when we were on the Preventers' tab. The guy behind the desk offered us two-for-one coupons for Paradise Alley. It'd been my favorite gay bar in LA because it was far enough away from Preventers' HQ that I didn't have to worry about seeing anyone I knew, and if I stayed until closing it was dawn by the time I got back, so it looked like I'd stayed out all night with a girl -- not that I ever claimed I had, I just never disillusioned anyone who speculated. After Heero'd told me he knew the truth behind my little jaunts, I hadn't bothered trying to hide from him and had stayed near our apartment. If he wanted to follow me, so be it.

I said, "No thanks," to the passes. Heero nudged me. The desk guy shrugged, muttering something about trying to be helpful. I realized I'd snapped at the man.

I spent most of Saturday and Sunday walking the beach from Coronado down the narrow neck to Coronado Cays and back, from Coronado around the loop of North Island, thinking. Sometimes Heero walked with me. Other times, he walked near me, but left me alone. And other times he sat watching the waves or reading the book he'd bought or did I don't know what while I walked. That's the beauty of the Silver Strand. It's a long stretch of beach, so the scenery never gets old like it does at Malibu or Santa Monica.

By Sunday evening, I was tired. I wasn't out of shape or anything, but walking hard wet sand or shifty dry sand for two days straight will wear out even the most in-shape person. We went to dinner at a cheap, local Japanese place Heero must've spotted on a wander. It wasn't Japan, but it was a Hell of a lot better than the Japanese we got in our neighborhood. He suggested we go out for a few drinks afterward and surprised me again when we turned a corner and I saw we were heading for Paradise Alley.

"Uh, Heero. This is a gay bar, y'know."

"Aa."

"They're gonna think we're *together*."

"Good. Then no one will be hitting on me like they did the times I followed you here." I hadn't thought about it that way. Not that he'd followed me here in particular, but that if he'd followed me to gay bars before he'd probably followed me past the door.

"They're all gonna think you're gay."

He looked at me, shaking his head. "Baka."

Duh! I guess my brain was thoroughly out to lunch from all the thinking it'd been doing. We were going into a gay bar and I was concerned because a bunch of gay strangers were going to think he was gay. "Fine."

"Besides," he said as we walked through the door. "They have that beer I like."

"Abita Turbo Dog." I shook my head. How could anyone forget a name like that? Especially when there is only one beer in all of Earth and the Colonies that he'll drink. We sat in a booth in the back and had a couple of beers and ate peanuts and talked about nothing significant. It was a nice end to the evening.

Back at the hotel. Bed. Me on my side, back to him. Woke up next to him, as usual. We lay there like that until about noon, then showered, grabbed our stuff and checked out, taking our time with the traffic pausing a couple of times to enjoy a good view of the ocean along the way. We got back to the apartment about an hour before sunset. We spent a nice, quiet evening with him neating up in the living room, then typing away on some report on his laptop and me fixing dinner, then sketching him as he worked.

As we went to bed, I decided it had been a good weekend, even if I was scared about the next day.

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

Tuesday, I called Laira and asked if I could see her for a few minutes. She was booked -- the Monday appointments she hadn't moved to Friday she'd moved to Tuesday. But she said she could stay a little late and see me at 17:30, so I agreed -- a little reluctantly, I have to admit.

The day dragged on for weeks as I did the thing I hate most in the world -- I waited. Finally, it was almost 17:30 and I walked down to her office and straight through the open door. I closed the door, sat in one of those comfortable chairs shrinks always have, and looked at her for ten minutes before I finally said, "Heero and I had a little talk about what happened that night." Funny how that works, isn't it. I was ready to burst all day, then had to work up the courage to say it when the time came.

"He mentioned that."

"What did he tell you?"

She shook her head. "I asked him how he felt about it, not the details of what you said. If you want to know what he said, you should ask him."

"Oh."

"So, what happened?"

I knew she wasn't asking about Heero and me talking. "I killed... him."

"Why is that important?"

I looked at her for three minutes more before I could mumble, "Because I have to admit I killed a person, not a monster."

"Good." She looked me straight in my eyes. I think that was the first time I noticed that her eyes were deep green, which fit with the red hair and Irish name. I saw a hint of fire in the green, but not directed at me. "He was a monster, Duo, but that doesn't make him an 'it', and it was important that you admit that." She closed the notepad she'd been holding. Not that she ever wrote anything in it. I think it was one of those shrink props that she'd learned to use in school. "Next Monday, I want you to tell me about L2."

"About being raped."

"Not the gory details, just what happened to you on L2."

I suddenly understood. She hadn't wanted the gory details about what'd happened at the house either, but that's what I'd been giving her for six weeks. I nodded. "I'll think about it."

"Good."

I recognized the tone of gentle dismissal. That was okay. I'd said what I needed to say. I wasn't looking forward to Monday though. I'd never told anyone about growing up on L2. It was another one of those things I'd wanted to forget.

As my hand reached for the doorknob she asked, "Have you ever heard of dark matter?"

"Huh?" I turned. I knew she was up to something.

"Not a science fiction buff?"

"I don't read much." Except... "Except comic books. Mostly manga."

"Ah. Well, never mind."

I left, wondering if I was going to play her little game or not. Wondering what I was going to tell her about L2. And what I was NOT going to tell her about L2. I bumped into Heero again in the hall. He'd been waiting for me, of course. This time he caught me before I fell. I gave him the keys and we walked down to the garage and he drove us home.

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

It was tough, but I won my war against curiosity and made it to Monday without looking up 'dark matter'. I was successful in part because I was trying to decide what to tell Laira about L2.

When I sat down and we'd gone through the little ritual of greeting each other, she opened her notebook. That was the signal that we were doctor and patient. Then she reached over and pressed a button on a little box I hadn't noticed beside my chair. "I'm recording this session, Duo. I want you to take it with you and listen to it at least twice before next Monday. Then we'll talk about it. Today, I just want you to tell me about growing up on L2."

The recorder made me a little nervous, but she'd made sure I knew she was doing it. She'd figured out that I didn't trust shrinks on general principles and was trying to let me know she wasn't tricking me. If I'd learned anything after nearly two months of meeting with her, it was that Laira wouldn't bullshit me. Not about something like that. I took a deep breath and started. "The first thing I remember..."

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

The first thing I remember is being hungry. I was always scavenging the streets for food, like dozens of other kids on L2, and never finding enough to fill me up on any given day. That's all I remember for a long time.

The next thing I remember was the time an older boy offered me five credits if I'd suck his dick. He was maybe fifteen, I was about six, I guess, and I'd never seen five credits all at once before. With five credits, I could buy a meal at one of the corner food stands instead of trying to steal scraps. I didn't know what I was doing, but he coached me a little bit, told me to swallow when he was done. I got my five credits, and my meal. It was a hamburger and french fries and a cup of water with a real ice cube in it. I even had enough left over to buy a bruised apple when I was done. That night I went to sleep without feeling hungry for the first time in my life.

I saw the boy again the next day. He made the same offer. I accepted. When he'd paid me, he made me another offer. Traid, that was his name, was part of, well, I guess you'd almost call it a gang. There were five other boys counting Traid, and they were all prostitutes. They didn't fight like a lot of gangs, except to defend themselves, and they didn't steal, unless they were having a bad week or needed medicine. They pooled their money so they all got to eat. They took care of each other. He said it was a lot like a family.

I'd never had a family and didn't know what a family was supposed to be like. I had a few sorta-friends on the street, but all of us street kids looked out for number one first. Having people who'd look out for me in return for a little work and a little sharing sounded like a dream. I agreed. It was a Hell of a lot better than starving out of garbage cans.

I learned a lot my first week with them. They didn't put me out on the street right away. Instead they took turns teaching me the tricks of the trade of tricks. Like, get the money up front. And how to give a mind-blowing blow job. And how to take it in the ass without getting hurt. I already knew how to run if the situation got bad.

That week was also when I got drunk for the first time. The five of them, six now that I was part of the gang, brought in enough money that we could afford beer and usually liquor. And drugs once a week. But after the third time, I mostly stopped doing the drugs. I mean, it felt good, but then it felt bad when I came down, and we couldn't afford a lot, so there was never any left when I came down, so I had to feel bad for a while until I got used to "normal" again.

I stopped using them completely when Jan took a bad trip on some new designer thing and ended up jumping from the loft of the abandoned warehouse where we lived. I was downstairs when he did it. He landed a few feet away from me. He lasted ten minutes, screaming from the pain that was cutting through the drug haze, trying to crawl on broken arms and legs to escape whatever imaginary monsters where chasing him. He was eleven.

Traid turned sixteen three months after finding me. He was getting old to be working our clientele and hooked up with a gang of older boys who hung out near the gay bars, picking up guys who liked their lovers "young, but not that young". Before he left, he and Karan, who was about fourteen, brought in Daya and Orin to fill the gaps. Karan was the oldest after Traid left.

The first four months weren't all that bad. I mean, yeah, I was a whore, but I didn't go to bed hungry and the other guys were good friends and, all in all, I didn't feel like I was any worse off than I'd been before. I had to run away from johns a few times when they started to get too rough, but that was as bad as it got.

