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.
“In eleventh grade was when I started pursuing art seriously.”
“That’s where you’re starting with this?”
“Yeah… this is going to be a long explanation.”
“If you’re starting in eleventh grade it is!”
“No, don’t worry about it! I’m totally fine hearing about eleventh grade. So you got into art seriously?”
“Yeah. My parents didn’t want me to. They said there was no future in it. And by ‘future’ I mean ‘money.’ They wanted me to — they still want me to get into law.”
“You know, I think you would make a pretty decent lawyer, if lawyers weren’t all so evil.”
“It would be a very practical way to fund my interest in art. If it were a field that interested me at all.”
“Well, I definitely won’t question you being more interested in art than being a lawyer. That’s like the difference between chocolate cake and stabbing yourself in the eye.”
“You have to admit it is!”
“I guess… maybe… that’s one way to describe it. Anyway. My parents have never been happy I wasn’t interested in law. Once my mother asked — as if she didn’t want to bring this up at all but I’d forced her to — if my interest in art had anything to do with me being gay. That was the only time they ever came close to giving me a hard time about being gay. The question confused me a little at first, but she explained she thought maybe I was getting into something stereotypically gay because I felt like I needed to reinforce that I was gay… or something.”
“Is art stereotypically gay?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe? Gayer than law, I guess. Obviously she thought it was, since she asked. Of course I told her I was interested in it for its own sake. She didn’t ask again. I think they didn’t try to stop me from getting into the art club at school because they hoped I’d discover I wasn’t really interested. Or maybe that I wasn’t good at it. Then I could quit and do what they wanted me to do.
“But I was interested. And I was good at it. Good enough to keep going, anyway. I loved the art club. We met after school, and it was fun and educational. Then I would take the city bus home, and that was how I met Trowa. He was a junior at my school too, and he was taking an after-school guitar class. Since he lived out past me in the same direction, he took the same bus home.”
“Hah! So you were an art student hanging out with a beatnik guitar player who turned out to be totally insane; I bet your parents loved that!”
“I definitely didn’t mention him to them for a while, at least not specifically. They probably would have thought I was dating him if I had. You’re right, they probably wouldn’t have approved.”
“Did you ever go out with him?”
“No. He’s not really my type. Don’t get me wrong: he was my best friend for two years of high school, and he’s been one of my best friends ever since. But we were never interested in each other like that.”
“Maybe because he’s out of his fucking mind?”
“He wasn’t always quite so… enthusiastic… about things. Well, actually, he probably was. He just didn’t always have the funding. But the neighborhood he lived in was pretty rough. He grew up knowing how to fight and how to take care of himself, so I guess all of this was… inevitable…”
“And you were both out of the closet?”
“Neither of us had a big social circle. All right, that’s an understatement. We were each other’s only friends, and neither of us wanted more friends. So some people knew and some people didn’t. We didn’t try to hide, but we didn’t exactly broadcast it either.”
“That’s probably better than what I did…”
“What was that?”
“I actually came out by dumping my girlfriend — this was freshman year — because I was thinking I was probably gay when I found myself crushing hard on this one guy who seemed like he liked me back. It was a jerk thing to do to her without any warning like that, and even, like, fourteen years later I still feel kinda bad about it. Especially when I realized I was bi anyway.”
“Did this guy at least actually like you back?”
“Um, sort of… yes? but not in the right way. He had this idea somehow that I was really easy — probably the way I dumped my poor girlfriend didn’t help — and he wanted what he called an ‘open relationship,’ by which he mostly meant he would do absolutely nothing to keep up his half, but he would try to hit me up for sex whenever he felt like it.”
“Wow, in ninth grade?”
“Not going to pretend I wasn’t having sex my freshman year… just mostly not with him.”
“So you were cheating on him.”
“How could I? It was an open relationship! Though mostly he left me in this huge state of annoyance too constantly for me to be in the mood to find anyone else. He would never pay for anything. We’d go places, and he’d always just assume I was paying. God, he was such a jerk. We had so many loud arguments about everything we wanted each other to do before he finally ended it… if you can end something that practically didn’t exist in the first place.”
“I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than my first boyfriend.”
It was a Monday not quite halfway through the semester when the new and very interesting pictures turned up in the big room where Heero had his drawing class, and, as he’d arrived a bit early, he had a chance to look through them at his leisure. Not everything Ms. Hilde brought in was to Heero’s taste, but they were always worth glancing at, even if just to guess what artistic principle she would be using them to illustrate. These new pieces, however, were very much to Heero’s taste.
For his own part, he preferred to work in graphite or charcoal. Ms. Hilde had facetiously told him that his fixation on monochrome seemed a little psychotic, but he stuck to his guns. That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate colors, though, especially colors like these; the artist seemed fond of brief lines of striking contrast, or bright streaks and swirls of opposites, and the effect was quite nice.
The subjects were all human and all moving, many of them athletes but some wearing street clothes and just randomly in vigorous motion. And nearly every one of them had at least one feature that was conspicuously distorted — an unusually shaped torso, a pair of oversized hands, oddly tiny feet — that helped the figure’s lines fit neatly into the overall composition or drew the eye where the artist wanted it.
There were seven pieces total, and they reminded Heero of nothing so much as Van Gogh, though the similarity lay in little more than a certain sense about the brush-strokes: convoluted, seemingly erratic, they invariably fulfilled their purpose and simultaneously implied a fair amount of insanity in the brain driving the brush. There was a strong sense of mobility — a wildness, almost — about each picture, which kept Heero’s gaze moving from one point to another and allowed little rest. It was almost tiring.
Although Heero guessed it had been laid in thin, diluted layers, the paint was built up thick and hard, and, given how it seemed the brush had moved and the little splattery trails in places, had probably ended up all over more than just the canvas. He imagined the unknown artist, a paint-spattered, off-kilter genius, standing in front of an easel — no, not standing: unable to stand still, dancing slightly in excitement — filling in the background in motions of arm and body far larger than the tiny, manic brush-strokes actually required. He smiled faintly to himself at the thought.
There was an artist’s signature on each of the wild paintings, but, though it looked very nice, it was distinctly unreadable. Curious, he tipped the canvases forward in turn, examining the backs for more information. Finally, on the second-to-last, he found, in a scrawl almost as messy as the signature on the front, the words Duo Maxwell. At least that’s what he thought it said. It didn’t make much difference, though, since he’d never heard of the person. Still, he thought that, as much as he would ever like to meet anyone he didn’t already know (which wasn’t generally a great deal), he wouldn’t mind meeting this artist.
