Part Eighteen: After Such Knowledge
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions
Guides us by vanities.
--- T.S. Eliot
Heero woke up at mid-morning. He stared at the ceiling for several minutes, letting the previous day creep into his awareness.
Damn that girl, he thought, and rubbed his pounding temples. I haven't drunk alcohol that fast since university. Even cheap whiskey, it's still a waste. He glanced over at the dim clock on the bedside table. Eight standard time: fifteen hours straight. Heero let his head fall back on the pillow for a minute, his lips quirking. I must have been more exhausted then I'd realized. I'm getting old. The thought made him smile outright. His team leader couldn't argue him to sleep but a green-haired pimp managed with only a half-bottle of whiskey. Heero snorted and sat up.
The first thing he did after sitting up was to throw back the covers.
Fully dressed, he registered with some relief. Groaning at the rocks rolling around in his skull with every movement, he staggered to the bathroom. He spent several minutes with his head in the sink, trying to drink straight from the tap. Finally he stood up, yanked off his dirty clothes, and turned on the shower.
Thirty minutes later he didn't think he could get any cleaner or wetter. He'd used nearly the entire hotel shampoo bottle, repeatedly, and scrubbed several times. The soap was worn down to a sliver and the shampoo was gone before he started to feel like the past few days had faded.
Climbing out of the shower, Heero paused at the bathroom mirror, wiping the steam away only to find his dark blue eyes staring at him. Transfixed, he leaned closer, studying the way his iris melded from darkest blue at the rim, to a lighter sapphire in the middle. There were flecks of silver in the iris that he'd never noticed before.
Stepping back, he could see his face, down his chest, to his waist, reflected in the mirror. There was faint stubble on his chin. Water was beading on his chest, and he ran a hand down his body, wiping the water away as he felt the muscles still hiding under his skin.
I was fifteen once, he thought. Was it really only six years since I fell to Earth? His body was no longer as lean -- skinny, he corrected himself -- and he was taller, a shade broader in the shoulder, tightly muscled on a slender frame. He ran a hand back up his chest, ghosting his palm across a nipple and frowning at the sensation.
I can count on one hand the number of partners I've had in the bedroom, he thought. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had sex, he added, and the memory filled him with an implacable sadness. Each time, he'd been drunk, and a girl was conveniently there, or some well-intentioned classmate had shoved the girl towards him. It all came to the same thing. Sex, scrabbling out of clothes, ill-placed kisses that were more alcohol than saliva, random movements and a too-momentary blindness that quickly shifted to disgust.
Heero ran his hand down his ribs, across his stomach, to his hip. His skin was golden, but losing its sun-kissed color after two months away from Earth. Heero's fingers were tensed and flat. His palm hovered just above the surface of his skin.
I can't remember what it was like. I can't remember caring enough to pay attention. All working parts were in order, he considered wryly. That much I know. Insert Tab A into Slot B. Even drunk, nature knows its course. The problem wasn't really sex, even if he knew on some level it wasn't supposed to be so clinically boring. The problem was that he couldn't stand to sleep in contact with anyone, and only one girl had stayed after he'd gotten up to sleep in his computer chair. Even she had left the next day, never to speak to him again.
Like he cared. The realization struck him, and he froze, unable to meet his own eyes in the reflection. He had felt bad at the time, as if feeling bad were an obligation. He'd never dealt well with shirking obligations, but he couldn't talk to them. Not after sex. Not after they'd each seen him at his most vulnerable.
The dark-haired man stared at his reflection, still not meeting his own eyes, watching his hand come back into the frame. His hair was sticking up, water droplets poised on every tip as the hair hung in his face. His blue eyes darkened as his hand dropped out of the frame again, slipping between his legs to cup his soft cock against his palm.
What does it mean to be in love, he wondered. What does it mean to be in love with a real person, he amended. Reluctantly he let his hand drop, ignoring the first flush of arousal prickling along his body. The sensation was pleasant, but hollow. Heero closed his eyes and leaned against the damp bathroom wall.
I don't want just sex, he sighed. I want someone who isn't afraid of me. I want someone who isn't afraid to touch me. I want someone who will be there in the morning. I want someone who won't leave just because I don't know what to say.
