by Sunhawk
Warnings: Angst, OOC, language, Duo POV.
Thanks to Christy for beta reading.
Standard disclaimers apply; they are not mine and if there is a profit... nobody told me.

On the Outside

I was probably drinking just a bit more than normal, but it had been awhile since I'd been in a position where I felt like I could. Six months, two weeks, five days, sixteen hours, twenty-five minutes and ten seconds too long, in fact. Ok... I can't really say how many seconds, I'm not that freaking anal, but I think it was a pretty close estimate.

Undercover operation. Deep undercover. There was a spot on the back of my right shoulder that would be sore for days from where the gang tattoo had been removed after it was all over. I was still having trouble not reaching to verify the presence of the knife sheaths that had not left my body for the last six months, two weeks, five... ah hell; you get the idea.

Short version; tough mission. Finally over. Night out with the guys.

Trowa and Quatre were on my right, Trowa currently spinning some tale for the wide-eyed Quatre, trying to convince him of some bizarre-ass story about how elephants had a burial ground or some such cockamamie thing. Quatre is a holy terror on the battlefield, and from what I've heard, just as intimidating in the boardroom; but if you can keep a straight face when you feed him a line of bull... he'll buy just about anything.

I think it's because he just doesn't 'get' the humor in it. He's been suckered enough times between me and Trowa though, that he's finally gotten a little skeptical, but it just makes it more of a challenge to try.

When Quatre finally glanced my way, looking for my reaction, I dutifully backed Trowa up. 'I have heard something about that,' I said casually, taking a sip of my beer. 'Something about how they run their dying off?'

I looked to Trowa for clarification, just as though I was truly interested. The trick is to not appear too eager. Trowa fell in with me, using the age old method of delivering the information by talking past the victim to the accomplice. 'They don't run them off,' he corrected smoothly. 'But elephants are very intelligent animals. They know when their time is coming...'

I listened with half an ear, not wanting to miss any cues, and let my attention wander to my left. Wufei sat there, looking faintly amused, but hiding it well behind a mask of indifference. He would never stoop to playing along with the joke, but he seldom gives us away, either. I personally think the guy enjoys it, but just can't bring himself to get involved. Like the kid at the edge of the ball field, mocking the others for playing kiddy games because he really just doesn't know how to play and can't join in.

Or maybe he just sucks at lying, I don't know. I'm still trying to figure Wufei out sometimes.

'I dunno, Trowa,' I tossed out when my turn came around, playing the devil's advocate. 'That sounds kind of far-fetched to me.'

There was a sigh from Wufei and he said, 'Don't know.'

'What?' Quatre asked, looking confused.

'Don't know,' Wufei repeated, looking a little bit more amused than he had been. 'Not 'dunno'.'

I frowned and took another sip of beer to try and cover it. I tried to take his... criticisms well. I think it only encouraged him when I reacted.

'Wufei,' Trowa chided. 'Duo just came off a six month undercover mission; it's going to take time for his speech patterns to return to normal.'

Wufei shrugged, giving me a little smile that made it seem like the comment was an inside joke between the two of us. I refrained from smiling back, not wanting to give any sort of implied agreement. Of course, that left me still swallowing beer so as not to be rude about it.

A hand landed on my shoulder and Heero's voice said, 'slow down, Duo; you've got all night.' I thought I would jump out of my skin.

I set the beer aside though, and looked up at Heero, glad to have the distraction that would let me ignore Wufei's look. 'I was drinking for the both of us,' I said, weighing my pronunciation carefully. 'So you wouldn't fall behind since you're so late... again.'

Heero snorted and went around the table to sit down between Trowa and Wufei. 'So terribly thoughtful of you,' he deadpanned, ignoring the jib at his working habits.

His arrival interrupted Trowa's tale of ivory poachers having a bounty out for the location of the coveted elephant grave yard though, and greetings were exchanged all around. Heero ordered himself a beer with nothing but a glance toward the bar; the waitress has a huge crush on him and can interpret his slightest twitch into a full-blown conversation. A useful tool even if it does irritate Heero. Had I been in a better mood, I would have teased him about it. He gave me a raised eyebrow look when I refrained, but I just kind of didn't notice it so I didn't have to go there.

The group at the table behind us rose to head toward an open pool table in the back, arguing over pool cue prowess and placing bets as they went. I couldn't help grinning at a couple of the 'stick' jokes as they went by.

Wufei rolled his eyes and sighed. I took another sip of beer and was rather grateful when the appetizers Trowa had ordered were delivered. Nibbling at quesadillas gave me something else to do.

I tried running a couple of mental relaxation exercises and wondered why Wufei was getting on my nerves so bad. Was it him... or was it me? It had been a while, after all, maybe it was me.

'...couldn't you just find a dying elephant and follow it?' Quatre was asking Trowa, in his skeptical voice. I could see Trowa debate dropping the whole thing and I jumped in to assist.

'You know, I think I saw that in an old Tarzan comic book,' I said, trying to sound as though it had just come to me. 'Damn, Trowa... that legend really does date way back.'

'And there's always a grain of truth behind legends that old,' Trowa replied sagely, looking at me and not Quatre. You can't make it sound like you're trying to convince him; just making idle conversation.

