Author: The Manwell
Notes
: Chapter titles and subheadings are from the album,Infinity on High,by Fall Out Boy.
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, the Gundams, the copyrights, or the patents. But the snappy one-liners are mine, all mine.

Two out of Three
Chapter 14: Put Love on Hold

I'm a stitch away from making it and a scar away from falling apart...

I woke up sweaty with more muscle cramps than I could count and feeling like I'd spent the last six hours getting bounced around in the asteroid belt. Normally, this would be cause for groaning theatrically. The fact that I was literally pretzeled around Trowa had me blinking instead. Damn. Had we lain here like this all damn night?

Belatedly, I realized I was holding my breath. As I cautiously let it out, I winced. My mouth both felt and tasted like moldy, moth-eaten-and-dust-covered drapes. Smelled just about as nice, too. Oh, man. I grossed myself out. Well, at least my head was tucked down against Trowa's chest and I was breathing downwind, otherwise he would've had a really, really rough night.

I glanced up, noting that the light in our room appeared to be natural and I spotted a ray of sunlight peeping through the shades on our window. Dude. We were guests of the Preventers and we had a window. Une had given us a window.

Oh my God. What in the hell did she want from us? More blood, sweat, and terror? I'm not ashamed to admit that I was scared to find out.

I turned my attention back to Trowa. His eyes were closed and his breathing even. Those two things alone were no indicator that he was really asleep, but just in case his was, I went about untangling myself from him as smoothly as possible. I didn't try to be stealthy because, if he was just like me, that'd set off warning bells instantly. But I didn't just kick my way free, either, because, hell. That just wasn't nice.

I was nearly clear – just trying to figure out how to get my arm, which was numb, out from under his shoulder where he was pinning me to the mattress – when his lashes fluttered and he shifted. "Hmm?" he asked.

Pulling my arm free, I declared, "Gotta take a leak."

"Hm."

I took care of that and more while I was in the bathroom. Hell, I even dared a shower and, in the process, I discovered the first advantage of my now-shorter hair: less shampoo lathering required. I was standing at the bathroom sink with a towel wrapped around my hips, teeth thoroughly brushed and I'd moved on to shaving, when Trowa shuffled in on a direct course for the john.

I waited until he was done using it before saying, "You look like hell, baby."

"Your fault," he replied, elbowing me out of the way so he could wash up.

"Yeah," I admitted, passing him a hand towel and pointing out the little, personal hygiene packs of mouth care stuff, the kind you get at business hotels. "But Hell's also my territory, so you fit right in."

"Home sweet home," he quipped and tore into the bag to get to the toothbrush and two-uses-sized tube of toothpaste.

I continued shaving. Trowa didn't ask me if I was OK now. I guess he could sorta tell that. Or maybe he was waiting for me to explain that little freak out party I'd thrown last night. Honestly, I didn't want to talk about it. Hell, I didn't even want to remember it.

He spat in the sink and rinsed. I braced myself for the first question or the look or the freakin' guilt to hit. Trowa studied me with a sidelong glance and I focused on not shaving off the skin over my Adam's apple.

I felt a touch in my hair and it startled me. Trowa immediately dropped his hand and I hated myself for my reaction: it was a nice feeling when he played with my hair. I hated myself for liking it and I hated myself for making him think he ought to stop.

"It's not long enough for a ponytail yet," I offered, trying not to look at the ragged locks in the mirror.

Trowa smiled that cute, little grin of his. Yeah, I was gonna grow it out again. A little. I didn't elaborate because I could tell he got it. But then he surprised the hell outta me by grabbing his own long bangs and, pulling all that damn hair together, he said, "Mine is."

I had to set the razor down while I laughed. "Sorry, babe, but that's just not a good look for you."

"I'm heartbroken."

"I can tell," I replied through twitching lips. "But, hey. You could try a couple of those skinny, little braids with beads on the end!"

"If I wake up one day with beads in my hair..." He trailed off, apparently deciding that the warning tone was sufficient.

I guessed perkily, "I'll get a big, wet kiss as a thank you?"

I didn't leap aside in time to avoid the open-palmed smack on my towel-covered ass. "Yeow! Knock that kinky stuff off! We're in Une's house!" I mean, really.

Trowa chuckled and pressed an apologetic kiss to my cheek. "Shower," he informed me.