Heero turned off the bathroom light as he dried himself and got dressed, no longer willing to let the mirror remind him of his existence.
At noon Heero made his way downstairs, confirming his room for a second night. Once out on the street he headed for a local bodega, picking up razors, shaving cream, cheap socks, two pulp novels, a six pack of beer, and two sandwiches.
Back in his room an hour later, Heero stripped off the shirt, kicked off his shoes and socks and lay across the bed on his stomach. Nibbling on the first sandwich, he propped the book up on the pillow and began reading.
By midnight he'd finished both books, polished off the last of the beer, and had only crumpled-up wax paper remaining from his meals. Bored, he stared at the headboard for a while before leaning over and shutting off the light.
Heero woke at dawn the next morning, and slowly sat up, frowning as he realized he'd shared the bed with two books, crumpled sandwich wrappers, and six empty bottles. Running a hand through his hair, he took another shower. He scuffed his chin before deciding to shave, reluctant to stare at himself for too long.
His head clearer, he pulled on the black jeans and dug through the bedside table's drawers. There was a set of grubby stationary, probably dating from before the war. Not too many literate people staying in hotels these days, he thought, amused. He was gratified to find a ballpoint pen in one of the dresser draws, and he chewed on the end pensively as he lay back down on the bed.
Enough avoidance, he told himself, and began to write.
His script was angular, but light strokes as if by a hand more familiar with brush work. Absently he wished he'd had his favorite fountain pen with him, the one he used for signing prints. Heero shook his head and focused on the task, letting the words resolve themselves back into meaning.
Quatre and Wufei were handling his accounts on L1.
Heero pondered that statement. So many things were hiding behind that obvious fact. Wufei was in school, and with the Preventers. He hardly had the money to pay for Heero's expenses, so it wasn't surprising that the ever-generous Quatre would insist on the honors. Wufei, though, must have opted to take responsibility for the disbursal. Something was niggling at Heero's brain, and he paused to run back through everything the hackers had said.
When he realized it, he stared hard at the stationary as if accusing it personally.
The account was opened the day before you left for L2...
The day before. Heero frowned, tapping the pen against the paper. Relena had said Quatre was aware of Heero's attempts to find Duo and Trowa. What if Quatre and Wufei had assumed that the photographer would go after them?
Wouldn't that mean they'd known he'd find information to send him to L2? How could they know he'd contact the hackers, or that he'd have the resources or skills at Quatre's disposal?
Heero paused, deciding to jot down a few basic assumptions.
1. They planned for me to find a lead.
2. They were counting on my response.
If anyone would know him well, it would only be the other Gundam pilots. But how did Quatre know he'd find the lead? It was purely chance that Mike had stumbled on the information, and it was only through Pinky's original lead that Mike had even had the thought in the first place.
Could Quatre have been aware of the hackers' digging?
Heero pondered the question. When he'd first met the hackers, they'd requested Wing Zero's unlock codes. Other than himself, only Zechs and Quatre would have known them. Trowa and Wufei had used the system, but neither had access to the codes. Duo had also dealt with Wing Zero, but that was against his will, and he didn't lock or unlock the system. It was forced on him. That left only Quatre and Zechs, and the older man was on Mars, and out of touch, from what Relena had said at dinner.
What if Quatre was Snappy's contact?
The thought made ice cubes form in Heero's stomach. Had Quatre made comments that prompted the hackers to dig for information that just happened to be something that would make Heero run off to L2? Why? Why not just say, this is the situation? Why wouldn't Quatre have told him?
Heero recalled absently that Trowa and Quatre had parted ways badly, a fact which obviously still upset Wufei. Heero doubted Wufei could have been lying. The Chinese warrior was too direct, too abrupt to be devious.
It was making Heero's head hurt again. He leaned back against the headboard and held the paper up in front of his face. Placing it on his knee, he carefully wrote down another sentence.
Hilde is acting on behalf of her dead fiancé.
