Relena didn’t have nearly as much attendant staff these days, but still it was damn hard to catch her alone; he’d followed her for hours, in fact, before he managed it. It probably wasn’t even necessary to talk to her privately — most of her aides surely knew who he was anyway — but old habits died hard.
“Delivery for you, ma’am,” he said in his casual-professional tone as he held out the envelope in her direction.
She was emerging from a bathroom (such the expedient to which he’d been driven), but if she was startled either by his sudden greeting, his playing a delivery boy again, or his presence in general, she didn’t show it. Accepting what he offered with barely a glance at him, she stepped out of the way of the door she’d just let swing shut behind her and opened the envelope.
He thought she probably was surprised to see him, as her reaction was just a little too politic. If she hadn’t been at all surprised, she would have greeted him; her first remark would have been more like, “Oh, hello, Duo; how long have you been in town?” and less like, “Who is this from?” as she looked at the all-day-pass to the local fair that the envelope had contained.
“Oh, did I…?” Duo patted himself down in an exaggerated fashion and pulled out his own ticket. Flipping it over, he nodded in understanding. “I put the wrong one in there. Pretend you never saw that; this one’s actually for you.”
With a somewhat skeptical smile, she accepted the trade and examined the new ticket. It was identical to the first, of course, except that on the back it read, How about a day at the fair with some old friends tomorrow? –D.M.
“I fail to see the point of writing a note on the back when you knew you’d be delivering it yourself,” she smiled. “And do I even want to know how you knew I had a clear schedule tomorrow?”
“Probably not,” he replied with a grin. “And I wasn’t planning on delivering it myself, but my other plans fell through. Good thing I did!”
She glanced at the pass again, and when she looked back up at him she had a slight, hopeful spark in her eyes that had not been there before. But her tone was merely curious as she asked, “‘Old friends?'”
“Yeah, Heero’s here too,” replied Duo, perfectly casual. “Unfortunately…” He held up the third day-pass that was still in his possession. “Convincing him that having fun is OK sometimes is something I just can’t do.”
The barest tilt of head and narrowing of eyes was all the indication Relena gave that she didn’t miss the unspoken addendum ‘yet.’
“You two are here together?” she asked. Duo might be good at making casual statements simply because casual was one of his basic modes of conversation; Relena was good at making casual statements because she’d become so practiced at all modes of conversation. Of course, when they both knew that the casualness of the statements they were making was deliberate, the entire meaning was altered.
“Naw,” he answered, not letting the light informality slip a jot. “We both have assignments here, so we’ll be in your hair for a while, but we’re not ‘here together.’ I had to track him down just to try — and fail — convincing him to come to the fair with us.”
“You might fail convincing me too,” she warned.
“How could I possibly fail twice in a row?”
“Tomorrow is my only free day before the conference, and I really can’t think of anything less relaxing to do than spend the day at a fair with you.” Her smile and friendly tone took any possible sting out of the words.
“Less relaxing??” He threw his arms out in astonishment. “How could anything be more relaxing than pretending to be a normal person for a day?! We can wait for rides and complain about how hot it is and how our sunscreen smells and how long the lines are like it’s the worst problem we’ve ever faced! Or moan about the concession stand prices or how much it costs just to buy a stupid baseball hat — ’cause the day-pass only gets you unlimited rides, not food and stuff, you know! And wonder how anyone can get drunk in the middle of the day on cheap fair beer and puke on the roller coaster and then decide not to go on that particular roller coaster and go on some kiddie ride next to it instead and get strange looks because we barely fit in the seats! Come on, seriously, how could you not think that’s the greatest way to spend your day off you’ve ever heard of?”
By the end of this little oration she was laughing, and raised her hands to ward off further persuasion. “Well, I’m not sure how, with that description,” she grinned, “but you’ve convinced me. I should hire you to write speeches for me.”
“It’s more the delivery, I think.” He returned the wide smile, his somewhat triumphant.
“With enthusiasm like that, it’s no wonder you scared Heero off.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “Who says I tried that approach with Heero?”
Hers did much the same. “I wouldn’t trouble you to tell me what you try with Heero.” And there followed a sudden silence that, though brief, was palpably tense.