As usual, the class began with an hour of work time. While they plugged away at the current assignment, which had to do with perspective and foreshortening, or caught up on unfinished previous pieces, the students chatted or just worked quietly and listened to the radio, and the teacher walked among them making comments and suggestions.
Despite how personable she was, Ms. Hilde had always intimidated Heero just a little. After all, she was in her late twenties, as was he, but she taught college-level art classes. It wasn’t the most expensive or venerable college in the world, but it was still a college. Beyond this, though modesty or something in her contract prevented her from mentioning it directly, Heero knew she had a relatively successful career as an artist outside this job. Still, these intimidating qualities were also precisely what made her a good teacher — that and her ability to give suggestions in a wonderfully friendly and encouraging manner.
Eventually they all put away what they were working on and sat back for the lecture portion of the class. Heero had been looking forward to this today, interested in the new pictures and what Ms. Hilde would have to say about them; it was always nice to have her point out aspects that he might have missed, to hear her perspective. Today her take provoked just as much thought as it ever did, but Heero had to admit to a slight amount of distraction as he took in once again the details of the paintings he’d been so admiring at the beginning of class.
“You’ll notice this artist is extremely skilled at human proportions,” the instructor was saying as she gestured with two fingers at various spots and along various invisible lines. “That way, when he wants to achieve some effect — like in this one where he sweeps the focus riiight around to here — he can include just a slight deliberate error, just distend the arms a little as you can see, and it’s much more striking in contrast with the rest of the body, which is portrayed entirely accurately; it draws the eye much better than if the entire body were out of proportion.
“With body proportions, just like with everything else we’ve studied, it’s important to have a solid knowledge and the ability to get it right before you deliberately start doing it wrong. Which is why we’ll be doing some figure drawing next. We’ll be mostly working from photos and from each other because of the usual budget nonsense, but — and this is extremely important, so listen up — we will have a real model next week. So you need to be here. If you miss Monday, you are going to be responsible for finding your own live model who’s willing to pose nude for you to draw. I know better than pretty much anyone in the world how awkward it is to ask people to do that, so take it from me: be here.”
There was some laughter, both at the reference to ‘the usual budget nonsense,’ which was a sort of running joke in this class, and at Ms. Hilde’s expression as she touched on the issues inherent in finding nude models. Then, after a few more announcements and one or two final points about the paintings she just couldn’t help making even though she had presumably finished talking about them for now (this was also a running joke), she dismissed them until Wednesday. And Heero wandered out toward his next class with a brain full of the bright colors and unquenchable motion of the unknown Duo Maxwell.
“I didn’t really go out with anyone before junior year. I just didn’t know a lot of gay guys.”
“And the one you did know was your best friend you were never interested in like that, and you guys didn’t bother telling people you were gay.”
“Something like that. But that year I met this guy named Evan who was friendly and funny and bisexual…”
“Yes. I’m an artist. I can’t help it if hot guys catch my eye. Stop laughing at me. Evan was hot, yes, and he had that kind of bright personality that drew people to him. I got drawn. I’m not sure what made him notice me. I don’t think I was really his type. But pretty soon we were going out. I liked it at first… or at least I convinced myself I did… but I think I was lying to myself after not too long, for a long time.
“Trowa never liked him. I swear Trowa is loyalty made into a human being. He’s unfailingly steadfast about things, and he never quits once he’s made up his mind. He made up his mind about Evan, and he wouldn’t give up no matter what I had to say about it. He was constantly telling me I should break up with him. That I ‘deserved better.’ I figured that was the kind of thing a best friend would always say, and ignored it.”
“You must have had it bad.”
“What I definitely had was nothing to compare my relationship to. I guess I didn’t really know how bad it was. Evan… it seemed like Evan just wanted a trophy boyfriend.”
“I didn’t know you could have a trophy boyfriend in high school.”
“He looked better having a boyfriend. I guess having someone at all put him in a higher rank socially. If that person was a guy, it made him edgy or something. And I was a pretty good student who was in the art club, and most people thought I was pretty good-looking.”
“So I guess I made pretty good arm-candy for him. Looking back on it, I can see perfectly well now — though I never could then — that he was never really interested in me. He hardly ever bothered to hang out with only me. He pretty much just wanted me with him when other people were around, so they could see what a great couple we were. And at those times, the way he talked to me… well, it wasn’t even talking to me half the time. He would talk about me, as if I wasn’t there.
“He said all sorts of embarrassing personal things. We weren’t having sex, but he always made it sound like we were. He’d say things like, ‘And those rumors you hear about Japanese guys not being well-hung? Totally not true.’ Right in front of me, but without really acknowledging that I was there. Without noticing that it embarrassed the hell out of me.”
“Noticing or caring! Wow, I hope you eventually punched his lights out!”
“I’ve never been much for punching people. Not unless they hit me first. Trowa almost did, though. Six or seven times, if I remember correctly.”
“Good for him!”
“Evan would flirt with people right in front of me, too. With practically everyone, really. Looking back, I’m pretty sure now that it wasn’t just flirting, but that’s all he ever did when I was around. Of course at the time I tried not to be hurt by it. I tried to tell myself that was just his nature and he didn’t mean anything by it. But Trowa insisted he was cheating on me with half the school. He was probably right.
“So Evan was using me for cred or whatever and not really bothering to hide the fact that he was cheating on me. But then he would have the nerve to get jealous if I talked to anyone in some way he thought meant I was flirting.”
“Even though you’re not really the flirtatious type.”
“Yeah. But he would get possessive, and actually get angry. And a couple of times he actually tried to fight people over it. Of course he didn’t dare try that with Trowa, because he knew Trowa would have wiped the floor with him. But Trowa was always a sore point. Actually it’s why we eventually broke up. He was trying to pressure me to stop hanging out with Trowa because he couldn’t be sure Trowa and I weren’t ‘doing anything.’ And that was… well, that crossed a line.”
“I bet Trowa was happy.”
“He threw me a party.”
“Well, he called it a party. But he’d been watching me get dragged out to real parties by Evan for eight months and secretly hate every minute of them. So his ‘party’ was just him and me and some very artsy horror movies and a lot of junk food.”
