Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

In response to Heero’s tendency to date the biggest jerks on the planet, his friends have developed a screening process for all potential boyfriends. This latest guy seems like he might be up to scratch, but only if he can survive The Test.



It's difficult to decide how to format these medium-length stories that don't have chapters. In this case, there are three posts:

1
2
3

“At least Quatre and Trowa saw my next boyfriend as a problem.”

“And you probably didn’t until afterwards.”

“I can see you’re getting how this went. Yeah, Paul was… well, he wasn’t exactly the same as Evan, except for a dazzling smile and a sort of presence I was drawn to again. It was that whole moth-to-the-flame thing. But he was another one who wanted a trophy boyfriend. And sex.”

“Oh, Heero, you didn’t. Hey, don’t go all eyebrows at me! You were obviously a lot more pure and innocent than me in high school, and I don’t want to hear about you giving it up to some jerk like that!”

“It was high school. I don’t blame myself.”

“You sound like you regret it, though.”

“Honestly, I don’t have a single ex I don’t regret.”

“Yeah, I’m definitely starting to get how this went.”

“Paul did at least seem to like to spend time with me. So at the time I thought he was better than Evan. Looking back, it’s obvious he mostly… just wanted sex. Though there was some arm-candy duty too, like I said. He was on the student council, and I’m pretty sure after high school he went into actual politics. He knew the benefit of having a nice-looking significant other.”

“Asshole.”

“The worst of it, though — and the part that really drove Trowa and Quatre crazy — was that he couldn’t take me seriously. Especially my art. He wouldn’t look at things I was working on. He had no patience for time I wanted to spend on art. He actually made fun of art in general, and the idea of anything being artistic. He couldn’t even pretend to be the tiniest bit interested in anything I was doing or anything I was into. I think I put up with it at the time because he had a clever way of saying things that would make me laugh. Even if they kinda hurt at the same time. Except that he used the word ‘gay’ for things he didn’t like. Claimed that since he was gay, he was allowed. He didn’t care that it still bothered me.”

“Super asshole!”

“I’m still convinced Quatre had something to do with the new job Paul’s dad got. He had to move away suddenly in the middle of our last semester. Quatre won’t admit it, to this day, but… let’s just say circumstances were suspicious. I offered to do the long-distance thing, but Paul said he thought it would be better if we just broke up.”

“Because all he wanted from you was a warm body, for one reason or another.”

“Obvious in hindsight.”

“Well, I’m liking the sound of mob boss Quatre Winner, anyway.”

***

Heero wasn’t surprised to find himself ridiculously impatient for his meeting with Duo on Thursday, and his American Art History class, usually one of his favorites, rather difficult to get through. He even looked forward to the cafeteria food, since it tended to improve with good company. In such an optimistic mood, it should have been impossible to worry about how the encounter would go, but precedent was a strong indicator. So it was with caution that he looked around the big, bustling room at the appointed time, mostly seeking Duo but certainly keeping his eyes open as well for anyone else he knew.

How such an attractive person as Duo with such unusual hair and such a compelling aura of energy and interest about him could walk into a room this full of people without drawing every eye to him, Heero had no idea. His eyes were certainly drawn as Duo entered, and, despite the planned meeting being nothing more than conversation over lunch, he felt his excitement about today growing.

“They don’t make you wear one of those guest badges?” he wondered as Duo approached him.

“Oh…” Duo glanced down at his shirt — another paint-spattered tee, this one advertising some gallery event in much-worn and hardly legible lettering. “I’ve got one somewhere…” He looked deeply pensive. “I’m trying to remember the last time I actually wore it.”

Heero chuckled faintly. “If you’re around here a lot for Ms. Hilde’s classes…”

With a shrug Duo replied, “Eh, I wouldn’t say ‘a lot,’ but I guess it’s enough for nobody to care whether I wear a guest badge.” He threw a calculating eye across the various lunch options available here. “Come on; I’m starving.”

“Me too. I barely had any breakfast.”

“Oh, are you one of those people who can’t eat in the mornings?” Duo threw Heero a grin that suggested he might think this every bit as cute as Heero had found his hypothesis about Duo’s metabolism the other day.

Forcing a calm tone despite his blush, Heero replied, “No. I’m one of those people who can’t think straight in the mornings. At least not until after coffee. Which I usually drink on the way to class, or not until I get here.”

Duo laughed, but if he had any intention of reciprocating with information about his own morning habits, it would have to wait until after they had ordered their present meals. The lines typically weren’t too long at the times of day Heero was in here, including now, so the only remaining problem was whether Duo wanted tacos or pizza. And by the time they took their selections to one of the smaller tables and got everything set up to their dining satisfaction, coffee had fled both their minds.

“So what’s your major?” Duo wondered as he surveyed the tacos and pizza on his tray with a deep and enchanting satisfaction.

“Art History and Criticism,” Heero replied. “Unless I switch to Drawing and Painting.”

Duo nodded, causing the taco he was lifting to his mouth to bob up and down for a moment along with the rest of his head, at which Heero couldn’t help laughing aloud. When Duo had managed his mouthful enough to talk through it without spraying bits of beef and lettuce across the table, he remarked, “I always thought European Art would be an awesome major, but, yeah, a more general art criticism program might be even better. But something more applicable like Drawing and Painting — I mean, painting is what I love best! — so that could be really useful too.”

