“Well, mob boss Quatre Winner’s parents gave him a house as a graduation present, and–”
“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…”
“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–”
“–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.”
“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.
“Donovan went to Traevis too. He’s probably graduated by now. I haven’t talked to him for a while. But he was trying to get close to Quatre for networking purposes, so that’s how I met him.”
“Sounds like another trophy-hunter.”
“How’ve you managed to pick up so many of those?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t have such a long list.”
“I’m glad I’m not the only one with a shitty list.”
“So I guess yours only got more fun after high school too?”
“They got more drunk after high school. Drunk and freeloading and assuming I owed them sex and thinking it was manly to be pushy and rough — or, for the girls, that it was my job to buy them whatever they wanted.”
“What was the common denominator? Besides that, I mean. Since I assume you didn’t choose them for that stuff.”
“You know, I’ve thought about that, and… it sounds totally self-centered, but I think what drew me to all of them in the first place was their interest in me. There was always something about them — you know, some good or interesting personality trait, since none of them were all bad — something that kept me with them after that first attraction, but it was usually their interest that started it. I guess I’m just a total egotist, but don’t we all want to be adored? And maybe they were just interested in me because they thought they could get stuff from me, but I always loved the feeling of someone showing specific interest in me out of the blue. Does that make me an awful person?”
“No, I don’t think so. Or at least not more than it makes me an awful person to be drawn to people just because they’re good-looking and have a bright presence.”
“Hah! We’re both so superficial!”
“Well, we’re both artists… what can we do?”
“Hope to get lucky, I guess. Not like that. You know what I mean. No, seriously, that’s not what I meant! So, uh, how many more are on your list after Donald or whatever?”
“I don’t remember. Two or three a year. I haven’t really kept track, because after Donovan… things changed. But with Donovan, it was pretty much the same as the high school relationships were. Only now I had a whole house full of roommates that didn’t approve. We didn’t last very long because of that, actually… well, and because he kicked my dog.”
“He thought it was good business to wear suits all the time, and he had… Wufei described it as ‘using dignity to cover up a lack of real ethics,’ or something. Sylvia just said he had a stick up his ass. But his dignity and his nice clothes couldn’t stand my hairy dog. He thought I didn’t know he was mistreating Truffle, but I did.”
“I hope you threw him out that same second.”
“Pretty much. And he won’t be networking with Quatre any time soon.”
“Good! Good. So then what changed after Donovan?”
Heero tried to fight off nervousness as he disembarked from the bus just opposite the mall and turned to make his way across the parking lot toward Giachetti’s. He’d considered asking his roommates directly what the plan was for tonight, but, knowing he would never get a straight answer, had eventually decided not to. There was even a certain relief to ignorance, since he would be able (if he was able) to eschew thinking about it and simply enjoy his date with Duo, and show genuine, uncontrived surprise in response to whatever did happen. Nevertheless the nervousness was still tugging at him as he walked.
Duo waited outside the restaurant, leaning against the wall beside the door giving a friendly smile to anyone that entered in front of him. And Heero simply couldn’t help gawping as he approached.
Observing the fixed gaze, Duo glanced down at the emerald tie and matching vest he wore over his milky white dress shirt and slacks. He’d obviously put his hair in a fresh braid too, and taken some care in so doing, since it was sleek and smooth, much neater than the last times Heero had seen him. Heero would never want to use a trite and possibly demeaning phrase like, ‘He cleans up well,’ but it was a pretty stunning improvement. Duo was easily as sexy and eye-catching now as when he’d been draped naked across an armless armchair.
“Too much?” Duo wondered, looking back up from his inspection of self.
“No!” Heero didn’t bother trying not to stare. “You look amazing.” In some chagrin he added, “I think I’m underdressed.” He too had opted for a button-up and slacks, but had foregone a tie — and certainly didn’t own anything as nicely coordinated as what Duo wore.
“It is your turn,” Duo replied with a flirtatious grin. When he saw how much the remark made Heero blush, the grin widened into a sort of ‘My bad!’ expression, and he hastened on with, “Let’s go inside.”
There, Heero looked around surreptitiously for anyone he knew. The problem was that pretty much everyone in here — at least all the customers seated at the various tables, if not necessarily the staff — appeared familiar, but he couldn’t precisely place any of them. Was he being paranoid? This city housed a big enough population that, though he might recognize a lot of faces, it seemed highly improbable that everyone in a restaurant would be familiar to him… and yet he couldn’t attach a name, or where he thought he’d seen the person before, to a single one of them. At the same time, with the way his life worked, he couldn’t write this off as mere paranoia.
