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.

ENTER ORIGINAL CHARACTERS! (But no change in the warnings or triggers. Actually, I think you guys are really gonna like this chappie.) (^__~)

Two out of Three
Chapter 15: Bulletproof Loneliness

Just kind of figured on not figuring myself out...

Looking back on it, I probably shouldn't have taken off in Deathscythe. When I set down in a secluded, wooded area within hiking distance of a highway, it occurred to me that Une was not going to be happy with me when she was informed of the Gundam that was missing from the Preventers' hangar. Legally, I wasn't sure where I stood. I mean, was Deathscythe mine? In which case, I hadn't stolen it? Or was it officially evidence in the case against Dekim?

Well, regardless, the self-destruct issue needed to be taken care of and I felt much better working on it away from people. That became my plan: untangle the mess of code that made my Gundam a ticking time bomb, then I'd call Wufei and tell him where to pick it up. I'd take it back to Preventers HQ if I had any fuel left, but I didn't. I'd literally stopped where I'd run out of gas.

I spent two days not thinking in any language other than machine lingo. Dekim's geek brigade had made a real snarl outta my machine and I had to unravel it slowly lest I trip up and earn myself a big boom. I nibbled through my emergency military rations, slept in the cockpit, and pissed in the forest. It wasn't anything close to peaceful or relaxing, but it was still a vacation of sorts. Time away from reality.

When I rewrote the last sequence, disabling the self-destruct once and for all, I powered up the comm. system. To my surprise, I had mail. Well, a message, anyway.

It was from Trowa. For a minute, I panicked. I almost slammed my fist on the keyboard, cutting the comm. system entirely. But then I noticed the time stamp.

I cocked my head to the side and wondered what Trowa would have wanted to say to me right after we'd diffused the situation in Brussels. If I was remembering correctly – and I'm pretty sure I was – then that's right about when he'd made this recording. Hell, he'd probably made it while he was waiting for me and my Gundam to be secured in the Preventers hangar.

For a minute – maybe more – I stared at the message alert, my entire body tense. If I moved, I feared I'd shake and shudder until I scattered into pieces all over the floor. Was I ready to hear this? Maybe not. Did I need to hear it? Maybe I did. I knew that if I didn't watch it, wondering what it said would torture me until I caved.

Biting my lower lip, I extended an unsteady hand to the Play button and pushed it.

And then I saw Trowa. He was strapped into the pilot's seat of Heavyarms. The sight of him in that damn sexy zero G flight suit had me closing my eyes and turning away. Of course, I couldn't resist looking at him for long. I took a deep breath and gave in. He looked a little apprehensive – not that most people could tell, but I could – and he seemed determined. Like he was about to lay his cards on the table.

"Duo," he began, his hands tightening around the controls. "I don't know when you'll get this message."

I watched as he took a slow, deep breath. His lashes drifted down for a moment and he lifted a hand to touch the pendant I'd given him which was little more than a wrinkle beneath the collar of his suit.

He then looked directly into the camera and said, "Once things settle, we could... we could be together. If you want."

I tried to swallow. The simple action was harder than it should have been.

"You know I have no reason to lie."

Yeah, I knew that. If he needed my help on an op, I'd be there. If he wanted to air out some old shit from the past, I'd listen. There was nothing he could tell me that would change my regard for him, no favor he could ask of me that I'd outright refuse. It was a comfort that he understood that.

On the screen, his shoulders drooped and he looked briefly lost. Something throbbed painfully deep within my chest in answer. "I... I don't know what else to say to convince you. You, more than anyone else, know me. Really know me."

Maybe I did. I just hadn't realized it was the real him I'd gotten to know. Not until the shit had hit the fan at Preventers HQ.

"I promise I'll... it'll be good between us."

It already is, I didn't say.

He glanced down, slumping a bit into the pilot's seat. "That's all," he told the camera. And then he reached forward to end the recording and the screen went blank.

I sat there for a while, aching and miserable.

God, but I missed him. Or did I miss the mission, the adrenaline, the rush, the risks? Would there be anything between us now that the very thing which brought us together has evaporated into thin air? Did it even matter if there wasn't?

