Long Road Home (cont)

Pat did indeed deliver me to the afore-mentioned Human Resources department down on two, where a woman named Shirley proceeded to run me through a paper work gauntlet for the next hour. I wondered a couple of times what Heero was doing and if Wufei was annoyed yet about having him camped in his office all day, but there was just no escaping the clutches of the 'fill it out in triplicate' woman.

I signed insurance forms and filled out emergency contact paper work. Was delivered to an office nurse who made me pee in a cup and took a blood sample. Was issued a stack of polo shirts with the Preventers logo over the left breast. My brain was starting to atrophy before I thought I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I had been reduced to just nodding at the bustling clerk and had to quash the desire to cheer out loud when she finally said, 'Almost done, Mr. Maxwell, just let me pop over to Security and see if they have your permanent badge and pass card ready.'

I heaved a heart-felt sigh of relief and found myself just sitting in the chair in front of the woman's desk, massaging my cramped writing hand and staring. Damn. What the devil had I gotten myself into? I sure as Hell hoped this shit wasn't indicative of what the job was going to be like, or I'd be a screaming wreck within a week.

Looking for something to distract myself from my growing sense of impending death-by-tedium, I stood to look at the pictures on Shirley's desk. I had to grin at the trio of little pink-cheeked kids in the photographs, probably grandchildren judging from the woman's apparent age. If I looked real hard, I could see the family resemblance.

And that was when I saw the folder on top of the woman's in-basket with 'Yuy, Heero' typed neatly on the tab. I blinked at it for a whole sixty seconds. Then I strolled casually over to the door, glanced up and down the hall to make sure that Shirley was nowhere in sight and went back to open the thing up.

Don't give me that look. Tell me you wouldn't have, in my position.

The folder was full of copies of all the paperwork that I was more than familiar with from just having filled mine out. Heero's insurance and tax forms. His emergency contact information. It was all there. Heero was also employed by the Preventers... as of sometime that very morning. I dug a little deeper into the folder. Employed as a field agent. Not exactly the janitorial position we'd joked about with Wufei.

I carefully put the folder back where I had found it and sat gingerly down in my chair.

I can't tell you what I felt, because I'm not really sure. Just confused, I guess, I'm just... not sure. I still didn't have it all sorted out by the time Shirley came back with the last of my new acquisitions. 'Here we go, Mr. Maxwell,' she beamed at me, taking my visitors badge from me and replacing it with my employee one before I had a chance to blink. 'You have a full level-one clearance and can go anywhere in the building you need to, and here's your pass card. That will get you into the building after hours and into the computer room in the basement.'

'Computer room?' I echoed, latching onto something familiar in the tide of chaos. 'Would it be possible to tour that?'

'Certainly!' she smiled at me. 'You can go anywhere you need to with that badge. Just go back to the elevator bank and go down to the basement level. There's nothing else down there but the furnace room. You can't miss it.'

I gathered my things and prepared to leave the room, still feeling shell-shocked and off balance, but she stopped me one last time. 'Oh my, before I forget again... here's your sign-on bonus check. You're scheduled to start tomorrow morning.'

I think I stared at her. Tomorrow morning? Basement? Bonus check?

She gave me the most beatific, mothering smile and patted my arm. 'You're going to do just fine, sweetie.'

It was another dismissal, so I took my ass out of there and headed for the elevator bank. If I was right, the computer room would be completely empty since the former Administrator was no longer among the employed. I really, really needed a few minutes to myself and I just didn't know where else to get it. I was in the elevator before I happened to glance down at the check still clutched in my hand. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I blurted, 'Shit!' right out loud to no one at all, when I finally registered the four-digit number on the damn thing. I hastily folded it up and stuffed it in my pocket, juggling and almost dropping my bundle of plastic wrapped shirts.