Since he also couldn’t do anything about it, he made no specific request about where they would like to be seated.
As they began to peruse their menus, Duo remarked happily, “Oh, good, they’ve got Coke products here. Pasta’s always better with Coke.”
“Better than Pepsi?” Heero sought to clarify.
“Yeah, ’cause Coke’s a little bit more bitter?”
Heero shrugged and admitted, “They’ve always tasted the same to me.”
Duo gave him an exaggerated look of shock. “You’re not serious. Hah! You’re very serious. Next you’re going to tell me Sprite and Sierra Mist are the same thing.”
“I can’t say I like either one of them.”
“What is wrong with you?”
Heero smiled. “Who’s the drinks snob now?”
Duo grinned back, then gave his attention to the server that had appeared to take their order for sodas. When the woman had gone, Duo said, “No, but you know who really was snobby about Coke?”
“Well, kinda everyone. You know how Pepsi was originally the poor man’s Coke?”
“Not really, but I’m not surprised.”
“Yeah, well, apparently, when they first made Pepsi, it was supposed to be a cheaper alternative to Coke, and it was supposed to taste the same. My… great… grandma…” He articulated slowly, as if taking care to specify the relationship correctly. “Yeah, ’cause it was my grandma who told me, about her mom. My great-grandma used to keep a pack of Coke bottles that she would wash out between uses and fill with Pepsi when she had guests.”
“She really cared that much?”
“I guess! You want to save money, but you gotta look classy, right? Can’t let anyone know you buy the cheap-o Pepsi like a poor poory… poorerson… right?”
Heero laughed. “I can’t imagine caring about how much people thought I spent on something. I’d much rather get a good deal.”
“And they’d probably admire you more for finding it on sale anyway! I mean, in the art world, you totally get what you pay for, so it’s like, good stuff being expensive is just something we all deal with, not a way to prove how rich you are or something.” When Heero nodded his agreement, Duo added, “Some weirdos may think Pepsi tastes the same as Coke, but nobody thinks Grumbacher is the same as Sennelier.”
Heero, though he hadn’t done much oil painting, still had to agree again, on principle.
Their server walked by them just then, carrying drinks to another table, and Duo picked up his menu. “Guess I should figure out what I want…”
Yet again Heero nodded agreement, and did likewise. He thought they were both searching for crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce — and though, as he’d feared, they didn’t find that specific combination available, they’d both managed to settle on something they wanted by the time their drinks came out and the server asked if they were ready to order.
When she had gone again, Duo inquired, “So how’s Truffle? Not sick from all those treats I gave him, I hope?”
“No, he’s fine,” Heero smiled. “As unmanageable as ever.” Actually Truffle had gotten sick that day, but since Heero speculated Quatre had plied him with excessive treats just to get him into the car in the first place, he didn’t blame Duo for that.
“How long have you had him?”
“Four years or so. I always wanted a dog growing up. My parents would never let me.”
Duo made a gesture of understanding and concurrence. “I’d have loved to have one too, but the kind of house we always lived in… I mean, you saw it…”
“Yeah, a dog might be a disaster in there.”
“I want a place someday where I can have both! Where I can arrange it for lots of art and a dog! And maybe some cats! And, like, some gerbils and rats and snakes and stuff! I dunno — maybe some birds too?”
Heero chuckled at this optimistic plan. “It sounds nice. But I’ve heard rats can smell–” And he stopped.
He wasn’t sure whether his eye was caught by the sudden surreptitious but still unusually concerted movement throughout the room or whether it was pure coincidence that he happened to glance around just then. He actually might have missed it had he not lifted his eyes at that moment, because they were all that skilled at ‘casual’ and ‘natural,’ but by pure chance he did notice: every single person in the room was suddenly putting on makeup.
Typically he would have considered it very rude to look frantically from one fellow restaurant patron to the next, staring hard but briefly at each trying to figure out what the hell they were doing; and even in this situation where it clearly wasn’t inappropriate behavior, he found it embarrassing. But those colors were not natural, and not all of it was even, as far as he could tell, standard cosmetics. What these folks were up to he couldn’t guess. Or, rather, knowing Trowa all too well, he did have a guess growing in the darkness of his suddenly cold gut — a guess he could hardly allow for the possibility of, did not even want to consider, but that would not let go. Quickly he looked back at the table on which were resting hands that had clenched into nervous fists, staring down at the clean tablecloth as if he could ignore away the greyish whites, sickly greens, and bruise purples being applied in copious amounts at tables around the room.
