Innocence Faded, Part 4
by Jennifer Beacham & Kea Snyder

Background music: Innocence Faded, by Dream Theater

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Some will transcend spinning years
One as if time disappears.
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I could get very used to waking up next to you.

There is comfort in quiet moments. I have never been much for silence; it's always felt like there's too much frenetic, living energy trapped inside me not to speak. Speaking makes things real; it has the power to transmute into existence the abstract firings of neurons that make up thought.

But there are some times when thought itself is enough.

Dead to the world, Heero lay on his side, one hand curled under the pillow as if to edge it further down under his chin, hair awkwardly tousled, blankets knotted around one leg and leaving the other bared almost to the hip. He's usually a restless sleeper--we both are, actually; if you didn't have nightmares before becoming a Gundam pilot, you definitely do after, and the war just ending hadn't changed things--and more than once last night I'd stirred just enough into wakefulness to become aware that we were holding--no, make that 'clinging to'--one another. 

I don't know who reached for whom first, but our unconscious minds together chose to confirm the decision we had reached with our conscious ones. We need each other. Beyond that, nothing really matters.

At least, that was the thought I woke up with. Twenty minutes of silent contemplation of the universal morning-after question--'so now what?'--had left me more than a bit dizzy. Wufei's suggestion kept rolling over in my mind like waves to the shore, but I didn't know if I was ready. Granted, the notion of just lying in my bed forever, contentedly snuggled against the warm, strong, and thoroughly masculine body of Heero Yuy, rather seemed a better idea.

Only it wasn't my bed. And as fond as I am of room service and hotel sheets, it still amounted to a rootless, drifter-like existence. It was exactly what we had as Gundam pilots, and exactly what we sought to escape. We needed a place of our own, and I hadn't a clue how to go about acquiring one. I've never really bought anything in my life; I've either stolen it, bartered for it, or received it. And somehow, I figured stealing a house would be a little harder than food or transportation.

So I did what any other sensible Gundam pilot would do...

***

"Winner Enterprises, Quatre speaking."

"Quatre, it's Duo."

"Duo! Where have you been? We missed you the other night. It isn't like you to skip celebrations." The scold was gentle as Quatre laced his fingers together, but threads of worry and concern neatly stitched themselves into his features.

What is it with the direct questions from everyone? "Gomen, Quatre," I said, distractedly rubbing the back of my head. "I had something pretty important to take care of." Or, rather, someone. He nodded, apparently satisfied with my answer despite the emotions shrouding his face. That has to be one of the things I love and admire most about him; deception really isn't in his nature, and consequently he perceives those he cares about the same way. Though, the angelic-faced Mr. Winner has an unusual talent for knowing exactly what is going on and being patient enough to wait for you to say it. "I'm sorry to call for something so selfish, but I need a favor."

Quatre sighed, dropping his chin into one hand wearily. "The war's only been over for a week, Duo. You don't need me to bail you out already, do you?"

My mouth fell open; his expression was so mournful it took me a full sixty seconds of silence and another thirty of indignant sputtering before I realized he was kidding. Or maybe it was because he started snickering. Forget what I said about Quatre not being deceptive; he isn't normally, so he always catches you with your pants down. "Kuso," I muttered under my breath, but listening to him laugh made not-laughing seem wrong. Absurd, even. Despite everything the events of the past two days had wrought on my emotions, I found I still had laughter in me. It wasn't until we calmed down that I wondered if maybe he hadn't done all of that on purpose, just to reassure me that I could laugh. After all, this was Quatre, who's often more in touch with our feelings than we are. "If we're finished making light of my non-imprisonment," I said at last, suddenly more than a little self-conscious, "I need to buy a house."

Flaxen eyebrows drew down soberly, the eyes beneath them liquid with compassion. "Duo, if you need a place to stay..."

I shook my head so fiercely my braid slapped my face. "No, that's not it!" I snapped harshly, gasping in a few deep breaths while I struggled for the best way to convey what I felt. Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to simply feel it and let Quatre's empathic sense do the rest. "I don't need a place to stay," I said at last, something like a plea in the words. "I need a home."

To his credit, Quatre's only sign of surprise was a slight widening of his expressive eyes before they softened into that adorable, soul-wrenching smile. The fingers of one hand fluttered absently in a circular motion against his chest. "I understand," he said softly. Considering everything I knew of his relationship with Tall, Dark, and Tacit, the words held more for me than the normal obligatory comfort. Quatre did understand, and not because of his space heart. "There's just something about having your own territory," he continued, gold-tipped eyelashes lowering slightly, as though he were imparting something special and secret to me, "a small part of existence that belongs only to you."

I sat there, stunned, my mouth wide open; I don't think he could have stated it better if he'd thrust his hand down my throat and physically wrenched out my emotions in a knotty, quivering mass. "Did you have something in particular in mind?"

Still speechless, I nodded as Quatre cupped his chin in one hand and leaned forwards towards the vidscreen. The early afternoon sun in his office seemed to whisper through the window, parting the filmy curtains to burnish his hair almost-gold, a faint corona of light--not unlike the few paintings of the saints I'd seen in Maxwell Church--haloing his head. He looked unreal, ethereal, and far too beautiful to hint at mortality.

Yet, the sum focus of his reverent attention was on me. It reminded me that I've always been a little in awe of him. Okay, make that a lot. Very few men, much less a slip of a boy, can command the undying respect and loyalty of an entire legion of troops. And a face that angelic shouldn't be connected to the hand of a marksman and the mind of a strategist.

He named Heero the soul of outer space, but Quatre is the soul of the Gundam pilots. He is our conscience, our uniting force. No one else could make a team from the scattered, fragmented pieces of fierce independence and alienation that comprised us all.

But, the war was finally over. And with chameleon-like adaptation--in no small part due to Trowa's influence on him, I thought--Quatre had seamlessly slipped back into that other life he held between the back-to-back threats to the Earth and the colonies, down to the navy pinstriped suit, impeccably pressed white oxford and bold crimson tie. In them, he looked oddly...comfortable. He was all at once the Quatre I knew and yet a stranger. An adult. Not that any of us had retained much of boyhood except our physical stature, and that was sure to change soon. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to wake up and find Heero six inches taller than me.

