Yes, if there was a Hell, he was in it right now. But, he thought with a certain amount of vindictive glee, at least he wasn't the only one.
As yet another packet of papers fell clumsily out of the hands of the giddily nervous freshman in front of him, as the girl behind him carelessly elbowed him in the kidneys again, he was unfortunately forced to revise his grim assessment.
This was definitely his own personal Hell. There were no other guests here. The fools that filled the registrar's office with him were all in on it.
He shifted uncomfortably on his feet, wondering if perhaps the trial of patience and endurance were some sort of test, but no, that couldn't be right. If it were designed to weed out the unworthy and leave only the fittest, then he would not still be buried deep in this human rabble.
All he had to do was turn in a couple of sheets. He checked them just in case some diabolical office fairy had snuck upon him unawares and stolen one, or perhaps erased his information. No, still good.
Finally, it was his turn, and he stepped up to the counter. He was greeted with a weary smile and a canned, "What can I do for you today?"
He slid his papers across the countertop. "This is the paperwork for the class I'm TA-ing."
She took a glance at the information, flipped to the next page to check that as well, and smiled at him. "Alright." She filed them into a bin to her right. "Will that be all?"
"Great. Have a nice day. Next?"
And then he was out of there, simple as that. A twenty minute wait for a twenty second transaction. Why did it always seem to end up like that? What offices needed were express lanes, where the people that knew what they were doing could get their business done.
Heero had pre-registered for his summer classes, and hadn't changed his mind. When he realized that the college he had spent one and a half years at just didn't seem to be fulfilling his academic needs, he immediately went hunting for one that did. He found several that fit his general requirements, then carefully narrowed the field to just one that seemed to match his preferences the best. He gathered information about transfer of credits, determined what course was which equivalent and which he would have to make up, and then promptly signed up for the necessary classes as soon as he made the commitment. By the time fall semester rolled around, he would be all caught up, and even a little bit ahead.
He wondered if life would be better in this new scene. He wondered if he cared. He'd always been fairly apathetic about the finer things in life. Still, he made the effort to take in his surroundings, and decided that the small college town was, if nothing else, more quiet and more peaceful. There were pros and cons to that. He liked peace, and he liked quiet, but if there weren't a lot of people around, then it was harder to get lost in the crowd. He didn't like being noticed, or dealing with people. It was a lot easier to ignore people when there were a whole bunch of them, and easier to be ignored in turn. Ironically, he had chosen this school because it was smaller than his last. He didn't like personal attention, but he didn't like getting shafted by a bloated system, either.
He sighed softly to himself as he walked down the tree-lined street, noting the bicyclist on the other side, the gift shop on his right. Sometimes he had to ask himself why he bothered. Bothered to look around him, when it was unlikely that he would ever make use of the knowledge he gathered. Bothered to live, when he was so thoroughly unimpressed by almost anything he had yet seen in his nineteen years of existence. Sometimes he wondered if life would ever get any better than what it was.
He wasn't unhappy with his life. Not at all. All things considered, things were going pretty well for him. He was getting a good education. He had a few good friends. He had some money in the bank. He even had some direction in his life. But no matter how he tried to ignore it, there was this one niggling vein of discontent underlying it all, and it constantly reminded him that he was missing something.
And suddenly he remembered that he had been planning on stopping by the supermarket on the way back from campus, only he'd completely forgotten in his relief at being released from that Hell and into the blessedly calm outdoors. He frowned and stopped in his tracks, absently noting that it was nice to be able to do that without having to worry about someone crashing into him from behind. Looking around to orient himself, he found that he had missed the turn for the supermarket quite a few streets ago. As he was trying to decide whether to take the time and go back, or go home and live the typical bachelor's existence for just one more night, his sharp eyes spied a storefront sitting innocently on the corner of the next block. Promising.
He took one more look all the way back to the turn he had missed, and then one more look at the local market that was so close and on his way, and the choice was simple, really. He did take a moment to consider the possibility of smaller selection and higher prices, but he could at least check it out this once to evaluate its usefulness as a contingency plan in the future.
The front door was propped open, but when he entered, he heard an electronic chime go off to alert the proprietor of his presence. Reflexively, he looked around to see who might have heard the sound, but he saw no one there. The post at the register was abandoned -- only two lines, he noticed, one of which had a display in front of it -- but there was a cheerful whistling coming from the back somewhere. He raised an eyebrow at the lax security and the apparently tiny staff, and considered turning around for a moment, but figured he might as well take a look while he was there.
He grabbed a basket from the tidy stack near the front and called up his mental grocery list. He'd just finished moving into his new apartment a couple of days ago, so he needed to stock up on a few basic items, and as he browsed the shelves, he found to his surprise that they had a lot of what he was looking for. A good deal of it was carried in alternative brands, but that was fine by him. Cheap, shoddy generic brands bothered him, but the products before him now were more of the small label variety. These products appeared to be of at least equal quality, and it was priced the same.
He blinked when he saw a head of lettuce fly up and then down behind the shelf of baked goods. Apparently, that was where the produce section was, and probably also where the errant clerk was, judging from the shuffling and the whistling still coming from that quarter. At least he certainly hoped so. If they sold flying lettuce here, he might have to reconsider his plans for shopping here in the future.
All was reaffirmed when the door chime sounded again, and a voice rang out soon after from the other side of the shelves. "Hey, Mrs. Patterson! How's it going?"
The voice was a surprisingly young low baritone, although perhaps not that surprisingly, given the flying lettuce. When he'd walked in here, he had assumed that a place like this must be some sort of Mom and Pop store, but that didn't mean they couldn't have employees, or even some unfortunate son that had been drafted into the service.
"Oh, you know how it is, dear," the woman's voice replied. "Same old, same old. When you get to be my age, you get glad that nothing's changed. No news is good news, or so they say."
"Oh, don't say things like that, beautiful! You can't be a day over thirty-five."
"Oh, you," the woman gushed.
Heero snorted quietly to himself at that as he plucked a bottle of canola oil from the shelf. If his ears didn't deceive him, she had to be a senior citizen.
"We got some sweet red strawberries in, if you're interested, ma'am," the clerk went on to say in that cheerful voice of his. Heero found it interesting that he didn't think the man annoying. In general, perkiness irritated him, but it was hard to be irritated at a man that was being nice to an old woman. Now, if that was turned on him, well, that would be another story.
Their talk turned to produce, and Heero tuned them out as he finished gathering up his necessities. By the time he rounded the corner into the produce department, the others had moved away to the check-out line. The woman hadn't needed much. The clerk was still chatting away with her. Did he do that with all of his customers?
Browsing his vegetables in peace, he was pleased to note that the selection was decent and the quality fresh. He would be buying vegetables more often than bottles of oil, after all. Perhaps he would make this place his primary source for groceries. It was very conveniently on his way, even though it meant less anonymity. A very tiny part of him thought that maybe that would actually be a nice thing, being a part of something without having to do anything.
One last run-through of the shopping list in his mind and he hefted his basket towards the check-out. The woman was on her way out the door, the electronic door chime sounding again as she left. The clerk still stood where he belonged, looking cheerful even though there was no one near him now, with the register popped open as he put in a new roll of receipt paper. They were probably around the same age, maybe some guy working a summer job. Heero took a moment to study him, then wrote him off as one of those happy people he preferred to ignore.
"Oh, hey!" the clerk said in surprise when he spotted him coming. "Where'd you come from? Never mind. I'll be with you in just a sec.... Aha!" He shut the lid of the register in triumph and straightened the tape. "Darn things always run out of paper at the most inconvenient times. So you're new here, eh? Ready to check out?"
Oh boy, this guy was going to be one of those perky people that he just wasn't going to be able to ignore, wasn't he? Heero simply blinked and nodded silently, unloading his basket. Maybe if he didn't say anything, the guy would take the hint and leave him alone.
"Great! So how are you doing today?" the clerk asked blithely, starting to scan bar codes.
"Obviously not as well as you're doing," Heero answered wryly. He couldn't ignore an outright question. That would have been unnecessarily rude. Besides, he only had to deal with the guy for a few minutes, and then he would be out of here. Surely he could last that long, right?
The clerk fell silent for a moment, as if unsure of how to respond to the answer, but his hands didn't stop moving as he gathered his thoughts. It annoyed Heero that the tiny pause made him want to second guess his own words. He had compromised himself enough to attempt more than the minimum one-word answer, and apparently it had fallen flat. This was what he got for bothering. Oh, how he hated dealing with happy people.
The clerk didn't stay fazed for long. "Heh, yeah, I guess it's probably hard to get where I am without being high on something, eh?" He winked outrageously at him.
Heero snorted softly to himself and took note of the man's name tag. 'Duo', it said. Was that a name, or just a noun? He decided it didn't matter. He wouldn't be addressing a bag boy by name, anyway. He just liked having a way to refer to distinct items, something better and more concise than 'that chatterbox at the market with the', what was that, an obscene amount of hair trailing down his back? It swung around in a braid and made its presence known when the clerk, newly dubbed 'Duo', noun or not, announced the total amount and then turned around to bag his purchases. It took a guy with attitude to cultivate something like that.
"Plastic, please," Heero was forced to interrupt when he looked up from extracting his wallet and saw Duo pulling out a paper bag. It was one of those kinds that didn't have any handles on it.
The young man made a little face, but did what he was told. "Plastic's bad for the environment, ya know."
"I'll recycle them." Heero pulled out his credit card. He didn't like charging things very often since he was running a tight budget and wanted to keep track of how much money he had now, not a month from now when he got the statement, but he was buying a lot of staples this first time. In the future, his total wouldn't be so high and he'd pay cash.
"Sure I can't interest you in paper? Paper's prettier, you know."
Heero carefully didn't say anything until he was sure that what came out of his mouth would be non-judgmental and civil. "I need the handles. I'm walking."
"Oh, okay. No problem, then." He took the charge card from Heero and made a show of comparing his face to the little photo affixed to the corner of the card before running it through the machine. "Hmm, lucky you. You photograph good. When I went in for my driver's license, I had this big old zit on my forehead. It really sucked. All I can say is, thank God for bangs, right?"
With a purely internal sigh, Heero grit his teeth and put on a polite, neutral, sort of attentive but clearly not really interested face, although technically, he did waste a breath of his life imagining how Duo's license photo would look. The idea of a younger, even cockier Duo with a huge shit-eating grin on his face both frightened and amused him.
"Can't wait until I get to renew my license and get a new photo. The idea of me being immortalized as a sixteen-year-old on something I'm going to be carrying around with me for the rest of my life sucks."
Purely out of habit, Heero's mind made the logical conclusion that he had not yet turned twenty-one. This guy probably wouldn't suffer the same fate as he would -- being forever carded. Heero had a face that probably would have been considered youthful if he took the time to smile, be happy, and look like a normal kid. Luckily, he didn't drink, so he didn't really care.
The clerk was just finishing up with the bagging of his groceries when he held up a box that Heero had selected. "Oh, you know, this pasta's great, but you shouldn't follow the instructions on the back of the box." He finished putting the box in the last bag, then turned back around to the register, where he snatched up a pen and started tapping out a snappy beat. "It says you should boil for six minutes, but it's much better at four minutes. Classic al dente. Five minutes is pushing it, and six minutes is like classic dorm food quality. Just so you know." He smiled cheerfully again in the face of Heero's bland expression and tore off the receipt when it was done. He x'ed the dotted line and passed the shorter copy over to Heero over the counter. "Sign here, please."
Finally. With a small exhalation of relief, Heero took the offered pen and signed as indicated. Duo reclaimed the stub, compared the signature to the one on the credit card, then handed the credit card and customer copy of the receipt back to Heero. "Here you go, Mr. Yuy. Thank you for shopping at Howard's. Have a great day."
In the middle of putting his card back into his wallet, Heero paused, momentarily forgetting that his name could easily have been read off the credit card. It was almost distressingly personal to be addressed by name like that by a perfect stranger. It felt violating, even, that this speedbump on the road of life should know anything about him. When he wordlessly gathered his bags up and marched out that door, he wasn't supposed to leave anything of himself behind. He wanted a clean break, interaction with a nobody that would be forgotten in a minute's time, not this personalized service with a smile. At least it had been 'Mr. Yuy' and not 'Heero'.
Sometimes he almost amused himself by how grumpy he could be. How on earth his friends could stand him, he didn't know.
A curious looking man raised his head irritably from his inventory and peered at the boy over his sunglasses. "What do you want, brat?" he groused good-naturedly.
"We got us a new guy," Duo crowed with a bit of triumph, perching himself atop one of the boxes.
"Oh? And why is that such a cause for celebration, brat? Don't you have work you should be doing?"
Duo snorted. "Hey, I'm the one out there netting the customers for you. Don't I deserve a little more respect than that?"
Howard snorted in turn. "Hey, I'm the one putting a roof over your head and food on your table, so no, you don't. What makes this guy so special, anyway?"
Duo paused, somewhat unsure of the answer himself. He had only been driven to come back here and tell his boss and uncle about him. "I dunno. Haven't seen any new faces around here for a while."
"Think he's a keeper?"
"Why? Is he hot?"
"Howard!" he chastised, a mock stern expression on his face. "Get your mind out of the gutter."
The storeowner smirked at him. "Bet he's young, too."
Duo really didn't see the point in denying it. "So, yeah, he's hot and young. I know, I know," he forestalled, when he saw Howard about to say something. "You don't have to worry for him. I know not to hit on the customers." He hopped off his boxes to get back to work. "Besides, he's got the personality of a brick. Doesn't mean I can't enjoy it when the eyecandy comes in, though."
"No ogling the customers either!" Howard called after him as he sauntered out the door.
Duo paused and turned dramatically. "'Ogling', Howard? Me? Please. I have much more style than that." He twirled around again, tossing his braid over his shoulder in a single, smooth motion, and went back to the front of the store.
The classes seemed composed of two types of students: those that were behind, or those that were trying to get ahead. It was interesting to him that the ones that were behind seemed no less intelligent than the ones trying to get ahead, but still, he marked them each in turn and remembered their classifications for the future. He would probably be seeing a lot of them in the coming years. It would be good to have a sense of them before he was completely immersed in their culture.
He usually tried to sit on the far sides of classrooms. Not the back, where it would seem like he didn't want to be there, or that he wasn't interested, or that he was truly anti-social. Besides, there was another clique of students that had already staked their claim on the back rows. He didn't sit in the front, where the attention of the teacher would fall too often upon him, where the eyes of all the students would rest upon his back, where he would seem too eager to learn. He didn't sit in the middle, where he would be surrounded on all sides by strangers, taking up a seat that they would prefer filled by one of their own. He didn't sit by the door, where he would be exposed to everyone else as they walked in, unless he came into class late, which was never the case. No, he preferred the far sides, and made sure he got to class early enough that he wouldn't have to trip over everyone else to get there.
The professors seemed competent, and in general, it was a pretty good sign that the summer classes were taught by professors at all, rather than assistants. Even in the class that he was an assistant for, he was there simply to provide support, and mostly in lab, which was a very good thing indeed for him. He didn't mind explaining things to people, but lecture was an entirely different matter.
When he got out of class, he was neither happy to be freed, nor daunted by the spare time. He walked back to his apartment with a healthy pace, although not always as brisk as he might normally walk. The weather was quite warm, after all. The first week or two, he glanced down the street that led to the chain supermarket on his way home, and then chose deliberately to bypass it for Howard's. Eventually, even that slight hesitation was eliminated as he fell into a rhythm.
It was a rhythm both broken and enhanced by his trips to the market. There was a routine there, too, but it picked up a bit of syncopation the moment he walked in that door and heard the electronic chime go off.
Ugh, not him again. Didn't anyone else work here? Ah well. He took a deep breath and steeled himself against the onslaught.
From his place in front of one of the shelves, the clerk automatically raised his eyes at the sound of the chime to the set of mirrors that were installed along the tops of the walls. Each one was tilted at a slightly different angle, carefully calibrated so that one could keep an eye on what was happening throughout most of the store, no matter where one was standing, if one knew which mirror to look at. That explained why the clerk felt free to wander away from the register when there weren't any customers in line. Nearly against his will, Heero had to admit that the system was rather nifty.
"Hey there, Mr. Yuy!"
Except that this was the result. He nodded politely at the clerk and went about his business, rolling his eyes as soon as he turned away and lowered his head. The fact that the clerk had remembered his name from that one time on his first visit here was just something that Heero had had to get used to. It was distressing, yes, but once again, he found himself slightly impressed by the clerk's good memory. Almost every time Heero had been present when the clerk greeted his customers, he had heard them addressed by name.