Heero grinned. “I can tell you’re really decisive about this sort of thing.”

Duo swallowed his bite of taco and said with friendly defensiveness, “Just, there are so many fantastic options!”

“There are,” Heero agreed, digging a fork into his lasagna. Before he took a bite of his own he asked, “So are you going to school somewhere too?”

“I should be,” Duo admitted, “but I get so caught up in doing art all day, I keep not signing up. Hilde keeps bugging me to come here, but… Well, sometime I will…”

As he finished with his mouthful, Heero began to remark that whenever Duo did start attending, he would be forced — eventually, at least — to choose a major. His words became confused and then trailed off, however, when a figure whose approach he had not noticed appeared beside them: despite the polite, waiting silence of the newcomer, the instant Heero saw and recognized him he completely lost his train of thought.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Quatre greeted when he could obviously see that Heero wasn’t going to finish the statement he’d started. By way of apology or explanation (or merely acting his part), he held up the sketchbook he’d brought.

“You’re earlier than I expected,” said Heero defeatedly. And he meant it, though of course it would come across slightly differently to the other person at the table.

“I have some errands to run,” Quatre replied with a smile, and held out the sketchbook, “so I thought I’d stop here first.”

Heero accepted the delivery he’d purportedly requested, and set it down nearer the far end of the table where it was less likely to have anything spilled on it. “Duo,” he said, gesturing, “Quatre.”

Turning his eyes upon Duo for the first time, “Oh, you’re cute,” Quatre said, and his immediate blush at this allegedly inadvertent comment left even Heero hard-pressed not to reply, Who’s cute?”

Duo, who didn’t know perfectly well either that nothing Quatre said was uncalculated or that he could conjure that lovely pink to his face at will, couldn’t seem to repress a smile at the supposedly ingenuous remark and reaction. “Thanks,” he said. “So’re you.” But he was also looking Quatre surreptitiously up and down with some suspicion (justified, Heero thought, after the meeting with Wufei) buried beneath his smile. Evidently, however, in the honest, open face, the slacks and dress shirt (but no tie; Quatre was dressed for his ‘errands’ about as far down as he got), or the guest badge the rule-abiding Quatre was wearing, nothing worried Duo just yet. Heero had not expected it to.

“Oh! Thanks!” Quatre’s blush deepened, and this time Heero was hard-pressed not to roll his eyes as his friend and roommate turned back to him as if flustered and eager to look away from the professedly cute guy that had just complimented him. “Um, so, yeah, Heero, there’s your sketchbook. I’ll get out of your way…” He took a step back, then frowned. “As soon as I figure out what’s wrong with my shoe.”

Quatre had graduated from Brunomaglis along with high school, but when running errands he still sometimes slummed it in shoes costing no more than $400 or so — and he had one particular old pair he saved for this specific occasion because the lace had broken through one of the eyes during some escapade with Trowa a few years back. And this damage was what he ostensibly sought to examine when he sat down in one of the free chairs at the table, next to Heero, and bent over. The movement was always fairly convenient for the placement of a small transmitter in some crevice out of sight; Heero didn’t even watch him to catch it anymore.

At this second instance of a date being interrupted by one of Heero’s friends seating himself uninvited at their table, Duo looked more suspicious than previously. However, when Quatre swiftly ‘discovered’ the break in his shoe and declared it unfixable at the moment, rising again from the commandeered seat, Duo relaxed a trifle. And when Quatre, after bidding Heero a cheerful goodbye and declaring that he’d see him later, added with another slight blush, “It was nice meeting you, Duo!” and started to walk away, Duo relaxed completely.

Heero didn’t feel like volunteering any information about Quatre — in part because, had Quatre truly been dropping by to deliver some forgotten item from home, Heero wouldn’t have felt the need to talk about him in his absence unless specifically asked — and Duo didn’t ask. He just started an elaborate process of napkinning his fingers off one at a time, very thoroughly, despite the fact that he was only halfway through his eclectic lunch. Heero watched with growing curiosity until Duo, satisfied he was as clean as possible without the application of actual water and soap, pushed his tray aside and reached for the sketchbook to Heero’s right. At the last moment, however, his hands stopped just short of the cover. “I suppose I should ask first,” he said, meeting Heero’s eye with a smile half sheepish and half impish.

“Go ahead,” Heero replied, returning the smile and glad Duo had accepted the delivery of the item at face value. “It’s mostly doodles anyway.” Quatre always brought the same sketchbook, no matter how carefully Heero hid it afterwards. Apparently he thought it worked particularly well for the purpose.

“I love doodles,” Duo declared. “Ooh, and I love…” He brought the first page closer to his face. “…super detailed…” He rotated it and squinted. “…suuuper detailed…”

Heero chuckled faintly. He’d been through this process enough times that, even though the sketchbook was an older one and the pieces on the first few pages of it especially ancient, he didn’t have to struggle to remember exactly what they were.

“You know what this reminds me of?” Duo was taking in the whole again, the paper not quite so close to his nose. “When you see, like, a whole underpass that’s entirely covered in graffiti? And there’s no blank spots anywhere?”