But was I willing to take that chance? Trowa might think he was in love with me and he might forgive me anything, but that didn't give me the right to torture him. And going back to him now, when I wasn't sure if I could give him what he wanted, that would torture him. I would never forgive myself if I woke up one morning – days, weeks, or months after going home with him and starting to build a life together – and realized I couldn't be his husband anymore.

It irritated me that I'd spent two days hard at work, and yet nothing had gotten sorted out in the meantime. Hell, I guess I'd been expecting a visit from the Fix It Fairy or something. I'd hoped that once Deathscythe was taken care of, the answer to the issue of my marriage would just magically pop into my head and everything would be hunky-dory.

It wasn't. Dammit, I was gonna have to work through this all by myself and I could tell it was gonna be painful. So, OK. First, define the parameters of the situation. Right.

Taking a deep breath, I looked at it head-on, starting with the first obstacle that came to mind. Hell, it had always been there, even back on that damn rooftop.

I wasn't gay, but I liked being with Trowa... even though he was a guy.

Not that I'd ever been optimistic enough to give it any real thought, but I'd kinda assumed that I'd end up with a girl who loved me and accepted me for who I was. Someone I could be myself with. Now, some people say that two out of three ain't bad – and it sure as hell wasn't Trowa's fault that he'd been born a guy – but... saying that about Trowa... that bothered me. It bothered me a lot. He deserved better than a partner who was freakin' settling for two out of Goddamn three! He deserved to be wanted as is, the whole damn package. And if I couldn't be that person, then I was obligated to step aside and let him find somebody who did cherish him... without footnotes, annotations, or exceptions.

OK, fuckin' ouch. I did not want to think about that.

I cried uncle. That was enough painful introspection for today. I password protected Trowa's message – I couldn't bear to delete it – and sent an email off to Wufei. I then keyed the main computer to respond to his voice signature so that he could enter the cockpit and load Deathscythe onto a truck with minimal fuss. I tucked the manila folder on the new me into a secret pocket sewn into the inner lining of the back of my jacket. Then, I boogied.

I still wasn't ready to go back to reality. I needed some time to walk and think and maybe hitchhike my way to some semi-civilization.

Maybe it was fate that I sealed up and abandoned my Gundam when I did. Otherwise, I might not have been tempted to offer some help to the guy who was struggling with a flat tire a little ways down the road on that aforementioned highway.

"Hey, pal! You need a hand?" I called. When he looked up, I waved. He waved back and I jogged the hundred or so meters down the road to where he was.

As I got closer, I realized he was an older guy, possibly old enough to be retired. Probably had all the aches and pains that went along with his age, too. "I can change that for ya," I offered, wincing in sympathy as he pulled himself to his feet.

"Ah, thank you, young man." He straightened up and held out a hand for me to shake. I took it. "Guillaume Juarez," he said.

"Joe Cross," I replied, happy that I'd remembered to use my new name. "Call me JC," I added on a whim. "You can take a load off while I fix this, if you want." I gestured to the passenger-side door, which was closest to the tire I'd be replacing. That way he could sit down while still keeping an eye on me.

He accepted the offer with a relieved sigh and I crouched down on the pavement to get to work. It looked like he'd been in the middle to trying to loosen the lug nuts. A tentative pull with the tire iron confirmed that they were damn tight.

"Where did you come from, JC?" he asked me as I positioned myself with the tire iron handle held low, between my knees and, reaffirming my grasp on it, I used my whole body as leverage to pull up.

"Ah. Long story," I grunted out as I strained. An instant later, I just about bashed my head on the side-view mirror when the bolt gave it up and rotated. Regaining my balance – hey, I wasn't a Gundam pilot for nuthin'! – I swung the tire iron once more before moving on to the opposite bolt.

"We may be here for a while," he pointed out.

I laughed. "Yeah. True. Well, maybe I don't wanna get into the long version," I told him.

He watched me work for a minute and I made it all the way to the fourth lug nut before he said, "Would you like a ride into town?"

"Sure. That'd be great."

It only took me about fifteen minutes to swap his flat for the spare. It wouldn't have taken me even that long if the damn jack handle hadn't fallen off in my hands every other turn. But, anyway, pretty soon we were cruising along with dusty, greasy hands and the windows down.

"Where can I drop you off?" Guillaume asked.

