It's been a bit of a wait, but Appearances is back! I hope there are still people who still want to read it :3. With many MANY thanks to the wonderful Manny who gave me the most thorough beta imaginable and was a source of constant support and inspiration. Thank you. 3
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEE-
My fist comes down with no small amount of force on top of my alarm clock. I squint blearily at it and shut my eyes again. 05:45 blinks at me with casual disdain.
I yawn and stretch my entire body under the covers until my toes pop. Weird, but it feels good. My bunkie, Eric, stirs briefly but rolls back over. He doesn't have to be up for maybe another hour, so he's going to take it.
Me, if I don't get up and out of bed, I'm going to be late for the gym. Trowa said he'd meet me there at six a.m., and unless there's some kind of alien invasion, he'll be there then.
Where's a decent planetary emergency when you need to cop a few more z's, right?
Still yawning manically, I change out of my grey pajamas and into a pair of shorts, a singlet and a pair of running shoes. No point in taking a shower as I'm just about to get all sweaty again. Grabbing a towel from the hamper and a bottle of water from my bedside, I head out into the hall.
The Preventers have no less than three gym areas in which agents are able to maintain healthy fitness regimes, with varying degrees of equipment, and varying degrees of condition. The higher-up you are; the better your gym equipment is. Why just cycle away on a dilapidated old exercise bike when you can have a state-of-the-art chrome machine with a monitor the size of a small television set on the front telling you your heart rate, how hard you're pedalling, and quizzing you on whether you really had to go back and have seconds of dessert the night before.
Now technically, we don't actually have clearance to access this third hallowed gym, where the benches are made of gold, and the mirrors go on forever... But that isn't to say that we don't visit there occasionally. Sure, it's bucking regs, but given that the access is pretty limited, no Preventer officers or high muckety-mucks have ever set foot in that place at 0600 on a Saturday. And Trowa and I wouldn't use it, save for the fact the only time we have free is the morning, and for us regular guys, that's prime gym time.
Besides, we're tidy; we wipe down the machines, and also erase the electronic logs. It's good to be an infiltrator.
I can't help but rub my eyes a little harder. Sleep has been more than a little hard to come by this last week, and the jetlag ain't helping.
Got back yesterday from Urfa. In addition to being ridiculously hot and dry, the op had not been an easy one. Myself and a team of agents had been called in to assist local authorities in the final stages of surveillance and the sting takedown of a cartel of weapons merchants.
We'd been tracking the weapons from their manufacturing point in Kazakhstan, all the way through Europe, until finally working our way into an advantageous position in Turkey. The trick was nailing them good and hard before they crossed the border into Syria and disappeared off the grid completely, Syria being one of the few Middle Eastern countries politely declining the offer of a local branch of the Preventers.
It'd been a while since I'd been involved in a stand-off that turned into such an outright fire fight, but that's what you get when you're dealing with guys who sell weapons. There were bullet holes in stone and screams, and Kevlar and stinging smoke, and I think there was actually a bazooka at some point and yeah, I wish they hadn't been playing my song quite that well.
I've always been relatively good at dodging bullets, but it was when I had to jump from one rooftop to the next, miss, and catch the fire escape railing instead, that my shoulder objected vehemently. Stretched some ligaments in my left arm, very lucky not to tear them. Combined with cuts, scrapes and the rather ugly-looking bruise on my hip that throbbed all night, the quacks wanted to keep me off active duty for the next week. I can't say I'm sorry to hear that.
Probably shouldn't be going to the gym, then, but Trowa called first thing after I got back and suggested it, and I hadn't the heart to say 'no'. From the three weeks I'd been away to the week before I left which was exclusively reserved for long briefing sessions and preparation, I kind of haven't had any decent time with him in a month. Besides, half the time we're at the gym we end up lying on the bench press machine things and talking shit anyway.