"Enjoy." I watched, helplessly, in the mirror as he stripped off his undies and climbed in. God, he was fine. Every line, every inch of him was perfect. OK, now, I know this is gonna sound bizarre, but... I was straight. I knew this. Hilde was a beautiful woman and, in another life, maybe I would've taken the initiative and asked her out (y'know, back when she'd been single an' all). Or, hell, I might have asked out any number of funny, smart, attractive girls. But that hadn't been my life. My life had consisted of being locked up in corporate hell until I'd made the decision to marry a man whom I trusted with my life. Was I attracted to him? Hell yes. Was I attracted to other men? No. I had yet to meet or even lay eyes on another man who affected me the way Trowa did. Ergo, I was straight... except for him.

That was kinda freaky. I opened my mouth to ask Trowa if it was the same for him, and then – realizing how inappropriate that question would be – I shut it again. Trowa and I had gotten married for the sake of the mission. Maybe he was straight, too, and he just really liked me, cared about me, whatever. Maybe he was gay and the same conditions applied. Did it really matter? No, not really.

What mattered was the mission was over. The mission was done and so were we as soon as the dust settled.

I cleared my throat as if that would somehow loosen the muscle cramp in my chest and dissolve the immovable ball of lead in my gut.

I finished up in the bathroom and went to hunt down some clean duds. I found a pair of boxers, still in the retail package, in the drawer. They were cotton and white with blue pinstripes and I hated them on sight, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Until I could get my regular ones laundered, these would have to do. I stuffed my black boxers into a pocket of my leather jacket and picked up the clothes I'd been wearing for the last two days. After the compulsory sniff test (which they passed... barely), I got my ass dressed. Man, but I wanted my stuff back. I didn't have much, but it was mine. Y'know?

There was absolutely nuthin' I could do about my hair except tuck it behind my ears. It felt weird – like ghosts were constantly running their misty fingers through it – and it didn't stay in place for long, which irritated me. I went through the drawers and cupboards until I found a Preventers "Trainee" baseball cap on the top shelf in the closet. Bingo.

I had the hat on front-to-back and was debating sticking my head in the bathroom to ask Trowa if this looked as dorky as it felt when the doorbell chimed. I went over and hit the release button. Sally was standing on the threshold, looking fresh and smart in her white lab coat.

"You're out for blood, aren't you?" I guessed, foregoing the standard "Good morning" stuff. I mean, who really cares about that shit anyway? A good morning is a morning spent in bed, not talking to people and wishing them a freakin' good morning.

She smiled. "In a manner of speaking. We need to check to make sure there aren't any internal injuries we missed yesterday."

"I'm totally fine," I assured her. She didn't believe me. I offered to do some calisthenics to prove it.

She ignored me. "As soon as Trowa's ready—" We could both still hear the shower running. "—I need both of you to come down to Medical. I promise it'll be quick and painless." She winked.

"Uh huh." I was just jerking her chain, though. I knew the ultrasound she had planned for us would be totally benign. It still wouldn't be very damn comfortable, though. Cold, sticky, chemical-scented gel gumming up the fine hairs on your belly was not fun, no matter what your kink was.

"You have twenty minutes before I send in the troops," she warned me and although she was smiling, I knew she was serious.

"Roger that."

I waited until the door shut to let out a deep sigh. I was starting to hate how life just kept moving forward even though I didn't really want it to. The state of suspended animation in WEI was starting to look kind of... well, not nice, but familiar, I guess. Non-threatening.

Christ, I was a mess. I'd spent the last four years obsessing over how to get all five of us out of that damn place and now all I could think about was how those doorways had been perfect for kissing Trowa goodnight, how we'd spent exactly two nights in our bed and what a missed opportunity that was, how Trowa had kissed me in the middle of the cafeteria in front of the whole damn workforce and... damn. Thinking about this shit was only gonna make the inevitable that much harder to deal with.

I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, clearing my mind. Right. We had shit to do.

Being the super great, nice guy that I am, I fished out a package of clean undies for Trowa and tossed them onto the bathroom counter. "Med check in twenty!" I told him.

"Hoo-rah."

I snorted. My gaze flickered toward the pebbled-glass shower doors and my pulse suddenly spiked as I watched him lift his arms and face up to the spray, presumably for the rinse cycle of things. I stood there and just stared like an idiot at the blur of skin visible through the translucent door. So much for clearing my damn mind. Damn. Damn damn damn.

I let my thoughts go no further than that.

Palms sweaty, I retreated back to the main room and sat my ass down on the desk by the door to wait.

Not two minutes later, the water shut off, the shower door slid open, and the sound of a towel being applied to a dripping body filled the silence. Shortly thereafter, the blow dryer clicked on. It occurred to me that I didn't have to be jealous of Trowa's easy hair care routine anymore, which was too bad. I'd kind of liked getting snarky over it. Instead, I felt stripped of something important, as if I'd somehow lost a layer of camouflage, as if my mask was somehow thinner than it had been before.