That was a really good question. "Not sure. I haven't been in this area before."

He frowned at me, concern beetling his brows. "Son, do you have any money?"

I guess it was a measure of how hard-luck I looked that he'd come to that conclusion so damn fast. I leaned an elbow on the window frame and sighed. "Nope."

The wind whipped at my face, which felt nice. I hadn't shaved in days and my hair was sweaty and my scalp itchy beneath my appropriated ball cap. Still, I had no intention of calling Une collect and asking her to send a car for me. No way. I'd sleep in dumpsters first.

"I'm the reverend of a local church," my new friend volunteered suddenly. "There are a couple of odd jobs I'd like to hire you to do."

I looked at him, blinking. "I'd appreciate that," I replied honestly. "But you don't have to..."

He smiled. "At my age, I'd rather not patch a roof or climb trees myself."

"Yeah, I guess that would be a pain."

He wheezed out a laugh and I smiled. "So, tell me about this town we're heading for," I invited and sat back and listened while he did. It was a short drive – just thirty minutes – but it would've been a helluva walk. There wasn't much traffic out here and I wondered how long Guillaume would've had to wait for help to find him if I hadn't come along. The car itself was archaic. There was no emergency call button that buzzed the nearest police station. I doubted he had a cell phone. He probably wouldn't have been trying to change the flat himself if he did.

I was getting the feeling that the place I'd chosen was very, very rural and his description of the town confirmed it: one grocery store, two gas stations, one traffic light...

If I blinked, I'd miss it.

I saw a fair bit of the little town as he drove over to the church. The main street actually had a collection of shops: a jewelry and collectable coins store, a little movie theater, a diner, a furniture and interiors shop, a hardware, tractor supply and feed store... Welcome to Middle-of-Nowhere Farmville.

We pulled into the drive between a little, white house and a brick chapel. I could see a lot of things that needed to be done to both, just from here.

"Come in and meet my wife," Guillaume said as he put the car in park. "It's almost lunchtime."

Wow, now I felt like a real loser. "I didn't give you a hand back there so I could bum a free lunch," I told him.

"I know that, son, but I can't put you to work on an empty stomach."

I gave it the hell up. If was gonna kill me with kindness, I figured I'd let him.

His wife was a human dynamo. I swear to God, the woman moved faster than an Aries suit. She had me ensconced in the bathroom so damn fast that the path through the house was a blur. I got cleaned up: washed my hair, shaved, that sort of thing. She even found a pair of old sweats and a T-shirt that had probably been left behind when one of her and Guillaume's sons had come home from college for a weekend some twenty years ago. I put those on while she threw my grungy, funky duds in the washer. Lunch was heavenly. I've always been a sucker for home cooking and her fresh biscuits with beef stew were like a preview of heaven.

Guillaume wouldn't let me get to work until I'd heard the story of this little town and polished off two cups of coffee. That first day, I patched to roof on the church and trimmed the dead branches from the trees out front. On the next, I did some regular yard work type stuff around both. Guillaume brought home some cans of paint on the third day and I ended up sanding and painting the weathered shutters on the house. I guess he must've mentioned me at the hardware, tractor supply and feed store because the owner stopped by on the fourth day and said a customer was looking for someone to mend fences out on his farm. Guillaume's wife, Pierra, packed me a lunch and even gave me a kiss on the cheek when the farmer came to pick me up.

Somehow, not two weeks later, I found myself a spot on the local home improvement crew which served the absurdly large interiors shop downtown. They did all kinds of crap, from building garages to putting in storm windows and screens. Hell, I laid carpet and installed kitchen cabinets, too. Work wasn't exactly regular, but it left me too tired to think, which was good.

I was still staying with Reverend Juarez and his wife when the brother-in-law of the guy who owned the hardware store came over and asked what I knew about fixing cars and body work. That's how I ended up with a fairly stable gig at the local body shop-slash-junkyard. I was surprised to see a few familiar faces there on my first day. I guess a lot of the guys around town moonlighted for the interiors tycoon.

"Hey, JC!" Raymond, Bernard, and Jonas called. I waved back on my way to the office where I signed on all the dotted lines that made my employment legal and taxable.

"So," I said, sauntering out to the garage, grinning. "Gimme the tool territory layout, guys, and point me in the direction of somethin' busted."