But a good memory was not sufficient to earn the clerk enough brownie points to overcome the vacuous smile on his face. In fact, it only made it worse. If the clerk had been a total airhead, Heero would have simply dismissed the perky attitude as just part of the package, but instead it seemed that there was something between those ears, unless this Duo was just an idiot savant, and it grated on him to be exposed to such a waste of brain cells.
But as always, Heero bit down on his personal opinions, endured the meaningless chatter and plastic grins, did his shopping, and got the hell out of there.
"Heero," a familiar voice sounded over the line. It was fond and reprimanding, all at once. "You said you'd call."
"Quatre," Heero identified in greeting, drifting into the kitchen with the cordless handset.
"Are you having so much fun out there that you can't be troubled to remember your friends?"
Heero snorted in amusement, pulling his milk out of the bag and setting it on the countertop, then the zucchini. "You know what the chances of that are, Quatre."
The person on the other end sighed. "Well, a guy can always hope, can't he? So I assume you're all settled in there by now. What excuse do you have then?"
The peaches went on the shelf next to the rice cooker, the bagels on top of the microwave. "I don't know. I guess it's just been one of those things I keep remembering at the most inopportune times." Bag went under the sink, milk and zucchini went in the fridge, ice tea came out.
"Well, can't say I'm surprised, I guess." He could just imagine the blonde puffing a breath out into his bangs in acceptance of the way Heero was. "So that's why I called you instead. Trowa and Wufei insisted that if you hadn't called, then you were probably just busy or something, but I figured, just what would you be busy with? It's not like your schoolwork has ever consumed very much of your time, and like you said, what are the chances you're busy out having fun? No offense, of course."
"None taken." It was very true, after all, and they both knew it. The only people he had ever really hung around with were Trowa, Wufei, and Quatre, and he had rarely, if ever, initiated such sessions. Since they weren't within convenient reach of his new location, it was very logical to assume that he hadn't gone out at all.
"So tell me something interesting."
"What do you consider 'interesting'?" A mug was pulled out from the cupboard, and ice tea was poured. He drained the last drop from his pitcher with a slight frown and went back to the fridge to pull out a lemon.
"Well, how are your classes?"
"Okay. Then how about the TA-ing?"
Quatre chuckled. "Figures. Why do you TA again?"
"You have savings, so you're not that destitute, Heero. You need a better reason than that to force you to actually interact with people."
"Maybe that's why I do it." Well, it sounded like a reasonably plausible subconscious reason, anyway. If he had his way, he probably wouldn't talk to anyone at all if he didn't have to. Forcing himself to do so hadn't been a reason that he had considered when deciding, though. "I may not be destitute, but I'd like to not drain all my savings this summer. Financial aid doesn't kick in until fall semester, and Dad's pitching in a bit right now for rent. And it's not like I have anything better to do with my time."
"True. So how's your place?"
"Small. And toasty." That reminded him, he'd forgotten to open the window after rushing to get the phone. It also gave him the opportunity to twist the door's second lock and slide his deadbolt home.
"Mmmm, toast." Heero rolled his eyes where no one could see. "How about people? Meet anyone interesting?"
"How would you define 'interesting'?" It was a common word that really had too many applications.
"For you? I'll settle for 'alive' and 'breathing'. I know better than to hope for anything more than that."
"Hn." His anti-social tendencies were well-accepted by his friends, and he made no efforts to deny them. Quatre's words could have been interpreted as insults by others, but he simply took them as observations based on reality. That Quatre, despite his extroverted personality, didn't try too annoyingly to convert him earned him a multitude of brownie points. "There's... Chris, who teaches the class I TA. I'll probably have a class or two with him in the future. He's been helpful in giving me a feel for the department."
"Professors don't count, Heero. Anyone our age?"
"Hmmm. Well, there was Michael," he offered, seating himself on his bed with his ice tea. "I had to work with him on a project. He was insufferable."
"...Okay." Insufferable by Heero standards could have meant a lot of things, probably none of which the general populace would find insufferable. "I don't suppose there's been anyone outside of class, then?"
"Hmm.... Well, there's this strange guy at the corner market..." Heero didn't know if Duo counted; they didn't really interact much, after all. But he would willingly sacrifice him to Quatre's inquisition if it would satisfy his friend.
"What do you mean, strange? He's not harassing you or anything, is he?" One could tell from his tone of voice that Quatre's protective hackles had been raised. He was mild mannered most of the time, but he was no pushover, not by a long shot.
"No, he's... well, yes, but not really."
With those few words, the hackles had been smoothed and the curiosity piqued once more. "Ooooh, I sense a story."
"You're such a gossip hound, Quatre."
"..." Heero had known Trowa since elementary school. It was only after Trowa had met Quatre in orchestra one semester in high school and they had started dating that Quatre had become one of Heero's friends as well. Heero was fond of him, and the sunny violinist was certainly an excellent match for his old friend, but right now, he was just reminded of the very person they were talking about.
"So tell me about this guy who's sorta harassing you but kinda not."
"Quatre, you're making a big deal out of nothing. He's just this guy."
"Well, you mentioned him in the first place. He must be something if he caught your attention at all."
"It's sort of hard to ignore him. I see him every couple of days." He didn't bother stocking more than two days worth of fresh vegetables in his refrigerator since the market was so close by. As far as he could determine, there was no one else working at Howard's, other than Howard himself. Then again, he always stopped by the market at approximately the same time. Perhaps there was a night clerk?
"Oooooh. I see."
"Oh, for god's sake, Quatre, knock it off. What's the matter, Trowa not satisfying your needs anymore?" Things had definitely livened up when Quatre joined their circle. Heero supposed he couldn't be sorry for the change in group dynamic. Quatre's personality was quite different from the others, but somehow, it managed to fit rather snugly.
"What's his name?"
He made an exasperated sound, a cross between irritation and indulgence. "His name is Duo, and he's just the clerk at the market where I do my shopping."
"Hmmm, I see. I don't know about you, but I don't normally learn the names of the guys at the market."
"He has a nametag, and it was a funny name, so that's why I remember it. That's it."
"So where does the harassment come in? Is he dropping your fruit into the bag or breaking your eggs?"
Heero couldn't tell whether he had switched back into protective mode, or if he was being facetious. He decided he didn't want to know. "He's just... He's just a very chipper person." There, that wasn't being mean at all. He didn't have anything against Duo, after all. They just had incompatible personality types.
"Oof. Gotcha." Quatre knew how well Heero and chipperness mixed. Somewhere between oil and water, and sodium and water, depending on the person and Heero's mood. "Okay, I take it all back."
Duo's head poked out of the storeroom. "Whaddya want, old man?"
"Your guy -- about your height, your age? Asian lookin'? Killer baby blues?"
He rolled his eyes at 'your guy'. It wasn't like he spent his every minute waiting for the guy to walk into the store. Of course, that may have been because the guy tended to come in around the same time all the time, probably after class, so Duo didn't have to wait and wonder. He knew. Then again, he knew a lot about their regulars based solely on their shopping habits. "Yeah, that'd be him."
"You're right," he grinned at his nephew. "He is hot."
Duo shuddered violently. "Eugh, please, Howie, those are not words I wanna hear comin' outta your mouth."
"Hey, Mr. Yuy, how's it going?"
"Why do you do that?" Heero asked without thought. He almost wished he could take back the words -- not because he didn't mean them, or because they were unnecessarily harsh, but because he had now initiated a conversation, and he would be forced to finish it.
Duo blinked once, twice. "Do what?"
Heero grit his teeth. "Why do you be... nice. And happy. And bright." He bit out each of the adjectives as if they were very negative qualities.
Aha! He finally made Duo fumble the groceries as he formed an answer. "Geez, don't take it personally, man. I'm sorry it bothers you. If you don't want me to be... nice to you, then I can stop." And by the way he said that, one could tell how odd he thought the notion.
Heero took a calming breath and firmly reminded himself not to take his irritation out on the innocent bystander. It took a little bit of work and a brief, heavy silence, but he managed it. "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you."
"Nah, no problem." Duo waved the issue away, but not without a funny look, and returned to the business of weighing apples.
Now that he had brought the subject up, he might as well explore it. "But really. Why do you insist on trying to make small talk with me? I'm obviously unreceptive."
"Well, maybe," Duo answered slowly. "But like I said, I do that with everyone. Call it a character flaw, if you want. I just like trying to brighten a person's day, even if it's for just a few minutes. It's nice seeing people walk out of here with a smile. If people were happier, then the world would be a happier place." He thought this guy especially needed to smile.
"So, what? I'm a challenge or something? You take my lack of response personally? Don't. I'm this way to everyone."
Wow. It took a moment for the shock to wear off. This was the first real conversation Duo had ever had with the short, dark and handsome customer that had appeared at his register one day. It even provided tantalizing hints of a sharp humor, judging from the way he had his own lines thrown back at him. Spiffy. Somehow, Duo felt almost vindicated. He knew there had to be something in there; he'd just never been able to find out what. So maybe the guy didn't do smiles. He could work with that. "Oookay. Well, there must be something I can do to make you happy."
"I would be happier if you were to cease being perky at me." 'Perky' was obviously an epithet. It was such a lovely word to fill with disdain.
"Perky?" Duo affected an offended look. "I am not perky. Katie Couric is perky. I'm... cheerful. That's right, cheerful."
"Perky like a cheerleader, then."
How could the guy say something like that with such a straight face? It was so much a deadpan tone that it wasn't even insulting. It wasn't fair that just when he was finally seeing some hint of personality from this guy, he was about to be cut off. He wasn't going to just let this go without a fight. "Well, like I said, I like satisfying the customers, so why don't we agree to disagree?"
Heero raised an eyebrow at him.
"Look, I'm not going to go so far as to say that I'll lose my job if I'm not nice to everyone, but I can't be nice to everyone but you, ya know? So why don't we just let it be, only now we know that neither of us means anything by it. You don't have to respond, and I won't expect you to respond. Just feel free to ignore me. Sound good to you?"
One blink, two, as he mulled it over. It sounded too simple. There was something to be said for now knowing that the clerk wasn't deliberately trying to nettle him, even if that suspicion had started out only as a paranoid conjuring on a bad day. That was, if he could trust the claims of this guy. He scrutinized the clerk's expression, but found nothing duplicitous in it.
It sounded like an ideal solution. Duo could do as he wished, and Heero would be allowed to ignore him as he had always wanted to, without any feelings of guilt. And now that the clerk had nearly admitted that it was something of an act for the customers, Heero found he wasn't quite as annoyed by it. If nothing else, it was no worse than their current situation. He nodded once in solemn concession.
"Great! Or, well, I suppose, not that great, but... oh never mind. Glad to be of service. Sort of."
"Hey there, yourself, handsome." As Heero rounded the corner and headed towards the checkout, a visual confirmed his aurally based estimate of a woman, upper twenties to low thirties. "You know those cookies I buy sometimes? The, oh, I forget what they're called..."
"Yes, those! I couldn't find those today."
"Yeah, sorry 'bout that," Duo said apologetically, his hands moving swiftly and surely as he checked out the items. "I was hoping you wouldn't get a craving for them 'til the next shipment came in. Mr. Varney came in the other day and bought up our supply. Think he had to bring food for a company party or something."
"Bob? How could he? He knows I like those." She pulled her wallet out of her purse.
"Well, maybe that's why he bought them. Figured a pretty lady like you's gotta have some pretty fine taste. Thirteen oh-two, please." He turned to bag her purchases.
She hmmmmed, pulling out a ten and five before rummaging around her purse for some change. "Oh, I've got to have two pennies in here somewhere...."
Finished with the bagging, Duo plucked up the bills she had laid down and rang it up. "Don't you worry about it, Miz Roth. We'll let it go."
"Oh, I couldn't, Duo. Are you sure?" She put her purse down and gave him a beleaguered, grateful look.
"No prob," he chirped for her, handing her two one dollar bills.
She took the money with a smile. "Oh, you are such a sweetie, Duo. Sometimes I think you deserve a tip."
"All in a day's work, ma'am." He flashed her a grin.
"I mean it, sweetie," she said, snagging her bags. "Next time you... need to buy a house, or... darnit, there's just not much a real estate agent can offer you, is there?"
Duo shrugged dismissively. "Next time I buy a house, I'll give you call. Now you take it easy, Miz Roth."
"You, too, Duo." One last smile and she was off.
Then it was Heero's turn, and he placed his items on the belt. "No wonder there's no club card here."
"Hmm?" Duo was still getting used to the whole, Heero acknowledging his presence thing, let alone Heero actually initiating something.
"Most stores offer club cards to track their users' purchases," Heero answered, his tone about as conversational as one could expect from him, which meant that it was dry, with a whiff of bored. "But Howard's doesn't need one. They've got you."
In the days that had followed their odd compromise of not paying much attention to each other's quirks, they had, strangely, gained more ease around each other. As Duo turned down some of the perk, knowing that it was unnecessary and even unwelcome, Heero's general irritation decreased along with it, and lo and behold, Heero found himself actually not having to gird his loins against the good cheer before entering the establishment. It was even as if, now that Duo had agreed to shrug off his less-than-social attitude, he was free to actually display some of those quirks he might otherwise have kept bottled up. "She even got a club discount off of you," he added.
It took Duo's mind a few moments to switch gears from friendly young man to normal guy. He'd missed having a good, incisive wit around here. His own personality tended more towards that, but he didn't get a chance to exercise it much with their older, less appreciative clientele. "Yeah, well, it's just like everyone gets the benefit of the club card. We wouldn't want to exclude anyone, now would we, Mr. Yuy?"
"Heero. Call me Heero."
Duo blinked in surprise, but it wasn't enough to stop him from doing his job. Of course, it was funny how he didn't run the items through the scan quite as quickly as he did with Ms. Roth. "Oh. I wouldn't have thought we were on a first name basis."
"We aren't, really. But as much as it annoys me to be addressed at all, it annoys me even more to be addressed as 'Mr. Yuy'."
He chuckled. God, this guy got better every day. "Okay. Heero it is, then. I'm Duo, by the way." He paused to point at the name tag clipped to the front of his shirt. "You've probably noticed that, but I don't think we've ever formally introduced ourselves, so there it is. Guess I'm just used to addressing the folks around here as Mr. this or Miz that. We don't really get too much traffic around our age. Most of the student apartments are over on that side, so..." He waved his hand in the general direction of the campus as he turned to bag. Heero lived in one of the few small apartments on this side, tucked away between the houses that made up the rest of the neighborhood. They were close to the school, but had a low turnover rate that generally discouraged students from even bothering to check them out. "Yeah, I guess Mr. Yuy's probably like your dad, right? Isn't that what they always say?"
"That would be Mr. Lowe." He pulled out his wallet with an eye on the register's display.
Blink. Did the deadpan tone indicate a joke or not? "Okay."
"Ah. Oh, five ninety-eight, please. I always thought it must mess with a kid's mind to go changing his last name like that, ya know? I mean, your dad's your dad, right? Regardless of your mother's marital status."
"Yuy is actually my mother's name." He handed over six ones.
Duo took the bills with a frown and waved them in his face. "You know, you're not making this easy on me."
"Nope. Maybe that'll teach you not to talk to me."
"Ha. We'll see." Belatedly, he realized that sounded like he was accepting some sort of challenge, and he wasn't supposed to be imposing himself on the man. He was about to take it back when he noted the mildly amused look on Heero's face. Go fig. "Okay, out of six. That's two-- hey!" Heero was already picking up his bag and marching towards the door. "You forgot your change!"
Heero waved a hand dismissively over his shoulder. "Ms. Roth's two cents."
"Well, that kinda negates the club discount, don't you think?" he muttered to himself. Then he gathered himself for a mild holler out the door at the retreating figure. "You have a good day now, Heero!"
He could have been mistaken, but he thought he heard a 'bah humbug' float back to him on the wind.
As Heero settled onto the bed in his little studio apartment with the phone, his face lit with a vague amusement, daring to creep out where it was safe from the unseen caller. "I'm not your boyfriend, Quatre. Go pester him."
"Oh, so you're the one that's been giving him ideas," a new voice drawled on the line.
"Trowa," Heero greeted. "I see he's dragged you into this as well."
"He figured I might as well listen in on the other line."
"Saves me the trouble of relating to him how much of a grump you are, Heero," Quatre chirped.
"If Trowa hasn't caught onto that little fact yet, then there's no hope for him."
"Well, he's only had fourteen years, Heero. Give him some time. Hey, stop that!" he laughed in an aside. Heero could only assume that Trowa had done something to him in retaliation for the remark. He smiled, and it was something like a sigh, too. He couldn't say he was jealous; not quite, but something close to it. Jealousy would have implied that he coveted what they had, and while it was clear theirs was a wonderful relationship, Heero was pretty convinced that such a thing was not for him. It was pretty nice just being a part of their lives.