"You have an obsession with clothes?" Trowa asked, dumping me out of my thoughts. He was standing in the doorway wearing nuthin' but a towel – and, damnitall, yes, he looked better in it than I had – and waving the package of undies in the air.

"Most people look better with them on," I heard myself tease. It came out kinda flat, though.

He blinked at me once and gave me a searching look. "Most people?"

"Er..." My gaze slid away guiltily. I felt my shoulders start to hunch. We were approaching the line that was not to be crossed. There was no way I could tell Trowa that I liked seeing him without a stitch of clothing on. In fact, I liked it just a little too much. But I could not tell him that. Not if we were gonna be going our separate ways or whatever.

My throat thickened with phlegm as I contemplated those damn annual get-togethers or political powwows again. I didn't want to spend time with him like that. I wanted... I wanted...

As if what you want matters, Maxwell, Shinigami pointed out with a cackle.

Yeah. Yeah, he had a point.

When I looked up again, Trowa was still standing there, waiting for me to spit out whatever I was gonna say, so I said, "Stop trying to tempt your weak-willed husband and get the hell dressed, babe."

I slid off the desk – it was either that or bury my face in my hands and despair pointlessly – and headed for the door. "I'll see you down in Medical."

I didn't glance over my shoulder to see how close he'd come to hauling my ass back into the apartment... if he'd lunged after me at all. He might not have. He might have just watched me go, nothing in his eyes but pity because, dammit, I knew I wasn't taking this well. I knew things were different now. I got that. I just had to, I dunno, let it sink in, maybe.

Or let it sink me. Maybe it would take time for reality to torpedo whatever it was I didn't want to let go of. Sink or swim, right? I hoped I'd be able to offload that dead weight once it started to drag me down with it.

I booked it down the hall to the elevator and let out the breath I'd been holding when I saw the highlights of each floor posted on a helpful plaque beside the buttons. I punched the one for the second floor where Sally's domain was located. She had me in an exam room so fast I think I managed to exchange waves with Quatre who looked like he was on his way out.

"See you at breakfast!" he said and then I was getting poked and slimed as they scanned and probed for slow-developing, nasty internal injuries. As promised, it was painless. It was not, however, a thrill a minute. I was grateful when Sally just gave it the hell up and signed off on my health chart, that is, until she mentioned the next item up on the agenda, couching it in an offer of sustenance:

"Why don't you go up and get something to eat on the third floor? You have fifteen minutes before Director Une wants to go over your debriefing statement."

I groaned. My stomach grumbled. The hell. Was it too late to crawl back into the WEI building and sit my ass down in my shitty desk chair so I could start clicking through the company's Charitable Works inbox?

...yeah. That's what I figured.

"What's wrong, Duo?"

I blinked and found myself standing opposite Quatre at a table in the Preventers' food court. I had a tray in my hands with what looked like an omelet and some toast on it but no memory of actually acquiring any of it. Nor of actually making the trip between here and Medical.

"Uh..." I began, glancing around to get my bearings. The angle of sunlight told me it was mid-morning. The clock on the wall confirmed it. I didn't recognize anyone else in the sparsely populated room.

"Here, sit down," Quatre said, standing up and reaching across the little, round table to push out the chair next to me.

"OK," I said, as if he'd asked me for something of vital importance which I was now approving. I sat. I contemplated the omelet on my plate.

"Duo..."

I looked up. "Yeah?"

Quatre gave me a look that was some kinda mix of apology and tenacity. "I don't want to pry, but I'm going to if you don't tell me what's wrong."

"Hah! Is that the only warning I'm gonna get?"

"Pretty much."

I picked up my fork and used the edge of it to squeeze off a corner of egg. There was no way in hell (or on Earth, for that matter) that I was gonna tell him what was bugging me. I mean, shit. If I wasn't even letting myself think about it then why would I freakin' say it out loud?

"Fine," I pretended to capitulate. "I have no frickin' idea what Une wants from us. Do you?"

That was actually a very worrisome point, but I could tell Quatre knew it wasn't the Big One. He let it go though, probably because he was hoping that if he just got me talking, the rest of it would pop out eventually.

"Well, she hasn't said it in so many words, but I suspect she'll offer us positions."

"In a prison cell somewhere or chained up on the bottom of the ocean?"

Quatre gave me a look, letting me know my humor was not appreciated in this instance. "No, here. With the Preventers."

Well, shit. That could end up being just as bad, in my opinion. "You gonna accept? Y'know, if she asks?"

"Maybe..."