I get there a couple of minutes before six, but Trowa's already there. He is wearing a pair of grey sweats and a blue singlet, a towel slung over one shoulder. Hair's neat, face shaved. He leans casually against the wall, and I silently damn him. I look rumpled and messy, like I just rolled out of bed. Which of course, I had, but it doesn't annoy me any less.
Trowa looks up just before I get there, and gives me a little smile. "Welcome back," he says warmly as I reach him, and lays an impromptu hug around the shoulders on me. I would've enjoyed it far better, save for the aforementioned injury. Attempting to stifle the little hiss the contact produces only draws Trowa's attention instantly to the problem.
"Where are you hurt?" he asks immediately, a frown creasing his brow. No 'what's wrong?'; he already knows that. No 'are you ok?'; that's a given if I'm standing here. He has the amazing ability to cut through all the pretence in order to get straight to the relevance of any situation.
"Left shoulder," I tell him. "Just some bruising; no biggie." He presses two warm fingers under my chin and lifts it up, presumably to check out the yellowing bruise on my cheekbone. "How'd you get that?"
"Running into a wall after dodging a rocket launcher shell."
He frowns at me. "What?"
"I know. Who even uses something as retro as a bazooka anymore, anyway? "
The frown isn't gone. "We shouldn't be here, then."
"'Course we should," I argue back, pulling away from his hand. "I was planning on working my sexy legs on the bike today and leaving any weights to you circus-folk. Also - if it's any consolation - I wasn't planning on working that hard."
Trowa scrutinises me for a moment, and I square my shoulders back at him, standing as straight as I can to... barely come up to his Adam's apple. It's a mini-battle of wills. Does he insist on enforcing doctor's orders and tell me to get back to bed, or does he trust that I'm competent enough to be able to set my own terms?
It takes a few moments of quiet deliberation, but then he nods and types in the code he is definitely not meant to know into the keypad by the door. It slides open with a hi-tech whoosh, and he gestures for me to enter.
"Ladies and invalids first," he offers, and it's a peace-offering of sorts.
"Asshole," I tell him cheerfully and mess up his hair.
The gym is clean, shiny and sterile. Also, I have no fucking idea what most of the pieces of equipment in here do. I mean whatever happened to sit-ups and push-ups, right? Mostly I just stick to the simple things like weights, treadmill, or - in today's instance -bikes. And here, it's not even a regular exercise bike. It looks like something that belongs in a velodrome where it might set a world land-speed record.
I hang my towel on the rail of one of the row of shiny bikes, and climb onto the next one along. An exercise bike can simultaneously make you feel like you're working out really hard, and also not working out at all. I'd be keen for a bit of the latter today, as it's really my time to take it easy.
Trowa takes some time doing some warm up stretches - damn he's limber - before sitting at a machine that's meant to work his legs, or his arms, or self-esteem or something.
I begin to pedal slowly, and we shoot the breeze; I gloss over the more black and white and red details of my op, instead focusing on what the food and clothes and girls and alcohol are like in Turkey.
He tells me he's between assignments and doing a lot of tying up of loose threads on old cases. I also get the low-down on the latest news in other parts of the globe courtesy of two of the biggest gossips we both know; Quatre and Cathy.
Before long, we've been working for nearly an hour, during which Trowa has worked on no less than four different machines while I've kept my butt parked on the one exercise bike.
Just before Trowa moves onto his fifth machine, he gives me a curious look. "Aren't you going to try something else besides the bike? There's other things you can do that won't exacerbate your injuries."
I slow my pedalling down to a casual cycle, wiping sweat off my brow with a forearm, and lean heavily on the handlebars.
"Tro, I don't know what most of these machines are called, let alone have the foggiest as to how to use them."
"Sure you do," Trowa persists. He points to a tall machine facing the back of the wall. "What's that one called?" It has a bench and pads and levers and pulleys and all kinds of crazy crap.
"'The Rack'?" I ponder, sitting up again to strike a thoughtful pose with my arms.
"Funny man. What do you think it does?"