'Comic books, Maxwell?' Wufei had to ask, that damned tone in his voice again.

'Yeah,' I grumbled. 'Comic books, Wufei. Didn't everybody read comic books when they were kids? Oh wait... you were born with a copy of Shakespeare...'

'More likely Sun Tzu,' Heero cut in smoothly, keeping me from finishing my sentence, thus stopping me from theorizing just where said copy of Shakespeare had been stored upon Wufei's birth.

'I have never read a comic book in my life,' Wufei said, sounding mildly appalled at the idea. 'If I'm going to spend my time reading, it will be subject matter worth my while.'

'Somehow,' I said, just managing to keep the bitterness out of it, 'I am not surprised.'

He gave me a look that said he thought I was just too splendidly cute, sitting at the big people's table, and I took a somewhat savage bite out of my quesadilla. Concentrating on chewing and not on the scathing remark that wanted to come out of my mouth.

I'd probably just screw up my pronunciation anyway.

There was a moment of silence that was left for my reply, but when it became apparent that I wasn't going to make one, the conversation kind of started to pick back up.

I didn't want to discuss the pros and cons of comic books with Wufei; he'd end up making me feel bad about them. I hadn't read a lot of them in my time either, but when I'd been a real little kid, I'd found an old box of them stashed in the cellar of the church. They'd been dusty and old, the covers barely still holding to the books, and they'd been fascinating. It had been the thing that had made me finally decide to stop fighting Sister Helen and Father Maxwell about going to school. I'd hated it; the other kids had teased me unmercifully about being an orphan and a 'church kid'. Had taunted me with everything from my hair to my body odor. But, when I'd found that box of comics, I'd suddenly wanted to be able to read. I'd wanted to learn what the strange creatures were. Had wanted to know what the characters were talking about. Had needed to know just what in the hell 'Arrrrrgh!' meant; I knew it had to be something important, because it was always said in the spiky balloons.

I hadn't dared take them to Sister to read to me; I was somehow sure that she would not be all that happy to find me reading comics in which a half naked guy ran around killing big cats with his bare hands and then screaming about it.

I suppose you could say I owed Tarzan for setting me on the road to becoming what I am today, because I doubt Professor G would have wasted much time on me if I hadn't even known how to read and write.

But those were rather fond memories, and I just didn't much feel like letting Wufei taint them with his disdain.

I became aware that my mental driftings had caused me to miss a cue and I glanced up to find Trowa looking at me expectantly. I blinked at him for a moment, trying to rerun the last couple of moments in my head, but I really just hadn't heard a word of it.

'This is where you're supposed to sound skeptical, Duo,' Heero said blandly. 'Thus lending a certain amount of credence to Trowa's line of bull.'

There was an exasperated sigh from Trowa and a crow of victory from Quatre. 'I knew it!' he informed us all, though I was pretty sure he'd been on the verge of taking the bait; hook, line and sinker. I couldn't help blushing.

'Sorry, Trowa,' I muttered. 'I kinda lost the thread.'

'That's ok,' he grinned at me, taking the time to grab a hot wing now that he wasn't busy talking. 'We'll get him next time.'

Quatre punched him in the arm and Heero chuckled, managing to snag the last nacho out from under Wufei. Wufei glared at him, but his attention was on me. 'Can you even still talk without truncating every other word, Maxwell?' he teased.

I had to replay my last line to even hear what I'd said; and I cringed internally when I did. Damn it... I'd been trying to be so careful too.

'Bite me, Chang,' I grumbled and he laughed. I decided to just shut up and let him continue to think I was kidding. I took another swallow of beer and discovered that my mug was empty.

'Heero,' I asked carefully. 'Would you please give your girlfriend a look, and get me another beer?'

Wufei snorted at the joke, which redeemed him a little bit, but Heero didn't so much as blink. 'You're just jealous that you can't get cold beer with nothing more than a glance.'

I started to respond, but found myself taking a moment to run the line through an internal editor first, and by the time I'd gotten everything right, it had just been too long. Witty come-backs have to be fairly prompt, or they just aren't all that witty.

Besides, Heero was using the look and I was going to get my beer, so the hell with it.

There was a touch on my arm that made me flinch despite myself, and I glanced over to see Quatre giving me a look of his own. One that was trying to decide if it was going to be concerned or not. 'You feeling ok, Duo?'

'Yeah...' I began, and then winced. 'I mean, yes. I'm all right.'

He looked at me oddly, and even Trowa glanced up from wiping his fingers off on his napkin. I just gave them a little smile and a shrug; I was pretty sure Wufei couldn't critique body language.

At least... I sure as hell hoped not.

Heero filled the sudden, strange awkwardness by accepting my beer from his waitress and making something of a show of setting it in front of me with a smug little grin.

I got stuck between 'thanks' and 'show off' and ended up saying neither, just taking the mug and then taking a drink.

The conversation began to flow again, but I found I just couldn't join in. I had to second guess every line. Had to rethink every word. So I just settled for listening and smiling in the appropriate places.

It was depressing. And irritating all at the same time. I already felt out of sorts... too long in the field. Too long in somebody else's skin. I had needed some time to unwind; to start feeling like myself again.