His hesitation was comforting. I knew Quatre hadn't liked the messy aspects of fighting for peace. It'd been his unshakable belief that he was fighting for a better future that had made him such a damn effective pilot. Despite his unquestionable skill in that department, I couldn't see him picking up a gun now. Maybe they'd give him a desk to ride or a seat in the intel command center. He could do a lot of good here, in the right position. I didn't say that – there was no point in counting your options before they came your way. Besides, Trowa would just tell me I'd jinxed him.

Something in my chest shifted at the reminder of him. Dammit. I had to get myself under control. I'd never lied to myself about how things were gonna go when we got to the fallout part; I'd always known Trowa and I would split up. I had no right to be in such a damn funk about it.

"Debriefing, the sequel, is up next, I hear," I said.

"Une just wants us to read over and sign our statements from yesterday."

"Uh huh." Why, yes, that is Skepticism you hear. He tends to keep a low profile, though, so that's why you haven't heard much from him.

I got through half of my omelet before I just couldn't stomach the damn thing anymore. Speculation was leaving a funny taste in my mouth that was making me think I was eating rubber chicken feet instead of actual food. "I'm goin' up," I said, standing. "Get it over with."

"You're not going to wait for Trowa?" Quatre looked more than just surprised. He actually seemed a little disappointed. He had no right to be and it pissed me off that he was.

"He's still in Medical. I'll see you later."

Obviously, I was not in a very gracious mood. There were tons of things I should have said to Quatre: thanks for leaving WEI and coming after us; thanks for handling the mobile dolls; thanks for coming to Brussels... Did I say any of it? No. No, I didn't. I was in full-out bastard mode and God help the poor schmucks that got in my way because I sure as hell wasn't gonna.

I didn't encounter anyone who dared to call my name or make eye contact as I commandeered an elevator and took it up to the conference room level. I had the receptionist show me to a private meeting room where I sat and stared at the walls until Une clicked her way in on spikey, high heels.

She took one look at me and said not a word as she laid a sheaf of papers down on the table and a pen. Then she clicked her way out.

The door shut and I let out a gusty sigh. With it, my sudden anger vanished and I slumped in my seat. As this was not the place or the time to start thinking about shit like regrets, I picked up the pen and twirled it absently as I started reading through my statement. There were a couple of things – mostly word choice – which I felt were a bit off, but mostly because I hadn't thought to say it that way at the time. They sounded good, though, and – more than that – the overall effect made me sound like a guy who wanted to do the right thing, who wanted to make a difference, who cared about the people of Earth as much as he cared about the people of the colonies. I could live with that.

I got done reading and signed the damn thing. Then, I stared at the walls some more.

When the door opened again, I glanced up and saw Hilde standing there with a small bundle of large, manila folders tucked under her arm.

"Are we having fun yet?" I deadpanned. Suddenly, I felt very, very tired. But hell, it wasn't even noon yet.

"I've got something that'll put a smile on your face," she told me, indicating the files she was carrying. "Let's head down to the conference room so we can get the party started."

"Groovy," I replied and numbly followed her lead.

Somehow, I wasn't surprised that I was the last to arrive. It was to be expected that my statement would be pretty damn detailed. Also, there was the unattractive fact that I was purposefully dragging my feet.

Heero, Quatre, Wufei, and Trowa were all seated around a table with Une. There were two seats open. One beside the director and one next to Trowa. I bit back a sigh and let Hilde sit next to her boss.

As I slid into the remaining chair – which squeaked in protest – Trowa gave me a considering look. I knew that look. He was trying to figure me out. Hell, he was probably wondering what the hell my problem was. I gave him gamely grin. It was fake – I could practically hear my own face creak like plastic under stress – and I knew he could tell. Yeah, I wasn't fooling anyone. That was a Maxwell fail.

"Normally," Une began, "we'd be conducting this next part with each of you in private. However, you've demonstrated a... tendency—" I didn't congratulate the director on her diplomatic choice of word, although I certainly thought about it. "—to maintain your solidarity no matter the circumstances and, as such, I feel it would be more productive to simply do this once."

She motioned to Hilde, who stood and began handing out the files: one to Heero, one to Wufei, one to Quatre, and two which she placed between Trowa and me.

"Gettin' lazy, Schbeiker?" I would have teased if Une hadn't spoken then.

"Inside you'll find new identification including a birth certificate, employment history, graduation diploma, and a deed to a residence."

I didn't even touch my file. Nobody else did, either.

"What's the catch?" Heero demanded.

Une's lips twitched into a wry smile. "Inside, you'll also find the Preventers recruitment pack."

Hah. I knew it.

"And before you refuse outright," Une continued, "I urge you to look over the career options available to you here. It's my hope that, over the next four months, you'll give the offer a great deal of thought."