The comment about tool territory earned me a couple of chuckles. From my stay with the Sweepers I knew there were certain tools that guys laid claim to, whether that tool was actually theirs or not, and if you got caught usin' it without permission, they'd drink your pocket dry in reparations.

Oh, yes. I know well of what I speak.

So, I worked at the junkyard and garage five days a week. The other two days, I went out on work crews to implement the nesting tendencies of the local households. The guys teased me about my ragged haircut, which I stoutly defended – "Hey, a guy's entitled to at least one bad haircut in his life!" In retaliation, I harassed Raymond about his fascination with bling: "You ever get distracted by your own shiny and end up losing hours at a time from just, y'know, staring at it?" I joshed Bernie about the beard he'd convinced himself he was growing – "Dude, two words: duck fuzz." I razzed Jonas about his socks every time we had to take our shoes off in someone's house – "Man, those damn things have more holes than a government cover-up."

Basically, I held my own. So what if I didn't do it with my signature panache. The only person who'd know the difference was me and I was determined not to notice.

The best part of working like a damn maniac at back-breaking jobs was the result: the momentum that rolled my ass outta bed every morning kept me going full throttle all damn day long until I collapsed on my borrowed bed at the Juarezes' every night. It was... well, not heaven, but as close as I could get to replicating that state of going-nowhere that left me bearably numb. I was so busy running in place that I didn't even think about much of anything except the here and now.

It was just what the doctor ordered. That is, until the first dream hit.

It'd been something like eight weeks since my arrival in Nowhere Town. I crashed and burned as usual, and then I dreamed of him, of us. Together. With lots of amazingly sweaty gymnastics (and several moments that had to be impossible, even for an acrobat). I came to on a rush which was unfortunately duplicated inside my shorts. It was all I could do to keep from calling out, from screaming, from sobbing. It took everything I had in me to pull it together after the rest of that sleepless night and make it through the next day without putting a drill bit through my thumb.

A week passed... and then two... and then three with no more dreams and I breathed a sigh of relief. But, as it turned out, I breathed too soon.

The next dream was worse than the first. This time, he just held me while we relaxed on the sofa in front of the TV and watched a show about, I dunno, something insane, something you could only ever think is fascinating while inside your own dream... like the mythical talking, walking, singing mushrooms of Angkor Wat. He leaned toward me, pressed a kiss to my temple, and I woke up biting my lip so hard I tasted blood. I didn't cry out though. And I didn't break down into a sobbing mess. And, my shorts were still clean. Clearly, that was a victory.

The next day at work, I drank through a whole pot of motor oil masquerading as coffee before the other guys even got there. I was damn sure they'd noticed my puffy, bloody lip, and I was equally sure they could tell it was self-inflicted, but no one accused me of overdoing it during a recent withdrawal from the Spank Bank.

I guess they could tell I wasn't in the mood. I hadn't been in the mood since... well.

I buried myself in a transmission that should have been tossed into a compactor but, fuck it, I wanted to beat the hell outta something.

"Hey, guys! Guess who!" a woman's voice called out at about mid-morning.

Raymond groaned. "Tell me this isn't what it looks like!"

"Um... well, it's on the rear fender this time."

I heard a muffled curse before a thud echoed through the garage. I peeked over the oil-encrusted, metal monster I was wrestling with and had to hold back a bark of laughter at the sight of Raymond leaning against the nearest wall in true Drama Queen style, his forehead pressed to the dusty boards where he'd probably just banged it.

"Um, sorry," our latest visitor-slash-customer said. She was probably about my age, tall, leggy, and very pretty. When she smiled, she flashed a dimple on one cheek but cocked her head to the side as if to balance it out.

Raymond took a deep breath and declared, "Someone else take this one. If I never see that boat of your nana's again, it'll be too soon."

"The boat's back, eh?" Bernie laughed. "Count me out. I've got bad karma with that beast."

"Uh, me, too. I got a deadline here." As soon as Jonas bowed out – I shit you not – they all turned and looked at me.

"What?" I barked. "I don't walk on water." And the way they were talking, this thing sounded like nothing less than a miracle would suffice.

Jonas snickered. "But you look like such a lightweight."