The elevator doors opened and I stepped out into a... basement. Tile floor, cinder block walls, obviously not a window in sight; it could not have been anything else. I also came face to face with the most gorgeous damn soda machine it has ever been my privilege to meet. I went straight to it and bought a can of ice-cold Mt. Dew and downed half of it before I bothered to look any further. Damn, what a day.

There was a set of double doors off to my left that were clearly labeled 'furnace room' and an office type door to the right. I tried my new pass card in the card reader next to the door and was gratified to hear it click open.

I stepped for the first time into a room that would become both the bane of my existence and my greatest sanctuary, though I hardly cared at the time. I was just eternally grateful that the damn room was indeed unoccupied. I went in, dumped my load of shirts and paper work on the first desk I came to, and sighing gustily, threw myself down in the chair next to that desk.

My partner was a Preventers agent.

I had to think about that for a long damn time.

Ok, the obvious first point was the simple fact that Heero would not have just done that on the spur of the moment because he 'happened to be in the neighborhood'. He had known he was going to take a job here when we had left the house this morning. Hell... he'd probably know before that.

When I thought about it, it certainly explained a few things about our dinner conversation with Wufei last night. Those weird looks they were exchanging. The strange hesitations and sudden changes of subject. Damn, but that rankled; that Heero had obviously confided in Wufei a secret that he had kept from me.

The more I thought, the more I realized what a dumb fuck I'd been. How could I have missed all those clues? Heero hadn't had to ask anyone for directions through the building. Heero had known right where Wufei's office was. The guard at the front desk had known him. Commander Une's secretary had known him. Gods, but I felt stupid.

But... why?

I flung myself to my feet and stalked around the room, looking without half seeing, wondering if someone would come and contest my right to be here. Strictly speaking, I didn't start work until the next day, so I suppose I didn't really have any business being in that room. But I just didn't know where else to go.

The last guy might not have been security conscious enough, but he'd been a stickler for labeling, and I found the half a dozen servers clearly tagged with all the pertinent information. Including the administrator passwords. Dear Gods... the man had been a security nightmare! I found myself intrigued despite my irritation, or maybe I was just looking for a distraction, and began to poke around to see just what I had here to work with. It was a fairly typical little network, Windows based, with the standard DNS server, file server and mail server. There was a firewall, which eased my mind a bit, but then I found that all the damn things were at least four months out of date on the critical system updates. It probably wouldn't have mattered if I let it go until the morning, but the lapse just nagged at me and without really thinking about it, I began updating. While I was waiting, watching the little blue status bars run, I noticed the server labeled 'Security'. Curious, I punched the KVM switch to that address and was rather surprised to find that I had a direct link to the PC at the guard station at the front desk. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out that the system upstairs was actually downloading the video stream to the server, making a backup. Someone had left the monitor software running.

So I entertained myself for a few minutes, watching the surveillance video from the four security cameras. One view actually showed the lobby and I was surprised to see Heero and Wufei wander into view. Without really thinking about it, I toggled through the split screen video display and pulled their portion into full screen. There was no audio, but they were walking toward the camera, which seemed to be mounted above the elevator bank.

I read lips.

I saw Wufei address the guard at the desk, his back to the camera for a second and the guard shook his head, saying, 'No, Agent Chang, he's still in the building. He hasn't come back through the lobby.'

Wufei turned back to Heero.

'Where in the world do you think he's gone?' I saw Heero say, and could make out the slight furrowing on his brow even on the monitor.

Wufei said something, but movement obscured part of it. '... Shirley in HR did mention... '

They turned and began walking toward the elevator bank again.

'Heero,' Wufei said, facing the camera dead on. 'I'm... not sure I'm entirely comfortable with this... deception.'

Heero frowned as they stopped in front of the elevators, Wufei reaching to punch the call button. 'I know,' I watched Heero say. 'He's going to be... not very happy if he figures this out. I just... I want him out of danger, Wufei... that's all.'

Wufei gave Heero a rather penetrating look and a small smile tried to creep onto his face. I saw Heero reach to impatiently push the elevator call button again. 'Isn't that just a bit... hypocritical?'

