One Year, Two Minutes (2/3)

Of the two of them, Duo seemed to be the more consistently aware of the deception they were perpetuating and how best to keep it up. This was the case, he believed, for two reasons: first, the plot had been his idea originally, and he was probably enjoying it more and therefore more invested; second, Heero’s insistence on not dating seemed to be of long standing, and Duo was starting to think his ‘boyfriend’ had never actually gone out with anyone at all and wasn’t really sure how it was done (and therefore what he should be doing to imitate it).

This was both surprising and entirely predictable: surprising because Heero was at the very least an excellent homework companion and quite good-looking (and what more did you really need in high school?), predictable because he was also so damn serious about everything and so single-mindedly dedicated to the future. Homework, homework, homework… this and college applications were to him, evidently, the only suitable occupations for a high school senior. And while Duo was finding that doing homework with Heero was actually surprisingly fun — especially when questionnaires were involved to break up the monotony — he thought Heero could stand to be a little more aware of their ‘romance.’

So, when Valentine’s Day was on the horizon and the student council had set up a related fundraiser, Heero sent Duo roses and chocolate for the occasion without even knowing that he’d done so.

Duo pored over the limited selection of candy and flowers on the order form for a good ten minutes before filling it out in as precise an imitation as he could manage of Heero’s excessively neat, tiny handwriting. Then he tried to convince Trowa to take it to a member of the student council (or designated representative) on his behalf, since verisimilitude would suffer otherwise and Trowa was one of two other people in the school that knew the truth.

“No,” said Trowa. “This little game of yours is stupid.”

“You brought me that note about where his locker was!”

“That was for Quatre,” Trowa replied in a ‘that’s totally different’ sort of tone.

He’ll do it for me,” grumbled Duo. “Except I won’t see him until lunch, and it’s so hard to get him alone… it’ll look really weird if I ask to speak to him privately or whatever.” He gazed at Trowa beseechingly. “Please? I’ll split the chocolate with you?”

Trowa raised a brow. Actually he might have been raising both, but with that hair it was impossible to tell. “And that won’t look weird? Everyone already thinks it’s suspicious that you don’t eat lunch with him every day… it won’t help your case if you give half the chocolate he supposedly sent you to another guy.”

“I am a man of many friends,” Duo said loftily. “Anyone who knows Heero at all knows he’d much rather eat lunch without me than get dragged around to all sorts of–” He cut himself off, since there was no reason to be making this excuse at this point to this person. “Aaahhh, come on, Trowa, you’ve gotta help me out!”

Trowa shook his head.

“You know Quatre will probably just ask you to do it once I ask him anyway… why not skip the middle step?”

At this eminently valid point, Trowa’s stony expression softened a trifle.

Encouraged, Duo went on. “Quatre wouldn’t ruin this for us… and he wouldn’t like it if you did…”

“Fine,” Trowa sighed. “Give me the stupid order form. Only don’t get angry if I lose it or forget about it.”

Though Duo had known him for only a month and a half or so, he was already able to postulate at least tentatively that Trowa had never lost or forgotten anything in his life. With a big grin he handed over the envelope containing the order form and his payment. “You better not!” he said cheerfully. “Thank you so very much!”

Trowa just turned wordlessly away.

The appeal of this procedure was not so much the items themselves — roses and chocolates were neither rare nor too terribly expensive even for high-schoolers — but, rather, the fact that they would be delivered in the middle of classes all through the week leading up to Valentine’s Day. This way, the recipient could be surprised and delighted, and possibly delightfully embarrassed, in front of various classmates, thus flaunting their relationship status before the world. And this relationship was one that could do with some judicious flaunting right about now.

Valentine’s Day was next Tuesday, and it was the Friday beforehand when Duo’s present ‘from’ his ‘boyfriend’ arrived. Since this had been going on for several days now, everyone in the room knew what it meant when the student wearing sparkly hearts bobbling on a red headband entered the classroom; the teacher gave a longsuffering sigh, a couple of the girls in back squealed with joy, and Duo craned his neck hopefully.

Having no idea when his offering would appear but knowing one was coming at some point, he was more interested, perhaps, than anyone else in the class. Given that he’d seen no reason not to be extravagant, and had ordered the opulent chocolate sampler box and a full dozen roses, he should have been able to tell right away whether or not his purchase was being delivered now… but it appeared that there were several orders to distribute in this class, and the wise delivery boy, knowing his showmanship, saved Duo’s for last. So it took Duo a minute to be satisfied that it was finally his turn, that he could sit back and prepare to be surprised and delighted and maybe delightfully embarrassed.

He really was pleased. There was a lot of chocolate, which looked pretty delicious, and the roses were a nice mix of colors and smelled good. But mostly he liked the reaction he got from the rest of the class and the guarantee of a compounded reaction throughout the rest of the school throughout the rest of the day. Anyone that didn’t think Heero was a romantic devil with impeccable taste would have reason to change their mind when this gossip hit them.

Which reminded Duo that he should probably inform Heero about this at some point.

Heero’s remark after school, however — “I hope I get some of that chocolate” — made it clear that Duo needn’t worry about pouring out the story.

“It was really very sweet of you,” Duo replied in a tone of mock adoration.

“So I’ve been told by at least four people.” Despite Heero’s flatness, it was obvious he wasn’t really unhappy about the circumstance.

“And, sure, you can have some of the chocolate,” Duo grinned. “Though I should remind you that you have a mom who makes you super-delicious food all the time!”

Heero gave him a long, serious look. “Yes,” he said at last, quietly, “I do.”

