Long Road Home (cont)

'Damn, Heero,' I muttered holding up my black jeans and deciding it was probably the best I could do. 'Wufei's never going to let me hear the end of this.'

There was a chuckle and I turned to find my partner standing with a sack in his hand. 'Here,' he said simply, and held it out to me.

The sack bore the logo of the department store in the mall up the block and I couldn't help gaping at him. 'Heero!' I blurted. 'I thought we agreed neither of us would go out alone anymore!'

He managed a sheepish look, and moved closer, still holding the sack out like a damn little kid on Christmas morning. I suddenly realized that he'd never actually agreed to his not venturing out alone. He had only told me he didn't want me doing it. I wanted to be pissed, but he had this damn... expectant look on his face, and I just couldn't be angry with him.

'What did you do?' I asked instead. 'We can't afford... '

He smiled at me, opening the sack when I still didn't reach for it, and pulled out a pair of black dress slacks. 'As of ten o'clock this morning, you are going to have a job and we aren't going to have to worry about money so damn much.'

'And what if I don't get hired?' I asked, taking the pants from him and watching in dismay as he reached back in to pull out a dress shirt and tie.

He gave me a disdainful little snort as if there was just no question, and began undoing the packaging on the shirt.

What the hell could I do? I got dressed.

Well, I guess it explained why it had taken him so long to come back to the apartment.

Heero had to help me with the tie, and I couldn't stop a heavy sigh as my own hands lifted to try to help, dropped to get out of the way, tried to stuff themselves into my pockets and finally ended up crossed in front of me.

Heero smiled gently at me. 'Not going to throw up, are you?'

'Gods... why am I so nervous?' I groused. 'This is ridiculous!'

'Uncharted territory?' he suggested as his fingers and his attention stayed on the tie.

'I guess,' I sighed. 'I didn't exactly have to fill out a resume for Dr. G.'

His eyes met mine for a second, with a penetrating intensity. Our respective... mentors were something that we just didn't talk about all that much. It was a sign how much I was thinking about the past, that that name had popped out of my mouth.

'Duo,' he said to me, his fingers leaving the knot and stroking down the length of the tie, as though straightening it. 'Do you want this job?'

I took a deep breath and thought about it for a minute. 'I think so,' I finally told him.

He gave me a funny little quirk of a grin. 'You think?' he prompted.

'Well,' I temporized. 'I really don't know all that much about it yet.'

He nodded. 'You aren't obligated,' he said firmly, his hands settling on my hips. He gave me a little squeeze for emphasis. 'Not for a damn second. If you don't like the sounds of it... you walk away.'

I frowned and nodded my understanding of the statement.

'Duo,' he warned and I had to sigh. He knows me too damn well.

'All right,' I agreed grudgingly and won a soft kiss.

He drew away and there was the spark of something in his eyes. 'You look... damn handsome,' he told me and reinforced the statement with another, less-soft, kiss.

Then it was time to go.

Heero splurged again and we called a cab. I couldn't believe how damn free he was suddenly being with the money. It was rather overwhelming to realize that he honestly had no doubts that by the end of the day, we would have no money problems what so ever. I tried to imagine having a steady income. Tried to imagine not having to save every scrap of aluminum foil to be used over and over. Wondered what it would be like to buy more fresh vegetables and less of the cheap, canned kind. That led me to thinking about a kitchen table with matching chairs. Enough matching chairs, in fact, that we could have all the guys over for dinner. I wanted more seating in the living room first though, and maybe that television that Wufei kept teasing us about not having. And something to play my music with. Gods... I wasn't sure where to start!

First though, we needed to pay back Quatre. I knew he'd fight us on that point, but it was something I wanted to do and I thought Heero felt the same way about it. I didn't like the idea of starting out on our own in someone else's dept. It would feel damn good to be standing on our own for the first time.

Of course, the down side was going to be all those lost mornings. No more lying around in bed together. No more lingering talks while the sun came up. Gods but I would miss that. Life was going to become very... regimented, and that was going to harken back to the only other part of my life that had ever run on a schedule. Training. Not some of my better memories. Though I suppose they were pretty damn far from the worst.

'Stop that; you're giving me a headache trying to keep up,' Heero said softly, mindful of the cab driver.

'What?' I muttered, and looked up at him, pulled out of my reverie.

