October 19th, A.C. 202
New York. It was an old city, the kind with sleek skyscrapers built next to crumbling ruins, the kind of place that had been around for longer than people could remember. It had always existed and would forever exist. New Yorkers seemed to take their history for granted—some even referred to their home as the Big Apple, its nickname from hundreds of years ago—barely seeing the corroded and oxidized statue in the harbor or the twin spires that stretched up to the farthest reaches of the atmosphere. One was a monument to freedom, and the other came from a time when the world realized that freedom was meaningless without peace. Both were from a history the average person barely thought about.
But I'd never seen New York before now. Its history seemed alive—it buzzed in my head as I walked down the crowded streets. Around every corner I made amazing discoveries—a brick alley from the nineteenth century, a hotel with a sign posted: Jimmy Carter slept here. The colonies had nothing like this place, nothing so old that it made a person feel like he was breathing ancient air.
Quatre had invited me. It was going to be a spectacular party. Exclusively black-tie, he'd warned me, his eyes pleading with me not to embarrass him.
I didn't own a tie.
But Quatre knew that. He knew I wasn't coming for the caviar and pâté, for the charming conversation and profitable connections. Whether I liked it or not, Quatre Winner knew me, and he knew exactly why I'd show up at a fancy occasion like this. I wanted to begrudge him the knowledge, but I couldn't. He was too damn considerate.
The wind tunneled against me. I pulled up my collar, at once grateful for the trembling kitten tucked into the front of my jacket. Her claws were as sharp as needles, but at least she was warm. It wasn't a cold day, but the sunlight didn't seem to reach between the skyscrapers, making the brisk wind seem chilled
Consulting the scrap of paper in my hand, I headed up the next street. With each successive block, I could tell I was getting closer to my destination. The scrawny saplings planted along the street gave way to full, robust trees enclosed in round iron fences. Gold and scarlet leaves drifted around me, littering the wide sidewalk with a blanket of crisp color. The buildings became more cosmopolitan—shops, museums, and hotels instead of run-down apartment buildings and corner grocers—until finally I faced the marble and glass façade of the hotel I was seeking.
The afternoon light was fading, the golden sunshine dimming into blue twilight. I was at least an hour late.
The doorman was dressed in immaculate blues, and his impeccable manners gave no indication of my run-down appearance. I ran my hand through wind-tousled hair, for the first time in my life feeling self-conscious. The floor of the hotel lobby shined like glass, and I reminded myself that I'd once thrived in this atmosphere—all those years protecting Relena had been spent in hotels just like this one.
But it'd been a long time since she'd needed my protection, and civilization had a way of slipping away from me when she wasn't nearby. I fumbled in my pocket for Quatre's invitation. The embossed card was my ticket back into this world. A slip of newsprint slid out with it—a grainy black-and-white photo of a smiling couple and Quatre's professional handwriting in the corner. She's going to be there.
I thrust the clipping back into my pocket.
Uniformed guards manned the doors to the ballroom. Instinctively, I noted the absence of real weapons—no one packed anything more powerful than a nightstick these days. I thought of the pistol I used to keep tucked in my waistband. In this society, that kind of contraband would have me shipped off to the colonies.
I flashed the invitation, somehow still surprised at the gleam of respect in the bouncer's eyes when he read the name. I never got used to being regarded as a war hero—I tried to keep my name to myself after a while, and no one recognized me as the skinny kid who helped save the earth, so I was usually contentedly anonymous.
I strived for invisibility in the huge reception hall. The lights were dim and atmospheric, and couples in extravagant clothing danced slowly across a parquet floor. My stomach lurched in anxiety, and I had to remind myself why I'd come.
I picked out Quatre right away. He was sipping champagne at a linen-draped table, leaning close to an exquisite brunette, whom I was sure I'd never met. It was never the same woman twice for Quatre—not out of a lack of sincerity, but rather out of an old-fashioned distaste for leading a girl on. He was nowhere near settling down; he claimed a broken heart as a war wound, though none of us in the Preventors were ever able to pin down exactly who had broken it.
Quatre was as sharp as ever. He noticed me within a few seconds of my arrival, whispering something into his companion's ear before hurrying over to where I hid in the shadows.
"I wondered if you were coming," he said without preamble, shaking his head at my jeans and torn jacket. "I thought you'd at least be dressed."
I shook my
head. This wasn't about fitting in,
about making an appearance for a society that would just as soon forget about
me the way they forgot Duo Maxwell and Trowa Barton. I had a purpose. A
mission. "I'm not here to mingle."
