"Hey there. Welcome back to consciousness, Heero."
I blinked. Something leaned over me, its outlines slightly fuzzy. I blinked, allowing my internal scanners time to adjust to the dim light. "D-duo?"
"You're not hurt are you? Did you knock your head on the way down?"
I moved cautiously. Apart from my stomach, or what passed for my stomach, nothing protested. "I don't think so . . . What happened?"
Duo grinned wryly at me, tucking a strand of hair behind an ear. "I don't think J designed you to be able to bungee jump, toots."
"So what happened?" I asked again. I could remember holding Duo's hand very tightly, jumping and--
Apart from a few seconds of pure terror, not much else.
Wait a minute--"Toots?"
"I think the sensation overloaded your system and it crashed. I managed to pick you up and move you into this bunk hole, and we've been here, ever since. I only just managed to reboot you--" He smiled almost sadly, running a hand along the side of my cheek. "You had me very worried there, Heero."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"That's okay. Just don't do that too often, okay?"
I sat up, taking stock of our surroundings. Duo's bunk hole appeared to be a cleared space in some sort of workings of some sort. The roof wasn't more than a metre and a half above our heads, and was bare boards and wiring. The floor below us was a collection of boards laid across the planking of the ceiling below us. A couple of bits of ancient machinery lay beside us.
Duo caught my glance. "Not exactly what you're used to, I know. But I had to get you out of the way before we got noticed."
"That's fine," I said.
"I sneaked out a while ago and got us some eats. You hungry?"
I didn't think I would be after consuming three waffles but to my surprise my stomach growled. "Duo, how long have I been--"
"Out? I think it'd be twelve hours now, maybe more. Here you go."
I implemented a full systems scan before accepting the brown bag Duo held out to me. "I don't think I damaged anything, but I'm going to check. After all, I should not have been unconscious that long."
"Oh. Can I watch?"
I gave Duo a look. "It's a standard procedure on most technical equipment--"
"I know that. But I want to see how you do it."
"I've already done it. J connected most of my basic functions directly to my nerve endings, so initiating the scan to me is what I'd imagine wiggling your toes is to you."
Duo paused, his own paper bag halfway towards his mouth. "You imagine?"
"85% machine, remember? My lower body is almost entirely mechanical."
"How much of your top isn't?" Duo asked.
"It's mostly my organs that are human, although even they have had machinery added to improve performance, and give me greater control over them."
"Shit," Duo said, sliding closer to me. "What about this?" he tapped my cheek.
"Real. Mostly. J fitted me with the sort of optical scanners used in search bots to make up for this eye which was left blind in the accident. And of course, plastic surgery to cover it up."
"And this?" Duo brushed his lips over mine.
It was the first time he'd kissed me. He was very good at it.
I was surprised at how what J described as simple sensory contact felt so good.
My breath tangled with his, and his tongue met mine in a way that was intrusion, yet wasn't. Duo ran a hand through my hair, while the other curled around my back, pulling me towards his warmth. He was warm--everywhere he touched me, the contact elicited little tingles from my skin. Even the mechanical skin fitted over my machine arm seemed to come alive at his touch.
"Mmm," Duo purred against my skin, finally breaking the contact. "I think we can say with certainty, that's real."
I didn't reply. While kissing, we'd ended up in a rough embrace, Duo tight against my chest. I bent down experimentally, and discovered I could bury my nose in his hair.
"What are you doing?" Duo squawked indignantly. "Oi! I'd like to breathe, here!"
"Sorry," I said, pulling away. "I wanted to file away your scent for future reference--"
He stared at me. I began to worry.
"That's all right, isn't it? I haven't offended you?"
"Nah--not unless you were storing away how bad I smelled. It's just when you said you wanted to file away--"
"I have the memory capabilities of a top computer," I told him. "The amount of information I can store and the accuracy with which I can recall it far surpasses that of any human."
"No wonder the downside's crawling with coppers." Duo said, sounding a little awed. "Heero, you must be worth ten fortunes--"
"I'd never thought about it. I asked J once what I was worth to build and he said I shouldn't think about it, as I was a scientific achievement, one that could not be replaced. He also said I should be sure to apply myself to my studies to ensure I did as much as possible to pay back the debt in building me by being as helpful and productive as I could."