Genuinely pleased despite the age of the picture, Heero smiled. “That’s actually exactly what I was inspired by.”

“The city should pay you to design murals for spots like that.” Duo nodded several times down at the drawing before turning the page.

“I’ll design them if you do the painting,” Heero offered.

“I’ve never tried airbrushing,” mused Duo, “which is what I think it’d take, but–” here he raised his eyes to Heero with a thoughtful and momentarily distant expression– “it might not be a bad idea for a serious project. Big painting, help the community, maybe make some money? Oh, yep, here’s some doodles.” And he buried his face in the sketchbook again.

Duo’s comments were not usually particularly profound — few of these pages merited it — but clearly he was genuinely interested and engaged, which pleased Heero and undoubtedly pleased whoever else might be listening as well. And it was as much for the benefit of these latter as for Duo’s sake that Heero eventually felt the need to comment, “Your food has to be getting cold.”

“Oh… yeah…” Duo glanced over at his tray with eyes clearly unattuned to anything not graphite at the moment, then said a little absently, “I don’t want to get stuff on my hands right now.” And he’d barely returned his gaze to the page in front of him before he was smiling in admiration and remarking, “This contrast is awesome.”

“Thanks.”

As Duo proceeded right through the sketchbook with no apparent intention of stopping any time before the very end, Heero experienced the same mixture of emotions he did every time this part went well. Duo’s artistic skill gave his opinion weight and value, and Heero was gratified and flattered by the attention he was paying these drawings — old as they were — and by the comments he had about them. Honest as Duo seemed on the subject, though, as much as it seemed he would have been making these same comments no matter the context in which he flipped through the book, there was no getting around the fact that he’d essentially been tricked into the perusal.

Heero knew what the point was, of course. If he’d felt like it, he could have glanced around to see if he could find Trowa — though, unlike when the scene took place outside and a glint of light off of glass or chrome could sometimes be caught in a bush not far away, here Trowa was likely to be outside the cafeteria, or possibly outside the building entirely (Heero wasn’t completely sure of the range of his equipment). But though he knew what this was about, he couldn’t help thinking there might be, in addition to that, some desire on his friends’ part to get poor Heero some praise of his artwork when they, none of them visual artists, could not provide it. And did Heero really come across as so insecure?

That had nothing to do with Duo, though.

What was more relevant to Duo and the opinions he now voiced was Heero’s faint sense of annoyance that his friends did always choose this sketchbook. It was so old it was becoming almost irrelevant in that it didn’t really give an observer a sense of Heero’s talents and preferences. He wanted Duo to have a better idea of his current artistic progress. That could, of course, happen another time — in fact, whether it should happen another time would supposedly be determined by the present exercise — but Heero was, perhaps, rendered just a little impatient by the adorable way Duo expressed himself, and the fact that his commentary, though not necessarily profound, was savvy and interesting.

Eventually, too soon but not nearly quickly enough for Heero’s conflicted sensibilities, Duo reached the end of the sketchbook. The last few blank pages, which always made the book seem actively in use rather than abandoned (in fact Heero typically abandoned his sketchbooks a few pages from the end), Duo looked over with evident disappointment before, with an air of regret, carefully closing the back cover and replacing it at the far end of the table. Then, his demeanor shifting to that of someone emerging from a trance or a highly engrossing daydream to face the real world again, he looked around.

“Sorry… what were we talking about before?” he wondered somewhat vaguely.

Heero smiled at Duo’s attitude, but had to struggle, for his own part, to remember. Finally, as he watched Duo slide his lunch tray back in front of him and begin to reacquaint himself with its contents, he ventured, “You going to school, I think?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Duo agreed, picking up his half eaten pizza slice and examining it from all angles. It hadn’t been very appetizing originally — whatever Heero had said about the cafeteria food not being bad, he wasn’t a fan of their pizza — and now it looked congealed and more or less disgusting. “I’ve been thinking,” Duo went on, and bit unconcernedly into the thing before continuing with a full mouth, “I’ll probably enroll once the place I’m working at goes out of business.”

That seemed like an odd sort of plan to Heero, who said so. Then, as Duo had taken another bite and stuffed his mouth even fuller than before — past the speech threshold, apparently — he added, “Where do you work?”

Eventually Duo managed to answer. “You probably never heard of it. It’s called Sunset Colors; it’s a place where kids — I mean, anyone who wants to, but it’s mostly kids who come — they can do art stuff. Mostly pottery, but we’ve got all sorts of materials. And some great aprons they get to choose from when they come in.”

“And it’s going out of business?”

Duo’s laugh sounded both sad and self-deprecating. “The lady that owns the place is great at watercolors and being a grandma to all the kids who come in, but she kinda sucks at the business end of things? And it’s not like I can help her when I don’t know anything about any of that stuff either.”

“So you’re just predicting.”

“I don’t know how much longer the place has.” Duo shrugged as he turned his attention and his newly emptied mouth to what remained of his taco. Heero, watching charmed and amused, wondered whether the two greasy foods were actually good in alternation like that.

“You like it, though?”

“Yeah, it’s fun!” Duo nodded vigorously before taking a crunching bite. “Kids are hilarious; I love helping them with art.”

