Assumptions (cont)

I pulled into the yard in a much better mood, singing softly to myself and I took in the first load of groceries. I made sure to get the perishables first. I saw Heero on the stairs as I came through the front door; he was already glaring at me. I bet myself on the first words out of his mouth, and as if on queue, he said, "What took so long?"

"Ran into some old friends and went to the dance club." I drawled and could have kicked myself. This was the vicious cycle he and I lived in. I could predict most of the very few words he would spare me and that drove me insane. Being able to tell what he would say before he said it made me get defensive and my smart-ass mouth kicked into high gear. That, apparently, drove him insane and he just got more sullen.

I sighed, good mood pretty well deflated, and went on in to the kitchen. Quatre was there with Trowa and I just tried to forget about Heero.

Quatre took the sack from my hands and started to unload it, I turned to head back out for the rest of the supplies. Behind me, there was a strange noise and I found Wufei just coming through the back door.

"Maxwell!" He snapped, "You idiot! None of this stuff will keep!"

I opened my mouth to defend myself, seeing Heero come into the kitchen doorway and I suddenly had four pairs of eyes trained on me. The last vestiges of the good mood faded. What the hell had I been thinking; a decent evening with this group of guys? They all fucking hated me; there was just no point in even trying.

I didn't speak, just met their eyes, one after the other and turned to walk back out to the car. I grabbed the rest of the sacks and hauled them into the kitchen, dumping them on the table.

They were all still there, pulling the steaks and vegetables out of the first sack with vaguely horrified expressions. Wufei was speaking, but I didn't even hear him. I was so angry I was within inches of full, tunnel vision battle mode. My voice, when I opened my mouth, sounded ice cold even to me.

"These are the supplies. Here is the receipt. Here is the change. Here are the car keys." I laid each item out on the table as I mentioned it. I shoved tonight's dinner into a separate pile, snagging my bottle of soda out of the sack at the last moment, "The clerk at the general store gave this to me for fixing her freezer. It's for dinner tonight. Enjoy." In my imagination, the temperature dropped so drastically the windows frosted over.

I turned quietly on my heel and strode out of the house. I didn't even slam the damn door. I hoped they choked on it.

You would really, really, really fucking think that a guy who killed people for a living, who called himself the God of Death in battle, who had lost every living soul who had ever meant a flying fuck to him... would not be so damn easy to hurt.

I went across the yard, glancing up once at the sun to get my bearings before I went into the trees and headed back for town. Screw it; Bill and Paige were a hell of a lot easier to get along with. It was only two miles as the crow flies and the hike might serve to cool my anger. I knew better than to even think about taking the only car for personal reasons. I scrambled down the hill in high, hot temper until I slipped and fell and almost broke my damn leg. I stopped then and found a rock to park myself on and sat with my head in my hands and my Goddamn heart on my sleeve and just hurt. Why in the hell was I letting them get to me like this?

Because they were supposed to be my friends. Because they were supposed to be like me. Because I had been stupid enough to get excited when I had found out they existed; had thought that I had finally found someone who could understand how I felt. How I ached. How tired of it all I was. I had thought that they would be tired and lonely and hurting as much as I was. I had envisioned something...

But I had been wrong; they may have been four of the best and the brightest... just as advertised. But they made the same stupid assumptions about me that everyone else did. They might be Gundam pilots with all the implied intelligence and skill that carried, but they couldn't see through my mask anymore than any one else ever had. Couldn't look past what I had been to see what I might become.

Solo would have laughed at me, "Yer feelin' sorry for yerself, rat-boy." He would have jeered. If he hadn't died...

I remembered the bottle of soda stuffed in my jacket pocket and fished it out. Unscrewing the cap, I raised the bottle in salute to the sky and murmured, "To the death of feelings." And took a long swallow.

That made me laugh at my own melodrama and I climbed down from my rock with a rueful shake of my head and started back down the mountain. I was settled down enough though, that I thought I could make it without breaking my neck.

I got to town about the same time I got to the bottom of the bottle of soda and headed toward the gas station, seeing Bill in the bay with a car up on the rack.

I tossed the empty bottle into the nearest trashcan and waved at him when he looked up at the noise.

"Hey Max!" He hollered and came out to meet me, wiping his hands on a rag.

"What'cha working on?" I asked and let him lead the way back into the garage.

I had every intention of killing the rest of the day in town and it might as well be doing this as wandering around aimlessly begging total strangers to talk to me. At least Bill and I had been formally introduced.

Turned out he was trying to get the engine hauled out of the Chevy he had pulled into the bay and was delighted when I offered to help. It's a job that's much easier with two people.