I knew it wasn't entirely Wufei's fault; he really wasn't teasing me any worse than he normally did, but for some reason I was having trouble sparring with him.

I try very hard not to be touchy about my upbringing, but I am rather painfully aware that my schooling was just a bit... lacking in the early stages of my life.

And had a slightly different focus in the less than early stages.

You don't need to know a Van Gogh from a Michelangelo in order to pilot a Gundam. You do not need to have read Tolstoy before they'll hand you a gun and let you go kill people.

I wouldn't know a preposition if it bit me in the ass.

And ninety-nine point nine percent of the time... I don't give a damn. But sometimes that academic stick up Wufei's ass gets on my nerves. Most times it just kind of irritates me, but somehow I was finding the whole thing disheartening. I was starting to feel like a puppy getting its nose rubbed in its own shit.

I guess the timing had just been all wrong; after the long time away, immersed in a job that had been far from pleasant, I'd needed to reconnect. I'd felt scraped raw and had been wanting the salve of 'home'. Had needed the reassurance that I still fit where I was supposed to belong. But Wufei's damn superior attitude was making me defensive, was keeping me from letting those walls down. Was keeping me on the outside looking in, when I really just didn't need that.

At the table behind us a woman burst into giggles as one of her table-mates did an admirable imitation of the Gollum movie voice. Someone else quoted something that sounded like Shakespeare and the Gollum voice responded, mangling the line in his pidgin dialect. It was funny; it made me want to laugh. But the look on Wufei's face drifted to that damn annoyingly condescending one again, and I kind of... lost it. It really wasn't my fault; it was Quatre's; he ate the last quesadilla after all.

'And just what the hell is that look for, Chang?' I growled, and he must not have caught the anger in my tone, because that little bemused smile grew to a smirk.

'Just listening,' he said.

'And what do you hear?' I demanded, wanting him to just fucking come out and say it.

'I hear someone butchering the fine lines of The Bard...' he began, sounding smugly disdainful.

'And I hear laughter,' I said, cutting him off. 'I hear friends enjoying each other's company. You know what I don't hear?'

He lost the smug look and gained a slightly confused one. 'What?' he blurted almost automatically.

'I don't hear any arrogant, condescending assholes. I don't hear anybody throwing their education around like it was a badge. I hear a conversation that doesn't require a damn Master's degree before a person dares join in.'

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other guys just sort of staring at me and it kind of took the edge off my temper. Made me feel rather stupid, in fact.

Wufei was starting to turn an odd shade of pink around the edges and I decided that the evening was probably a total loss at that point. At least for me. I drained my beer while they gaped at me, and then I stood up and walked away.

I guess I figured that if I was going to feel that damn out-of-place, I might as well go do it alone.

I was surprised when Heero fell into step beside me before I quite reached the exit.

'You don't have to leave too,' I told him, glancing across and finding a strangely pleased look on his face.

'Like anybody wants to be sitting at that table in the next few minutes,' he grinned.

I snorted. 'I suppose not. I'm rather surprised he didn't deck my ass.'

Heero chuckled and shook his head, opening the door of the pub for me. 'Not Wufei. He'll sit there for the next hour trying to convince Trowa and Quatre that he is not an insufferably arrogant bastard. Then he'll spend the rest of the evening sulking.'

We stopped on the sidewalk for a second while we both zipped our jackets up. 'Wufei?' I asked doubtfully. 'You think?'

'Oh, I know,' Heero assured me. 'That's exactly what he did when I told him to shut the fuck up.'

He began walking and I just blinked after him for a second before jogging the few steps to catch up. 'For what?'

'I hate that damn military jargon,' he grumbled, frowning faintly at some memory. 'I think it's stupid to be using code and acronyms that were coined a couple of hundred years ago. He was always correcting me. It pissed me off.'

I chuckled and we just walked for a bit in silence while I thought about that.

'You know he'll be around apologizing his ass off in the morning, don't you?' Heero suddenly informed me, and the odd look on his face gave me pause.

'Wufei?' I had to ask, not really believing it, but Heero nodded.

'It's damn hard to deal with too,' he said, the corner of his lips twitching just a bit. 'You think a smug Chang Wufei is hard to take... wait until you've seen a contrite one.'

I groaned. 'Maybe I can just pretend I was drunk.'

Heero snorted and glanced sidelong at me. 'On two beers?' he smirked. 'I don't think so.'

I sighed rather theatrically, but couldn't really think of much to say. Maybe I'd get lucky and I'd get another field assignment before I had to deal with Wufei again. It was an errant thought, fleeting and not really serious, but it still served to accent my feelings of... isolation? Outsiderness? Just deepening my odd depression.

'So now what?' Heero wanted to know, when the conversational ball fell flat on my side of the court.

'I figured to go on home,' I told him. 'I guess I'm just not fit company tonight.'

'You're better company than Wufei right now,' Heero grinned and it made me smile despite my mood.

'Not sure that's saying much,' I quipped and got another one of those little snorts of amusement.

We were nearing both my car and the liquor store, and I slowed my steps, hoping that Heero would just go on his way so that he wouldn't notice my intent to stop in the second one before climbing into the first.