He acted like he hadn't heard me. "Wufei is here somewhere," he commented, scanning the throng of guests until his eyes lit on the uniformed officer. "He's apparently dating one of the Peacecrafts." After the war a whole clan of the infamous family came out of the woodwork, eager to claim relation to the young lady who had, for a time, been Queen of the World. I looked across the room to where Wufei Chang stood with his arm around a pretty blonde woman. He'd advanced quickly through the ranks as a Preventor, commanding an entire battalion after just a few years. Quatre kept up with him the same way he kept in touch with Duo and Trowa and me, but I hadn't spoken with him in at least a year—since I quit the Preventors.
My attention flicked away from my old comrade after just a moment. I wasn't there to see Wufei, after all.
Quatre noticed the unsettled shifting of my gaze and his face grew serious. "Heero," he said quietly, putting his hand on my arm, "maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
I shook him off, trying to shut him out as I studied the women at the reception.
"She's happy," Quatre said simply.
I closed my eyes, focusing on damage control. It was amazing what those two tiny words could do. In some part of my mind, I wasn't surprised—Relena never did anything at a sacrifice to her own sense of right and wrong—but the rest of me, the part of me that acted on instinct and gut feelings, wouldn't believe it.
"No." My denial sounded stubborn, even to me.
My gift to her chose that moment to wake up, digging her tiny claws into my shirt to climb her way up the collar of my jacket. Poking her little white head out, she blinked at Quatre and mewed.
My friend shook his
head. "You bought her a cat," he said,
disbelieving. For a second I thought he
was going to scold me, but he smiled.
"She'll love it."
"I know." Quatre's smile was infectious, and suddenly I was grinning, too.
After Quatre wished me luck and went back to his lady friend, it took me exactly forty-five seconds to locate Relena. I hadn't seen her in fifteen months.
She took my breath away.
In twenty-three purposeful steps, I crossed the room to where the bride was getting her photograph taken beneath an arbor of roses. I stood behind the photographer, watching as Relena's eyes widened with shock and recognition.
"Heero!" she cried as the flash washed white light over the bridal party.
"Relena." I couldn't seem to say more. My mouth was dry. She was radiant.
She jumped up, quickly making her excuses to the bride and kissing her on the cheek. The pink satin skirt of her dress swished as she hurried the few steps into my arms.
Except that she didn't.
She stopped short, putting out her gloved hands and holding mine affectionately. "Heero," she said again, incredulously. Her voice wavered. "Do you want to go somewhere quieter?" she asked softly. "To catch up?"
As if a few minutes could catch up to the months apart, I nodded.
She didn't speak as she led me away, didn't hold my hand, and a few minutes later we were on the roof, looking over the man-made galaxy of the city's lights. "Are you cold?" Her dress was small and sleeveless, and the wind was gusty.
She shook her head.
I wanted to take her in my arms. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to make her say that the announcement had been a mistake.
"You're still wearing your Preventors' coat," she commented, reaching up to tug on a loose thread that still hung from where I'd torn the military patches off. Her fingers traced the line between where the patch had been and where the leather had faded around it. "You quit so suddenly; I thought you wanted nothing at all to do with the military anymore."
After all this time, she still knew everything about me. "It's a warm coat," I answered honestly. It was what the patches stood for that I had to get rid of, not the leather and warm plushy lining.
The kitten wiggled, trying to climb down my sleeve. "I brought you something," I told her, unzipping my jacket enough to catch the cat. "She doesn't have a name yet—I'm not as creative as you are."
Relena reached for the kitten, her face relaxing into a soft "coo" as she stroked its fine white fur. The kitten stretched her little body until her head bumped Relena's chin. "She's wonderful," Relena murmured, her breath ruffling the kitten's fur. "But how did you know I'd be here?"
By then she should've known I'd always find her.
My hands shook as I pulled the newspaper clipping from my pocket. "Relena," I began, barely remembering how to string a sentence. "Don't marry him."
Her breathing almost stopped. The world went quiet for a long time as she stared at the fuzzy picture of herself in the arms of a handsome young man. I'd looked at it often in the last few weeks—the paper was soft and white in the creases—but somehow I hadn't really believed it until I saw the stricken look on her face.
"You can't do this," she whispered. "You disappear for ages, then come back to me with a kiss and a child's gift—a bear, a silly necklace made of glass beads. A kitten. It's been fifteen months, Heero."
I'd left before. Never for quite this long, but the pattern was set. She knew I'd always come back. For seven years it'd been easy between us. After the first kiss it was understood. We belonged to each other.
"It was too long this time. You left the Preventors. Even Quatre didn't know where you went." She shook her head, her voice growing softer. "I didn't know what happened. I didn't know if you were coming back to me."
I'd hurt her. My chest felt compressed, like I was being squeezed in a vice. "Relena," I whispered, reaching out a hand cup her head. She leaned into my palm, closing her eyes. I bent close, gently kissing her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks. I'd missed the smooth warmth of her skin, the light smell of soap and shampoo. I must've been crazy to leave at all. My whole body trembled as I moved my mouth over hers.