Heero glared at him, his eyes glittering strangely in the black and white video feed. 'I fucking suppose it is, but I don't give a damn. I've come so close to losing him so damn many times... I... I just... ' His lips snapped shut on the rest of it and I imagined he was blushing mightily.

Wufei touched his arm and started to speak, but then the elevator finally came and they were gone from camera range.

Well.

Well fuck.

How do you seriously stay mad when your lover says something like that? I'll be honest; I tried to... but I couldn't. Not really.

Irritated, I suppose. A little hurt. But I couldn't really maintain any full-blown anger.

You want to know the truth? I'm not positive I would have taken an agent's job to begin with. When the war had been over, it had been somewhat... difficult for me to let go of the soldier. I still hadn't done it entirely, and maybe I never would. I just looked at things differently than your average John Q. Public. I had trouble sitting with my back to doors. I instinctively made a mental map of all the exits whenever I went into a new building. Things like the security set-up upstairs at the front desk just naturally drew my full attention. But I was letting go, a little bit, and I'm not at all sure I would have wanted to... shoulder back into that armor. Wasn't sure I wanted to pick up the sword again.

But it would have been nice to have been allowed to make that decision. It would have been nice to have had all the cards on the table and at least had a chance to play the damn game. I didn't like being manipulated. I didn't like being made into the fool. I didn't like being coddled and lied to.

Sitting there in the chill air of a room that would become my second home, I suddenly wondered just how many people had been in on this little charade. What had Heero done, bargained for my... safety? 'I'll agree to join, if you see to it Duo has a nice, safe desk job'? Is that how it had gone? Obviously Wufei had known... had actively participated. Une had to know, there was just no other explanation for her actions. Had Amazon-woman been a part of the game? The security guard? Shirley in HR? I felt a little bit like a laughing stock. Did I even have this job for my own skills? Or had Heero bargained for more than my protection? 'You want to hire me, you have to hire Duo too'?

I felt... a little ill.

Somewhere inside, I wanted to be angry. I wanted to march out there and find them, deck them both, storm upstairs to tell Shirley not to bother filing the damn paper work, and quit. I didn't need a fucking job that had been negotiated for me behind my back. That anger boiled around in my gut so suddenly that I quivered with it. It was in me to walk out that door, run off and join the damn Sweepers. I had no doubt Howard would take me in.

But the anger wouldn't stay. Hard as I tried to cling to it, it gave way to a strange melancholy that I was becoming more than familiar with. There really just wasn't any point in fighting this. I can't say that I cared for Heero's methods, but I suppose the results weren't all that bad. Mostly. The part where my partner was now a Preventers agent didn't overly thrill me.

If I took a deep breath and was totally honest with myself, I have to own up to the fact that we would very likely have ended up right where we were even if Heero had been up-front with me from the beginning.

Much as I hated to admit it, I suppose I'd known somewhere deep down in my heart that Heero was meant for this kind of job. If he hadn't signed on with the Preventers, he would more than likely have gone into law-enforcement in one form or another. Maybe a cop. Maybe a fireman. I don't know... but there really wasn't much doubt that he'd have never settled for that job at the zoo, no matter the pretty words.

And as much as I hated to admit it, I'm not positive that kind of life appealed to me. I would very probably have opted for the Administrator's job even if I had been offered both positions. I have to confess that the idea of strapping on a gun again was just a little bit... unattractive.

And I'm not a total moron; I understood the whole deal with Wufei and the cryptic comments about a steady partner now. He had meant for Heero to be that partner all along.

So; to summarize. If I kept my mouth shut and just went with the flow, everybody was happy. Wufei got his partner. Une got Heero. Heero got the job he wanted, with me safely tucked away in the basement. Quatre was lightened a couple of freeloaders, and Heero and I were self-sufficient.