“Good for Trowa! But, god, you were with that guy for eight months?”
“Yeah, it was just a week before the end of our junior year that I broke up with him.”
“Somehow I get the feeling there’s more to this story once senior year starts.”
“Somehow you might be right.”
When Heero’s alarm went off the next Monday morning, he silenced it in an immediate practiced movement and buried his face in his pillow. He wasn’t sure how Sylvia had convinced him to watch that many episodes of whatever anime that had been last night, but at least three hours past the time he should already have been asleep had found him still awake and puzzling through the intricacies of some incomprehensible plot he’d come in on a third of the way through. He was going to be drooping throughout all his classes today.
Of course he could skip the first one and get some more sleep… but that was art, and he couldn’t forget Ms. Hilde’s admonishment of a week ago; how on earth was he supposed to get someone to model for him if he missed today? Quatre could most likely be convinced to do it, but that would open a can of worms for which Heero didn’t know if he was prepared. Trowa would undoubtedly demand to be present, and would look, and would critique Heero’s work with cruelly unfair bias; and Heero could already imagine himself, especially under Trowa’s lethal eye, giving only the most abstract attention to the groinal region, which, being that of a close friend, he wasn’t sure he could even bring himself to draw in the first place. No, no, he’d better go to class. This was just the price he had to pay for letting his curiosity about that weird show get the better of him.
Mostly because of the city bus schedule, Heero was usually about twenty minutes early to his drawing class. This gave him time to set up his workspace at his own pace and to look over any new pieces Ms. Hilde had brought in, or to step out to the coffee vending machine down the hall. Today was (like most days) definitely a day for coffee, but first he had to examine the setup they would be working from.
If he guessed correctly (and his awareness of the art department budget issues made him fairly certain he did), it was a recliner with the arms sawed off under that thin white blanket. He wondered how comfortable it would be for someone to lie unmoving on for two hours. He glanced around, looking for the model, and thought he’d found her upon catching sight of a figure inside Ms. Hilde’s office with extremely long brown hair and apparently wearing a bathrobe; it was difficult to tell through the warbled glass of the office door.
Having returned from his caffeine expedition, he sat down to wait for the overhot drink to cool enough for him to consume it, watching his classmates trickle in and set up their equipment. Another benefit of arriving early was that he always got the choicest spots and never had to crane his neck to see over or around someone else. He hadn’t realized just what a blessing that would be today until Ms. Hilde emerged from her office with the model and the latter became clearly visible for the first time.
It was not, in fact, as the long hair had led Heero to believe, a woman. No, it was probably the most attractive man Heero had ever seen. Bright, sparkling eyes, an even brighter smile, a level of energy that seemed to have some kind of magical draw — Heero, at least, could feel the pull of it! — and he was clearly about to remove that bathrobe. Good lord. Heero had never worked from a nude model before, and this was not the somewhat droopy and moderately, safely unattractive lady of a certain age he’d been expecting.
In addition to his breath, he found himself holding his coffee in two tense hands as the model very casually undid the tie and shrugged out of the white robe. What became of this garment Heero didn’t know, since his eyes were, at the moment, fully occupied. The figure, its back currently turned toward Heero, was long-limbed, almost lanky, but not clumsy in construction or in movement. The skin was uniformly fairly pale, but still had a tannish cast to it; this man would probably turn a brown darker than his hair with the application of some sun, but evidently that was something he didn’t get a great deal of.
The aforementioned hair obscured his entire back and gave only tantalizing hints at buttocks and upper thighs, but in itself was worth looking at. However, even as Heero was doing so, admiring its sheen and evenness, the man turned in order to assume his position on the covered chair, and the breathing Heero had just managed to resume caught and stuck again.
Scrawny was definitely a good look on this guy; the dip beneath his ribcage was, for a few moments, all-absorbing to poor Heero, followed by the region immediately beneath. An inner thigh in that impossible milky tan color couldn’t quite distract from well proportioned genitalia whose specific potential uses Heero could not possibly be ignorant of, but it was still quite a sight. And then the model was settling down onto his side, pulling one leg slightly up so as partially to hide the flaccid but still very inviting penis and at the same time give just a hint at the smooth curve and shadow rearward.
“Duo, did you want this?” Ms. Hilde held out an iPod with headphones dangling, which the model sat up again to accept from her with a grinning thanks as if he’d forgotten and would have regretted it. He had a voice almost glowingly warm, somehow simultaneously mellow but suffused with the same energy that directed his movements.
Heero, however, couldn’t concentrate properly on the voice, so dumbfounded was he by what Ms. Hilde had just said. Duo? Duo?? This incredibly gorgeous naked man he had a specific excuse to study was also the painter of those pictures Heero had been so enamored of last week? The artist he’d been specifically thinking he wouldn’t mind meeting in person? Well, it wasn’t a common name… it had to be the same guy. What a package! –not even euphemistically speaking, either (though that was perfectly true as well).
A ‘blessing,’ had he called his happening to be closer to the model than anyone else? It was a mixed blessing at best, and ‘curse’ might not have been the least appropriate alternate description. How was he going to keep his composure throughout this class? How was he supposed to keep his thoughts professional when he had that in front of him?
Well, by concentrating on technicalities. He was still an artist, after all, regardless of how red-blooded he might be. That didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally stare a lot longer than he really needed to, and he wasn’t entirely sure he never drooled, and whether his finished picture would have any of the elements of the assignment in it was a matter of question, but at least he managed not to get an erection or anything. He wondered if anyone else in the class was having this problem, but didn’t dare look around to find out.
The modeling session seemed simultaneously agonizingly long and teasingly brief; Heero barely felt he’d gotten into the rhythm of the thing (as it were), found a workable plateau for his feelings, when Ms. Hilde was calling it to a halt. A glance at his watch revealed that not only was drawing time ending, the entire class was about over; Heero remembered now that she had said they wouldn’t be having any lecture today… had it really been that long? As his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the model, he realized in some dismay that it had.