To Duo the nonsense had gone, as yet, unnoticed, but he hadn’t failed to pick up on Heero’s sudden increased tension and concern. And his concentration on Heero’s face and uneasy fists was touching. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly.
And that was when the first wet-sounding, guttural groan came floating in their direction.
And that was when Heero realized where he knew all these people from.
“What the…” Duo’s eyes had been drawn from Heero by the sound, and now he looked out across the room with an expression simultaneously skeptical and amused. Reluctantly, Heero followed the gaze.
The other ‘patrons,’ having finished their cosmetic endeavors — and some of them, apparently, having removed outer garments to reveal clothing far more ragged and bloody underneath — had all assumed limp slumps at their tables as if they’d been murdered over their ravioli and nobody had been left to clean up the mess… everyone, that is, except a couple of diners at the far end, almost invisible thanks to some potted plants in the way, who were now slowly, awkwardly hauling themselves to their feet. Once upright, their uncertain stances became imbalanced staggers as they set out just as slowly, still groaning, in a sluggish but deliberate line that seemed to point directly at Heero and Duo.
The latter turned his eyes, beneath high-raised brows, back toward Heero, and remarked in an almost questioning tone, “Everyone in this restaurant is suddenly a zombie.”
“Yeah,” said Heero faintly. “Yeah. Looks like it.”
The swinging door into the kitchens shuddered open as a member of the wait staff — in fact Heero thought it was their very own server — came shuffling out, now with a greenish-white face and oozing some kind of black substance from her mouth, indicating that more than only the space had been bought out for this occasion. He also noticed, since it was glowing red right above the door that had just caught his eye with its movement, a digital clock whose original function he wasn’t sure of but that seemed to have recently started a seven-minute countdown.
“Looks like we have six and a half minutes,” he murmured.
“Until what?” wondered Duo, glancing over. “And is she going to bring us our food?”
Heero couldn’t help smiling a little. “Probably not.”
“Well.” Duo moved briskly, taking a long last pull on his Coke straw and then unexpectedly beginning to shift all the contents of the table onto the booth seating or the floor beside him. This consisted of their drinks (which went onto the carpet in the far back corners where they hopefully wouldn’t spill), a wooden container of sugar packets with salt shaker and pepper grinder on the other side, two sets of silverware they hadn’t unrolled from protective napkins yet, a bottle of oil for the bread appetizer they were supposed to have received next, and the tablecloth; Duo was careful with all of it, propping the oil especially delicately into the corner of the seat where, like the drinks, it shouldn’t fall over. The tablecloth he folded — unevenly, yes, but it was neater than crumpling it — and placed next to the rest with the silverware stacked on top.
Heero had watched this performance in such rapt bemusement that he hadn’t taken note of the first zombies’ positions for a while. Now a glance around showed him that the one from the kitchen was nearly upon them and had been followed by another in a bloody chef’s uniform, with the initial set of patrons and a newly risen second set not far behind. The third group of diners was stirring, climbing from their seats and joining the slow-moving throng in the direction of Heero and Duo, who was busy with the next step in what Heero realized now was an impromptu bunker: he’d stood from his seat and was carefully tipping their heavy table over onto its end.
“‘Scuze me,” he said as Heero was forced to move his legs to avoid the multi-footed one of the table swiveling up in his vicinity. He added conversationally, “We’re lucky it isn’t attached to the wall; I think they usually are in restaurants like this.” Then, painstakingly as it was heavy and he obviously didn’t want to damage it, he rolled it down onto its long side and slid it into place to create a sort of front gate for the enclosure formed by their booth seating.
Heero was now somewhat inclined to laugh, though it might have come out a little frantic-sounding. He had no idea what the zombies would do when they got over here, nor what Duo’s plan was for that eventuality — Heero figured his date was probably thinking along the same lines as his own vague notion of using the silverware against them — but it was stupid and hilarious that Duo was creating a hiding place for them with the restaurant’s furniture, his aplomb nothing less than adorable.
And then Duo, after navigating over the seat into the space behind the upturned table, bent down and pulled the right leg of his white slacks all the way up to his knee, revealing what appeared to be a machete strapped there with scrunchy pony-tail holders of three different colors that must have been either stretched beyond all usefulness or cutting off the circulation in his calf. Heero, gaping, watched as Duo somewhat clumsily extracted the weapon from the hair accessories holding it in place, and finally managed to ask, in an even weaker tone than he’d yet used, “Why do you have a machete under your pants?”