“Whoa, hey,” protested Duo, “I wasn’t trying to be like, ‘Oh, your mom’s so much cooler than mine’ or anything!” And when Heero’s expression did not change, he demanded, “You’re not feeling sorry for me, are you?”

Turning his face from Duo, Heero was completely inscrutable for half a block. Finally he said, “No, I’m not sorry for you at all.”

Duo made an offended noise. “That’s so cold!”

“I thought you didn’t want me to feel sorry for you.” Now there was a hint of laughter in Heero’s voice.

“Yeah, but you don’t have to be like that about it.”

“I’m not sorry for you,” Heero explained in a tone that was part his usual solemnity and part amusement, “because you’ve done so well. You didn’t have a very good home situation, but you made the best of it and got out as soon as you could… and now you have an apartment and a job and plans for your future, and you don’t even act bitter about your parents or your past. Most of the time. I don’t think many people could have come through what you have and still been as… cheerful–” he frowned a bit, as if this wasn’t quite the right word– “as you are.”

Duo thought he was blushing a little at this totally unexpected praise. “Wow, Heero, thanks!” It wasn’t just the praise, though. His own reaction to it — a warmth that went beyond only his cheeks, tingling all through him — was totally unexpected too. With a wide grin he added, “Just for that, you can have as much chocolate as you want!”

And though Heero’s answering smile was triumphant, as if that was the goal he’d been aiming for with all those pretty words, Duo was no less pleasantly convinced that he’d meant them.

***

Relena felt she knew Heero better than most other people at this school did, for all they’d been buried in gossip about him recently. It wasn’t just because she’d been crushing on him so hard a couple of years back, either. Well, not entirely. She knew what people said about that, too, and she didn’t care. She still considered herself something of a Heero expert: she had hung around him, watched him, and dragged him into conversation probably more than anyone else had ever bothered to make the effort to do.

Because it was an effort. He could become quite animated on a topic that interested him even if it wasn’t homework, but getting that process started was a cold and brambly business for which most people just didn’t have the stamina. He could and sometimes did express concern for the issues of those around him, but it was almost as if he had to receive some sort of mysterious authorization from somewhere to feel that he was allowed to. And even Relena hadn’t quite figured out how to push the right buttons to get him to act like a human on a regular basis.

Sometimes at lunch it seemed he was listening quietly to the conversation around him even if he wasn’t taking part, but most of the time he was off in a different world (probably a world of homework) and would be irritable and only a little less laconic if you attempted to drag him out of it for something as unimportant as friendship. Assuming he even knew what that word meant.

It took the briefest look around at such times to see just how many friends Heero had… or claimed to have. Relena had long been fairly secure in the sad belief that he’d allowed her to drag him into this particular group solely in order to be able to claim he did have friends, so people wouldn’t get on his case about being more sociable… which was, she supposed, understandable. Certainly this little circle already gave him hell about his general unfriendliness.

Because he never came to their parties, never hung out with them anytime or anywhere besides lunch at school, never joined them for group discounts at the local amusement park or watched movies with them or came over to see so-and-so’s dad’s new motorcycle she was going to get to learn to drive, or anything. Almost nobody in the group had ever been to Heero’s house or even knew where he lived; those that had visited had done so in the context of group assignments for some class or other, hadn’t managed to see Heero’s bedroom, and had come away with far more information about his mom’s cooking than any other aspect of his home life.

And yet here was Duo, who had somehow gotten past everything that kept Heero distanced from everyone he called a friend and evidently knew exactly which buttons to push. Duo was at Heero’s house every day, apparently, talked to Heero all the time without annoying him, somehow even managed to make Heero smile on a regular basis…

Relena couldn’t help feeling a little wistful about this. She was over the crush, really, but she still liked Heero. It was great to see him so happily engaged with another person… but sometimes she still wished, for all she told herself not to, that she could be that person. After all, she’d tried so hard… not just to get him to pay attention to her specifically, but to realize that general sociability was a healthy, positive thing.

Duo was helping with that too. Heero was far more willing to join in the group discussion when Duo was a part of it, seemed much more interested in the doings and opinions of his fellows in echo of Duo’s interest. Admittedly he was still dreadfully bad at following gossip and keeping track of what was going on socially, especially outside their circle, but perhaps such minute interest wasn’t for everyone. In any case, Duo was obviously pulling him out of his shell a bit, and Heero was all the better for it.

Relena sighed at herself as she turned these thoughts over while perhaps not-so-clandestinely watching Heero and Duo over lunch. It was that smile that did it, really. She’d barely even been aware that Heero could smile, and now here he was doing it all the time. And apparently it brought out her obnoxious stalker side despite the fact that she had no trace of romantic intentions left toward him. She just wanted to be his friend (and, by extension, Duo’s, though that wasn’t nearly as difficult), and have him know that she was there for him. And maybe she wanted to make up for how she’d behaved before.

One thing she definitely planned on was proving to him, somehow, that she truly wasn’t chasing after him anymore, that he could feel safe around her. It would be nice to prove that to everyone else, too. She really had gone a bit overboard back when she’d been pursuing him; she supposed high school was full of embarrassing circumstances that must be regretted later, but she wasn’t finished looking back abashedly on that one yet.

Duo happened to glance around just then, and, catching her eye by chance, favored her with one of his big, friendly grins, so opposite Heero’s shy, precious little smiles. With the sudden thought that they were a couple of oddly disparate shapes that fit together remarkably well, she returned the smile warmly… and she thought that doing so served to dispel, just a little, some trace of suspicion that might have been in Duo’s eyes. It would be good to prove to him, too, that she wasn’t after his boyfriend. She would have to get working on that right away.