"Charming," Duo said.
"What do you mean," I asked. "Crawling with coppers?"
"The police in charge of enforcing this area are accompanied by search bots. They're called coppers because of the material used to produce them. At least that's how the story goes."
"Oh," I said, trying not be alarmed. If these coppers detected Duo--
"Don't worry, Hee-chan. I know these parts better than any robot. I'll get us home safe and sound. Now eat up." He nodded towards the paper bags I'd forgotten.
I picked up the bag cautiously, noting the grease stains. "What is this?"
"Hot dogs. Basically--"
"A sausage in a bun. I've heard of these--the name is traditional, they don't actually contain dog."
Duo gave me a tentative smile. "Sure, Heero."
I stared at him.
"Well, eat up. Ya don't want Fido getting cold."
Twenty minutes later he finally managed to persuade me that he didn't really think it was dog, although he could be wrong. It was cold by then, so I ate it quickly, trying not to think too much about my meal.
"Now, let's go!" Duo instructed me. "Stick close behind me, try not to make much noise--"
It was strange, the world Duo led me through. Nothing more different to J's apartment and the life that epitomized could be imagined. Filth and disrepair, darkness, lurked in every corner. The few people who saw us shrunk back into their doorways and shelters at our approach.
"Coppers have everyone spooked," Duo explained, as we rested briefly in a small gap between two tumbling buildings. "They never send so many into one quarter like this."
"Why are they here?" I asked.
"Ah, that's the million dollar question, Hee-baby." Duo suddenly pulled me into the shadow beside him. "Quiet. They come."
I waited, as a steady humming sound became apparent.
A beam of light flickered down the street, straying slowly over the entrance to our hiding place before travelling onwards. Then I saw a burnished copper body travel past slowly. A search bot--
"--ny idea how we're supposed to pick out this kid from all the others?"
And their human companions.
"I'll read you the description again. Let's see, Asian male, seventeen, slender, metal arm--"
"The kid's half friggin robot--"
I looked at Duo, his eyes were on mine. He put a hand to his lips.
Although it was hard I contained my surprise--and my fear.
Another light swept past us, idling over the thin crack between the buildings and paused. I glanced at it as it's operational lights flickered, it was obviously processing some sort of reading and any moment now it was going to--
It clicked once and passed on.
Duo let out a breath as the bots and their human counterparts moved on.
"Howard owes me a drink."
"Excuse me?" I whispered back.
"My jammer." Duo waved a small black object at me before slipping it back into his pocket. "He said it would never work, that I was wasting my time. Ah, here's our stop."
Someone had set a fire in a trash can. A kid was crouched beside it, a skinny urchin, covered in dust and with a suspicious look in his eyes as Duo approached.
"Max," the kid smiled briefly. "Ya got any bits for us?"
"Not this time. I'm looking for a ride."
"Go on in. The number ten's due in about two minutes."
"Thanks." Duo hesitated. "Anyone been by tonight?"
"A couple. Sweepers and that. They was asking for you."
"Damn. Howard's going to have my ass," Duo groaned as we entered the room behind the kid.
I looked around in question--it was empty. "Duo--"
"Clear," came the voice from the doorway.
"This way," Duo said, pulling back a shabby wall hanging to reveal a hole in the ceiling and a makeshift ladder. "No more walking for us! We're travelling in style now, Heero--"
"What do you mean?" I followed as Duo climbed the ladder then crawled along a narrow ledge. There was no floor in front of us. Instead, we looked down at narrow tracks.
"You don't mean--" my mind processed the possibilities with lightning speed. None of them were good. "That's crazy!"
"I do it all the time!" Duo stood up. "It's easy, Hee-chan. Now get ready to jump--here comes the number 10--"
A couple of hours later I grinned wildly. "Ah, home sweet home! What do you think, Heero?"
"It's interesting." Heero conceded.
"Isn't it?" I smiled fondly on what was the closest thing to a home I had. "To the rest of the downside, this is the Sweeper's fort. But to me and the boys, it's home--"
"It looks more like a junk heap."