“Is the owner usually there with you?” Heero was imagining the scene in his head with pleasure, picturing Duo and his enthusiasm and ready artistic critiques encouraging and inspiring a group of aproned children in their clumsy painting of pottery.

“Sometimes. She’s old.”

Heero laughed at this concise explanation. “Do parents ever get weirded out by a single young guy working with their kids with nobody else in the building?” He wondered if any of the kids ever developed crushes on the hot guy that helped them with art on weekends or whenever; he’d be willing to stake money that they did, but figured he wouldn’t ask that in so many words.

Now Duo’s taco manipulation was fronted by a pensive frown, and it was several masticating moments and an unhappy-looking swallow before he spoke again. “I… don’t know. Nobody’s ever said anything about it, but of course they probably wouldn’t to my face, would they? They just wouldn’t come in again, probably.”

“People do get weird about things like that,” Heero said in a tone of regret. “Sorry I mentioned it.”

“No, it’s a good thing.” Duo was thoughtful now. “That’s one of those logistical things I probably would never have thought of, and maybe it’s part of why I think we’re going under! I’ll have to talk to Geraldine about it.”

“Does she stay at home working? Could she do her watercolors at the place instead?”

“I think so… maybe… She’s going to flip out about it, though… I bet she’s never thought of that either; she’d never think people could have such nasty minds. But maybe we can figure something out, and save the place yet!”

Heero sat back and said honestly, “Now I’m torn. It sounds like it’ll be sad when she goes out of business. But if that’s what it will take for you to go to school…”

With a wincing grin Duo said, “Quick subject change! Where do you work?”

“That isn’t much of a change,” said Heero with a slightly raised eyebrow, but chose to accept it nonetheless on the understanding that the previous focus might be a little uncomfortable for Duo. “But I do tech support for Allery Media.”

“So like cable and internet and stuff?”

“Yeah. It’s mostly over chat on the company website, but I sometimes have to take phone calls. It lets me work from home, though.”

“That must be nice if you want to draw while you work!”

Heero grinned. “It is.”

Duo grinned back. “And do you ever have to tell people their CD tray isn’t a cup holder?”

The only possible reply to this was a longsuffering sigh.

“Hey, I always thought that was pretty funny,” Duo protested.

“In some ways it is. It does still represent pretty well how much people don’t know about how computers work. But I don’t think the actual joke has been surface-level funny for longer than we’ve been alive.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Oh, cool, me too. And I figure that joke first popped up about twenty years ago, so we would both have been born, even if we weren’t old enough to appreciate it.”

“That doesn’t make it not overused and outdated,” replied Heero firmly.

Duo laughed. “OK, fine, no more cupholders. Were you born here in town?”

This subject change, more complete and effective than the previous, led them onto a meandering topic of childhood homes and moves that lasted throughout the rest of the time Heero had to spend on lunch before needing to head off for his next class. And he did so with even greater optimism than had ended their first date. So far Duo had done nothing to indicate he was anything but the warm, very attractive, talented artist Heero had thought him at first, and hopefully had done some things to impress Heero’s friends. Not only that, his reciprocal interest seemed to have been developing at the same pace as Heero’s — well, perhaps not quite so quickly, as he’d never seen Heero naked — and they seemed to be clicking really well. And though that was how it always started, Heero also thought there had been numerous points in Duo’s favor, above and beyond the usual, scattered throughout his conversation.

Perhaps most promising of all — if not to the listeners-in, at least to Heero — they ended today’s encounter with the suggestion (from Duo again, not that Heero wouldn’t have gotten around to it himself) of another meeting. A time was chosen and arrangements were made, and, though Heero would rather not have parted at all, he found the parting just as hopeful as the rest of his reflections during the last several minutes of their lunch.

***

“Well, mob boss Quatre Winner’s parents gave him a house as a graduation present, and–”

“A house?!”

“Yeah. Not a small house, either. And Quatre, being Quatre, of course insisted that Trowa and I both come live with him.”

“Probably a good thing it’s not a small house, then.”

“Yes, they get plenty of privacy, and so do the rest of us.”

“Who else is there?”

“Technically just one other guy, at least right now. I’ll get to him. Right after high school, I didn’t think about college right away. I went a little art-crazy, actually. Quatre didn’t want any rent from me, so most of the money I made could go toward supplies. And since I had a really big bedroom with plenty of space to use as a studio…”

“I’d go crazy too! That’s awesome!”

“It was. It is. Trowa’s kinda been doing the same thing. He got some people together and got his band started. They have a practice room at the house. They’ve actually been doing pretty well, for a local group.”

“What are they called?”

“Dense Lead Stovepipe.”

“Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard of them. So, good for him.”

“But Quatre started college right away — at Traevis, of course, for business. And that’s where he met Wufei.”

“Wufei? That jerk-face loser goes to the same school as a Winner? Wait– wait– wait– that’s not the– that guy lives with you?

“Yes, but he’s not a jerk-face loser. I promise.”

“Uh-huh. You’d better give me a damn good reason you put up with that guy in your same house.”

“Quatre bullied him into moving in, actually. They made friends at school. Then when Quatre heard Wufei was struggling to pay rent and tuition…”

“And then?”