So we passed the next couple of hours wrestling with his car and hollering back and forth at each other over the rock music he had blaring on the radio.

I had to grin at the ridiculousness of it all; before long at all, my arms and hands were covered with a half a dozen cuts and skinned knuckles, I had grease all over the place and was still having a better time than I'd had all bloody week up at the safe house.

Though Bill would probably not ever pass advanced algebra or become a rocket scientist, he was an Ok guy. We passed the time talking about music and sports, school and cars. General guy things. It was pleasant. When we finally had the engine block hanging from the hoist in the middle of the garage bay, he slapped my back and we had to laugh at the greasy mess we had both become.

"If you want," He told me apologetically, "There's an old shower stall out back. The former owner used to live in the apartment over the garage and his wife wouldn't let him come into the house until he was clean."

I had to grin, "Oh God... real life hot water?"

He laughed, "That's right; you're 'roughing it' aren't you?"

I flushed a little, realizing that I must look like he'd just offered me the Holy Grail and I ducked my head, "Yeah... camping in the great outdoors and bathing in the damn creek."

He snickered at me, "Don't you just hate cold showers."

"Worse than anything this side of a frontal lobotomy." I groused and he showed me out back without further ado.

It was nothing more than a four foot square, cinder block stall; open to the evening air, but it looked like heaven.

Bill pointed out a battered bottle of shampoo and a stack of clean towels, "Don't worry about the hot water; the things attached to a tank the size of Detroit."

He went back inside and I turned on the water and quickly stripped and stepped under the spray. God; this was bliss. I worked the temperature up until steam was billowing around me and my skin was turning a faint pink. For a few minutes, I just stood and let the water run over me, closing my eyes and grinning like a damn loon into the fading evening light.

With a regretful sigh, I opened my eyes and got to work getting clean. I unbraided my hair and quickly washed it and then scrubbed the grease and sweat off with the bar of harsh soap I found in the soup dish. Lady Opportunity doesn't knock very often so I took a tiny bit of advantage and allowed myself an extra five minutes. It was getting dark by the time I finished and standing outside bare-ass naked, even if it was within the confines of a five foot high wall, was giving me a naggy feeling of being watched. I dried and dressed quickly and went back inside to find Bill leafing through a Hotrod magazine waiting for me. He tossed me the book while he went and took his turn.

He returned not much quicker than I had, but with the added advantage of clean clothes.

Now that is was getting dark, I found that the feeling of standing in the well lit bay with the overhead doors standing wide open left me with that itchy 'I'm exposed' feeling and I asked him if the general store was still open.

He glanced down at his watch and frowned, "Paige should have been here by now; she closed at six." He observed and a familiar giggle came to us from outside.

"I've been here for ten minutes." Paige laughed and came wandering into the garage.

"Then what in the hell where you doing?" Bill asked her with a confused grin.

"Taking full advantage of watching two cute guys showering." She replied blandly and I wasn't sure which one of the two of us was going to choke to death first.

" Paige!" My fellow mechanic yelped, his face turning a dark purple, "Knock it off!"

I was at a total loss as to just what kind of relationship these two had. But I decided that Paige's flirting must be pretty harmless for her to engage in it with both of us at the same time. Besides; she couldn't possibly have seen anything from where she had been standing.

"Listen," I asked her, as much to change the course of the conversation as anything, "Would you mind letting me back in the store for a minute so I can get something to eat?"

Her expression went all serious and she frowned at me, "What happened to the big dinner you had planned?"

I ducked my head; I had hoped she'd forgotten about that, "The guys took off and went fishing... "

"Without you?" She was instantly indignant on my behalf.

"Oh, it's all right." I reassured her quickly, "I don't fish. It was in the plan... I just forgot that it was tonight."

Her face got all sympathetic, "That sucks!" She blurted, "They shouldn't have planned anything that the whole group didn't like to do!"

I had to laugh at her; she was going to make somebody a killer over-protective Mommy someday, "It's really all right. I just completely lost track of the date." That ironic lie almost made me flinch.

Her face cleared and she grabbed an arm on each of us, "Well then, since you don't have any plans, you can come with us to dinner! We were just on our way over to the Johnson's diner!"

I balked, "Uhmmm... Paige... "I flushed, doing quick calculations on the tiny amount of personal money I had on me, "I can't afford... "

She snorted at me, "Do not be ridiculous; I still owe you... let's see... two hundred and... "

Bill interjected a question at that point about the two hundred seventy dollars, which led Paige to relate the whole 'he saved my life!' story and before I quite knew what was happening, I was sitting between them at a table in the diner eating pizza.

Listening to them banter back and forth, I eventually figured out that they were more like brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend. They had grown up in this little town together, the only two kids in their age group and had kind of been forced to learn to get along.