Finally Duo said, “So, meet me at opening time?” continuing the conversation naturally as if there had never been a break of any sort. “That’s eleven. And don’t come in a limo, OK?”
With a mildly skeptical look she answered, “Only if you promise not to come in a mobile suit.”
“No, that’s reserved for very special occasions,” he said aloofly.
“Like the limo.”
He grinned. “See you tomorrow, then!” And, pulling down over his eyes the cap he’d lifted to talk to her, he turned and sauntered victoriously away.
Duo was a little early the next day, or so he guessed by the fact that Relena was not there when he arrived at the sidewalk just outside the fair gates. He’d lost his watch, and therefore couldn’t be entirely sure that he wasn’t actually incredibly late, but the last clock he’d seen had only said 10:30 so he figured he was OK. He leaned against the wall beside the gate in the shade of a tree growing out of a square patch of mossy earth in the asphalt and waited.
While thus engaged, he couldn’t help noticing a somewhat gawky girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen, pass by at least three times — mostly because each time she did, she threw such a look of longing onto the fairgrounds as to be downright heartbreaking. She was wearing the kind of sensible, unfashionable clothing that spoke of guardians that, while not necessarily badly-off, were definitely on the frugal side; probably the type that would never even consider going to a fair unless somebody else paid, or perhaps for a once-every-five-years family treat.
The fourth or fifth time she stopped and peered around the ticket booths at the colorful hints of towering rides beyond, Duo fished through his pockets and stepped up to her. “Here you go,” he said in something like a conspiratorial whisper, and put the third pass into one of her open hands before she had time to register his presence. “Have fun,” he said, ruffling the girl’s hair and moving on almost before she could understand what she now held.
He found Relena watching him as she approached up the sidewalk from the bus stop on the corner, and ran toward her, waving. The expression on her face indicated that she’d marked the exchange. “How nice of you!” was her greeting. “That girl looked like you made her whole week.” Her tone was somewhat forlorn, for some reason, as her eyes followed the progress of aforementioned girl through the turnstile.
“You say that like it’s something you wouldn’t have done,” he protested, scratching his ear.
“But you do it so freely… It’s more like camaraderie than charity.” She smiled ruefully, shaking her head. “From me it would seem condescending. I think your kindness is easier for… some people to accept than mine sometimes is.”
For the sake of fairness he replied, “Well, if mine’s freer, that means yours is worth more, right?”
Her smile turned slightly amused. “Let’s go in. Something came up for this afternoon, so we only have a few hours.”
With a shake of his head, “Why am I not surprised…” he murmured.
As he’d told her yesterday, it really was pleasant, every once in a while, to pretend to be an innocent tourist with no more interest in people’s destiny than who was cutting in line at the slushee stand and no more pressing concerns than accidentally stepping on chewing gum and feeling slightly grossed-out. So, through an almost dizzying succession of rides and the obligatory hot dogs and giant pretzels, he teased her about having taken the bus to get here — what did her staff think of that?? — and having worn slacks — had she ever worn jeans in her life? — and she gave him what news of the area she thought would be good (or at least somewhat entertaining) for him to know.
At last they came before the appropriately- if inelegantly-named Snake-Knot, the largest ride in the park, an impressive roller coaster boasting some supposedly phenomenal number of loops at some unheard-of speed. As if by one accord they paused before its monumental gates and stared.
“Scared?” Duo asked after a long moment.
Relena gave him the same mildly skeptical look she’d used for his limo comment yesterday.
“Well, let’s go, then!” And he dragged her to where the line began.
It definitely resembled a knotted snake; it had twists and g-forces and white knuckles and all the traditional roller coaster creaking and rumbling… it just wasn’t all that much fun. Beside him, though, he could hear Relena laughing breathlessly throughout most of the ride. She never shrieked like the girls in the other cars did; she was obviously affected, but it would take more than a little shakeup like this to get such a childish reaction out of her. Her laughter was infectious, though, and her genuine pleasure a treat to watch; it enhanced and enlivened what would otherwise have been a rather dull experience.
“That was fun,” she remarked with honest enthusiasm as they were disembarking.