Her lips were soft; her breath tasted sweet and familiar. It was the same kiss we'd taught each other all those years ago, the same clinging lips that had greeted me every time I came home. Her kiss reminded me that she needed me, and I still felt nervous and protective and downright possessive, just like the first time. I reached for her waist, my natural impulse being to pull her near.
She pulled back, her mouth lingering in the kiss a moment longer before she twisted away. "No, Heero," she said, her back to me. "I can't do this."
"You can't marry him." I didn't mean for it to sound like an order, a directive given to a subordinate. My voice was harsh—I was feeling crushed. I tried again, apologetically, "Relena—"
"He's a good man. He's kind and thoughtful and mature." The wail of a siren drifted up to us, and Relena stared out over the bright city lights toward the deep darkness of the ocean. "I love him, Heero."
It hurt. It hurt a hell of a lot more than being shot or breaking a bone. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the initial burn to pass. It didn't.
"You love me," I reminded her. My voice sounded angry. Desperate.
She didn't deny it. She didn't answer at all. The kitten jumped from her arms, scampering away to explore. Relena just stood there, her fingers wrapped tightly around the railing, her back to me.
She was trembling.
Mentally cursing myself for not doing it sooner, I shrugged off my jacket and wrapped it around her bare shoulders. Her shaking grew worse, so I wrapped my arms around her, too, leaning my cheek on the back of her head. "I love you," I whispered. I'd never said it before; I'd never needed to. She knew I'd loved her since we were kids.
"You're not being fair," she protested softly. "If you loved me, you'd leave me alone. You wouldn't make me feel this way."
I swung back, furious. I was supposed to just step back and let her marry some other guy? What the hell kind of logic was that? "That's complete bull—"
She turned suddenly, her eyes damp and livid. "You're good at leaving," she interrupted. "You always show up after a couple months, pat me on the head like a child, stay a few days or weeks, then vanish, just when things get a bit complicated." Her voice was shaking. "It was so easy to predict when you'd leave—as soon as our kissing got a bit more involved, I knew you wouldn't be there the next day."
Her black-and-white assessment left out a few crucial emotional details. "You knew I'd come back."
Relena made an exasperated noise and slammed her hands on the railing. "But it was always back to square one! You always treated me like a baby, buying me toys and candy, and I had to throw myself at you to get you to notice me again!"
I never thought that she was a child. The presents were a game—I'd been bringing her toys since the beginning. It was all I could ever do to keep from grabbing her the moment I saw her—adolescent hormones kept me thinking about all the bad things I wanted to do. I held back out of respect. Surely she knew that.
She was crying; my heart was breaking.
She sniffed, wiping her eyes with the tips of her gloved fingers. "Don't you think it says something, Heero, that in seven years, we never even spent a night together?"
Her tears, her words, everything confused me. I wanted to cry, too. "You wanted to have sex with me?"
"Yes!" She shook her head. "No. I don't know! That's not the point!" She peeled off her left glove, showing me the dark green emerald that sat on her third finger. "This ring stands for commitment. When he gave me this, he was promising to stay near me always."
It was hideously beautiful, reminding me in a little nagging voice that green stood for jealousy. I'd never considered a gift like that for Relena. It wasn't that I thought our relationship was above such binding tokens, but that it never occurred to me that she might want to do things differently than how we'd always done them.
It suddenly dawned on me that I was asking her to give up something—something she wanted very much—and I wasn't offering anything in return.
I was desperate. I had to beat this. "I can get you a ring—a better one that that. I can promise you anything. If you leave with me, I swear we'll never be separated again."
She smiled. At first I was hopeful, but it was a sad smile. She slid my jacket from her shoulders and handed it to me. "I made a promise, too, Heero . . . to a man I respect and love."
"You love me." She hadn't admitted it yet, but I knew she still did. We had a history. If she loved me even half as much as I loved her, then I had this guy beat. "Come with me. Let's get away from here."
"I can't just run away. I owe it to him—"
"To let him know you're leaving?" My pulse was pounding hard in my ears. I'd never been this impulsive in my whole life. Nothing had ever mattered this much. "Fine. Tell him. Take all night if you have to." I reached for her hand, pressing her cool skin to my flushed face. "I'll wait for you. I'll be by the water tomorrow morning—where the Ellis Island ferry lands. I'll wait for you there, Relena."
She was quiet. She was considering it. A cold wind blew, smelling of rain and dust. She pulled her hand away and walked a few steps, twisting the ring on her left hand. "You'll change your mind," she murmured, almost to herself. "It's too big a step for you and you'll run. If I go, and you're not there—"
"I'll be there." It was a reckless promise—the kind without a back door, but I was certain. I didn't know who I was without her to ground me.