I drank in their stories of childhood and growing up with families. Paige had an older brother who was going to graduate college this next year. Bill had a younger sister who was still in grade school. I enjoyed their company and we laughed together, sharing the pizza and talking until Mr. Johnson informed us it was time to close.

We left the diner and Bill told us goodbye, thanking me for my help with the car before heading back to the garage to lock up and head home.

My path, apparently, coincided with Paige's, because she walked with me toward the edge of town.

"Thanks for dinner." I told her and then grinned, "Twice!"

She frowned, "Too bad you didn't get to enjoy the first one."

I snorted.

"Max?" She glanced up at me and I had a sudden chill feeling in the pit of my stomach.

"Yeah?" I asked and knew I really didn't want to hear this question.

She stopped in the middle of the street and turned to face me with her hands planted on her hips, "Well that sounded... enthusiastic."

I chuckled, "Sorry."

"Do you like me?" She blurted.

"What?" I yelped, caught by surprise with her suddenness more than the question. It had kind of been what I was afraid it would be.

She cocked her head off to the side and looked at me again, "You aren't going to be here long." She informed me, "I don't have time to beat around the bush; do you like me or not?"

I threw back my head and laughed and could only answer her with the same bluntness, "Sweetie... if you were a guy I'd be all over you in a heartbeat."

I waited for the uproar. Waited for the shocked gasp, but all I got was a defeated sigh, "God damn cute ones are always gay!" She growled under her breath and then we both chuckled together.

"I'm sorry." I told her sincerely, "I do like you... I think you're funny and nice and honest. But, just... "

"Just... not like that." She quirked a grin up at me.

"Nope. Not like that." I confirmed.

She did that thing where she blew her bangs out of her eyes, "Well shit."

We resumed walking and parted ways not long after. I made the curve in the road before I waded into the underbrush and started the climb back up the mountain.

There was a moon, thank God, or I probably would have had to stick with the road and walk the whole damn eight miles. As it was, it wasn't going to be fun.

I made my way; careful and automatically quiet, and almost wished I could turn around and go back down to town. Every step I took back toward that safe house was adding a burden to my shoulders until I felt like I should be bowed under the weight of it.

I listened to the quiet sounds of the woods and felt the bitter depression seeping back to fill me. About half way up the mountain I decided that as soon as this assignment was over, I was going to refuse to work with any of my 'partners' again. Shinigami didn't need any damn help. I'd worked on my own all this time; I would be better off working alone again.

I stopped when I came near the place in the creek where I had bathed that morning and sat on the rock where I'd eaten breakfast. There was another thing I needed to deal with before going into the house.

"Finally decide to stop ignoring me?" The breath of a sigh of wind brought the words of my ghost to me across the years.

"Yeah, Solo... should have know you wouldn't leave me alone tonight of all nights." I sighed; if I closed my eyes I could almost see him in front of me. Standing with that fall of blond hair blowing around his face, that ever-present blue headband holding it out of his eyes.

"Guy needs a little respect on the day he up and died." He grinned at me.

"Sorry." I murmured and resisted the urge to reach out; I knew he wasn't really there.

He grunted and smirked at me, "Took you damn long enough to come talk to me."

"Had a little trouble with it this year." I told him and turned my face toward the moon.

"You Ok rat-boy?" In my head he turned to look at the moon with me.

"I'll be... all right." I sighed and grinned despite myself, "Thanks for giving enough of a shit to ask."

He just cocked his head.

"So... " I inquired softly, "How long do we have?"

He didn't answer me for a minute and I knew he was... would have been wrestling with telling me, "Can't we just talk?" He asked at length.

"Since I'm really just talking to myself... no; that seems kinda... nuts."

He snorted then, "No damn respect. I dunno... maybe another five minutes?"

"You'd think you could pin down the time of your own death a little closer than that." I smirked.

"Take it or leave it, rat-boy." He growled and I had to remind myself to keep my eyes closed so as not to lose sight of him.

I reached down and pulled my pants leg up and unsheathed my hunting knife.

"I really miss you, King-rat." I murmured.

His eyes would have followed the knife as I laid it in my lap and rolled my sleeve up.

He growled softly, "I really hate this part." He told me, "Can't we just skip this, kid?"

"Nope." I told him, "It's been another year."

"It wasn't your damn fault." He said and moved to turn away, "You saved the others... nothin' you could do fer me."

I took hold of the heavy blade like it was a pencil and brought it to the back of my arm, "I let you die, Solo."

"An' now you gotta make that damn mark... another year... another scar." His voice was tight.