I hefted the wrench in my grimy hand and waved it menacingly. "I have big stick," I grunted. "It go bam."

Raymond turned back to the young woman smiling bemusedly at our byplay and winked. In a stage whisper, he told her, "Just wait until he starts quoting Shakespeare."

"Oh?" she said and turned an expectant look on me.

"Only on the half hour," I quipped, warming to the distraction. I grabbed a rag and sauntered over to introduce myself. "JC," I said, wiping my hands.

"Alminda," she replied, giving me a little wave. Yeah, it looked like she'd been around grease monkeys a time or two and knew better than to shake hands.

"Show me this beast everyone's been talking about," I commanded. "I've gotta see it for myself."

Blushing a little, she led the way out to the front cul-de-sac where a ginormous, vintage, powder blue leviathan of personal transport crouched.

I whistled. "Whoa. They don't make ‘em like this anymore," I remarked, eying the thing. It was fifty years old if it was a day.

"It's my grandmother's," Alminda explained in a well-rehearsed tone. Heh. It sounded like the opening line to a story she'd already told a couple hundred times too many. "She loves this car, but her eyesight's getting worse and worse and she's always bumping into things."

"Like two-ton white rhinoceroses?" I proposed, recovering from my initial awe and catching a glimpse of the car's owie.

She sputtered. "A what?"

"Well, you've got to admit, next to that, just about any other story would be plausible."

"I suppose it would," she agreed. "But... a rhinoceros? Around here?"

I showily glanced around before leaning in and confiding, "One's been spotted." I lifted a finger and hovered it over my lips to indicate the hush-hush nature of this confidence.

"I'll be on the lookout," she whispered back.

I nodded with mock satisfaction and turned back to the bender in the fender. Leaning down, I checked the underside of the wheel well and saw – with some relief – that no one had tried to fill in previous dents with that damn cheap putty stuff. I hated that shit. And it was a shortcut that would disgrace a car like this.

"Hm, OK. I'll see what I can do. How long do I have?"

She did that tilted-head-and-dimple thing again. "Before Sunday? She'll want to drive it to church."

"Saturday evening at the latest, then," I agreed, mentally cracking my knuckles.

She lingered on the drive, wiggling the toe of her tennis shoe through the loose gravel until it occurred to me that she was waiting for something. I glanced up and followed her gaze as she looked toward the keys where they were dangling in the ignition. "Well, if I'm leaving the car here..."

Oh. Right. Duh! "You need a ride anywhere?" I asked, feeling like a real jerk for not thinking of it sooner.

The dimple-and-tilt returned. "That would be great. Would you...?"

Uh, well, I guess I could. "Hold on," I said and ducked into the office to appraise the boss and grab a set of keys off the board. The shop had a couple of loaner cars. I selected one at random.

"Be gentle on the transmission," he told me, giving me a look I didn't really know how to interpret.

"Right."

So, I drove Alminda over to her grandmother's house where her car was parked. It was a bit out-of-the-way so we chatted about this and that. I kept her talking about her family and her university studies (she was on summer holiday at the moment) so she wouldn't ask me any questions. When we pulled into the drive of a slightly weathered two-story farmhouse, I noticed that one of the trees in front looked a little battered around the trunk and the free-standing mailbox was shiny and new.

"Looks like prime white rhino territory," I observed, nodding to each.

Alminda laughed. "Yeah," she replied, sounding both exasperated and amused. "It's a regular crossing around here."

I almost asked how often her grandma played front yard pinball in her classic car, but decided I'd save it for the guys back at the garage. They'd probably exaggerate, but it'd be funny. If I asked Alminda, it'd just be embarrassing.

"Thanks for the ride," she said as I braked gently to a stop.

"Er, thanks for bringing in your grandma's car," I answered, trying not wince at my lame customer service skills.

She grinned. Opening the car door, she said, "You say that now..."

"Right."

She got out and waited in the drive as I backed out onto the road, waving when I shifted into first gear. I lifted a hand in acknowledgement and then I was cruising back to work along the forested country road, frowning. Alminda might've had a point about me speaking too soon. Later that afternoon, I confirmed it.