His movements sluggish as he put away his stuff, he managed to be the last out of the classroom just as he’d been the first in. He didn’t bother trying to lie to himself about his reasons for doing so. He also didn’t bother trying to restrain his subtly searching eyes from following the model now that he was moving again. Duo had slid from the armchair in an ungraceful motion and reclaimed his bathrobe from wherever it had been; even as Heero watched, the glories between neck and knees were veiled. But if he’d thought this would release him from the spell of motionlessness that seemed to have fallen over him, he was mistaken; the hair Duo swept out from where it had been pinned by the robe, and even just the way he did it, were nearly as captivating as the other sights now hidden.
The model followed the instructor into her office, but didn’t close the door behind them, and Heero found himself shifting slightly, craning his neck so as to see inside. They were conversing cheerfully, but quietly enough that only the sounds of their voices rather than distinct words could be made out by the listener. Heero struggled to turn and walk away, but at first he couldn’t quite.
At last, as he continued to watch them surreptitiously almost against his own will, he saw Ms. Hilde rise partially onto tiptoe to kiss Duo on the cheek. Well, Heero thought, that explained both how she was able to use originals of his wonderful work in her classes and why Duo was willing to model for her. He wondered if she ever got jealous at so many greedy eyes all over her boyfriend’s fabulous body for so long, or if she was simply pleased with herself because, at the end of the day, she was the one that really got him.
Finally Heero tore himself away. The kiss had been the spellbreaker as the robing hadn’t, and now, in a mixture of disappointment and some annoyance at himself for having had any hopes to be disappointed in the first place, he headed for his next class.
As captivated as he’d been, on multiple levels, during his first few hours of school, it wasn’t as if he’d been abruptly and completely smitten with unshakable lust or an interest that overcame all other cognition. He was able, without too much trouble, to concentrate on taking notes in his next class and allowing his thoughts of the attractive artist and model to fade; and by the time he’d gotten through the third and last period of the day and headed off campus toward the bus stop, the circumstances of the morning, agitating as they’d been, had taken an appropriate place in the back of his head.
In fact, as he traversed the downtown sidewalks, he was thinking about an essay he needed to write for his American Art History class, trying to decide which of the prompt questions would be the most interesting to answer, and neither had any thoughts in particular about earlier events nor paid any attention to the car that pulled up to the parking meter beside him as he walked by.
But it became evident the next moment that they weren’t actually parking when a warm voice from that vicinity called out clearly to Heero, “Hey, excuse me! Do you know this neighborhood?”
He turned, prepared to give directions, and was startled to recognize the man in the car’s passenger seat through the half-rolled-down window.
“You’re Duo Maxwell,” he said, and continued before he could stop himself, “the one who did that great blue javelin piece.”
Duo’s fairly thick eyebrows rose in an expression of amused surprise, and, instead of answering Heero, he turned to glance over his shoulder at whoever was driving the car. “That’s a new one.”
“Yeah, wow.” This voice was familiar. Heero hadn’t been planning on rudely bending down to peer at whoever was in the driver’s seat, but at these words he did it anyway — and wasn’t terribly surprised to find Ms. Hilde at the wheel, looking out at him with a thoughtful expression. She said something else to Duo that sounded like, “I say go for it.”
“Roger that,” Duo replied, with a grin to his tone, and turned back to face out the window once more. But again instead of saying anything else to Heero, he opened the car door and got out, stepping long-legged over the gutter onto the curb in front of him.
Fully clothed, Duo fit so perfectly into Heero’s mental niche of the artist that had come up with those images he admired that he almost couldn’t believe he hadn’t envisioned him specifically as he appeared now: unholy mass of hair pulled back in a long, messy braid; lively eyes sparkling over a slightly-too-wide lopsided grin; old tee-shirt bearing a faded and cracked Derain, a couple of holes, and a lot of dried paint; jeans and tennis shoes equally worn and spotted; and a demeanor of boundless energy bordering on wildness. And he was still the most attractive person Heero had ever seen.
“Can I walk with you?” Duo asked.
Utterly nonplussed, Heero just stared at him for a long moment before shaking himself free of his mild stupor and replying, “Um, sure.”
Duo grinned even more broadly and shut the door he’d been holding open with a long arm. Immediately, Ms. Hilde drove off. Heero watched the car move away down the road and pause at the intersection before continuing out of sight. Then he turned back to his new and unexpected walking companion, and found he had no idea what to say.
Instead, Duo spoke. “So you liked my javelin piece, huh?” He thrust his hands into his pockets and started ambling slowly in the direction Heero had been going, and Heero, adjusting his bag strap on his shoulder, hastened to fall in beside him.
“Yeah,” Heero said, eyeing him sidelong. He’d been hoping Duo would have something to say about what the hell was going on, but at least this topic was one Heero could talk about with relative ease. “That was my favorite. I think it was just because those particular colors really clicked for me. But I liked all the ones Ms. Hilde brought in. You’ve got an amazing sense of movement and emotion.
“That guy throwing the javelin didn’t just look like some random athlete. He really looked desperate, as if throwing that thing was the most important thing he’d ever done. And the whole piece was so alive. The lines flowed so well from the immediate focal point out to the end of the javelin. I kept thinking it was going to fly out of his hand any second while I looked at it.”
Duo was beaming. “Well, thanks!” he said, sounding very pleased. “You know, people say things like that about my stuff sometimes, but I never think about it like that while I’m painting it… I just paint whatever I feel like, and then people read stuff into it after the fact.”
Heero gave him another assessing look, simultaneously considering this and enjoying the almost intensely casual way Duo walked. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said at last. “It wasn’t part of what I guessed about you when I first looked at your paintings last week — I was trying to guess what the painter must be like by looking at them — but it fits.”
“Were the rest of your guesses right?” Duo wondered, still grinning.
“So far I think so,” said Heero carefully.
“Except you didn’t expect me to be so young and hot,” declared Duo in a deliberately overdone tone of self-satisfaction.
Feeling himself blushing, Heero realized he was caught and decided not to try to deny it. “No, I really didn’t,” he confessed.
Duo withdrew his hands from his pockets and put them behind his head in an almost triumphant gesture. This meant one of his arms blocked his face from Heero’s view, which was disappointing. “I’ve been modeling for Hil’s art classes every semester for three years now,” he said cheerfully, “and there’s always at least one person who ogles the hell out of me. Not just studying like, ‘What’s the best way to draw this?’ but staring like, ‘Oh, god, I want a piece of that.'”
At this Heero’s blush deepened threefold, and he was torn between stammering out an apology and laughing at the touch of smugness in Duo’s tone.
