torch, October 2000 (January 2001)

Disclaimer: I am making no profit through toying idly with other people's property. Many thanks to elynross and !Super Cat. Do not archive this story without permission.

Over heavy ground

It was getting cooler. They didn't have to wait long for a bus, and as they rattled back up the street under swaying streetlights strung from house to house, Quatre turned sideways on the seat, leaning back against the window, and said, "Where are you staying?"

Trowa shrugged. "In the truck."

"Oh." Quatre tilted his head to one side and considered that statement, and the probable comfort of sleeping in a truck in a parking lot. "I have a hotel room — it's a double. You're welcome to take the other bed."

Trowa turned a little, too, so that Quatre could barely make out his face behind the fall of hair; his hands itched to brush it back. "I'll be fine."

Tapping a finger against his knee, Quatre made and discarded three plans of attack in three seconds, and settled on a fourth. "You'll be uncomfortable, and tomorrow you'll be stiff and tired. This is an important mission, Trowa. Do you really want to risk waking up with a crick in the neck?"

"You just want someone to talk to," Trowa said, and Quatre decided that the faint undercurrent in the flat voice was amusement.

More people got on the bus as it drove up into the city, and more and more, until they sat surrounded by strangers. Quatre tried to look out the windows on the other side of the bus, caught glimpses of streets and streetlights, houses and hills. He'd checked for landmarks going the other way, so he knew where his stop was.

As it approached, he pushed gently at Trowa, who had the aisle seat. "Come on," he said. And a little to his surprise, Trowa actually got to his feet, and they both got off the bus.

They were downtown now, and the streets were thick with people, most of them dressed up in one way or another. Quatre realized that it was Friday night; he'd known, of course, but he hadn't really thought about it. Living away from most normal activities, he'd lost his sense for the ordinary rhythm of days and weeks. And it wasn't as though he could turn to Trowa and say it's Friday night, let's party. Quatre smothered a chuckle at the thought.

The Star Regent was a large building that loomed over the street; there was a uniformed doorman outside, even though the doors were automatic, and the lobby was cool and high-ceilinged and very spacious, all glass and flower arrangements and dark discreet couches, with a long desk somewhere at the back. The noise of the street fell away to be replaced by the hum of air conditioning and elevators, and the low murmur of polite voices. He could sense Trowa tense up beside him and gave him a quick stay-put look before going to check in.

Despite his concerns about being a minor and alone, he'd had no trouble booking a room and he had no trouble checking in. A family name could do a lot, even here on earth where the prominent names in space were only distant echoes. A credit card could do even more. Quatre resisted the temptation to glance over his shoulder to see if Trowa had stayed or fled. He could understand the discomfort. Everything about this place seemed antithetical to undercover terrorist activity. That was why he'd chosen it.

Well, that and a certain desire for comfort. Hotels like this reminded him of traveling with his father as a child, carpeted corridors and hotel beds and people in suits and endless lectures on business and family responsibilities. Even though it had driven him crazy, he could feel a degree of nostalgia now. Quatre accepted the keycard, smiled politely at the concierge, and headed for the elevators. Trowa joined him, stepping into the one that was just arriving with such casualness that it almost looked like coincidence even to Quatre, who knew better. He still radiated discomfort, though, from behind his smoothly expressionless face.

This was clearly not Trowa's natural environment. Quatre wondered what was. The elevator doors closed, and they were borne upwards to floor eighteen, stopping at five, eight, ten, eleven, and sixteen on the way because people persisted in pressing the up as well as the down buttons in some vain hope that this would get them down faster. When they finally arrived, they barely made it out before a group of young women who appeared to be part of a sports team crowded in, laughing and talking and singing. Quatre checked the sign on the wall and turned right, and Trowa went with him.

Room 1826 was at the end of the corridor, a corner room. Quatre opened the door and found that there were windows on two sides. He walked in and looked around: beds, bathroom, TV, minibar, table and chairs, the usual. The sound of the door closing made him turn to check that Trowa was on the inside. "Which bed do you want?"

Without waiting for an answer, he put his satchel down on the bed nearest the door, and wandered into the bathroom, turning on the light. Cream tiles, beige shower curtain, off-white towels, and a faint smell of freesia from the soap. The bathroom mat was also beige and almost invisible against the tiled floor. Quatre had a sudden urge to put on something scarlet, or neon green. He glanced at himself in the mirror, saw a beige bland face and beige bland hair, and sighed; even the light seemed tinted to tone down anything and everything into invisibility.