Nothing about that seemed right. For starters, he was pretty certain Hilde was of Germanic descent. What would her father possibly be doing on L5 – a colony of predominantly Chinese cultural history – let alone doing on L5 when it was self-destructed? Most of the archaic colony had been abandoned by that point, thanks to the Alliance's plans to destroy it anyway. The only people left were the thousand or so in Wufei's own clan. What would a non-Chinese syndicate member be doing there?
The fact that the syndicate thought Hilde and Duo were brother and sister was sending out warning signals. He knew that was a complete lie. But what could get Hilde involved, let alone Duo? Wouldn't she have been glad to get out, to get away from a life that had killed someone she loved?
It doesn't make sense, Heero grumbled silently. Duo's the kind of person to talk a friend out of such stupidity. The guy was stubborn, relatively untrained, and always acted completely against the grain of being a soldier, but he at least had a strong sense of self-preservation. Heero could see himself going along with Hilde, if she were a comrade, simply because his life had never been worth enough to really stop and worry about consequences as long as the objective was achieved. But Duo questioned things like that all the time.
That was back then, Heero reminded himself. Things can change. People change. Frustrated, he doodled on the edge of the paper and let his thoughts drift. Something Enny had said slowly floated to the surface, and he dutifully wrote it down.
They take the riskiest jobs...
Heero resisted the urge to bang his head against the wall in hopes of dislodging something that would make sense. Think logically, he told himself, and started a second list of assumptions.
1. The riskiest jobs are taken by those with little to lose.
2. A risky job, done successfully, gets the most notice.
If Hilde's team were trying to move up in the syndicate, then it'd take only those jobs with the greatest risk. The kinds of jobs most sane people would shy away from, like taking on an interstellar worker's union on a desolate asteroid surrounded by five thousand people who probably wouldn't be happy about being manipulated. And, Heero noted wryly, doing it with a team of four people.
Duo is sending files to a bank account in Switzerland.
If the track bots are Quatre's way of sending messages, then Duo must be responding via the piggybacked files. But what would he be sending? Wufei's anger stuck in Heero's head, and he scowled at his notes. It didn't make sense, unless Quatre and Duo were working together and Wufei was ignorant of the situation. But that would require Trowa being ignorant, or playing along in a pretend argument. And even Trowa, the penultimate chameleon, was never the kind to hurt a friend. From the way Wufei had acted at their meeting, he was clearly still hurting over something.
Heero sighed and let the papers fall to his lap. The one burning question under all of it was still the simplest, the one that had bothered him from the beginning.
Why wouldn't anyone tell him what was going on? Why wouldn't they include him? Why didn't they trust him with whatever they knew?
Heero dropped the pen and took the paper in both hands, folding it four times before beginning to carefully and systematically shred it. When the pieces were no larger than his thumbnail, he got up and flushed them down the toilet. Returning to the bed, he lay down, his fingers interlocked behind his head as he stared at the grimy ceiling.
If they hadn't told him, it was because something made them decide not to. And the only person that he knew for certain hadn't wanted him around, from the beginning, was Duo.
He was still pondering the endless loops of disjointed information when he heard a knock at the door. Heero sighed, pulling himself upright to swing his legs over the bed. More dealing with Enny, he complained silently, and shook his head. The girl had it in for him.
The knock wasn't repeated, and Heero stopped in the act of reaching for his shirt, wondering whether Enny had decided to give up and leave. There was a soft click, and Heero looked up to see Duo crossing the threshold and shutting the door behind him.
"You should really lock your door," the young man told him. His smile didn't reach his eyes, and the look sent chills up Heero's spine. He knew that expression all too well. Heero slowly retracted his arm, tensing his body as he sat on the edge of the bed.
"It was locked," Heero said, in a deceptively calm tone.
"Strange, it opened just fine," Duo replied, and dropped something on the floor. It sat in the middle of the small room, a black duffel bag. Heero frowned, puzzled, and his gaze traveled from it back to Duo.
The longhaired man's braid was over his shoulder, trailing down his chest, over his crossed arms. His jeans and shirt were black, and he was wearing a long wool coat, warm enough for the colony's winter. Of course, Heero observed, it had to be black. The unrelenting darkness looked good on Shinigami. Always had.