Suddenly, my face flushed; I knew I had drifted and left Quatre patiently waiting for me to elucidate, his vid image's hands neatly folded atop the desk. "Gomen," I said again, drawing back to the matter on the table, as it were. "I don't have any white picket fence or neatly manicured lawn requirements, but...I'd like for it to be near some water. We never had much water on L2..." 

My hands, which tended to nervously fidget, gripped one another tightly to keep still, and I stared down at them as though I found the interlacing fingers, whitened knuckles and faint blue veins infinitely fascinating. I can talk with ease about most anything, even matters that would make a great many people blush, but this was something far more intimate, more private than I ever shared. Even with Heero. It touched on a past I had done much to bury and everything to atone for, failing miserably on both counts.

When he spoke, Quatre's voice was very gentle and yet faintly amused. "It's a grand irony that you'd ask someone of desert descent for help in finding a house by water." I glanced up and he was smiling again, once more completely the Quatre I recognized. "Daijoubu, Duo. I'll go over some listings with the agency that handles our acquisitions and have them send a representative out to see you. Is four your time all right?" I glanced at the clock on the wall and nodded. That gave me an hour to tell Heero, and I would need every second of it. "I'll call you later to see how it went."

It wasn't until the screen went dark that I realized Quatre hadn't asked where I was staying. I took a quick look to make sure my pants weren't down again.

***

It's a little embarrassing to admit that you can't sleep because the bed feels lonely. The feeling was strange, a little annoying even, because I'd never really encountered it before. Stuff like that just totally trashes your reputation. I snorted, looking around the bedroom to get my bearings, ears pricking as I caught the sound of Duo's voice coming from the other room. It made me relax...and rethink the idea of springing 
from the bed and rushing naked from the room in search of him.

How pathetic is that? 

I snorted again, this time with a touch more amusement. It almost qualified as a laugh. Almost. As mornings went, this one was considerably more pleasant than the one before it. Pain and confusion were still 
lurking in the corners of my psyche, but they were giving me some breathing room at last. Held in check, I think, by the bond we'd forged yesterday.

I took a deep breath and untangled myself from the blankets, hunting around for my jeans and finally finding them halfway under the bed. Tugging them on, I headed for the sound of his voice... and stopped short in the half-opened doorway, listening.

"A house." I said it louder, and perhaps a bit more harshly than I'd meant it, but... A house, what did that mean? Was he leaving? Uncertainty grabbed at me and I smacked it down impatiently. Clarification. That's all it needs. It means something else.

"A house," I repeated, still trying to reason through that particularly cryptic subject. The logic refused to resolve itself for me. "What do you need a house for?" 

***

Instead of the 'good afternoon' I'd planned to greet Heero with, the first thing off my lips was a bitter expletive. Largely because I jumped when he spoke, and a very large desk got in the way of my knee. I staggered back into the chair, gingerly rubbing the spot where I felt a knotted bruise already rising.

Gradually, like an overtaxed computer, my mind separated the surprise of Heero speaking from what he had spoken in order to analyze the latter. 'What do you need a house for?' he demanded. Guess that meant he'd overhead me talking with Quatre. Well, it's not like it could stay a secret. Still wincing, I looked over at him; his eyes were visible behind the protective shelter of his bangs, not nearly as unruly now that he'd awakened, and they held a wariness whose motivation I couldn't completely discern.

Nevertheless, I plunged on. "Getting a permanent address has always been a goal of mine." My words were deceptively light, because I wasn't at all sure how to interpret his gaze. "Hotels are nice and the odd safehouse has its charm, but I thought it was time to bite the bullet and get a piece of real estate. Someplace to come home to."

***

The uncertainty factor started climbing, unabated by Duo's forced cheerfulness. I'd caught him off-guard, that much was obvious. So why was he acting like I'd caught him at something he didn't want me to know about? A furrow settled in on my forehead and I clenched my teeth slightly, not at all liking what I was sensing. I strove more for displeasure than anxiety, however. The one felt more productive than the other. 

Besides, I was getting tired of acting like I was totally out of control...even if I was.

Narrowing my eyes, I studied his face for several moments. "Have you already forgotten?" I asked him quietly, choosing my course of attack. It was a valid enough choice, the war had only been over for a week. The fighting had come to an end, but that didn't make the world any safer. Especially not for former Gundam pilots. "Staying in one place is dangerous."

***

I should have known. I should have known you can take the soldier out of the war, but you can't take the war out of the soldier. Not without time or frontal lobotomy, neither of which seemed immediately available options. "I haven't forgotten," I replied curtly, perhaps a bit shorter than I meant to, inexplicable hurt blossoming at his words. No, I didn't forget. Nearly every one of my memories of the war was in one way or another neatly wrapped, packaged and tied with tight knots to those of Heero Yuy, and for better or for worse I could never forget a thing about him.

I blew breath out of my nose in slight frustration--frustration not exactly with him, but with the germinating need inside me. The need to somehow give this fragile union a tangible sense of permanence. "Moving around constantly is no less dangerous," I pointed out, for we'd collectively been discovered many times. "It's a habit we learned as part of the war. A habit that needs breaking." It wasn't the only one, but I decided to take my victories where I could get them. 

My focus went back on my hands; at this rate, I would have the tracery of capillaries and veins memorized by nightfall. "It would be nice to find someplace to belong," I added without meeting his eyes, my chest suddenly very tight.

***

My frown deepened. The knot in my chest tightened. The answer that I realized I was searching for hadn't materialized. That, and I had the oddest sense that there was something about this that I wasn't quite grasping. Beyond the slowly festering core of uncertainty, all I could see was the danger inherent in what he proposed. A danger that caused me a little thrill of panic that I barely recognized and ruthlessly suppressed. I had to protect Duo, that need was so tightly linked with the healing of my as-yet-unraveled psyche that failure was unthinkable. Not unless I wanted to revisit the low point I'd hit the day before. 