I shrug. "I dunno. Cause a shitload of pain to the poor bastard who goes anywhere near it?" Trowa's top lip twitches. It's hardly a response, but it's enough for me to keep going. "That's probably even on the 'warning' label. Better still, it possibly requires a deep-seated resentment and capacity for self-loathing to be used effectively." I click my fingers. "Maybe it is the machine for me, after all!"
Trowa gives me a marginally narrowed glance, and I can see his brain working overtime to figure out whether I'm joking or not. Good luck. I'm not sure myself, but he's more than welcome to have a crack at figuring it out.
Sitting down on a bench on one of the ridiculously complex-looking pieces of equipment, Trowa reaches out and positions his hands on a wide, metal bar and prepares to pull it down.
"I doubt it. But it probably causes muscle spasms and chronic neuroses if used incorrectly."
I laugh a little and pedal on. "'Side effects may include blurry vision, tennis elbow and an inflated sense of self'."
"'Do not operate under the influence of medication or romantic comedies'," Trowa says as he grunts with exertion, pulling the bar down towards him. "I admit; you do have to be up for some punishment to use it effectively."
"Speaking of punishment: 'Warning, users must also harbour a secret desire for a woman named Stella in spike heels with a riding crop to stub out a cigarette in their left eye'."
Trowa stops pulling the weights down for a moment and gives me a questioning look. "...Stella?"
I shudder for comedic effect. "Don't ask."
And it's back to the weights. "Purposely avoiding the subject... now."
Good man. "Hey, I think I saw 'May decrease sperm count and brain activity' on that one." I gesture to the machine he's working on currently.
He looks affronted. "What are you trying to say?"
I shrug. "But then again, so does wearing tights."
He raises an accusing eyebrow. "You remember my costume at the circus, right?"
"So sorry, but I seem to have forgotten in a blur of steel. I get knives thrown at me all the damn time," I grin.
"If I'm being honest, I don't think you get enough thrown at you."
"Arrows while you're tied to a tree don't count," I say cryptically, but Trowa doesn't seem to catch the significance.
"I was thinking more about the time that Wing Zero picked up that Taurus suit, lifted it up in the air and hurled it, and it accidentally clocked Deathscythe from behind."
Oh, wow. Blast from the past. "Accident my fucking left foot. He said he was aiming for a Leo that was coming up behind me, but there wasn't one there." I laugh and shake my head. Ah, war memories. "I gave Heero holy hell for that one. He completely messed up D's new paintjob."
"I can imagine. I think he still bears emotional scars."
"He'd better, is all I'm saying." I push myself up from the handlebars of the exercise bike and my shoulder twinges. Enough's enough, I think.
I stop pedalling and ease myself off the bike. Damn, riding for an hour has left me a little jelly-legged. The towel's handy, and I wipe the sweat out of my eyes.
"I think I'm out, Tro."
He stops pulling the weights and stands. "Sore?"
"Yeah." I rotate my shoulder and feel it tug. Yep, that's the owie. I stretch my left leg out and feel a little pull. "Think maybe my hamstring's strained, too. Need a break. You don't have to stop if you don't want, though, I've just reached my limit of self-inflicted punishment for today."
"No, I'm done, too," Trowa says and drops the weight with a grunt. He gets his towel and wipes down the machine. "Hungry?"
"Yeah. Caf's open, we could go get processed bacon and eggs to clog the arteries? Undo all that good work we just did? Fry 'em in enough oil and even those bastards will be edible."
Trowa punches some keys on the pad by the door, effectively erasing any trace of us having used this facility at all. What an age we live in. "There's a pancake house near my place that does Breakfast Lasagne."
"What the hell is that?" We begin walking through the Preventers corridors dodging the increasing hustle and bustle.
"The menu said layers of waffles, pancakes, pound cake, strawberries, and banana topped with pastry cream and caramelised sugar."