Then I met my first monster. A UESA lieutenant picked me up, handcuffed me to a chain-link fence and fucked me raw, then followed me, I guess, as I hobbled, bleeding, back to the warehouse. The next morning, we woke up to find that shit and ten "peacekeeper" soldiers in our hideout. They took turns with us, beat us up and a lot of other stuff. I watched the lieutenant-shit rape Orin with a rifle. The safety was off and the shit "accidentally" pulled the trigger. After it was all over, they offered us protection in exchange for weekly freebies. The lieutenant-shit said it would be more often, but they had other whores to keep in line, so we'd have to make do with only getting it from them once a week. "The other option..." Its voice trailed off and it looked at Orin's body.

We didn't have any choice. We accepted. And I quickly became the lieutenant-shit's favorite. It would rape me and beat me and shove its pistol up my ass, "I could pull the trigger now, boy. Would you like that? Just like your little friend. You'd like that, right? You'd get off on that, right?" And I had to say, "Yes" because I knew that's what it wanted to hear, and if I didn't it'd beat me more, even though saying the word made me want to puke.

The worst times were when it actually pulled the trigger. The gun was always unloaded, of course, but hearing the hammer hit always made me scream. That made the lieutenant-shit laugh, of course. "If it was loaded, you wouldn't hear anything, cunt." That's what it always said.

It didn't try to bruise me in places that wouldn't show, and being bruised like that attracted more shits like it. Before long, there wasn't a day that went by that I wasn't fucked dry or bitten or beaten or burned or worse. And I hated each of the monsters that did those things to me.

The end came when I was nine. One of the more violent shits broke both my legs, then turned me on my back and fucked me dry for what seemed like the whole night with my legs over its shoulders and shouted at me to shut up. I screamed with every thrust. Not just from the pain in my ass -- I'd learned to deal with that by the time I was seven -- but because the broken bones were stabbing inside me. And for all that, the shit never did get off. It ended up beating me bloody and leaving me for dead or dying, blaming me for its inability.

That's when I realized that the shits weren't strong at all. I'd always thought they were, but in the haze of pain and endorphins, I saw how weak they were. They could only get off by finding someone they could trick into believing they were strong. Someone who'd fold and do whatever they said.

Oh, all of them were physically stronger than me. The lieutenant-shit had raped me by brute strength the first time, but the second time, I'd barely put up a fight. And after I'd been marked, the other shits knew I was an easy target. It wasn't that I liked it. My body betrayed me. Even that first time with the lieutenant-shit, I had struggled at first and screamed, but once it got started, I just went limp. All the pounding and screaming confined to my head. Eventually I'd just accepted it. It was what I did. Karan did mostly blow jobs because he was so good at them. I got beat up.

But that night, I'd been stronger where it mattered. I hadn't been able to not scream, but I'd stayed conscious the whole time and had seen that shit emasculated by the screams of the nine year old boy he was raping. I felt giddy with the understanding. I wasn't sure what it meant, but I held on to it as I dragged myself on my arms the half-mile back to the warehouse. I almost made it to the door. Daya came back about fifteen minutes later and found me. He pulled me inside, then went to get Karan to help him carry me to the loft. I passed out from pain and exhaustion before they got back.

When I woke up a few hours later, a strange man was feeling my legs. I tried to jerk them away, but couldn't. Daya's face appeared. He told me the man was a doctor, one of his johns, who'd agreed to set my legs. The next day, I found out he'd offered the guy a week of all-night freebies. When I called him on it, saying he should've just left me for useless, he told me the man wasn't bad. A strict latex and lube guy. Never more than twice a night. Liked to cuddle a lot. I was jealous. I wished I could have had one like that. The doctor set my legs, splinted them, gave me some antibiotics and pain killers and left.

Four days later, the lieutenant-shit and its men showed up for their weekly. It was disappointed that I was unavailable for ass play. It gave me to one of the others, which promptly shoved its dick into my mouth. The lieutenant-shit turned its attention to Daya. I had a bad feeling when I saw Daya squirming as the lieutenant-shit shoved the pistol up his ass and asked its question. Then I heard Daya shout, "No!"

The lieutenant-shit went livid. It almost pulled the trigger -- and I could see the clip was in the gun. Instead, it said, "When we get done with you, whore-boy, you'll wish you'd begged for the gun." The others held us, forced us to watch while the lieutenant-shit raped Daya and Daya screamed. It punched him whenever he tried to resist, telling him how he loved getting a "fucking from a real man". When it was done, it called over one of the others. That one raped Daya just as brutally. So did the rest of them. Daya passed out half-way through the second round. That's what we thought it was, anyway. After they were done, still getting dressed, Karan moved over to check on him. When they were gone, Karan told us Daya was dead.

Daya was my friend, more so than any of the others. Daya was nine. Like me.

After three weeks, I could move around again. The others didn't mind supporting me while I couldn't work. We'd all had to rely on the others at one time or another, but the day before the lieutenant-shit came again, I left. I found Daya's doctor john and told him what had happened, offered to fill out the remaining nights Daya had owed him, offered him an extra week as my own thanks. Really, I just wanted to know what it was like to have a john who didn't want to beat me.

It's weird. Even then, after all the abuse I'd been through, maybe because of it, I craved physical affection. I don't understand why. Maybe it's just how I'm wired.

Anyway, the doctor let me stay with him for a while. Never did anything with me. I didn't ask why. I knew. Daya had been right. He was a nice guy, even if he did like young boys. He was the one who hooked me up with Father Maxwell.

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

"Duo? How are you feeling right now?"

I'd forgotten about Laira, just letting my mouth run off whatever was in my head. So much for all my careful planning. I had no idea exactly what I'd said. How did I feel? I felt... "Okay." Not great, but not awful, like I'd expected I would after dragging up Daya's ghost.

"We'll talk about this next time." She popped the memory card out of the recorder and handed it to me. "Remember to listen to that a couple of times this week."

I nodded.

"Heero said you draw sometimes?"

"Yeah."

"Saturday, draw a picture of Daya, but don't look at it. Put it in an envelope and bring it Monday."

I knew what she meant about not looking. Seeing what you're drawing and looking at what you've drawn are two entirely different things. Especially when you're drawing a memory. You don't have to look at all to do that.

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

Wednesday, as we sat eating lunch after our session together, curiosity won one battle. Laira had told me to ask him, so I asked Heero how he felt about our "little talk" a week and a half before. Her questions always made both of us nervous, but this one really hit Heero hard. When I saw him struggling, I said, "You don't have to tell me."

After a minute spent staring at the tuna sandwich I'd made for him that morning, mechanically putting it into his mouth, biting, chewing, swallowing -- thinking I decided -- Heero looked up at me and said, "It scared me. I wondered if I was using you like those people on L2 did, and I... I am."

He was guessing about the details of L2, of course, but he'd guessed right enough. He was completely wrong about the other thing, though, and it was time I set him straight. "Heero, you've never used me. Damn it! I'm the one who needs to worry about using you. I'm the one who can't stay on his side of the bed."

He looked away then, and I knew I'd said something important, but didn't know what until he said, "I moved you next to me."

"Naaniiii? Why the Hell would you do something like that?" I wasn't angry. I was shocked.

"Because I needed to feel like someone--" He stopped. Paused for a moment, frowning faintly, thinking. His face went bland again and he met my gaze. "I needed to feel like you were still willing to touch me after what happened."

I started to get angry. We'd been over this before. "It wasn't your fault."

"Duo," he whispered, "I enjoyed it." I just stared at him. "When he had his mouth on... and when he put his... and sometime when he put things... in me..." His eyes widened quite visibly, then he looked away, then down at his sandwich. Anywhere but me.

It took me a few seconds to process what he'd said. I hadn't realized the shit -- human though he may have been, he had still been a shit. I hadn't realized he'd raped Heero in the ass too. God only knew what with. But I knew the answer to Heero's dilemma. "Heero, there's a difference between coming and enjoying it. Believe me, I know." God, did I ever know? "Any healthy guy will come if you give him a decent blow job or hand job, most will if you finger or fuck their ass right. Hell, half the guys I was with on L2 came to me because I was cheaper and put up less fight than a woman, not because they really liked guys better." That was true even the second time around.

Then I thought about what he'd said before we got sidetracked. "You moved me the first night?"

"Aa."

"And the second night? Did you move me then too?"

"Aa." He looked at the table. "And the rest."

"You like me sleeping next to you?"

"Aa." Almost too low to hear.

"Damn it, Heero, why didn't you just ask?" I said it softly, earnestly so he'd know I wasn't mad about it because he'd done it, but because he'd been afraid to ask.

He looked up, uncertain. "I thought you might say no."

"You fucking idiot." I sighed. Sometimes he could be so damn stupid. "It'll be a cold day in Hell before I turn you down on an offer like that." But then, I'd never told him how I felt, so how could he know?

"I'm sorry I used you."

Damn it! He hadn't used me. Or I hadn't minded being used like that. I'd thought I was taking advantage of him. But I knew that what I thought didn't matter just then. What mattered was that Heero felt like he'd been using me. "It's okay, Heero." I smiled, then said the thought that'd made me smile. "I like being your teddy bear."

He looked at me kind of funny, like I'd hit close to home again, but he just said, "Arigatou."

"I'm sorry I laid next to you every morning for the past two months and enjoyed it so much but didn't have the guts to tell you how I felt so you laid there worrying that you were taking advantage of me when it was what I wanted more than anything else in the world." And that was the truth, damn it. I could be satisfied for a long time just laying next to him. I mean, I wanted the sex too, but even the most carefully managed sex is fleeting -- and then it usually isn't very fun because you're too worried about making it last. We could lay next to each other, holding each other for hours and not worry about trying to make it last. All we had to do was enjoy it.