The car was freakin' cursed. I was sure of it. Every effort I made to smooth out the dent was met with one damn thing after another from cracks in the paint to discovering hidden rust deposits. Oh yeah. This was a frickin' barrel of laughs. At least the guys thought so whenever I'd start up cursing time and time again. At the end of the day, I didn't leave work so much as slunk away to lick my damn wounds.

"I'll be back, you stubborn bastard," I told it. "So don't get too comfortable."

Its chrome detailing winked at me in the lamplight.

It took me three days, but I prevailed. With the aid of heat lamps which helped to soften the metal just enough for the rubber mallet to make a noticeable difference, I got the fender whipped into shape. Then I came out with the sander to round off the uneven lumps before I repainted the whole damn section. Hell, I took it a step further and reinforced the side facing the wheels and frame with neo-steel sheeting.

"Damn, JC. Now that's dedication," Bernie remarked when I went ahead and strengthened the other three fenders. The next time grannie kissed a tree, the tree probably wouldn't survive but, by God, the body of the damn car would hold its freakin' shape.

"Watch out, man," Jonas told me. "If you fix it too well, ‘Mindy won't have as many excuses to come by."

When he grinned and winked, I picked up on the subtext which had nuthin' whatsoever to do with fleecing an old lady outta her retirement fund and everything to do with having a little pretty scenery to look forward to from time to time.

I snorted. "Just ask her out, buddy. Then you can see her all you want."

Jonas blinked and then snickered. "You've seen how small this town is, right?"

"Huh?" I was missing something here.

He explained, "Alminda's my first cousin's niece by marriage."

Ah. I glanced at Bernie to see what his excuse was.

"We dated in high school," he admitted sheepishly, a wealth of history buried in his tone.

"Ray?" I asked, including an expectant look this time.

"Her sister's engaged to my step-brother."

I just shook my head at the wonders of small town life and got the hell back to work.

The car was ready early on Saturday, so I called Alminda's grandmother to let her know. She told me in a smart, crisp tone – the type matriarchs always use – that she'd have Alminda drive her over to pick it up bright and early on Sunday morning.

"We'll be here," I promised.

Sundays were usually pretty quiet at the garage. All the guys in the mechanics bay had the morning off so they could attend Reverend Juarez's sermon, so it was just me and the boss as I got ready to tinker around with a couple of oil changes and a grumpy muffler.

At nine-thirty on the button, Alminda pulled up in her car with a stately-looking lady riding shotgun, both wearing their Sunday bests. The boss handled the money stuff with Alminda while I explained to the car's mistress exactly what I'd done.

"Very thorough," she approved, laying a manicured hand on the hood.

"You've had this vehicle a long time?" I guessed, reading into the gesture.

"It belonged to my late husband's father," she told me. "He bought it new and my husband borrowed it to take me to the Maturaball."

"Sounds like it was a magical night," I remarked. I'd never been to a formal high school dance. Hell, with the exception of the prep schools I hid out in during the war, I'd never been to high school.

"It was," she answered.

Now that was history. I could imagine that landmark moment between two high school sweethearts. It made my chest ache suspiciously when I pictured it.

There was an awkward moment when I saw Alminda off. She seemed to be waffling over something but, in the end, she just said, "I'll see you around?"

Since the town was pretty damn small, that seemed highly likely, so I answered, "Undoubtedly."

She drove off smiling.

It wasn't until the following Friday that I was clued in to the fine print of life in a countryside village.

I came in on Thursday after a "day off" (during which I'd worked my ass off laying linoleum in a remodeled kitchen and delivering a ready-made garden shed) and schlepped over to the metal cubby board which served as our mail station-slash-inboxes.

"What's this?" I asked, holding up the slip of lined notebook paper with Alminda's name and number written on it. Someone had slipped it into my mail slot along with a memo from a secondhand parts supplier I'd called on Monday. (Apparently, they'd decided to get back to me while I wasn't here. Heh. Figures.)

"Is there a problem with The Boat?" This question I directed at my boss, but he just shrugged. Scowling in thought, I headed for the garage and quizzed the other guys. Raymond was off today, but Bernie and Jonas just gave me that "Who? Me?" expression that made them look guilty as hell.

I rolled my eyes at them and just got the hell to work. Clearly, if it was important, there would've been a message included, so I put it out of my mind.