Duo examined the knife, which seemed to be made of rubber, from end to end as if he’d not yet had a good chance to do so, or perhaps as if he found it repeatedly fascinating. He slapped its tip experimentally into his other palm, watching it wobble slightly with an appraising expression. “Some guy gave it to me and said I’d better bring it tonight because I was going to need it.” He gestured to the first of the zombies, who were getting dangerously near the table. “I guess this is what he was talking about.”
“Yeah, he was all in that black and grey camo.” But before Duo could provide any further description — not that Heero really needed it — the first of the zombies was upon them.
The movement by which Duo swung his machete at the woman just as she reached their table was an experimental one, as he couldn’t be sure what degree of false violence — if any! — would be effective against these false zombies. It seemed to have done the trick, though: as soon as the rubber made contact with her neck, she let out another theatrical groan, staggered off to her right, and fell to the floor.
“Looks like this’ll work, then,” Duo said with a cheerful nod, again slapping the bendy blade against his free hand.
Heero mimicked the first gesture, but not the second.
The next zombie reached them after not too long, and Duo dealt with that one in the same way he had the first. Though Heero couldn’t see them around the booth’s edges once they’d fallen to the floor, he had an uneasy feeling they were crawling away along the room’s perimeter and might not really be finished. Meanwhile, seated zombies were slowly awakening in waves, each one closer to the defenders, and beginning to stagger their way over.
The clock above the kitchen door read 5:00.
“So did you know,” Duo wondered as he wielded his weapon in the face of the grimy onslaught, “that everyone in here was going to turn into a zombie tonight?”
“I did not,” replied Heero with complete honesty. He didn’t add that he was not surprised, however, and he was glad Duo hadn’t asked if he knew why this was happening.
Some of the makeup jobs here were distinctly gruesome — impressive for a last-minute application with only handheld mirrors! — and in the otherwise silent restaurant — the music that had previously been playing softly from overhead speakers having ceased, probably to accommodate the atmosphere — the groans and shuffling sounds were genuinely agitating. Heero’s heart now beat even faster than it had when he’d been in the dark as to this evening’s proceedings, something he would have considered impossible prior to this — surely, would have been his assumption, vague and unsettled anticipation of what would happen must be worse than whatever was actually going to happen! As usual, he should know better than to underestimate his friends.
Two moaning zombies came at them simultaneously, clawing arms outstretched to reach over the barricading table, and Duo dispatched them with a neat slice that crossed the throat of one diagonally down through the chest of the other. They separated, falling dramatically in different directions and crawling away out of sight across a carpet that Quatre might need to pay to have stage makeup stains professionally removed from after this.
“So obviously you do what you gotta do,” Duo remarked, “and I never mind a spot of zombie-killing of a Friday evening… but if someone had warned me ahead of time, I wouldn’t have worn white!” And into the chest of the next zombie he thrust his blade, which bent comically before the approaching monster staggered backward away from it and fell to the floor.
“The fact that you were going to need a machete might have been a warning,” Heero pointed out. “I didn’t even get that much.”
Duo allowed, “That’s true,” and sliced another zombie across the neck. “Besides, I look damn good in white.”
“Yes,” said Heero seriously, making Duo’s grin widen, “you do.”
The clock above the kitchen read 4:17.
The onslaught thickened as the entire population of the building joined in, including the wait and bus and kitchen staff and what Heero guessed to be the restaurant manager or owner in a bloodstained suit and tie, and all the former diners had risen from their seats. Duo was forced to deal out blows right and left with an arm that must be getting tired. The most difficult part seemed to be maintaining a gentleness of strike that would not damage the real living people beneath the makeup even with a rubber machete, and Heero admired his dedication to the rules of an unexpected game that might have annoyed a less patient person into a more hurtful demonstration of his dissatisfaction with this crazy postponement of his dinner.
The clock above the kitchen indicated they had just over three minutes left, and Heero felt a mixture of awkwardness, embarrassment, and amusement in addition to the aforementioned agitation and nervousness resultant upon the semi-realism of certain aspects of this scene. He should be doing something to help, but wasn’t sure what; he didn’t have a rubber machete strapped to his leg — inasmuch as giving him one would have constituted far more forewarning than his friends obviously believed he needed — and his silverware idea from earlier seemed, upon further reflection, unfeasible unless he wanted to add genuine blood to the fake stuff many of these people wore.