He didn't stop at simple explanation, though, continuing to deeper, more treacherous territory. 

It would be nice to find someplace to belong. That hit my insecurities dead-on. The closest thing I'd ever had to a home was the cockpit of a Gundam. The Gundams no longer existed, leaving me as much a drifter as ever. Beyond that, was a silent cry of hurt, of protest: 

You belong with me! Isn't that what we said last night?

I refused to admit that a part of me was afraid that his plans didn't include me. Knowing Duo, that wouldn't be enough to forestall him. I took a deep breath, still studying him with the same intensity I felt. "This is not a good idea," I said at last, at a loss for anything else to say.

***

Did I have doubts that settling down was the right thing to do? Why else wouldn't my eyes track to his? But the doubts, even considering Heero's justified objections to this foray into normalcy, weren't strong enough to battle this new need into submission. Amazing when an idle thought taps into a soul-deep well of desire and longing you never knew was there.

"It's probably not a good idea," I admitted, my hands tensing and releasing. "But I want a home. I need one." We need one. "I want...'a small part of existence that belongs only to us.' Someplace that stays still when the rest of the world spins around it. Someplace we can come home to." Unless we made this important change, I believed the war would never truly leave us. Like the enduring presence of Shinigami in my soul, the conflict of war and the scars it left would together stalk us without fail, hungrily waiting for their prey to weaken and fall.

I raised my eyes then, willing him to understand with my gaze. I couldn't explain it, not completely; all I could do was feel it. "This is something I have to do, Heero." My throat constricted suddenly, choking down the selfishness of my thought, but the air fairly vibrated with the unspoken conclusion.

With or without you.

***

"We? I thought--"

We. One moment I nearly sagged with relief, the next...

He didn't have to say the words. I heard them, loud and clear. I shut my mouth, I'm ashamed to admit I even flinched. It wasn't a threat or an ultimatum, it wasn't even a demand. He told me what he wanted, and left the choice to me. We both knew what the ultimate price of that choice would be. One night of sleep couldn't work miracles, I didn't have the strength to risk that he might make good on it. 

"Wakarimasu," I said quietly, dropping my eyes and looking anywhere but at him. I was angry that I felt this way, angry that I was letting him force me into choosing. Most of all I was angry with myself for giving in. I suppose, in the long run, it was a small sacrifice to make. But... I don't know, it hurt that he'd ask me to make it.

***

Even knowing we were together taking a step in the right direction, his downcast eyes made the victory hollow at best. I felt incredibly low; hadn't I breathed a promise of protection in his sleeping ear? "Gomen nasai," I offered automatically; cultural and linguistic differences aside, the Japanese custom of apologizing even when there was no fault had become second nature around Heero Yuy.

I didn't quite know how to put into further words the sea of feeling inside me. More than anything, I wanted this island of stability to share with him. I wanted a place of refuge where we would belong, and where we would belong to one another. A place with no war and no pain, for we would bring far too much of that on our own.

Anything else we might have said evaporated with the chime of the clock and the sudden, insistent banging at the door. Exactly four o'clock; I wondered idly if everything Quatre did was executed with such military accuracy. Then again, I supposed business was also a kind of war; difference in venue and weaponry the only means of separation between the two. "I think that's our agent." Heero was kind enough to offer a noncommittal noise as I strolled over to the door and unlocked it, swinging it open to greet...the back of Relena's head?

Oh, shit.

I should have guessed she'd find us, especially with Heero walking out of the hospital like he had. I just didn't expect it to be so soon. I could feel the panicked scream rising from somewhere deep within me, a long-suppressed cry of impotent rage at ojousan's inability to simply leave me alone with Heero Yuy. [1] He was finally mine, and I refused to give any quarter to her.

As though she sensed the quivering tension flaring about her, she turned her head back towards me, wide brown eyes sheltered behind wire-framed glasses, and the scream downgraded to an 'eep' of horrified surprise rather like an abortive hiccup. 

Brown eyes. Glasses. 

Not Relena, not Relena, my mind chanted feverishly, desperately latching onto the multitude of differences between Relena and...Relena light. Diet Relena. One-calorie Relena. Did I mention the effect repressed hysteria has on me? Still, the mere notion that there were two women in the whole universe who wore those absurd little braids left my heart in dire need of a jump-start.

"Mr. Maxwell?" she queried in a very self-assured but adolescent-sounding voice. I nodded dumbly. "I'm Becky Peterson with Sanctuary Real Estate." She held out her hand and treated me to a winning, feminine smile; even at her stalker best, Relena wasn't this perky, and I found myself slowly relaxing, the tension unknotting itself from my spine. "There's a car waiting to take us to the airport. The properties you are to be shown are all in America." 

Her gaze slid over to Heero, mild curiosity illuminating the honeyed flecks in her eyes. "Will you be joining us, Mister...?" she prompted.

***

The last time I'd seen Relena had been in the hospital a few days ago. She'd been fussy, concerned, and thoroughly distracted by claiming a sovereign place in the new world order. Call it instinct, call it good observational skills, I never took the woman at the door for Relena for more than the half-second it required to dismiss the similar hairstyles. She didn't have the arrogance, nor the charisma. Say what you will of Relena, she has a way of drawing people to her, of making them see the worthiness of her cause. It even happened to me, at least for a little while.

I watched Duo nearly jump out of his skin with no small touch of satisfaction. Served the baka right. Ok, I admit it, I was still a little pissed. 

I left off observing him to watch Becky Peterson instead. "Yuy," I provided helpfully as her gaze swept my way. "Yes." That was all the answer she required, that was all I intended to give her. Duo was stuck with me, whether I liked it or not.

Not that it really mattered, I would have followed him to the ends of the earth either way.

***

Blue. Endless blue, undulating in rhythmic ribbons below and stretching in expansive emptiness above. Over the ocean, the eye can perceive nothing save the infinite azurine spectrum, and only the occasional, faint reflection, rather like a tiny, persistent radar echo, of interspersed amethyst from the window hinted at existence beyond the reigning shades. I blinked, and the reflection dissipated back into blues.