He blinked. Yes, he actually blinked with shock, then let his lips pull into a faint smile -- the first real "happy" smile I'd seen for a while. "I guess I know now." I cringed inside, realizing I'd just told him I was not unattracted to him, but I decided the smile was worth it. I just hoped it didn't mess things up between us.

That night, as I lay on my side, back to him, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked around to find Heero staring at me. It was that slightly pissed off look that's usually my fault. After a few seconds he decided the glare wasn't working -- or maybe he realized he was glaring. His eyebrows relaxed and his mouth softened from its hard line and he said, "Teddy bear?"

I looked at him for a second to be sure, then grinned and flipped over and scootched up next to him. "Just wanted to be sure you hadn't changed your mind." Thank God, he hadn't.

"Hn. Baka."

Yes, I was. But I was also relieved -- so relieved that the word relieved doesn't begin to describe how I felt.

I slept better that night than I had in years. And when I woke up the next morning, he was still asleep, if only for a few seconds before whatever subtle change he sensed woke him. He's always been a very light sleeper. Anyway, when I looked at him in that short flash before he woke, I saw something I'd never seen on his face before.

Nothing.

No worry. No frown. No brow wrinkled in thought. No missions being assembled or executed. No bad memories or old wounds. Not even a smile. Just still, quiet, nothing. It was a beautiful sight, and I wondered if he looked like that every morning before he woke up.

He opened his eyes, the nothing becoming something, though it was no particular expression. About three seconds later, the alarm clock buzzed. He reached over and turned it off. "Shower?"

I nodded. But we had a good ten minutes before we'd be cutting it close, so we lay there. It felt different this time, knowing he wanted it.

I couldn't say how.

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

I handed Laria the envelope first thing when I walked into her office on Monday. She'd been smart about that, and about giving me only a couple of days to stew over it, wondering what I'd drawn. One more day and I'd've looked at it -- full speed ahead and damn the beam cannons. I sat in my usual chair. She flipped open her notebook and asked, "Did you listen to the recording?"

"Twice, like you said."

"And?"

I looked at her, angry, trapped, afraid. Afraid won. "Do I have to?"

She didn't answer. Opened the envelope instead, unfolding my drawing, hiding it from me with her notepad. I was waiting for her to say, "And?" again, so I was surprised when she said, "Describe Daya for me."

She had the drawing right there in front of her, but I knew better than to argue. Besides, describing Daya would be simpler than the other thing she'd asked. "He was my age. A few inches taller than me, but I've always been a bit on the short side. He had dark, curly hair. He kept trying to grow it out long like mine, but it always tangled and I had to cut it back for him. His skin was kind of a medium olive. I guess he was Italian or Greek or something. Dark green eyes. And a pretty, wide mouth that smiled a lot. More than the rest of us, which isn't saying much."

"Was he happy?"

I frowned. "I don't think any of us were really happy, but with Daya, even I had my moments. He was always doing little things for me and we..." I wasn't sure I wanted to think about that.

"You slept together?"

She'd known what I had almost said, so I thought about it. "Yeah. Only... we were kinda young. We didn't really do anything. I mean, I'd sleep curled up against him, and he'd put his arm around me, and sometimes we'd talk about business and he'd show me some new trick he'd learned to use with the johns, like how to work a guys tits so it feels really good, but..."

"Sex was business and this was not-business."

"Yeah."

"Would you say you were lovers?"

I though about that long and hard before nodding. Daya and I had been lovers in all but body.

"What about you and Heero?"

I sighed. "You know I love him, Laira, and you also know he isn't interested."

"Do you still sleep together?"

Oh. Shit. Well, she must be pretty sure if she'd asked. Or he'd told her. And if Heero said one thing and I said another... It wasn't that I was embarrassed about sleeping with Heero, but I didn't want it to get around and be an embarrassment for him. I mean, people nowadays generally don't have a problem with the whole gay thing, but Heero and Relena had something going, and that kind of rumor could cause them problems. And if he thought I'd said something that started it, that could cause us problems. But this was supposed to be confidential. Laria wasn't supposed to tell anyone.

I took a mental deep breath and decided to trust her. "Ever since it happened," I said. "He has nightmares, and after the first night he said I should sleep in his bed with him so I wouldn't have to get up and cross the hall every hour or two to wake him up... I was having them then too, so it made life easier on him too."

"How often does he have nightmares now?"

I looked away. "Maybe once a week. And it's usually not bad, just a little whimper or two and I don't really have to wake him up to stop it."

"So, would you say you're lovers or not?"

I looked back over the past nearly three years with Heero. We'd been through everything together, the war, basic training for the Preventers, assignments, near death a few times, saving each other's asses... and the vacations and dinners and double dates -- even though the dates were often assignments, I didn't put them in quite the same category as the rest. I could only remember us being apart or out of easy contact for maybe a total of three weeks in all that time. Well, four, counting the week he'd been kidnapped. And if Heero had followed me to the bars with any regularity, it was less than that. "Saying we're lovers is a two-way street, but if he was interested in me, yes, we would be."

"Fair enough. Did you look up 'dark matter'?"

I hadn't expected the sudden shift in topic. Truth was, I'd forgotten about it. Which was just as well, because I hadn't wanted to give in to her on that. "No," I said, a little smug.

She smiled, "Stubborn." She knew I had set out not to do it just to prove I could not do it. "I'll explain. Scientists have been arguing for centuries about whether the universe will continue expanding forever or will eventually collapse into another Big Bang. That all depends on the mass of the universe, so they've been trying to calculate it. Based on what they measure and their theories about the origin of the universe, the mass they see is less than the minimum amount they know must be there. They call the missing mass 'dark matter' because it's there but they can't see it -- it doesn't reflect light well or it's too small or it's hidden. I read a few months ago that they think some of it is slightly out of phase with the rest of the universe -- still there, but not quite visible. Of course, they're always trying to detect dark matter so they can determine what will happen sometime a few billion years in the future."

"And this has what to do with me? I mean, I really don't think I'll be around to care about it when it happens."

"In our minds it's usually the things we don't see that determine what happens in our heads and ultimately our lives. Some people repress bad memories, other people transfer emotions, others become fragmented personalities, most of which don't know about each other, some people act out against themselves or others. Sometimes you go a lifetime and the dark matter isn't a problem. Other times, you don't see it until it sucks you in and tears you apart. Sometimes you're lucky enough to spot it before it comes to that, or to realize what's happening before you're too far gone." She looked at the picture again. "Sometimes you need a little help charting it all out." She folded the paper and handed it to me. "You draw well."

I stared at it for a good two minutes before opening it. Earlier, I'd been dying to see it, but confronted with it, I wasn't so sure anymore.

I unfolded the paper and looked at the picture I'd drawn of Daya. Only it wasn't exactly Daya. He'd never had hair long enough to braid, though it had been that color. And he hadn't had Heero's nose and blue eyes. Or Heero's rather distinctive collarbone. I'd been the one who'd worn an earring back then, until a john decided to rip it out to see how loud I could scream. No one had ever left bruises on Daya like that. And, most telling, Daya hadn't lived to be eighteen.

"So what does it mean?" I asked, staring at the hodgepodge blending of myself, the lover I'd had and the lover I wanted.

"You drew it. You tell me."

She was making this hard. I thought for a minute. I've never been into psychology -- probably because of my aversion to shrinks. When a friend is going through a rough time, I just do what seems right and hope for the best. I pulled together what little I knew about complexes and disorders and tried to formulate an answer that sounded knowledgeable. Then I gave up and just said what I really thought because I knew Laira didn't want bullshit. "Well, I guess it says I have trouble telling me and Daya and Heero apart."

She thought for half a minute, then said, "Maybe more like the things that happened to each of you. I think it's more identification than identity. That isn't necessarily bad. All three of you went through similar experiences."

She let me think about that for a while. My nightmares often involved Daya and what happened to him. Even during the war, when they were about killing people, it wasn't uncommon to see him among the dead or dying, or at least running from me. And as for Heero, after he'd been taken, I'd been him and an observer, experiencing and watching as he/I was tortured. Often as not, they were about things I'd imagined, or knew must've happened, not just what I'd seen that night.

Then she hit me with it again. "So what did you think about the recording of the last session?"

I shook my head. "I'm not ready for that."

"Okay. A couple of weeks ago, you came by on a Tuesday afternoon." I remembered. "How did you feel when you said, 'I killed him' ?"

"I don't know."

"I believe you." She smiled. "Think out loud for a minute."

"Angry." That came immediately. "That shit, he'd done terrible things to Heero and fucked up his head royally. And scared because I was afraid you might tell someone, confidentiality or not. And it hurt bad because I could hear Daya screaming as I said it. And... and I really wanted to go find a priest right then and confess. ... But I wasn't sure if I wanted to confess because I'd killed someone or because it felt like I was betraying Daya..." I shrugged. "I don't think I really feel any better about what happened. I still think he deserved to die, but I did what I did for the wrong reasons. I have to live with it, so I will."

"The only people who ever really feel 'better' about killing someone are people who are at risk of becoming sociopaths themselves, Duo."

"So you're saying I'm not a monster."

"No, Duo. You aren't. If you were, we wouldn't be here right now. Sociopaths don't 'get better'."

"What if I can't say what you want me to say about... L2." It was the thing that scared me most about her question.