“I mean,” Duo went on before Heero could resolve on anything to say, “you were pretty subtle about it, but Hil still noticed. She always notices. And that’s always when she runs The Test.”
Hearing the audible capitals Duo had given the phrase, Heero felt a stab of alarm. “‘The Test?'” he echoed, trying not to let what would certainly seem an unexpected and incongruous level of dismay sound in his voice.
“Yeah, the test to see whether or not you’re a creepy pervert,” was Duo’s disarmingly nonchalant explanation, “or if it’s safe to ask you out.” Stunned by these last three words, Heero couldn’t have interjected anything at this point even if Duo had given him time. “It’s usually what you saw — she tracks you down in the car and has me pretend to ask for directions, to see if you recognize my face with me dressed and my hair back and everything. Sometimes it’ll be someone who doesn’t walk much, though, and she has to do something else.”
Heero surprised himself by not asking the first question on his mind. Rather, he said, “But that doesn’t prove anything. Your face is just as–” And this many words were already out before he was able to stop himself.
Duo finally dropped his arms and let Heero see the face in question again. It was pleased and amused. “I’ll pretend you finished that compliment and say thanks,” he grinned. “And, yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t prove much. But it weeds out the worst of the skeeves and makes Hilde feel better. She already feels a little bad about parading me around naked without paying me for it; I think she thinks she’s making it up to me by making sure I don’t pick up another jerk S.O. at the same time.”
Again, somehow, what Heero really wanted to say was not what came out of his mouth. “So Ms. Hilde is your…”
“Sister,” Duo supplied. “Step-sister, technically. And it’s so cute how you guys all call her ‘Ms. Hilde.'”
“She says ‘Ms. Schbeiker’ makes her feel old.”
Duo laughed. “Makes her sound old, too. She’s the same age as me, and nobody calls me ‘Mr. Maxwell.’ I think I’d have to smack them, actually, if they did. Anyway, her dad met my mom at a gallery opening when we were both eight, and now we’re a big happy artist family together.”
“And you model for her classes.”
“Hey, you draw… you know how expensive things are in the art world…” Duo gave a theatrical wincing hiss. “She’s pretty much right at the bottom of the budget list at that school, and if she doesn’t have to pay her model, she can buy an extra set of Prismas or something every semester.”
“That makes sense,” Heero nodded. “Everything in the art department is always falling apart, and I think the easels are from the 70’s.”
“Yeah, you know why she started bringing in original pieces by local artists for her lessons, right? Because the only projector they had broke, so she couldn’t even put art up on that crappy screen anymore.”
“I bet she was always using yours, though,” Heero guessed.
“Well, yeah. Actually, she sometimes asks me to do something specific — like, ‘I need a piece with a really strong complementary color scheme’ — and I try my best, but I told you how I work.” Duo laughed. “Going into something trying to deliberately use a ‘really strong complementary color scheme’ is like working backwards for me.”
Heero was prompted to smile at this, and reflected that it would be an experience worth having to watch Duo work. And here he finally managed to pose the question he’d been wanting to — just as the conversation had moved completely away from the subject, naturally: “Did you say you’re asking me out?”
“Yep.” Duo evidently didn’t mind at all that Heero had brought them wheeling back around to the earlier topic; in fact, he seemed to have been waiting for it. “Do you want to go get coffee or something?” His tone was perfectly unabashed, and Heero simultaneously wondered at and admired his cavalierness — especially when Duo was the one that had been naked under two dozen eyes only a few hours ago. Of course, that had just proven that he had nothing to be ashamed of, hadn’t it?
“Yes,” Heero said without any hesitation, then added, “if you’re satisfied I’m not a creepy pervert.”
“Not really,” Duo grinned. “But you did say all that nice stuff about my paintings. If you’re a creepy pervert, you’re at least a smooth one.”
Heero couldn’t help smiling a little at this. “I’m not going to pretend your paintings were the only things I saw that I liked,” he said with a certain measure of caution. “But they definitely got me interested before I ever saw you in person.”
“There, see?” said Duo, sounding pleased. “Smooth.”
‘Smooth’ wasn’t something Heero was used to being called, but he had to admit that there was an unaccustomed amount of smoothness to this discussion. He was attributing it to Duo, however: something about Duo made conversation remarkably easy, even when Heero was inclined toward discomfort and uncertainty. Something about Duo made him feel as if they were long-time friends rather than just meeting today under somewhat unusual circumstances. Something about Duo was… welcoming.
Which probably attracted exactly the wrong sort of people, especially if Duo was naked when they first saw him. No wonder Ms. Hilde ran that Test of hers. To Heero, who was no stranger to Tests, it made sense.
He cleared his throat. “Do you know Perk Up on Meridian?”
“I’ve seen it,” Duo replied. “Don’t think I’ve ever been in there, though.”
Heero gestured to the bus stop they were approaching. “This bus stops pretty close to it, if you want to…”
“Senior year was when Quatre transferred to our school. That’s Quatre Winner, if that means anything to you.”
“Well, his family owns probably three quarters of this city. A lot of their money comes from being mafia in the 30’s and 40’s.”
“Oh, that kind of Winner! Whoa. Yeah, I’ve heard they were gangsters back in the day — is that really true?”
“Yes. Quatre has specifically confirmed it.”
“So why did he come to your school? Didn’t he have some rich fancy private school, or just an army of private teachers or something?”
“Yeah, he was at a private school before — all the way up until twelfth grade, actually. But he was getting bullied because he was gay, and he was tired of it.”
“A Winner was getting bullied? And the best thing the Winners could come up with to do about it was transfer him to a public school?”
“There were more reasons than just that. He was getting a little tired of that school anyway. He didn’t like the teachers much. Also, at a private school where everyone comes from an influential family with money, I guess being a Winner doesn’t mean the same thing it means around here. He’ll tell you all about it if you ask. All we knew at the time was that this gorgeous blonde guy showed up at our school, and Trowa was… yikes…”
“Love at first sight?”
“I’m pretty sure it was, but it didn’t have to be, since Quatre gave him plenty of chances. We used to eat lunch in this little alcove at the top of the stairs between two buildings. Quatre walked by there right at the beginning of lunch every day. You should have seen it. Trowa’s eyes were glued to him. It was totally unsubtle. He was practically panting.