The next day (the aforementioned fateful Friday), I was helping Raymond install a radiator when he asked, out of the blue, "So, did you call her yet?"

"Who?" I asked distractedly. I hated working with clamps and hoses. Damn freakin' inefficient piece-of-shit fluid system. The hydraulics and cooling apparatus in Deathscythe were far more—

"Alminda!"

I looked up in time to see him roll his eyes at me.

"Er, why?" I asked stupidly. If there was a problem with the work I'd done, wouldn't her grandmother have called to ream me out?

"You dipshit," he replied just short of laughing in my face. "To ask her out, of course."

Of course.

Whoa. Wait up.

"What?"

"Well, you're sweet on her, right?" He made it sound like a foregone conclusion.

I blinked at him as if he was speaking Swahili or something.

He frowned. "That's why you were asking about her last week." He waited for me to refute his evidence but I was just too numb to even think. "So, call her. Ask her out."

"I can't do that," I replied woodenly.

"Sure you can! There's a new matinee showing at the cinema this weekend. If you ask for the day off—"

I cut him off. "No, man. I can't. I'm married."

If asked later, I wouldn't have been able to say with any certainty but it sure as hell seemed to me that all work in the garage stopped in that instant. It was that kind of moment, anyway.

Raymond just gawped at me. He glanced at my hands and I resisted the urge to fist them. He didn't say it, but I knew what he was thinking: I'd never worn a ring. Finally, he said, "You never mentioned a wife."

No, I wouldn't have, would I?

I sighed. My throat was dry and aching. My heart was pounding. With two words, I'd blasted open the doors I'd been bracing shut for the past three months and all the questions and what-if's I'd been running from just exploded in my brain. A headache flared to life, throbbing in my temples.

"Look, just... pass it on, OK?" I figured that was the least he and his hyper-active matchmaking buddies could do.

"Uh, sure, JC. Sorry."

I could tell that all of them were perplexed, but no one was willing to push me. I hid my face under the hood for the rest of the damn day and then I went out of my way after work to stop by the town's ramshackle bar to see a man about a cure for dry throats and headaches.

That's where Guillaume found me about an hour after dinnertime. I was on my third beer and wondering when the alcohol was gonna start kicking in.

He eased himself onto the stool beside mine at the bar and ordered a cup of coffee. Rusty, the bartender, slid it over in silence and then shared a look with the good reverend before making himself scarce.

"Huh," I remarked. "So that's how you knew where to find me."

"Yes. Rusty called."

Welcome to Smallville. "Hm."

I sipped my beer and he sipped his coffee. I could tell he was waiting for me to volunteer something only I didn't feel much like talking.

"What's your wife's name?" he eventually asked me and I grunted out a laugh. Hell, the guys at the garage sure hadn't wasted any time passing it on like I'd asked. Who knew that gossip was an actual sport in some areas of the world, eh?

"My husband's name," I replied with deliberate slowness, "is Tr—istan." Damn. I'd almost used his wartime and WEI-time name. The new one wasn't any easier to say, though. It still left me feeling raw.

"How long have you been married?"

I did the math. "Thirteen weeks." Twelve of which I'd spent here.

Guillaume digested this for a moment before he pressed once again, "Do you love him?"

The hell! I had to grit my teeth against the sheer... whatever that rolled up inside me and nearly burst from my mouth in the form of a scream. My hands tightened around my sweating beer glass. "Yes," I heard myself say, and the moment it came out, I knew it was true. The roiling storm within me settled.

Again, we lapsed into silence.

Again, Guillaume broke it. "You have a lot to offer a spouse, JC," he told me and I had to close my eyes against the echo of a memory: "I thought I might have something to offer you after all."

"You are honest, hardworking, and warmhearted," Guillaume continued. "You make friends easily but not recklessly. You're smart and skilled at many things."

"I fought in the war," I said out of a perverse need to counterbalance all of the good points he'd just raised. "I killed a lot of people."

"Do you feel that your past in some way diminishes who you are now?"

No. No, I didn't. Even Shinigami was silent when it was put that way. "It made me who I am now."

"Do you fear it will somehow taint your marriage?"

Considering Trowa's past... no. We were pretty much even on that score. "No."

"Then tell me something else," he prompted and I knew what he wanted.

