For centuries, there was one universal gesture among men. Laid back cultures embraced, stuck up cultures bowed. But in between was the handshake—all-purpose greeting, leave-taking, deal-sealer, as manly a thing for men as sniffing trees was for dogs. Two-handed, one-handed, warm and firm, cold as a fish, straight up or with coded extras. Boys only high-fived; men shook hands.
As you can see, I’ve had a lot of time to putter around Quatre’s library. I’m not puttering now, ’cause I just found out it’s the Americans’ fault.
Yup, sometime around the millennial turn, somebody or somebodies added a twist to the old masculine repertoire. Some think it was from politics, others from all the corporate mergers going on. Or maybe the sports teams, still mostly men back then, celebrating their victories. In any case, a new gesture of friendship, acceptance, and acknowledgement entered the male-bonding scene: the hug.
I’m not talking embraces. Embraces are quick, and they start and end at the upper chest. What I mean are the full-contact, body-to-body hugs. I’ve watched the old footage. It was already okay for baseball players to fall all over each other in celebration. It was okay for leaders to hug after peace treaties. Or before they signed. It was even okay to win an acting award and pick your co-star off the floor in your thousand dollar tux.
I stopped watching the vids when I got to the sweaty, middle-aged corporate CEOs throwing their arms around each other and bumping bellies.
Definitely the Americans’ fault.
Figures I’d be predisposed.
I love staying at Q’s. They make the best hot cocoa, and they don’t fuss when I tell ’em it’s my dinner. I guess the ‘doing important research’ line worked.
And to me, it is important research. Because I’m starting to see where I went wrong.
There’re lots of reasons why the hug wasn’t in fashion before then. In ancient times, you hugged family, and friends, and probably brothers-in-arms, except when the armor got in the way. Plus it’s hard to draw swords when you’ve got your arms wrapped around the other guy. After that... well, besides all the obstructive fashions between the loincloth and the power tie, there was the homophobia factor.
But like all things, that barrier fell to American ingenuity.
See, the Americans had hit the big time around then. They needed something bigger than a handshake. Somehow the Eskimo kiss was not it. So they invented the power hug. Ostentatious. Seemingly intimate. And as fake as the big screen they showed it on. That’s the thing about hugs; you may not be able to draw swords, but you can hide the plastic smile on your face.
It’s tricky, of course. There have to be rules for this kind of thing to work. Rule number one: Know when the time is right.
If there’s a world record for breaking that rule, then I’ve surpassed it a dozen times over.
You’d think I’d learn. You’d think! I’ve been trailing this guy from the very beginning. Only Trowa spent more time with him, and for most of that he was unconscious. Heero Yuy. Not just trained to be the Perfect Soldier, but Japanese, for holy fucking sakes! The personal space of a minefield.
At the time, I hadn’t thought of a better reason not to. We’d won a major battle against Romefeller, with the odds incredibly against us. We all should have been dead. Instead, we’d dealt the bad guys a crippling blow that laid them out for weeks.
So the five of us tumbled out of our Gundams, riding the high. Shenlong was on my right. I could see even Wufei looked exhilarated. He was immediately glomped by Quatre, so I looked to my left, where Wing had landed, with similar ideas.
I should have known better. None of us mind being glomped by Quatre. Q’s all business on the battlefield, but he’s a cute kid outside his Gundam. It’s like getting a hug from your little brother. Well, Trowa may not think in those terms... but that’s another story.
As soon as Lean, Mean, ‘n’ Spandexed hit the ground, I skipped over to him. Okay, sprinted. Battle-adrenaline adds another 10 kph to my speed. I took a flying leap—and found myself in a chokehold, about five centimeters off the ground.
Battle-adrenaline adds another 10 kg/cm2 to his grip. I’m good at math when I start running out of air.
"Heero?" That wasn’t me, that was Trowa. I couldn’t talk, I was too busy choking.
Slowly – a little too slowly – he lowered me. My Heero-to-Standard dictionary finally kicked in, and I recognized the smug way he set me down like a blubbering infant.
So I did what I usually do when Heero Yuy gets smug and homicidal at the same time. I bitched. Long and loud. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Quatre blushing, so the swear words must have been choice. Heero just stood there, the sarcasm melting into his usual stern frown.
Finally I got in his face and yelled, "Holy shit, man, all I wanted to do was hug you!"
His cobalt eyes narrowed. Like he was evaluating a tactical situation, he said, "You read wrong."