'I think you've managed thirty-five mood changes in the last two minutes,' he chuckled at me softly. 'What are you thinking about so hard?'

I flushed until I'm sure I was a lovely shade of scarlet and ducked my head. 'Nothing really,' I told him. His hand lifted from the seat and for a moment I thought he would forget himself and reach out to me, but he didn't and I was a little sorry. He looked troubled and I had to sigh. 'Come on, Heero. You have to admit the irony of going in for a job interview with a woman who tried to have me executed is a little... bizarre.'

He snorted, a rather surprised little sound, and I don't think he'd meant to do it. 'She's... changed a lot.'

'Says Wufei,' I grumbled.

'He's right, she really isn't... ' he hesitated and I looked up at him, wondering how he could be so damn sure of her. He blinked, seeming suddenly at a loss for words. 'I mean... think about it,' he suddenly blurted. 'She wouldn't have the damn job if she was still... like she was.'

'I suppose that's true,' I muttered and looked away again.

We were quiet for a bit, it was too hard to talk with some stranger sitting within arm's reach if one of us had leaned forward to bother. The guy didn't seem to be paying any attention, but you never knew. I was kind of glad that I hadn't eaten any breakfast to speak of; I really didn't feel all that great. Did I want to do this? I guess I had thought when we got the job offers, that the positions would be like Wufei's; field agents. I'd never really thought much about this kind of job. A desk job? Working inside, in the same office, all day? Granted, there'd be some physical labor involved with that kind of occupation, but... I'd just never thought about it before. What if I couldn't deal with that kind of tedium? What if it drove me crazy? But I didn't have a lot of choices, did I? If Une seriously offered me the position, I couldn't afford to turn it down.

A hand settled over mine where they rested in my lap and I realized that I was worrying at that scar on my palm. I stopped immediately and looked up at Heero guiltily.

'Sorry,' I sighed. 'I don't know why this is so... nerve-wracking for me.'

'It's all right,' he said softly, giving my hand a squeeze before withdrawing. 'I'm a little nervous myself.'

'You? Why?' I blurted and frowned over at him.

A grin spread slowly across his face. 'Well, I am applying for that janitorial position.'

I couldn't help the laugh that bubbled up, and some of the tension eased from my belly. I gave him a grateful smile. 'Well, if I get the job, maybe I can put in a good word for you,' I quipped, and he gave me that look. The one that makes me feel like his arm is around me even when he's clear across the room.

'It's perfectly normal to feel apprehensive about a new situation,' he reassured. 'This isn't exactly the sort of thing that was handled in training.'

I smirked at him. 'Wouldn't you have thought they could have squeezed in job interviewing between 'setting your own broken bones' and 'field stripping your weapon in the dark with your teeth'?'

'Maybe we just skipped class that day,' he said gently, like that was an actual possibility. Kind of hard to 'skip' when you're the only pupil taking the course. We didn't speak of the real reason none of these life's lessons had been taught; no one had expected us to ever need them.

'Thanks,' I murmured, and made a conscious effort to keep my hands away from each other, to make sure I didn't start that rubbing again.

'You're going to do fine,' he told me, and he made it easy to believe.

'You can say that because you don't have a ten o'clock appointment with the scary woman,' I told him in a melodramatically put-out tone and, oddly he didn't have an answer to that.

Then we were there and climbing out of the cab. Heero reached for his wallet, while I stood beside him and tried to take in all the details of the building we were standing in front of. It was... bigger than I had thought it would be, a massive four story brick and stone thing, with tinted windows so it was impossible to look up and see if Wufei was looking down from any of them. It was actually kind of disconcerting to realize that there could be somebody standing in each one of those windows staring down and I wouldn't have known it. Creepy. Made my soldier's instincts twitch.

My attention was drawn back to Heero and the cab driver when I heard the guy say, 'Put your money away, kid. I'm not taking it.'

'What?' Heero said, sounding confused. My first thought was to move in and get my partner away from yet another pissy Earth citizen, but then I realized the cab driver was grinning from ear to ear.

'Just consider it a little thanks,' he said and reached up to deliberately reset the meter. He pulled away before Heero could do much more than mutter a bewildered, 'Thank you.'

We looked at each other for a second and then Heero smiled at me. 'Looks like we can afford lunch after all.'