“You didn’t enjoy it?” she wondered. “I would have thought that was just your type of ride.”
He made a well-what-can-you-do? gesture with his hands and then put them both behind his head as they moved away from the machine. “I guess after piloting a Gundam, rides like this just aren’t the thing. Sure, nobody’s shooting at you on the ride, but that whole element of mortal peril really makes a difference, you know?”
Laughing softly, she said nothing for a moment, but then remarked quietly, “Heero would probably agree with you.”
Duo nodded slowly. “Yeah, he probably would.” Unwilling to let it go at that, though, he gave her a sidelong glance and added, “But he’d probably enjoying watching you enjoy it.” He shrugged again and grinned. “I mean, I did.”
Without answering, Relena was looking toward the next ride on their theoretical list; Duo followed her gaze and saw to his dismay that the line was twice as long as the one for the Snake-Knot had been.
“I don’t think I can handle that right now,” she almost groaned.
“I knew you were scared,” he grinned in triumph.
“No more than you are,” replied she in mock haughtiness.
As they were already ambling somewhat unconsciously toward a shaded bench rather than toward the next ride, Duo decided to let fate run its course and agreed with her. “Standing in line shouldn’t be nearly so tiring,” he complained as he sprawled onto the seat, threw his head down over the back, and stared wearily into the sky.
“Standing anywhere for a long time is tiring,” Relena said; her tone was just as worn-out, but also very knowing. And he reflected that she should know; she probably did more standing still on any given day than he’d done his entire life.
He sighed and closed his eyes, relaxing the same way he did everything else: as if it were the most important thing he could possibly be doing at the moment, making rest into an almost active pursuit. As such, it was doubly effective, and after not too long he straightened and looked around again.
Relena was watching him with a neutral expression but an eye that didn’t appear to be missing any detail of his figure. She seemed to be studying every part of his body as she might study some do-it-yourself equipment she had to put together… or maybe take apart. He grinned at her and, leaning into a new, different lazy pose, returned her scrutiny with interest.
She was so poised, even sitting here on a dirty bench at a fair wearing the most casual clothing he’d ever seen on her; the way she held herself was just so quietly elegant and yet somehow tense, ready for anything. There was something about her expression that said simultaneously strength, experience, innocence, and purity. He had no idea how she pulled it off.
Then her body was so nice too, for a woman’s. Nice limbs, good proportions, trim but not unhealthily thin. And her face was beautiful, what with expressive eyes, kissable lips, cute little ears, and all that. There was just no way an intelligent person could fail to have their eye caught. It was disturbingly possible that few intelligent people could fail to be attracted. If they were into women.
“I really like your hair,” she said suddenly, “you know that? I always have.” And she smiled at him.
He flipped his braid casually over the edge of the bench and returned the smile. “Thanks. But yours is nice too; that cut you’ve got now looks really good on you.”
Her smile widened slightly. She knew he didn’t lie, so she was able to accept the compliment exactly as it was meant — that is, on both levels. “Thank you,” she nodded.
“Hey, son, why not buy your sweetheart a souvenir?” called a barker from a nearby stall. “Don’t just sit there talking her to death!”
After glancing over at the man, Duo looked back at Relena; as their eyes met, they both smirked slightly. It was no surprise: anyone observing the previous exchange, even from a distance, would have instantly misinterpreted the tension between them.
“Well, fine.” Duo jumped up. And he sauntered to the stand to look over the logo-chocked keychains, pencils, stuffed animals, and whatnot arranged there. “A souvenir for my sweetheart,” he announced, picking out the ugliest item he could find (the fair’s anthropomorphic frog-mascot really didn’t add any appeal whatsoever). After paying for the overpriced whatever-it-was, he shoved it into his pocket and turned away. Then he stopped with deliberate abruptness and turned again. “I guess I’d better get her one too,” he said to the barker, tilting his head in Relena’s direction.
“Oh…” the man said, chuckling in some abashment, and accepted Duo’s second payment for another incredibly unattractive bit of nonsense.
“That was unnecessary,” Relena chided upon Duo’s return.
He presented the keychain with a flourish. “And I don’t really have a sweetheart.”
Taking it and looking it over with open skepticism she murmured, “Then you lied to the gentleman.”