“Stop grinding your teeth like that. It’s not good for you. So Wufei moved in. When I first met him, I didn’t think he was going to get along well with either me or Trowa. Quatre wasn’t a problem, since Quatre can get along with anyone, and nobody can help getting along with Quatre. But I didn’t think the rest of us would be hanging out much.

“But it turns out Wufei is someone you can’t help respecting. He’s got this unshakable code of right and wrong, and he just doesn’t bend. I think that’s how he and Quatre bonded. They’re both such innately good people, even if they’re totally different in personality, they couldn’t help being drawn to each other.”

“This does not sound like the Wufei I met.”

“You didn’t meet the real thing. Wufei isn’t as much fun as some people I know, but he’s the kind of guy who’ll always stand up for what he believes in. And that’s… well, it’s nice to have that kind of person around. Trowa thinks he’s fun, though. Trowa gravitates to anything with zombies in it–”

“Really???”

“–and it turns out Wufei does too. They bonded over zombies, I think, the same day Wufei moved in. You should see them whenever a new video game comes out where you get to kill zombies. It’s uncanny.”

“Somehow I’m not aaalllll that surprised.”

“And Wufei’s girlfriend–”

“So he’s bi?”

“Actually he’s totally straight.”

“But I thought–”

“Just trust me.”

“It’s a good thing that’s so easy to do, because this is getting weird.”

“Weirder than it already was?”

“Well… OK… maybe not. Go on.”

“Wufei’s girlfriend Sylvia is a complete nerd. She’s always over making him do, um, nerd stuff. They do Dungeons and Dragons… thing… They have obscure series DVD marathons in the basement. They… I don’t even know what else. She’s very nice, though. She’s been a good friend to all of us.”

“All right, so you’ve got a gay couple, a straight couple, and a single guy all living in one house. All you need are some lesbians and aces to make a complete set.”

“We do know some, but I don’t think any of them need a house. Anyway, Sylvia doesn’t technically live with us. Even though she’s always around. And I haven’t been single all this time…”

“Hmm, OK, so we’re heading into another awful boyfriend of yours here. And, let me guess, you told me about Wufei and Sylvia because they joined the People Who Don’t Approve Of Heero’s Amazing Bad Taste Club.”

“Yes.”

“Even though Wufei–”

“Just forget that.”

***

The house Duo shared with his mother, step-father, and step-sister was as old as the one Heero shared with his friends, but looked to have been better maintained over the years. There were two really old neighborhoods in the city — the oldest parts of two former towns, actually, that had eventually grown enough to merge — and the fact that Duo lived in the area opposite Heero explained why Heero had never observed his hotness on the way to and from bus stops in the past.

That the house was impeccably painted in an interesting and brazen set of oranges that were some of them almost yellow, Heero was not particularly surprised. In fact he grinned internally as he approached, informed of the probable identity of at least one of the house’s inhabitants by its bright colors almost as much as by the presence of Duo on its porch. He wondered how they’d gotten that past their HOA.

“Heero!” Duo’s enthusiasm in shouting his name (rather unnecessarily) and waving as soon as he caught sight of him made Heero smile externally. More particularly, the idea that Duo was so pleased to see him made Heero go all warm and fuzzy inside. He felt pretty good about this guy so far; they’d gotten to a third date, after all, without either of them being scared off. And Duo sure was cute.

“You made it!” was Duo’s cheerful greeting as Heero climbed the porch steps.

“Apparently,” Heero agreed.

“Well, come on in.” Duo stepped back and made an expansive gesture of welcome.

With a smile Heero obeyed.

The interior decor seemed thorough, experimental, and eclectic, with paint selections melting into each other from one room to the next and no two spaces floored the same. The art on display coordinated with the chosen colors so well Heero thought it must have been deliberately created for the specific spots it occupied. The furniture, on the other hand, was often cheekily just on the edge of not coordinating; every piece seemed to ask impudently, ‘Can I get away with this in this room?’ Heero had never in his life been amused by furniture, and credited to Duo his first instance of this bizarre but not unenjoyable experience.

“We rearrange sometimes,” Duo said with a grin when he heard Heero’s reaction to the decorating, “and then it gets even crazier.”

Besides the prospect of hanging out with Duo again, Heero had been looking forward to coming here so he could see more of Duo’s art. He’d said so, too, if perhaps a little shyly — especially since pointing out that it was only fair for him to get to see more of Duo’s work after Duo had seen so much of his seemed a trifle disingenuous when that had only happened because Heero’s friends had essentially insisted. But since that didn’t lessen his interest, he had mentioned it, and the pleasure the statement had been met with had rendered it entirely worth any embarrassment involved.

“People say you can’t judge how successful you are as an artist by how much money you make doing it,” Duo remarked, “and I’m not sure how much I think that’s true? but you definitely feel more successful when other good artists are all excited to see your stuff.” And not only was Heero very inclined to agree, he was also excessively flattered at being so offhandedly called a good artist by this good artist.