I didn't know whether to laugh at the joke, or worry about how we were going to eat until my first paycheck came in.

He turned and led me inside then, and I forgot all about the money issue.

There was a security guard at a front desk and my head was so far into scoping out the security that I almost missed it when he addressed Heero by name.

'Mr. Yuy,' he smiled, handing over a couple of already prepared visitor's badges. 'Commander Une is expecting you and Mr. Maxwell in her office.'

'Thank you,' Heero said, nodding curtly and taking the badges to sort mine from his. He handed me mine and easily clipped his own to the waistband of his pants. I pulled my eyes away from the monitors on the guard's desk long enough to smile at the man and then followed Heero to the elevator bank, fumbling with my badge as I went.

The elevator doors closed behind us, as Heero punched in for the fourth floor. Then he turned to me with a smile and reached out to straighten my tie. 'You look wonderful. You are wonderful. You are going to get this job. Commander Une is not nearly as scary as she used to be.'

I chuckled and shook my head. 'Thanks, Dad,' I grinned. 'And just what are you going to be doing while I'm sweating my ass off in scary Colonel Une's office?'

He laughed, his fingers leaving the tie to sweep up and brush a lock of my hair into place. 'I'll go and sit in Wufei's office until you're done. He's down on three. And stop calling her 'scary' before you slip and call her that to her face.'

I was just getting ready to retort to that, when the elevator doors swept open and we were staring at an imposing woman sitting behind a receptionist's desk. 'Good morning, Mr. Yuy,' she said, smiling and standing up. I cringed; the woman was going to tower over us. 'This must be Mr. Maxwell?'

Heero was holding the elevator door open with one hand and he gestured me out. 'Morning, Pat,' he smiled. 'Yes, this is Duo. Will you direct him to Agent Chang's office when the Commander is done with him?'

'Certainly,' she said and came around the desk to shake my hand.

'Good luck,' Heero murmured to me, and then the doors slid shut and he was gone.

It took me a heartbeat to take the woman's hand and respond to her well-mannered greeting. I'm not sure if it was the intimidation factor of finding myself nose to... breastbone, with the tall blond, or the sudden realization that Heero had been here before. This woman had known him, and not just by reputation.

She said something about the weather, and began leading me down a hall. My mouth, on autopilot, was replying with something witty and I followed where she led. But I couldn't help wondering.

Commander 'not-scary' Une is not near as tall as her secretary, thank God, but she's still an intimidating presence. I was somewhat surprised, and relieved, to find her wearing a tailored business suit and not a uniform. I have no idea why I was expecting a uniform. I guess I'd never seen her in anything else, except on the propaganda vid-feeds during the war.

Pat handed me deftly into the good Commander's care, offered coffee or tea and then saw herself out when I declined.

'It was good of you to come in, Mr. Maxwell,' Une said, and despite my fervent wishes otherwise, she came around her massive desk to shake my hand.

I didn't let my nervousness show on my face, giving her one of my more beguiling smiles and took the offered hand without reservation. 'Good of you to see me, Commander, and please... call me Duo.'

She gestured me to a seat but then leaned herself against the corner of her desk, right in front of me, rather than returning to her own side of the damn massive piece of furniture. I almost shivered, lost in memory, remembering the woman standing over me once before, those cold brown eyes locked with mine as she backhanded me hard enough to make my skull bounce off the damn wall. I resisted the urge to reach up and rub the back of my head, and wished I hadn't sat down. I wondered if she'd done that on purpose; assumed that stance. It was kind of funny, really; with her hair down, and in that business suit, she hardly seemed like the same woman. The eyes weren't near as cold and hard, but I could still see scary Lady Une peeking back at me.

I ran my Heero inspired mantra through my head a couple of times and prepared to deal with the woman.

 

Not scary Une. Not scary Une. Not scary Une.

And she certainly couldn't have me thrown into the brig, that was a bonus. Nor command her lackeys to beat the living crap out of me... again.

'Duo then,' she said, and gave me a tight little smile. 'Or perhaps I should call you Oh-two?'

She was looking at me in a rather calculating way and so I just grinned, leaning back in the chair and getting comfortable. 'I've been known to answer to a variety of things over the years,' I drawled. 'It's your call.'

She smiled and straightened almost nonchalantly from where she had almost been perched, returning to her side of the desk. I felt like the exchange had been some kind of test, and I wasn't sure I'd passed.