"Duo." She smiled again. I think she would've laughed, but shrinks learn not to do that because they don't want the patient to think they're laughing at them. "Quit worrying about what you think I want you to say. I want you to say what you're thinking and feeling when you're ready to say it. I may push you when I know where you're trying to go, but they're your words and your thoughts and your choice."

I'd never thought about it that way. So often in the past, I hadn't had a choice about anything -- or hadn't realized I had a choice, so I did what people wanted me to do. And most of the times I'd made my own choices I'd really screwed up.

"If it makes you feel any better, Duo, the fact that you're struggling with it instead of just refusing probably means that you want to say it, but you aren't ready, like you said before."

She closed her notebook, and I took the chance to spring a question on her. "I'm kinda behind Heero in all this." I waved my hand at her wall of shrink books and diplomas.

"No." The immediate response told me it was something she heard often. "You went through different experiences even if they were similar in some ways. That doesn't mean one of you went through an easier thing, just that different people move at different paces. You each need to take your time finding your way through what happened. Trying to compare yourself to Heero and keep up with him is only going to make things harder for you. Move at your own pace, Duo. This could take two more weeks or two more years."

"God, I hope it doesn't take that long."

"You don't like my office?"

"Not that. I just... I'd like to get my head sorted out sooner."

"Why?"

"... ... ... I don't know. I just would."

I didn't know. I just did.

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

Three weeks. I was still fighting the war inside myself between what I knew was right and the wrongs I'd seen and endured. I didn't really lie to myself about what was going on inside my head, but I ignored it a lot. I'd tried to be rational about the whole situation and had learned in the process that it wasn't about being rational. I knew what I needed to do and why I needed to do it and that it was the right thing to do and that I'd feel a Hell of a lot better once I did it, but the part of me that remembered Daya, that had loved him -- still loved him -- the way the rest of me loved Heero now... That part couldn't deal with it, and every time I approached the thing I needed to do, that part of me lashed out and threatened to tear me apart thought by thought and emotion by emotion until I backed away. I understood what Laira had said about dark matter.

After three weeks, I decided I had to live with that division a while longer. I couldn't go through a breakdown just then because Heero still needed me. He still asked me to help him in the shower. He still asked me to sleep with him. He sometimes still needed me to remind him that he could be in control if he'd only take it. The ice wind still blew through him every now and then, leaving him cold and barren. Sometimes it took hours to thaw him out.

Even with the thing undone, Laira released us back to limited field duty after that three weeks. It was everyone's least favorite work -- bodyguarding diplomats' kids, security backup, surveillance, that sort of thing. But after our three-month stint in mission planning, we both welcomed it. Don't get me wrong. Heero and I both like to be on the planning end of a mission, but we like to execute those plans too, not just pass them off to someone else. We made the most of our opportunities to touch the real world again.

Of course, we still had to be in the office three afternoons a week for our meetings with Laira. In my sessions, we talked about Father Maxwell and Sister Helen and all the shit that I'd brought down on them. And about the war. And more about Daya. And Heero. And how I felt about him. And a lot of things I hadn't thought about in a long time -- or had tried not to think about.

Two months later I was still struggling. I think it was beginning to show. I knew Laira could see it, that's her job, but Heero seemed to be worrying over me a lot too. I asked Laira about that one Monday afternoon.

"I can't tell you about what he tells me, Duo. You know that. But I can tell you he both is and isn't as emotionally incompetent as he pretends to be."

Emotionally incompetent. That effectively summed up how I'd always thought of Heero. And what the Hell did she mean by "is and isn't"? As usual, while I was distracted trying to process the idea that there might be more to Heero's emotional life than met even my well-trained eye, she sprang the next thing on me. She'd found that, against me, distraction made a better siege engine than logic.

"Jan. Daya. Father Maxwell. Sister Helen. All those people you killed in the war. What happened to Heero. Hell, to everyone. It's all your fault, isn't it?"

"Of course."

"Why?"

"Because it should've been me."

"Why?"

I opened my mouth to answer, then stopped. I looked at her for I don't know how long. I was so confused trying to find the answer to her question and not finding it that I lost track of the time for the first time ever in her office. "I don't know why, but it should've been."

"No, Duo."

"What do you mean 'No'!? I should've died when I was nine -- or better yet, when I was born -- then everyone else would be alive."

"So why don't you just kill yourself so you'll quit messing up other people's lives."

I couldn't believe she'd said that to me. The thought usually crossed my mind at least a couple of times a month. I had the answer, though. "Because I have to make up for it. Penance, y'know." It was a cynical penance. No priest had heard my confession to tell me what to do, and I didn't really think I could do enough to make up for all the things I'd already done wrong in my life.

"Have you ever considered where Heero Yuy would be today if you'd died before you met him?"

Subject change. She kept her voice calm and matter-of-fact, but I could hear an edge of intensity running beneath it. I knew she was about to nail me with something.

"Who would have bailed him out of that hospital during the war?" So, she'd been reading our files. "Who would have saved his ass after he'd used their Gundam for parts?" Apparently some very good files. "Who would have been his 'teddy bear' for the past five months?" Or maybe Heero had told her.

I opened my mouth to say, "Someone would have," but the words wouldn't come out. I wanted to say Heero was such a nice guy that someone else would have done the same things I'd done, but I knew that wasn't true. The fact was, Heero came across as a cold, heartless bastard most of the time and it was only by dint of my stubbornness and my curiosity, which had wanted to see if he really was a cold, heartless bastard, and what ultimately became my love for him, that I'd figured out there was a warm, caring person under all the ice -- and a child who sometimes needed a friend. That was okay, though. I liked being-- I needed to be a child sometimes too.

"So you're saying..."

She waited while I worked through the new idea.

"You're saying I shouldn't feel guilty about... everything."

"It isn't that easy, Duo, but, yes. I'm saying you need to recognize that your life isn't a waste. Did you ever consider that Daya was the lieutenant's second choice only because you were there? That you were the one who protected him instead of the other way around?"

Her words cut through me like a certain thermal scythe I'd once wielded. Had I been protecting Daya all that time? I hadn't thought I was. I'd thought he was the one taking care of me when I limped or crawled back to the warehouse or when I needed to cry after a really bad night but didn't want anyone to hear because I thought boys didn't cry. "But... but..." But that didn't mean I couldn't've protected him too. I frowned.

Laira smiled and closed her notebook. That was when I noticed I'd lost track of the time. "Guilt isn't something you just turn off, Duo. You'll probably struggle with it for the rest of your life. But think about the people who need you now, not the people you can't do anything about. That's what all this is about. Moving on and finding a life after all the Hell you've been through."

I thought about that for a few minutes, which involved thinking about all that Hell she'd mentioned, which reminded me of something I'd been wanting to ask her for the past three months but could never remember at the right time. "I, uh, have a question, but I'm not sure how to ask it."

"Just ask it, Duo."

"Well... I've been trying to figure out why love is such a physical thing for me. I mean, after all the shit I went through on L2, you'd think I'd be turned off by that kind of thing."

"So you're saying that for you, love is about sex."

"No."

She gave me a sly glance, which I'd come to think of as her "You aren't being completely honest" look, so I explained. "Really. No. I mean, yeah, I know sex can be fun, and I'd like to have a sexual partner but... I want someone to hold me or let me hold them or to just put a hand on my shoulder, or foot or whatever when we're sitting on the couch together or--"

"So sex is important, but that isn't the be all end all that you're after."

"I'd like the sex part, but... well, I think I can live without it if I have someone--"

"Heero."

"Yeah, Heero. That isn't what I'm talking about though. Why do I want anyone to touch me after L2? I mean, it just doesn't make sense."

"This really bothers you, doesn't it."

I glared at her. "Hell yes it bothers me. It makes me wonder if I'm really into, well, y'know... pain."

"Okay, answer two questions and if you still think it's strange, we can spend some time on it next session."

I could deal with that. She'd as good as said we could talk about it, and I thought it would be easier than talking about the guilt thing. "Ask away."

"Did Heero want you to touch him after he was kidnapped?"

"Yes." When she didn't say anything, I knew she wanted me to think about that. He'd pulled me next to him. He'd wanted... what had he said? ... To feel like someone... No, he'd said me specifically. That I was still willing to touch him. I had understood that intellectually at the time, but now that I thought about it ... A hand on his shoulder when I was standing over him at the desk, a casual brush of fingers when I passed him a plate of food or a stack of files, a guiding hand on his elbow or back, an attention getting touch, my leg against his when I sat next to him on the sofa to help him with a crossword clue. I had touched him at least two dozen times on a slow day. "I never realized how much I touched him before." And after he'd been kidnapped? I hadn't touched him any less, but he'd needed the comforting familiarity more, so he'd sought it out. I knew she wouldn't be able to answer me if I asked about it, so I just nodded. "Yes, he did."

"Who touched you that way on L2?"

Sister Helen and Father Maxwell touched me as part of raising me, and they had loved me, but it wasn't the same. The only name I said was, "Daya." He was the only one who ever touched me simply because he loved me and simply to let me know that he loved me.

Sometimes the truth is like getting hit with a baseball bat, especially when you're swinging the bat. I stared at her, digesting my new understanding, then nodded. "I see. You really have a handle on this street kid/rape/sex thing."