I gave him my next excuse: "I'm an orphan."

He thought about this for a minute, probably thinking that I'd walked out on my husband before he could do the same to me. He inquired tentatively, "Do you not trust your husband?"

The very idea was laughable. Maybe the alcohol was working because I actually did laugh. It didn't sound right, though. More like spastic hiccups than mirth. "He's earned my trust a thousand times over."

"So you do not trust yourself or your judgment?"

"No, I'm a good judge of character. I knew what I was doing when I asked him to marry me."

Guillaume sighed. I knew I wasn't giving him much to work with, here. I couldn't tell him about the mission, not really, but I could say something.

"I needed help," I confided. "I needed someone to be there for me when things got rough—" And boy did they ever! "—but then, when we made it through, I didn't know... I wasn't sure... I mean, was I the same person or...?"

"JC," Guillaume said slowly, feeling his way as he groped for words. "I'll tell you a secret."

I stopped staring blindly at my now-flat beer and looked at him.

"When I was your age, I was in serious trouble. I was cocky and full of myself. A rebel, I suppose you could say. I painted graffiti around town. Shoplifted." His wrinkled lips smoothed into a rueful grin. "Pierra and I had known each other since grade school. We grew up together. But when I went bad, she came after me. For a long time, I wouldn't let her save me, but then I realized something."

He paused there and waited until I threw up my hands and said, "OK, I'll bite. What was it?"

"She made me a better person. When I was with her, I liked who I was."

I felt a chill dance down my spine.

"Every person is unique, and every time we interact with other people, a different version of ourselves emerges. Sometimes the variations are slight and sometimes they aren't. And, very rarely, you can make each other better. If you're lucky enough to meet someone who helps you be the best version of yourself that you can be – and if that's the case for both of you – then there is no issue that is truly insurmountable."

There on that bar stool, a stale beer clutched in my hands, I was laid bare and forced to look into the light of truth. The truth was I liked who I was when I was with Trowa.

But, was I capable of being his husband in every sense of the word? Days and nights? I didn't know but, dammit, I wanted to try. I'd do whatever I had to in order to work through my hang-ups and issues. Sex with Trowa wasn't anything like what I'd seen of same-sex interactions on the streets. No one was being used. No one was in charge. The balance of power wasn't like that at all. In fact, simply being with him (sex or no sex) made me feel stronger, better, more. Guillaume had hit the target at ten kilometers: I was different with Trowa; he made me that way. When I was with him, I felt like I was the person I was meant to be. I'd liked that Duo Maxwell who'd been Trowa Barton's husband. I'd liked him a lot. He wasn't perfect, but nobody was. And, what's more, Trowa hadn't minded that I was flawed, not as long as I'd kept trying to meet him halfway.

With that realization came the impetus to give up the shadow world I'd been clinging to. It was time to stop living my life as a shell of myself and actually be myself. And the me I wanted to be included Trowa. It would be scary as hell, but we'd made a promise to each other to help one another stand, to stand together, to face whatever came our way as a team.

Really, it all boiled down to one inevitable fact. You can want – even love – a lot of things in your life that are bad for you, detrimental to your health or some such, but only a moron would turn away from something that made his life qualitatively better.

I turned back to Guillaume and, ignoring how oddly blurry he looked at the moment and how hot and watery my eyes suddenly felt, I grinned. "Thanks, Reverend. For everything you've done for me."

"It was our pleasure, son," he said, speaking for himself and his wife.

Right then, a searing wave of want flashed through me: I wanted that certainty, that unit-ness. I wanted to know – deep down know – that Trowa and I had an our, that we were an us, that – together – we were a whole. No, better than a whole; together we'd be more than the sum of our separate selves. It sounded like something that ought to defy the laws of physics, right? I guess that was why it appealed so damn much.

I abandoned my beer and stood up. Laying a few bills on the bar to cover my tab and Guillaume's coffee, I said, "I'm gonna need a ride to the station in the morning. I think I'm ready to head home."

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

NOTES:

"Farmville" is based on my mother's hometown in rural Michigan... but they have two stop lights, not one. (^__~) But, seriously, small town relations are hilarious. Imagine finding out that you're crushing on your cousin's wife's nephew/niece. Ugh. Creepy.

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