I sighed. "Heero, Heero, Heero. You have no imagination. Now let's get inside before someone sees us."
With that, I grabbed his hand and pulled him away from the fort.
"Back entrance," I said.
Luckily no one had found the route I'd used the last time I'd had to break in.
"Explain to me again," Heero said slowly. "The Sweepers are your friends."
"Like a family to me. Howard practically raised me."
"You trust them with your life, and they theirs with you."
"Oh, absolutely. But try getting Howard to loan me his tool kit--"
"And you trust them enough that though I am quite possibly worth ten fortunes, and there are search bots all over the city looking for me, you will trust them with me. Yet, despite all this, you are--"
"Breaking in. Yes."
"Is it just me, or does that not compute?"
"It's like this," I explained, as I thrust aside the electric panel. "Howard's a great man, yadda, yadda, yadda, but he still hasn't quite got over the fact that I'm not a kid anymore and he's set this really embarrassing curfew--"
"Which I've kind of blown by fifteen hours, and there is going to be hell to pay. If Howard catches me, but he won't, because--"
"We're breaking in."
"Got it in one. Nice to see that J wasn't wasting his time with all those super computers--" I lifted the final panel, the one that formed the floor to the west corridor. "And, here we are--"
"Duo. Nice of you to finally grace us with your presence."
I gulped, suddenly noticing the foot that was level with my eyes.
"Hey there, Howard! Hey, I hope I didn't wake you up--just checking the wiring under these panels, uh--"
"Do you know when you were supposed to be back?"
I yelped as the sweepers with him picked me up out of the hole.
"Okay, so I'm a little late--"
"A little late? You know you're supposed to be home by twelve, young man--"
"Aw, geez, do I look like Cinderella? I'm a grown up, I don't need a stinking curfew--"
"You're a grown-up when you act like a grown-up, and not before then. And don't look at me like that--pouting like that didn't work when you were nine and its not going to work now--"
"I want you to go to your room and think about this--what is it?"
"He appears to have brought a friend home with him."
My heart skipped a beat. Howard turned to see them pull Heero out into the corridor. The old guy was normally pretty easy going, but when the question of dating me came up--
"It's not what you think--" I stopped as Howard turned on me, stabbing a finger in my direction.
"You know what I think? You, grounded. Room--now!"
"Aw, man! You can't ground me--what if Wufei gets a job?"
"Then he can do it himself. You are not leaving this ship for a month--"
"Don't argue, or I'll double it!"
I clamped my mouth shut.
"And as for you--" Howard turned back to Heero.
He bowed stiffly. "AI unit Heero at your service, sir."
"It's a bleedin' machine, sir."
"I'm aware of what AI is," Howard snapped. "Duo, explain."
"Well, ya know how I feel about AI's . . ." I shrugged, doing my best to skirt around the truth without lying. "But this one kinda appealed to me so I thought it might be interesting to have one around. It could help with my inventions and that. Or I could take it apart and see how it works--"
"Where did it come from?"
"Well, you remember a couple of weeks back when Peels said he some parts going cheap--" I crossed my fingers. I didn't have any doubts about Heero's ability to play machine--he'd fooled me after all. But AI were incredibly pricey. I doubted Howard would buy my story--
"Going cheap, huh? So what's the story. Is he defective, or what?"
I sighed happily. "Yeah, it's defective--see the arm? It's not finished. I'm thinking I can rig a few tools there, maybe a fine laser . . . and the system crashed on the way home. That's why I was late. I would have called but the place is crawling with coppers--"
"All of whom were on the lookout for the charge of the man whose house you lifted today." I was suddenly choked in a Howard bear hug. "Duo--you could have been caught--"
He was really worried about me. I thumped him on the back. "Relax, Howard, it's me! The superthief!"
He laughed. "Get to bed."
"Whatever you say boss. Come on Heero." I led my "robot" a little way down the corridor then turned. "Hey, am I still grounded?"
Ah well. It was better than a month. But even then . . . Two weeks, stuck in the fort, with nothing to occupy myself with but--
I stopped so suddenly Heero almost walked into me.
"Why so happy?" he asked.
"Oh, just had a nice thought--" I grinned. "My room is this way."