I didn’t have an answer to that. Maybe I had read wrong. At that point Quatre ushered us inside, promising something about Trowa cooking tonight, so we all forgot about it.
Except I couldn’t shake it. I guess part of me didn’t like getting called out on something like that in front of the other guys. I pride myself on reading people right. In this business there’s no margin for error.
And, I think part of me was really freaked out by the iceberg I ran into. Nobody should be that cold, I reasoned. I mean, even Wu, who likes to be left alone, comes back to the group and acts like a human being every now and then.
So I took it upon myself to hug him as much as possible.
Hugging Heero is like hugging a teddy bear... that’s packed with C-4 and short fuse. You’ve got to surprise him, and get out of the blast zone fast. Heh. I’ve still got a few bruises from when I was perfecting my approach. It’s next to impossible to steal a hug from Heero Yuy. Good thing I’m the best sneak-thief in the world.
There were a lot of pluses, believe it or not. It was far from boring — boredom slows me down more than a battalion of Aries. It kept things light in the safehouses. Even Trowa started giving me strategic advice. And I did learn to curse in Japanese.
Heero must have gained something too. His personal space shrank dramatically. Well, mostly because he couldn’t guard the usual two meter radius from my assaults, but it was a start.
That was when I started breaking rule number two.
Rule two: See rules for handshakes – keep it firm and fast, no longer than necessary.
Around the time when Heero and I started having the safehouse to ourselves, my war of attrition began showing signs of success. Heero got annoyed, omae-o-korosu annoyed, but he saw that it wasn’t worth his energy to dodge Shinigami all day long. After a while, the sucker punches turned to shoves, the shoves turned to powerful shrugs (and I mean powerful – have you seen the triceps on this guy?) Finally, like everything else about him, it came down to a routine. I’d ambush him, after a half a second he’d omae-o-korosu me, and I’d skip away snickering madly.
Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t go down without a fight. He always kept an eye on me, especially when he was brushing his teeth, coming out of the shower, changing clothes, washing dishes, or eating. All prime times to get the jump on him. Well... now that I think about it, he watched me practically all the time. I kept him on his toes, I guess.
It was getting to be a routine for me too. The war, for us, was going into a stage of intense battles with long spells of waiting in-between. And while we waited, I got bored. Did I mention boredom’s my greatest enemy? Thinking of new ways to annoy Heero killed time pretty effectively.
I had been rather bored that night. We couldn’t leave the safehouse because there was a bounty on our heads. So no wandering out into the woods to look at the full moon, or take a breath of the crisp air. Heero’s orders. Not that there was anybody out there in the middle of nowhere, but apparently he didn’t want me out of his sight.
Except now I couldn’t find Heero. If he wasn’t outside, there was only one other place he could be. I donned a jacket and went down to the subterranean hangar where Deathscythe and Wing were parked. It was a neat complex, carved out of the natural caverns in these hills. A constant 16 degrees C all year long.
Sure enough, Heero was fixing up his Gundam. I’d already done my repairs, but I figured I’d stick around just in case he decided to start stealing parts again. It was fascinating, actually. You can tell a lot from the way a pilot treats his machine. We’ve all got personal ties to our Gundams – most of us have trained with them since childhood.
What Heero was doing wasn’t that far off from what I’d done that afternoon. How he did it... I can hardly describe it. He’s always so intense in battle, but with Wing he quieted down, went real slow and careful. As though if he didn’t, he might break the Gundam with his bare hands. Oh, he was his usual meticulous self. Definitely. Double-checks turned into triple-checks, and every time he found something else to adjust. But I hadn’t figured on that look of... fondness?
If I had a nickel for every time Heero showed genuine emotion, I couldn’t buy a loaf of bread.
Then Heero did something a little odd. He perched up on his Gundam’s wings, around the shoulderblades. Lots of machinery and circuitry there. But he put down his tools, wedged himself between the wing and the shoulder, and stared at Deathscythe.
I scratched my head. My first thought was, ‘What the hell are you gawking at, Yuy? That’s my Gundam and it’s a helluva lot better than yours!’ My next thought was, ‘What’s so damn interesting about my Shinigami?’
All that boredom and defensiveness and confusion fused into a great idea. At least I thought it was hot shit at the time. I scrambled up Wing’s length, grabbed a hold on the back of its helmet, and prepared to pounce. This way I could get in a hug (another tally for the 500 hug campaign) and rib Heero about getting mushy.