He toyed with the ear of the big blue teddy bear sharing the bed with him while he waited for his friends to settle down. They did, eventually.
"You know, Wufei's on the other side of the country, and we hear from him more often than we do from you."
"He e-mails," he countered. "And he's got interesting stories to tell about his internship. I do not."
"What do you do all day?"
Heero figured now was as good a time as any to change the subject. "I'll probably be back in town this weekend. Going to check in with Dad. Grab my bike, too, probably, a few other things."
The subject change was successful. "That's great. I'm glad you're only an hour away, otherwise we'd probably never see you all summer."
"If you want, I'm sure we can probably find one of those devices that are synced to my bio-signs. That way, if you stop receiving a signal, you'll know I'm dead, and you won't have to call anymore."
A faint amused grunt was heard from Trowa, while Quatre laughed outrightly. "Do you have anything planned, or are you free to hang out?"
"Well, I should spend at least some time with Dad. Other than that, no, not really. I'll probably be home every few weeks, though, so there's no rush."
"Ah, 'checking in' meant regularly. I guess I should have picked up on that. You could just call him, you know. Of course, you could just call us, too. I can't believe you're willing to travel all the way back here, and you can't be bothered to pick up a phone."
"He and I have never had very much to say to each other. Not enough to justify an entire phone call. Besides, I can't make sure he's taking care of himself over the phone." One of the reasons he had chosen this college, though he had never really let anyone else in on it, was that it was reasonably close to home. He wasn't the type to get homesick, but he didn't like leaving his stepfather alone for long periods of time. While Odin wasn't exactly a dreamer, he had the unfortunate tendency to ignore some mundane matters. Like cleaning. Or the occasional bill.
"Is that why you never call, Heero? Nothing to say? Hmpf." Quatre could have continued on what he thought about that, but Heero deftly deflected him with questions about the weekend. As they made some loose arrangements, Heero was once again struck by how odd it was he had managed to acquire such good friends.
He set his feet on auto-pilot for the trip back from campus, and when he found himself at the threshold of Howard's, he could only blink blankly as his eyes adjusted to the darker interior of the market. What did he come here for? He was pretty sure he didn't need anything. It must have been habit that led him here.
"Heyla, Heero. How's it going?"
Curses. Heero had been about to turn around and leave, but he had wasted precious seconds thinking about it, and Duo had heard the electronic chime go off in time to catch him inside. Well, he couldn't very well turn around now, so with a sigh he walked all the way in and tried to pretend he had meant to do that. Hmm, there must be something he could buy in here to justify his presence. Belatedly, he remembered to respond to the greeting that had been tossed his way. "Hey."
His eyes alighted upon some apple juice in a cooler by the register. Yes, that would do nicely. It was warm enough outside to warrant the purchase of a drink. Duo had moved a ladder into place along one of the shelves against the wall, and called down from the top when he saw Heero take a bottle and stand expectantly by the register. "Will that be it today?"
"Yeah." Heero pulled out his wallet.
"You can go ahead and pop that open, if you want. I can ring you up in a sec." Duo was shuffling some boxes around up there, wondering to himself in some corner of his mind if he would have stopped what he was doing to tend to the customer immediately, if it had been anyone other than Heero. The boy never seemed to be in a hurry, so Duo didn't feel too bad. "Or that'll be sixty-five cents, if you just wanna drop the change on the counter."
Heero would wait. He was in no rush to wander back outside into the glaring sunlight. There was something much more soothing about the atmosphere in the homey little market, something he definitely wouldn't have gotten had he not accidentally bypassed the supermarket the day he ran across this place. He twisted the lid off his bottle, and felt the skin of his finger pull against the edges of his papercut with a sting. With a slight scowl, he defiantly refused to glare at the infraction and drank uncaringly from his juice instead. "Hey, do you have any band-aids here?"
"Huh? Bandages?" Duo straightened away from the boxes for a moment in thought. "You're in luck. Back row, right side, eye level. We wouldn't normally carry them, but Howie needed to restock his medicine cabinet, and being the cheapskate that he was, decided he'd order them in bulk. Did you hurt yourself?"
"Hm?" Heero was drifting past where Duo was working and towards the back of the store, where he located his bandages with little difficulty. "No, just got a stupid papercut today. Reminded me that I should probably keep at least bandages in the apartment, in case something happens."
"Well, if you're feeling especially adventurous, I think we've got some peroxide, too."
"I'll pass," he said blandly, a hint of a dry smile curling up the corner of his lips. When he turned towards the front of the store again, he saw Duo had dug out the box he had been attempting to reach, and was moving to bring it down. Heero figured he could be a nice guy and help out since he was going to be walking right by there, so he set his juice and his bandages down on a neighboring shelf and lifted his arms in an expectant gesture. Maybe this would reverse the bad karma on his day.
Duo got a surprised little look on his face, then handed the box down. "Uh, thanks. You can just set it down on the floor."
Heero just grunted his acknowledgment and did as he was told as Duo set about putting back the boxes he had displaced in the quest for that one box. Snatching up his juice and his bandages before he forgot them, he thought that he didn't know much about karma, but something was dulling the sharp edges off his day. Maybe it was the juice. Maybe it was the quiet. Maybe it was the overhead lights. Maybe it was the boxes.
"Hey, thanks for waiting." Heero blinked, to find that while he had been nursing his bottle of juice, Duo had finished up and settled his feet on the floor again. He trailed along silently behind the clerk as they made their way to the front of the store.
"I don't suppose you sell sunglasses, too?" he asked with a sour frown, noting that he'd carelessly left his wallet on the counter from when he'd pulled it out to pay for the juice. He'd been mistaken; the boxes didn't make up for anything. The last thing he needed was for his wallet to be stolen, although with him and the clerk being the only two people present, that possibility didn't seem to loom quite so threateningly. "It's disgustingly bright outside."
"Nah, you're outta luck, there. The day Howard needs a new pair of sunglasses is the day I see him crying like a little girl. He never parts with his current pair. Sorry." He punched a few buttons on the register and extracted a total in no time.
"Hn." Heero shook his head dismissively. "I've got a pair. Just not on me." He flipped open his wallet and could only glower in silence as some spare change slid out to clatter on the floor.
Duo chuckled silently to himself at the way the other guy was glaring at the coins as if they would jump back into his wallet if he could manage to put the fear of Heero into them. "One of those days, eh?" He circled around the counter to run down the quarter he'd seen fleeing Heero's wrath.
A moment of silence passed before Heero let out a loud breath he hadn't even known he was holding. "Yeah. One of those days."
"Coulda been worse." He dusted off the coin he'd retrieved, absently noting that it was probably about time he did a little sweeping, and knelt next to Heero, who was currently engaged in his own game of hide and seek with the frightened little things.
"Oh?" A single eyebrow raised in doubt, willingly taking the conversational bait.
"Coulda walked under my ladder." He held the quarter out with a grin.
Heero snorted, but took the proffered coin.
"Ya know," Duo mused aloud. "In my experience, I've found that people usually make their own bad days. Take things too personally, hold a grudge, concentrate too much on the little things, don't see the good things. You know."
Heero declined to comment, but there was a contemplative glint in his eye.
Heero cocked his head at the can-stacking clerk, waiting patiently for all sorts of paranoia to kick in at the innocuous statement, but to his surprise, none did. "Hn. There was an exam today."
"Ah." Duo went back to stacking the cans in the window display. "Oh, the broccoli's on sale today."
Indeed it was. Once again, Heero waited the entire time it took him to browse his fresh vegetables for the irritation of knowing that someone was tracking his purchases to creep up on him, but apparently it, too, was on vacation. He almost growled at its laziness, but decided not to make so much trouble for himself. Briefly, he considered not buying the broccoli, just to be perverse, but the idea was swiftly dismissed. Besides, Duo would probably comment on it, and then he'd have to defend his decision somehow, and that would definitely be making trouble for himself.
By the time he was done, so, too, was Duo, and the store employee was back at the register waiting for him. Things went swimmingly and casually before Duo inevitably had to say something to his customer. "Exam, huh? Guess it's about time for midterms, eh?"
"Do you guys get any days off for summer semester? Other than July Fourth, I guess. 'Cuz, ya know, normally you get a mid-semester break."
"No, we don't." A silence, and then a thought. "Do you ever have any days off? You've been here almost every time I've come in."
"Me?" He paused as if the idea of a vacation was alien to him. "Huh. Well, this is my job, after all. The old man'll let me take off if there's something I need to do, but otherwise, yeah, I'll probably be here. Howie's usually the main guy for evenings, but I might be around for that, too. I live upstairs, after all."
"You do?" Heero automatically glanced around, looking for some stairs. Now that he thought about it, there was definitely a second floor to the store, as seen from the outside of the building, but he'd never wondered what was up there.
"Yeah. Stairs are in the back. Howard owns the building. You'd think that because of that, he'd be able to afford hiring some more people, wouldn't ya?" He grinned wryly. "Just 'cuz I'm his nephew, he thinks he can get free labor outta me, and, well, he feeds me, so I guess I can put in the time for him."
"Ah." Heero wasn't quite sure he had known that Howard was Duo's uncle. It seemed that that was the impression that he had had in his mind, but he didn't recall ever having that impression confirmed with any facts until now.
He pulled out his wallet, and when he opened it up, he found a couple of pieces of paper that he had put in there earlier and completely forgotten about, willfully or not. "Say, you want a day off?"
"Huh?" Duo blinked intelligently.
He pulled out the two tickets and held them out to the clerk. "Want these? They're free passes to the county fair."
Duo blinked at them for a moment, and then blinked at Heero some more. "Why don't you want them?"
Heero had the decency to look at least a smidge shamefaced. "Well, my friend gave them to me, hoping I'd go if I already had tickets, but honestly, I don't really want to. It's not really my thing. So if you go, at least the tickets won't go to waste."
"Hmmm." Duo snagged one for a closer look. "Are these things dated?"
Heero read through the fine print on the one he still held. "No, I think it's good through the end of the fair."
"Where'd your buddy get these?" he asked, stalling for time while he considered the offer. Admission to the fair wasn't expensive or anything, but as Heero said, if the tickets were just here and waiting to be used, well, he might consider taking them, just in case. They weren't 'not his thing', but he hadn't really been planning on going. It wasn't much fun going by oneself, most of his friends were out of town, and someone had to mind the store, so his uncle was out of the picture, too.
"He probably got them off his dad. He's always getting stuff like this."
"Hmm. Well, are you sure you don't want them?"
"Well... you're sure?"
"Yes. I'm sure."
He could have asked a third time, just to be ornery, but Heero's second response was already a bit on the flat side, so he figured he'd better not press his luck. "Well, if you're absolutely sure, I guess I can take 'em. Not sure if I'll find someone who'll wanna go or not...."
"Then you've still a better chance of going than I."
Trowa looked askance at his boyfriend, but did as he was told, pulling up to the curb and parking beneath the shade of a large tree. He frowned as it immediately dropped a leaf on his windshield. "What are we doing here?"
"Well, Heero should still be in class, so we've got some time to kill." Quatre looked distractedly out the window at something across the street. "We should probably give him some extra time to get back to his place, too."
"If you'd just let me call him ahead of time, then we could have planned this better."
"Where would the surprise be in that? Besides, we already threatened to visit last week."
"...Fine. So what are you looking at so studiously out there?"
Quatre pointed at the opposing storefront with an absent flick of his chin. "That's gotta be it."
"Gotta be what?" The surprise was supposed to be on Heero, not Trowa.
"The market," the blonde answered impatiently, craning his head a little bit more trying to look inside. A display of cans blocked his view. "With the guy."
Quatre sat back and glared at him. "I must have mentioned it. Heero said there's this market he goes to on the way back from class, and there's this clerk there that got on his nerves an awful lot at first because he was pretty darn perky, but he hasn't said anything about him recently."
"So?" He was more than just terribly fond of Trowa, but gosh, couldn't he see the obvious? "So we're here. And we've got time to kill. Let's go see this guy."
"...How will you know it's him? How do you know he's even working today?" Trowa was making a valiant effort to be the voice of reason in this relationship. It didn't quite work most times.
Quatre punched him in the arm. "Stop being so negative. Heero said that he saw the same guy every time. He's got to be there."
"...So you want to go in there..."
"Well, we'll find something to buy, so we don't look like complete idiots. A gift for Heero, perhaps."
Hopefully, they didn't already look like idiots, parked across the street and trying to spy on what was going on inside the market. "...And then we'll see this guy. So what?"
"So..." Well, there was no particular reason he had in mind, but that didn't stop him from forging ahead. "Then we'll get to see for ourselves if the guy is really as annoying as Heero made him out to be. Unless Heero's cowed him into submission. That could be why he didn't mention him, I suppose. But we'll never know until we go in and find out. So come on!"
Trowa bit down on his question of how important this was and just got out of the car like the good boyfriend he was.
The young man in question broke off his conversation with Duo and looked up, startled to hear the familiar voice in this place. "Quatre? And Trowa? What are you two doing here?"
"Well, we said we'd drop by and visit someday, didn't we?" the blonde said cheerfully, strolling up to the check-out aisle and leaning on the edge of the counter. Trowa trailed along after him and nodded amiably to his old friend.
"I expected you'd call first," Heero said back, catching Trowa's eye with a welcoming look. "And what are you doing here, in this market? How did you know I would be here?"
"Oh, we didn't." Quatre discreetly studied the person standing in front of the register. Yes, he did have an easy-going look about him, but Heero had seemed to be conversing quite civilly with him when they had entered. Interesting. "We were just passing by on the way to your place when we thought we'd stop and pick something up to bring with us."
"A gift from the very place I do my own shopping?"
Quatre ran right over him. "Oh, the fair," he gushed blithely. "I'm so glad you've found someone to go with, Heero."
Heero glanced in mild horror at the ticket that was still in his hand, and then at the one Duo held. Crap. "Uh..."
"Hi, I'm Quatre." His friend was introducing himself to Duo, who stood with a rather admirably straight face as he watched the drama unfold.
"Duo," he said merrily in response, shaking the proffered hand. How was it that Heero would have a friend such as this? That other one he could understand. Quatre introduced him as Trowa, and he hadn't said a word. That was much more what he would have expected.
"We were planning on going tomorrow," Quatre was saying. "You'll come with us, won't you? Both of you?"
Duo said nothing, but slid his eyes to Heero, saying clearly without words that he would follow Heero's lead. Heero was glad the clerk was being cooperative, but less than pleased that he was in this situation in the first place.
"Well, Quatre," he started, hoping that whatever came out of his mouth next would be good.
Quatre beat him to the punch. "You aren't busy tomorrow, are you? Either of you?" The sunny smile he beamed at the two of them made Heero's knees quiver. Duo shrugged slightly, his pleasant smile just a wee bit wider, but still deferring to Heero.
Heero took a moment to wonder just how he had managed to get himself into this mess. "Well, I suppose I'm free... but I can't speak for Duo here," he answered slowly, giving Duo an out. It was obvious that Heero would have to go, now that Quatre had trapped him into it, but he didn't want to force the innocent bystander into attending if he didn't want to.
"Oh, well, if you're not both free tomorrow, we can go some other weekend when it's more convenient. Unless, of course, you'd rather go without us...."
Well, it would have been convenient to say yes, but Heero hardly wanted to imply that he wanted to ditch his old friends, especially in the face of that pout. He raised an eyebrow at Duo. It was his call. It looked like Quatre wanted him to come, and Duo had indicated he might be interested in going, if he could find someone to go with him. Well, here were three people ready to keep him company. Heero didn't want to leave Duo behind if this might be his only chance to go, but he didn't want to lock him into a group full of strangers.
Duo raised an eyebrow right back to him, indicating that no, it was Heero's call. He didn't mind not going, and he didn't want to crash their party. He was pretty good about being able to get along with most people -- he could get along with Heero, after all -- but he didn't want things awkward. If Heero didn't feel comfortable with him going, then he'd talk his way out of it, no big deal.
They stared steadily at each other for a short while before Duo grinned carelessly. "Well, I'll have to clear it with my old man, but I'm pretty sure I can make it tomorrow," he declared, leaving himself that one final escape route just in case he'd read the situation wrong.
Quatre's smile came back on in full force. "That's great. It'll be loads of fun."
Heero pasted a weak smile on his face that was a pale imitation of Quatre's. "Yeah. Great. Will you two be staying over? I'll have to pick up a few more things, if that's the case."
"Oh, we don't want to bother you, Heero."
