"Ah, opportunity…often it comes disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat."
- Napoleon Hill
"…but since her notable decision to keep the identities of the infamous Gundam pilots a secret, Miss Peacecraft has done phenomenally well."
The camera zoomed in on her elegantly well-proportioned face; the full lips, flawless complexion, and the famous azure eyes bordered by long dark lashes. She sat calmly, her hands folded neatly in her lap, and awaited the next question.
"Tell us, Miss Peacecraft - "
"Relena, please," she interrupted, smiling.
"Relena. Do you regret your decision of four years ago?"
The harsh TV lights shone on her face, illuminating the natural highlights in her light-gold hair. "Of course not," she replied easily. "I still believe the pilots and their families, as well as the rest of the world, are better off without that knowledge. As time has passed, the people have realized that these men have truly moved on from their pasts, and that there is absolutely nothing to fear from them."
"Now, Relena, do you know these men personally?"
The Foreign Minister, easily the most recognized and idolized woman on the Earth and Colonies, smiled again. "I do."
"So you can honestly tell us that they are not the same people they were during the Wars?"
"Yes, I can."
"Each one of them?"
Only the most alert and observant of viewers would notice the very, very slight hesitation before her next words:
"Yes, every one."
"All right then. Let's move on to the next subject - we're going to…"
As the camera swung around to a new angle, her expression was lost for just a moment; and again, only a few people watching might have been able to catch the lightning-quick sadness that tugged at the raised corners of her mouth and allowed her shoulders to sag for just a split second.
And then she was smiling into the camera again, effortlessly divulging her personal life to the millions of people glued to television sets across the planet.
Late autumn isn't the most ideal time to be working in an automobile garage. Cars have the unkind tendency to break down once the temperature begins to drop; engines installed just a week earlier have to be completely replaced, tires on every vehicle in the town are switched out for their cold-weather counterparts, and it becomes more and more difficult to get a car washed fast enough before it froze.
But then again, he loved a challenge.
The gruff voice boomed from around the corner of the garage, where the front register was located. When there wasn't an immediate answer, it sounded again, more exasperated than before.
"Yuy! Get your butt in here now!"
From underneath a battered pickup truck slid the worker on call; wiping greasy hands on jeans that were already stained from the day's work, he got to his feet and strode into the front area.
"About time," the burly man from behind the counter growled, glaring daggers at the tall figure standing nonchalantly in the doorway.
"What can I do for you, boss?"
"We got a customer," he snapped, "who's complaining about a custom paint job that was done on her car and is definitely missing from the order form."
Andy Moore, all two-hundred-sixty pounds of him, was giving the young worker his fiercest glare, and the kid wasn't even flinching.
"Where is she?" he said calmly.
Moore growled, "Out front. She's furious. The thing looks like a Playboy pickup gone wrong. I want you to know, this is an absolute - "
The worker strode past the desk, paying his employer no mind at all, and exited the shop. He was gone for about five minutes before Moore grew curious and went to the window to check on him.
The customer was gone, and the worker nowhere in sight.
Disgruntled, he went back inside the shop, headed to the garage, and immediately sighted the offender.
"Yuy!" Moore bellowed again. "What just happened?"
Not even turning around from the open hood of the truck, he said calmly over his shoulder, "She left."
"What are you talking about, she was furious!"
"I told Hank to apologize. They went to dinner."
For a split second, Moore was speechless. "What - Hank did that?"
Heero was silent, staring at his employer.
"All right…" Moore said slowly. "Point taken. All right…well…as soon as you finish that last order, head on home, Yuy."
Moore shook his head. The kid had worked there for nearly three and a half years now, and every time Moore tried to bust him for something, he came clean. Furthermore, his work was superior to anything Moore had seen in all his years in the shop; but…the guy was just so…so…calm. Nothing ruffled him. It was unsettling, in a way…but he did excellent work and never caused any trouble, and Moore kept him on.
"Well…all right then. You're good for today, Yuy. I'll see you tomorrow at noon."
"And, uh…tell Hank to abstain from custom painting from now on, will you?"
"And from getting the numbers of all the customers?"
The worker paused in the doorway to calmly say, "Good for business" - and then he was gone.
The tiny town of Willow Lake was already settling into the Christmas mood, even though the snows were unusually late this year. Normally by about the last week in October the kids were already making snowmen at recess in the small elementary school, but now, near the end of the last week in November, the ground was still painfully snow-free.