And if I decided to get pissy about it? If I really did storm out of the damn building and ran back to Daddy-Howard? I couldn't leave Heero. Not for good. Sooner try to give up breathing. He might irritate the shit out of me sometimes, but I couldn't live without him, and I damn well knew that. So I'd just put Howard in the middle of a family dispute, would give Wufei a guilt complex the size of Texas, and cause Shirley a lot of extra paperwork.

Hardly seemed worth all that, just over the principal of the thing.

So by the time Heero and Wufei found their way to my server room, I was perched on a stool at the back wall, nursing the dregs of my can of soda, finishing up the critical updates and resetting all the passwords.

This was a done deal. No matter how I had gotten here, I was the Network Administrator for the Preventers. I would not do a bad job of it.

Wufei must have high enough security clearance, because his pass card got them into my room and I heard a tentative, 'Duo?' right after I heard the door open.

I had opted not to be pissy about it.

'Back here,' I called cheerfully. 'Welcome to the inner sanctum of the Network geek!'

'Maxwell,' Wufei chuckled at me. 'I don't think you were supposed to actually start work until tomorrow.'

'I came down for the tour and couldn't walk away from the train wreck,' I grinned back at them as they came to stand beside me. I waved my hand expansively at my row of systems and watched with delight as their eyes flew wide.

'Are those... the actual administrator passwords?' Wufei asked, voice incredulous.

'Yep,' I confirmed, and bent back to work.

They watched for a minute, before Heero ventured, 'we were thinking of going out to lunch. We've been looking all over for you.'

'Sorry guys,' I told them airily. 'But I'd just as soon look this mess over before tomorrow. There's more security holes here than your average piece of Swiss cheese.'

'Duo... ' Heero began, brow furrowed in consternation and I laughed at him.

'Get used to it, Heero,' I grinned at him unrepentantly. 'You're rooming with a tech geek now... if I'm going to do this damn job; I'm going to do it right.' There might have been a teeny, tiny bit of bitterness in there. I truly had not meant for there to be, and I swallowed the last of my can of soda in an effort to cover it.

Wufei seemed to suddenly just drift away. I honestly think he knew somehow, that I was well aware of what they had done. To this day, I don't know. I'll never ask him. I just don't want to have that conversation. But he gave us the space.

'Duo?' Heero said softly, reaching to rest a hand on my shoulder. 'What's wrong?'

I tilted my head up in open invitation, and I saw his eyes flick in Wufei' direction. I knew he wouldn't deny me... but I also knew he wasn't comfortable with it. If his furtive glance hadn't told me... the blush would have. But he kissed me all the same.

'I love you,' I told him, smiling gently. 'But the next time you want me to do something... just tell me.'

Damn. I had not meant to reprimand him. I had not meant to bring it up at all. I had fully intended to let the sleeping dog have his damn nap.

He flushed so dark, for a minute I thought I should leap up from the stool and make him sit down. He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again. His jaw worked and his eyes filled with a guilty kind of pain.

'Take Wufei and go to lunch,' I told him gently, reaching a hand up to brush over his cheek. 'Then go on home. I'll see you later tonight.'

His eyes widened and he reached to catch at my hand. 'Duo... ' he sighed, but I really just didn't want to discuss it right then.

I squeezed his fingers. 'Go on,' I urged. 'I just... want to be by myself for a little while.'

That pain that I had seen, in the backs of his eyes, flared brighter, and his fingers clenched tight. 'Please Duo... I'm sorry,' he whispered.

'Don't,' I said, voice steady and calm. 'I think I understand, but I just want to be alone right now.'

I took my hand back, turning my attention to the monitor in front of me. He hesitated for a long time, standing close enough behind me that I could feel his body heat. 'I do love you,' he said softly. 'Maybe... a little too much sometimes.' Then he went to collect Wufei and they were gone.

I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry or to run the hell after them.

You want to know the really oddly funny thing? I think I was hurt as much by Wufei's part in things as Heero's.