"No bother." He turned back to the shelves, the action camouflaging a sigh as he planned out what he would need. Somewhere, there was a god laughing at him.
Trowa opted to follow him, leaving his boyfriend to chat up the new guy. It seemed Quatre would get quite the opportunity to acquaint himself with 'that guy from the market.' They seemed to be getting on well. Perhaps a god was smiling upon him.
"So really," Heero said to his quiet friend. "How did you guys know where to find me?" An intake of breath resembling a gasp of realization. "The tickets."
"The tickets," Trowa calmly confirmed. Quatre had wheedled Heero's address out of him in order to mail him the free passes. He had contended that they'd gotten four of them, and he didn't want to waste them. Since he and Trowa were almost an hour away, he'd wanted Heero to have the opportunity to go to the fair if they couldn't arrange something, so he'd sent the tickets along. Heero had finally given in to the persuasive man, reasoning that it wouldn't make a difference whether or not they went to waste in Quatre's hands or his own.
"You, Trowa, are mated to one sneaky little devil. This was all a trap to begin with. You were just going to kidnap me. You never had any intentions of giving me the option of going, did you?"
"You never had any intentions of inviting Duo, did you?"
Well. He should have known. After fourteen years, it was hard to hide things from each other. "Will you tell Quatre?" he said by way of admission. He wondered if Trowa only knew that he hadn't planned on inviting Duo. Did he also suspect that he and Duo weren't really what one could call friends at all?
"Hmmm. Not right now. Maybe a few years from now, when he'll be able to laugh at you. Or when I don't need to hold it over your head anymore."
"You're such a good friend, Trowa."
Through the rest of the day and into the night, Quatre managed to press him for information in the midst of their regular conversations, trying to find out about Heero's life in general, but Duo as well, and the state of their relationship. Heero managed to deflect most of the questions without giving away the fact that he didn't really know most of the answers, claiming that surely the information would be better coming from Duo himself. Besides, it was his personal opinion that it would be sort of freaky to meet someone new, and find out that person already knew all sorts of things about him.
The next morning, he managed to ditch them in the car while he volunteered to go up and fetch Duo. In truth, the others let him. Trowa could well imagine that they had things to discuss, and Quatre... well, he wasn't as clueless as Heero hoped.
Howard was at the register, and Heero had to wonder what Duo had told his uncle. He decided to just suck it up and act as if this were a perfectly natural situation to be in. "Hello, Howard. Is Duo in?"
Howard peered at him over the tops of his sunglasses. Heero had thought at first that perhaps the older man had cataracts or some other sort of ophthalmological condition that would necessitate the wearing of sunglasses at all times, but no, apparently there was no particular reason at all. "Oh, Heero, wasn't it? Duo said you'd be by. You can go on up."
"Thanks," Heero said automatically, before having to pause. "Where's up?"
Howard walked him to the office in back and pointed the way up the stairs, then decided he'd do Duo a favor by hollering to him that he had a guest, just in case Duo was in the middle of something, although he suspected Duo wouldn't entirely mind being caught, say, in a state of undress by his visitor.
Heero trudged up the stairs with a certain trepidation about this entire day wrapped around his chest. He didn't think it would be a total disaster. After all, they were just going to a fair. What could go wrong? But the whole affair had simply started out poorly.
"Duo?" he called out to announce himself before stepping into the room upstairs. Granted, Howard had already given Duo fair warning, but Heero wanted to be sure not to intrude. He had already intruded enough upon Duo's time.
Duo's voice came sailing out of an open closet door. "Be with you in a sec!" It gave Heero the time to look around. The large room might have been an office once. There was a small kitchenette installed in one corner, a dining area next to it. Some old sofas marked off the boundaries of a living room of sorts, and two beds at the far end of the studio indicated the sleeping area. That side was split with some folding screens for an attempt at privacy. Comparing the look of the two 'bedrooms', it was pretty easy to guess which side was probably Duo's. The whole place looked pretty comfortable, although it might have screamed bachelor in some parts. Fashion had probably not been high on the list of priorities when they had decorated.
"Aha!" sounded from the closet, and Duo strode out, fitting a black cap over his head. "Knew it was in there somewhere." He shut the door behind him and studied his guest for a moment before throwing him an easy smile. "Good morning."
"Good morning." That part was easy. "Look, I'm sorry about getting you dragged into this..."
"Hey, no way," Duo immediately rebutted. "I'm sorry I got you dragged into this. I get a free trip to the fair out of this, so it's no big deal to me. But now you're saddled with someone you didn't want to hang out with--"
"Plan," Heero corrected without thinking about it. Then he was committed. "Didn't plan on hanging out with."
Well, wasn't he just a sweetie lurking underneath all those scowls, going out of his way to make sure Duo didn't feel unwelcome. Duo had to smile just a bit at the way the words were offered nonchalantly, but with eyes averted as if unwilling to admit he had just said such a thing. Man, cute and sweet? No, Duo didn't think he'd mind this little impromptu outing at all.
Heero continued. "You're the one stuck with three random people. We could be axe murderers, for all you know."
He got a raised eyebrow for that. "Hey, we're not total strangers, ya know."
Heero's first thought was that just because the guy knew he liked broccoli, didn't mean they weren't strangers. But on second thought, he had to admit, maybe there was something more to it than that. He still wouldn't call them friends, but they did seem to have an understanding of sorts, and it had quite a few weeks of growth. "Huh. No, I guess not."
Duo grinned at him and snatched up a knapsack from the floor by the sofa. "Well, shall we be going?"
Starting down the stairs, Heero was struck by an odd thought. It was prefaced by a mild expletive in his mind. "Hey, Quatre thinks we're friends, but I don't even know your last name."
Duo chuckled. "Maxwell. Duo Maxwell."
"Ah." Such a simple thing he hadn't known, and yet, upon consideration, he supposed he could actually derive a decent picture of Duo from all the chatting he had done, most of it based on impressions rather than fact.
"Anything else you figure we ought to know about each other?"
Heero shook his head. "I managed to convince Quatre that it'd be better if you told him about yourself instead of me, so he'll probably be grilling you in the car. Feel free to grill him right back. I figure it'll make for better conversation if the interrogation goes both ways."
"My, you make that sound so delightful. So he'll find out about me, but that won't tell me anything about you."
"Quatre won't expect you to know that much about me. He knows I'm sparing with my personal information. And he won't really be surprised if I don't know too much about you. He knows I don't really care about details like that."
"Details like my name?"
"I somehow managed to end up eating lunch with this guy for a whole month freshman year before I finally got around to asking him his name."
"Oh. That's... odd."
Heero snorted lightly. "I don't find names to be very important in the great scheme of things."
"Ah. Hey, pops, I'm grabbing some water," he informed his uncle, picking a bottle up off the rack by the front.
"Take some for your friends, too, brat. On the house. Water's probably three bucks a bottle out there." He tossed his nephew a few more bottles of water before Duo really had a chance to straighten them out in his hands. Heero helped him out by snatching the last one out of the air before it collided with the others and handing it to him.
"You don't have to--" Heero started, feeling like he was imposing again.
"Eh, forget about it, kid. Water's one of the most abundant things on this earth. How much sense does it make to have to pay for it?"
"And yet you sell it, old man," Duo muttered under his breath, stuffing the bottles in his bag.
"Aw, shut up, brat. Have fun." He smirked knowingly at his nephew. "Don't stay out all night."
Duo glared at him. "Catch ya later, old man." He turned to Heero. "Come on, let's get outta here."
He led the way out of the market, noticing that once they got outside, Heero slowed his pace a bit and looked at him oddly. "What?"
"You know, I don't think I've ever seen you outside of the market before." Or in shorts, a t-shirt, and an open button-down, for that matter.
Duo laughed. "Fancy that. Some friends we are, eh?" They started walking again towards the car parked not too far down the street. Quatre waved at them when he saw them coming.
"Hey," Heero started again. "Like I said, Quatre knows me, and like you said, I'm sort of odd, so just because we're supposedly friends... I mean, don't strain yourself trying to maintain the fiction. We don't need any sort of elaborate history. I don't expect you to lie for me or anything. I'm not trying to trick my friends or anything, either. I just... let Quatre think we're more friendly than we are, if it makes him happy, you know?"
Duo cast him a good-natured smile. "Good. 'Cuz I hate lying. And I don't much like liars, either." And then they were at the car, and they were off.
Quatre had to do some obligatory shopping for trinkets for his sisters. Trowa somehow tied them up at the petting zoo, putting their camera to good use when an emu decided it wanted to mate with Heero. They tried a few of the rides, with Duo declaring that the House of Horrors wasn't worth the wait. The tricks were cheesy and often transparent, he said, and most of the time, it failed to horrify. A short time later, it was demonstrated to them quite strikingly that Duo was terrified of clowns.
They settled down in the evening for the fireworks show that the fair put on every weekend. Heero and Trowa had been sent off to forage for some dessert while Duo and Quatre staked out a spot.
"That's an interesting fellow you've managed to meet," Trowa started off as they waited in the line for candied apples and ice cream.
"'Interesting' is a good word for it. Remember to never let him into your room." Trowa happened to like clowns, thank you very much. He'd manfully kept his mouth shut during Duo's rant against them.
"But he was doing such a skillful impersonation of a prairie dog poking his head out of his hole looking for predators."
"I wouldn't know, seeing as how he was cowering behind me the whole time." Until Quatre managed to lure him out of Heero's shadow with a bit of cotton candy, that is.
"His uncle seems like a rather interesting character as well." Duo had blamed his phobia on Howard's odd sense of humor and a clowny surprise gone terribly awry in his youth.
"I think Duo's more 'interesting'. Howard just wears sunglasses all the time."
They took a step forward in line. "So the day didn't turn out all that bad, did it?"
"I never said it would."
"You had a bit of the look of a condemned man, this morning."
"Did I?" he retorted mildly. He doubted it. He hadn't thought he would have a good time today, but he hadn't thought he would have a bad time, either. "He and Quatre seemed to be getting along rather well."
Trowa glanced upwards in a brief rolling of his eyes. "It's hard to find someone that Quatre couldn't get along with. He and you seem to be getting along rather well. That's the more remarkable thing."
Heero snorted. "I've acclimated."
"Quatre mentioned you had some complaints about him, the first time he called. What changed?"
A half-smile lurked in the corner of his lips in remembrance. That had not been one of his brighter moments, and yet everything had turned out fairly well. "I asked him to stop being so perky. He stopped."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. I imagine one's facial muscles must cramp up after so much time smiling for the old ladies that come his way."
"Oh, so that's the reason you don't smile very much, eh?" Like Trowa was one to talk. He could be just as serious as Heero, just not as grouchy.
"You know what they say," Heero responded blandly. The line crawled forward. That was what they got for going after old-fashioned hand-dipped ice cream. "It takes twenty-six muscles to smile, sixty-two to frown, and only four to raise one's middle finger."
Trowa laughed quietly.
"Really?" Quatre asked idly, watching Duo's hands carefully to make sure he didn't get whacked in the face. "You seem like the kind of person that would try to go every year, if you don't mind me saying."
"Hmm, maybe," he said, dropping his arms. "But really, I don't get out as much as I'd like, sometimes. Don't have the time, most of the time." He'd been working in some capacity at the market for almost as long as he could remember. It was the least he could do in thanks for Howard taking him in. He didn't see it as a duty or obligation, though, and didn't resent that it took up a lot of his time. Howard never demanded that he do a lot of work, no matter how much the two of them joked about it. It was just the way things were, and he was quite used to it.
"Yeah, I had that problem for a while. Just too much stuff going on with school. That's what made Trowa such a good boyfriend. I imagine Heero would be much the same. Neither of them are the type that expect, or even want, to go out very much. Of course, I can see how that could get on some people's nerves."
"Yeah, I've had a couple of relationships end that way." After a while, he'd stopped trying. Maybe he'd take it up again, maybe when he got out of school. Right now, he didn't want to have to deal with anyone that couldn't accept his priorities.
"Well, it's much easier to maintain the relationship when you don't feel like you have to be interesting all the time. When you don't have to go out somewhere special just to be with him. I never had to push myself to be with Trowa."
"Guess you like 'em low maintenance, eh?"
"Ha, yeah, I guess. Can't get much more low maintenance than these guys. We always said that Odin -- Heero's dad? -- was lucky Heero was so low maintenance. Odin's... not really what you'd call the father type. From what I hear, Trowa's mom had to take the responsibility for whacking him over the head once in a while about things he'd neglected to notice, like getting Heero a haircut or something."
From which Duo could only assume that Heero's mother was out of the picture. He didn't ask. It wasn't surprising, though. Heero didn't really seem like the kind of person that had received a mother's gentle rebukes for his behavior. "Ah, but here's the question: did Heero start out low maintenance, or did he become that way because he had to?"
"The world may never know," Quatre mused. "Trowa says he's been that way for as long as he can remember, and they met when Heero's mother was still alive." He shook his head dismissively. He was taking the opportunity to put a good spin on Heero for Duo, but now they were wandering into information best shared in person. "Well, anyway, I'm glad you're having a good time, otherwise I'd feel really bad about getting you into this."
"Hmm?" Duo blinked innocently. "What do you mean?"
"Please. Even if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, the chances of Heero actually going out and having fun of his own free will are quite small. I didn't mean to just draft you into this, but, you know, you seemed willing, and when we came in, it looked like you were getting along. If you really didn't want to go, I wouldn't have forced you to. But I just thought it'd be a good opportunity for Heero to form some more connections. If he had it his way, he'd be happy as a clam shut up in a basement, never seeing the light of day again. Ugh, computer majors." He rolled his eyes. "Besides, I got a kick out of watching Heero squirm."
Duo grinned. He'd been quite amused, too. "I think Heero thinks you don't know."
"I think Heero's in denial," Quatre stage-whispered solemnly. "I may be blonde, but I'm not dumb. But, if it makes him happy to think I don't know, well, I suppose I'll let him believe what he wants to."
"You know, Heero said the same about you."
"Well, guess we'll just be a pair of happy fools, then, won't we?" he shrugged cheerfully. "You know, Heero's a nice guy, if you don't let him scare you off. He's hard to get to know, but he's got to be one of the most reliable friends I'll ever have. His bark's a lot worse than his bite."
"Yeah.... Yeah, I think I got that." His bark was kind of fun, though. Well, so was his bite. "He's lucky to have good friends like you guys."
"He likes you," Quatre informed him point blank. It couldn't be more obvious that he was pushing for a continuing friendship between the two of them. If he thought that it was a little silly for him to be making friends for Heero, he didn't let it stop him. Although he'd been assured that it was quite unnecessary, he'd never been able to completely shake the faint guilt he felt about taking Heero's best friend from him.
"Really." The flat incredulity in that one word conveyed what Duo thought about that rather nicely.
"Really. Trust me. Heero can be rather monosyllabic around people he hasn't warmed up to, but he's actually conversed with you. It's quite a wonder. And he's got this look he wields on the unwary, like he's willing them to stop talking to him. They usually do."
"Yeah, I got a couple of those in the beginning. Didn't stop me, though." He grinned widely.
"Heh, me, too."
A bit of a snag came up when they were dropping Duo off, at least from Heero's point of view. It seemed that Quatre had taken a shine to Duo, and suggested that they all go out again some time. Duo's eyes had flashed uncertainly to Heero's before he responded once again with some vague, non-committal answer. Then they bid farewell, and Heero breathed a little easier.
The fair was a Saturday, and Heero found himself going back to the market on Sunday afternoon. He normally did his shopping for the weekend on Friday after class so he wouldn't have to make a special trip out to the market. He told himself he was making a change to his schedule because the unexpected visit by his friends had thrown him off, but he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that it just didn't seem right not to see Duo after their surprise trip to the fair. Even though he knew he didn't normally visit the market on the weekend, it somehow felt like he would be deliberately avoiding Duo if he didn't go, and he had no reason to avoid him.
He knew the chances were good that Duo would be working on the weekend. He'd never actually witnessed it, but from what he had gathered, it was a reasonable assumption. Still, as his feet carried him closer and closer to the corner market, he couldn't help wondering whether or not he wanted to see Duo there.
A silent sigh of relief was let out when he walked in the door and saw no one manning the register. His respite quickly ended when he found Duo in the produce section stacking peaches. "Heya, Heero," the clerk chirped, same as always.
"Hey." There was a brief hesitation before he answered. He tried to cover up his indecision by surveying the rest of the fruit before sauntering over to tear a plastic bag from a roll not closest to him or the peaches. God, why did this feel so awkward? It felt like meeting an ex. It felt like meeting a one night stand. It felt like a morning after. It felt... it felt something, not that he had ever felt those other things before, but he imagined that was how it must feel, and he had no idea why. Was there really so huge a chasm between the personal and professional relationships involved, such as they were? The idea was absurd, but persistent.