Ocean. Sky. Two things I thought I would never truly see growing up on L2. Yeah, the colony matrix generated something approximating the reflective properties of Earth's atmosphere, but the slightly grey-kissed heavens had always vibrated with a subtle tang of wrongness. Even if we're born in space, do we long for home? Real home? Is it indelibly written in the infinite mystery that defines us as human? Or stamped right into our very genetic code? Fighting a war and piloting a Gundam had left little time for sightseeing and otherwise experiencing the wonder of the home planet. 

Admittedly, during the times Heero and I were masquerading in schools and that too-tiny room simply couldn't contain me, I wandered quite a bit, but it was never enough. The mission always called me away from what I wanted to do most.

Live.

I had embraced nothing but Death since I was a child. Death was the only thing I believed in. It was the only certainty a boy with no family and broken faith could cling to. And in believing, I became Death. Bringer of Death. Shinigami.

Imagine, then, the irony of an attempted suicide breathing life into me. The day Heero flung himself out that window, ready to fall to his death or to become so much human refuse cast on the cliffs...awoke something in me. Desire might be a good word for it. Passion. Fire. Lust. Not for his body--not yet, at least--but for his soul. For the utter, unswerving commitment he possessed. A fierce, powerful phoenix rose ascendant from the blackened ashes of Shinigami in my heart. A will, a need, to live; not merely to exist and be classified as alive, but to truly live.

Since then, I've tried to minimize and simplify it in my mind as merely the infinite force of the universe striving for balance; this psycho seemed destined to be my partner in crime and warfare, and thus my urge to survive must stand fast against his to perish.

But Duo Maxwell doesn't lie, even to himself. Something in me dedicated itself from that moment to living for him. To showing him that there was more to life than dying. At first, I think it was sheer stubbornness; I wasn't about to let Mister Congeniality get the better of me. I persisted, I pestered, I dragged him places whenever I could, never receiving any sign of progress but unwilling to admit defeat. When it made him mad, or irritated, or anything but indifferent, I celebrated, for it meant I was winning. I had made him feel.

Some days I don't think I really believe in God. Or Shinigami. But oddly enough I find myself with far more faith in that mythical, half-baked notion of an infinite force in the universe, one that demands balance. Why wasn't Heero able to pull that trigger and put a bullet in my brain? Why didn't I suffocate on the moon? Why didn't Deathscythe self-destruct for me? Simple; the balance hadn't yet been achieved. I don't think I'll die until it has. Heero's still alive; I'm still winning the battle.

Suddenly weary, I closed my eyes. But this war is far from over.

***

Upon reflection, I realized that I was preparing myself for this as I would a mission. It was either that or be terrified. I don't do well with terrified, and I'd been feeling that way a little too much for my comfort of late. My own insecurities had been laid to rest, thankfully, so I spent the time on the plane going over the remaining possible strategies in my mind. Duo was hell-bent on this plan, to the point of playing less than fairly when it came to securing my approval for it. It didn't bode well for the possibility of deterring him from it. 

Therefore I dismissed that course of action as being inefficient. The remainder of the choices involved damage control. Exerting my influence over the choice being made seemed the only real answer. I think it was a means to find a little control when my life had spiraled so violently out of control.

That begged the question, why did this disturb me so much? I felt a twinge of shame at being so unnerved by what should have been an irrelevant subject. A house was nothing more than a place of shelter. Duo's demand for permanence was a potential security hazard, but the hazard could be minimized with caution. I kept finding little answers like that, they weren't necessarily the most efficient answers, but they fell within acceptable levels. 

Realization came slowly, mostly because I didn't want to accept what I already knew to be true. Dying would have been easy. The book would have been closed on the tragic affairs of Heero Yuy, and I never would have needed to be more than a soldier. A soldier forged of cold steel and ice.

Living was the hard part. I had my reason for staying alive and I would not forsake it, but a soldier was not required to be happy, to know joy or peace or...love. Part of me knew that this was what his desire for a house was all about. He considered it the first step on a long road, a path designed to teach me what he knew by instinct, and had been beaten out of me long ago.

I closed my eyes, searching for an answer. The question being, of course, was I willing to learn?

***

I woke up when Heero shook me awake, the sudden influx of sunshine painfully bright against my eyes. I scrunched them shut and with a protesting moan tried to curl back against my pillow. It moved, rising and falling in what sounded rather like an impatient sigh. One eye cracked back open, giving me a bleary view of Heero's shirt. Added to that was the growing awareness of a not-unpleasant weight across my shoulders and a feathery flirtation by something with the fine baby-hairs on the back of my neck, the ones that didn't fit into my braid. Try as I might, none of these disconnected sensations seemed to come together into a cohesive thought. I closed my eye again and took a deep, luxurious breath.

Both eyes snapped open this time. Every inch of my being knew that scent. I must have made to jerk upright, for that weight held fast, securing me in place. I felt a rumbling beneath my cheek--vibrations traveling up from the chest, some semi-conscious part of me chimed in--and the touch of strong, agile fingers against the top of my head, stroking my sleep-tousled hair back into order. Carefully. Gently.

Reverently?

A warm sensation started just below my rib cage, rising like bread dough to fill every space inside me with shining joy. Heero had let me sleep on his shoulder, draped an arm around me and played with my hair. All incredibly tender things simultaneously incongruous with and appropriate to him. I glanced up at him, found his eyes beneath the lowered shades of his lashes. "How long?" I asked, my voice rather sleep-scratchy.

He shrugged with his other shoulder. "Not quite two hours. You should sleep more," Heero added, and I had the distinct impression he was filing that thought away like a mission parameter. "The agent is checking on the car. Can you walk?"

Walk? If he'd asked, I could fly. Grinning crookedly, I nodded, drawing in one more greedy breath from his shirt before sitting up completely and slowly unfurling to my feet. Heero caught my elbow, as though to steady me. "What part of America are we in?"