Well, it probably didn’t matter much. Duo was obviously enjoying himself, even if he did appear, as Heero had previously noted, to be tiring, and whatever the hell Heero’s friends thought to learn from this exercise — how well Duo could make use of his surroundings and available resources in the event of an unexpected undead apocalypse? — must be well in evidence in his enthusiastic one-man hold of the little bunker. And if Heero was correct and the clock over the kitchen doors was significant to their situation, Duo probably wouldn’t have to heft that fake machete for all that much longer in any case.
Just then, Heero started at a sound to his right, and half-whirled-half-jumped to see a lurching body clawing its way over the back of the booth seating in that direction and reaching for him with hideous purpose. This was a zombie Heero recognized, so he knew what that purpose was, and couldn’t be sure whether to roll his eyes or duck behind Duo in a very pointed ‘I’m here on a date with someone who is not you, Treize’ gesture.
Neither was required of him (though he might have done one of them anyway), for Duo, attention caught by Heero’s motion, wasted no time in bringing his machete down right onto Treize’s still-stylish-even-in-undeath head. Treize gave a groan that sounded more disappointed than anything, and slumped down behind the seat.
“Keep watch on both sides,” Duo instructed, “and let me know if anyone else gets that bright idea.”
“Oh, they will,” Heero replied darkly. Because where Treize went, never far behind was…
And, yes, just as expected, the next head to appear over the back of the seat was platinum blonde. Long, elegant hands in torn button-up sleeves reached for him, and this time the message Heero would have intended in jumping behind Duo was, ‘Still not interested in a threesome, Zechs.’ But instead he just said his companion’s name in a warning tone, and was rewarded with the very satisfying sight of Zechs being smacked in the ear with a rubber machete and toppling backward — perhaps not entirely theatrically — out of sight.
The clock read 1:38.
It was several zombies more before Heero became certain that the cycle had started over and they were seeing for a second time attackers Duo had already dealt with. A particular early-90’s denim jacket, artfully spattered in blood, Heero couldn’t possibly have missed after having taken specific note of it the first time, and the besuited manager/owner stood out as well. The zombies were, it seemed, doing what Heero had speculated since the beginning: circling around at a crawl to the back of the straggling line for a fluid, continuous attack.
This repetition evidently rendered it allowable for Treize and Zechs to make each another attempt at getting at Heero — though Heero puzzled, as not infrequently at their behavior even in more routine circumstances, over what they thought to gain by it, whether they really thought this would change his mind about them and what they wanted — and in fact Treize was coming over the seat-back to be met by Duo’s machete a third time when the clock above the kitchen door finally reached the end of its countdown and began repeatedly flashing 00:00.
It seemed a little silly, but Heero’s nervousness actually increased at this point. He wouldn’t be surprised if these folks somehow found a way to combine all the zombies into a giant undead horror so tall it would burst through the ceiling — which Quatre would then pay for — and challenge Duo and Duo’s little play weapon with flailing arms and stomping legs each comprised of two or three individuals. Or maybe the clock above the kitchen had been a ruse all along — designed, perhaps, to test Duo’s response to disappointment, though Heero would probably be the more disappointed of the two — and the assault would not stop at this juncture. How soon would Duo tire of the game and demand to be let out? Heero couldn’t guess.
But any hope that had arisen at the end of the countdown was justified after all. In a rush, accompanied by the resumption of music from the speakers above — now some heroic movie theme Heero did not immediately recognize — rescue burst upon the scene.
“Yep, that’s the guy.” Before dealing with the next zombie in the queue, Duo gestured with his machete at the figure at the head of the newcomers.
Heero had absolutely no need to ask which ‘guy’ he meant. “That’s Trowa,” he said in more of a ‘this is so typical of him’ tone than any of identification.
“And isn’t that your roommate?”
“That’s all of my roommates,” Heero confirmed. “Yes.”
At first Duo didn’t have much time, between zombies, for examining the rescue party, for admiring all their stylish urban camouflage or their various weapons — from Sylvia’s replicas of Legolas’ knives from the Lord of the Rings movies and Wufei’s runed broadsword with the dragon hilt that looked ridiculously out of place in this context to the machete in Quatre’s hand that seemed to have come in a set with Duo’s and the chainsaw Trowa hefted that Heero really, really hoped was fake — but after not too long, Duo was able to stand back, relax a bit, and examine the fresh heroes as they drew the zombies’ attention away from the previous targets.