Coming out again, he found Trowa standing by one of the windows, looking out. Quatre realized that Trowa had no luggage except for the music book he'd put in a paper bag from the supermarket. "Would you rather have the bed by the door?" he asked.

"It doesn't matter."

Trowa was perfectly still, and his voice was calm and his shoulders were relaxed, but all the same he looked like a trapped animal. Quatre sat down on the bed closest to the door. "You don't have to stay," he said, shrugging out of his vest and undoing his shirt cuffs. "Not if you don't want to."

He'd made it down four shirt buttons before Trowa turned around. "The bed by the window is fine." There was such remarkable control in that voice. Quatre noticed it most when it slipped, when Trowa's voice warmed and softened a little and something came through, a little feeling, a little humor, and then everything vanished again. "I'm going to shower off the sand."

Trowa went into the bathroom and closed the door; Quatre thought he probably locked it, too. Unbuttoning the shirt the rest of the way, Quatre shrugged it off and hung it with the vest on a hanger in the built-in closet. He walked to the windows and drew the heavy curtains closed, on both sides. Then he took off shoes and socks and pants, hung the pants up on another hanger, and dug his toothbrush and the alarm clock out of his satchel. Quatre set the alarm and put it on the bedside table. The air conditioning was going full blast in here, too, and in just boxers and undershirt he felt a little chilly, and wandered over to turn it down a notch.

He could hear the sound of the shower running. At least Trowa had agreed to come. At least he was still here. Quatre smiled a little to himself, grabbed the remote from the top of the TV, and sat down on the foot of the bed nearest to the door; it dipped a little under his weight with the overflexibility of hotel beds everywhere. He turned the TV on and skipped up and down the available channels, seeing a little weather, a little sports, a little music. A documentary about cricket. Quatre sat and watched men in white clothes do incomprehensible things until he heard the bathroom door open and Trowa come back out. He got up and handed over the remote, and went into the bathroom himself.

The mirror had steamed over. Quatre pulled the paper cover off a glass, plunked his toothbrush into it, and decided to take a quick shower as well. He stripped out of undershirt and boxers and turned on the water, stepped behind the beige shower curtain, and washed himself, a little reluctantly, with the freesia soap. There was sand between his toes; a surprising amount of it, he saw, as it swirled in the water towards the drain. The beach had been beautiful. So many things he'd found on earth were beautiful.

Clean, and smelling of revolting soap, he turned the water off and grabbed the largest of the untouched towels, drying himself cursorily and wrapping it around his hips. The mirror was even more steamed over now, so he didn't have to watch a beige version of himself brush its teeth, rinse, and spit. Quatre opened the bathroom door, which he hadn't bothered to lock, and stepped out into the coolness of the hotel room.

Trowa had turned the TV off. He had also turned off the lights, except for the bedside lamp by the bed nearest the door, and was already ensconced under the covers of the other bed. Quatre could see a little brown hair, that was all. He turned off the bedside lamp, dropped the wet towel on the floor, and got into bed.

Quatre wasn't sure what kind of reaction he'd expected, but not the fast, stuttered, panicky indrawn breath that he heard. "It's all right," he said quickly, putting an arm around Trowa's chest and laying his head down on Trowa's shoulder, settling his body easily against the hard lines of the other boy's. "It's just me. It's all right."

For the next few long moments, Trowa lay rigidly still. Then he said, very quietly, "Why are you doing this?"

"Because it's important to remember how to...." Quatre let his words trail off into Trowa's collarbone. "You don't look as though anyone has held you in a long time. And I want to be the one who does."

The air conditioning hummed. The room was chilly, but the covers were thick, and Trowa was close. Quatre rested where he was, with his eyes closed and his heart wide open, in silent hope. After long moments he felt it, the first small relaxation, and then another, until the shoulder under his head was a firm but not hard pillow of muscle, the chest under his arm rose and fell in a steady rhythm. He relaxed himself even more, drifting in the moment, so at ease that when Trowa very slowly put an arm around him, all he did was snuggle in closer.

It was very comfortable, just as he'd known it would be.

"You're so warm," Trowa said, and there was something in his voice, something real.

Quatre pressed a light silent kiss to the hollow of Trowa's throat, and fell asleep.

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