So she was giving us a deadline. It was a helluvalot more lenient than I expected, but I suspected that was because the consequences of turning her down were gonna be really, really, epically bad.

"What happens if we refuse?" I asked. I didn't ask what would happen if we just disappeared, although, to be honest, I doubted that any of us would consider that a palatable option. It certainly wasn't what I'd worked toward. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder and I was pretty sure the other guys felt the same.

"If you decline a position with the Preventers, then you will be required to present yourselves before the War Tribunal," Une replied. "At which time you may call upon me and the Preventer agents involved with the X18999 operation to speak on your behalf, which we will be happy to do. I cannot, however, guarantee that you will be acquitted."

"Acquitted?" I coughed out. "What are the charges?"

Une replied smoothly, "The moment you set foot outside Winner Enterprises, you were in violation of your public service sentence."

Well, that sounded pretty bad. And Une sounded pretty satisfied with it, too. Dammit, I knew she'd had an ulterior motive for helping us out. Hell, she and Howard had ended up giving us enough rope to hang ourselves if we didn't play nice. It was underhanded, devious, and cunning. I could appreciate that kind of tactic.

It still pissed me off, though.

"Is the court willing to overlook the breach of our sentence if we commit to positions here?" Quatre pressed.

"Yes," Une replied. "I've spoken with them and they agreed: if it could be shown that the former Gundam pilots acted in the best interests of the public and assisted in the neutralization of the Barton Foundation, then they would grant you clemency so that you might use your skills for the continual preservation of the peace."

Right, so we were lookin' at a career with Une's hand on our collective leash or it was back to the WEI machine. Or prison.

"Super," I remarked tonelessly.

"You have four months to consider this, gentlemen," she reminded us. "And you need not choose an active role in peacekeeping. We have openings in Operations, Logistics, Training, Legal Affairs, and Air Support—" I shivered. Damn, I could pilot a ship again... if I handed over my immortal soul. "—as well as Law Enforcement." She pinned each of us with a glance, one after the other. "The possibilities are endless. Don't be quick to discount them."

The room was utterly silent as she sat back in her chair and let us absorb all that, which we did.

I was trying very hard to stay angry, but I was losing that battle. Une was offering us more of a choice than we had any right to expect, given the War Tribunal's ruling the first time around. She was offering us our choice of careers, offering to back us so that we'd be able to walk down the street in broad daylight. Still, I had one question. I opened my mouth to ask it. Heero beat me to it.

"What's the duration of our contract?"

"Three years," Une answered promptly. "After which time, you'll be eligible for re-evaluation."

So, basically, we had three years to work our asses off and prove ourselves as invaluable assets of Une's pet organization and if we didn't they'd put those damn windowless walls back around us.

"What if we want to work for ourselves?" I argued for the hell of it. "Open a convenience store or something?"

"You'll have to follow standard procedure if you wish to terminate your contract, Mr. Maxwell," Une replied, "by filing a request for permanent or temporary absence."

Hm. OK. Maybe we weren't quite as boxed in as it looked at first glance. Not that I thought they'd let me go off and open a quickie mart or anything, but maybe if my work was tangently related to (or sometimes supported) the Preventers, they'd let me do my own thing. I'd still be on a leash, but it'd be a longer one.

All things considered, it could be worse.

When no other hypotheticals or questions were presented, Une set aside the current topic with a decisive nod. "You may be called to testify at Dekim Barton's trial," she informed us. "In the event of that occurring, you will be contacted by Mr. Wufei Chang, who has already accepted a field position with us and will begin training on the first of the month."

Whoa, that was fast. Fast, but maybe not all that surprising. I leaned around Trowa and grinned, this time for real. "Congratulations, man."

"Thank you," he replied, inclining his head. His eyes were shining with a fierce light, a light that I'd seen a couple of times during the war but never since. Yeah, being an agent was gonna be good for him. I could tell.

Une wrapped up the meeting with: "You are all free to stay here and accept the accommodation of the Preventers until you reach a decision. Or, if you wish to relocate to your assigned premises, indicate thus to Agent Schbeiker who will arrange for transportation and utilities hook-up. That is all." She stood and the rest of us stood as well, if for no other reason than out of appreciation for what was clearly supposed to be generosity. I guess we'd figure out what it really was in due course, but for now none of us were looking to bite the hand that was passing out new futures.

"Thank you for your assistance with Agent Schbeiker's operation, gentlemen. You performed admirably and I believe each and every one of you will be an asset to this organization. In turn, it is my hope that the Preventers will offer you a rewarding career and a chance for personal and professional growth."