"What's that?" Heero finally asked, once he'd found his voice again. He didn't move from his spot on the edge of the bed.
"It was fine where it was."
"No." Duo strolled over to the single window, pushing up a slat to peer through the blinds, down to the street below. "You might as well take it with you."
"Take it where?" Heero didn't turn his head, letting only his eyes move as he watched the other man's movements.
"Back to wherever you came from, of course," Duo said. It was that familiar tone that sounded amiable if you didn't know him, Heero thought. It sounded like death if you did.
"Because you're fired," Duo replied, turning to regard Heero coolly. He flipped the braid behind him absently and leaned against the wall, one hip higher than the other. A casual movement, but even when so nonchalant Duo was constantly in motion, although less frenetic than when he was younger.
Heero couldn't find his voice for a second, but when he did, he found his fury at the same time. He came to his feet in a smooth movement, spitting his words at the thief, coldly furious. "Fired? I've done everything Hel wanted, and more. If she doesn't want me here, she can tell me that herself."
Duo didn't flinch.
The dark-haired man paused, watching Deathscythe's pilot for a long minute. Heero's eyes narrowed as he realized what he'd forgotten. His voice was detached as he tested his impromptu theory. "Does Hel want me gone?"
The other man didn't answer.
"Does Trey want me gone?"
Duo's gaze was steady, but he still didn't speak. Heero chuckled, a low sound, and was gratified to see a flash of irritation across Duo's face.
"You still can't lie," Heero whispered.
"Maybe," Duo answered, his icy smile already back in place as he regarded Heero standing over the black bag. "But you still don't belong here. Go back now, before it's too late, and you're stuck."
Heero stared down at the bag, then turned to face Duo.
"I said I'm staying, and I meant it."
"You're leaving." Duo took a step forward, but Heero held his ground. Duo's voice had dropped to a lower register, nothing like his cheerful mockery on the battlefield, but the smile was still in place. Heero allowed a heartbeat to admire the lethal grace as the other pilot stalked towards him.
"You're going to take your stuff... " Duo moved again, and Heero belatedly realized Duo was within arm's length. Fighting distance.
"And you're going to go to the docking station... " Duo glided closer. Heero unwillingly stepped back to avoid the longhaired man.
"And you're going to buy a ticket... " Duo took another step.
Heero stumbled backwards just in time to avoid the other man's touch. The dark-haired man's face was set in a deep scowl, but his eyes were wide and uncertain. Struggling to regain his composure, Heero breathed slowly through his nose, his hands clenching into fists at his side.
"And you're going to take a shuttle... " Duo stepped closer just as Heero's next backwards step made him hit the wall.
"And you're going to go home." Duo didn't punctuate the last statement with another advance, but merely leaned into Heero until their faces were only a hand's length apart. In his bare feet, against Duo in boots, their height was nearly even, with Duo's lips just an inch below Heero's.
Duo's face was tilted upwards a degree, his eyes a dark purple, his expression deadly pale and serious despite the taunting smile. But his chestnut bangs were falling across his face, as tangled as when he was only a teenager suspended on the brink of adulthood. The disheveled bangs softened his appearance, and the shadows on his face were sweetened by the contrast.
Heero realized he was holding his breath, and let it out slowly.
"What if I refuse?" Heero asked, barely able to put any force behind the words. He could smell Duo, an intoxicating mix of old leather, jet fuel, and Indian curry. Those peculiar amethyst eyes were half-closed, watching him from under heavy lids, and Heero felt his knees buckling. Annoyed with his body's betrayal, he rebuked himself. Now is not the time. Mission mode is the only way to get through this.
Duo put one fist up and slammed it into the wall next to Heero's right ear with deadly speed. Leaning in close until their faces were mere inches apart, Duo cocked his head, scrutinizing Heero. His expression was unreadable.
"Only if you tell me why," he murmured, his breath hot on Heero's cheek.
"Because... " Heero tried to think. What could he say? "Because... I wanted to know why."
"Why what," Duo cajoled.
Heero could feel the wool of Duo's coat brushing against his ear, and he closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on feeling nothing. It's not working, that stupid small voice taunted.