Heero Yuy drove up the main street of town at an easy speed, enjoying the scene that surrounded him. It was cold and already past six o'clock, so there weren't very many people outside. However, the Christmas lights were up on the grocery store, and from the single stoplight in town hung a festive wreath festooned with pine branches and holly leaves. The lights emanating from inside the houses lining the main road were soft, and the four radio stations offered this high up in the mountains - all country - were already playing Christmas songs.
The drive was quiet and peaceful through the pine trees. There was something about the forest that drew Heero in, that made him feel comfortable and at home. In town, around people and obligations and expectations he was never at ease, never settled…but once he escaped all the - well, all the people - he could finally relax.
He didn't live in the town; no, the money he had saved both from working after the Wars and what he had earned up here had all gone to buy a rundown old cabin about thirty minutes away from Willow Lake. It had taken more than a year to fix up, but it was close enough to the town to provide for work and food and far enough away that he could be on his own and not feel pressure to be social.
The cabin porch light was on, softly illuminating the two-story log cabin, surrounded by stately pine trees and backed by the deep blue waters of a small lake - his lake.
Few people in the town knew where he lived; most assumed it was a cabin somewhere, but he didn't think anyone knew that he pretty much had an entire lake to himself. He had been surprised, too; when he bought the place, the previous owner had said nothing about the lake. However, after clearing a few obstructing pine trees in order to build an addition to the kitchen, he had discovered the peaceful waters. It was probably his favorite part of the whole thing; the lake was stable, constant, unchanging - a symbol of how he was trying to live his life.
He parked the car and got out, and upon entering the house went straight to the kitchen and pulled out the ingredients for dinner.
Thirty minutes later he was sitting contentedly in front of his laptop upstairs, digging into a thick bowl of steaming chili and sternly eyeing the latest reports from the Preventers database. Things were okay back in the city…back in civilization, back in the world of deadlines and politics and strange glances on the corner and friends pushing him to do more; get a job, find a girl, settle down. Back in in her world.
Almost without thinking, he double-clicked until he uncovered the security briefs for the protection of the Foreign Minister. With his most critical eye he perused the reports, looking for any little flaw, any minute detail that might result in something going wrong tonight.
Five minutes later - after he was satisfied - Heero gave himself the usual talk on how he shouldn't be checking that database; he hadn't been her bodyguard for more than four years now. Everything was different: they were living their own lives, the Gundam pilots blissfully unknown to the world. Relena was now protected by an entire force of more-than-capable Preventer officers, and she was going about her life, probably extraordinarily successful…
Assumptions, all of this, because he hadn't had contact with anybody - except Duo - in almost four years. And he had spent that time avoiding any mention of her, whether it be on television, the radio, or otherwise. He had done everything he could to eliminate her from his quiet life high in the mountains. Thus far, it had been a success.
After finishing dinner and reading the last current event, Heero cleaned up the kitchen and then headed back upstairs. He stretched out on the bed, set the alarm for a prompt 5 o'clock a.m., and then turned off the light.
It wasn't going to happen tonight.
He wouldn't let it.
All his willpower was now focused on one thing and one thing only: avoiding those thoughts and memories that plagued him each night as he tried to get to sleep…
But…it was useless. They came back in his darkest hour, bombarding him as he lost his perfect control of his mind.
There she was, the last time he had seen her; standing at a podium in front of nearly one million people with a forest of microphones from every broadcasting company in the world partly obstructing her pale face. From the view of every human being in the world - who could only see her from the front - she was standing regally, firmly, as she announced what would come to be known as the most monumental decision thus far in her young career. But Heero, from his hidden location in the wings of the stage, saw how fiercely her hands were shaking. He alone heard the slight tremble in the voice that to everyone else seemed so strong. He had been praying that night; to whom, he didn't know, but he couldn't stop pleading to some imaginary being that she would make the right choice…the choice he deserved.
But the words she spoke, in that voice that haunted his dreams, were not the words he wanted to hear. And he knew, immediately, what he had to do.
He could picture her so clearly; every little detail was ingrained into his mind, and none of it had faded over the years he had been alone. As he stared up at the ceiling in the darkness, listening to the soft noises of the forest outside, he saw her shining hair, the graceful curve of her neck, the defiant way she lifted her chin as she spoke the words, while at the same time her hands were trembling so badly she had to hide them behind the podium.