With a nod, she pivoted smartly and clicked out of the room. After the door shut behind her, Hilde turned to us and said, "Please look over your documents now. If you have any questions or requests, I'd like to take care of them as soon as possible."

It was like frickin' Christmas: here we all were, sitting around in a circle with our "stockings" from "Santa". Only... I'd never had a normal Christmas as a kid. I looked to Wufei and watched as he opened his file with no fuss whatsoever and started reading. Heero was the next to follow suit. Then Quatre. I startled when Trowa handed over my file in silence, his visible green eye focused on me.

I took the damn thing just to avoid his searching look.

Letting out a long breath, I flipped open the folder and took a gander at the new me. As I read, I felt a smile tug at my lips.

My name was now Joseph Cross (if I wanted it) and I was a graduate of a decently reputable high school which focused on preparing its students for careers that dealt with machinery. I'd apparently also passed a junior's pilot course as a teenager and logged over three hundred flying hours. There was more, but I didn't pay too much attention right now. I was just happy that I had my foot in the door of a career behind the yoke.

I flipped through the pages until I came to a glossy 8x10 photo of a small house in a woodsy clearing. Instantly curious, I glanced at the corresponding map. It looked like Une had set me up somewhere remote in Ireland. Well, for the next four months or so, anyway. Even though there was no way I'd be able to live there permanently if I took a job with the Preventers here, it'd be a helluva retreat on my vacation time. It looked peaceful. It looked normal. It looked nice.

With a carrot like this, I was almost tempted to say to hell with the four months; sign me up for training and the pilot's course now! As an afterthought, I took a look at the next page in the file and found myself skimming over the contract of ownership for the house... and I nearly had a freakin' heart attack.

There on the dotted line were two names. One was Joseph Cross and the second was Tristan Armstrong. I'd give you three guesses as to what Trowa's new name was, but I doubt you'd need more than one.

I glanced to my left and noticed he was looking at the same thing I was: two names on a very legal-looking deed to a small house in the Irish countryside. I swiveled around to Hilde before Trowa could catch me gaping at him.

I blurted, "You've got us sharing a residence?"

"Um... yes." When I just stared at her some more, she explained, "You are married. To each other?"

I flipped hastily through the remaining pages until I found a familiar-looking document recording the marriage of one Joseph Cross and Tristan Armstrong five days ago. I just sat there as the pages in my left hand slid back down, one by one, until I was staring at the house deed again. Don't panic, I counseled myself. This is fixable.

That shook me out of the death-spiral of disbelief my brain was caught in. I cleared my throat. "I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding here."

"No," Trowa quickly interjected. "There hasn't."

What? I couldn't avoid looking at him now. I licked my lips, girded my loins, and slowly turned in his direction. "You...?"

That was all I said.

Trowa gave me an evaluating look, as if he were sizing me up prior to a duel, and seemed to come to some sort of conclusion. From the way his chin angled, I could tell he didn't like it, but he was prepared to be stubborn about it. "Can we have a moment in private?" Trowa requested, standing.

"Certainly." Hilde waved a hand toward the door and the hallway of infinite private meeting rooms beyond. "Take your pick."

Trowa came around to stand beside my chair and just freakin' waited for me to get it together. I gritted my teeth and, after a second of glaring at the varnished wood grain of the tabletop, I did. I couldn't bring myself to look at the others as I stood, although I could imagine the looks on their faces. Damn. I'd just totally clued them all in to the fact that our marriage was supposed to be a sham. Heero would be pissed at me. Quatre would look disappointed all over again. And Wufei... he was a tough call. Still, I didn't think he'd be thrilled with this development.

Taking a fortifying breath, I stood and headed for the door with Trowa right on my heels. I didn't duck into the first room I encountered, or the second. I pushed the door open on the third, though, since I figured Trowa probably wouldn't let me drag this out past door number four.

I walked in, but I didn't sit down. I circled the little table, dropping my file on it and planting my feet shoulder-width apart. So, we were gonna have it out. Right. Best make it as quick and painless as possible.

"You noticed they've still got us married?" was my opening volley.

"Yes."

For a moment, neither one of us moved. Trowa watched me and I scowled, considering all plausible options. Was it possible that Trowa wanted to keep the house? Hell, it'd be nice to share that with him, to spend time together when we had a long weekend off... Maybe that's what this was about. Maybe he didn't want to restrict our friendship to a quick "hi" and "bye" in the hallowed halls of the Preventers, official functions, and Christmas parties. I could live with that. I could totally live with that. But, first of all, we had to put all this marriage stuff behind us so we could get on with being two guys who jointly owned a place in the mountains.

Naturally, I dived right in. "Don't you want a divorce?"