So now Duo gladly pointed out which of the pieces throughout the rooms they toured had been painted by his own hand. And while Heero was happy to see more of a style he was already coming to love, he enjoyed Duo’s commentary even more. Duo’s manner of discussing his own work was funny and fetching at once: a relatively pure realism of approach that lacked false modesty. He had no inhibitions stating his high opinion when he thought something merited it, and also no illusions about what aspects might need improvement. In the artistic world Heero knew, which was one of alternating obnoxious arrogance and depressing lack of self-confidence, such pragmatism was refreshing and engaging.

“This one would be totally badass if I’d been able to get this secondary light here to look right,” Duo said of one piece in the large and comfortable living room. “But at least the hands actually look like human hands.”

They lingered longest over a piece Duo had done for an upstairs bathroom, discussing in that very unromantic setting the techniques of non-objectivism (a style of which Duo didn’t often partake) and what type of message was sent, in a bathroom used primarily by guests, by the vaguely unsettling imagery and colors that had been selected here.

“I wanted it to make you think of sunset over the ocean without actually showing sunset over the ocean,” was Duo’s laughingly half rueful comment. “I didn’t mean for it to look like sick or blood or anything.”

Then they made their way downstairs, and it was there Heero came to understand why both adult children of this family hadn’t been able to bring themselves to move out of their parents’ house even in their late twenties. Heero himself might have been willing to put up with quite a lot of family annoyance (and embarrassment when people asked about his living arrangements) in order to have anytime access to so large and thoroughly stocked a studio so conveniently placed.

They’d either knocked out most of the walls or finished an unfinished basement to a totally open plan, creating a sprawling space they could easily fill with draft tables, easels, cabinets of materials, and sets of shelves of finished works. Lighting was prolific and adjustable, there were large working sinks for the rinsing of brushes (and probably the cleaning of paint-spattered hands and arms); and a comfortable bathroom decorated in more welcoming colors than the one in the hall upstairs, as well as a couple of conveniently placed small refrigerators full of snacks and sodas, rendered it feasible to spend hours and hours at a time working down here without ever needing to emerge.

Observing how close Heero was to drooling over the amenities as he showed them off, Duo grinned and sang, “We’ve been spending most our lives living in an artists’ paradise.” And when Heero winced and laughed simultaneously he added, “Seriously, though, let me show you this,” and gave him something else to drool over instead.

‘This’ was merely a nicely designed (and apparently home-designed by Duo’s mother) rack of sliding shelves that held a wide range of canvas sizes very neatly, but, though Heero liked the engineering and was quite pleased to see the finished artworks it currently held, Duo’s manner of presenting it only served to strengthen an impression that had been growing during their entire time in the house.

There had been a bit of walking when they’d initially met up on the street, but the majority of their first two dates had been conducted in seated positions. Duo was very attractive when seated; his face and interesting, messy hair — not to mention his engaging mannerisms and the brightness of his expression — constantly drew Heero’s eye and pleased him. But with Duo moving around, bending to lift canvases up and then gesture at them energetically, seeming to involve his entire body in every motion, it was a different story. A much more intense and distracting story that usually started with, Once upon a time, all of this was naked.

As he’d essentially told Duo at their first meeting, Heero wanted to pretend neither that he was unaffected by Duo’s sex appeal nor that it was the only thing that interested him — but finding a balance in his thoughts and behaviors was proving rather difficult. The good news was — well, the ambivalent news was that Duo wasn’t naked right now, so, regardless of how enticing he looked in those jeans and how enthralling was every motion of his body, only memory and imagination on Heero’s part painted them in flesh tones; so if he could restrain those two, he could stick to socially appropriate interaction and keep himself from panting over nothings like the manner in which Duo bent way, way over to reach out and point at some aspect of a portrait that was rather too large to be examined in a horizontal state but would have been extremely inconvenient to prop up just to look at for a few minutes and then replace on the sliding rack.

The struggle continued throughout the extended tour of the studio, and it was an extended tour. Even had Duo not been pleased to show off the place and all it contained, Heero would probably have kept them downstairs that long anyway marveling and admiring and lusting (in one way or another). And as when Duo had actually been naked in front of him, Heero did eventually come up with a way to work with feelings that definitely weren’t diminishing over time.

He had arrived at the house around eleven, and it was three in the afternoon so soon he could hardly credit it. And since he had a class this evening, he was forced to insist eventually, reluctantly, that they emerge, blinking and readjusting like travelers out of a cave full of the most remarkable formations, from the addictive studio. He didn’t have to leave the house cold turkey, however, since they’d planned from the beginning to scrounge up a late lunch in the kitchen.

“I’m pretty sure we have cold cuts and tuna and peanut butter and jelly,” Duo listed as they climbed the stairs, “if you want a sandwich. Or we could make some mac and cheese or something.”

“These are some gourmet options,” Heero murmured, smiling at the way Duo’s wording had seemed to imply a sandwich with cold cuts, tuna, and peanut butter and jelly on it.

“We’ve got plenty of real food too.” Duo’s return grin sabotaged his mock-defensive tone. “You just don’t have time for us to put together crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce. Neither do I, actually, since I have to work this evening.”

“Wow,” said Heero as he experienced an unexpected rumble in his stomach, “crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce sounds amazing. Do you have a recipe for that?”

“What?” For an instant Duo seemed somewhat panicked. “No! I can’t cook to save my life! I just made up something that sounded good!”