I think of Chang Wufei as my best friend. He is probably second in my heart only to Heero. Why hadn't I been considered as a candidate for the position of his permanent partner? Why Heero instead of me? That stung as much as any of the rest of it.

Is that weird? That I have almost come to accept Heero's over-protective nature? That these things don't really shock me all that much anymore? I'm not saying I like it. I'm not saying I condone it. It's just that... it's a part of Heero, and I've almost come to expect it. Like fruit in the fruit bowl. I don't really understand it, I think I've done or said something at some point, because it very definitely has something to do with me. But I don't care how close we are on the week's budget; I can always count on Heero finding a way to make sure there's fresh fruit in the apartment.

When we walked down the street, he always walked on the curbside. Whenever we had roomed together during the war, he had always taken the bed closest to the door. It's just the way he is. Sometimes it seemed endearing and just melted me where I stood. Other times it was damned annoying and just pissed me off no end.

I was kind of on the fence about this one. I could almost hear Heero's voice from that video feed, 'I've come so close to losing him so damn many times... I just want him out of danger.' It did make me feel... strangely cherished. Oddly warmed. Or was that warmed with anger?

I didn't think so. Maybe. Ok... a little bit.

The whole thing made me feel... inept. Which was stupid, because I knew the motivation behind it as well as I knew the back of my own hand. Heero Yuy is the most over-protective, anal-retentive human being on the face of the planet. He protects what is important to him with a single-mindedness that can be overwhelming as hell. I am important to him. So that part always leaves me with this almost breathless quivery feeling in the pit of my stomach. But I just couldn't help but feel like their conspiring to keep me out of fieldwork somehow reflected their opinion of my abilities. Made me feel like... like the damn baby brother toddling along after his adored, indulgent older siblings.

All right... not anger, so much as hurt.

Yeah, it's petty. Sue me; I can't help how I feel.

But this little mental train track I was on was just going around and around in circles. There really wasn't much point in sitting on my ass all day in a cold room on a hard stool, stewing about my partner's tendencies to treat me like a fragile family heirloom. Worrying at a thing that was already resolved, like a dog trying to eke something out of a hundred year old bone.

So I gave myself over to learning my room. Staking my claim. Patching what holes I could and making lists of things I needed to talk to Une about. That looping train track really just came back around to one thing; it was a done deal and I had a job to do. I just needed to get the hell over it.

When I finally felt I could seriously do no more, I signed off all the consoles, and went to check out the other, office, side of the room. I had one of those cheap, metal office desks and there were still some generic supplies in it. The PC sitting on it was something of a crap box and I wondered what the previous guy had done... supply the building from one of those second-hand, refurb places? I made a mental note to bring my laptop from home; no way was I fighting with a dog slow system all day. I also, obviously, needed to take an inventory of the building to see just what I had on my network. That made me wonder what files I had been left by my predecessor and I opened up a couple of desk drawers. I had enough paper and pens to stock a small department, an old cracked coffee cup that I chucked into the trashcan under the desk, and a single file folder labeled 'meeting notes' that proved to be full of terse little notations from every meeting the guy had ever had with Lady Une. Looked to be about three of them. It was good information to have... Commander Une gave you three strikes before she threw you out on your ass. I vowed to not even get that first one.

I was gratified to find more than that on the PC. The guy had been a real stickler for documentation and I found electronic copies of all the invoices for everything that had been purchased on the man's watch. I was pretty sure the poor sap had come away from his talks with Une having heard only one thing; budget. I had a lot of evaluation to do... upgrade or start over? Gods, what a mess.

I finally decided it was time to quit when I realized just how chilled I had gotten and my back started to ache from sitting still for so long. It crossed my mind that I was going to have to start running with Heero in the morning if I didn't want this job to turn me into a desk chair potato.

I had also been pleased to find a neatly folded up grocery sack in the bottom drawer, Gods only knew what the last guy had hauled to work in it, but it was mine now, and I used it to dump my new shirts and paperwork into.

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