“Quatre can’t keep a straight face,” he chuckled presently as they watched Quatre dive into battle with an expression that showed just how absurd he found this.
“Neither can you,” Heero pointed out. And he didn’t add that, to someone that knew Trowa (who could keep a straight face), it was obvious he too was overwhelmed with emotion — in his case, intense pleasure and excitement.
“Well, it’s not every day you get to fight an Italian restaurant full of zombies!”
Wufei and Sylvia had headed down the line and were further away with their backs turned this direction, undoubtedly because Duo had met Wufei once before in a situation, if not exactly worse than this, at least pretty bad, and might recognize him again now. This precaution was probably unnecessary, though, since the wide, enthusiastic sweeps of Trowa’s chainsaw — which made a very convincing sound effect now he’d turned it on — were difficult to look away from.
“That guy’s really into it,” Duo laughed.
“That’s Trowa,” Heero repeated.
For a little while they watched the action without being called upon to take any further part, until zombie Zechs started climbing over the seat again and Duo dispatched him with a thoughtful expression. He glanced back at where the carnage still proceeded without them, since it seemed the zombies were not staying down for the rescue party any more than they had for the beleaguered. And now, as casually as if motivated by mere unconcerned curiosity, he finally asked the question Heero had been dreading: “Why is this happening?”
“I… can… sorta… explain,” Heero replied haltingly. “But not…” He gestured around, having no words to express how impossible he found the idea of a rational conversation at any length in this setting.
“I think they’ve got things under control in here.” Duo still couldn’t keep a straight face as he glanced back at the enthusiastic Trowa and his chainsaw. “Why don’t we go outside and talk?”
Half reluctant and half relieved, Heero nodded again. Together they carefully climbed out of the makeshift barricade and headed quietly for the doorway that led toward the exit. No one followed, though Heero thought he could make out the disappointed figures of Treize and Zechs watching them go from the booth beside where they’d been seated. It seemed likely that the game plan had been to keep this drama inside the controlled environment of the restaurant, for the sake of everyone’s safety and privacy and the least amount of property damage, so Heero and Duo would probably, as speculated, be safe outside. In the doorway, with a quiet, uninhabited bar to their left and the entry just before them, they paused by mutual silent accord and looked back.
Despite the defenders numbering only four, the battle had spread out to fill every corner of the room. Closest to them was Quatre, whose laughing machete strikes made it hard for even the zombies around him to keep to their prescribed expressions of slack-jawed undeath. Several of them on the floor around him were visibly giggling, which seemed to be impeding their progress toward crawling away to get to their feet and rejoin the skirmish elsewhere. For a moment or two, this strategy — if it could be called that — left Quatre the only one standing in a ring of mirthful zombies scrambling ineffectually to retreat.
And in that moment, Trowa backed into the circle and briefly turned off the sound effect on his chainsaw in order to hear Quatre’s comment, “You’re right — this is fun.”
Trowa gave him a very serious look and replied quietly, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
“It’s all thanks to you,” said Trowa earnestly, and leaned down to kiss Quatre firmly on the mouth. It made for quite the picture, what with the chainsaw pointed out one side and the machete out the other and the zombies at their feet — the very image of love surviving all odds even in a post-apocalyptic scenario.
“It’s not all me,” Quatre said breathlessly after the kiss had ended. “Thank Heero too; he’s the one who insists on dating jerks.”
“Marry me,” said Trowa.
“Oh!” Quatre’s face went pink as Trowa released him, and for once Heero thought it was both a genuine and spontaneous blush. “OK. Yes! Yes, that sounds like a good idea.”
The zombies on the floor — and, Heero thought, several that were upright and near enough to have heard the exchange — let out a concerted groan that was startling and very disturbing but probably the closest in-character thing they could manage to a cheer.
“Did that seriously just happen?” Duo chortled.
“I think it did,” replied Heero as he watched Trowa give Quatre one more quick kiss and then, restarting his chainsaw sound, plunge back into the fray. He couldn’t help grinning at having just witnessed the engagement of his two best friends, at the situation in which he’d witnessed it, and at the indication it gave that this dating thing really did work out from time to time. Actually he found it all rather heartening, and suddenly felt quite a bit better about the idea of spilling his guts — his somewhat bizarre guts, under the circumstances — to his companion.
“And do you insist on dating jerks?” Duo wondered next.