***

“I have today off!” Duo announced on Tuesday as they headed home from school.

“I know,” Heero replied. “You’ve been crowing about it ever since you got your schedule, but you never told me why it’s so exciting.”

“Because I have…” Duo dug around in a pocket. “A coupon that’s only good today! ‘Buy one regular price entree and one drink, get one entree of equal or lesser value and one drink free. Excludes alcohol.’ Might as well use it, right?”

“Have fun with that.”

“What, you think I’m going to eat two entrees on my own? You’re supposed to come with me.” Duo obviously saw that Heero was about to refuse with the usual excuse, for he went on quickly, “We can do homework there as easily as at your house… and I don’t want to waste the coupon…”

Heero supposed he was right. “What restaurant is it?”

“It’s actually not too far from my work.”

“Farther than I want to walk,” Heero concluded. “We’ll see if we can borrow my mom’s car.”

This permission granted and all the homework items Heero thought he would need packed, they headed for the restaurant in question. And once there and seated, Heero would have gotten right back up and marched right back out again, after his initial glance at the prices on the menu, if Duo hadn’t had that coupon.

He’d debated the merits of finding a part-time job during his last year and a half or so of high school, and decided that working only over the summers and concentrating fully on schoolwork the rest of the time was a better idea. As such, his parents still gave him an allowance… but that didn’t mean he had a lot of extra money floating around — or any inclination to spend what he did have on overpriced food. Splitting the cost of a single entree and drink with Duo, however, was acceptable.

It wasn’t the type of restaurant he would have chosen of his own accord in any case (which might have been why Duo had never mentioned the name of the place). The decor, layout, and advertising were clearly aimed at big groups of sociable people, and the waiter was trying too hard to be hilarious. But they were seated at a large booth with plenty of room to spread out homework across the table, and the music wasn’t too loud; it shouldn’t be a bad couple of hours.

Duo was decorating his trigonometry homework again. Heero couldn’t even begin to guess what his teacher made of the completed assignments, which were probably 125-150% as long as his classmates’. He put fancy borders around all the problems, and the number for each he drew ornately in a box like an illuminated letter in a book. And, just to be sure they weren’t overwhelmed by their surroundings, the figures and symbols involved in the problems themselves were big and bold.

Today’s theme seemed to be snakes (which it not infrequently was, since these were easy to make into borders and whatnot), and Duo had added a red pen to his previous lineup of black and blue, so the end result was even more colorfully squiggly than ever before. This only made Heero shake his head; they’d already had a ‘You’re going to get in trouble for that eventually’ / ‘No, I’m not!’ conversation, and there was little purpose in discussing it any further.

But then he noticed that Duo had somehow managed to draw a snake on the edge of his paper too.

Heero had always prided himself on the neatness of his homework, especially math. This snake, except for the wide-mouthed head that was pointed threateningly at one row, was approximately centered in the empty margin, and therefore didn’t necessarily negatively affect the look of the page… but he did wonder what his teacher would have to say about it. It had stripes and spots and a little heart in its tail.

Duo, surreptitiously watching him discover the serpentine embellishment, was trying to keep a straight face. Calmly Heero asked, “When did you even do this? I never saw you with my papers.”

“That,” Duo replied with swiftly-eroding solemnity, “is because I am a ninja. A snake ninja.”

“You don’t look much like one.” Heero could keep from smiling far longer than Duo; he always won these little unofficial contests.

“I mean I’m a ninja of snakes. Not, like, a snake that’s a ninja.”

“You don’t look much like any kind of ninja.”

“That’s just part of my disguise!”

Finally Heero broke down and returned Duo’s grin. “I’m just not sure what Mrs. Aberich thinks of ninja snakes.”

“Well, here, let me fix it,” Duo laughed, snatching the paper away from Heero and starting to add something to his design. Heero tried to get it back or otherwise prevent this, but Duo scooted out of his reach and kept at whatever he was doing. When the math homework was finally retrieved, more because Duo was finished than because Heero was assiduous, the latter discovered that Duo had written in a column under the existing picture, This snake escaped from Duos homework because Heeros looked SO MUCH MORE DELICIOUS.

Heero gave a pained laugh and added apostrophes to their names.

“Oh, wait!” said Duo in a tone of epiphany. “Hang on, let me–”

Ready to defend to the death this time, Heero drew back, but battle was forestalled by the arrival of their food. They had to make room for it on the table amongst their various assignments and things, and by the time the plates were settled and the waiter had delivered a few bad lines and left to get them some drink refills, they’d lost track of the snake issue. They might have gotten back to it if, oddly, someone they knew hadn’t appeared at their table just as they started eating.

“Wow, Heero, I didn’t expect to see you here! Like, ever!” Sylvia was looking very pretty with glittery barrettes in her hair and a face full of makeup; she must have stopped at home after school to change clothing, too, since her current outfit definitely suggested ‘date.’ Funny coincidence that she was here, though.

“Duo had a coupon,” Heero answered her.

As Sylvia’s gaze roamed across the homework-covered table and her mouth tried futilely and obviously not to smile, Duo greeted her too. “Hi, Sylvia. Are you actually officially going out with that guy now?”

Heero subtly followed his slight gesture, and caught the tail end of a dirty look from the beefy blonde football player just settling into a booth not far off.

“Yeah, kinda…” Sylvia did not look back at Alex; she knew what Duo meant.

“‘Yeah, kinda’ is not officially,” said Duo sternly.

“Well, yeah, we’re going out.” Sylvia giggled a little nervously.