"I spend two Saturdays a month working at the juvenile shelter in West Covina. I see a lot of kids who are prostitutes, rape victims or both, and what's really interesting is how many of them want someone to hold them and comfort them just because they care about them, but they're afraid to let anyone close enough to give them that."

"Maybe you should do a study. Write a paper or something."

"No. I promised myself I would never do that with those kids. They have enough people taking advantage of them already. And I really don't need to. Duo, you aren't strange, you're overwhelmingly normal given your history." She smiled at me again. "Anything else?"

I shook my head. I had too much to think about to talk.

"Okay. I have some things for you to do this week. Whenever you feel guilty, think about something good you've done for someone since whatever you're feeling guilty about happened, and remember that if you weren't there to do it, it might not have been done. Spend an hour or two doing a little reading on masochism so you'll see that you aren't into it. And one more thing." She pulled out her prescription pad and scribbled on it as I stood, then tore off the sheet, folded it, and held it out to me.

"I don't want drugs, Laira," I said, turning and walking to the door.

As I paused to open the door, she caught me and stuffed the paper into my shirt pocket. "Doctor's orders." She looked at me sternly. "And if you throw it away, I'll pull you in here every week for the next twenty years. Even if you quit the Preventers." I knew she was serious and joking at the same time. She wouldn't make me come to sessions that wouldn't do any good, but if I tossed it, there'd be Hell to pay.

I walked into the waiting room as the door closed behind me and dug the paper out of my pocket, unfolding it. I stared at the words, then read them aloud so I could be sure I had them right. "Play the recording for Heero, then talk about it." Oh. Shit. I turned, staring at her door. How could she do this to me? I started to take a step toward it to tell her to go to Hell and damn the consequences.

"What recording?" I nearly jumped out of my boxers. He was standing behind me, had doubtless heard my soft whisper as I'd read.

I waited until my heart was beating only twice as fast as normal, then said, "I... I think I'm gonna need to take a few days off." I looked over my shoulder to find him nodding.

"We can go to the beach again," he said.

"No. Somewhere we can be alone."

"Hn." I watched his eyes narrow in thought. "When we were in mission planning, Eduardo was always trying to rent out his cabin up in the mountains that he only gets to use three weeks out of the year."

I nodded. "I'll ask Commander Brekkan for the time off."

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

I never did figure out why I went on that little trip with Heero, much less suggested it. I mean, I know why in a general sense, but why my uncomfortably bent psyche let me get away with it... That I can't explain. Commander Brekkan okayed the time off, even though it was short notice and I couldn't tell him exactly how long we'd be gone, just definitely the rest of the week. I knew he'd make sure Laira knew so she wouldn't wonder where we were when we didn't show up for our other appointments that week. Eduardo was more than happy to get a week's rent out of his mountain cabin. He was saving up for a three-week trip to Alaska -- dog sledding or something. Go figure.

Heero let me off easy at first, not asking about the recording or why it was important or what might be on it, though I knew he had to be wondering as we packed. My hands were shaking a bit. I was trying to hide that from him, but I caught him watching me more than once. I'm sure he saw it, and I'm sure he knew this was going to be rougher than our trip to the beach a few weeks ago. Walking and listening to the waves... that wasn't going to be enough to solve this problem. I had to be somewhere I could let myself fall apart and hope to God I could pull myself back together -- and hope to God Heero survived it.

I didn't argue when he picked up the keys to his motorcycle from their dish by the door. I knew I was in no condition to drive. I was barely able to ride with the small backpack of food and supplies on my back. Heero had the clothes in his. He pulled off the road a couple of times to make me tighten my grip around his waist. Each time he did, I was surprised to find how loose my arms had become. After the third time, I forced myself to quit thinking about what was coming, to think only about hanging on. I didn't need to fall off and leave him feeling guilty.

In a dark way, I found that thought amusing. I'd found a reason to feel guilty about dying. It was quite a change from the usual.

He drove us up into the mountains, following the map Eduardo had drawn and the bike's GPS. It was three gas stops later and nearly midnight when we pulled up to the small cabin. The altitude made it colder than I'd expected. I was glad Heero had made me zip up my jacket at our last stop. He handed me a flashlight -- the one I always called the "Search and Rescue" flashlight because it was essentially a miniature high-intensity spotlight -- and I went inside in while he moved the bike onto the small porch and covered it for the night.

To say Eduardo's cabin was rustic would be like saying central Antarctica is cold in the winter. It was one room. The bed was a futon in front of the fireplace that doubled as a sofa. A couple of beat up chairs sat near it, making the "living room". The "kitchen" was a corner with a hand pump over an old sink supported by two stacks of concrete blocks and a couple of cabinets of mostly metal dishes and cups. We'd brought food to last us for a few days -- cereal, bread, canned tuna and chicken, powdered milk -- stuff that was compact and could last without much refrigeration. There was a small store about a two-hour's ride back. We could restock there if we needed to.

I set our pack of food on the card table in the "dining" corner, walked a bit unsteadily toward the futon, set the flashlight pointing up on one of the chairs to light the room and began getting ready for bed. As I stretched my arms and legs in the process of taking off my clothes, I felt my body aching for rest. Nine hours double on the motorcycle had worn me out.

I was down to my boxers when I decided I should make a quick bathroom run... and realized there was no toilet in the cabin. I walked to the door and reached for it just as Heero, backpack in his left hand, opened it from the other side. He looked at me for a second, then pointed to a line of ten light-sticks glowing ghostly green along the path. "About 25 meters that way," he said. I nodded and chalked up another mark under "Heero thinks of everything." I'd lost count two years before, but I still made myself see it when it happened.

A couple of minutes later, I ran back to the cabin, freezing my ass off because I'd been too tired and distracted to notice there was snow on the ground and a stiff breeze blowing -- or to consider what running around in just my boxers in freezing air was going to feel like after thirty seconds until about ten seconds too late. Heero was already in bed, a couple of heavy blankets providing protection from the chilly, high mountain night. "That was fast," he said looking at me with a hint of a smile that wasn't quite smile enough to merit taking his head off.

"There's fucking snow on the ground." I snapped as I dove under the covers, shivering.

"Aa. That *is* what the 'nevada' in 'Sierra Nevada' means, ne?"

I remembered that crossword clue from last week. "Smart ass," I muttered as I reached over and turned off the flashlight.

"It's only a centimeter of snow. The cold front is supposed to move out by morning. The snow should melt by noon."

"Aa," I said.

We lay there for a few minutes that seemed like hours. My eyes adjusted to the moonlight coming in the windows. I knew what he was waiting for, but thinking about where I was and who I was with and, most importantly, why I was there, I couldn't honestly lay next to him like I had the past five months. I didn't have a shred of comfort or protection to offer, and I was damned if I was going to fake it. I never lie.

"You still have your boxers on."

"Nani?" I realized it was the second time he'd said it. My head was too full of thoughts. "Oh... well... it's cold tonight--"

"Duo, I know you can't sleep in bed with anything on. You need to sleep."

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. That's what he was really saying. I knew better than to argue, though. Especially when he was right and he knew he was right. I reached under the covers, peeling off my boxers, shivering at the wave of cold air that was drawn under the blankets as I bent my knees up and lifted my ass and pulled my underwear off. I tossed them on the floor beside the bed and turned on my side, back to Heero.

He was quiet for a moment, then I heard him moving. For just a heartbeat, I thought I'd hurt him and he was getting out of bed. Then I felt him next to me, wrapping himself along my back, one arm under my pillow, the other closing over my chest, pulling me against him. I cried silently. Daya and I had done the same thing for each other a lot of nights. I can't say for sure if I was crying because I was remembering Daya and it hurt or because Heero was holding me and I was happy. All I know is that the next thing I remember was waking up, and he was still holding me.

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

We didn't say much at first. Really, we didn't say anything. We just lay in bed for a while, me enjoying it, wondering how he felt about it, wishing he felt like I did, knowing he didn't. Eventually, all my wishing turned to darker thoughts, so I pulled myself gently out of his arms and slid toward the edge of the blankets. I sat up. My feet touched the floor -- and immediately jumped back up to the bed.

"Shit! It's cold!" I grabbed my jacket from the chair beside the bed and practically dove into it, then grabbed my jeans off the floor and shoved my legs into them, too cold to worry about underwear. Except socks. I pulled a fresh pair of socks out of the clothes pack. No longer naked in the cold, though still cold, I eyed the fireplace. "Think you can get that going?"

"Of course. Hand me a sweat shirt, please."

I almost refused out of perverseness. He'd laid there and watched me dressing in the cold, waiting. But I couldn't bring myself to do it, especially if he was going to get the fireplace lit. I watched as he disappeared under the blankets with the sweatshirt, only to reappear a moment later wearing it. He slid over in the bed, sat up, keeping the blankets over his legs, and dug jeans and socks out of the bag. A few minutes later, he was dressed, shod and headed out the door. I just stared after him and shook my head. He hadn't popped a single goose bump the whole time, and it was solely because of his careful planning and maneuvering.

As I pulled on my second pair of socks, I heard a heavy thudding sound outside. I ran to the window to check on him, afraid he'd fallen or something silly like that. Instead, I saw him facing mostly away from me, swinging an axe. THUD. Splitting a small log in half with a single stroke. He worked at it for another twenty minutes, precisely setting each piece of wood on an old stump by the woodpile, positioning the axe head, swinging back, then arcing the blade forward, bringing all his considerable strength to bear on the helpless piece of wood. THUD. Many of the blows literally lifted his feet off the ground.