"I won't forget." I promised him again, as I had every year since the night he'd died. I slid the blade across my skin and made the cut. Nothing much, nothing spectacular... just enough so that it would leave a fine, white scar. There were nine of them now, all in a row running down my forearm. I kept my back to him until I could close my eyes again.

"It's done." I sighed, "You can turn around now."

"You didn't forget." He told me and his voice was getting fainter already.

"You know... " I said on a sudden inspiration, "Duo is really only nine years old... He wasn't born until you died."

"Guess that makes it your birthday." He smirked at me just before he faded.

It was my turn to snort. I opened my eyes to an empty clearing.

"God I miss you, old friend." I murmured to the empty air and couldn't stop my hand from reaching out toward the place he hadn't ever been. I closed my eyes for a second, hoping he would come back and touch my hand. I so needed someone to touch me. But he didn't... he never did, "See you next year."

I wiped my blade clean and put it away and just sat for a minute more, blinking up at the moon. It was brighter than I'd thought, because it was making my eyes water.

Then there was the sudden feeling of being watched. I froze, every one of my senses suddenly awake. That place between my shoulder blades was screaming for me to run, but there was something about the presence that seemed familiar and I finally caught the scent on the breeze.

"Come out, Heero." I growled and didn't bother turning toward him. I wasn't a hundred percent sure just where he was.

It took him a moment to decide, maybe he thought I was just fishing and wasn't really sure he was there, but finally he stirred. I still didn't hear him, but caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. I did turn toward him then.

"What do you want?" I asked and felt the ice coming into my voice. I just wished I could let that ice fill my heart.

He didn't speak immediately, but came a little closer, stopping in front of me, "What are you doing out here?" He asked and his voice was... strange.

"We are not currently on a mission. What I do in my spare time is pretty much my own damn business." I fervently wished I knew how long he'd been watching me and just what all he had seen. I felt off balance and every defense I owned was in full 'holy shit' mode.

He chewed on that, which further threw me; I had been expecting an instantaneous verbal attack.

"What do you want?" I asked again when he didn't immediately speak.

"I... " He hesitated and for a tiny, split second I saw a touch of confusion in his eyes. But I suddenly knew what he was doing out here.

"You followed me because you didn't trust me not to compromise the mission." I said flatly and could tell when he flinched that I'd hit it right on the head.

"You... " He still seemed to be struggling not to let this turn into a yelling match, "were in an agitated state when you left the house."

I laughed out loud, "Agitated." I repeated and had to look away from the sullen expression on his face, "Agitated." I said again and chuckled a little more.

"I am not sure that you are in any condition... " he began and I rose angrily from my rock, suddenly awash with bitter emotion.

"You caught me on a bad day, Mr. Perfect-fucking-everything Yuy." I snarled and knew he'd finally pushed me too damn far, I tried to put a lid on my mouth but it was a little too late for that, "It's the anniversary of the death of the only friend I ever had. I spend a little time alone with his ghost every year at this time. I don't remember inviting you to the reunion. I have done nothing... fucking nothing to compromise you or any of the others. I am sick to death of you hounding my every move; questioning my every decision. I have given you no reason to doubt my abilities and I want to know what your God damn problem with me is!"

I was panting. I was in his face. I was really sorry and pretty sure I was about to die.

He just stood for a minute and stared at me. I figured he was going to deck me any minute. I stood my ground, not because I thought I had a chance against him, but because I just don't back down from much of anything once I've committed myself.

"I... apologize." He said softly and I'm fairly certain my jaw popped when my mouth fell open. I tried to say something, but nothing came out. He took advantage of the opening.

"We... discussed the incident over the supplies and you are right; we didn't give you a chance to explain before we jumped to conclusions."

I was the one who ended up breaking eye contact first, "Well... uhmmm." I said intelligently, "I... uhhh... accepted." I finally managed to choke out.

There might have been a small sound of amusement from him, but I wouldn't swear to it. My world was off its damn axis again. Heero Yuy just apologized to me? I wanted to ask him to repeat it... just to be sure. This must be his un-evil twin. Next he'd be asking me if I was all right.

"We... waited to eat supper." He said very quietly and I think I choked.

I whirled around and looked at him and had to bite down on the urge to accuse him of being an imposter.

"What?" I said stupidly.

The irritation came back to his face a little bit and he said, "It didn't seem... right to eat what you had provided for us." He ground out and I finally had to accept the fact that this really was Heero.

"I suppose we should head back to the house then." I said very quietly.

We turned and walked back up the path side by side and I decided that I would not speak again, just so as not to break the spell.

It was a hell of a long way from bosom buddies, but it was a damn sight better than what I'd had this morning.

All I could do was hope the spell held.

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