Heero chuckled, then admitted somewhat forlornly, “I’m not much good either. But you know…” Even during their third get-together, even feeling pretty easy around Duo, Heero still had to take a surreptitious deep breath here. “Giachetti’s is really good Italian food. I don’t know if they have crab manicotti, but I know they’re good…” Also not knowing exactly what might happen to disrupt a more formal date between himself and Duo, Heero hardly dared make the suggestion any more explicit than that. He had a pretty good idea what was coming next, but whether or not it would happen today he couldn’t be sure. He’d been longing for a more formal date with Duo, an upgrade of their interaction to the next level, but couldn’t help being hugely nervous about the idea at the same time.

If Duo recognized this nervousness, he most likely attributed it to shyness or uncertainty of the reception of the idea or something similar, for he gave Heero a reassuringly flirtatious smile as they entered the kitchen and said, “We’d probably better go there, then, since I got us both hooked on this manicotti idea.”

“And what if they really don’t have any?” Heero replied with a smile of his own, pleased and relieved.

“We’ll just have to find some place that does and go there next.”

And Heero felt all warm and fuzzy again.

They were inclined to dawdle over their peanut butter and jelly, joking about sandwich techniques and the proper alignment of the universe that was thrown off by Duo’s choice to put raisins in his, wasting plenty of time before they’d even sat down despite each of them having somewhere to be after not too long. Neither, it turned out, had been served many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a child, and therefore they felt a bit detached from the popular concept of the meal choice as a childish one — but they did have pretty firm ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate along those lines, and no qualms about debating them. Beyond that, it was interesting to talk about what they had eaten as children and did associate with their younger days.

Eventually, however, Heero really did have to get up and leave, lest he find himself unable to coordinate buses properly to get first home and then to school. To his very great satisfaction, though, Duo accompanied him to the bus stop down the street with such immediacy, and without so much as the briefest question whether Heero wanted him to, it was as if they’d prearranged this as well. Which meant their conversation about their preferred cartoons growing up continued almost uninterrupted.

In fact it continued almost uninterrupted far longer than it should have, and far longer than Heero realized at first. Right in the middle of recalling his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode that he could remember (the one about the cufflinks), the sight of a bus passing — passing, not turning — along the larger connecting street some distance down from them jarred him into sudden realization.

“What time is it?” he demanded, interrupting himself in his startlement.

Duo too was startled, and jerked his head around searching for whatever had broken into Heero’s thoughts. By the time he looked back, Heero had answered his own question by lifting the watch he’d been wearing all along, and had assumed a grim expression. “What?” Duo asked. “What time is it?”

Heero gave a frustrated sigh. “4:35.”

“There should have been, like, three buses by now!” Duo yelped.

For a moment Heero remained silent. Was it worth explaining that he knew exactly why, and on whose dime, the buses weren’t coming down this street? Probably not. What would happen would happen, and trying to give details at this point would undoubtedly only be more awkward. So all he finally said was, “It would take too long to walk down to the next stop. It’s already so late. Can I use your phone?”

“Doesn’t Allery do cell phone service?” Duo wondered as he fished out his device.

“I think they’re thinking about it. But it’s all land lines at the moment.”

“So you’re holding out ’til you can get a good discount.”

“I’m holding out as long as I can. I’d rather not have to carry a phone at all.” Heero stared reluctantly down at the one he now held.

Duo laughed. “You’d rather be a hermit.”

“Yes,” Heero agreed bluntly, and dialed the number of someone much more inclined than he was to be constantly connected to the rest of the world. He would simply have asked Duo for a ride — embarrassing as that would have been — if he hadn’t been aware that Duo, like himself, had no car and only sometimes borrowed one belonging to people he lived with, none of whom were present.

“No wonder you liked our basement so much,” Duo grinned.

Quatre’s greeting was the friendly and professional tone he used for strangers, indicating that, whatever else he knew about Duo by now, he didn’t have him listed as a phone contact yet. But as soon as Heero identified himself, the sound of Quatre’s reply abruptly shifted to a disingenuous combination of concern and smugness. “Oh, hi, Heero. How’s it going?”

“Fine.” Heero tried not to sound too defeated. “Do you have time to give me a ride?”

“Oh, sure!” Quatre replied a little too readily. “Where are you?”

Heero might not have rattled off Duo’s address quite as quickly as he did if he’d believed Quatre was actually in need of it. The recitation won him a confirmation from Quatre even more glib than the address had been, as well as a surprised and pleased look from Duo perhaps in response to the revelation that Heero already had where he lived by heart.

“Actually I think I’m not far from there,” Quatre added.

“Hmm,” said Heero, in lieu of a sarcastic comment on that extraordinary coincidence.

“So I should be there pretty soon.”

“OK. Thanks.” Heero hung up, resisting the urge to shake his head, roll his eyes, or sigh, and handed the phone back to Duo. There was always some amusement to all of this too, and some grudging admiration at how well everything came together, but he tried not to show any of that either.

“So, back to the house?” The cute casual motion by which Duo replaced his phone in his pocket probably held Heero’s eye more than it should.