'Seriously,' Heero said, matching his pace to mine and not showing any signs of heading on to his own car. 'Why don't we do something? Have you eaten? Want to go see a movie?'

I stopped altogether and looked at him, trying to find a polite way of declining. I saw his gaze flick over my shoulder and somehow he seemed to put my plans for the evening together in his head. He frowned slightly and I sighed again without meaning to, dropping my gaze to look at the sidewalk.

'Duo,' he said gently. 'Are you all right?'

'Not really,' came out of my mouth all on its own and I had to stop myself from reaching up to scratch at the spot on the back of my shoulder that would burn for days yet. Would burn in memory for longer than that. 'But... I'll be ok.'

Heero took a deep breath, as though he would sigh, but then didn't. 'Come on,' he said instead, nudging me toward the liquor store. 'What were you going to get? I'm buying.'

I resisted his herding but gave ground to gain a bit of space, ducking my head. 'You don't want to be around me tonight...' I began.

'I don't think I want you to be around you tonight,' he smiled and made me chuckle despite myself.

But I couldn't maintain the laugh and ended up just staring at him for a minute trying to figure out a way to make him go away. 'Heero... you seriously do not want to be around me when I'm this...' I hesitated, not really sure how to describe how I was feeling. Stumbling over all the words that had been dancing around in my head all night. Dislocated? Out of sorts? Tired? Sorry for myself?

'Lonely?' Heero suggested gently, and it made my face burn.

'That's not...' I began, looking anywhere but at him while that word settled into my chest and made itself at home.

'Duo,' he chided. 'Of the lot of us, you and I pull all the deep undercover work. Don't you think I, of all people, know where you are right now?'

It made me glance up at him, and he caught my gaze with a look that was almost physical. A look that wouldn't let go.

'God, Heero,' I whispered, feeling like I was hearing somebody else's voice, because that wavering damn sound couldn't have come out of my mouth. 'I don't want to be alone right now...'

'I know,' he soothed, and smiled an odd little smile that let me know that he really did understand. He nodded toward the liquor store again. 'Now come on.'

I let him push me to where I'd meant to go, unsure of his thinking. 'What... are you doing?' I had to ask as we climbed the steps side-by-side.

'I'm going to buy you a bottle of whatever you prefer,' he replied quite pleasantly, 'take you home, and get you as drunk as I have to in order for you to start talking to me about the things you need to.'

I shivered so hard that he noticed, and gave me that penetrating look that he has sometimes, that always makes you feel like you left the drawers of your brain hanging open. 'Are you... sure you wanna take this trip?' I asked hesitantly, but it only made him smile.

'Wouldn't leave it to anyone else,' he quipped, and opened the shop door.

I found myself wondering if I wanted to make the damn trip. Wondering if I was even able. I followed Heero inside for lack of any other direction and tried to imagine telling him anything that had anything to do with the last six months, two weeks, five days, sixteen hours, twenty-five minutes and ten seconds. It made my face burn all the way down the back of my neck, and my legs want to turn around and flee.

'Heero...' I ventured once I'd caught up to him, not even sure of what I wanted to say. Or not say, as the case might be.

'Don't even start,' he said without bothering to look at me, looking instead up and down the narrow aisle.

'This is a bad idea,' I said anyway, and he turned toward me with a bottle of vodka in his hand.

'The more you talk, the more you convince me otherwise,' he said genially, putting the bottle back on the shelf when I gave it a distasteful look.

I sighed. I ran my hand over my face. I followed him deeper into the store, things starting to stir in my brain that I'd been trying very hard not to think about. 'I just don't... I don't think I'm quite ready to talk about it...' I tried and he only snorted, poking through the whiskey section.

'You're so ready, you're about to explode,' he replied, glancing across at me, I swear, just to watch me squirm.

'You're not going to let me talk you out of this, are you?' I asked, hearing the resignation in my own voice.

'Nope,' he said agreeably.

I sighed again and ducked my head. 'Something mellow, then,' I muttered. 'Something... slow. I'm going to go wait in the car.'

'All right,' he said gently. 'But you know I'll just come and find you if you run.'

I looked up at him sharply, feeling the desire to do just that surface even though it hadn't been on my mind until that very instant. He really did know.

There was a look on my face; I could freakin' feel it, that would have made me die of embarrassment if I could have seen it. I know it was there, because Heero could see it, and his expression went all pained for a minute.

I left before he could say anything.

I ended up not getting in the car, because I couldn't figure out which one to take, his or mine. Though I guess I should have been able to guess... no way was Heero letting me drive.

When he came out, the sack he carried was a bit too big for just a bottle and I heard a clink that verified the presence of more than one. I wondered if he thought he could possibly get that much alcohol down me without killing me, or if he was planning on joining me.

We took his car, but he headed toward my place, and it made me feel weird. I knew he was thinking that I'd feel more relaxed there. I didn't know how to tell him that my place was just a... place. That his place felt more inviting, because he was a part of it. His apartment spoke to me of him, and mine only spoke to me of... me.

And right then I wasn't even sure who I was.

'Talk to me,' he chided suddenly, as he guided the car up the street. 'What is it?'

It startled me that he'd picked up on my disquiet, probably what got him an honest answer instead of an evasion. 'Can we... go to your place instead?'