I waited for her to retake her seat; the ball was on her side of the net after all.

She shifted some papers around, but I had the vague impression they were just props and camouflage. 'Agent Chang has given you quite the recommendation, Duo,' she told me and I tried to keep the faint, pleased flush from rising too much.

'I'll have to thank him,' I said softly. 'Though, I have to admit, I didn't know about this position being available until last night.'

She raised an elegant eyebrow. 'Well the Preventers organization did offer each of the five of you positions as soon as the peace treaties were signed and sealed.'

'True,' I nodded, expressing my appreciation of that fact. 'But I don't recall that... specific jobs were presented. I confess that I assumed the offers were for field agent positions.'

Those graceful eyebrows drew ever so slightly together, and I was somewhat surprised to realize that she was picking carefully over wording. 'Is that... what you had in mind?' she finally asked.

'Not necessarily,' I assured her, wishing I knew what was going on inside her head. 'I was just... surprised.'

She nodded and glanced down to shift papers again. 'But you're interested?'

I smiled and leaned forward, bracing my elbows across my knees. 'Well, I suppose that depends,' I said. 'Wufei really couldn't tell me all that much about the position, other than the fact that the previous man... didn't work out.'

The corner of her mouth twitched ever so slightly, and I suspected that 'didn't work out' was a gross understatement. 'His background was from a slightly more... relaxed environment,' was all she would say.

I flashed one of my patented smiles. 'Well... I hope you aren't expecting a long list of references from previous employers.'

It won a sudden, surprised laugh from her, which she quickly suppressed. 'I think I have enough first hand knowledge of your qualifications that I can waive the reference list,' she told me with a slight inclination of her head.

I returned the gesture, and couldn't hide a tiny little smirk. Yes, Lady, I hacked your damn systems more times than either of us can count. 'So what, exactly, is my mission here?' I asked, using old phrasing just to make my other, unspoken, point.

She smiled a smile that was more soldier than lady and I knew she was acknowledging my victories on the playing field we were discussing. 'Exactly?' she queried. 'I need you to make sure that other people like you stay the hell out of my network,' she said bluntly. 'You will be completely responsible for the intranet within this building. E-mail. File servers. Security. Access to the Internet. At some point in the future you may be responsible for satellite offices if this organization grows the way I hope it does.' There was a flash in her eyes of something... hard, and a little intense. I caught a glimpse of Colonel Une sitting across from me and wondered that I wasn't moved to recoil from the sight.

I'm not at all sure what demons drove this woman, and she was very obviously driven, but there was something about her that was... tempered. Wufei had been right; not quite the scary Colonel Une from the war. Though I think she could still be scary as hell if she really set her mind to it.

'Does total responsibility come with total control?' I asked, warming to this idea just a little bit.

'We do have a budget,' she admitted. 'And you will have to adhere to it. Otherwise, I'm hiring you for your expertise and I will damn well listen to your advice.'

I nodded, mulling that one over and when I didn't speak immediately, she interjected almost softly. 'Your... background suggests that you won't be frivolous with my money.'

Our gazes locked for a second and I felt kind of cold way down in my gut. Maybe I had been wrong, maybe those papers on her desk weren't just camouflage. I wondered just how much she knew about my... background. It felt like another damn test.

'I'm never frivolous,' I informed her, doing my best not to let that cold creep up from my gut into my voice. 'But the war is over and I won't try to do this job with bubblegum and Band-Aids.'

I heard the acceptance in my voice at the same moment she did, and she grinned at me, standing to extend her hand to me. 'Welcome to Preventers, Duo Maxwell,' she said, and there was a certain amount of self-satisfaction in her voice.

I sighed, my brain not at all sure that the rest of me had just made the right choice, but stood and took her hand anyway. What the hell; I guess I could always quit later. 'Thank you, Colonel,' I smiled and watched the corner of her mouth quirk again.

'It's been a pleasure talking with you Oh-two,' she fairly purred, and I thought she would give me that full-fledged grin again, but she didn't. A button was pressed on her desk-phone and the intimidating secretary reappeared. 'Pat will show you down to the Human Resources department. I look forward to working with you.'

It was a dismissal if I'd ever heard one, and I gave her the polite and appropriate response before following Amazon-secretary out of the office.

Fuck. I was employed.

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