"West. Far west. She said something about it once being called California." Still steering me by my elbow, Heero produced a pair of sunglasses--apparently, that sleight-of-hand phenomenon wasn't limited to his spandex-wearing days--and slipped them on my face, careful not to poke me with them. A warm wind feathered our clothes when we stepped outside, comfortably warm and with a heavy, refreshing tang of salt that lingered on my tongue. 

As expertly as if he did such things every day, Heero guided me down the stairs from the plane and into the back seat of a charcoal-grey limousine. Sinking back against the plush upholstery, I made a mental note that asking Quatre for help equaled traveling in style. And yawned.

"Feeling better now, Mr. Maxwell?" Becky asked politely, peering at me over the rims of her glasses. She sat facing the rear, the deep royal purple of her trendy yet feminine pantsuit a bright splotch of color against the creamy seat. With a brief, envious glance at Heero's comfortable shoulder, I stretched my arms over my head and nodded. "Mr. Yuy said you hadn't slept well the past couple of days and that it was best if we let you be." Translation: she'd observed as much to Heero and he'd responded with the appropriate noise.

The car lurched forwards, and she grabbed at the paperwork in her lap to keep it from falling. "This will be old to him, since we talked about it on the plane," which again meant she'd talked and he'd pretended to listen, and I prepared myself to do the same. "But, we've got a short ride from here to the house, and there's a little bit of history behind everything here."

"First of all, southern California was where all the film and TV stars lived." The motor rumbled beneath us, the air-cushioned shocks making for such a comfortable ride my eyes nearly closed again. History was never my favorite subject in school. "Original resistance against OZ destroyed a lot of it, the early days of the war finished it, and the industry never really recovered. Most everyone moved away to someplace safer; even though this area is to the north, it's reverted to a very small-town lifestyle."

She crossed her legs in the other direction; the ease with which women can do that never ceased to amaze me. "These days, the coast is largely quiet fishing towns. This one," and Becky adjusted her glasses on the end of her nose, peering intently down at the folio in her lap, "was renamed 'Esperanza por el Mar.' The locals tend to call it just Esperanza." [2] Her tongue effortlessly floated over the words; at full consciousness I have a decent understanding of Romance languages--they're all bastardized dialects of Latin--but still groggy it meant nothing to me. That firm shoulder in my peripheral vision was looking better all the time. Until I followed his gaze out the smoked-glass window, all further thoughts of sleep vanishing like the morning mist.

***

It was the kind of place that only existed in picture books and on glossy postcards. The kind of place that filled the dreams of the masses as they trudged to their means of employment and made another day pass by. I'd never dreamed of such a place simply because I never would have dared to believe that it existed. Glass, steel, plastic, the faded attempts to make the colonies into a likeness of Earth, that was all I knew. It was rather like trying to make a prostitute into a princess. With the right clothes it could almost be believable...but you can't change the truth underneath.

The town was small, quiet. The main street was lined with white houses and brick sidewalks, the local fire station manned by a few whistling men washing their rig with a spotted dog in attendance. The car pulled away from that idyllic scene after a few moments, finally turning onto a road that ultimately put us parallel to the water.

I've seen the ocean before. Much like space, it inspires a sense of mortality, of being but one small part of a puzzle of which there were infinite pieces. After that first, humbling glimpse, it was framed in the less expansive sight of the docks. The water swarmed with small fishing boats, the barren forest of their masts occasionally broken by the brightly colored sail of a pleasure boat.

I glanced at Duo and had to suppress a smile at the sight of him. After a moment, I let the smile have its way.

***

The road was winding, following with ease the curvature of coastline. Pressing my face to the glass, I felt rather like an excited kid--or like how I suspected a kid should feel--watching the wondrous scenery streak by. The sun, only about noontime now, glittered over the water like a spill of tiny diamonds, lighting the entire path to the shore in sparkling motes. "How many places are we going to look at?" I asked, reluctantly tearing myself away and rubbing at the smudge my nose had left on the window.

"Here?" Becky glanced down at that folio in her lap again. "Just one. Mr. Barton was very specific about the type of home you were to be shown."

Barton? "I thought Mr. Winner contacted you." I exchanged a glance with Heero; Trowa wasn't exactly known for love of aesthetic design. Form followed function in the extreme for him; 'utilitarian' was a kind description of his tastes.

"Mr. Winner did," she confirmed, "but the selection was conducted by Mr. Barton. Lanky gentleman, quiet...unusual hair?" The agent raised a questioning brow. "In fact, he was quite certain you would be joining Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Yuy. I was rather surprised that he was right."

Quatre put Trowa in charge of finding a house for us? Frankly, I was a bit miffed; out of all the people who should have understood exactly how much this meant to me, Quatre fell at the top of the list. 

Then again, to be fair all I had said was that I wanted something near water, and there was an ocean of that out the window.

The car rolled to a stop, giving us all the slight inertia-jerk that verified at least one of Newton's laws still applied. "We're here," Becky said, gesturing with one slender hand towards the car door. Being closest, I climbed out first and then helped her from the car, leaving Heero to bring up the rear. Even with the sunglasses, I shaded my eyes and glanced across the street at Mr. Barton's expert selection.

Indeed, the house was Spartan, simplistic in line and design and painted a light slate-blue. Exactly what I expected from the master of minimalism. I felt almost disloyal for my disappointment, because Trowa, for all his reticence, is a steady, stable friend. Trowa is like gravity...you can't always see him, usually just the effects of him, but you always know he's there, and he keeps us from flying off into space. "Is this it?" I asked unnecessarily, jerking a thumb in the direction of the house.

"Oh, no!" Her voice was so shocked I wondered if perhaps I'd insulted her. "No, yours backs up to the beach." She put her hands on my shoulders and turned me around, pointing past me, her girlish voice dropping an octave in whisper. "This is your home."

The first thing I saw was light, glinting white and brilliant and unashamed in its pristine invitation. With the exception of my Gundam, I have never been one to attribute human, living characteristics to inanimate objects, but I have no other words for it. This house...called me. Spoke my name with the kind of intimacy only a lifetime lover should have. Reached possessive tendrils into my heart and, finding it already occupied, opened wide to embrace us both.