When he set the axe down against the log pile and began picking up the split pieces of wood, I moved away from the window. Something inside me told me I really didn't want him to catch me watching him. Something told me not all his energy had been directed at the wood.

True to his word, he got the fire going. I fixed toast and oatmeal and coffee for breakfast. We sat on the end of the bed and ate in front of the fire. He suggested we sit out on the porch and talk. I told him there was no way in Hell I was going out that door before noon except to go to the outhouse -- and then I'd do my best to hold it until the snow melted.

He was quiet for a moment, thinking. I'd noticed that he did that a lot lately. Not that he was the most talkative person before he'd been taken, but when he spoke then, there'd been no hesitation. Now, he often paused to think for a moment before he spoke. More damage. More "my fault". His decision made, he said, "What about the recording?"

Damn. In the busyness of getting up and watching Heero and getting breakfast ready, I had almost forgotten about that. I'd hoped he had too. I looked up, wary, and found that cool, steady stare fixed on me, telling me he wasn't going to let it go. That was one of the things about him that was different from Laira. She would back off when I got uncomfortable. "I didn't bring it." I was playing for time. I was tricking myself into believing he'd drop it.

The pause again, then, "Tell me."

The voice told me I was cornered, trapped, no way out. I told myself -- the part that still loved Daya -- that I didn't have to say what Laira wanted to hear, that I could tell it to him as I'd told it to her. So I began pouring out the whole, sorry story of my life. And when it came to the crunch, somehow, I called the lieutenant a shit, because he was, but I called him "he".

I felt betrayed inside. I couldn't believe I'd said the words. At the same time, I felt relieved. I knew I was reliving this story for the last time. Knew that after this time, if... when I pulled myself back together, I'd be able to leave it where it belonged. Remembered, but the past. Still dangerous, but no longer dark matter threatening to tear me apart.

I felt so... hopeful-- that's the word. I didn't really feel good, but it felt like it could be good... maybe... eventually.

I felt so hopeful that I didn't stop after Daya's death. I told him everything. Father Maxwell, Sister Helen, the orphanage, going back on the streets after the massacre, meeting Dr. G., the war, the killing, my nightmares, our lives since, the fear I'd felt when he'd been taken, what I'd seen, what I'd done, what I'd felt, talking to Laira, what I'd been thinking, everything. And when I finally reached NOW again and the words stopped and sometime later the memories became memories -- some again, some for the first time -- and I became aware of where I was...

I found my head on his shoulder. His shirt was wet where I'd been crying sometimes. He was holding me and repeating, "It's okay now. It's over now. It isn't your fault." The same things Laira had been saying all along, but the words were different coming from him. When Heero said them, they weren't a simple statement of fact. They were a promise.

I needed that promise now because I was broken inside -- or, at least, the part of me that hadn't been able to let go of Daya was broken and it hurt like Hell. By all rights, I knew I should've been a complete wreck. I should've felt awful. I should have wanted to just lay there and be miserable for a week or two. But it was like Heero was holding me together somehow.

That's when I realized that, for all my resolve not to be the "together" person, to lean on him as he had to lean on me, I hadn't. I'd let him help in little ways, but not in the ways that really mattered, and I'd become so focused on holding myself together for him, that I hadn't seen that he didn't need as much help anymore. That I should've been letting him help me when I needed it.

Right then, I really needed it.

I sat there next to him, quiet, holding and being held. Enjoying the rare moment of physical intimacy coming *from* him. Until I realized it was dark. "How long--" My voice was a hoarse whisper and my throat hurt.

"Doesn't matter." I lifted my head and disentangled myself from his arms. "22:09," he added, answering my question.

"God." I winced. "I'm tired and hungry and need to take a leak and my throat hurts like Hell."

"Aa." I felt one of his arms move away from me. The SAR flashlight came on, half-blinding me even though it was still pointed at the ceiling. "I'll fix sandwiches. You go to the outhouse -- take a light stick." The hand that'd reached for the flashlight paused to dig a light stick out of the backpack as he continued speaking. "We'll go to bed. Your throat will feel better in the morning."

I nodded and took the light stick from him. He had the solutions to all my immediate problems, and they were the only problems I cared about at the moment. I hurried out the door, not bothering to pull on shoes.

If it'd been another yard to the outhouse, I might not've made it. When I realized I needed to do more than take a leak, Heero got another, very grateful "thinks of everything" mark for remembering toilet paper. Walking back fifteen minutes later I realized it was cold out again. Tonight I had on enough clothes that I didn't mind. The cold, clear air made the stars seem so much brighter and crisper, and as I looked at them, I wondered what lay in all the empty spaces between them. Looking at them, I remembered Daya, but this time, the memory didn't rule me like it had in the past. The spit and baling wire holding me together held. Tomorrow, it'd be stronger. I was going to be okay.

I smiled, a little wistful, but a smile nonetheless.

I finished making the sandwiches while Heero took his own trip down the path. He'd kept the fire going low all day, sitting beside me and I guess kicking in the occasional bit of wood to keep it alive. I don't think he let go of me to do it. Now he'd built it up to a small but warm blaze. I found some old mint tea in the cabinets, decided it would be better than coffee before bed and was putting a pot of water on the fire to warm when he came back.

We ate and drank in silence, each of us considering what'd happened today, what the words I'd said but could only recall in broad strokes might mean to us. Such as "us" was.

That was the thing that worried me most. Had my words, my past, my guilt alienated him? He'd stayed, comforting me, but was that out of true concern or a sense of responsibility to his partner? In once again telling what I'd seen at the house that night, had I reopened his barely-closed wounds? And what had I said that I didn't remember? I knew there was a lot of that.

I took the cups and put them in the sink, poured the rest of the hot water over them and washed them out. When I turned around, he was in bed, waiting. I walked over and stripped and climbed in with him, laying on my back on my own side of the bed. After a minute, he reached over and rolled me to my side, facing him, then started pulling me toward him. I moved next to him and curled up against him as I had so often lately and smiled to myself. He still wanted me to be his teddy bear. That was good.

It took me a minute to recognize the difference. Before, his arm had always been stretched out perpendicular to his body. Now, it was folded along my back, his fingers resting lightly on the small of my back and my waist. It was how Daya and I had slept when neither of us was crying or wanting to cry.

I didn't get to think about it for long, though. I was tired.

I fell asleep.

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

The next morning, it was cold again, but not as cold. After about an hour of laying there together, he said, "We'll need more wood for the fire soon."

I nodded, my head rubbing against his shoulder. "I'll go chop wood if you get the fire going again." My throat felt better, but my voice was still rough around the edges.

"Aa. Ryoukai."

I followed his pattern this time, dressing under the covers, exposing a minimal amount of naked skin to the cold. I got into one of the sweatshirts -- his, I think, but I didn't care -- then started looking for a fresh pair of boxers. "Oh shit," I muttered.

"Nani?"

"We didn't pack any underwear."

"Aa. There was room for underwear or toilet paper."

"Oh." I sighed. Not that I didn't like running around in jeans without underwear from time to time -- denim can be a very sensual thing -- but the extra insulation of a couple of layers of flannel on my ass would have been a lot more welcome than "sensual" right then. There was nothing to do about it but live with it or wear my boxers from a couple of days ago. They weren't flannel, so I chose to live with it. A few minutes later, Heero was in his sweatshirt and working toward his jeans. I noticed he'd dropped his briefs. I guess that after a couple of days and nights they must've been getting unsavory.

I was dressed for the great -- and frigid -- outdoors, so rather than waste time watching him get dressed, I walked out the door to the woodpile. I carefully set up the first log on the stump as I'd seen Heero do the day before, letting my mind wander so it could continue sorting things out. There was a lot of sorting for it to do. I swung the axe. THUD. The blade bit into the wood, shearing it in two. The impact ran up my arms and into my shoulders and back. It hurt a little, but it felt good at the same time. I set up one of the half-logs I'd just made and swung again, ready for it this time. THUD. Damn. That did feel good.

The next swing, as the axe head was racing toward the wood, I saw the lieutenant. I swung even harder. The axe went straight through the log and embedded itself in the stump, quarter-logs flying ten feet in either direction. I remembered something I'd forgotten. On his uniform, over his right pocket, his name was Hallen. Lieutenant Hallen. I worked the blade out of the stump. I set up another log. This time it was ... THUD ... Marek, one of the soldiers, then ... THUD ... Stannell, who'd broken my legs, then... One by one I split them open, remembering names and faces I'd forgotten, and as I did I found that I was stronger now than they had been then. When I tried to split a second log with Lieutenant Hallen in my mind, it took two strokes. He -- all of them had lost the power to make me angry and afraid and weak. It was the last hold they'd had on me. Finally, I split a log for Harris Dorande, the man who'd taken Heero, and I was done. I stared at the pile of shattered wood around me, felt the sweat soaking my body, I'd been at it for at least an hour.

"Eduardo won't have to chop wood for a while," Heero said.

I turned and saw him standing a couple of yards away, carefully out of my line of sight -- and the axe's swing. "I... Uh... Anou... Heero..." My arms and back were sore.

"Feels good, ne?"

So I'd been right yesterday. He'd been doing more than splitting wood. "Aa," I said, stealing his line.

He smiled faintly at that. "I'll help you pick up this mess, then there's burnt toast and cereal with warm milk."

"You made me breakfast again?" For the second time ever.