“That was my first hint that Trowa might be a bit of a… spy, I guess is the nicest way to put it. Because as soon as Quatre was out of sight, Trowa would turn to me and start telling me whatever he’d found out about him lately. It was a little creepy, actually. I’d usually change the subject — a little — by telling him he needed to go talk to him. But he never would, because he was a poor kid from a poor neighborhood who wanted to start a punk rock band that would probably never make him any money.
“And I’d try to talk sense into him and point out that Quatre had come to our school. So obviously he couldn’t care about that kind of thing too much. I remember one time Trowa responded with something like, ‘Did you see those shoes he’s wearing? Those are Brunomaglis!’ I had to look up the brand name. Then I was shocked Trowa knew what it was. So eventually I went and talked to Quatre myself.”
“You did not!”
“Of course I did. Trowa was going crazy.”
“Crazier, you mean. But, seriously, you? The guy who couldn’t break up with his jerk boyfriend for eight months even when your best friend was threatening to kill the guy?”
“If I’ve learned anything about relationships by now, it’s that it’s a lot easier to mess around in other people’s than fix your own.”
“OK, you have a point there. So what did Quatre say?”
“He admitted that — after the first few times — he’d been walking by at lunch every day on purpose. Just out of curiosity whether Trowa would ever do anything besides staring at him. I told him Trowa was afraid of his shoes, and he laughed. But then they’d hooked up by the end of that day.”
“Trowa wasn’t mad at you for going over his head?”
“Mad at me? I thought he’d kiss me.”
“Probably not a good idea when he’d just started going out with someone else.”
“Heh. No. Quatre’s not really the jealous type, but that still probably wouldn’t have been the best way to start their relationship.”
“Speaking of which, who were you dating all this time? I think you’ve been deliberately talking about Quatre to hide things you don’t want me to know!”
“Well, it’s important you know about Quatre. Besides, what about your next boyfriend? Was he as bad as the first one?”
“Yes! I don’t know where they kept getting the idea from that I was just easy sex for the asking. Do I really come across that way?”
“To a jerk, sure.”
“Yeah, well, they’d always act nice at first, like they wanted something real, but pretty soon it would be, ‘So when are you going to put out?’ Usually not quite that polite, of course. I had a whole string of those. I had to take some self-defense classes eventually to keep grabby hands off. But you changed the subject! What are you hiding??”
“Hush. Yes, I had a boyfriend senior year, and I’ll get to that. But Quatre… you have to understand Quatre.”
“OK. He’s gotta be at least as crazy as Trowa.”
“They’re certainly a well matched pair. But the thing about Quatre is that he’s… he loves people. He has an endless supply of love. And once you’re his friend, you’re in. There’s no getting out. At first I was just his new boyfriend’s best friend — though, honestly, that was close enough — but eventually he became one of my best friends too. And Quatre loves people aggressively. He makes friends with you, and then he fixes your life up.”
“That sounds… creepy.”
“It’s… it gets a little stifling at times. I won’t lie. And with Trowa backing him — like I said, Trowa is loyalty incarnate — they’re a force to be reckoned with. But you can’t help loving Quatre back. You can’t not love Quatre once you get to know him. He’s always so genuinely concerned for everyone. He always really wants to solve your problems.”
“And I take it your next boyfriend was a problem.”
Toward the relatively familiar table alcove behind the fireplace in Perk Up, the big front window beside the ugly mural, the little hallway leading to the bathrooms, and the small dark area with pretensions to arcade status with its four standup video games, Heero was already throwing paranoid glances that he hoped he was able to conceal adequately from Duo’s notice as they entered the cafe and moved toward the counter.
He tried to tell himself there was absolutely no way anyone could know he was on a date; he’d only first seen Duo a few hours ago, and it had been practically a chance encounter that had led them to make the arrangement… but he knew better, by now, than to underestimate his friends.
He wondered if he should warn Duo. He generally didn’t bother, for a variety of reasons, but Duo seemed so nice. Of course, they always seemed nice at first. That was precisely the problem.
“Ooh, a raspberry lemon muffin?” Duo noted with great relish as they drifted to the end of the short line and he looked up at the hand-chalked menu on the board above the bustling service area. “This place looks great!”
Heero glanced sidelong at him (not that he hadn’t already been doing so whenever he wasn’t glancing openly at him), wondering whether Duo was one of those high-metabolism energy people that endlessly stuffed face without gaining any weight. Why that idea should be attractive at the moment was a mystery; was he really crushing so hard already that random insignificant unconfirmed theories were suddenly cute?
Then Duo threw him a sidelong look and asked, “You’re not one of those anti-cofficionado snob people who’ll go anywhere as long as it’s not a Starbucks, are you?”
With a slight surprised laugh at the term ‘anti-cofficionado,’ Heero shook his head. “No, I’m fine with Starbucks. I understand they treat their employees very well. They try to stay environmentally friendly, too.”
Duo’s brows were raised, and on his lips was a skeptical smile. “Those are such unselfish reasons to like Starbucks that I kinda feel like you’re protesting too much.”
“A couple of my roommates are anti-Starbucks snob people, whatever you called them.” Heero smiled sheepishly. “So I’ve looked up some things. Just in case they ever give me a hard time.”
“And you obviously like this place better anyway.”
“Well, it has an ugly mural…” Though he gestured at the wall in question, Heero had no time to explain further, as it was now their turn to order. But Duo was chuckling throughout that process, perhaps at the idea that Heero liked this place specifically because it had an ugly mural.
Not far from and commanding a good view of the latter was where they settled down with their coffee and pastries, and Duo sat staring at its brilliant hues and unusual stylistic choices for a minute or so before turning to face Heero. “Yep, it’s ugly,” he pronounced, and lifted his muffin. Before taking a bite, he glanced back at the colorful wall, then shook his head. “If you base how much you like a coffee shop on how ugly its mural is, I can totally see why this place wins.”
Heero chuckled in return, and took a temperature-testing half sip of his coffee.
“But Starbucks usually has ugly murals too,” Duo pointed out, words muffled a bit by his mouthful of muffin.
“Yeah, but they’re corporate ugly murals. Pre-printed on wallpaper or something.” Again Heero gestured to the nearby monstrosity. “Somebody stood here and painted that. Somebody put their whole heart into that thing.”