“Oh, no,” Duo protested, “as long as I just hang onto it until I do have a sweetheart to give it to.”
“If it’s as ugly as this one–” she twirled his magnanimous gift around her raised pointer finger– “someone should do your intended sweetheart a favor and keep you away.”
His eyes narrowed somewhat as he reached out a hand to help her up. “They can try.” Oops, that was too blunt, wasn’t it?
She took his hand and stood, facial expression acknowledging his slip but words moving on: “Let’s ride the ferris wheel.”
“Good idea.” He hadn’t planned on the ferris wheel, given that he knew it from painful experience to be the most brain-crushingly boring ride ever invented, but now he realized suddenly that it was about the same as sitting around on a bench — so they might as well.
“I want a blue one,” he mused as they stood in line watching the ponderous circle move through its slow paces.
“I don’t think we get to choose,” Relena replied. He thought she was watching a blue one too, though. It was almost the right shade, even.
They were out of luck, ending up in a car the color of vomit, but once inside it didn’t really matter as the color was no longer visible. Ascending in silence, they gazed out opposite windows and felt the increased wind as they approached the highest point (except for some Doom Tower thing not far off) of the entire fair. Beyond the latter’s walls and fences the city was visible: alive, indifferent, gratifyingly peaceful.
As the wheel rotated slowly, giving each car its minute at the top, Relena finally broke the silence, though in such a soft, light tone that she almost hadn’t. “So he’s out there somewhere, is he?”
“Yeah.” Duo glanced at her, but she was still staring out the window on her side of the car not looking at him. Shaking his head, he returned to his own view.
“Do you ever wonder what he does?” she asked. “When you’re not around, I mean.”
“Not really; I pretty much know the gist of it.”
“Not what he’s physically doing… what he’s…” She laughed faintly. “It’s hard to describe what I mean. When he’s around, do you ever get the feeling… that he’s alive there… for you… but that when you leave he… shuts off somehow?”
So all of a sudden the subtlety had been completely abandoned; was that it? There was, somehow, an oddly pensive and almost mournful atmosphere in the small car as they hovered above the city and both looked out for the same absent person.
“You mean like his human side comes out when you’re around,” Duo continued for her, figuring he might as well, “and you get the feeling not many other people ever see it? And you kinda hope that maybe it’s actually for you that it happens?”
“And it hurts thinking of him thinking he has to live that way?”
“And you hope that maybe you can become what he needs to realize he doesn’t?”
“Why did you tell me he was here?”
They were descending now, and Duo watched in pensive silence as the ground, and the multitude waiting for their chance at mind-crushing boredom, approached gradually. This hadn’t been that boring after all, though — little as the actual ride had to to with that.
“Duo,” Relena persisted, reaching out and taking his hand so he was forced to pay attention, “you didn’t have to tell me that Heero was here too. We could have done this without him today and I would never have known.”
“You know, I thought about it,” he admitted. “But…” He shook his head and gave her a relutctant grin. “Somehow him and me both here, right under your nose, without you knowing… it felt like a lie.”
Almost mimicking his movement and expression, Relena also shook her head and smiled. “What a good sport,” she murmured.
At that moment the ride attendant opened the door to their car, and gave them a knowing (or, rather, mistaken) look at the sight of Duo’s hand in Relena’s. The latter two exchanged another amused glance and disembarked.
“I wanna try that Doom thing,” he pointed.
“More simulation that can’t compare to reality?” she wondered with a raised brow.
“Two friends at a fair,” he pontificated, “are going to have fun no matter how lame the ride is.”
“Though it’s probably more fun if you both have that reality in your experience to compare it to.”
“Not necessarily! Sometimes it’s more fun to be with someone who hasn’t ever…” He scratched his head and ended somewhat lamely by half-quoting her, “…’had that reality in their experience.'” And he laughed at himself. As if the few minutes spent in the ferris wheel had been sublimely lifted above the entendres and unspoken ripostes, the subtlety seemed to have returned the moment their feet touched down on the ground again. Not that Duo minded — it seemed kinder this way, and it was rather entertaining… he just wasn’t very good at it.