"Aa." This time, he really smiled.

We stacked the wood, took a load inside and ate. I flopped down on the bed to rest from my workout with the axe. Heero sat in the more comfortable of the two chairs and said, "Yesterday, when I was chopping wood--"

"I saw." I knew it was safe to say that now.

He nodded. "It was like every time I swung, I was..." The words trailed off, uncertain.

"Free. You couldn't hit them that hard the second time."

"Aa." Heero thought for a moment. I waited. In the end, he just shrugged and said, "Free. I like that word."

I stared up at the roof beams. "So, what'd you think of my story yesterday?" I asked. The question had been sitting in my mind all night, waiting even as I slept. I needed to get it asked and answered. I needed to face it and figure out where it left us.

He was quiet for a long time. When I couldn't stand it any longer, I turned to look at him. His head was down, eyes staring at his hands in his lap and... God. He was crying.

"Heero?" I dragged myself into a sitting position and reached over to touch him. "Are you okay?"

He took a deep breath, let out a shuddering sigh. "Damn it, Duo. You went through Hell. I always thought I was the one who was never a child."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. I... I should have kept my mouth shut."

"NO!" He looked up at me. "Don't ever say that." The same words, the same deadly, ice hurricane behind them as when I'd said it should've been me instead of him. "I would rather hurt with you than watch you hurting alone." I guess I must have looked confused because after a moment he added, "When I understood that you did understand, that you'd been... raped too... It was a couple of days later. I realized how much you were hurting yourself trying to help me, that I was dragging you back through whatever had happened to you, and I swore I would do whatever it took to be able to help you like you were helping me."

I understood the words, but I had to lay back on the bed before I understood what he'd said. I thought I understood. "Thanks, Heero. It's good to have a friend." It explained why he'd gotten a handle on his feelings so quickly. I would've expected it to take years.

There was that pause again as we both thought, then he said, "Aa." A look of disappointment, I thought, but didn't want to ask why. I was afraid he might say he didn't really think he was my friend. I know that sounds irrational, but since when has a friendship been about "rational"?

I lay there until my body didn't ache so much, then suggested we go for a walk. He agreed, grabbed the backpack of clothes. "Eduardo told me where there's a warm spring. We could both use a bath." Especially me. I was definitely feeling grungy after two days and my morning at the woodpile.

It was about a half-hour's easy hike. We took our dirty clothes and washed them and laid them out in the sun to dry. We bathed and soaked the afternoon away and talked about nothing important, feeling the relaxing magic of warm water and open sky working on us.

I caught myself appreciating Heero's body a couple of times. I hadn't done that since he'd been taken. In a way, I knew it was good that I was seeing him as I had before, but in a way it disturbed me because I didn't really want to think about him that way. It hadn't been easy, but I'd come to terms with my attraction to him and my utter lack of attraction to any of several lovely girls who were always after dates and what those things meant about me back during the war. And when I'd seen how he smiled when he was talking with Relena, I'd decided I would never approach him about how I felt. I'd decided I needed a friend more than I needed a former friend. I'd been right then. I'd been right when I'd decided to put the whole physical reaction thing aside after he'd been taken. I made the same choice again. After so many years and so many times, it was almost easy.

We made it back to the cabin just before dark, feeling clean and relaxed. Heero got the fire going again. I made sandwiches and warmed a can of soup. We sat on the floor in front of the bed watching the fire for an hour or two, then, without saying a word, both of us stood up and began to undress for bed at the same time. It made me realize how well we knew each other. When we slipped under the covers, I immediately moved next to him and he closed his arm around me.

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

When I woke, we had changed positions in our sleep. He had turned on his side, facing me. The one arm now ran under my armpit and along my back. The hand was resting about six inches below my waist, fingers curling around the curve of my ass. The other arm bridged his side and my hip. One of his legs was between my thighs, bent, the ankle caught just below my knees, the muscles of his thigh twitching slightly against mine. His forehead rested against my chest, warm breath blowing on me in a slow, steady rhythm. He was naked against me. I could feel myself beginning to respond to the way his body was intertwined with mine and tried to extricate myself.

His leg moved gently between mine, nudging my crotch. "Is this what you meant when you told Laira you loved me?"

I wanted to sink straight through the bed, the plank floor and the first twenty-odd feet of rock beneath it. I'd told him about that? Shit! Why? Why had I let myself babble that out? I was afraid, not so much that he'd beat me up or anything, but that this would change our relationship, come between us. At the same time, I knew I couldn't lay there and ignore his question. "Part of it. A small part." It was a part I'd always wanted because love is a very physical thing for me -- touching, holding hands, sleeping next to each other -- and yes, sex, at least conceptually. It was a part I'd learned to live without because it was too dangerous. The good thing about my embarrassment was, it put my arousal on hold.

"What is the rest?"

"Hell, Heero. Isn't it obvious? We've lived together for nearly three years in hotel rooms and an apartment, shared bedrooms, sometimes beds, meals, taken care of each other when we're sick, argued and made up, saved each others' asses... ." We both knew there was a lot more. I could've spent all day itemizing if I'd let myself. "I didn't do all that stuff just because you're my partner. I love you." He already knew, so there was no point in pretending it wasn't true. "I... I'd love it if... but I'd rather be your partner and your friend than do something that breaks us up." I shrugged against him. Anything. I would've done anything for the physical relationship. Anything but lose him. Laira had been right about that too.

He held me, not moving for maybe three minutes. It was the pause again, damn it. Then he lifted his face to look at me. "I love you too."

"Yeah. I know." I did know. He'd stuck with me through all that time. He'd been on the giving side as much as the getting. Hell, he'd even chosen to room with me knowing I was gay.

"Duo," he said, staring at me with cool blue eyes, "I love you." My stomach fluttered. I could hear he was trying to say something. "I wouldn't be opposed--" He stopped and frowned, eyes down. "One of the first things Laira taught me was that I should think before saying feelings so I can be sure to use the right words." I waited for a hundred years. Finally, a couple of minutes later, he looked back up at me, slightly embarrassed, slightly coy. "I love you... and I would really like to try that small part."

I had actually let myself believe that might be what he was going to say. I didn't want it that way, though. He felt guilty because I was hooked on him and he wasn't hooked on me. "Heero, c'mon. I know you like girls. You and Relena--" I stopped when I saw he was shaking his head with that pissed off look on his face.

"Baka! Relena and I are friends, and we like to see each other sometimes and talk about when we were younger and both a little foolish and what we're doing now and what we want to do, but I'm not attracted to her the way..." I stared at him in the sudden silence. I know my eyes must've been about to pop out of their sockets. "The way I..." Again that pause. This time I knew what he was going to say and, I have to admit, it was making me a little angry. It was a reaction to what'd happened. Some screwed up sense of owing me combined with being a bit mixed up about his sexuality after he'd been taken, and, damn it, I didn't want it because he thought he owed me.

"The way I've found I'm attracted to you."

Just what I'd thought. I wasn't a whore anymore and I wasn't going to make one of him.

"It... It's part of why I asked you to share the apartment with me."

"Look, Heero, I-- Share the apartment?" Oh, God. He'd been... That long? From before he was taken?

He ignored my interrupted interruption. "When we were up for reassignment I waited to see where you were going so I could request somewhere else. Then I was filling out the forms to go to Kobe, and I thought about what it would be like without you. At first I thought I would be glad to be rid of you, but the more I thought, the more I saw how well we fit together, and how I had become attached to you."

I lay there in a daze listening, no longer able to jump to conclusions, caught in the rush of words like a boat blown before a storm.

"Not just because you're beautiful, but because I like being with you, even when you're annoying the Hell out of me. Even though I sometimes forget that. I didn't want to go somewhere else. It took me a couple of weeks to put it all together, but I finally guessed that what I felt for you might be part of what love was all about. I did some reading and decided I was right.

"I asked you to share the apartment and hoped something would just happen because I didn't know what the Hell I was doing or what I really expected or wanted or anything. And I thought you weren't interested in me, only, every time I was about to give up hope, you'd touch me or say something or I'd catch you looking at me and I'd think maybe... I was going to ask you if you were interested in me or not after... the assignment. But..."

He'd hoped? He was going to ask? Oh. God. He was serious. Even when I was annoying the Hell out of him? He loved me? He wanted me? Me? Why me? After I'd told him everything he--

As usual, my mouth didn't wait for my brain. "You're... You're... sure? I-- Eep." I felt his hand slide down from my hip and along my thigh. My arousal was no longer on hold, and as he nudged closer to me, I realized I wasn't the only one. "I... I... Uh..." My brain suddenly took charge again. "Heero, I didn't really come prepared for this." Hell, I hadn't ever even dreamed this could really happen. Damn if Heero Yuy wasn't interested in me. God, what did I do to deserve this?

"Prepared?"

"Yeah. I mean, well..." I'd never thought I'd have to explain this to anyone, certainly not Heero, and the words I'd known on L2 seemed wrong for this. I sighed. Better start from square one. "I know you know about , uh, y'know, the hedgehogs and the ferrets, rhinos and hippos, birds and bees... uh...."

"Sex." He nodded.

At least I didn't have to explain that. "And about the mechanics involved when it's two guys?" He nodded again. So he'd at least thought or read about that part. "Protection? Lubricants?" He frowned. "Yeah. Trust me, you want to wait on those. Especially the protection with me. No telling what I might have that no one's bothered to check for."