Heero laughed faintly. “That’s… part of the story.”
“All right, then, let’s really get out of here.” Duo tugged on Heero’s hand to urge him toward the exit. “I can’t wait to hear this.”
Seated on a stone bench outside Giachetti’s in the shadows of both the building itself and the trees landscaped around it, with Duo beside him, Heero was finally getting to the end of what must be the longest and most rambling explanation for anything he’d ever given.
“After I broke up with Donovan, Quatre decided it was time to get seriously involved. I think he felt personally responsible — at least a little — since I met Donovan through him. He wanted to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. So he came up with The Test. He coordinates and pays for everything, and Trowa does most of his legwork with a bunch of expensive spy equipment. There’s a troupe of theater students — that was most of the zombies in there — who do whatever parts they need. And the others kinda pitch in wherever.”
“You know I know about Tests,” Duo replied. “But what was the zombie thing supposed to prove?”
Heero shook his head. “The zombie thing was Phase 4. I knew there was a Phase 4, but I had no idea what it was. If it’s supposed to prove anything besides ‘Trowa loves zombies,’ I don’t know what it is.”
“‘Phase 4?'” Duo leaned back against the rock planter into which their bench was set and laughed out loud. “There are phases to this? Way to make Hilde look like a total amateur!”
“I had to appreciate the irony of running into someone else who does Tests, though.”
“So what were the other– wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” Duo raised a finger. “You said your first boyfriend had a tendency to flirt with other people and say all sorts of inappropriate stuff about you right in front of you, as if you wouldn’t notice or care. So that Wufei guy was pretending to do that bullshit to see how I’d react. That was Phase 1.”
“That’s right. If you’d flirted with him seriously or followed the topics he raised — or if you tried to fight him or something — you would have failed.”
“But you’ve never actually been out with him at all, since he’s totally straight and has a nerdfriend.”
“Yeah. Usually they send this one guy Zechs to handle that part — he was one of those two zombies coming after me over the seats just now. He’s interested in me himself, and he’s not very good at taking ‘no’ for an answer. Last time he got a little… carried away… and Wufei volunteered this time. Or Sylvia volunteered him. I’m not sure.”
“So Phase 2 was…” Duo thought about it, raising a second finger somewhat indecisively. “Phase 2 must have been Quatre bringing you that sketchbook right in front of me to see if I’d be interested in your art.”
Heero nodded. “I’m not sure why they didn’t change it this time, since you’re an artist too.”
“Well, it’d be even worse for a fellow artist not to be interested, wouldn’t it? Someone else might just not be interested in art, but from me it would be like saying, ‘This kind of thing is OK when I do it, but yours isn’t important.'”
“I guess that’s true,” Heero smiled.
“But the fact that I’m interested in your art still doesn’t prove anything. I could still be a serial killer or a playboy or something…”
“Those things being very much in the same league,” murmured Heero.
“Well, I know I really do sometimes… neglect things I should do, because I forget about them or get lazy, or just don’t take life seriously enough… which has annoyed people in the past.”
Helplessly Heero shrugged. “Tell it to my roommates.”
Despite what he’d just said, Duo’s gaze was very serious as it met Heero’s through the shadows. “Does it bother you that they do this?”
Heero felt a thrill at the question and its tone as he realized that Duo was essentially offering to try to do something about his eccentric friends. Not that Heero could think of a single thing that might be done — and Duo probably couldn’t either — but the fact that Duo was willing to offer at all gave Heero simultaneously another fuzzy warmth and a bit of a chill.
The latter because Duo’s impulse rather made him fit right in with Heero’s eccentric friends.
“It… doesn’t bother me… too much,” he said at last. “Sometimes they go a little overboard–”
Duo gave a snort of laughter. “A little?”
“The zombie thing is new,” Heero admitted, grinning in spite of himself. “Normally it ends after the dog thing, if the…” He winced as he was forced to use the melodramatic term Quatre and Trowa had for it. “…if the Subject makes it that far.”
“‘The Subject,'” Duo chortled. “They’re so hardcore about this!”
“What you’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg. Of their enthusiasm, I mean. I couldn’t stop them doing this even if I wanted to.”
“So you don’t want to! You secretly enjoy this as much as they do!”
“I don’t think I will ever enjoy anything as much as they enjoy this. But, no, I don’t want to stop them. Well, part of me doesn’t… some of the time. Because it works. At least it works as well as Ms. Hilde’s Test for you… it weeds out the worst of them.”