It was made almost entirely of glass; at least, it appeared so...closer inspection found metal and wood and plastic interspersed infrequently enough to preserve its illusion. The front staircase ascended to a landing, then turned the other direction to lead unerringly to another landing, a small porch and the front door. The door was the only spot of immediate color, painted a deep, marine blue with a glittering crystal doorknocker at just the right height. In fact, I'd lifted my hand to grasp it when Becky Peterson gently brushed past me with the key. 

Biting my lower lip, I dropped my hand, feeling my fingers nudge Heero's. Neither of us said a word nor exchanged glances, but with the certainty of a pigeon coming home, our fingers found one another and laced together. 

Together, we took a breath and walked inside.

***

I've never had a reason to believe in God. At best, God is a very abstract concept, the little I've learned of which has been gleaned from casual mention. Much of it was unfavorable, sometimes even indifferent. God, I think, is a word invoked by habit. My point is, if you don't believe in God, then the notion of heaven or paradise is irrelevant. Again, it becomes an abstract concept that holds little meaning aside from its most literal definition.

Today, on the other hand, I was almost willing to believe.

Heaven stood before me, gleaming gently in the afternoon sun. It wasn't as simple as that, but then it never is. I didn't know it for heaven at first glance. At first glance, all I could see was a nightmare waiting for a place to happen. Glass was everywhere, open, exposed, more vulnerable than any other building material. In my mind's eye, I could see bloody shards of it everywhere, shattered by a sniper's bullet.

Duo chose that moment to brush his hand with mine, and I reminded myself why I was here. For him. For us. Twining my fingers with his, I let him lead the way.

Everything beyond the door was flooded with diffused light. There was no place for shadows to hide, no mysterious corners where a nightmare could dare to lurk. Even as I warned myself that we were badly exposed, there was safety in the light.

I continued to follow quietly behind, giving way easily when Duo surged ahead. He was in love with this house, I could see it already. Strangely enough, part of me wanted to feel the same way.

***

The entryway yawned wide and inviting, the entire floorplan devoted to open, comfortable spaces, my mind hard at work categorizing them all. Heero's hand slipped from mine and after a brief glance his direction, I continued on in open-mouthed gawking fascination, mentally retracting any and every negative thought I might have had about Trowa. 'Perfect' seemed such an inadequate word for this house. 

With some surprise, I noticed that the house was fully furnished. The living room area was sunken by one step, wood floors having more than a hint of cedar to their color and varnish. A huge, airy kitchen with a ceiling that went all the way to the next floor and appliances and countertops in that same pristine white beckoned invitingly. A casual dining table still large enough to accommodate every Gundam pilot sprawled through one set of French doors, completely set and bearing a crystal candelabra with black tapers aflame.

"This is actually the second floor," my mind registered Becky saying. "There are two...no, three bedrooms and two baths downstairs. The stairs go off between the utility room and the office, down that hallway."

Strangely dizzy, I tracked the movement of her hand with my eyes until they began swirling. Upwards. "What's upstairs?" I asked, pointing at the elegant spiral staircase.

Mona Lisa smiled back at me. "Go see."

***

My eyes followed him as he ascended the spiraling stairway, almost unconsciously caressing the slim lines of his body, imagining the smooth play of the muscles beneath his clothing. I didn't move immediately to follow him, but dropped my gaze to the main floor as he disappeared from sight. I thought I could sense a soldier's influence in the choice of furnishings. Clean, simple lines, with just enough color to appeal to Duo's more vibrant tastes. No mementos of the war, no reminders of what we had been. Save one. On the wall above the living room couch arced the elegant simplicity of two Japanese swords, their hilts a lacework of delicate carving. 

I nodded, accepting the message. Here the swords belonged, and here they would stay. A reminder of what we would always be, a reminder of the choice we had made to lay them down.

"Heero?" Duo's voice was strained and urgent as he leaned over the upstairs railing, braid dangling next to his face. "Come up here."

Without thought, I moved instantly towards the sound of his voice, reacting to the urgent tone. Taking the stairs at a run, I reached for a gun that wasn't there. When I rounded the final turn and stepped off onto the floor, it was with the cool, focused mindset demanded of a mission... and a fear for the lover I'd allowed out of my sight. "Nani?" I demanded in a softly intense voice, my eyes raking across the bedroom. Once to ascertain the danger...and again because I could hardly believe what I saw.

***

He ran to me, taking the stairs two and three at a time with the ferocity of a dragon in his eyes. I didn't expect that, but it made my body and soul contract with an odd pleasure-pain. The realization hit me a bare instant later like a hammerbolt in the chest, spreading guilt throughout my being. I'd worried...ne, frightened him, from the wild look in those Prussian blues, and he'd been dealt far too many emotional shocks in the past few days. He alighted on the landing, not even breathing hard and jungle cat purpose in his stride as he closed the distance between us, soldier-eyes scanning for the threat to me and body tensing to eliminate it, one arm slightly extended as though holding a phantom pistol.

Oh, Heero...

My hand reached for him, settling like a butterfly on his chest and seeking the fierce pulse of his heart beneath his shirt and skin. "Daijoubu," I reassured him, confirming to him that I was all right. Experience had taught me that when Heero rode the killing edge, talking to him in only Japanese was the quickest way to reach him, and my sense of self-preservation automatically reared its head. I told you it wasn't to read manga. 

I took his gun hand in my other one, bringing it up to my lips to breathe a kiss across the clenched knuckles. "Mitte," I said, nuzzling his cheek with my forehead to direct his eyes. [3]

Against me, the rock-hard body of the Perfect Solider stilled, frozen with the rigid immobility of a statue. His mouth opened and closed a few times, but no sound came out. Leaning closer against him, I smiled, immeasurably happy I wasn't the only one in thrall.