"Oh."

I heard the disappointment in his voice. He wasn't the only one who was disappointed. Well, I guess I was still too shocked to actually know I was disappointed. Then I realized I was being stupid. I of all people should know there were more ways to get a guy off than taking him up my ass or down my throat -- and that getting off wasn't what it was all about anyway. I let a faint grin play onto my face, "But there are other things we can do, and I'm just the one to teach you." All those years on the street were about to be useful for something good.

"Nani?"

I had him confused. Good. Turn about is fair play. I lifted my right hand to his chest, touching it. My second round on the streets, I'd done this hundreds of times, but this time it was different. This time, I cared about the person I was touching. This time, the only payment I wanted was to know he was enjoying what we were doing together. I pinched gently, drawing a shiver.

"I see, koi" he whispered as he lifted his mouth to kiss my neck.

Koi. I was so happy I almost passed out.

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

If you think I'm going to tell you the details of our sex life, you're sorely mistaken. It's private, something special between us. But I'll tell you about what happened so you don't lynch me.

We spent the morning in bed, most of the time holding each other, sometimes touching in stimulating ways, and sometimes just touching. Around noon, I dared him and we raced each other to the warm spring, naked, playing grab-ass games all the way. We spent the rest of the day in the warm water doing things that didn't require protection or more than a little soap and water as a lubricant. And that wasn't all we did. Sitting in a warm spring is incredibly pleasant when you're holding someone you love or being held by them.

You'll probably think it strange that we didn't pack and go home where we could buy rubbers and KY and hop straight to the main event, but I knew many simpler things we could do -- not all of them sexual -- and Heero was a fast learner and by the time we made it back to the cabin that night, we were both more interested in exploring the basics of each others bodies and the things we could do that brought each other the pleasure that was, perhaps less intense than the sexual things we'd done, but which lasted much longer. It was a good starting point and quite fun. Doing those things in a warm spring under the open sky and later in a rickety futon bed in an equally rickety cabin in the middle of nowhere was something of a turn on too. We caught a couple of squirrels watching us at the spring the next day and made jokes about them taking notes. We still joke about the gay squirrels and the things they do in Eduardo's cabin.

Sunday, we went home... and did a little shopping... among other things.

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

The following Monday was weird for me.

We made a doctor's appointment and somehow lucked into an 08:30 slot. We were standing in the exam room, waiting, when Heero said, "Has anyone ever told you you're an angel?"

"Yeah. Sister Helen. But I always told her I couldn't be more than a fallen angel."

"She was right," he said, pulling me against him and stretching up to kiss me deeply. I was confused, wondering how he figured that, but after all of two seconds, the kiss had me thoroughly distracted. I was mildly angry when he pulled away three seconds later, but then he did that Heero thing he does and made me happy.

"I love you, Duo Maxwell." He hadn't let go of me, just pulled his lips away from mine.

How many times had I wanted to hear those words from him, Hell, from just about anyone who actually meant them, but especially him? How hard had I tried to convince myself they didn't matter? I wanted to cry I was so happy. Damn him, I love it when he does that to me. It was worth ending the kiss. "I think that makes you my angel," I mumbled, trying to make sense out of the confusion.

He smiled. "It works both ways, koi" Then kissed me again.

We were still doing that thirty seconds later when Dr. Cabezas walked in. He took one look at us, closed the door behind him and said, "You both had a disease screen at your physical."

I felt my cheeks getting warm. Heero just said, "We want you to check for everything."

I don't know if he knew what he was asking for, but Dr. Cabezas took him literally, spending twenty minutes on each of us, drawing blood, taking swabs from every orifice of our body, even skin scrapes, but when it came to the body hair samples, I had to ask. "Parasites," he said in his 'comforting doctor' voice. "They're easily treated." I'd forgotten about those. By the time he was done, I felt like I'd been given a once-over by an evidence technician.

Later, I went to my appointment with Laria. Heero had offered to come with me, but I'd told him no. I needed to do it myself. Laira and I had barely gotten settled into our respective seats when she asked, "How was your... vacation?"

I heard the pause and knew it was intentional. I looked at her face for a few seconds, trying to read what she was up to. Saw the faint smile and that certain light in her eyes that I'd come to recognize as amusement. I often amused her. I could find only one reason for her to be amused. "You knew."

"Knew what?"

So, it was going to be one of those games. I decided to play along. "The vacation was good. Rough at first, but good. We went up to Eduardo's cabin in the Nevadas. I told Heero about L2. We spent a few days sorting some things out and, uh, learning a few things about each other." It was a struggle, but I kept my face serious through my whole speech. I knew she'd see through me anyway.

"Yes, Duo. I knew. You both told me that day after your physical."

"Damn, Laira. Why didn't you tell us sooner?"

For the first time in over five months, I saw a hint of guilt on her face. "I know it was difficult for both of you to be stuck wishing for the same thing and too afraid to tell each other, but I was bound by doctor-patient privilege. Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to sit here counseling you two and watching you both dance around your feelings for each other?" She shrugged. "I had to wait until you were ready, and even then, I could only push you in the right direction and hope you both figured it out."

"Laira, I've been ready for this for three years." I was mad, but I was trying to make it more exasperated than outright mad.

She shook her head. "No, Duo. Neither of you was ready for it. If you were, you would have said something to each other before. If love isn't stronger than fear, it isn't strong enough."

Suddenly, I had doubts. I looked down at my hands, knotted together in my lap. "I didn't know I was telling him. You know how I just talk sometimes. It was like that and I just blurted it out. I still don't know exactly what I told him. Just that it was about that time in the exam room. And later, when he told me, I was scared to death that he was confused or I was dreaming or something like that."

"What were you doing when he told you?"

"Waking up. We were in bed and he was holding me and..." I shook my head. "I guess I'm stupid sometimes."

That made her smile. "I think you worry too much about some things because they're very important to you."

I thought about that for a while, then nodded. "Yeah. I can see that."

"And you never would have told him, no matter how lost in talk you were, unless you were ready to say it. Consciously or unconsciously, you had to overcome the fear and guilt."

I nodded again. I wasn't sure I completely believed it, but I believed it enough that I didn't think I could argue against her very well. I decided to change the subject. "The lieutenant-shit. His name was Hallen."

"Good, Duo. Have you looked him up?"

"No." I hadn't. "He doesn't matter anymore." I watched her watching me for a minute. "Well, he does. I hate his guts. I wish someone would give him a taste of his own medicine, then kill him. But that isn't going to be me, so there's no point knowing where he is or even if he's still alive." I stared her in the eye as I said, "I have more important things to do. Like getting my head back on straight." And being there for Heero as the person who loved him and who wasn't afraid to say it, if I could.

"That's good, Duo." She smiled. "Now, I have a favor to ask. I told you about the youth shelter in West Covina."

"Yes." I knew what she was going to ask, but before I could tell her I didn't think I could do that right now, she continued.

"In a couple of months I'm going to change you and Heero to monthly follow-ups for about a year. I like patients to know I'm not dropping them, and there are usually a few things unresolved. A couple of months after that, I'd like you both to come to the shelter for a Saturday. I think you each have a lot of hope to offer the kids there. They could really use it."

Once again, she was ahead of me. "I can probably do that."

"Thank you."

I nodded. Maybe the Hell I'd gone through on L2 could help someone else. If so, maybe it was almost worth it. Then I decided I shouldn't make the same mistake twice. I'd go talk to the kids and see if I had anything they needed and tell them bits and pieces of my story and not worry about fixing them. Laira hadn't asked me to fix them, just give them some hope that there was life after.

She was right. I suddenly had a lot of that to offer.

When I walked out of her office, I saw Heero waiting for me. I paused for a second, wondering if I dared put myself to the test, then decided I had to sometime and now was as good a time as any. I walked over to him and hugged him tight. "I love you," I whispered in his ear.

I smiled as I realized I had said it and wasn't afraid. He'd survived me loving him so far.

"I love you."

I didn't feel guilty. Daya would have wanted me to be happy.

"I love you."

All the complications faded before my new mantra -- for the moment, at least.

"I love you."

That and that he loved me were the only things that mattered.

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

Laira knew what she was doing when she scheduled us for that year of follow-ups. She helped us get through our first lovers' quarrels and some of the dark matter we still hadn't quite discovered. Oh, surely you don't think six months with a shrink is enough to "fix" a lifetime of problems, do you? It isn't. Hell, we still go see her sometimes when we need help sorting something out, together or one of us alone. I guess I've come to trust one shrink in the world.

Dr. Cabezas' tests took a whole month to process -- he was nothing if not thorough. In the end, we each got a sixty page list of things we'd been checked for. I had antibodies for about twelve of those pages, but I wasn't actually infected with anything and couldn't pass anything on to Heero. I considered myself lucky.

That night, we celebrated.

And most nights after that.

And every time we look at each other and remember that we survived the shit and found each other and now it's time to live.

I'd like to tell you that we had one of those fairy tale endings where "they lived happily ever after," but, the fact is, we still argue and get on each other's nerves more often than either of us would like. But that's why they call them fairy tale endings. They aren't real.

We always patch up our differences, though. Sometimes in a few hours, sometimes it takes a few days to get everything back the way it should be. But we always make it through those times and end up in each other's arms again because we love each other and because we remember where we've been, and what it was like to be there alone.

....

Together.

Yeah.

That's what we want.

...

Neither of us wants to face the dark alone again.