My stomach makes an embarrassingly loud gurgle, and I grab his arm. "Where is this? Shangri-la?"
"It's called Pancakes on the Rocks. Only eaten there once, and haven't had the Breakfast Lasagne, but today seems like a good enough time to try."
"There aren't enough ways in enough languages in the world for me to say 'yes', my friend. But I'll have to stop by my quarters and get some cash."
He shakes his head, amused. "I'm sure I can spot you."
"Ah, but I will also be wanting copious amounts of coffee!"
"Ninety-nine cents, and free refills."
"Damn, man. I'll still need to get changed in the least if we're not going to shower first. I probably reek."
"I was too polite to say," he says, screwing up that impossibly patrician nose as we change directions, heading for my digs. "But you could shower at my place if you wanted."
"You are not. Don't even mess with me like that. And since when did you get yourself a bathroom? I know you like the odd DIY project, but building your own's just a tad ridiculous."
It just so happens I decide to take a swig of water from my bottle when Trowa answers. "Oh. I moved off base."
If it had been filmed, then what follows would've made it into the top 10 spit-takes of all time, as rated by history's greatest comedians.
For his part, Trowa looks mildly disturbed and thumps me on the back while I cough all over the place. "Are you all right?" he asks me when I am breathing that precious gas called 'oxygen' once again. Agents give me a wide berth, and I see one covertly radio for a cleaner and a mop. Subtle, pal.
"I'm fine, I'm fine... I just- When?" I croak out. "I mean, you were still on-base before Turkey... right?"
"I was, yes." We take up walking to my quarters again, and it's nearly physically painful to keep my mouth shut and let him continue, but somehow I manage. Maybe I really am a saint.
Naw, probably not.
I fall into step beside him and wait for him to fill me in, albeit impatiently.
"I'd been thinking about it for a while. When you were away, I just browsed some property listings and found the right place for the right price by accident. Time was a factor in being able to occupy it, and I had to move quickly.
"I talked to Une about it. As you know, normally agents of our age and in our position would be on base, no exceptions."
He stops there and gives me a few moments to catch up on everything. I know the regs. I just can't believe Une would bend the rules for him.
Well, she did always like him best. Director's pet.
"So she just let you move out?"
Trowa winces. "It wasn't as easy as that. It helped that the place I found is within range - only seven blocks. I still have to clock the same amount of time on base as you do, and stay here if needs be... but given we've been in this lifestyle for so long, she made a case to the base shrink-"
I smile to myself at that word. I'm rubbing off on him.
"-that it was a good idea to call somewhere other than a military base 'home'."
We slow our pace as we reach the door to my shared quarters. "So you got to move out for the benefit of your own mental health?"
"In a nutshell," Trowa answers as I unlock the door. Eric should be gone by now, and he is.
My half of the room is fairly orderly, but is encroached on by Eric's ubiquitous piles of crap. He really isn't used to the Spartan lifestyle, I can tell.
"I wonder what that's like," I muse to myself, as I search for a change of clothes.
"Mental health?" Trowa asks, and I can tell he's only partly joking. I ferret around in my chest of drawers and find underwear, jeans and a white undershirt. There's a light grey button up shirt in my half of the wardrobe that I snag off the hanger.
"Well, there's that, but... space. Your own space." And try as I might, I can't keep the emotion out of my voice. Some might call it stark jealousy. I prefer to think of it as wistful, good-natured envy.
"There's other things that go along with it, like bills and electricity and cooking and buying furniture and taking out the trash... But I like it," he finishes almost meekly.
Silence falls as I throw my clothes in a bag and we head to the outer parking lots because rather than heading to the cafeteria in my daggy workout clothes, I'm going to be jumping in Trowa's Chevy and driving to his new home.
It's not until I'm actually piling my shit into his car that we speak again. "Are you mad at me?" he asks.
The question is jarring. "What? No. Why, just because I've had my mouth shut for five minutes, I'm mad at you?"