The uppermost floor was little more than a loft, a single spacious room and a doorway that led to a bathroom. Large French doors opened up to a small balcony, just the right size for two to comfortably sit in the elegant chairs placed there, or to stand between them and take in the peaceful tides of the ocean. The same elegant wood floors attired themselves smartly with a rectangular Oriental rug, deep green, blue, and gold swimming in a burgundy sea and resolving themselves into the proud, noble figures of a dragon and a phoenix. But they were all as nothing compared to the centerpiece of the room.

Rising up like a mythical being from the depths stretched four long, luxuriant fingers of dark cherry wood, united at the top with a loose, intricate lattice. From this wept diaphanous tendrils of white, falling as a sheltering shroud around the upthrust hand. More white layered the landscape like a thick fall of snow, fluffy and luxuriant and inviting. 

Any other eye would have seen merely a breathtaking canopy bed, but in my eyes it was a place of redemption. A sacred altar upon which the sins and demons of our pasts could be sacrificed and together we could emerge clean and whole. The urge to wrestle Heero down into that sliver of holy paradise throbbed so strongly in me I found remembering any other motivation for our presence here nearly impossible.

***

That was the moment when I felt I could believe.

If there were truly a place of haven, of respite and shelter, then surely this was it. I was stunned by it, but in a way I couldn't explain. The style in which the loft was furnished was little different from the rest of the house. Simplicity was the rule. That wasn't what held me.

Scenes like this were meant for other people. Untouched, unburdened, with the innocence to deserve such a reward. Heaven wasn't meant for murderers.

I closed my eyes, turning my head so that I leaned as much against Duo as he did against me. I knew he wanted this house, I'd known it before we'd even crossed the threshold. I was glad that I had that excuse, that I could say I was doing this for him. I couldn't bring myself to admit that the murderer, hands washed in blood, was daring to snatch at the dream.

"I need some air," I murmured after a moment, and almost stumbled in my haste to move away, to navigate the stairs as quickly as possible. I moved purposefully towards the rear patio, ignoring the startled look on Becky Peterson's face. Pushing the doors open, I stepped outside.

The wind was coming in from the sea. It smelled fresh and clean, with a faint tang of salt. Closing my eyes, I let it tangle in my hair, toying with the loose folds of my shirt. I wanted this. Against my better judgment, against the strictures I forced upon myself as a means of battling the weight of death in me, I wanted it... and I didn't know what to do about it.

***

Something in my heart breaking and remaking, I watched his descent, legs pumping as strongly as they had on his climb, the few tattered shreds of dignity Heero still possessed the only thing that kept him from breaking into a frantic run. I stepped forwards and reached out for one bedpost, the deep carvings a pattern of curlicues and arcs beneath the pads of my fingers. The wood seemed to vibrate slightly at my touch, a subtle confirmation of welcome. I tightened my hand around it and leaned my forehead against the post, closing my eyes and drawing in deep, earthy breaths filled with the fresh, slightly musky scent of cherry wood.

"Mr. Maxwell?" that soft, feminine voice asked, a bit breathless from her own dash up the stairs but the concern in it wrapping around me almost tangibly. "Are you all right?"

"Duo. Call me Duo." I turned slightly watery eyes up to Becky Peterson, who no longer looked anything like Relena to me. If anything, the compassion called up images of Quatre. "I don't feel old enough to be a 'mister' yet."

"Duo," Becky repeated. "Does Mr. Yuy...Heero," she corrected at my look, "dislike the house? Trowa was so certain it would suit the both of you." Her face fell mournfully; failure clearly hadn't been in her game plan. One slender hand flew nervously to her mouth.

Trowa? Something was there in the way she said his name, but my mind refused to wrap around it, not consumed as it was with thoughts of Heero. At times, I wondered how I thought about anything else. "No," I said, shaking my head a bit and gratefully accepting the handkerchief she held out to me. Girls and movie stars are the only people who look semi-attractive in tears, which disqualifies me on both counts. "Actually, he likes it very much." I knew that with no room for doubt. I had no explanation for it other than the awareness of him that had lodged itself in my psyche. He liked it, and that was the problem.

I closed my eyes, seeing behind those darkened lids the road before me. Rocky, treacherous, devoid of light, uphill far more than down and running only in one direction. Towards Heero. Hilde had tried to tell me what my heart already knew. No matter how rough the road, if it went to him I would walk it. This house and everything it represented to us both was just enough to cast a faint, warm glow on the path ahead, to illuminate the next few steps. And, hopefully, to take in faith the ones that were to follow.

"You love him." The wisdom in that girlish voice wrenched my lids apart, dissolved my vision of that winding allegorical pathway into the feminine form of Becky Peterson. She'd taken a seat in a wingback chair next to the bed, legs properly crossed and fingers thoughtfully steepled. What took me most aback were her eyes, rich mahogany pools utterly devoid of surprise or condemnation. 

"It's difficult, making the transition from wartime to peace, but it's especially hard on the ones who fought. That's why Sanctuary was founded, Duo. Occasionally we handle property acquisitions such as Winner Enterprises requires, mostly as a favor to the company, but our primary purpose is to match former soldiers with places of peace for life after war."

Ironically amused and visibly stunned warred for control of my face. Amused won, but just barely. "I guess it's hardly a coincidence that they called you, then?"

"Hardly." She smiled then, and I realized that despite her adolescent appearance she was at least five years older than me. "I'll apologize in advance in case I'm overstepping, but part of loving someone means asking the questions and giving him a chance to say no." The smile slid once more into daVinci. "Because that also gives him a chance to say yes."

Swallowing around the lump in my throat became suddenly difficult. I knew what I had to do, I think I had always known, but it's easier to follow your instincts when another voice confirms them. "If he says yes, I want this to belong to both of us."

"There's no problem with that." Becky rose from her chair, an oddly familiar boneless grace in her movements. More information to pound around inside my skull. "Let me worry about the details, Duo, that's my job." Her hand touched my shoulder, gave it an encouraging squeeze. "I think you've got a question to pose."

I used to think it was a stupid gesture, but I had no other way to thank her for her insight. I took those elegant fingers in mine and brushed my lips across them softly, seeing my nervous reflection shimmering in her glasses. "How did you know I love him?" I couldn't help asking.