He was forced to approach the peaches at last. Duo looked the same as he always did, curse him; he would get no hint from that quarter. He decided he might as well go about his business, so he licked his finger, opened his bag, and went about choosing peaches.
"Hey, didn't you just buy a bag of peaches last time?" Oh yes, he'd forgotten about Duo, the human purchase tracker. "Not that there's anything wrong with that or anything...."
Heero shrugged as casually as he could manage. "Trowa's... got a thing for peaches. And he managed to convert Quatre. So yes, I did, but I don't have them any more." It seemed weird to be talking about his friends to Duo. Just a couple of days ago, Duo hadn't even known they existed. Just a couple of days ago, they were just service provider and customer, and now things were different.
"Ah." Duo handed him a fine specimen from the box he was unpacking. "Here, this one's a good one."
Heero stared at it for a moment before taking it with a murmured thanks. Argh, what was wrong with him? He tried to organize the thoughts and feelings in his mind while he deliberated over his fruit, and came up with at least a few reasonable points that needed clarification.
"Look, Duo," he started. He became aware of the peach he was holding in his hand, and put it down carefully before he bruised it in his agitation. By that time, Duo had turned to him with his full attention. That didn't make it any easier. "You and Quatre seemed to get along really well yesterday, and that's great. And Quatre wanted to get together with you again some time, and that's also great." No, that sounded really lame. He picked another peach up as a prop and made a show of examining its soundness. "I mean... I guess I mean, if you want to go ahead and be friends with Quatre, don't let me get in the way. Yeah, I was sort of responsible for some weird circumstances the first time around, but that's over now, so whatever you want to do from here on out is totally your decision." He made an exasperated sound. "Ugh, that sounds like I'm giving you my permission. Sorry, I mean--"
"Heero," Duo cut in gently. There was a slight smile on his face. "Chill for a sec, okay?" The words, intended to lighten things up, only seemed to make Heero study his peaches more intently. Duo had gone out with a guy or two that didn't seem to be able to accept a division between work and play -- they'd kept trying to make out with him while he was working, and he'd dumped their asses pretty quickly -- but this was just ridiculous.
The electronic chime went off at the front of the store, heralding the entrance of another customer. Duo glanced up at the mirrors on the wall and recognized him. Mr. Kant. He wouldn't be coming anywhere near the produce aisle. He only ever came in to buy snack food. His wife did all the real shopping. Duo turned his attention back to Heero, speaking quietly and quickly. "I mean-- God, this is so lame. Look, we didn't do anything that could conceivably create a conflict of interest or something. If you could buy peaches from me when you hated me, you can certainly buy them if you like me. So, why are you being all confused?"
Heero stared at him through the thin, wispy protection of his bangs. "I know this is stupid, okay?" he said defensively. His usual glare didn't seem to have the same effect today. Maybe it was the faintly pouty look of the entire pose that threw it off.
Duo took a breath and told himself to be patient. "So we saw each other in a social context. So what?"
So what, indeed. Heero was still trying to figure that out. Duo's eyes flicked back up to the mirrors, and he saw that Mr. Kant was heading to the checkout line already. "I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere." The stern frown on his face was erased as he turned towards the front of the store, and a fresh smile was pasted on in its place. "Be there in a sec, Mr. Kant!"
As soon as he was gone, Heero let out a puff of breath that pushed the bangs away from his face for a moment. They fell back in short order. This was not going well. He should never have spoken before he knew what he was thinking. He should never have come unless he knew what he was thinking. He just hadn't been prepared for the weirdness that had washed over him when he saw Duo back in his native environment.
By the time he spied Duo's imminent return in the mirrors, he was ready to school his expression back into its typical calm neutrality. When Duo had parked himself in front of the peaches again, his work face fading gradually back into the serious, slightly puzzled expression it had been in when he had left, Heero tried again, with more coherent results. "Look, can we start over?"
"From when?" When Heero had first walked into the market weeks ago, only to be annoyed by the cashier he found there? When he and Heero had been comfortably conversing over a pair of tickets?
"From when I walked in here, looking to buy some peaches."
"Okay. Heya, Heero."
They stared at each other after they had gotten that far, Duo sort of expectant, Heero willing to let the silence stretch until he'd found something reasonable to say. Finally, with a tiny roll of his eyes, Duo went back to his box of peaches. He moved a few more to where they belonged, then pulled out a nice one on the verge of ripeness and offered it to his companion. "Looking for some good peaches today?"
Heero stared at it again, then took it and added it to his bag. "Yeah, thanks. Look, Duo..." There was a very strong feeling of déjà vu here, for obvious reasons. He was sort of hoping another customer would walk in and give him the opportunity for a third shot at this.
Duo's face was open and ready for an answer. He seemed to know what he was doing. Maybe he could tell Heero what he was supposed to do. "So... am I supposed to act like you're a friend, or are you still just the guy that works at the market?"
Duo hid a tiny flinch at the words. Maybe Heero was just being imprecise with his phrasing. Maybe Heero didn't mean Duo was just 'like a friend' rather than an actual friend. Maybe Heero didn't mean that he was only 'the guy that works at the market'. Maybe Heero was just being a dork. This was what he got for trying to be nice to the socially awkward ones. "Yeah, I had a great time hanging out with your friends. I had a great time hanging out with you, too. You're a nice guy, Heero, and I knew that before we ever went out together. So I don't know about you, but I think we've already been on fairly friendly terms for a while, even if it's only been in the market setting."
"Oh." He paused to consider that, and had another feeling of déjà vu. Hadn't he already thought about this once? Yes, when Duo had pointed out to him on Saturday morning that they weren't exactly total strangers. "Oh yeah."
"'Oh yeah', he says," Duo muttered under his breath, shaking his head as he went back to his fruit. A few peaches later, he started up again. "Look, one time deal, okay? It's over, it's done, we can pretend it never happened." Not what he would have preferred, but it was better than watching Heero shift his weight uncomfortably like that.
"No, we can't. Quatre liked you. He wanted to hang out with you again sometime."
"If you don't want me hanging out with your friends, no problem. I'll just say no next time." Ouch. That one hurt a bit to get out. It'd really been a long time since he'd had so much fun. He thought Heero had had a bit of fun, too, although he'd probably never admit to such a thing.
"No," Heero refuted immediately. He slowed down a little for the rest of it. "No, I meant what I said. Sort of. Well, I'd really mean it if it had come out better." He shook his head impatiently to clear it. He hated being flustered. Grumpy was better by far. "It's not that I don't want you hanging out with my friends. I'm not that crazy."
"But just a little?"
Duo muttered it even more softly than before, but Heero still caught it with a faint smile. "Just a little. I guess... I just like there being clear divisions between things. If you're the guy at the market, I can just... Well, if you were still being annoying, I could just blow you off and not have to worry about it. That may not be the case anymore, but it's about the same thing. I could walk out of here and not have to think about you until the next time I visit. But all of a sudden, do I have to start caring how your day went?" He froze, and a chagrined expression came over his face. "Okay, that sounded really bad..."
Duo was getting a pretty good idea of why it was Heero generally avoided this sort of thing. But it was nice that he was making the effort. "You were doing alright yesterday."
"Well, yesterday..." He was doing that thing again that would have been a blush on a lesser man, and his fingers were fidgeting with the peaches. "Yesterday was different. I wasn't thinking yesterday."
"Maybe you should stop thinking, if it just causes you so many problems." Ooh, that one earned him a mild glare. "Would we still be having this problem if we were friendly first, and then I got a job here?"
"Well... no, I don't think so."
"Then tell you what. Why don't we just pretend that's how it happened?"
The look he got was almost scandalized. "Duo, we can't just go around altering reality to fit our needs."
Duo shrugged carelessly. "Why not? Or hey, rather than changing the past, why don't we just forget about it? We met at the fair and had a great time, and hey, look, I just happen to work at the market where you do your shopping. We'll just ignore what came before."
"But I--" Liked what came before. Well, wasn't that something. Was he sure? Yes, he supposed he was. It had been kind of comfortable. Really the only regular interaction of its kind that he had been getting all summer. He couldn't say he'd miss out on interacting with the people in his classes, but the market experience just wouldn't be the same without this. "Okay."
"Okay, let's alter history. Let's just pretend I never walked in here today being an idiot, okay?"
Duo grinned. "Okay. Heya, Heero."
"Hey." This time, he got it out without any hesitation.
"Hey, Heero!" Duo's head raised from the fray just long enough for that before he got sidetracked again. "Hey, give that back!"
His uncle clutched the section of newspaper protectively to his chest. "It's my newspaper."
"What are you talking about? After you're done with it, you'll probably put it back together again and stick it back on the stand!"
"Well, I won't be able to if you keep wrinkling it like that!"
Heero shook his head at their behavior and went about his shopping. Things weren't really awkward between him and Duo anymore, but he still didn't know if it had gotten more friendly. Their interaction was still limited to within the confines of the market, but it somehow felt as if it had gotten looser somewhere along the way, too. Heero couldn't quite say that he looked forward to his grocery shopping, but he did notice that on the days he didn't do his shopping, it sort of felt like the day just wasn't complete. He resolved this by walking by the store on those days and nodding or waving to Duo through the window if he was within sight. It seemed to work well enough. Duo never expected to see him outside the business, Heero never expected anything silly like free food from him, and Quatre hadn't found time to arrange anything yet.
By the time he got back to the register, they'd settled down, with Howard holding the newspaper up and reading something in the middle of the metro section, and Duo standing in front of him, reading the front page. Duo straightened up when he saw Heero coming and mock-pouted. "Man, right when I was getting to the good part. Oh well." He shrugged philosophically and flicked the newspaper, drawing a muttered protest from his uncle. "At least it'll give the old man some time to finish up so I can get to the rest of the article. So, how's your day been going, Heero?"
Heero shrugged and made a non-committal sound. His day had gone about the same as always. About the only thing that ever really changed about his day was what happened when he walked in these doors. A whim made him ask, "How's your day been going, Duo?" He realized he'd never asked the question of the clerk in return.
Duo blinked, having been unprepared for the question, but smiled soon enough. "Not bad, Heero. Not bad. Except for this lout, maybe." He toed his uncle in the shin.
Howard calmly rebutted with a foot of his own, then twitched the newspaper down and looked at Heero. "Well, what about me?"
He didn't catch on immediately to what was expected of him. "Oh, well, how are you doing, Howard?"
"Well, I'm glad you asked..."
"No, he's not," Duo cut in, winking at Heero where his uncle couldn't see. "He's doing fine, thank you for asking. That's it."
Howard harrumphed in a somewhat disgruntled fashion at being cheated of the opportunity to expound upon something. Then he latched onto something else to complain about. "Is that it?" he demanded, eyeing Heero's selection of goods. "What kind of kid are you? Don't you need any snack food?"
"Nope," Duo sang cheerfully, answering for him. Heero once again couldn't find it anywhere in him to be disturbed by Duo's knowledge of his dietary habits. "I think he's more on the fruity side of things." He paused, and then his eyes widened dramatically as he clutched the bag of oranges to his chest. "Unless you've been buying your snack food elsewhere. Say it ain't so, Heero! You haven't been going to that mean ol' supermarket behind our backs, have you?"
"It ain't so, Duo," he intoned solemnly, just a hint of amusement floating around his eyes. "Haven't been there since I had to recycle my plastic bags."
"Wow. You mean you actually do recycle them? Nifty. Make a note," Duo said quite seriously in an aside to the storeowner. "We need some sort of recycling receptacle out front." Then he turned back to his sorta-friend and gushed. "Oh, thank you, kind sir! Whatever would we do without your generous patronage?"
"I'm sure you'd manage."
"We need to find some way to reward our faithful, Howard." He finally released the bag of oranges and put them back onto the scale to finish his business. As much as he'd like to, he couldn't keep Heero here forever.
"You mean the witty repartee isn't enough?" Heero put in. He'd meant it to be dry and sardonic, and it was, but it also came out as the truth. Somehow, sometime, Duo had managed to win his customer loyalty with his antics. It made him feel strangely good to know that. But then, there was that word again. Was he really just a 'customer'? He decided not to dwell on it.
"Oh, isn't he a nice boy?" Duo sighed gustily to no one in particular. He rattled off the total for the purchases, took Heero's money, gave him his change, waved a good-bye, and then sighed again as he watched Heero walk out of the market. He didn't realize he had kept his eye on where Heero had disappeared for quite a while until a hand intruded upon his field of vision.
"Hello, Earth to Duo," Howard crooned with a smirk, waving a hand in front of his face. "Still with me, kid?"
Duo blinked, then batted the hand away. "Are you done with that paper yet?" he said, snatching it out of Howard's hands and hiding behind it. Howard let him. He was getting the last laugh, anyway.
Duo was about to nod his acquiescence when he remembered what day it was. He swallowed down his toast before answering. "Nah, I'll stick around."
"You sure, kid? You've been sticking around an awful lot, lately."
"Well, you know, I always have," he brushed the concern off lightly. "You know I don't trust you to run the store all by yourself."
"Duo, you haven't been getting out much." Uh-oh. Howard was actually addressing him by his given name.
He tossed back the last of his milk. "It's summer. What else have I got to do with my time?" Howard gave him a heavy look, but Duo brushed that one off as well. "Come on, it's almost time to open up."
With a distant frown, Howard watched him apply himself to clearing the table of their dishes. While a part of him was proud of the kid for being so diligent and hardworking, especially in the face of such irresponsible parents, the rest of him was worried that Duo devoted too much of himself to the market. He was, what, almost twenty now? It would be only natural for him to find himself a life of his own, and Howard would certainly not begrudge him that.
He managed to shoo Duo out of the marketplace for at least a couple of hours in the afternoon, but the kid put in an appearance eventually. Howard just shook his head and yielded the register to him. It was about fifteen minutes later that that boy -- what was his name again? Heero? -- walked in. In one of the blind spots from the register, Howard watched them in the mirrors. He traced the path of Duo's eyes, the tilt of his head, and estimated that they, too, were trained on the mirrors. One guess as to what he was watching. Oh ho, the plot thickened.
Heero made his way back to the register, and Howard noticed how Duo made sure he was arranged casually when the kid came into view. His nephew's face lit up with more than the generic cheeriness he displayed for the rest of their shoppers as they traded quips over Heero's usual boring selection of items. The old man left them in peace until they completed their exchange, and only after the kid was gone did he drift his way back to the register. Once again, he caught Duo staring after his vanished form.
"So when are you going to ask him out?" Howard asked without preamble.
Duo jumped a little, startled out of his reverie. "Huh?"
"I said, when are ya gonna ask him out?"
Duo rolled his eyes disdainfully and popped open the register to straighten out some of the bills. "I'm not, thank you very much."
Howard snorted. "Oh, so it's just a coincidence you managed to drag your butt down here just in time for his visit?"
He received a glare for his troubles. "Well, you're the one that kicked my butt out of here in the first place." Of course, that retort contained no actual denial. It wouldn't have worked anyway, given the look the kid was sporting, the one he was trying fiercely to cover up with casually irritable banter. It was one part embarrassed, one part disturbed, and a whole lot of 'mind your own business, will ya?'.
"I saw the way you were looking at him."
"Well, he's nice to look at," Duo shot back. There was just a bit too much defensiveness in his tone. "You agreed yourself, once upon a time."
"And I saw the way he was looking at you. I saw the way he smiled at you."
"Ha, well there, that's how I know you've slipped into senility, old man. Heero doesn't smile all that much."
"He smiled for you."
"The mirrors ain't that good, Howie," Duo countered flatly. "Neither are your eyes. Unless you've got some kinda magical upgrade on those shades you've never told me about?"
"So he's nice to look at. And you liked him well enough to have fun at the fair with him." Duo had related to him the entire story of how that had come to pass. "He likes you well enough to chat with you, and from the looks of him, he doesn't chat with very many people. So what's stopping you from asking him out?"
Duo pushed the register's drawer shut, and it slid home with a satisfying thunk. "So he's cute. And sweet. There are lots of cute and sweet guys in this world. Doesn't mean I gotta ask 'em all out." Aha, so he was cute and sweet, was he? "Besides, are we just going to assume everyone's gay for the sake of convenience?"
Realistically speaking, Howard wasn't sure how convenient that would be. "Okay, so he's not gay. He can still be your friend."