"If you're not there, I wouldn't be able to go back." She stared at the sparkling jewel on her hand. "I'd be betraying him just the same by going."
I willed her to believe in me. I wouldn't screw this up. I pulled her against me. "Please, Relena." Sliding my arms around her narrow frame, I kissed her again.
She didn't resist.
The door from downstairs scraped against the gravel and a shadow fall over us. The wild notion came to mind that it would be helpful if her fiancé discovered us like that, pressed together tightly with her hands gripping my shoulders, but when I looked up, it was only Quatre. He looked worried.
Relena noticed him, too, and pulled away, blushing.
Quatre cleared his throat awkwardly. "He's looking for you, Relena," he warned us softly. Giving me one last pleading look, he turned and went back to the reception.
"He doesn't want us to get into trouble," Relena observed quietly.
"I think he's too late." I said. We were already in trouble. We had been since those first days at school when I was unwillingly moved by her tears.
She slid her glove over her hand, her eyes never leaving mine. "I can't meet you, Heero," she whispered.
"You can," I promised. It would take strength and conviction, but I was sure this was the right thing for both of us.
She paused with her hand on the doorknob. "Why did you leave the Preventors, Heero?" she asked suddenly.
I picked up my jacket from where I had let it drop. "I had a gun in my hand before I lost my baby teeth," I explained. "I was tired of killing people—even the bad guys." I shrugged, trying to think of a short way to relate months of consideration. "I wanted to be more like you."
She smiled—a weak, teary smile—then disappeared down the dimly-lit staircase. I glanced over to where the kitten still played. I guessed she would be my responsibility for another night, but it was okay—I could use the company.
I walked around all night, thinking. Around midnight I considered making a jeweler open his shop so I could buy Relena a ring, but by twelve-thirty I abandoned that idea. At three I panicked. I stood in a line at the airport, ready to buy a ticket to anywhere just so I could get on the earliest plane. Five o'clock found me in Central Park, staring into the darkness as the kitten napped in my lap. By six-thirty it was drizzling.
The harbor was dark in the gray of early dawn. I sat on a dock, watching as the ferry crew did their early inspections. They were vivid in bright orange ponchos, and I wished I thought to grab some kind of raincoat to ward off this chilling damp. Relena's kitten was shivering, nestled deep inside my coat to preserve warmth.
The sun came up, and for a few moments the clouds broke—just enough to make the choppy water gleam. I wondered how long it took for water to move through the world's oceans. I met Relena by the sea. Could even a drop of the water surrounding me that morning be the same as what surrounded us then? Lack of sleep was making me philosophical, even romantic.
The morning grew older. The ferries left with their first sparse boatloads, and I grew colder and wetter than I remembered I could be. An old woman mistook me for a homeless person—she brought me hot coffee and a bagel. It was a welcome breakfast, and I carefully finger-fed the kitten most of the cream cheese. I wondered where Relena was at that moment. She'd outgrown the politician's world the way a kid outgrows teenybopper music, and for the past few years she'd been attending a university near where she grew up. Quatre told me she'd graduated just four months ago, but she was dragging her feet about getting a job. She'd once complained to me that she hadn't been allowed to sleep past six in the morning since we met, so I envisioned her still curled up in her bed, hair all tangled and adorable, catching up on all those years of sleep deprivation. Thinking about it made me tired, and I fell asleep imagining that I was snuggled beside her.
I woke up shivering, feeling like I was being pricked by pins. The kitty had worked her way up my chest, and she was kneading it softly with her claws. I blinked, adjusting to the sunlight. It had stopped raining, but it was cold. I could see my breath as I checked my watch. Hours had passed. It was almost twelve-thirty.
I jumped to my feet, scanning the area frantically. No one. She wasn't there.
She wasn't coming.
I slid back down to the dock, resting my head on my knees. "Hey, Cat," I whispered as the kitten thrust her head up near my collar. She mewed and licked my ear. I'd been alone my whole life, yet somehow the world never seemed as huge and vacant as it did just then. I considered leaving—finding a room with a hot shower and a soft bed—but I couldn't seem to get my body to move.
The ferries stopped running early that day—one of the crew complained that no one bothered to come to the harbor on days like that. Afternoon faded into dusk, and the city glowed. The lights hurt my eyes—I added it to a catalogue of hurts and slowly closed them. One by one I mentally shut down all of the throbbing, painful places in my body until the only thing I felt was the pang of an empty stomach.
Cat cried, tapping my chin with her tiny paw. I idly petted her head, moving my stiff limbs to stand. We needed to find some dinner. I wondered how she would adapt to space travel—I had a taste for something exotic and distant. The earth suddenly seemed too small and too hard. All the gravity was gone.