“That’s true… it feels a lot more personal when–” here Duo lowered his voice and leaned forward– “whoever did something so terrible might be sitting at the next table or something.”
Again Heero chuckled. “I just like the feeling I get from it. I appreciate it when someone does something so whole-heartedly. So intensely. You can really tell how much of themselves they put into it.”
Duo’s eyes roved across the mural once more, then returned to traverse Heero’s face just as intently. “Yeah,” he said at last. “I can see how that could be pretty attractive. You don’t really get much of that at Starbucks.”
Heero found himself blushing, as if he had been the subject of assessment even more than the ugly mural. He couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed or relieved when Duo removed his intense gaze from his face to look at the painting again.
“I can’t decide whether being commissioned to do a mural in a coffee shop is particularly pathetic or really means you’ve made it.”
“I guess it depends on how you feel about the finished work,” Heero said thoughtfully. “If the artist ended up thinking it was as ugly as we think it is…”
“Yeah, I guess if they like it…” Duo was clearly dubious about the possibility. But he did allow, “Lots of people are going to see it in here, and if the artist got paid for it, I guess that’s about all you can ask, right? We mostly want satisfaction, money, and exposure, right?”
“When you put it that way…”
Duo laughed along with Heero. “It makes us sound like arrogant, greedy bastards. But it could be worse, you know? I could be like, ‘We mostly want to paint five thousand square feet of chapel ceilings that change art history forever.'”
“Have you ever been there?” Heero wondered, too eager to care that he was shifting the subject.
Duo also didn’t seem to care. “No,” was his regretful answer, after which he perked up quite a bit to add, “but I have been to the Louvre!”
“Seriously? That must have been amazing.”
“It was! Seeing originals is — I mean, you expect it to be cool, but it’s way cooler than you even think it’s going to be.”
Heero nodded. “There’s something magical about it, isn’t there?”
Though more physically vigorous, Duo’s nod in return seemed nevertheless to convey an identical enthusiasm. “Like instead of just looking at a picture, you’re looking through a window into some other world, or back in time, or something.”
“And you think about all the people who have looked at that same picture over the last four hundred years. And you feel a sort of connection to all of them. Without having to actually talk to any of them.”
The topic of classic art, and which specimens of it they’d seen in person and where, engrossed them for quite some time. Duo continued to fit the image Heero had developed of him from his paintings by proving largely unable to sit still when he was excited: he tapped his empty coffee cup rhythmically on the table, stacked it on top of Heero’s until both fell, rolled it back and forth between his hands, and used its base to rearrange the crumbs from his muffin. This was cute, and contributed to the engrossing nature of the conversation, so it was no wonder Heero found himself so thoroughly — perhaps detrimentally — distracted when a new development arose.
When he caught sight of it in the direction he happened to be looking, he stiffened — inadvertently but so thoroughly as to catch the attention of Duo, who broke off what he was saying and glanced around. “What?”
Well, it was too late to warn him now, even had Heero been inclined to do so. But this was… a little different than usual. Actually Heero didn’t think it would work. For one thing, the pastel orange of the slightly-too-tight polo Wufei wore was definitely not his color.
“Look who I found,” Wufei said as he sat down. “Heero on a date.” And grudgingly Heero had to admit that his tone was fairly convincing.
Duo threw the newcomer a skeptical look, doubtless in regards to his completely uninvited assumption of the third seat at the little table. But his face smoothed out as Wufei turned immediately toward him. “Heero always brings his dates here,” Wufei said wisely. “He’s very predictable that way.” Then, with a knowing look, he added in a lower tone, “But he can get creative, I promise.”
Heero was used to this type of language, but not from this source; normally he could get through it without blushing, but pretty distinctly not this time. Somewhat comforted he must be, however, by the skeptical expression that popped onto Duo’s face the very instant Wufei looked away from him. It gave him strength to say with a corresponding gesture, “Duo… Wufei.”
As Wufei turned back toward Duo, Heero observed with some amusement Duo’s skepticism forced into relatively polite blankness again. And Wufei said, with seeming obliviousness to the lack of welcome at the table, “What Heero never mentions is that he’s my ex. I can give you all the… inside information.”
At the implication thus presented, Heero blushed even harder, especially when he felt Duo’s eyes on him. Somehow this process was more unpleasant this time around than it usually was; he was going to have to take Wufei to task for it later.
Duo looked as if he wanted to speak, but didn’t get the chance, for Wufei immediately continued, “And I’ll say one thing for him: he always has good taste. I can certainly see why he brought you here.” Heero couldn’t quite manage to look at Wufei’s face at this point; the smirking, self-congratulatory tone was already almost more than he could handle. He thought perhaps Wufei was overdoing it a little… but Duo wasn’t familiar with Wufei’s usual seriousness and wouldn’t know that this smugness was put on.
Finally Duo had a chance to reply. “Yeah, to see the ugly mural,” he said with a gesture. His face was still a studied neutral, but for a moment, as Wufei glanced in the direction he indicated, it took on a look of annoyance and puzzlement.
Wufei too seemed bemused. However well he was performing this role, he undoubtedly hadn’t prepared for all contingencies, and now studied the mural a few moments longer than he needed to, probably trying to decide what to say. Heero, embarrassed and disconcerted though he was, couldn’t help being amused at the disparate reactions of his two companions. And it was about what he’d expected when Wufei finally turned back toward a Duo whose face was only smoothed just in time and said, “So I see you have good taste too.” And he raised his brows as if to suggest that certain appreciations would only naturally follow.
“Heero pointed it out,” Duo replied, and now his irritation sounded faintly in his voice.
“Yes, Heero and his art.” Wufei threw Heero a brief smile, and Heero had to admit he was impressed: both tone and gesture held a mixture of possessive fondness and patronizing dismissiveness Heero wouldn’t have thought Wufei could command. He almost wasn’t embarrassed, he was so impressed. “Heero really is an artist, you know,” Wufei went on, again focusing his attention on Duo as if Heero were not present. “If his style matches your taste, of course. If not… well, plenty of fish in the sea, right?” And he leaned back at an angle in his chair so as to prop an elbow on its back in a studiedly casual ‘Check me out’ sort of gesture.
Duo stood abruptly. “I’m going to grab some napkins,” he said, and moved stiffly away.