'Of course,' he agreed, and took the next turn with no more question than that. Made me wonder if he understood or just wasn't inclined to argue.

I couldn't think of anything else to say, and just found myself staring out the side window, seeing faces I'd probably never see again. Mind running in restless circles, trying to avoid all the things he was trying to make me deal with.

There were voices in my head that I had to concentrate not to hear.

And why in the hell did one of them suddenly belong to Wufei?

I fit so easily in the places the Preventers made me go. Was that because... I wasn't always so far removed? All the things that made me what I was, all the pieces and parts of the past that added up to me, just what was the sum of the equation? What was I?

'Stop it,' Heero suddenly commanded.

I started and turned away from the window, trying to figure out what I'd done. 'Huh?' I said brightly.

'Doubting,' he said, glancing my way. 'Second guessing. Brooding.'

'What are you;' I grumbled, faintly irritated and not sure why, 'clairvoyant, tonight?'

'Told you,' he said, ignoring my tone. 'I've been there.'

I just stared at him while he drove us the last few blocks to his apartment, watched him as he parked, with this dawning sense of guilt. 'And who was there for you?' I whispered, feeling like an utter and complete fool.

But he only smiled, shutting the car off and finally turning to meet my gaze. 'You were,' he said simply and then climbed out while I blinked.

He didn't wait, just gathered the sack from the back seat and headed around the side of the old house to his stairs, just as though there was no doubt I would follow.

And, I suppose, unless I was willing to hotwire my best buddy's car... there really wasn't much doubt at all. I didn't catch up until he had to pause to unlock the door to his apartment. I waited until we were inside and the door was shut behind us before venturing, 'What's that supposed to mean?'

He continued through his apartment, flipping on the lights as he went, heading for the kitchen with his sack of confession tonic. I went to stand in front of his aquarium and watched the fish while I waited for him to reply.

I remember thinking that his voice was too light and unconcerned considering what we were talking about. 'Duo,' he called after a moment, 'who is always sure to hunt me up the day I come back after a long assignment, no matter what?'

I watched a red-tailed black shark nose it's way along the bottom of the tank as though looking for something. 'Well, we are friends Heero,' I grumbled.

I could hear him moving around the kitchen and there was a pause before he spoke next. 'That hardly accounts for the time you called me from your damn hospital bed, so drugged up you couldn't remember your own name.'

I felt the heat rise to my face and tried to cover the embarrassment even though he couldn't see me. 'I thought I was calling for pizza.'

In my mind I heard him snort, though I was too far away to tell if he actually did or not. 'And why did you start that tradition of guy's night out after any of us has been gone for any extended assignment?'

'I started that?' I wondered, not really sure at all, and this time I did hear the snort because he had come back into the living room.

'Yeah, you did,' he confirmed and shook his head as he came toward me with two glasses of something darkly amber. 'And sometimes it's felt like all that's saved my sanity.'

I took one of the glasses and sipped as I frowned at his catfish. 'Rum?' I questioned, giving him a look.

'You said slow,' he grinned and we got quiet for a minute, watching the catfish doing their little cleanup dance.

'Does it really help?' I eventually had to ask, glad of the glass in my hand giving me something to concentrate on.

'It does,' Heero replied, sounding suddenly quite serious. 'I can't tell you how much sometimes. And I can tell it's the same for you. But something was different tonight... Wufei didn't really mean to, but he somehow took something away from you, didn't he?'

'I... overreacted,' I hedged, sipping at my drink and suddenly feeling kind of tired.

'I don't know about that,' he said, setting his drink aside for a moment and taking the can of fish food down. I watched his fingers sift the flakes onto the surface of the water, and his tone was almost wistful. 'I think Wufei was keeping you too on edge tonight. He didn't really mean any harm... but he doesn't understand what it takes to do what we do.'

I didn't know how to answer that, so I just didn't, watching the fish chase after the food and listening to the soft burble of the water pump. That spot on my shoulder burned with a suddenness that made my hand rise to try and settle there. I probably looked like I was trying to hug myself.

'Let me see,' Heero said gently, and I found he was too close and had to move away.

'It's nothing,' I muttered, sipping at my rum.

'Then show it to me,' he prodded, voice a little bemused.

I sighed and rolled my eyes, setting my drink down to unbutton my shirt. 'Just where they treated the tattoo,' I grumbled. 'No big deal... it just itches and burns a little bit.'

Heero grunted and stepped in closer to look when I'd slid the shirt off one shoulder. I made myself hold still. 'Big one,' he observed. 'I hate having to do those, but it looks like this is going to clean up pretty well. I've got some cream...' he offered, and I just shook my head.

'It's ok,' I replied, but then he brushed his fingers along the edge of the 'burn' and I jumped so hard I hit the table, sloshing rum out of my glass. 'Sorry,' I mumbled and he stepped away.

'No big deal,' he soothed and went to get something to wipe it up with. I pulled my shirt back into place and took my drink to go be somewhere else.

Heero frowned at me when he came back into the room, but he didn't mention my strategic retreat, only went and cleaned up the spill. 'Trying to get my fish drunk,' he teased and it eased the odd tension I was feeling, and let me laugh.

