The Test (1/3)

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.



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

“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!”

“Sorry.”

“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.”

“Is it?”

“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.”

“Oh, yeah?”

***

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…”

“And hot?”

“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.”

“Um, yeah.”

“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.”

“Hah!”

“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.”

“Not really.”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

***

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.”

“Yeah, exactly!”

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.


Hospital

I really should make an entry about my internship now that I’m at the halfway point, but I don’t feel like it. It’s going well. Much more interesting than that is the amazing picture drawn by Candra, whose art I have long adored, for me by commission:

This is a scene from Death Wish, and I literally cried when she sent me the initial sketch. Isn’t she just spectacular?? Her commissions still seem to be open, if anyone else is interested in jumping on that chance!!

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red 15-19

Seeing Red

Somehow Hajime had been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other.

Sano can usually deal with angry shades, but the one that’s currently haunting him is a little different. And though he and the exorcist he’s been referred to manage to solve the problem by the end of Spring Break, it’s a week that may lead to difficult choices.

Technically, cell phones weren’t allowed out at Imperial Panda II for anyone on the clock. But aside from the current manager’s love affair with her Blackberry that inclined her toward leniency, the maintenance guy pretty much went his own way all day and didn’t have a lot of critical eyes looking over his shoulder. And no way in hell would Sano be away from his phone in case that woman called him back.

She didn’t. As Sano unloaded the delivery truck and kept the ghost away from people, shelved the load and kept the ghost away from people, organized the dry stock area for the second time in the last ten days and kept the ghost away from people, fixed the oven again and kept the ghost away from people, then went on lunch break to eat an uninspiring free meal, keep the ghost away from people, and look forward to the second half of his day, he grew increasingly impatient and concerned. And this was largely in response to the apparent increasing impatience and concern of the ghost.

Yesterday’s approach of Kaoru Himura, Sano thought, had made Kenshin more restless. It was difficult to tell for certain when the ghost seemed so aimless in general, but Sano believed dragging his unwanted guest out of people’s paths required more effort and led to a quicker and more intense buildup of anger today than previously. Kenshin never made any move to leave Sano, to go anywhere or do anything other than what he’d been doing all along, but pretty clearly he wanted to do something; and Sano was sure it had something to do with his widow.

What had Hajime said they would do if she never called back? ‘Start behaving like cads,’ hadn’t it been? At least Sano had that fairly hilarious memory to cheer him up a bit, even if the referenced caddishness, seeming more and more likely with each passing hour, was little to his taste. He didn’t want to think about the effect it might have on the unfortunate woman if they started more or less stalking her. What a miserable idea.

Of course the alternative was to think about his own situation. How long could he keep working so hard to prevent Kenshin’s angry aura from harming and enraging people around him before he decided he just didn’t give a shit and let the ghost do whatever it wanted to anyone that came near him? Or, worse, got so angry himself that he actually started deliberately conjuring Kenshin in the direction of others?

The last couple of weeks had been difficult and frustrating, especially at school where there were a number of innocent bystanders in a small space for hours at a time; and studying and homework had been practically impossible… and that had all been before their visit to Kaoru’s apartment had kicked things to a higher level. If they didn’t manage to get this solved before Spring Break ended… if Kenshin kept acting like this… Sano might as well drop all his classes, quit his job, and move out onto a secluded island right now.

When Imp Panda finally turned him loose that afternoon, he managed to make it all the way home before his frustration got the better of him and directed his fingers to dial Hajime’s number. This waiting had been the exorcist’s idea, after all; the least he could do was suffer alongside Sano.

“I actually expected to hear from you much earlier,” was Hajime’s greeting.

“I was working,” Sano replied angrily. “I kept my phone on through my whole shift — nine hours! — and she never called.”

“We already acknowledged that possibility,” Hajime reminded him. “She may never call.”

Remembering what would happen in that case, Sano demanded, “Isn’t there some way we can do this without bugging her? I mean, you’re a communicator; why can’t you just read her mind?”