And with that killer of an opening scene, his mind let loose and began a private movie just for him; a slideshow of every memory of her.
Heero liked to tell himself that he tried his hardest to go to sleep, to forget about this, about her - but he knew it wasn't true. His hands were clenched into fists and his muscles were tense, but the Perfect Soldier wasn't doing a thing to combat this enemy.
"Man, what the heck are you doing in early today?"
Heero ignored the black-haired, olive-skinned man that attacked him as soon as he entered the door to the shop. He hung up his stuff and gathered his tools before crossing the room to take a look at what was on schedule for the day.
"You've got to be kidding me. There's no reason to be in so early - you've passed the overtime limit already. C'mon, man, I was still planning on how I was gonna tell you my story about Stacey - "
Heero interrupted, "Stacey?"
"The custom paint chick."
The guy whistled. "Whoo, is she a catch. Great bod. Like, you have no idea. And you know she really loved that paint job, even if she whined about it a bit."
"Hank. Aren't you on shift right now?"
"Yeah, but no one's come in."
Having finally shut his mouth, Hank stared dumbly at the broom Heero had thrust into his hand. Without another word, the tall mechanic lifted his toolbox and strode easily into the garage.
"You know," Hank muttered to a worker standing near him, "sometimes I wonder about that guy."
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean, Sammy boy, is that he all of a sudden shows up with all this skill, no proof of education, no degree…just skill. How can a guy get that good and have no, you know, credentials?"
Sam shrugged, concentrating on his work. "I like him. Doesn't talk much, but gets the job done, you know?"
"I guess. I just wanna know where he came from, that's all…."
"Just use the broom, Hank."
Making a face at his coworker's back, Sam crossed over into the next garage, where Heero was already gathering the equipment he needed for the first job of the day.
Heero turned and gave a brief nod to the older mechanic. Sam McKay was somewhere in his mid-fifties, a slow-moving, slow-talking sort of man that loved nothing more than just being up in nature and living with his wife and kids. Heero much preferred his company to that of Hank's, whose conversation topics were limited to the women passing through Willow Lake…since he had pretty much already covered all of the residents. "Good morning," Heero replied calmly, which, coming from him, was a compliment.
"Any special reason for starting so early today?" Sam asked as he tinkered with an old engine in the corner of the garage. Sam worked odd jobs at nearly every location in the town; he had lived there for so many years and the people knew him so well that he could walk into any building and find some work. He didn't have much technical education as a mechanic, but he knew the basics and had a knack for fixing up old equipment to make it brand-new. Over the past few years, the two men had formed a subtle relationship founded on respect for each other's work.
"Not really," Heero replied as he slid underneath a pickup truck. He spoke in his usual monotone, but Sam knew the man well enough to detect just a hint of something else in his voice.
"Hand me the monkey, will you?"
Sam handed over the wrench and gave Heero's boots a thoughtful glance. Never before had he met a man who would come into work three hours early for no reason - and actually work, for that matter. This kid was different. And Sam was curious by nature.
"You got a girlfriend here, Heero?"
The kid didn't even flinch. "No."
Sam stared as Heero rolled himself out from under the vehicle to rummage around in his toolbox. "Do you like girls?"
He was rewarded with a single expression, and then the kid was underneath the car again.
"Never mind," Sam muttered, and went back to work.
Heero, thankfully, was finally left alone. Sam's steady wisdom and easy humor made him pleasant enough company, but Heero had always preferred solitude to socialization. It was going to be difficult today. He had been aware of this fact when he awoke at five a.m. sharp and left the cabin for his daily run – had known it from the minute he remembered the date.
November twenty-sixth. Exactly four years since the last time he had seen her, to the day. If he had turned on the television, he knew her face would be on every station, speaking, smiling, scintillating. And he couldn't handle that; the day was hard enough as it was.
So he left for work much earlier than usual. Keep his mind off of things.
He worked steadily for almost five hours, then took a belated lunch break before heading right back into the shop. Moore and Sam looked anxiously after him, recognizing the steady, hard work but a little bewildered by the excess thereof. Heero finished everything on the schedule and then some, and then crossed over to the next garage to help Hank, who was about to clock out for the day and had done little but hit on the girls working next door at the gas station.