"Eight, but who's counting?" he says from the driver's seat, just barely flicking his eyes towards me.
"You, obviously," I concede, sighing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him level concerned glances in my direction. "I'm in no way mad at you, Tro. If anything, I'm envious."
Trowa doesn't say anything, just waits for me to continue. I oblige; I'm an obliging sort.
"You've lived and stayed in other places before - hell, so have I - but neither of us have ever had a place that's truly ours. It's always been someone else's. To have a space where you can, I dunno, plant your flag and say 'this is mine' is a rare thing for us."
Trowa nods along thoughtfully. "I guess you're right," he says slowly, before adding, "except I'm renting."
I turn in my chair to scrutinise him. "Since when did you declare open season on my meaningful observations with such gleeful abandon?"
"About twenty minutes ago when you made that crack about my sperm count and brain activity." He shrugs one shoulder gracefully.
"Touché," I grumble. "But I forbear because you said you'd buy me breakfast."
"I did," he admits, and we fall into an easy silence as we stop at a set of traffic lights. By my calculations, these should be the last ones before we hit his apartment complex. I look over at Trowa and, while not excessively pensive, he's working his jaw like he does when there are words percolating in his brain that he hasn't figured out how to say yet.
"Anything else?" I prod. "You didn't get married as well, did you?" Now that's a scary thought. "Oh god, am I about to meet the little woman? I'm not dressed for this." We turn a corner and pull into a little concrete driveway of an average-looking concrete apartment block.
"Are you sure you're not mad?" he blurts out. "That you don't feel..." he visibly searches for the right words, "abandoned? Or betrayed?"
I place a hand on his bicep gently. "The only thing I'm mildly miffed about is the fact that I missed out on the time-honoured tradition of 'Trying To Get Out Of Helping The Best Friend Move'."
The moment the words leave my mouth I realise there's something different. I know I've thought it, but don't think I've ever actually called Trowa my 'best friend' to his face. Stomach clenching, I give him a glance out of the corner of my eye, wondering if it's something I need to address with him. Do you have to ask permission to be someone's best friend by mutual agreement these days? I don't know. It's a long time since a living, breathing entity held that title.
He doesn't flinch at the words, or even really address the term at all. The muscles in his cheeks relax and his lips turn up at the left corner. "Really?"
Relieved, I let out the breath I'd been holding. "Oh yeah. I had this whole 'sick aunt' thing invented."
"I thought you didn't lie."
"Party line. I presumably had an aunt at some stage, who may or may not have gotten sick and potentially needed my help. It would be my duty to find her." I sigh. "It was going to be a real shame to miss out on helping you lug several boxes marked 'Trowa's intimates' blocks down the road."
Trowa gets out of his car and opens the back door to help me with my clothes. I'm not so injured that I need help with the bag, but Trowa always seems to like to carry things, so I let him. "Several...? Just how much underwear do you think I own?"
I give him a seedy glance and raise an eyebrow. "Do you really want me pondering anything to do with your undergarments?"
"I'd probably have to actually wear them for you to ponder them... right?" he deadpans and walks right by me, leaving me outwitted and definitely more than a little flat-footed.
The argument could be made then that he's definitely been spending too much time with me. I regret nothing.
It occurs to me in that instant that I don't regret not knowing Trowa better during the war, because that would mean that the best months of my life getting to know him now - without the heavy and ever-present threat of death hanging over our heads - wouldn't have happened. I wouldn't want to change that for the world.
Trowa has become a peacetime friend who understands wartime. He's been honest with me to a fault, even when it was incredibly difficult on a personal level, and I appreciate that. I just... I wish I could do the same.
"Just for that, I'm not going to share my Breakfast Lasagne with you, smartass," I yell at him into the lobby of his new building, making a great impression on his neighbours, I'm sure.
Trowa raises one eyebrow at me sceptically and ushers me inside.
He's a good enough friend that he doesn't call me on that little white lie, or any of the others.