"Why you guys weren't friends anymore," Heero finally answered.
"What do you care?" Another caress of warmth on Heero's cheek.
"I do care... " A bolt of anger lent strength to Heero's whisper.
"Not good enough," Duo retorted, his voice going up a notch in volume even as the temperature in his tone dropped several points.
"Du--" Too late Heero realized his mistake.
There was a thud, and Duo's other hand was now up as well. Both fists were planted on the wall on either side of his head, and Duo's body was only inches from his. The cloth of Duo's jacket brushed against Heero's bare chest, making his stomach muscles tense and ripple under his skin.
"You were saying," Duo prompted calmly, as if pinning Heero to the wall was a normal part of the day's tasks.
"I wanted to help," the dark-haired man whispered, closing his eyes again, opening them again at the sound of the other man's voice.
"Wanted to protect us, you mean," Duo said quietly, his face serious. "Thought you could make it all better?"
"Ye... no." Heero glared angrily, half of his fury directed towards himself for the near-slip. Lowering his chin curtly to emphasize his fully stated answer brought him nose-to-nose with Duo. Something in his gut uncoiled and kicked at the realization.
"And if you can't?" A smile flashed across Duo's face, a grim reminder of Shinigami. "If we won't let you?"
"I'm staying anyway," Heero said, his voice suddenly stronger. I've made up my mind, he repeated silently. I'll fight from now until when the fight's over, and I'll be standing at the end.
"After the war... I left... "
"Why?" The refrain was nothing more than a soft breath on Heero's cheek.
"I thought... " Heero's swallowed, feeling the heat of Duo's body against his, only inches away but radiating power and intensity.
"Tell me why," Duo coaxed softly.
"All that matters is that I'm staying." Heero momentarily regained his composure, staring Duo squarely in the eye. In a heartbeat the unwanted sensations were flooding him again, and he was drowning in the onslaught. Duo's scent was filling his nostrils. Duo's breath was caressing his cheek. Duo's lips were parted and his tongue flickered out, a rapid movement before disappearing.
Heero dragged his eyes away from Duo's lips and focused on the other man's eyes, his voice barely a whisper. "I'm staying," he repeated softly.
"Is it that simple?"
Heero could see the other man's eyes measuring him but giving nothing away. The dark-haired man knew his own wartime mask portrayed only indifference, but privately he feared the thudding in his chest had to be audible from across the room. And Duo was close, so close, there was no doubt he could hear the blood rushing in Heero's veins, feel the heat coiling under the surface of Heero's skin.
"Isn't that enough?" Heero muttered. But while his tone was almost sarcastic, his eyes were busy trailing down Duo's face, studying the way the long bangs glanced against the pilot's cheeks. They drifted with each soft breath, and caught on the edge of his lips, full and ripe, open just the barest amount.
"Not really," Duo said, the smile flashing widely as if he found the statement humorous, and then his expression was piercing. Deadly. "You figure out why you want to stay, and we'll talk. Until then, don't waste my time." Shinigami flashed in Duo's eyes, and he suddenly pulled back, pounding both fists simultaneously into the wall on either side of Heero's head.
Heero reflexively blinked.
A split-second later he opened his eyes to see the door closing behind Duo. The motion brushed a draught of cool air across his bare chest. Clenching his fists helplessly, Heero noticed the black bag was still in the middle of the floor. He glared at it, and then slammed his head up against the wall, somewhere between frustrated and furious.
The powerful emotions pushed through his body, unleashed by the suddenly empty room, and Heero collapsed back against the wall. His body wouldn't stop shaking uncontrollably. Gritting his teeth, he fought the instinct to sink into the protective huddle. Heero snarled and pushed away from the wall, anger springing up to course through every muscle.
Damn that bastard. Heero cursed his former comrade in several different languages, finally settling on the simplest refrain. Damn him.
He didn't even stop to grab a clean shirt, but wrenched his dirty shirt over his head, still cursing under his breath. Pulling on his socks and shoes, he shoved his few belongings in the black bag, grabbed his leather coat, and headed out the door.
I'm here now, and I'll stay until you accept me again.