“That’s too bad,” Duo stated. “‘Cause he’s an asshole.”

She squirmed. The fact that she didn’t jump immediately to the defense of her new boyfriend told them a thing or two. None of their friends thought much of her taste, but apparently, in her mind, the lure of dating a popular running back overrode any concern that the guy might also be a complete jerk.

Heero had never bothered to state his opinion, since most of the time he wasn’t directly involved in conversations on the subject and had never been the type of break in. At the moment, however, he was involved. “Yes, he is,” he agreed quietly.

Sylvia gave him a startled look, but all she said, in weak excuse, was, “Well… I’ve gotta go eat. Good to see you guys here!”

Heero did not watch her walk away, only shook his head and returned to his meal.

Their conversation after this was quiet and predictable: what did people — especially girls — see in guys like that? They had come to no satisfactory answer before they were interrupted again, this time by an accusatory voice saying, “Heero! This looks suspiciously like a date to me! On a Tuesday! Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

Before Heero could overcome his surprise at this second, even greater coincidence of Relena showing up at the same restaurant both he and Duo and Sylvia and Alex were patronizing today — not to mention his immediately-aroused suspicion at the circumstance — Duo jumped in and neatly parried her unexpected attack. Waving a casual hand at the paper-littered table he said, “If this is what you call a ‘date,’ your group things on Fridays must be a lot less fun than I’ve always figured.”

Relena laughed. “OK, well…” She looked as if she might want to pursue this, but she’d been throwing ever-more-frequent glances at the booth where the first coincidence sat. “I have to go say hi to Sylvia and totally ignore Alex,” was her abrupt goodbye. And she did exactly that, ostentatiously, and finally took a seat down at the end of the row with someone whose back was to them.

“Who is that?” Duo asked, peering in that direction with wide and extremely curious eyes. “Who’s she here with on Valentine’s Day?”

Valentine’s Day. It was Valentine’s Day, wasn’t it? That started to explain things.

Heero glanced around. “Looks like Wufei Chang.”

“Oh!” Duo appeared pleased.

“So… this coupon of yours…”

Duo cleared his throat.

“You didn’t happen to–”

“Bathroom!” Duo announced, jumping up.

The moment he was gone, Heero shuffled through the papers on the opposite side of the table and located one he’d noticed earlier: a printed worksheet for Duo’s German class that was only a page and a half long. Working quickly, Heero began to fill the resultant empty space on the second paper with an admittedly rather clumsy drawing of a giant spider with stripes, spots, and a cluster of heart-shaped eyes.

So intent was he on getting this finished and the assignment replaced before Duo returned that he didn’t even look up when Quatre’s voice said from nearby, “I thought we might run into you guys here.”

Heero just grunted.

“And what a romantic setting it is,” added Trowa, rustling a couple of the papers on the table to indicate what he meant. There was no sarcasm in his tone; he didn’t need it.

Heero just grunted again.

Quatre laughed. “We’ll leave you to it, then.” And they did.

A top hat and a monocle and a speech bubble that read, in Japanese, You’ll never figure out what this says, completed Heero’s artistic endeavor, and as he was adding them he was thinking about his absent ‘boyfriend.’

Surprisingly, he wasn’t annoyed at Duo for essentially tricking him into a public appearance like this. In fact, the circumstance didn’t bother him at all. They were getting their homework done, and the food was pretty good, and — assuming the coupon actually existed — he’d already determined the price wasn’t bad.

And besides that, he was… enjoying himself. He liked being with Duo.

He had thought, back when they’d met, that Duo was out of his league, and he’d worried at first that their deception would be all the more difficult because everyone else would think so too. But it hadn’t taken him long to realize that Duo was, in fact, in a league of his own. He didn’t conform to any of the standards and stereotypes with which the high school world was so rife. He had friends everywhere, 9-12, A-Z, utterly regardless of cliques, and everyone in school seemed to love him — but in a casual, subtle way that didn’t turn him into one of the high-profile popular kids with reputations to maintain.

That didn’t mean Duo was undiscriminating about people, though. He’d known since his first meeting with that guy Alex that Sylvia was better off without, and he wasn’t afraid to say so. He wasn’t afraid of anything, it seemed. He drew snakes all over his math homework — math homework that was, as far as Heero could tell, 100% correct — because he never hesitated to do whatever he wanted, even if it seemed silly or childish or inscrutable to those around him.

Heero had been skeptical about his good luck when he’d first met Duo, but hadn’t, at the time, had any idea just how well things had worked out, just how lucky he’d really been, because he hadn’t known yet what kind of person Duo was. He didn’t think he was completely in the know even now, but finding out was proving unexpectedly pleasurable, even when it involved being tricked into pseudo-dates.

That didn’t mean he didn’t fix his ‘boyfriend’ with a very stern look upon his return.

Duo grinned sheepishly and tried to head him off. “I see Quatre and Trowa are here.”

“I expect they have a coupon,” said Heero dryly.

“Yeah, they were kinda for sale from the student council… you know, along with the flowers and candy and stuff. The coupons, I mean, not Quatre and Trowa.” Duo’s eyes and the arrangement of his expressive lips as he slid back into the booth had a trace of anxiety and simultaneously a hint of bravado, and he was just so cute that Heero couldn’t help grinning at him. In response, Duo’s face changed to a mixture of relief and smugness, which made Heero laugh and shake his head.

“Happy Valentine’s Day?” Duo offered.

“Finish your food,” Heero ordered, still smiling. “And do your German homework.”

***

“Hi, Sally.”