'Rum would be appropriate, I guess,' I replied and wondered if he could half follow my leap-frog reasoning. He chuckled, so maybe he did. Or maybe it just didn't matter.

But then he was coming to join me near the window and I wondered why I felt trapped.

'That was your first tattoo, wasn't it?' he asked when we were both looking out the window at the dark yard below.

'Yeah,' I answered around the rim of my glass. His place seemed... peaceful. My own apartment was downtown and my windows looked out on streets and other buildings. There was a tree in Heero's backyard.

'It really does clean up fairly well,' he assured me and was suddenly unbuttoning his own shirt, baring a spot on his chest. 'See? You can barely tell where it was at all.' I looked despite myself, watching the spot where he ran his fingers. 'You can feel it a little, but you can't really see anything.'

I nodded and realized that he was watching me rather intently, so I tried for words. 'I'd heard that,' was the best I could manage.

'You can touch it,' he told me, holding the flap of shirt back and I found myself shaking my head without meaning to.

He was quiet for a moment, watching me while I all but squirmed where I stood. 'You see what you're doing?' he asked, though it was more statement than question.

'Not doing anything,' I croaked out, afraid and not sure why. Answering only because it was expected. Not sure what was going on. Not sure I wanted to know.

'You've been flinching away from us all evening, Duo,' he scolded, though he didn't look upset with me... only a little bit sad. 'It's ok...' he urged, and when I didn't move, he reached out, took my hand and smoothed my fingers over his skin.

I meant to object, but... there was this moment of sharp clarity and my mind was suddenly telling me just how long it had been since I'd touched another person. How long it had been since I'd been able to stand down. How long it had been since I'd felt secure...

'Six months, two weeks, five days...' a distant voice was muttering, the litany broken by the sound of the heavy tumbler hitting the carpet. My knees wanted to fold under me, but Heero's hands caught at me and I realized it was just one more evasion. The body's last effort to do that run and hide thing. How could I want something so bad, and still be so afraid of it?

'And it's over,' Heero told me emphatically, his grip on my upper arms tightening. I half expected him to shake me. 'You're safe now. You're ok...'

My gaze wandered fitfully, not quite able to meet those intension eyes of his, and I blinked to find my drink soaking into the carpet. 'I... I'm sorry... I should clean that up...'

Heero did shake me then, forcing my attention back on him. Back on myself. 'Forget it,' he commanded, looking frustrated. 'It's not important. Damn it, Duo...' he began and then just sighed heavily and pulled me into his arms.

It was weird. Wonderful. Horrible. Frightening. Like trying to relax a muscle you've held clenched tight forever. Some things can become so much of a habit that they become unconscious. Like breathing. Like your own heartbeat. Things you can no longer control.

There was some part of me that was screaming in panic; no one should be this close to me. It wasn't safe. Everyone was suspect. Everything was suspect. There was no safe place... no respite... no one to watch my back... no standing down.

'I'm here now,' Heero said, his voice cutting through the jumble, holding on tight even when I started to shake.

The touch I'd been shying away from all evening suddenly seemed to be the most important thing in the world, and my arms snaked up around his neck, and I couldn't hang on tight enough. He didn't object, though God knows I had to have been hurting him. 'I'm sorry...' I stuttered out, and he shushed me with the sound of relief in his voice.

'Don't be,' he said. 'It's all right. You're all right.'

He didn't seem inclined to let me go, and there in the shelter of his being, I began to let myself feel how exhausted I hadn't known I was. I began to let myself... feel again.

'It's all right,' Heero repeated, lending me his strength when my own seemed to vanish. 'You're home now.'

'I need...' I whispered around the ache in my throat.

'I know...' he soothed, and held me close while he reminded me of what I was... of who I was... of where I belonged.

It was like something inside my chest began to slowly uncoil. Like... a band coming off. It felt almost euphoric to let go, to relax the strangle hold I hadn't realized I'd had on myself. Things awoke within me that I hadn't felt in a very long time. Wants... needs... things I wanted to reach for, but wasn't sure how.

But it was painful too; the burn of overextending... like a tearing in the back of my head. Once unleashed, the emotions threatened to overwhelm me; I felt like a man who'd reached for a glass of water only to find the ocean. It was all swelling up in my chest, choking off my breath, making it impossible to speak. I clutched at Heero and God knows why he didn't knock me on my ass to get me off him. I had to have been bruising him to the bone. I should have been scaring the crap out of him... I was sure as hell scaring the crap out of myself.

But he just held on, calm and tight and sure. There were murmured inanities, things I didn't need to listen to to understand. It made some part of my brain want to weep; did he understand so well because he'd needed this himself at some point? And who had been there to talk him home? I felt horribly like I'd failed him somewhere along the line, and I think I began to babble apologies at that point. He did his best to quiet me, stroking a hand over my hair, bearing with whatever I did, with his stolid presence.

Until I shocked the hell out of the both of us, by suddenly tilting my head back and kissing him like there was no tomorrow. I'll give him credit; he rode with it until I got to the point of attempting to suck his tongue down my throat before he protested, pushing me away and giving me another of those sudden shakes. 'Duo! Stop it!' he snapped and I froze, blinking furiously at his somewhat pained expression.