The Doom Tower actually turned out to be somewhat fun on its own merits, and Relena’s reaction to being lifted 150 feet and dropped again made the experience better than it would otherwise have been. But looking at her watch after it was over and once she had her balance back, she frowned slightly. “We don’t have much time left; I don’t think we’ll make it through any more lines before I have to leave.”
“Aw, but I was looking forward to standing in more lines!” he complained facetiously.
“I know you were,” replied she in mock sympathy. “But let’s play some of the games instead.”
“I guess that’s kinda like standing in line…” he allowed with a show of reluctance.
So they took turns paying to throw rings at bottles and fake shuriken at wooden targets. Partly as a handicap and partly just because it was fun, Duo did them all with his eyes closed or after spinning around several times. Relena laughed, but eventually ordered him to do the next one properly.
“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledged, snapping off a salute, before taking his place at some sort of rifle-contraption that shot a stream of water at a hole that filled up a balloon somehow. It obviously wasn’t designed with people like Duo in mind; the attendant glanced at him rather skeptically when he practically aced it almost without trying, and her tone was very grudging as she said, “That’s the highest score we’ve had all day.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Duo replied with a lopsided smile.
“You can pick any prize from the second row down.” The attendant gestured at the almost painfully colorful set of stuffed… things… available for his perusal.
“What?” demanded the young man, “Not the top row??”
“You’d have to get that same score three times in a row to get something from the top.”
Duo waved away the suggestion that he spend even more money on this kind of thing. “Well, that’s not worth it. Give me…” He scanned the hanging animals thoughtfully and finally pointed. “That one.”
“Do you always choose the ugliest thing on purpose?” Relena wondered as they walked away from the booth.
“What??” Duo pulled an exaggerated expression of wounded surprise. “You think it’s ugly?? I got it for you!”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Why?”
Examining briefly the large, shiny, blue and green bear that looked like it could burst its cheap seams at any moment, Duo handed it to Relena with a full-fledged bow this time. “You’re supposed to give your prizes to the girl,” he informed her in a tone that suggested she really should have known that.
With a defeated gesture and an amused half-roll of eyes, Relena accepted the second hideous gift. An expression something like nostalgia passed swiftly over her face before the latter reverted to the same casually friendly smile she’d been wearing most of the day.
“I may not always be so generous,” he added, wondering what she was remembering.
Her eyes narrowed slightly, though her smile didn’t change. “You may not have occasion to.”
She was steering them toward the exit now, so obviously playtime was over. Duo pondered whether that should extend as far as their conversation as well, and couldn’t quite decide. It turned out he didn’t need to, for as they left the fair gates behind them (he with a stamp on his hand in case he wanted to come back later) and approached the bus stop, Relena turned toward him suddenly with a serious expression.
“We’re friends.” The inflection said ‘statement,’ but her eyes said ‘question.’
“We’re not the closest friends, but still I think we’re strong enough to stay friends through just about anything.” Now those gentle, purposeful eyes were almost challenging, but there was still something ineffably insecure about her expression. How many friends had she lost in the struggles and twists of life of war? And was she to lose Duo, whom by her own admission she hardly even had, over this unspoken rivalry? Funny thing was, he would be very surprised if the exact same look wasn’t in his own eyes.
His grin in reply was a little softer than usual. “That sounds about right,” he said.
Immediately the smile of the day was back on her face, though the friendliness of the expression had perhaps deepened somewhat. She extended her hand. “Let’s shake on it,” she suggested mildly.
He complied without hesitation. “It’s a deal,” he said.
The bus pulled up in front of them, and Relena released his hand and jogged toward it. “Thanks for the day, Duo!” was her goodbye.
“Thanks for coming!” he called back. “Have fun at your conference!” And he waved as she climbed aboard; she waved back, and then was out of his sight.
Shoving his hands into his pockets, he turned and ambled away from the bus stop. The fair really had been fun; he could even go back now if he wanted. But it just wasn’t the same alone. He knew how it could be even better, though, than it had been with Relena, and was pondering a second attempt at setting up that particular situation.
He might as well, he reflected with a grin. The starting gun had sounded, after all; it wouldn’t do to stand around and let someone else win the race.