Heero didn’t waste time. He thought perhaps Duo was giving him a chance to respond in private to Wufei’s perceived rudeness, but, though this was a good sign, he knew Wufei would not be dismissed by his efforts. What he really wanted to find out… “What are you doing here? Is Zechs sick or something?”
“They don’t trust him after what happened last time,” Wufei murmured in reply.
Unfortunately, that made perfect sense. Drama student Zechs had a thing for ‘getting in character,’ and last time there had been inappropriate touching and an eventual call to the police. And Wufei was doing unexpectedly well in the role of sleazy ex. But still…
“What does Sylvia think of this?”
Wufei’s face reddened just a touch, which was not at all ‘in character,’ and he said almost inaudibly, “She thinks it’s hot.”
Heero rolled his eyes. “Are you wearing Quatre’s clothes?” he wondered next. Polo shirts weren’t typically Quatre’s thing, but pastels like that orange definitely were.
Wufei didn’t have a chance to answer, however, since Duo returned just then with an anomalously large stack of napkins, which he essentially threw down onto the middle of the table. At their loud plopping noise and the subsequent scraping of Duo’s chair as he resumed his seat, Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.
“Welcome back,” said Wufei easily.
Duo ignored him, but Heero thought the set of his jaw was still annoyed as he picked up the top few napkins and began wiping debris off the table into yet another napkin he then crumpled up around the crumbs with a vigorous movement. A small spot of spilled coffee came next, and then Duo began to stuff the used napkins into his empty cup without saying a word.
Heero sat in equal silence, hoping Duo didn’t prove one of those too touchy even to get past the first phase. He’d really been enjoying Duo’s company before Wufei showed up, and would like to see him again… but Duo was clearly irritated by Wufei, and, though he hadn’t reacted in any inappropriate manner, Heero wouldn’t be surprised if the weirdness and awkwardness of his purported ex’s advent and behavior drove him away. Supposedly, if it did, that would prove Duo not worth the pursuing, but Heero had never been quite sure he believed that.
Wufei evidently didn’t know what to say now. At this point in the proceedings, Zechs would usually offer his phone number or ask for that of Heero’s date, but Wufei had either forgotten or was himself too overcome by the unease of the scene to take the appropriate next step. In either case, the embarrassing silence dragged on while Duo cleaned up their table, straightened the remaining napkins in the exact center, and finally fixed Heero with a pointed look.
“Didn’t you say you had somewhere to be at 3:00? Or was that tomorrow?”
Again Heero was impressed, this time with Duo’s excellent wording. The question provided a simple excuse if Heero wanted to get away from Wufei; but should that not actually be his desire, he could easily claim that the appointment he’d supposedly mentioned earlier was, in fact, for tomorrow. He shuddered to think what message it would send to Duo if he deliberately chose to continue sitting here with someone making the kind of comments Wufei had been, but felt it was very decent of Duo to give him that option despite how distasteful it probably was. Hopefully Wufei himself had missed none of this.
“Oh, yeah.” Heero found his voice rather weak as he replied to Duo’s question, sat up straight in his chair, and reached for the bag he’d earlier set beside it as if ready to rise and depart. He’d always had a difficult time playing along with his friends’ charades, and found it funny now that it was not theirs but his date’s he was trying to comply with. “Yeah, I better get going.” He stood, shouldering his bag, and, with a deep breath, hoping Wufei didn’t think it a good idea to tail him at this point, said, “See you later, Wufei.”
In a gesture that would have been legitimately creepy and aggravating coming from an actual ex, Wufei put a hand on Heero’s arm and squeezed. “It’s always good to see you again, Heero.” Thankfully, he gave no sign of joining the two that were now both on their feet.
Outside the building, Heero restrained himself yet again from looking around searchingly, this time not so much because he didn’t want to know who might be there as because he was perfectly well aware someone was. Trowa had undoubtedly hidden himself too well for Heero to find him even with a meticulous visual scan anyway.
Three steps from the coffee shop they’d left in silence, Duo threw his hands up and burst out, “Jesus X. Christ, man, what was that about?”
Heero laughed faintly and said, “Thanks for the out. That was… good.”
“What is that guy’s damage? Did you really go out with him?”
Heero avoided the second question by giving a perfectly truthful answer to the first: “He’s not usually that bad.”
“How long were you with him?”
“Not… long…” This was truthful too, in a way.
“Good!” Duo turned a huff into a deep breath as if forcing himself to calm down. “I mean…” He looked sidelong at Heero, still seeming annoyed but now with perhaps a touch of penitence mixed in. “I mean, it’s absolutely none of my business, and I shouldn’t be bugging you about it.”
“Well…” Heero hoped Trowa’s equipment had picked that up. “Thanks for not making a big deal about it in there.”
“It was hard,” Duo admitted, laughing a little. “Does he do that a lot? Just show up when you’re out with someone and start… saying totally inappropriate things like that?”
“Saying inappropriate things has been a problem in the past,” Heero said carefully. “But he’s never shown up before when I was out with someone else.”
“And hopefully he won’t do it again! Where can we go next time to be safe from him?”
Abruptly Heero was lifted out of the dejection and mortification of the last scene into buoyant hope and happiness, so quickly he thought his ears were popping and his lungs cramping. He was smiling as he said, “Campus should be safe.”
Duo must have heard the smile, for he looked Heero full in the face and returned the expression. “OK. What day works for you?”
“Any day, really…” Heero couldn’t turn away from that captivating grin, and found he’d stopped walking perhaps just to stare. He tried to think more coherently, for a moment, than the brightness of that expression was allowing. “Thursday I have a nice big gap between classes in the middle of the day. If you want to have lunch…”
“Sure!” Duo didn’t seem to mind that they were standing on the sidewalk making no progress toward any discernible destination except another date. “Want me to bring lunch from somewhere?”
“Only if you really want to,” Heero replied, self-conscious about making someone pay for both their meals on only the second date. “The cafeteria food’s not bad.”
Duo laughed. “If you say so! OK, cafeteria food it is.”
The tail end of today’s outing involved ambling in the direction from which they’d originally come, determining which bus route would take Duo back from this unfamiliar stop to where he needed to be, solidifying their plans for Thursday, and getting in a few more remarks on classic art. And Heero parted company with his charming new acquaintance in great satisfaction and hope for the future, regardless of what his other friends might have taken from the events of the day.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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–”
“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.