“Getting past someone’s shields and reading their mind when they don’t want you to is difficult and takes a lot of practice.”

“Practice you haven’t had,” Sano finished bitterly, “because you’ve been playing with shades instead.”

Hajime said nothing, as if he just wasn’t going to bother with an answer to that.

The noise Sano made, half whine and half growl, sounded so much like a dog that even he was taken aback… and maybe a little amused, which helped. “I don’t want to,” he said next, “but… do you think I should call her again? Or maybe we should go back to her place and see if she’ll talk to us there this time?”

“No and no. If we’re too persistent, she’ll call the police. There’s only so much Chou can smooth over for me.”

“What good are you, then?” A second silence came from the other end, and the vacuum of that silence eventually dragged out of Sano a grumbled, “I mean… what the hell am I supposed to…” And again he made an angry sound, even more frustrated now because he was too annoyed to offer the apology he felt he probably should for his unfair implication. Without Hajime, after all, his chances of finding out the identity of the ghost and locating the widow would have been practically nonexistent.

Now Hajime spoke, and, instead of calling Sano on his rudeness or even continuing on the topic they were more or less discussing, he said, “You grew up around here, didn’t you?” And while Sano in surprise worked to change gears Hajime added, “For a given value of ‘grew up.'”

“Sortof,” Sano replied, wondering why Hajime wanted to know and bristling at the casual insult. “We moved here when I was just about to turn fourteen.”

“From?”

“Paso Robles, down south.”

“And were you born there?”

“Nah, we moved there when I was two or three; I was born in Carson City.”

“Did you like Paso Robles?”

Sano thought he understood now: this was distraction, pure and simple. Well, fine; he could handle that. “It was OK. Not a big Japanese population, so I got most of my heritagey culture from anime.” At Hajime’s derisive laugh, Sano continued determinedly in a tone that sounded incongruously angry. “The best part was right when we moved out, actually; this earthquake hit pretty much the same day we were loading up the moving van.”

“And that was a good thing?”

“Well, not for the people who died, obviously, but it was pretty damn cool anyway. It was a 6.5, and it made this fucking enormous sinkhole open up in the library parking lot. I just checked online, like, a week ago, and they still haven’t fixed that thing, seven years later.”

“You’re so attached to the town that you’re still checking on it?” Maybe because of the level of investment Sano had displayed in the subject, Hajime too actually sounded interested.

“Not the town, just the sinkhole. Sinkholes are awesome.”

“Are they?”

“Yeah. And earthquakes. I mean, they’re bad for people, but they’re still… cool. This one hot spring under the town used to be totally dead, but the quake brought it back to life. You know what kind of seismic activity that takes?”

“A 6.5, presumably.”

“Well, yeah, but, I mean, there’s a specific combination of circumstances to get a hot spring going again to the surface and have it stay that way; it’s not something that happens every day.”

Now a third silence emanated from Hajime’s end of the phone, though Sano thought he caught the distant sound of one of the cats — Misao, probably — asking a question. And this silence didn’t seem designed to abash Sano or make him rethink his words; rather, it sounded pensive. Finally Hajime asked, “And why aren’t you studying geology?”

“Oh. Well. Not as much money there as where my dad wants me.”

“Do you have reliable statistics on that?”

“Not off the top of my head!”

“Maybe you should look it up.”

“Yeah, sure, maybe I should… if this goddamn ghost will let me do anything without wanting to put my fist through the monitor.”

Hajime laughed, which was annoying. “It’s at least something to think about while you wait for Mrs. Himura to call.”

“I am so fucking tired of waiting for phone calls.”

“Better not get into big business, then.”

With another annoyed noise — Sano had always been good at those, but lately he’d been taking the art to new levels — he said in frustration, “I’ll call you again later,” and abruptly hung up.