It was about six o'clock when the telephone in the office rang. Moore picked it up, spoke quietly, and seven seconds later was bellowing for Heero again.
He came, wiping greasy hands on a rag, silent and dark-eyed and, somehow, more serious than usual.
"Yuy, we got a problem in the back. Some lady broke down out on the highway. Steven towed her in but I want you to take a look at it."
"Carrera, last year's model. Think there's a bit of engine problem, from what she described to me. I don't know how long it'll take…you think you could help her find a place to stay the night?"
He didn't respond. Moore didn't expect him to; asking about the vehicle details was about as far as Heero would go with employee-customer relations. Sighing, Moore added, "Why don't you let Sam handle that, then."
The older man was called in, and, grinning, followed Heero into the back garage, where the new customers and their cars awaited service.
While Sam went to meet the woman and do a preliminary check of the car, Heero went to gather the tools he'd need. As he worked, he could just hear the low, cheerful rumble of Sam's voice, and softer, feminine tones in conversation.
Picking up his toolbox, Heero gave an inner sigh and turned to head to the car, cursing Moore and thinking that Hank should've taken this one, after all. He was the one always good with the chicks…not that Heero had ever had any desire to…well, not since -
Shaking his head, he tried to wrestle her image from his mind. Gripping the toolbox, he came around the corner and looked up, ready to interrupt the conversation with a few introductory questions before he could get to work and Sam could help the girl find dinner and a hotel.
Sam was standing in front of the woman as he was telling her the story of his own recent breakdown on the rough mountain roads. Heero stopped a little behind them to look at the car - a nice model, expensive features, sturdy engine by the looks of it. And then all of a sudden, as Sam delivered his punchline, the woman burst into laughter -
- and, at that sound from his dreams, Heero went rigid.
Sam's voice, barely penetrating the thick fog that suddenly clouded his mind, said, "Yeah, it was pretty bad. But here, let me introduce you to the guy who'll fix up your car - come here, Heero, don't be afraid of a little - "
There was a crash, and a splatter of coffee over the garage floor. The woman had dropped her Starbucks cup.
Heero turned around, inch by agonizing inch, until he was facing the image he had avoided like poison for four years.
Relena Peacecraft stood in front of him, her face devoid of any color, absolutely and totally speechless.
There was no way. She was dreaming. She was so messed up, so stressed, so exhausted, so out of her mind that she was imagining the man standing in front of her.
Very slowly, her eyes traveled to his boots, and then slowly back up again. The scuffed shoes, the jeans dirty with grease stains and slightly torn at the knees, the black cotton t-shirt just tight enough to accentuate the hard muscles on his abdomen and thick arms…and then to his face.
It was a face she hadn't seen in four years. A face that for all of her adult life had graced her dreams, saved her in her nightmares, been the cause of misery and sorrow, joy and happiness, protection and comfort. A face she had cried herself to sleep over - and had never realized how badly she wanted to see again.
He was tanner, taller…the hair was thicker and a slightly lighter brown, but just as disheveled as it had always been…and those eyes. Oh, his eyes. The stormy Prussian blue bore into her just as fiercely and intensely as it always had, dragging her through a painful whirlwind of memories and sending her into thick and painful torrent of emotions.
The other man, who had introduced himself as Sam, was staring at them.
"Hey, Heero, I think it might be the belt…"
And suddenly, as if nothing had happened, as if they weren't standing face to face for the first time in four years, Heero turned and went to the car.
"Sorry 'bout that, miss," Sam said quietly to her. "Don't know what came over him…he's a little odd, but a good worker."
Sam said the words kindly, teasingly, and she could tell he had a genuine respect for Heero. She couldn't tear her eyes from the dark-haired man lifting the hood of her car, bending to inspect the inside. "It's - it's all right."
"Can I possibly get your name, ma'am, I'll just need to fill out these papers for ya- "
Heero stopped, glanced up at her for just a brief second. As their eyes met once again, lightning shook her to the bottom of her feet.
"Elizabeth," she murmured quietly. "Elizabeth Sanderson."
"Nice to have you here, Elizabeth," Sam grinned at her. "Hope you enjoy your stay up in the mountains."
She didn't hear him, didn't notice as he left the room to total up her cost at the register. Suddenly, she was left alone…with him.