This greeting in passing was accompanied by a hand briefly on her shoulder, not so much part of the hello as a gesture that said, ‘I’ve been forced to walk really close to you by the crowd in the hall; don’t step back suddenly.’ Sally felt herself stiffen right up at the voice and the touch, felt a slight flush rise to her face, and reflected that it was getting worse. She could practically measure scientifically the increase in her level of awkwardness with each encounter… but nobody else ever seemed to notice.

Though the other girl was already a pace or two past her, Sally managed to return the greeting more or less audibly and coherently. And nobody would ever have guessed from her tone that there might be more she wanted to say; her natural easy frankness entirely precluded any such assumption. Neither would anyone have guessed that a student at this school, especially the self-assured and determined Sally Po, might be suffering from that problem.

The hall was indeed very crowded at the moment. It often was at the end of the day — being, to the weary dismay of those with lockers there, the final corridor between the fleeing masses and the student parking lot — and therefore it wasn’t unusual for passing conversations to happen right in Sally’s ear as she was packing up to go home. These days it didn’t even startle her when it burst out loudly all at once, as it did now, in the form of hearty laughter.

“How could he actually say that?” the laughing voice was demanding incredulously. It was familiar, but Sally still had to glance around to be sure of whom it belonged to: Duo Maxwell, the only person in her German class that didn’t tease her about her name (though she was fairly sure he wanted to). Now there was someone with no problem whatsoever admitting he was gay… or wearing his hair in a way no other guy in the school would dare even if they could get it to grow that long. Sally envied him both the lack of inhibitions and the length of tress.

His boyfriend, Heero, was walking beside him. Sally knew him only a little; she’d had a few classes with him, but that hadn’t served to acquaint her with anything more personal than what a good student he was. Most of the upperclassmen, however, had been lousy with gossip about these two back at the beginning of the semester, and thence she had learned that shy, studious Heero was generally thought to be extremely lucky to have attracted the attention of such a popular, sporty guy as Duo.

Sally wasn’t really qualified to form an opinion, but the one she’d formed anyway was that, what with Duo’s somewhat flighty nature (apparent to even a casual acquaintance) and Heero’s grounding stability (equally easy to see), it was rather the other way around.

“It seems fine to me,” Heero was responding to Duo’s amused question. They’d been stalled just beyond Sally’s locker by some group’s clever and polite decision that the middle of the hall was the best place to cluster up for a private, five-person conversation. “Just because he knew the whole class would disagree doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have said it.”

“Yeah, you’re right, of course, you’re right.” Duo was still laughing despite this concession. “He’s never going to hear the end of it, though.”

Those two were not the only ones inconvenienced by the sudden stationary discussion, but some people didn’t bother looking far enough ahead to see what the actual holdup was, and just blamed whatever stood immediately in front of them. One such was a sour-faced blonde guy, who remarked in one of those tones that pretended to be under his breath but was still loud enough for everyone in the immediate vicinity to hear, “If these fags would get out of the fucking way…!”

He’d used a word that was dangerous around here in any context not of reclamation, but she supposed he felt safe in his status as a large and successful member of the football team. Still, she was curious what the general reaction would be, and turned quietly once again to watch.

General reaction was there none — again, big football player — but the fags at whom the irritated statement had been specifically directed had definitely taken note. Heero’s lips were compressed into a hard line that made him look a little frightening, and there was an equally threatening glitter in Duo’s eyes. But their only response was for Duo to throw his arm around Heero’s shoulders and say in a loud voice, “Man, I can’t wait to get you home.” And though Heero was visibly blushing at this still-relatively-tame public display of affection, he made no attempt to evade it or alter their arrangement as the knot of students beyond them finally loosed and allowed them — and the jackass behind — to pass.

Sally wanted to applaud. Someone cowed by the remark might have pretended to ignore it while slinking off and making no such affirmative gesture; someone overreacting might have started a fight. And while beating a classmate up for being a homophobic jerk was no more appropriate than beating one up for being an innocent homosexual (that one article’s comments on the subject notwithstanding), it was similarly inappropriate not to stand up for what you were and what you believed. Those two had found the perfect medium, and sent a clear message to anyone watching that they weren’t going to let someone else’s behavior dictate their own. It struck Sally as a very mature reaction.

It struck her as something than which she could do no less.

Filled with new resolve, she turned back to her locker and closed it decisively. Shouldering her backpack, she hastened through the crush out into the student parking lot. There she scanned the area for one particular figure and, before she could lose her nerve, called out immediately she’d found her.

“Noin! Hang on! I need to talk to you!”

***

“So are you guys fucking?”

Duo didn’t usually run into Heero in the mornings before classes started, but today he’d tracked him down to tell him something or other, which latter was immediately forgotten when Diane Staltor, whom Duo knew from a couple of different classes, approached them with this personal question.

His eyes moved immediately to Heero, and found him an attractive shade of burgundy and quite clearly unable to speak. To buy them both time Duo said casually, “Why do you ask?”

“Hilde paid me to.” At this, across the hall, Hilde, undoubtedly catching her name even if she couldn’t hear the rest of it, squealed and darted away; apparently she’d neglected to order Diane not to divulge this bit of information.

“I… we… we’re…” Duo had never seen Heero so much at a loss for words and yet so apparently determined to get some out anyway. Evidently he hadn’t been in the least prepared for this perfectly logical and predictable inquiry, which Duo thought was simply adorable.

“Wellll,” Duo drawled, grin lop-sided beneath narrowed eyes, totally overriding Heero’s flustered attempts at denial, “you should go find Hilde and tell her it’s none of her goddamn business.”