"Ugh, God, that's almost exactly what Quatre was saying." Quatre. Was that the name of one of the guys from the fair expedition? Howard didn't quite remember. "What is it about that guy that makes people want to find friends for him? He's a big boy, I'm sure he can take care of himself."
"I don't care about the kid, Duo, I care about you. You haven't been out -- on a date or off -- for a while. Not counting that fair thing. Which was with him, in case you've forgotten."
"That's because I took myself off the market."
"Why? Now's the time to be on the market."
Duo made another scornful sound. "Piffle. I don't have time for that stuff right now."
"Why not? Like you said, it's summer. What else have you got to do with your time?"
He cast an annoyed look at his uncle, then turned to stare moodily out the front window. "Summer doesn't last forever, Howie."
"He goes to school here, doesn't he? It's not like he'll be gone when fall rolls around."
"Yeah, well, I'll be in school, too. And between that and the market and--"
"Forget the market, Duo," Howard cut in. "You know I'll hire a guy or two once school starts. This isn't your life. It's mine."
"You want me to spend less time here?" Duo pushed himself away from the register and walked around the counter. "Fine. I'm going back upstairs."
Hmm, that didn't go very well. Howard listened to him as he thumped his way up, a sure sign that he wasn't happy. Duo typically moved very softly, an engrained habit from nearly a lifetime of living on the second floor of a business. But if nothing else, the strength with which he protested confirmed in Howard's mind that Duo was surely interested in short, dark, and handsome. He just wished he understood what was stopping him.
"Things going okay for you lately?" Heero asked after some hesitation when they met at the register. He tried to ask it as if it were just a generic 'how are you?', but he couldn't help but notice that Duo's usual spark just wasn't present today. His words were a little lackluster, his actions a little disinterested. Heero had debated with himself whether or not he should venture forth into the world of friendly interest, and something had nudged him to this outcome.
Duo automatically flashed him a smile, but it was a bit on the vacuous side, the one he offered the busy ladies in need of good cheer. It was the empty smile that had gotten on Heero's nerves the first time he'd walked in here. "Yep, things are going pretty okay on this side of the counter. Two seventy-nine, please."
Well, that almost resembled a brush-off. Heero handed him the money, got his change, receipt, and bag in short order, and was sent off with the canned, "You have a great day now, Heero." He hadn't heard that in a while, either. Wandering out the door in a semi-daze, he cast only one odd look through the window out of the corner of his eye before he just kept walking.
"I think you just confused him," Howard said dryly, leaning against a display of cereal at the end of an aisle.
Duo immediately aborted his weary sigh and frowned at the man. "Knock those boxes over and I'll kill you, old man." He'd just set them up this morning.
"Gee, someone's PMSing today."
Duo stared levelly at him for a few seconds before stalking out of his place behind the register and hiding himself in the bathroom for a couple of minutes. When he emerged, he opened the door and nearly ran right into the waiting Howard. "Augh!" he cried, stumbling back a few steps and hitting the edge of the sink. "Jesus crap, Howie! What do you want from me?"
His uncle smirked at him, if only because it would be completely out of his character not to, and backed out of the doorway to let Duo through. "You like this kid."
"Are we talking about this again?" Duo groaned impatiently. "Yeah, I like him. He's a nice kid. But it's not like I've got a crush on him or something, so lay off already, geez."
Howard followed him as he drifted up and down the aisles, looking in vain for something to straighten. "As I recall, I've already laid off the dating thing. I was willing to settle for a nice friendship, but you seem to be set on rejecting that notion, too. What's the deal?"
He almost ran into Duo when he stopped suddenly. "I don't know, Howie," Duo said softly, his back turned, his shoulders tense. "I really don't. So just drop it already, okay?" Then the youth squared his shoulders and sounded a bit more like himself. "Besides, even if I did know, I wouldn't tell you anyway. Hmpf."
That was better than nothing. While Howard was happy to take what he could get, that didn't mean he wasn't willing to try and get himself a little something extra. The next time Heero came by, and Duo was slowly starting to warm up to him again, Howard decided he'd stir things up a bit and see what fell out.
He hadn't gotten where he was in life by letting opportunities slip through his fingers. He watched carefully for an opening, poking and prodding like the sharp old man he was until he found a good one, and broke into their light conversation on spinach and its true nutritional merits. "You need to get out more, kid," he said, lightly cuffing the backside of Duo's head as the boy accepted Heero's money. Then he turned his attention to their guest. "You both need to get out more. Spinach? Geez. Kids these days. What is the world coming to?"
"A greener, healthier place," Duo intoned, his eyes wide with childlike innocence. He added a big, solemn nod to the picture before getting back to business. "Okay, out of five is--"
"I gave you a ten," Heero pointed out.
Duo blinked, looked down to where he had put Heero's bill, and frowned. "Why, so you did. Okay, out of ten is--"
Heero took the proffered change, studied it, then handed a five back to Duo. "You just gave me two fives. They must have stuck together."
"Well, damn." He took the money back and slid it back into the register. "I blame this on Howard. He whacked me while I was trying to count." He jabbed his elbow in the general direction of his uncle's midsection.
Howard danced out of the way, surprisingly quick on his feet. "That may account for the first mistake, but not the second, kiddo."
Duo narrowed his eyes at him and beckoned with two fingers. "Come back here, old man. I think you got something on your shirt."
"I don't think so. Eh, but maybe you shouldn't get too close to him, either, Heero. Maybe you'll catch whatever he's got."
"I'm just a bit off my game, Howie. It ain't no freakin' disease."
"Well, it is to me. Get outta here."
"What?" he blinked in surprise.
"You heard me. Scram. I don't want to see you back in here for at least a couple of hours. You obviously need to recharge. You haven't made a mistake in years." Come on, kid, let's see if you're as sweet as Duo says you are...
"So I'm about due for one, then, aren't I?" Duo retorted.
"I'd rather you made none at all. Now out."
"Just what do you expect me to do for a couple of hours?"
Some little spark in Heero's brain kickstarted a thought process. Snippets of last night's conversation with Quatre replayed in his head. The wily little blonde had tried the guilt card, trying to convince Heero that he'd feel so much better knowing that Heero wasn't all alone out there by himself. He didn't doubt Heero's self-sufficiency, but what if some sort of emergency came up? Quatre went on at length about how it was important to have friends within close reach to rely on, at least one person that would notice in a timely fashion if he suddenly disappeared. Heero eventually managed to convince Trowa to help distract him, but only after he had to promise he'd think about it. So given last night's equation to solve, his mind gleefully started plugging in the values provided by the situation in which he was currently entrenched, and out came a simplified system of equations. When combined with reasonable assumptions he could make based on empirical data gathered from one trip to the fair, he ended up with a reasonably solvable equation. "Uh, well, you could come over and hang out at my place for a little while, if you want to..."
Score! Howard cheered silently. "Great idea. Go on. Shoo."
Duo stared at him as if he'd walked outside without his sunglasses. It took him barely any time at all to catch on to the grand scheme, and then the look turned into something that said he might like to take those sunglasses and tie them around his uncle's neck. Then again, they weren't the titanium-framed kind, so maybe that wouldn't work, and dangit he was getting distracted. "Now wait just a second, here..." His eyes shifted between Howard and Heero and back again. He couldn't do this if he was double-teamed. But then he spied -- maybe just imagined? -- a fleetingly disappointed look on Heero's face, and he thought, 'Geez, this is probably the first time in ages that he's actually invited someone over to his place. I can't just stomp on his effort...'
And then he thought, 'Screw this, Howie's totally setting me up! But that was really nice of him to offer... This is starting to feel like that time Quatre walked in... Just why did he offer? Aw, man, just look at that smirk on the old man's face! But it's not like I don't like him. Bleh, I don't need people messing with me. But heh, maybe I'd like to mess around with Heero...'
And by the time that last errant thought rolled through his head, he had apparently missed out on some of the conversation, because he found himself being steered towards the exit. He dug his heels in, but Howard cheerfully planted a hand right between his shoulderblades and shoved him out the door. "Have fun, now. See ya." And he would have slammed the door shut behind them if it weren't the front door to his business. He settled for simply standing on the threshold with an expectant look on his face.
Duo regained his balance after a stumble or two and whirled around to give his uncle an annoyed glare, but one more glance at Heero and he found himself suddenly without resistance. He growled because he was supposed to, and huffed because it made him feel better, then reached out to snatch Heero's bag from his hand. "Here, give me that."
"Duo--?" There was an adorably confused look on his face. What did he have to be confused about? It was Duo that was the confused one here. Well, nothing a little bluster couldn't cover up.
"Come on, this way I can pretend it's carry-out service." He quite determinedly took a hold of the bag and marched off down the street.
Heero followed. "...That's pretty good service."
"Hey, that's my guarantee. Service with a smile!" He plastered on a smile to prove it.
For a while, only ambient noise dared intrude upon their faintly awkward silence. Heero finally braved the chasm. "...Today's not your birthday or something, is it?"
"Uh, no, why would you say that?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Howard seemed sort of... eager to get rid of you for the afternoon. I thought maybe he was trying to set up a surprise party for you or something."
Duo laughed, and golly, it felt kinda good. Even if that was the only reason Heero had volunteered to keep him company, it was still rather sweet. "Heh, yeah, Howard's not real big on subtlety, is he? Interesting guess, but nah, it's not my birthday or anything. It's probably just Howard being Howard." But he sure thought he deserved a nice party for putting up with this. He reminded himself to kick Howard in the shins later, then be nice to him for a couple of days. "Come to think of it, I probably don't even want to think about all the reasons why Howie might want me out of the place."
They had settled into their roles by the time they got to Heero's apartment, though Heero tingled with a sort of nervous anticipation about letting someone into his space. He didn't worry about being unprepared for guests. He was a very tidy person. But he had to admit, his place was a little short on the entertainment end of the spectrum. That, and this was the place where he lived. It was a personal thing of sorts, and it had been a long time since he'd let anyone other than his three friends in.
The first thing Duo said was, "Cozy." That was, presumably, a euphemism for 'small'. Of course, Duo also lived in a flat with a studio layout, so perhaps he didn't think too little of having a bedroom and living room all rolled into one.
Heero shrugged. "It suits my needs. Take off your shoes."
"Hm? Oh, yeah." He bent to do just that, and when he raised his head once more, he couldn't help but notice something that seemed rather out of place. "...Heero... is that a Care Bear on your bed?"
"Yes." He'd toed off his shoes, taken up the grocery bag that Duo had put down, and moved into the little kitchen, wondering whether or not he should be disturbed by the fact that the presence of the blue bear no longer seemed incongruous to him at all.
"Which one is he?" Duo couldn't help it, he was simply drawn to the bear for a closer look.
"Grumpy Bear. Who else?"
"Who else, indeed?" Duo chuckled, rubbing the design on the bear's belly. "I guess the big ol' storm cloud should have given it away, eh?" He sat the bear up straight before giving the rest of the apartment a closer look.
Heero's manners kicked in. "Can I get you something to drink?" He pulled two mugs out of the cupboard, then couldn't help but add dryly, "You probably already know what sorts of liquids I stock."
Duo poked his head around the half-wall separating the kitchen from the rest of the living space. "Uh, yeah, some OJ would be great, if it's not too much trouble.... Is that an Oscar the Grouch mug?"
"Yes." He calmly ignored Duo's amused look, poured them both some juice, and handed him a mug. He kept Oscar for himself.
Duo took it and examined the print. "'Go away or I will replace you with a very small shell script,'" he read, casting Heero another curious look.
"...Quatre likes giving gifts."
"I see. He's good at choosing them, too, it seems. He's also responsible for the Grumpy dwarf sitting next to your phone?"
"Ah." He had to admit, he found himself very attracted to the decor. When Heero gestured at him to take a seat on the futon sofa, he did, and found himself opposite a small TV, above which hung a large poster emblazoned with the word 'Motivation'. "'If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon,'" he murmured with a smile. "Man, you really take grumpiness to a whole new level of fun, don't you?"
"It's a way of life." Heero settled himself on the bed, accidentally knocking Grumpy over in the process. He set the bear back upright against the wall next to him.
The bland statement increased Duo's enchantment another notch. "Come on, how grumpy can a guy be when he's got a teddy bear sitting next to him?"
Glancing down at his fuzzy companion, Heero once again maintained the deadpan expression on his face. "Between the two of us, we've managed to rain on a few parades."
Duo struggled not to laugh, succeeding mostly by biting his lip and casting about for something else to talk about. He spied the bicycle that was kept behind the front door. "Hey, if you've got a bike, how come you're always walking to class?"
Heero shrugged, his elbow bumping into the bear and tilting him again. He fixed Grumpy's posture once more before answering. "I didn't bring it with me at first. Then I rode it a few times, but the bike rack in front of my class is always full, and it just seemed more trouble than it was worth to find a place to park it, considering it's not that far to campus. And then, the last time I took it out, I found the gears were stuck or something."
"I'd be happy to fix that for ya," Duo was only too glad to suggest. "It'll burn some time, and repay you for your company." And hopefully keep the air between them neutral. He didn't want to know all of these things about Heero. They were just more fuel for the fire.
Heero took him up on the offer, but unfortunately, it turned out that Duo wasn't the only one that was mechanically inclined. Since it was his bike, and it was sitting in his living room, Heero was hardly going to just sit back and watch. They bonded over bicycle grease and bolts, spread out over a dropcloth of junk mail. And then, since it was about that time, Duo finally got to experience just what it was that Heero cooked with all those groceries he bought, and they bonded over dinner, served on a squeaky card table Heero kept in the closet for when he needed it. And then Duo returned the favor and showed Heero that there were more ways to eat fruit than just straight off the pit, and they bonded over dessert, sweet and fresh and an end to an equally sweet and fresh evening.
"You still feeling off your game, Duo?" Heero asked as Duo knelt to tie his boot laces.
"Huh." Somewhere along the way, he'd forgotten why he had started out off-kilter, and he couldn't quite regret the loss of the memory. "No. No, I'm not."
"Good. It's nice seeing people walk out of here with a smile."
Howard adjusted the TV volume down and turned his full attention to the young man still hovering on the threshold. "Oh, well, that's good to hear." Duo nodded mutely. "I don't suppose you've told him that yet?" A shake of the head, the braid swishing back and forth obediently in counterpoint. "Of course. Things are never that easy, are they? I don't suppose you've figured out what the hangup is?"
"I like him, Howie," Duo repeated, his voice no longer raised in declaration, but softened in confidence. "I like him a lot."
Howard chuckled. "Yeah, I think I got that part." But then he realized that that was perhaps the answer to his question. "Are you scared, kiddo?"
Duo's jaw twitched a few times in a multitude of aborted answers before he shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."
Howard patted the seat next to him on the sofa. "Come here and tell Uncle Howie all about it."
Things were sparklier in the morning. As usual, they went through their routine and then headed downstairs to open up the shop. Howard spied a bike sitting at the bottom of the staircase in the back room, and questioned his nephew on its presence.
"Yeah," Duo said, a little smile on his face. "When I was getting ready to go home, Heero said it was late, and lent me his bike so I'd get home faster."
Howard could only blink in astonishment before letting out an impressed whistle. "Hot daaaamn. He is sweet, isn't he?"
"Yeah. He'll be by today to pick it up." And he bounced off to get on with business, leaving Howard to stare bemusedly at his retreating back. Well, they hadn't resolved much of anything last night, but at least it seemed that Duo had cheerfully embraced the fact that he liked the spiky-haired kid. Now was he going to get up the guts to do anything about it?
One day found them upstairs and picking over some free product samples that Howard had acquired for the store. It was mostly a collection of natural and organic personal products. Duo picked up a bottle of sun screen, popped the cap, and sniffed it. "Whoo, take a whiff of this!"
Heero took the proffered bottle cautiously and wafted the scent towards his nose like the good science student he was. "Oof," he choked out, coughing a bit. "That's really foul." He hurriedly shut the wretched thing and put it down.
"Isn't it, though?"
He glared at his long-haired companion. "Then why did you have me smell it?"
Duo shrugged, not looking up from where he was trying a spot of lotion out on the back of his hand. "You didn't ask me what I thought of it." He sniffed his skin. "Hmmm, not really what I'd want to wear, but maybe someone else?" He put the bottle on the good side of the table.
Shaking his head, Heero flipped open the cap of a bottle of shampoo, took a deep breath of fresh air to cleanse his olfactory senses of that last mishap, and then carefully inhaled a safe distance away from the viscous solution. Scenting nothing dangerous, he went for a second breath. "Pleasantly mild." He shut the bottle, pushed it towards the good stack, then picked up a small tin. Failproof breath mints, it declared. He decided to read the label to see if it claimed the impossible.