'Oh shit,' I breathed, and I'm sure I looked as panicked as a man who'd just found a live snake in his underwear drawer. I launched into the apologies again and wondered if a person could really get drunk on two beers and a couple of swallows of rum. 'I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry...'

'Stop that,' he growled, his voice losing its bite, but his expression still holding that odd pain.

I shook my head almost wildly, just trying to avoid eye contact, and began to pull away. 'No... that was... that was uncalled for. I didn't mean to do that. I'm sorry...'

'It's ok,' he reassured, following to keep his grip on my arms.

'No it's not!' I snapped, trying to get hold of myself. Trying to clap the lid back on Pandora's box while all the things we'd released skittered around me like dead leaves in a hurricane wind, too damn late to put back.

My much vaunted control seemed to have vanished completely, and it suddenly seemed to be a very good idea not to be around Heero until I'd figured out where it went.

Heero's strong... he's always been the strongest among us, but I'm the one with the skills in evasion. Once I made up my mind to do it, and wasn't fighting the both of us, I slipped his grasp almost without thought.

I was out his front door before, I think, he quite realized I was that fucked up. I heard him shout after me, but I think he was afraid to make a grab on the stairs for fear of killing us both, and I gained some ground. I felt his fingers brush my sleeve somewhere on the front walk, but I dodged and kept going and made the street without him laying a hand on me. He didn't stand a chance in a flat out foot-race; I'd proven that a hundred times on the track.

It felt... oddly good to just run. Flat out and as hard as I could. After a few blocks there was nothing but the sound of my own breath in my ears, the bite of the cold air, and the burn in my muscles. It was like I was fleeing... everything. Running not from Heero so much as from myself. Running from the memories. Running from the pain. The confusion. The embarrassment.

I have no damn idea where I was when I finally stumbled and went down. There was grass beneath my fingers. Some light, but not much. But there was just a stillness in my head finally, room for nothing but the need to suck in air. I let myself fall and just tried to remember how to breathe.

I wanted to be upset when Heero fell to his hands and knees beside me a few moments later, but... somehow I couldn't be. 'Are you done yet?' he panted.

'I think so,' I managed.

'This...' he told me, his head hanging while he regained his breath. 'Is really not how I thought this evening was going to go.'

It made me laugh. Made me laugh until catching my breath was impossible and I think I might have been on the verge of hyper-ventilating because the next thing I knew, I was in Heero's lap with my face pressed into his shoulder and his hands trying to contain all the pieces of me as I fell apart.

'You can't run far enough, Duo,' he told me when I was able to hear again. 'You can't run fast enough. Please... just stop.'

'What the hell is wrong with me?' I whispered, limiting my clutching to his shirt. Not daring that path again.

He sighed, one hand finding its way up to stroke over my hair. A gesture I'd never known Heero to use before that night. 'Stress,' he told me matter of factly. 'You've been repressing everything too long... locking it all down. It has to come out, Duo. You can't live with that kind of tension, for that long and just walk away from it. The lies, the guilt, the fear, the shame... it doesn't just go away because somebody said the mission was over.'

A noise escaped me that I was rather humiliated to have made, but Heero let it pass. Shame? Guilt? God... he did understand.

'Come on,' he soothed. 'It's freezing out here... let's go home.'

I nodded, not trusting a throat that hurt, to make coherent sounds, and let him help me to my feet. The sweat of the run was drying and I was trembling in the cold air; it gave Heero reason to support me when I'm not sure I needed it. I think he just didn't want to lose the contact, afraid I'd withdraw again. Slide back into the isolation that had been my place for so long. I accepted the arm around my waist as a shield against that draw... scared beyond belief of that slide. The trembling, I don't think, was all because of the cold.

It was a long walk back to his apartment, and I still don't have a clue where we'd ended up. I apparently have a great deal of stamina when I'm not in my right mind. Heero never complained, though he more than had a right to. He just walked with me, talked to me, forcing me to answer now and again. Made sure to keep me focused and moving.

I balked, just a little, when we finally got back to the house, giving him a side-long look and trying, 'Maybe... you should just take me home?' But it was more token effort than anything. I pretty well knew he wasn't about to, and truth be told... I didn't want to. I really just did not want to.

'Can you manage the stairs?' he asked, totally ignoring the question, and while it was in me to roll my eyes and make a snide remark, all I did was nod. And I was just as glad, in the end, that I had refrained from mocking him, because I thought he was going to have to drag me the last couple of steps.

Crashing. They call it crashing for a reason. I was so there. There and beyond.

'Heero, please... I'm sorry, but I gotta just lie down for awhile...' I felt pathetic, practically begging him to let me crash on his couch, but I just felt like the last of whatever I'd been running on was gone. Drained out and left me feeling rubbery and wasted. All I wanted to do was rest, for just a little while.

Heero snorted in that dry amusement of his, locking the door behind us as he started me moving into his apartment. 'Your powers of observation are as sharp as ever,' he muttered, trying to ease some of the weirdness between us, I think.

Had I had more than two lonely brain cells left, I'd have replied with something witty, but as it was, I was too busy trying to aim myself at the couch and finding him fighting me, and not sure why.