Diane glanced at Heero, raised a brow, and said, “OK. Sure.”

“She’s going to tell her I practically said yes,” Heero managed eventually, long after Diane was gone.

“It can’t hurt our cause,” Duo reassured him. With a teasing smile he lowered his voice and wondered, “So who’s not fragile?”

Having returned to his usual placidity with his usual facility, Heero said, “I just didn’t expect someone to walk up and ask so bluntly.”

Duo had planned on eating lunch with some freshman friends today, but after the morning’s encounter decided to cancel that and join Heero’s group instead; Heero might need the moral support. They two weren’t nearly so consuming a topic as they had been at the beginning of the semester… but the news that any couple (even one that hadn’t been such a buzz at some point prior) was having sex and one of them was extremely embarrassed about it was sure to interest the student body. In fact, Duo had gotten oblique references to it in two of his three morning classes. And where he could just laugh it off, he wondered how Heero had been dealing.

Heero’s demeanor and expression were the same as ever when his ‘boyfriend’ joined him in the courtyard, but if the slightly-harder-than-usual way he leaned against Duo as the latter sat down was any indication, he appreciated Duo’s presence. There were a lot of surreptitiously-exchanged looks and a few surreptitiously-jabbed ribs among the rest of the group then, and an even greater number of low, private conversations than on most days, and it didn’t take long for Duo to become annoyed. Sure, it was natural to be curious, but couldn’t they see they were making Heero uncomfortable? These were supposed to be his friends.

Before Duo could decide what to do about this, however, Heero took care of it himself. He’d finished eating — one of the delicious-looking lunches his mom always packed so he could taste-test things for her — and, after brushing crumbs from his lap and setting aside his cute little compartmented lunchbox-thing, he suddenly stood. “Hey, you guys,” he announced. He didn’t wait for everyone’s attention, but went on immediately. “It’s nobody’s business but ours, but since it’s obviously all over school by now I might as well mention… Duo and I are not sleeping together.”

Everyone, whether or not they’d been listening at first, now stared at him for a long moment. Then there was some laughter, and a few inquiries why not (which they couldn’t possibly expect Heero would answer), before they mostly went back to their lunches. Heero resumed his seat beside Duo, red-faced but steady.

Duo was immensely impressed. He had no idea what that had cost Heero, who clearly hadn’t wanted to do it, but he was getting a good picture of the kind of inner strength his ‘boyfriend’ possessed. Heero might occasionally put it off when he didn’t know precisely what to do, but in the long run he never shirked his duty, no matter how unpleasant it was; though he was shy, he never shied away from anything he thought needed to be done. Duo might have teased him earlier about the ‘fragile’ comment and his blushy reaction to Diane’s questioning, but the truth was that Heero really was as solid as diamond. And sometimes as cold. Easily as beautiful.

It made Duo curious. And whenever he wanted to know something about Heero, there was at his immediate disposal a pretty sure way of finding out. So in his first class after lunch he pulled out a blank sheet of paper, made sure he appeared to be taking notes and that nobody around him was likely to indicate otherwise, and numbered the page one through five at decent intervals.

How five had come to be the standard he wasn’t sure, except that it was how many questions he’d originally written, but he had no objections… though he didn’t know that he had five separate questions in this instance. He chewed on his pencil, deciding exactly what he wanted to ask and how to word it.

In the end he came up with only two queries on the topic at hand, but he thought they were enough. The rest he filled with other random things he wanted to know, and was satisfied. Then, after class, he made sure to walk a route to his next one that would intercept Heero so he could hand him the folded paper. Heero accepted it without any hesitation or surprise; they’d done this exchange quite a bit since the first time, and he was used to Duo having thought of a new set for him sometime in the middle of the day.

What was less precedented was for Heero to answer it all during his next class and return it on the way to last period. In fact it was so unusual — the first time ever, if Duo recalled correctly — that, despite needing to pay actual attention in this particular class, he spread the page out behind his open textbook and read through the entire thing.

Heero not infrequently wrote short essays in response to Duo’s questions, and usually needed at least the back of the paper if not another sheet or two, but this time — probably due to the circumstances in which he’d done his answering — he’d squeezed what he had to say into the spaces between the questions in his tiny handwriting. It made Duo smile (and sometimes squint) as he read over the page.

1. What IS your opinion on people having sex at our age?

Depends on how mature they are and what kind of relationship they’re in. I can’t make a blanket statement. I have no moral issue with it, if that’s what you mean, but I don’t think it’s always a good idea, either. Condoms always are, though… except for lesbians, of course. Actually… what DO lesbians use?

Duo laughed silently, not sure he knew. He noted also that Heero hadn’t picked up on (or at least responded to) the unwritten, If we really WERE dating, ever since last April, what would we have gotten up to by now? No real surprise there… though Duo would definitely have liked to know. His eyes moved down to the next question.

2. What would you say if I told you I’m not a virgin?

Probably, “Neither am I.”

The brevity of this answer spoke far more than its actual words conveyed, and yet not nearly enough. It managed simultaneously to say, Not being a virgin is not a problem, but I don’t really want to discuss it right now, and, Hey, Duo, wouldn’t you like to be desperately curious about this forever more?? Duo stared down at it for a long time, wondering… wondering a lot of things, really, cursing himself for his assumptions, hoping that someday Heero would open up to him about this but fearing it would never happen.

The next three questions were less crucial, but not unimportant.