Duo picked up another bottle of lotion and deemed its fragrance passable. He squeezed out a dab to test out before remembering that he had already slathered some of the other lotion onto his hand, so he reached across the table to borrow Heero's unoccupied hand. Heero halted his study of the fine print and raised an eyebrow at him. "Sorry, wanna see how greasy it is," Duo sang blithely, proceeding to rub the goo into his skin. Heero let him.
"You know, this would be a lot more fun if Howie had gone and gotten beer samples or something," Duo tossed out, rubbing the back of Heero's hand really just a little more than was strictly necessary before releasing it.
"Would Howie let you sample them?" Heero responded absently, distracted by the text and the rubbing. Something about that question hadn't sounded quite right. What was it? Oh. "Howard, I mean."
"Aw, you can go on and call him Howie. It'd be funny to see the look on his face if he heard you say that. Me, I've been calling him Uncle Howie since forever. It was a lot easier for a kid to pronounce, back in the day."
"Hmmm." Heero cocked his head to the side in thought. "I don't think I have any uncles. Or aunts."
"...You don't think? Isn't that the sort of thing a person should know?"
Heero shrugged and dropped the mints in the reject pile. Bad breath didn't originate in the stomach. "Even if they weren't all in Japan, probably, I don't really have any connection with my mother's side of the family since she's passed away. And that was twelve years ago. They probably don't even remember she had a son. And my father, my biological father? I could care less about his side of the family. He ditched us when I was two, anyway, so I dare say it hardly matters. And Odin's an only child."
"You get along well with your stepdad?"
"Yeah, I do." He pulled out a chair at the table and sat down. "Considering he suddenly found himself left raising a kid that wasn't even his? I'd have to respect him for sticking with it, if nothing else. Certainly he's done a better job of it than my real dad."
Duo snorted in agreement.
Heero paused for a moment to deliberate, picking up a tea bag as a cover, then ventured to ask something he'd been wondering for a while. "Can I ask...?"
Indigo eyes met his for a moment and ferreted out the rest of the question before it needed to be said. "Yeah, sure. My parents decided they didn't want me, so they dumped me with Uncle Howie way back in the day. Shows how much they must have wanted to get rid of me, seeing as how neither of them like Howard at all. Haven't really seen 'em much since. Just as well. They don't really care for some of my lifestyle choices."
"Yeah." Already seated at the table, he leaned back in his chair casually. "Mostly the me being gay part."
Heero stopped fiddling with the tea bag caught in his fingers. "You're gay?"
"Given who my best friends are? No. Not at all."
"Oh. Yeah. Well, you never know. Some people don't like getting surprised by that sort of thing. I feel kinda bad, though. My folks blame Howie, which is just lame, because one, it's totally not his fault, and two, they're totally not in a position to complain. Whatever. They're both such bitches, anyway. I'm glad they gave me away." Maybe he was, but there was still a bitter undertone to the words.
Heero thought perhaps he'd steer the conversation away from parents. "...You know, I wouldn't really see that as a 'lifestyle' choice. I mean, is being gay really a way of life? Unless you're... what's the word? Flamingly gay? None of the gay people I know are flamingly gay."
"Yeah, well I wouldn't really expect you to be the type that would be friends with any flamingly gay people."
"Excuse me?" Was he supposed to be offended by that?
"Not to say I think you're close-minded or anything," Duo hastened to clarify. "Just that I think it'd probably be hard to find many introverted, flamingly gay tech geeks, you know?"
"Oh. Yeah, I guess, huh."
"Well, what about you?" There was a very large part of him that didn't want to know, but that part wasn't in control of his mouth at the moment, and all its wild chanting that 'ignorance is bliss' was being blocked out.
"What about me, what?"
"I've shown you mine, now you show me yours." Heero had a 'huh?' look on his face, so Duo rephrased. "I mean, I figure you know what my preferences are, it's only fair I get to know what yours are."
"Oh." Duo thought it somewhat odd that Heero had to take a moment to consider his answer. "I don't know if I have any. I haven't given it much thought. I'm open-minded, I guess. I... sort of had a girlfriend in high school. She was Quatre's friend, and she pestered him to introduce us. I took her out a couple of times... although I suppose it would be more accurate to say she took me out a couple of times." Duo snorted. Heero shrugged and flicked the tea bag back into the undecided pile. "Didn't go anywhere. She got tired of me quickly enough. Dumped me for a jock, I think. That's the most experience I've ever had with that sort of thing. It hasn't really interested me much."
"Hm, well, lucky you." He hadn't decided yet whether the answer had been a good one or not. If Heero had been straight as the crow flies, Duo would have had a fine reason to toss aside those notions he was trying not to entertain. Actually having a chance he didn't want was complicating.
Bleh, but he was going to have to explain himself now, wasn't he? "Life's a lot easier when you don't worry about stuff like that."
Heero made an amused sound. "Tell Quatre that. He's convinced I'm just a 'late bloomer'."
"Later's better, I think. Personally, getting involved with someone right now isn't high on my list of priorities." That didn't mean it wasn't clamoring for a place on the list, though. "There's just so much other stuff going on at this point in life. I don't want to have to deal with all the limitations that it would put on me. Maybe later?"
He wasn't doing a very good job of explaining, was he? Maybe he didn't want to. Or maybe he was still trying to explain it to himself. Maybe it was more like 'convince' himself. He was pretty sure he could live with his decisions, but he didn't exactly want to see the issues pushed in order to find out. "I don't think I could handle school, store, life in general, and having to find time to go on dates and pay attention to my boyfriend, without making myself miserable."
"School." Heero noticed that perhaps he ought to say something with a little more pith than another one word sentence. At least this time, it hadn't quite been a question. "You know, it pains me to say this, but it never occurred to me that you would go to school."
Duo raised an eyebrow at him, glad for the change in subject. "What, you thought I wanted to stay a bag boy for the rest of my life?"
"Of course not. I just... I just never thought about it," he concluded with dignity. He'd only seen Duo outside of the store twice now, if upstairs didn't count as outside. It was still difficult to divorce Duo from his market setting and think of him being anywhere else.
Duo shook his head, rolled his eyes, and chuckled, more than enough to let Heero know just what he thought about that. "I go to the same school you're going to now. Engineering."
"Oh." He picked up a trial dosage of 'nature's painkiller'. "You know, wouldn't nature's painkiller be more like a good whack on the head?"
Duo smirked at the graceless transition in topic, but otherwise let it go. In fact, he encouraged it. "Well, you'd have to be pretty precise about the dosage, otherwise you'd just be making things worse."
"Hello?" The voice sounded like its owner had hurried to catch the phone before the machine did. It was a bright, baritone sort of sound, and completely not what Quatre had been expecting to hear.
"Uh, Heero? I'm sorry, do I--"
"--have the wrong number?" the stranger's voice finished cheerily. "Nope, this is the Yuy residence. Duo speaking. How can I help you?"
Ah. Curious. He cast Trowa a significant look. In the background, they could hear a third party speak. "Duo, give me the phone." Now there was a familiar sound.
"Hey, Duo. It's Quatre and Trowa."
"Go away," Duo muttered distantly to Heero before talking to them again. "Hey, Quatre! Trowa there, too? Long time no see. How's it goin'?"
"We're doing just fine, Duo. And you?"
"Not bad, Q, not bad. Hey, I gotta tell ya, I hear you're responsible for a good bit of Heero's decor here? Loving it."
"Thank you. Heero's easy to shop for, if you know what to look for."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Quatre gave Trowa another look, communicating silently his wonder at the implication that Duo might be friendly enough to be buying Heero presents. Trowa looked right back at him, managing to convey his belief that Quatre was reading too much into that one innocuous statement. Quatre stuck his tongue out at him and continued. "So what are you two doing over there?"
"Hm? Oh, I'm going to force feed him some of my famous lasagna. I haven't had the opportunity to make it lately. Me and my uncle kinda get sick of it after a while, since I make a whole panful -- kinda not worth it to make just a little, you know -- so it's kinda nice having someone to foist off a bit of it on. Heh, I don't even have to cook the whole thing all by myself, this time."
"You're cooking it over at his place?"
"Yup. He was draining noodles, so he couldn't come to the phone."
"Well, I'm done now," Heero's voice sounded. "Give me the phone."
As the two bickered over the phone, one teasing and one, well, teasing but in a serious, 'I might kill you if you don't cooperate with me' sort of way, Quatre threw his boyfriend another arch look and whispered to him, softly so the others wouldn't hear. "They're rather chummy, don't you think? And you said I was meddling."
"You -were- meddling," Trowa answered calmly.
"Well, you said it like it was a bad thing. I mean, come on! They're cooking for each other. Ordering pizza's one thing, but--"
"Oh, hey Heero. I'm sorry, is this not a good time?"
"It's fine. Duo's just going to finish his lasagna."
"Yeah, thanks for the help, buddy!" Duo called loudly. "See if I give you any, then."
"Wasn't the whole point of this little exercise to give some to me?" Heero asked dryly. The others missed Duo's reaction. "So, calling to check up on me again?"
"We tried calling yesterday afternoon, but you weren't in."
"Yesterday? I was probably still at Duo's then."
Oho, wasn't that a fine thing to hear? Quatre smiled. "Well, we have to make sure you're still alive out there, but it seems that now you've got someone else to take care of that...?"
Heero snorted, both at the insinuation, and at his friend's fishing for details. "He tends to do or decide things involving me whether or not he actually gets a response from me, so I don't know how good he is for that."
The blonde beamed again. It sounded like there was a promising pattern of behavior here. "So how long has this been going on?"
"Hey, Heero, open this for me." Duo was presumably handing him a jar or bottle or something for their dinner.
"You sell it, you open it," Heero responded away from the phone's receiver.
"You bought it, you open it."
"I didn't buy it."
"Well, you brought it home."
"Technically, you brought it here."
Quatre smirked some more at Trowa. 'Very chummy,' he mouthed loudly. Trowa just rolled his eyes. When it finally sounded like he had Heero's attention again, he answered the question. "-That- would be a good example of 'this'."
"Hn. He just sort of followed me home one day."
"Puppy love!" he whispered sotto voce. Trowa poked him. "Well, I'm glad to see you're making friends, Heero."
"Trowa, are you there?"
"Hit him for me."
"I'm not in kindergarten, Quatre. I've complied with your demands. Doesn't that mean you can stop pestering me now?"
"Demands? You're not doing this for me, are you, Heero?" He didn't think Heero would go so far just to satisfy his friends, but he couldn't quite be sure. Sometimes there was a downside to having friends that were faithful and reliable.
"...No. I suppose not."
Quatre pumped his fist in triumph. Trowa pushed it back down again. "Do you guys go out and do things together?"
"...'Out'? You mean, like, out? Out there?"
"...That had better be a joke, Yuy." Trowa snickered. "But in case it isn't, yes, I mean out there. Geez. Since my next natural inclination would be to say, you really need to get out more, I'm going to go ahead and assume that that means no, you don't go out and do things."
"...You're infuriating, you know that?" Trowa patted his arm in consolation.
"So I've been told." To the side, he directed Duo to where the pan was.
Quatre sighed and just accepted it. "Well, to each his own. I guess the most important thing is that you're enjoying yourself. Are you having fun, Heero?"
Duo's voice rang out in a muffled curse. "'Fun' is a subjective term," Heero answered blandly. He asked if his visitor needed any help. Since he didn't seem to be occupied with something, Quatre could only assume Duo had refused.
"Alright." He was catching onto things now. "If you won't give me any good subjective answers, I'll just have to pester you for objective answers. So how many hours have you spent with him in the last week?"
A pause as Heero added up the hours in his head. At least he was willing to do that much. "Nine? Or thereabouts."
The blonde bounced a bit in his place. That was a very impressive number, considering they claimed to have never gone out anywhere, and that Heero had class and Duo worked for his uncle. "So what do you guys do? Just... hang out? Cook?"
"Fix. Sample. Shelve. Move. Talk."
"Hopefully with something a little more impressive than one word sentences, Heero," he chided, although the shrug he was sure Heero was engaged in was almost tangible across the line. "Now, just unbend enough to satisfy my curiosity just a little bit more, and I'll let you get back to your guest. You think you'll keep this up?"
"Inertia is a powerful force, if nothing else." That was typical Heero, once again shying away from admitting any signs of affection. Quatre would take that as the 'yes' it was.
"Well, keep on inerting, then. Heck, build up a little momentum, even. I mean it, okay? So tell Duo we said good-bye. I hope we can all get together sometime. We'll have to drag Wufei along, too, when he's back in town."
"I will. Good-bye, Quatre. You, too, Trowa."
"Bye~!" Duo's voice carried across the apartment and over the line, making Quatre smile.
After they hung up, Quatre sniffled. "Aw, our little Heero's all grown up now, Trowa." Trowa pulled him into a hug and gave him a few pats on the back. "I think Duo will be very good for him."
Duo gave his uncle a vicious glare before setting the last flattened box aside. "Howie..." It sounded something like a warning growl.
"Oh, sorry," Howard said completely non-contritely. "Your not-boyfriend, then."
"You're making me cross."
"Well, if you'd just be a normal person, you wouldn't be cross."
"And since when have you ever encouraged me to be normal?" He picked up the stack of cardboard and started carrying it to the back of the store.
Howard followed. "Since you started... this! We agreed that you like him, right?"
"Just making sure I still have all my facts straight. 'Cuz I'm still not getting this whole 'you're not gonna do anything about that' thing."
Duo heaved a sigh that was a prayer for patience. "That's it right there. I'm not gonna do anything about it. Can't get more simple than that, right?"
"So you've determined that he's straight and you can't convert him?"
He snickered. "'Convert'? Geez. No, that's not it. He'd be open to it." He declined to continue until Howard reached forth and tugged on his braid, although Howard would have claimed that, rather than a demand, it had been a signal to stop so he could kindly open the back door for his wonderful nephew, which he did. "You never encouraged me to be normal, but you did encourage me to make my decisions and stick with them, and that's what I'm doing."
"But why did you make your decision in the first place?" The force of Howard's gaze was not particularly diluted by the protective barrier of his sunglasses, but Duo had long since become immune to them anyway.
"'Cuz I don't wanna get involved with someone right now." It seemed he had said this before. He just thought it was self-explanatory. Forget the boyfriends, forget the romance, forget the disappointment, forget the letdowns, and just concentrate on what was important right now. He didn't want to deal with people that didn't live up to their hype anymore. He was tired of people looking to him to show them a good time. And he was getting upset with people that kept questioning his priorities.
"But you like him." More than he had ever liked anybody, according to his confession. He freely admitted that he'd never been very interested in any of the other guys he'd dated. Howard could understand if that scared the kid off a bit, but that should have just been hesitation, not iron-clad decisiveness, unless that was what had inspired this misguided insanity in the first place.
"I made a decision," Duo repeated sternly. "I'm gonna stick with it. I'm not gonna just drop it for the first pretty face that happens to come my way."
"If he was just a pretty face, I wouldn't even be discussing this with you."
If only Howard would disapprove, he'd have a much easier time of this. He would have thought that, of all people, Howard would have understood. Howard was pretty high up there on his list of priorities. "So I like him. Big deal."
Howard lowered his shades just so he could stare at his nephew over their rims. "Big deal? Big deal?!"
Duo shrugged and left the backroom. "Just because I don't want to ask him out, doesn't mean I can't hang out with him or anything. I mean, he's right there, and blissfully oblivious. And really, what are the chances that he'll ever find someone that I'll be jealous of? I mean, no offense to him and all, but geez. He's about as approachable as a porcupine."
"You got through to him. Maybe someone else will be able to. Don't take him for granted, kiddo. You shouldn't do that in general, and if you've only had him around for a little less than a summer, you really shouldn't do that."
He ruthlessly crushed the seedling of worry that tried to poke its head through the fertile soil of his mind. All the more reason not to get involved, if he wasn't going to be around reliably. He recalled Quatre saying something about Heero's reliability, but he swept that under the rug, too. This wasn't a part of the plan, so it had no place here. "Look, I don't need him to like me back or anything. Things are fine the way they are." Really. Yup, really. Not part of the plan. Not gonna do it. Maybe if he said it enough times, he'd start believing it with every last fiber of his being. Maybe. "It's like seeing something in a window that you really want, but there's no room in your budget for it. It'd be pretty stupid to go ahead and buy it anyway, don't you think?"
The electronic door chime sounded and two sets of eyes automatically zoomed in on the mirrors to inspect their guest. Duo moved off to intercept with his customer's grin back on his face, effectively ending their conversation. "Hey there, Mr. Mueller. How are you doing today?"
Howard shook his head. "You're budgeting too tight, kid."