The sight of Heero made me pause. His back was to me, and it was rigid as a steel pole. It occurred to me that he must have heard me on the way up; he’s got Perfect hearing, after all. On the other hand... whatever he was thinking about, he seemed to have shut everything out. I bit my lip. Maybe I should save the ambush for when he got back to the safehouse.
Then his arm raised, elbow slightly bent, like he was reaching for something between Wing and Deathscythe. My combat instincts kicked in. Perfect for a sneak attack, if one hand was in mid-air and the other was holding on to Wing—I pounced. Each arm around his chest, shoulders pressed to his back, and another tally for the scoreboard.
At first I was jubilant. ‘Cause you know what? Heero squeaked! I swear it on Shinigami’s scythe! Well, a squeak for Heero, anyway. It was more like a deep, surprised rumble. Then I noticed how fast Heero’s heart was beating. I’ve seen him half-dead and in excruciating pain, and still able to slow his heartbeat to almost nil. And not just that... Heero’s got a pretty hard body as it is, but now I could tell every muscle was rippling with tension.
Half a moment later, I realized Heero hadn’t said anything yet.
I was so in shock I think I settled into the hug a bit more. I didn’t mean to, I swear! I’d meant it to be a quick hug, as usual, so it started to get uncomfortable in my position. Plus, Heero was really warm in the cool air of the cave. My shoulders sagged into his, my face that much closer to his sweat-drenched neck, breathing in his scent. But my mind was not paying attention. Actually it was replaying all the weird things I’d noticed since I entered the hangar. Like I said, I’m good at reading people, but this time Heero had me stumped.
The same time my internal clock kicked in, Heero spoke.
I gasped. You know how I’m good at math when I run out of air? Forty-two seconds. Almost exactly. I know ‘cause that’s the number flashing in my mind when I jumped back, ran into Wing’s helmet, and fell over on its shoulder. It was a miracle I didn’t take a dive the way Heero usually exits his cockpit.
My face must have been beet-red. "Ah, Heero, sumimasen... won’t happen again. Hehe, I’ll just get going, ‘kay?"
With that I scrambled back down. I think Heero said my name, but I was too mortified to answer. I wasn’t too worried he’d actually kill me this time. Just really embarrassed. When you’re friends (at least, I think we’re friends) and you depend on each other in battle, moments of awkwardness like that can dog you.
I was halfway across the hangar when I felt his gaze on my back. Not wanting to add to the weirdness, I turned to face him. He seemed really small, standing on his Gundam’s shoulder. Right then I got a sudden I-kicked-a-puppy feeling. To reassure Heero that everything was cool between us, I flashed him a V-sign and my widest grin.
He stared at me a moment more, and nodded.
That morning, I found a note on my bed, in Heero’s cramped handwriting.
It’s okay. Just not around the others.
I breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t going to hate me forever.
Then my eyes widened. He was going to let me hug him! I barely restrained myself from bouncing on the mattress. (Bunk beds. Gotta love ‘em.) You don’t know what a victory it is when the Perfect Soldier shows signs of humanity. I was really happy for Heero. So happy that I forgot all about his strange behavior.
Long story short, I broke rule number two whenever I could. Soon after, the war started heating up again, so it was rare that any of us hid out with the same people twice. If we could hide out at all. Lots of nights reviewing battle data with just me, Shinigami, and the stars. Then we had to go up to space, and then get back to Earth... anyway, it was a mess, and it was just nice to have someone around whom you trusted.
The routine itself didn’t change much, actually. I’d sneak up, hug him, "omae-o-korosu" in that even voice of his, and then I’d go about my business. The only differences were, I never did it in front of the others, and it lasted three seconds instead of one. Small things, I know, but when you’re guys that means a lot.
I was starting to notice more things about Heero too. He was real startled the first few times I went back to hugging him again. Then he relaxed into it. Well, as much as Heero relaxes into anything. He’d threaten me with a little less force, or just let me sneak up on him. I wasn’t even sneaking that much; most days I could make a big racket and he’d still be fair game. Mostly I got him while he was at the computer. He’d keep typing of course. If I really wanted to surprise him, I’d get him coming out of the shower. Heh. That never failed to get his attention.
The other thing I noticed was Heero himself.