3. What was your favorite cartoon as a kid and why?

“Jackie Chan Adventures.” I wish I could say I had some deep or artistic reason for this, but in fact it was just because the main character was Asian and the kids at school thought I looked like him. Though, looking back, I don’t remember it being TOO bad; I guess I could have liked worse things. At least it had a plot.

Duo didn’t think he’d watched that show more than a couple of times, and could barely remember anything of it — but Heero’s reason for liking it was more interesting than any recollection of the series itself. It was a little too easy for a white guy like Duo to forget that growing up as a minority would have been an experience specifically different from his own; he might have some questions about that on his next list. For the moment, he moved on to the next question on this list.

4. If dragons were real, what color would they be?

Dragons would be the ultimate predators. Other animals like that that I can think of (lions, crocodiles, etc) don’t necessarily need to blend in to their surroundings but tend to do it anyway, so dragons probably would too. So it would probably depend on what type of environment they lived in: green and brown for forests, gold for deserts, etc. If they were intelligent dragons that were going to mix with humans, they’d probably be just as varied as humans are, but in a more lizard-like set of colors. My guess is greens and grays.

Duo definitely legitimately wanted to know important information like this, but another part of the reason he asked Heero such questions was that it was endlessly entertaining to get such answers. He wondered how many other people knew that Heero’s tendency to take everything seriously carried over to matters like this, or how much fun that was. Probably not many. And as for the last question…

5. Aren’t Hummers cool?

I can’t believe you asked me this three questions down from questions about sex. Or was that on purpose? Anyway, I would never own a Hummer. They’re not efficient in pretty much any way. But I guess they are pretty cool-looking. I saw a custom one once that was green with tropical flowers painted all over it.

Duo speculated that Heero had been running out of time when he’d gotten here, since it was unlike him not to go into detail about how Hummers weren’t efficient. Or maybe he’d thought it was enough to point out Duo’s inadvertent double entendre. Duo was definitely still blushing about that — not so much because he’d done it as that he’d done it without realizing — and might not have paid decent attention to talk of gas mileage and safety features in any case.

It was funny how, at the end of the day, Diane’s question of the morning had left both of them blushing, and only raised further questions, some of which must go unanswered. It was funny how every set of questions Heero answered made Duo want to write him out a new one, a longer one. The whole situation was pretty funny, really, but sometimes it was that ironic type of humor that almost stung more than it amused.

***

Anymore it was never much of a surprise to have the young Mr. Maxwell appear out of the blue at any given moment or come home with Heero after school. In fact, though she didn’t see Duo more than two or three times a week, Kiku Yuy had started anticipating his presence and expecting the sound of his voice whenever she did the same for those of her son. And once that cheerful tone had confirmed the arrival of Heero’s ‘boyfriend,’ it was also unsurprising for Duo to pop into the kitchen with an enthusiastic greeting and usually some culinary question for Kiku.

Today’s was about chuck tender roast. Kiku, busy with her thorough Spring Cleaning on her beloved kitchen, was happy to answer as always. Apparently this young man pretending to date her son had pretensions to professional chefdom, and was certainly enthusiastic enough about it; she was glad to help in any way she could.

“Oh, Heero,” she remembered, once the conversation in which he had taken no part had come to an end, “your birthday present from Baa-san came; it’s on the table.” She gestured into the dining room.

Heero closed the fridge he’d been looking through for a snack since Kiku, sadly, hadn’t made him anything today (Spring Cleaning took top priority, and several hours). “Thanks,” he said, and turned in the direction she’d indicated. “Probably more manga.” Despite his flat tone, typical when mentioning such a gift, his mother was fairly certain he always read them in their entirety the very night he received them and then wrote a suspiciously voluminous (as between fans) thank-you email.

“What’s that?” Duo followed Heero into the next room, from which Kiku could still very clearly hear their voices.

“Japanese comics,” Heero replied.

“Heero! Are you secretly a geek??”

A long silence, but for the sound of a package being torn open, preceded Heero’s calm, “Maybe.”

“Well, this looks pretty cool. Hey, what’s… oh, what? That gun’s as big as a– this hot girl’s turning into a ginormous– are those two guys kissing?? Maybe I’m secretly a geek!”

Heero sounded amused as he said, “It goes the other way. Right to left.”

“Right, ’cause it’s in Aa-sii-aan,” said Duo wisely. “So what’s this thing about?”

Heero gave a brief but surprisingly in-depth summary of the story so far (it sounded excessively strange to his mother, but she’d been a big fan of Black Jack back in the day and had no room to talk), but then declared it was time to get started on his chemistry homework. Evidently they were going to remain at the dining room table, at least for now, instead of relocating to the den as they usually did; this was nice, since it meant Kiku could continue eavesdropping.

Sounding disappointed, Duo acquiesced. However, after a few wordless minutes he spoke again. Whether or not they’d abandoned the manga, his thoughts obviously hadn’t turned toward homework. “So, wait. When’s your birthday?”

“Saturday.” Heero said it a little reluctantly; he never liked to advertise the date, since it drew him unwanted attention, and apparently even his ‘boyfriend’ was no exception.

“That’s… the twenty-fourth of March?”

“Yeah; why?”

“Then you’re not a Pisces at all; you’re an Aries.”

“Is that important?”

“You know how in that one article it brought up the question of whether there are more gay kids at our school because more of the students are comfortable coming out in that kind of environment, or whether the great atmosphere and all the tolerance are a result of there being so many gay kids?”

Kiku didn’t have to wait to hear the entire question to know which article he meant; it had made such an impact on the community — indeed, the subsequent horrified ‘we need to do something about this’ discussions at church had caused her to seek out a different, less bigoted congregation — that even now, a year and a half later, anyone with any connection to that particular school had only to say, ‘that one article,’ or sometimes even just, ‘the article,’ to be immediately understood.