His schoolwork was done, his dinner consumed, his kitchen cleaned, so he laid down on his bed with Grumpy Bear to reflect on his life and try to pinpoint the transition. It probably wouldn't make a difference, but he liked knowing these things.
He reviewed the regular events of his day to see if he couldn't find something that might account for this unusual turn of events. He got up in the morning with the same amount of sleep that he normally got. His sleep was as restful as it ever was. His morning routine had remained undisturbed for years. He left for class the same time he had at the beginning of the summer, and got to class at the same time as well. He was used to having either no thoughts at all or deep and morose thoughts during his trips to and from campus, but he really couldn't recall any morose thoughts he'd had in recent days. Well, that was a symptom, not a cause, so no help to be found in the first hour of his day.
He went to his classes. Still found them about as uninteresting as ever. They were, after all, classes he'd had to take to satisfy his requirements and 'catch up' to where a third year student ought to be. Some of the material overlapped things he'd already learnt. Could he be relieved now that an end was in sight? No, the whole miserable cycle would probably begin again, come fall semester. It wasn't until he got to the upper division classes that he would have room to enjoy himself. His level of interaction with his fellow students had remained constant. He hadn't become attached to any of them, really, although most of them didn't seem too bad a bunch to be acquainted with.
Class was let out on time, as usual, and then he walked back to his apartment. Sometimes along the way he'd stop by the market as he had since the first day and pick up some groceries. Duo would be inanely cheerful at him--
No, wait, that wasn't quite right anymore, now was it? No, somehow, some time, he'd managed to fall into a pit of friendship with the lively store clerk, and a quick review of the rest of his day showed nothing significant enough to undermine the working theory that Duo was somehow responsible for this change in his mood.
Hmmm, Duo. Now there was an interesting character. He wasn't the kind of friend that Heero was accustomed to. While it was possible that Howard was simply slipping something mind-altering into his produce, Heero went ahead and discarded that notion as unnecessarily complicated. No, there was just something very... 'Duo' about Duo. He'd managed to inveigle Heero into doing all sorts of things he never thought he'd be doing, like... like... wow, was he actually dropping by the store to chat with Duo about nothing relevant at all? Did he actually feel that Howard's had become something of a home away from home?
Well, this was unprecedented. The situation reminded him faintly of Trowa's, when he first met Quatre. They had all been surprised when the two of them had become a cohesive unit. Quatre was so very different from Trowa, and from Heero and Wufei as well. Who knew that they would be so complementary? Yes, in that way, Heero found himself in a set of circumstances quite like Trowa and Quatre's....
Trowa and Quatre...
He blinked several times at the ceiling, cogitated, then turned his head to look Grumpy in the eye. "What do you think?"
'I think you should call Trowa.'
"You're right." He stood up to do just that, not quite sure what was more disturbing: that he was talking to a Care Bear, or that the Care Bear was talking back. Well, that was an issue for another day. One thing at a time.
"Good." Pleasantries quickly disposed of, Heero got to the point. "I've come to a horrible realization tonight, Trowa."
"We're terribly alike, aren't we?"
"I'm sorry to hear that."
He smiled briefly. "I was curious to find out just how alike we are."
He sat back down on his bed with Grumpy. Maybe if he couldn't figure out how to explain himself, Grumpy might prompt him. "I've met this person that's very unlike me, and yet I've somehow managed to bond with him."
"Ah." That was less of an acknowledgment sound and more of a 'I've completely grasped the situation as you have relayed it' sound. "Duo."
"Aa." That was an affirmative. "I thought perhaps you might be able to assist me in this matter."
"Did you think there was a checklist?"
"I suppose that's too much to ask?"
"I didn't get one," he pointed out without rancor. "Why should you?"
"But I helped you."
"That you did." Yes, Trowa had also been blindsided by a bouncy ball of energy, and Heero had had the pleasure of helping him figure out just what hit him. It was time to return the favor. "So... Have you given this much thought yet?"
"Some. I thought I'd better get some outside input before I overanalyzed it to death."
"Ah. Do you want it to be one or the other?"
"Either is fine." They were both about the same, in his mind. Either way, Duo had already filled the empty niche in his life that had been waiting patiently for so long. The only reason a romantic relationship might disturb him was that he, Heero Yuy, would be the one engaged in it. The fact that he was even contemplating the possibility of it was already out of character for him. Of course, the mere friendship itself was somewhat jarring as well.
"Is he... special? Different from the rest of us?"
Special... Well, he was certainly different, and not simply in temperament. That much was obvious. Just look at what sort of behavior he had managed to wring out of Heero, and without even trying, no less. In the end, he would have to say, Duo was different in not displeasing ways, so that probably fit the definition of 'special'. "Yes."
"Hm. Can you tell me why? Or perhaps 'how' would be easier."
Indeed. Easier, but not easy. "I don't know if it's just that his nature is simply different from yours. But if I can overcome all of those surface differences that would normally turn me away, and still enjoy his company as much as I would yours, that seems rather special, don't you think?"
"'As much as'. But in the same way?"
"No. We're... we're quiet. Calm. He's... lively. If what we have is... a steady, reliable thing, he's more... refreshing. Uplifting. Both good, but differently." It was hard trying to explain these things, wasn't it? Hopefully he wouldn't have to do it too often. And it wasn't quite embarrassing to be discussing his relationship with Trowa to Trowa himself, but it did seem somewhat awkward. They weren't people that really discussed such things, nor thought such things important, but now it was necessary. His relationship with Duo was too difficult to explain or think about on its own; it helped to do so by comparison, especially in trying to determine how Duo differed from his other relationships.
"Hm, that increases the possibility of, but does not confirm. How often do you think about him?" Some of these questions were sounding familiar, but if he had asked them the first time, and Trowa found them to be relevant now, then they had probably been good questions.
"Often? That's difficult to quantify... but I think... more than I would expect. I think I think about him sometimes for no good reason at all." For a person that had reasons for almost everything, this was special indeed.
"Promising. I suppose the obvious question I forgot to ask would be whether or not you lust after his body."
"Really, Trowa. Can you imagine me lusting after anything?"
"Well, he'd have to be pretty darn special for that, I'll give you that much. But if things were that simple, you probably wouldn't be calling. Have you thought about that, though? The physical side of things?"
"I don't have much to think about, being that I'm pretty unfamiliar with the details of what that might involve. But... I don't think it would be unpleasant. He has good hygiene, and appears to be in good health. That's about all I can say." He thought about that one time Duo had been rubbing lotion into the skin of the back of his hand. That had been sort of distracting, though not in a bad or uncomfortable way. But if it had been someone else, he thought it would probably have been distracting in a bad or uncomfortable way.
"Hm, definite pluses. There aren't any silly extenuating circumstances that I should know about, are there? Like, him being straight?"
"Doesn't already have a boyfriend?"
"Your family has no blood feud with his?"
"Not that I know of."
"Criminal record that might cause him to flee the country?"
"Not that I know of. ...You know, I found out he goes to LIT, too. He's an engineering major."
"And he's intelligent, too. So he'll be around, and you'll probably see each other. Might even have classes with him."
Heero used to have a problem with him being something other than just 'the guy at the market'. Luckily, he'd gotten over that, or them being classmates might just pose a problem for him. "When he told me... I think I was glad to hear it."
"Huh." That one sound managed to communicate in a concise little package the degree to which Trowa was impressed. Even Heero was rather impressed. "Well, if you're this open to a different sort of relationship with him, which, to my knowledge, has never happened before, I'd probably have to say that, if you chose to pursue it, it'd probably work out well. But I also think you'll be fine if you don't choose to walk that path. In the end, it's up to you."
"No suggestions?" It said something that Heero was asking.
"It's up to you," Trowa repeated. "But if I had to suggest something, I'd say, take your time, try and see what he thinks. No point in worrying about it if he's not even interested. Of course, if you wanted to convince him that he was interested then, well, that's a whole other story."
Heero ran a hand tiredly through his hair. "Quatre will be ecstatic, won't he?"
"Forget about Quatre. I'll keep him off your back, if it comes to that. You're the one that's going to have to live with your decisions. Choose wisely. But as dire as that sounds, Heero, remember: whatever you choose, it's not going to kill you."
"And what doesn't kill me makes me stronger?" He let out a dry chuckle, then a sigh. "Thanks, Trowa. I mean that."
"If you need anything else..."
"Now that you mention it, can you do me one more favor?"
"Don't worry. I won't tell him."
After they said their good-byes, Heero put the phone down, laid back, and stared at Grumpy, who chose to sit complacently on Heero's tummy. Eventually Heero rolled over on his side with Grumpy in his arms and, after a few moments of careful consideration, decided that it was rather comfy. Then he tried to imagine that the bear was another human being, or more specifically, that the bear was Duo. To his surprise, he could. And it was still rather comfy.
"What do you think, Grumpy?"
He fancied he heard the response, 'Get the hell offa me, Yuy.' Smiling to himself, he released the poor, set-upon bear and rose to take a shower.
And so it was that they were in Heero's apartment one seasonably warm night, stewing over those three questions: where have you been, where are you now, and where are you going? The issues simmered in their minds, contributing to the lazy, introspective mood, but were not vocalized. They were not feeling so profound as all that.
"So an atheist and a Muslim were taking skydiving lessons..."
"I think I've heard that one."
"Oh." Duo frowned. "I think I've run out, then."
"It's about time." Lying on the floor, Heero shut his eyes against the rotating blades of the ceiling fan and the gentle currents it was kicking up. He didn't normally like having his eyes closed in company. It made him feel vulnerable, but he wasn't thinking about that just now.
"You?" As Heero hmmed in thought, Duo turned his head from where he lay beside Heero and found himself with an opportunity to take advantage of his companion's inattention.
"I probably only know the popular ones," Heero said eventually, unmindful of the eyes that soaked in the sight of his profile. "You know the one about the two groups of students and the train ride?"
"And the conductor and the ticket and the bathroom trick? Yeah, Prof. Harris likes to tell that one with his alma mater and their rival as the two schools for the students."
"Hm. My prof liked telling it with CS majors and engineers."
"Hey. I certainly hope the engineers came out on top." It seemed simply unfair to Duo that Heero had to look so cute when he was relaxed. With his head against the floor, gravity pulled the hair away from his face, leaving a clear view of features often hidden behind bangs that shielded him from the rest of the world.
"Hn. He was a CS prof."
"Mathematician and the poet?"
"Maybe. There's probably more than one of them out there."
"Train ride. They get bored, have a riddle contest."
"Oh. Yeah. I've heard that one, too. Poet won, right?" For whatever reason, Heero wrinkled his nose just then, for an imaginary itch or something, and Duo thought that, too, was unfair. He wanted to close his eyes and block out the view, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.
"Mm-hmm. Well, there's one my multi-v prof made up on the spot when he was trying to explain why anyone would want to use a surface integral to calculate the mass of something."
"Basically, mathematicians are just funny that way."
"Tell me you've just cut out most of the joke, because by itself, the punchline just isn't that funny."
"Engineers would just weigh the damn thing. Go fig."
Duo chuckled lightly. "Duh. What would a CS person do?"
"Have someone else weigh it."
"Lazy people." He prodded Heero's arm with his elbow, and had to pull his reluctant appendage away from the contact with an effort and a half-hearted reprimand. "You'd probably have an engineer do it."
"Chemists would probably grind it up and dissolve it into a solution or something, maybe burn it, then analyze the components."
"Mmmm, I think I wanna be a chemist."
"You would." Did Heero let that smile curve up his lips because he thought Duo wasn't watching? But Heero opened his eyes and turned his head just then, catching him at it.
Neither of them could find it in himself to do much more than blink at the other. It was a surprisingly comfortable silence that fell upon them, until Heero spoke, and the question he uttered entered the silence so smoothly it barely caused a ripple. "Why do you look at me like that sometimes?"
If Duo hadn't been feeling so complacent at the time, he would have known better than to ask. "Like what?"
"Like... you're happy and sad, all at the same time."
His breath caught in a near choke, but he transformed it into a long, steadying breath instead, and exhaled just as carefully. It was also unfair that Heero could read him like that, and that he cared enough to ask. This whole thing was unfair. "Dammit, Heero," he cursed softly. "Why do you have to be so... so right?"
Confusion was expressed in the twitch of an eyebrow.
He had doomed himself from the start. Words and emotions too long denied outlet refused to stay obedient now that the subject had been broached. "You're... God, you're sweet and cute and smart and funny... I liked it better when you were just eyecandy. Why can't you just be another one of the losers?"
Uncertainty showed in the shift of a head. "...Do you want me to be?"
"No," he breathed. "God, no. But I feel like you're just too good to be true, Heero. I've been waiting all this time for the bubble to pop, but it hasn't. I told myself I didn't want to get involved with anyone right now, that it'd be a mistake, but you're making it awful hard to hold to that. Honestly, you're sort of making all my reasons and arguments fly out the window."
"Sorry." A soft, heartfelt apology with an even softer question mark at the end.
"You're no loser. You're not trying to get me to center my life around yours. You're not trying to get into my pants. You're not just coming by when you want something from me. You're not forgetting everything I say, the moment I say it. You're not mistaking the act for the customers for the real thing. You're not putting any demands on my time -- I'm just handing it to you on a silver platter. And you don't grab for it, you just accept it. And you give me your time, and you even help out at the store, just because you're there and you feel like it, and God, you've never once even questioned why I spend so much time helping Howie out..."
"But... that's because I understand." He was like that with Odin. He made it a point to go home and reconnect with his stepdad, not out of obligation, but just out of love and respect. People sometimes asked why it was that he was taking care of his father, and not the other way around, and Heero had no answer for them. That was simply the way things were. They took care of each other.
Duo smiled helplessly. "Well, you see, that's what I mean." He rolled onto his side to face him, and the move put him just that much closer to Heero. Heero watched him do it, and didn't feel the urge to pull back. "You're not messing anything up. How can you be a mistake if you're not messing anything up?"
Heero didn't know what to say, so he said nothing. And if what he thought was coming was coming, he would let it come.
"And if you're not a mistake..." His hand lifted of its own accord to brush aside some hair that had fallen across Heero's eyes, and when that was done, it lingered, sweeping softly across a cheekbone and downwards with the back of his hand until his leading knuckle caught lightly in the corner of Heero's mouth. "...Do you want this as much as I do?"
"I don't know." Duo's hand was warm against his skin, an unfamiliar sensation, yes, but one that was not bothering him in the slightest. His lips caressed the knuckle at the corner of his mouth as he spoke, and that did not bother him either. "I'm not even sure I know what 'this' is. I've never done 'this' before." He sighed, and the air across the back of Duo's hand made it tremble, and it withdrew to a safe distance to rest in the space between them. "What have you done to me, Duo?"
"Me?" Wide eyes blinked innocently at him.
"This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen to me. You're not a part of my plan, either."
"...Wasn't I just saying that this whole thing was your fault?"
"Did you hear me agreeing?"
It started as a snicker, and then a laugh, and then Duo found himself trying to rein in the faint hysterical edge to it. He got it under control with a shudder, and when he was ready to meet clear blue eyes again, he could only release a sigh. "Are you going to try and distract me from my schoolwork, Heero?"
"School is important," Heero answered quite seriously. He, too, had rolled over on his side while Duo had been distracted, and the air between them grew heated from the proximity.
"And are you going to try and stop me from working at Howard's?"
"Family is important, too."
"Are you going to try and get me to ditch my other friends just to be with you?"
"I don't know. I've never met them. Are they bad influences on you?"
Duo chuckled again, and this time, it was a terribly contented sound. "Honesty's important, too. Sweet Jesus, Heero. What are we doing?" He wasn't completely new to 'this', but he'd never felt this way, never fallen this far, before. He'd never been so taken in by anyone. It was entirely different, nervewracking, and breathtaking.
"I was hoping you would know."
Another sweet, soft laugh fell from his lips. "Oh boy. It'll be the blind leading the blind, then. Hope we don't trip and fall over anything."
"Maybe..." Heero's gaze fell to his hand, which crept forward tentatively until it met Duo's on the carpet. After it had done nothing more courageous than resting on top of its companion, he raised his eyes to meet Duo's once more. "...We can hold hands? That way we'll fall together."
"Heh, I should have known better. I thought maybe you'd say something more like, we can help each other out with keeping our balance and staying upright or something. You know. Something more glass-half-full."
It was a night for sighs, and this moment was no exception. "Maybe... we can just not move for a while?" His hand shifted around until their palms met and fingers could embrace.
"Yeah." Heero smiled. "We could do that."
"I went for it."
last modified : 10/7/2007 00:27:02 PST