Trowa didn't even blink in surprise. I guess he knew my tactics too well. "Have I ever given you any indication that I would?"

I gulped. This was what I got for jumping in feet-first. "Well, no, but, hell... Everything's been about the mission and now that we're free – sorta – I thought you'd..."

"I'd...?"

"Er... wanna make the most of it," I suggested lamely.

For a moment, he just looked at me. "Maybe I am."

I looked back at him. It occurred to me then that he might have a mission of his own in mind that he'd need a partner or a cover for. Maybe staying married was the most convenient option for him? I tentatively investigated this with a leading admission: "I know I owe you a couple of times over."

"I'm not interested in calling in any outstanding debts, Duo," he told me, shooting down my theory until it was in smoking, smoldering ruins. Shit. What the hell was going on here?

"Look, Tro," I tried again. "After everything we've been through... Hell, you know much I trust you. You're my best friend in the whole damn universe—"

"Your friend?" he interrupted in a tone that was almost dangerous.

Of course, it got my back up. "Chill the hell out, man! Wha—?" I reined in my knee-jerk reaction and made myself actually read him. The somber expression, the intent, glittering stare, the tense shoulders... they all added up to one incredible conclusion. "You... you want more than that?" I don't know why I phrased it as a question. What kind of answer did I think I was hoping for?

"Yes."

I blinked at him.

"Is that so unbelievable?"

"Well... yeah. It's freakin' laughable that anyone'd want a headcase like me for, y'know..." forever.

"I'm not laughing."

"I can see that." Shit. He was honestly, really-and-for-true serious. My guts knotted with dread that I wasn't sure I completely understood. How could I dread the coming breakup and yet dread what was unfolding now? What the hell was wrong with me?

Trowa's jaw clenched. "Duo. We're married. I want..." He glanced down at the file folder between us and sighed out a breath in silence. "I've been fighting for the last four years. I just want to go home."

I might be pretty dimwitted about some stuff, but even I knew he wasn't talking about going home to the circus. I followed his gaze and stared at the file that was on the table, knowing what was inside it: a future, a partnership, a home. For the first time in my life, I had a shot at all that.

Suddenly, all the walls I'd been building and shoring up fell away and I had to close my eyes against the overwhelming want that just about swallowed me whole. Oh man, I had no words to express how damn much I wanted that life. It was on the tip of my tongue to agree and just let it all happen, but...

But I'm straight.

Oh, Christ. What had I done? What had I gone and fucking done? Shit. I'd told myself – back when I'd started this whole damn thing – that I would not lie to myself, that I would not psych myself into thinking I could be something that I'm not. I could almost damn Trowa for doing this to me, except I'd done it to myself. How could I go through with this? No matter how much I trusted him and liked him and no matter how amazing and sexy he was, how could I just agree to this when I'd never in my life considered choosing to spend the rest of my days with another man? Right now – this instant – was the first time I'd allowed myself to wonder if something I'd taken for fiction could be made fact. Could I do this? Could I just go home and be married... to Trowa?

I didn't know. I just... I just had no freakin' idea if I was capable of that. Hell, I had no idea of who I was without the Goddamn mission! I sensed that it had changed me, but I didn't know how and I didn't know if it was permanent. This version of me who'd been a fiancé and a husband... was he real at all? Could he be?

"Just answer me one thing," Trowa said suddenly.

"Um, OK..."

"Why did you choose me?"

I blinked at him. I opened my mouth to answer... but nothing came out. I had a million and one reasons – good reasons – for why I'd chosen Trowa to be my partner on that mission. But, for the life of me, I couldn't remember a single, solitary one of them at the moment.

So, instead of answering, I returned fire, "Why'd you say yes?"

I didn't really expect him to answer. It still shocked the hell outta me when I watched his expression close down. For the first time since the war, Trowa walled himself off from me completely. He informed me flatly, "I thought I might have something to offer you after all."

I was confused. Wasn't that – basically – why I'd asked him to marry me in the first place? Because he had something – a whole lotta somethings – to offer the kind of mission I'd been trying to implement?

But, wait a second. Hold up here. Trowa hadn't said he had something to offer all five of us and that's who the mission had been intended to benefit. He hadn't mentioned the others. Only me. What exactly was Trowa implying here?

My mind raced as I dissected his words, his tone, his body language until the penny dropped. I frickin' gaped at him. Christ. He wasn't just serious about staying married. Hell, if he was saying what I thought he was saying, then he'd wanted to stay married ever since I'd asked him! But no, it was deeper than that. He sounded like he'd considered it a long time ago and discarded it as unlikely, but then, when he'd met me up on the roof and I'd asked, he'd reconsidered and...