“Yeah.” Here it wasn’t too difficult not to sound defeated, since an excuse to spend more time with Duo wasn’t really anything he regretted. So they sat amicably on the porch making definitive arrangements for a date at Giachetti’s, and Heero couldn’t be even a little annoyed about being stuck here waiting for a ride.

With typical good acting — better than what he’d used on the phone where he could be relatively certain he was safe — Quatre didn’t show up any sooner than would make sense, and moved along the street slowly as if looking carefully at house numbers before catching sight of his roommate on the porch of the one he wanted.

“Nice car,” Duo muttered admiringly as Quatre came to a stop. Heero was watching the big, excited shape in the back seat with the continued urge to shake his head, all suspicions confirmed.

Technically it wasn’t necessary for Quatre to leave the vehicle when he was only here to collect a passenger, but not only did the plan require him to do so, it was also Quatre’s nature to be polite and sociable under any circumstances. So of course he’d turned off the car and was getting out to say hi to Duo just as if he didn’t know that the passenger he already had was going to burst forth like living chaos to join him in so doing.

As sixty-five pounds of ridiculously excited chabrador exploded toward him, Duo made a surprised noise, but that was all he had time for before the dog was on him. Quatre was shouting vainly and as if he hadn’t expected this, and Heero was braced for the outcome.

“He chewed through his leash!” Quatre called as he approached. And though this was true, strictly speaking, the despair and frustration in the tone were misleading — Truffle had chewed through this particular leash perhaps six months ago, at which point Heero, tired of replacing nylon leashes, had bought him one made of chain that he couldn’t so easily destroy. Like the sketchbook that wouldn’t stay hidden, however, the latest chewed-through leash continued to make appearances whenever it was convenient for it to do so.

And then Duo dropped to his knees, carelessly putting his face right in range of the big wet purple tongue, and said with an enthusiasm to match Truffle’s, “Did you chew through your leash?? That’s so naughty!!”

Heero had been looking back and forth between Duo and the car, watching alternately for what his handsome new acquaintance would do in response to the dog and signs of a stealthy exit from the back seat and the assumption of a position in hiding somewhere whence the entire scene could be captured on video; but Trowa’s powers of stealth were constantly improving, and Heero, even while specifically watching for him, got only slight hints at his presence. Besides, his full attention was diverted in the other direction when Duo, to cap his welcome of Truffle, produced seemingly out of nowhere a good-sized Milk Bone with which to tease and eventually gratify the good-sized dog. Seriously, where it had come from was an enormous mystery at this point. Even Heero had only been half expecting Truffle today; there was no way Duo could have known.

Duo’s initial reaction to unexpected shedding and slobber had been excellent, but his subsequent production of treats bordered on the incredible. As Heero’s wondering eyes rose from Duo to meet Quatre’s, he heard in his head the echo of an exchange from the other day when he’d first encountered Duo in Ms. Hilde’s car:

“That’s a new one.”

“Yeah, wow. I say go for it.”

And though Quatre’s face didn’t quite communicate ‘go for it,’ beyond a doubt he was impressed. But the interested calculation that settled onto his expression thereafter gave Heero a bit of a chill as he realized that… nobody had ever made it past the dog before, at least not this definitively. He had no idea what was supposed to happen next. And they’d already arranged a proper date for the coming weekend.

Normally he would have pulled Truffle off the victim by now, but he’d been so taken by surprise by Duo’s reaction that he’d just stood there for half a minute longer than usual. At least Duo seemed not to mind. In fact he almost sounded disappointed when Heero’s commands drew Truffle’s loving attentions away to his owner. And as Duo stood, wiping saliva from his face, he asked, “What kind of dog is he?”

“He’s chow/black lab.” Heero got a good grip on Truffle’s harness when he noticed that another Milk Bone from nowhere had appeared in the same hand Duo was using the back of to clear off his face. “Why do you have dog treats?”

“Oh, there’s a bunch of dogs between here and the bus stop, though you don’t always catch them outside. I keep some treats on me for them.” As he spoke, Duo approached where Truffle was straining at Heero’s grip on his harness, and held up the latest Milk Bone. “Does he do any tricks?”

So while Duo put Truffle through his paces, rewarding him with what was probably an unhealthy amount of treats for the few commands he’d learned well enough to perform while excessively excited, Heero watched him and admired the friendliness with which he interacted with the dog, glanced around somewhat pointlessly in search of Trowa (whom he never found), and worried about the artful gleam in Quatre’s eye. Perhaps he could keep the time and place of his next meeting with Duo a secret; perhaps he could stave them off. Though honestly he wasn’t sure, much of the time, how they even knew in the first place.

And it didn’t matter anyway, since when they finally got around to goodbying after a decent amount of further interaction with Truffle that was sure to make his little doggy day, Duo commented, “So I’ll see you on Friday. I think there’s a bus stop in that shopping center — right across from the mall, right?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Heero forced himself to smile, to hide his minor dismay at having the time and place (more or less) announced like that in front of Quatre. “I’ll see you then.”

And after bundling Truffle, with some effort, back into the car, leaving Trowa (wherever he was) to his own devices in getting home, Heero took his place in the passenger seat wondering whether he was more eager to spend time with Duo or anxious — in the face of Quatre’s complacent but crafty visage — how that meeting could possibly go.


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