“But you said the Subject usually doesn’t get as far as the dog part! It sounds like you’ve had exactly three dates with everyone you’ve tried going out with for the last however many years!”
“It isn’t always as compact as it’s been for you. Sometimes there are as many as six dates.”
“So what was different this time?”
Heero’s face went hot. “I think… I think they could tell I’m really into you. So they sped things up.”
“That…” Duo’s chuckle had a slightly uneasy sound. “That’s not reassuring. I mean, I like that a lot, but at the same time, how do I know dating you won’t bring out previously unknown assholeish tendencies in me? Since you’re so good at picking awful guys?”
“Hey, you have frankly admitted that everyone you dated were jerks too,” Heero pointed out. “I could easily be just like them. Your Test for me wasn’t nearly as extensive as mine for you.”
“Well, I do know one thing: it says something that all your friends think you’re special enough to look out for like this. I was already figuring out about you being hot and smart and fun, but this… this says something pretty special about you even beyond that.”
Again Heero was forced to smile, blushing simultaneously. “I think it says Quatre’s a crazy mobster, Trowa likes to play with spy equipment, Wufei’s can’t say no to his girlfriend, and Zechs and Treize have an unhealthy interest in me.”
“OK, well, it says all that too,” Duo laughed. “But it’s still kinda sweet.”
“And I know about you that you’re OK with fighting zombies on the spur of the moment, you’re nice to dogs, and you have fairly decent social skills.”
“So so far we’re not jerks,” concluded Duo solemnly. “Further testing is probably a good idea, though. I mean, I’ve passed your friends’ Test, so it seems like they’re going to let me date you… though I don’t think I’ll be surprised if we get kidnapped by pirates or something next time… and Trowa’s probably still monitoring us right now…”
Heero reminded him, “He just had his marriage proposal accepted. We’re probably OK for tonight.”
“What I’m wondering is… I passed your friends’ Test, so now it should be your turn to test me. Seems a little unfair, them making the decision for you.”
“The only thing they get to decide,” said Heero firmly, “is whether they let me try dating you in peace or harass you mercilessly. And as far as I’m concerned, just the fact that you’re sitting here talking to me right now after all this insanity proves something pretty special about you.”
Duo persisted. “But that’s only a result of their Test. Isn’t there anything you want to test?”
Heero’s smile widened at this obvious fishing. “Fine,” he said. “Kiss me.”
Duo pushed off the stones he’d been leaning back on with an alacrity that suggested he’d been waiting (or perhaps just secretly hoping) for this, and scooted the foot or so of bench required to bring him right against Heero. As he leaned in, his hands slid up Heero’s arms to rest on his neck, and his breath was suddenly warm in Heero’s face. Their parted lips met, and Duo pressed forward to move against Heero with an insistence unanticipated but welcome. He smelled and tasted of Coca-Cola, and in this context Heero couldn’t possibly say he didn’t like it — though he might still have maintained that Pepsi was about the same. Then it was several very pleasant moments longer than he’d expected before they broke apart.
“You pass,” Heero murmured.
“Really?” Duo looked amused and triumphant. “It’s that easy?”
“If you call everything you had to go through to get to that point easy…” Heero gestured to the restaurant as an indication of at least part of what he meant.
“You’re right about that… I think someday I’m going to ask you to marry me just to see what your friends will do.”
At the very suggestion Heero felt himself reddening again, and wondered, half tentative and half calculating, “You think we’re going to get lucky?”
“I seriously was not talking about sex when I said that!” protested Duo.
“I know,” Heero assured him. “But it was so funny that your mind jumped right in that direction.”
“Well…” Duo’s tone was quieter now, more earnest. “I feel pretty lucky with you so far. And did you say we’re safe for the night? Want to escape and try our date again somewhere else? It may be the only chance we’ll have to find out whether we’re both jerks without your friends interfering.”
“Sounds good to me.” When Duo jumped to his feet and, reaching for Heero’s hands, pulled him up after, Heero did not resist. “What did you have in mind?”
“I never got my dinner, and I’m starving.” Duo slid an arm around Heero’s back, drawing him comfortably but not inconveniently close. “Why don’t we grab a pizza or something and maybe rent a movie?”
“Yeah, I hear Rotting Flesh is out on DVD now, and supposedly it’s pretty good.”
In the semi-darkness of the parking lot as they headed for the bus stop, Heero’s somewhat theatrical groan was not the first to grace that venue that night.
An ebook version of this story can be found here.