“Yeah.” Heero too obviously understood. Or at least he knew what Duo was referring to;he sounded as if he wasn’t quite grasping, just yet, why Duo was on this topic at all.

“Doesn’t that seem kinda pointless? Whether one caused the other or the other way
’round? We’ve still got a great school where people feel safe being themselves… does it really matter which one caused which when the result’s the same?”

“Of course it matters.” Heero sounded a little startled. “There’s a huge difference between a school that just coincidentally happens to have more gay students than most and an environment where gay people feel comfortable admitting what they are, to themselves and everyone. Because the second one kinda suggests there may be a lot more people in the world who are gay but just can’t let themselves see it or tell anyone else because they’re in a bad environment.”

“OK, OK, OK, I see what you’re saying; that makes sense. But still, even if it doesn’t suggest that and it is just a coincidence, we still have a great place to go to school.”

“Sure,” Heero allowed. “And what does this have to do with my astrological sign?”

“Nothing…”

“You brought it up as if it did.”

“Well, I was thinking about how at some point I said something about the stars aligning, and then, like, the very next day, Quatre said it was destiny that I already had this school in mind when I met you.”

“OK,” said Heero, now perhaps with a touch of skepticism to his tone as Duo worked so gradually toward his point.

“So I was thinking… that’s what happened according to our story. But what really happened was that you made me up and then I appeared at your same school. And, you know, we do go the same way home every day… probably even if you hadn’t made me up and we never met in Gearing last April the way we didn’t, we’d still probably have met and ended up being friends and maybe pretend-dating anyway. So I was thinking, what does it matter how we got there?”

“Well, in at least one case it’s a relationship based completely on lies.” But Heero said this laughingly and entirely without malice.

Kiku had to laugh too, quietly, to herself. She took Duo’s point a little differently: it didn’t really matter whether those two were dating or just pretending to be; the result was about the same. And it was a result of which she heartily approved.

***

Trowa sighed when he identified the paper Quatre had just placed on top of what he’d previously been looking at. “I guess you’re going to make me do this again.”

“Obviously,” Quatre murmured in return. “You know I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

Trowa sighed again, but it was less unhappy this time; Quatre’s breath on his face tended to have that effect. “Can we at least do something intelligent afterwards?”

Lowering his voice even farther and leaning even closer to Trowa, Quatre said, “What did you have in mind?”

Though Trowa did manage to control the shudder these words occasioned, it was a close thing. He did not mention any of the ideas Quatre had very deliberately planted in his brain. Instead he just said, “Anything less idiotic, pointless, and tacky.”

Quatre smiled sweetly at him and promised, “We’ll figure something out.” Then, pointing to the sheet he’d given Trowa, he ordered, “Fill that out.”

Yet again Trowa sighed. Only for Quatre did he put up with this kind of nonsense.

As he attempted to force himself to read the paper in his hand, he noticed that he wasn’t the only one with problems along these lines. Not too far off, Heero, sans ‘boyfriend’ this lunch period, was being harassed by one of the girls in the group on essentially the same topic:

“So have you decided how you’re going to ask Duo yet? Or is he going to ask you?” She laughed as if she’d just been extremely witty in acknowledging that traditional gender stereotypes didn’t apply here.

Evidently taken by surprise, Heero said haltingly, “I don’t know… if we’re even… going.”

“What do you mean?” She was quite clearly aghast at the idea. “How can you not go to your Senior Prom with your boyfriend?”

Realizing that he had already started digging himself into a hole and needed to get out quickly, Heero was obviously thinking fast. “Well, it’s… it’s on the twenty-first, right? That’s our one-year anniversary, so we might be doing something else.”

“Ohhhww!” (It was some very annoying, squealing indication of how sweet she thought this was, anyway.) “A whole year?? And, like, two thirds of it was long-distance, wasn’t it? Congratulations!” Heero must have nodded his confirmation and thanks, for there was a pause before the girl went on. “But what could you possibly do on your anniversary that would be better than Prom??”

Trowa could think of about a million things, and he speculated Heero could too — especially given that the anniversary was totally fictitious. A question more to the point was, how much longer could he and Duo possibly keep this up?

“I don’t know yet.” Heero’s calm had returned. “I have to see what Duo wants to do.”

“Well, you should do that by asking him to Prom!” the girl insisted. “Then you’ll at least have asked him, and if he wants to do something else, he can just say no!”

Wondering what, then, if Heero wanted to do something else, Trowa also had to restrain himself from openly shaking his head at this indication that publicly asking someone to Prom was easily as important as (and in fact might make up for missing) Prom itself.

The girl went on to enumerate various ways she’d heard of people carrying out this all-important asking, and declaring, based on some inscrutable criteria, whether or not each method would work for two guys. In this she was swiftly and eagerly joined by much of the rest of the group, and Heero was able to drop mostly out of the conversation, undoubtedly to his relief.

It was not impossible that Trowa had been paying attention to this more as an excuse not to fill out the form Quatre had handed him than because he at all cared; now, finally, with an indrawn breath that he did not allow to transform into another sigh, he turned his attention toward the paper in earnest.

Vote for your 2012 Prom Court, it read. What an idiotic tradition. Trowa was about to check a box at random, as he’d done last year, when a particular couple of names halfway down the page caught his eye, moved his pen immediately in that direction, and forced a faint smile onto his face. Here was, unexpectedly, the first trace of real interest he’d found in this entire business.

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