'Don't be an ass, Duo,' he told me pleasantly. 'You're sleeping in bed, not on that lumpy old sofa.'

I stumbled in the direction he was herding me while I worked out the part where he only had the one bed. 'I can't put you out,' I told him.

'Like I'd leave you alone after all this,' he chuckled, and pushed me through the threshold into his bedroom. I stopped in my tracks, just inside the door and couldn't decide if I should stare at the bed in front of me, or him. 'Are you nuts?' I croaked.

He sighed, the hand on my shoulder squeezing for a moment, before he dropped it away to move past me to turn the covers down. It was the first time since he'd picked my butt up at the end of my weird bid for freedom, that I'd lost contact with him. I had to fight not to follow him.

'You are,' he informed me as he worked, 'a mess. You are suffering some kind of... I don't know... stress disorder? I am not taking you home. I am not leaving you alone. I am not...'

'Heero!' I blurted, cutting him off, ignoring what he was saying for what he was implying. 'After what I freaking did right out there in the living room? You can't be serious!'

I couldn't even think about lying down in that bed with him without my face heating up, and my mouth tingling with the remembered taste of him. He stopped what he was doing and looked up to meet my wide-eyed gaze. He lost the amused little smile he'd had. 'I'm very serious.'

'Look,' I told him, raking a hand through my hair. 'I don't trust myself right now... this is an incredibly bad idea. I don't think...'

'No,' he scolded, coming back across the room to stand in front of me. 'That's the problem. You do think. And you can't stop thinking. You need to sleep. I know how it works, Duo, when you're in the field. You can't stand down... can't rest... not really, the whole time. You're exhausted, and if you'll stop for just a minute, and trust me, I swear we can get through this.'

I probably looked pretty damn stupid standing there staring at him, but I really just didn't believe he knew what he was getting himself into. Didn't understand how little command I had over what was in my head, and how little it would take to make me lose control of it again.

'Put your arms around me,' he suddenly commanded and left me blinking; he really was nuts.

'I... don't...' I began, but got frowned at.

'Trust me,' he said, and opened his arms a little, inviting me in. It was too much of a temptation... having that feeling again. Having that touch again. And I eased forward, sliding my arms around his neck even as I growled a protest.

'Damn it, Heero...' This was such a bad, bad idea. I knew that. At least, my head did. My body was too busy molding itself against him. His arms closed around me and did an admirable job of holding me still or I think we'd have both died of embarrassment.

'Just trust me,' he murmured near my ear. 'I won't take advantage of you like this. I swear it. You're safe with me. That's all you really need... and you know that.'

Some part of me did. Finally. I didn't need anything more from Heero than he was already giving me. An anchor... a grounding point... human contact... safe haven.

As soon as I admitted it to myself, that rush of need receded; fading and letting me understand that I didn't need to reach for the one thing in order to have the other. That I didn't need to make offers I maybe wasn't really ready for, in order for someone to hold me. In order for someone to care enough to have my back. 'I... feel so damn lost.' I had to tell him and he hugged me tight.

'I know you had to do things you aren't proud of,' he whispered next to my ear. 'And I know those things are eating at you now. But what you did was important, and in the end, saved a lot of lives.'

'The needs of the many?' I said, meaning to tease, but not able to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

'Yeah,' Heero sighed, and began pulling me toward the bed. 'But, later... we'll talk about it later. Right now is about your needs; just relax. I'm here... I'm on watch...'

And those seemed to be the magic words; the ones that finally allowed me to let go and I don't even remember him pulling my boots off or the covers up.

Sleep; it's something we don't think very much about... until we can't manage it. When you're lying in the enemy camp, everything is a trigger that brings you to the surface. Every sound, every lack of sound, every doubt. You don't dream. You can't; you never sink that deep, and I wonder sometimes if that isn't a large part of what fucks you up so bad. They say the human mind needs to dream, and I couldn't remember the last time I had.

I dreamed that night, in Heero's bed. Not the nightmares I would have expected, but gentle things threaded with Heero's voice and presence.

When I woke, it was with a lethargy that told me I'd been asleep for a very long time. A hand touched my shoulder in a gesture that seemed familiar and well practiced. 'I'm here,' Heero murmured, almost distractedly, and I wondered how many times he'd soothed me back to sleep.

I was quiet and after a few moments, heard the page of a book turn. It made me smile just a little, the picture it gave me of him sitting up all night beside me. Made my chest feel just a little tight. Made me wonder what time it was.

'I really don't like the person I'm becoming,' I told the wall.

There was a sound that told me the book had been set aside. 'No,' Heero corrected. 'You don't like some of the things you've done for the sake of the job. That has nothing to do with who you are.'

'Do you know who I am?' I had to ask.

I heard him shift and an arm slipped around me as he settled against my back. 'I will always know who you are. And I will always be here to remind you when you forget.'

It was somehow very important that he hadn't laughed at the question. It made that tightness in my chest ease. 'I think it would be easier,' I told him quietly, 'if I could remember how to cry.'

'I know,' he whispered, and there was a world of understanding in his voice.

The light in the room told me we'd come back around to evening again, and it made it alright, somehow, to stay in our little oasis of nowhere. And he didn't even have to get me drunk to hear the things he'd wanted to hear.


The End

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