Her face softened, the pink tip of her tongue darting out to moisten her lips. "Let's just say you remind me of two people very close to me who nearly let themselves get away from each other, who have been through some of the same things you and Heero have." Curling her smile around a small giggle, she stood on tiptoe and kissed my forehead. "Or maybe it's because my maiden name was Winner." 

Her index finger curled under my chin and gently tapped my surprised mouth closed. "Now go, Duo..."

Simply put, I went.

***

Things would have been so much easier for Duo without me. I can deny it, I can hide it, but my...self...that part of me trying so hard to be born, to grow in the arid wasteland of my soul, was still hurting, still bleeding. I couldn't give him what I didn't know how to give. I couldn't show him the love he wanted so badly. But I needed him. Without him, I would die. I knew that with calm clarity. It was no more simple and no more complicated than that. Damn me for being weak, damn me for falling short in the only mission that has ever really mattered. I needed him to hold back the nightmares, to remind me why struggling through life was better than slipping into death. By instinct, I think, I knew that his warm, vibrant strength was the only thing that could ever make me feel clean again.

If living in this house with him was what he wanted, I would find a way to give it to him. No matter the cost.

The wind gusting in from the water kissed my face, the soft cry of a gull rising in descant to the primal melody of the tides. Beyond those most basic of elements, I recognized an all too familiar presence, soaking it in like the afternoon sunshine. I could have turned and unerringly pointed at him even if I were blind, like a lodestone seeking magnetic North.

***

My whole world stilled and halted as Heero stood there, the oceanic winds running through his hair like the caress of a familiar, favored lover, rustling against his clothes as though eager to separate them from his skin, I felt everything inside me tighten fiercely, almost painfully. I could watch him for hours, days even, and never be conscious of time's passage. An aching feeling of rightness throbbed within my chest, beating a counterpoint to the steady pulse of my heart. This...this place, this boy, this poignant promise of the future...was the fulfillment of that desperate need eating away at my insides.

My soft footsteps fell without sound in Heero's wake, though I knew better than to believe him unaware of my presence. One hand rose on its own and hesitated just out of touching distance, fingers fluttering like a nervous hummingbird, before gently pressing against my lover's back. An ebb and flow of emotion passed through that silent physical contact...questions asked, questions answered. Strength given, strength received. "Could we call this home?" There was no hyperactive begging, no childish imploring. Nothing one might expect of me when I desperately wanted my way.

***

I didn't move, not even when his hand touched my back. However, I think that... in that moment, I could have denied him nothing. The connection between us flared at that touch, and I realized that I wanted this as badly as he did. Somewhere to rest, to be safe. I wanted to be with him, to make love to him in a bed rich with his scent, in a way half-remembered from similar encounters on a thousand nights before it. I wanted what I had never known I was living without... A home.

I turned to him, and I think if even a fraction of what whorled in my mind showed in my eyes, he couldn't help but be staggered by it. "I want to," I told him simply... and I did.

***

For those several silent minutes, I felt like I was standing on the precarious edge of a great, yawning, hungry abyss, one which was all too eager to swallow me and which could have put me completely down the hatch in one bite. Since the matter had first arisen one ocean and several hours ago, Heero had vibrated with this subtle tension. I knew what he was thinking: how exposed and unprotected this place was, how vulnerable we would be to stay here, how easily we could fall prey to such predators who neither realized nor cared that the war was over. All things I knew. Things I recognized and my mind acknowledged as valid concerns. I held no illusions about what we had been, what had defined our short, young lives until very recently.

But those same parameters must be shattered and their power must be broken in order to go on. They had defined who we were, not who we would be. Those pages were not yet written, and I intended for once to find the pen firmly in my grasp.

My whole being seemed to shiver, to dance crazily beneath that shell of skin when he turned around. I could still feel the lip of the ravine beneath my toes, the slight crumbly feeling of the rocks and pebbles shifting in time with my balance-keeping sway. The night-darkened oceans of his eyes disarmed and drowned me, suffocated and resuscitated me, all in the span of one chest-rattling breath. Something in his eyes made me dizzy, dizzy and desperate for more.

I knew it was real; my dreams were never this good.

"Yokatta," I whispered; I simply had no more voice than that.[4] "She said it's very simple...we seem to be in 'a buyer's market,' I continued, clearing my throat of stray emotions. "We can set it up where it belongs to both of us. I think that's fitting." The words must have somehow formed themselves, for inside the vessel of my body, Heero Yuy's eyes were seducing my soul and I was shouting madly for him to continue it forever.

***

"Hai," I agreed quietly.

I looked up, watched the sunlight glitter on the glass that lined the wall behind us. When at last the sun dropped into the horizon, the house would be flooded with warm, richly colored light. Suddenly I longed for sunset. I wanted to feel that warmth across my face, to count the colors it found in Duo's long chestnut hair. My gaze found his again and lingered there. Everything I knew of beauty, I had learned from watching him. It was the kind of beauty that can drive a man mad with desire to possess it. He was the only person on earth or in space that could inspire such intense want in me.

I reached out because I needed to touch him, to feel his skin beneath my fingertips as I continued to sink deeper and deeper into the amethyst depths of his eyes. I will survive this and I will go on, because you won't let me do anything else, I said to him silently. I could step through heaven's portal and abide there because the angel in my arms held the door wide for me. Everything I had to give was his for the asking. My protection, my body, even my life. All he had to do was ask.

***

[1] "Ojousan" is what Duo normally calls Relena in the series. There are many meanings of the word, with a literal one being 'someone else's daughter'. It's also a polite way to refer to a young female, as the o- prefix is used as an honorific. A frequent connotation I've seen in anime for ojousan--and what is implied here--is 'rich girl', frequently one who is spoiled and somewhat bratty. The 'ojousan' girl is a common character archetype in anime, especially shoujo anime.

[2] "Esperanza por el Mar" is Spanish for "hope by the sea". 

[3] Japanese for 'Look.'

[4] Japanese for 'I'm glad.'


Part 5
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