What the hell?

I didn't want to keep digging this hole, but I needed him to be straight with me. I needed to know that we were speaking the same language here. "After all?" I echoed. "Tell me what that means."

He hesitated, his jaw clenching.

"Please," I rasped.

He closed his eyes briefly as if gathering himself. I half expected him to just growl something at the table top, but he didn't. He opened his eyes. He looked up and into mine. He said, "I've been fighting how I feel about you for the past four years."

No.

Seriously?

I blinked at him.

"I know you're straight," he continued. "But you asked and I said yes because..."

Oh man, I was seriously regretting rolling outta bed this morning. Fuck. I almost asked him to stop. Maybe I would have if I'd had enough spit in my mouth to form the words.

"You needed me," he finally said, "and dreams don't die, no matter how many times you bludgeon them."

I hadn't expected this, although Shinigami smirked his damn ass of like I should have seen it coming.

My hands trembled. I reminded myself to breathe.

"I said yes because I thought I had something to offer you after all," he repeated and, given the context, there was no way I could misunderstand him now. I couldn't really believe it, though. I mean, hell, what made me so damn special that he'd want me? But I was being an ass again, and totally missing the real issue here: the issue encapsulated in those two words – "after all".

What was this bullshit? He didn't seriously think he wasn't good enough, did he? He didn't seriously think that I would have turned him down because he wasn't smart enough or some other dumb thing? Hell, he was the most amazingly strong, intuitive and intelligent, courageous and trusting person I've ever known. He was—

"I was wrong," he concluded softly, stepping away from me and toward the door.

I could not let him walk out of here like that. I slammed my palm down on the table, furious with myself for being such a fuck-up. "You weren't wrong!" I argued in a rush. I chose you because I wanted it to be you! I didn't say those words because they just begged the one damn question I couldn't answer: Did I still want him now that the mission was over?

That was my limit. I couldn't deal with this right here, right now, put on the spot like this. Thankfully, Trowa had paused and was now waiting – still facing the door – for me to explain myself. The trouble was I couldn't.

Swallowing thickly, I collected my file from the tabletop, knowing what was in it, knowing what I could have if I just said yes right here, right now...

"Trowa," I whispered. "I don't know who I am anymore. The last four years, all I've been doing is waiting and hoping for a chance to get us all out of there so we could start living again. In WEI... I don't know if that was really me, if that was really who I am or..." Trowa turned toward me and gave me a long, evaluating look. I swallowed thickly. "Look, I... I just need to sort some stuff out."

"Fine," he said. Just like that, he was giving me the time and space I needed. No strings attached. No conditions applied. No expiration date posted.

Damn.

I wanted to kiss him again. I wanted to feel him moving against me, watching me with his passion-flooded, heavy-lidded green eyes and his lips parted in anticipation of a kiss. Fuck. I wanted him. But I had so much to work out and if I touched him now, even in an effort to mend a little of the hurt I knew I was causing him, would it be in farewell? In the end, would I choose him for a second time? For real life, whatever that was gonna be? I didn't know. I just knew that I couldn't let myself say goodbye. Not with a touch or a kiss or even words.

"You'll be hearing from me," I promised, and then I just about ran out of the room. He didn't try to hold me back.

I plunged into the hall. I didn't go back to the conference room to talk to the guys. Hell, I couldn't even wait for the elevator. I took the stairs. I had the file with my new ID tucked under my arm and I'd already been debriefed to within an inch of my life. Now I just needed to get out.

I booked it to the hangar and got my ass boosted up into my Gundam. If people called out for me to stop, I didn't hear them. I powered up. I buckled in.

And I know it was impossible, but I swear I could still smell Trowa – his sweat and his faith in me – inside Deathscythe's cockpit as I took off.

------------

NOTES:

Granate's 1x2x1 fic "Teenage Dirtbag Sequel" is the first story I read in which two men were in a sexual relationship together despite both of them still being attracted to women. I believe it's entirely possible for a person to be totally heterosexual... with one or two exceptions. So, that's what Duo has decided is true for him. We'll see how he works through the rest of it in the next chapter or so.

Why does Une give them four whole months to think through things? Well, um, honestly, I wanted Duo's hair to have enough time to grow out. How shallow is that? Hah. But seriously, the guys have been in prison (essentially) for four years. They need time to adjust to the real world. I'm likening this to my experience of living in a foreign country. The first four months are exhilarating but you don't know your ass from your elbow. (No lie.) So the guys have four months to get reintegrated into modern culture.

[ ch. 13 ] [ ch. 15 ] [ back to The Manwell's fic ]