When you hug somebody once or twice, you don’t really think about what it feels like. You’re too busy transmitting what it means. But after about five hundred hugs, you start to learn the body you’re hugging. Heero is actually thinner than I am. He has more muscle, sure, but it’s all compacted into a small frame. And he has the tiniest waist! It’s kinda weird. I thought Quatre looks like a little kid—Heero is actually younger looking. He has a little babyfat on his cheeks, and his tousled hair looks like it hasn’t changed styles since he was five. Nobody notices, of course, because of the eyes. And he has a really strong neck. Really! It’s no wonder he keeps surviving getting thrown out of his Gundam. There are some major muscle groups on his neck and shoulders.
The rest marks him as a Gundam pilot. He really does smell of cordite. He has calluses on his hands – I know, he’s pushed away my bare arms enough times – but they’re soft. I think he uses lotion, like me, to improve the sensitivity in the fingertips. He conserves energy when he moves. He scans rooms without swiveling his head much. And you know what? He listens to everything. Even me, when I babble! I can tell, ’cause when I rail at him, he winces just a bit, and when I compliment him, his eyes light up a little.
Ah. Yeah. Those things have nothing to do with hugs. That would bring me to the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my short life. Breaking rule number three.
Don’t make eye contact.
It was a tough battle. We were not supposed to be so far away from Quatre’s resource satellite, but the mobile dolls had managed to cut us off. Running out of bullets, fuel, sleep, sanity. Space battles usually don’t last more than a few hours, given the relatively short range of the weapons. But the dolls had driven us into an asteroid field. Suddenly it was a game of hide-and-seek the way I remembered it from L2 — get caught, get dead. And nobody stops looking.
Finally Heero and Quatre figured out a way to punch through their defenses. It was some complicated thing about jamming their sensors while using the asteroids like a net, and us Gundams like bait... anyway, it got our butts out of the fire and the dolls on the run.
It didn’t dawn on us till we were halfway back to the satellite. Heero suddenly came on the comm and said our tying up the dolls in the asteroids had allowed the rebels to attack the defenseless lunar base. In our own half-assed way we’d managed to shut down Oz’s presence in space. Completely.
We were all too tired to be excited. Trowa wondered aloud why the mobile dolls hadn’t been called back to defend the lunar base. Wufei pointed out that we still had White Fang and several colony forces to deal with. Then the transmissions started coming in, confirming what we hadn’t dared to hope for. Top officials leaving Romefeller. Oz forces scattered and weakened. Key figures going into hiding. Coups in the battleground states. Just like a pack of dominoes.
The tide had turned. We were winning. We had a lot of work left to do, but we were winning.
Everything was just wrung out of me. I felt like crying. Quatre was babbling in Standard and Arabic, and there was a smile in Trowa’s voice. Like some hideous replay of that first time, we jumped out of our Gundams and hugged each other. Even Trowa.
So that’s how I faced Heero in that eerily silent bay. Sweaty, hungry, groggy, sore, living on that last bit of adrenaline from the news of our victory. I think I fell on him rather than hugged him.
Heero caught me. His arms wrapped around me, half keeping me on my feet, half pulling me close. Suddenly... the world solidified. Dim shapes coalesced into our towering Gundams. Sterile air filled with his scent, cordite and salt and warm skin. Muffled sounds became his speeding pulse next to my ear. I must have started shaking, because his hold on me tightened.
Then the disastrous turn. The breakaway. Natural instincts conditioned away by scores of hugs in every possible setting. I straightened, our cheeks brushing, but still leaning my arms on his shoulders. Way too close. I was suddenly nose to nose with him, automatically focusing on his softened cobalt eyes. His lashes were very long. His breath ghosted on my parted lips. Sweat weighed down my eyelids, so they fluttered shut. My neck hurt, so I leaned forward.
My mouth was dry, so I moistened them on his lips.
That’s what happens when my brain takes a vacation and doesn’t send postcards.
I didn’t think there was an auto-pilot mode for kissing someone, but I guess I thought wrong. Didn’t even bump noses. Just pressed my face to his and started tasting, smelling, touching. This sounds terrible, but I didn’t even know where I stopped and he began. Somebody’s hand ended up in somebody’s hair. Somebody’s tongue ended up teasing somebody’s lips. Somebody’s hard-on—
It crashed down on me then. The silence turned oppressive in the bay, like the whole world was watching us. It was just Trowa, Wufei, and Quatre, but that’s close enough. I yanked my face away from his, blinking madly as the data whizzed in front of me – Heero Yuy, Japanese, Pilot 01, best friend, you’re kissing him and that ache between your legs isn’t a cramp.
They don’t call me Shinigami for nothing. I raced out of there like a bat out of hell.
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