I tried to contain the interest I felt in our surroundings as I followed Duo. After all, robots, even AIs, do not gape. And, I had little doubt that Duo would take me over them later.
Still--their technology was the most hodge potch mix of parts. There were some that looked as if they remained from the 20th century, others that could have been pilfered from J's work shop. Some things I recognized, more I did not. True we were only passing through the living quarters, but I had a feeling that I'd love their workrooms--
"What is this place?"
"Our hideout, shelter, home, moving work-place," Duo yawned. "We're salvagers, find old technology, beef it up, fix things . . . we make a living."
"Are you tired?" I asked concerned as another yawn followed hard on the heels of the first.
"Just about dead on my feet . . . You may have been unconscious but I wasn't--It's going to be straight to bed for me tonight."
"You mean this afternoon."
We stopped outside a small hatch in the wall with the motto 'Enter and Die: by order of Shinigami.'
"Here's where I bunk. Watch the step."
I squeezed through the opening after Duo, looking around in astonishment. "It's very--"
"Small? Yeah, sorry about that. This cabin wasn't designed for two people. It's going to be a tight fit. Let's see, if I move the propeller over here then I'll be able to rig up a hammock."
"Why do you need a hammock?"
"Well, there's only one bed, and it's a single--"
"I do not see what the problem with that is. It is not optimal size, yes, but surely we could share."
"Yeah but--we just met!" Duo met my puzzled expression with one of embarrassment.
"I was under the impression that people who shared affection usually slept together."
"Yeah, but not on the first date!"
"What does tropical fruit have to do with this?"
Duo stared at me, then burst out laughing. After a while, he wiped the tears from his eyes and said, "J didn't let you get out much, did he?"
"I found my peers insufferable," I admitted. "I tried to avoid them as much as possible."
"Well, people who share affection do usually sleep together, although there are different types of affection and we won't even go there because I am planning on actually sleeping tonight."
"Anyway," Duo continued, shooting me a frosty glare, "People usually wait a while before sleeping together, so they can be sure they want to be with who they're with and so they don't get hurt if things don't work out."
"Familiarization in order to assess risk?" I nodded. "A reasonable procedure, but I would like to skip it."
Duo's mouth dropped open. "You--wuh--"
I lay down on the bed. "See? There is adequate room for you."
"But you just can't--I mean you don't--I don't--you--" Duo growled. "Fine! Might as well be hung for the full dollar--"
I frowned in incomprehension but before I could ask, Duo's singlet was pulled off, dragging my attention firmly towards the smooth back revealed not a metre away from me. It was a back. Simple and average. There was no reason for my mouth to suddenly go dry at the sight. Or maybe there was--Duo had just dumped his trousers on the floor next to him. I'd seen him in more of a state of undress back at the house--so why the sight of him in only his boxers should be so fascinating, I could not fathom.
It did not . . . compute. It just simply, was.
"Ah-hah! Found a clean one!" Duo pulled another singlet over his head, this one grey in colour. "Shove over, Hee-chan."
I complied as best I could--Truthfully, the single bed did not allow much room. As Duo wiggled into bed beside me, I slipped an arm round his shoulders.
"Are you comfortable?" I asked, bringing him to my chest.
"Mmm," he smiled, resting his head on my shoulder. "This feels very nice, Hee-chan."
"Goodnight, Duo." I said, kissing his forehead and settling back as he turned the lights off with a voice command.
There were a few minutes of quiet, in which I simply revelled in Duo's closeness and the warmth of his skin against mine--
"And that's it?"
"You're not even going to grope me?"
"What do you mean? We are sleeping together--"
"You don't know? Heck, and there I was, getting all freaked out over nothing--"
"Would you mind explaining what you're talking about?"
Duo chuckled. "Heero, when a couple says they're sleeping together, that usually means that they're doing more than just catching zs!"
"There is more?" I asked.
"Not tonight, there isn't," Duo said firmly. "Goodnight, Heero."
He settled back down against my chest. I set my system power to low, and replaced my arms around him. I gently stroked the soft hair, still tied back in a braid, smiling as a soft snore drifted up to me.
A greater feeling of contentment I had never known. He was mine, and he would stay that way.