He found his mood more mixed than before: just as angry, certainly, but now with an added restlessness born of interested thoughts. As he’d talked to Hajime he’d been pacing the linoleum of his tiny kitchen with a heavy step; when at some point in the process the ghost had joined him, he’d taken — as he not infrequently did at home — to turning gradual circles as he moved to and fro so as to keep his back to the thing at all times. The anger seemed to grow more slowly when he wasn’t looking at it. Now, however, he’d stopped moving and turned to face the computer on his cinder-block-and-particle-board desk across the room.

Truth to tell, he hadn’t given geology any conscious thought, but in the back of his head always figured it was one of those science things that taught you a lot of interesting stuff but didn’t provide a lot of career opportunities unless you happened to live in Antarctica. But it would be kinda cool. OK, more than kinda; he was excited and cheered just thinking about it.

Well, if he was careful and got up and away from the computer the moment he felt the rage building too far, it was worth checking, right? He’d been assuming all along geology wasn’t a viable option, so he couldn’t discover anything worse than what he’d already thought. And what else did he have to do right now? Get pissed off… play video games and eventually throw the controller in the toilet… maybe call Hajime back and try to abuse him… Except Hajime had made this pleasant suggestion, so that didn’t quite seem fair. Of course it had simply been in an effort to keep Sano distracted and occupied until either the woman called back or the exorcist decided they’d waited long enough… but Sano couldn’t help feeling grateful, which was an intriguing contrast to his still-present anger.

At the very least, as the man had said, this gave him something to think about.

One of the impressions Hajime had already gotten about Sano without actually having it confirmed for certain was that he didn’t rise early by choice. Therefore, when the exorcist’s phone rang at around eight o’clock on Thursday morning and displayed Sano’s number, Hajime could only consider it a good sign. And when Sano’s greeting was a somewhat breathless, “She left me a message,” it was as if he’d had a divination confirmed.

“She called at, like, three in the morning,” Sano went on. “It woke me up, but I didn’t get to the phone in time, but it’s fine ’cause she left a message.” He sounded almost giddy, and once again Hajime had to sympathize a little; given the current situation, it was no wonder this progress in their attempt at getting rid of the ghost pleased the young man so much.

“What did she say?”

“She wants us to meet her at Isei Park at noon. That’s not too far from my apartment — actually I used to hang out there all the time when I was a kid; do you know where it is?”

“I’m sure I can find it.” Hajime was grinning somewhat, almost in spite of himself, at Sano’s tone: it was so unusually happy, but without having lost any of its customary underlying anger, which made for an intriguing sound.

“Well, I’m going to head over there right away.”

“Four hours early?”

“I straight-up called in sick to work, so I’ve got the whole day. I’ll take my books and see if I can get some studying done, and probably grab some breakfast on the way over at that place next to…” Suddenly seeming to decide that Hajime probably didn’t really care what his exact plans were — which assumption, though logical, was not entirely true — Sano finished abruptly, “So anyway, I’ll see you there around noon, right?”

The answer Hajime had planned on giving was overridden by Misao making her insistent way around his neck to the hand that held the phone, and yowling into it as best she could while trying, at a bad angle, to keep her balance.

“Hi, Misao,” Sano was chuckling from the other end even as Hajime lifted her off his shoulder and set her on the floor.

“She has nothing real to say,” Hajime translated. “She just likes phones.”

Sano was still laughing. “Yeah, I got that.”

“Did you?” Without allowing Sano to reiterate that he had, Hajime continued, “Anyway, I’ll meet you at the park later.”

“Right. See you then.”

Hajime set the phone on the floor for Misao to yell into until she realized there was no one on the other end, and stood a few moments in silent thought. Although the upcoming meeting with Kaoru Himura might be significant and productive, there was no guarantee it would be. He didn’t for an instant believe the ghost’s anger would just suddenly dispel and the ghost himself fly off to the afterlife the moment they encountered his wife; Kenshin undoubtedly had something he wanted to say — probably a maudlin goodbye not worth nearly the amount of trouble he’d been giving Sano — and of course he couldn’t communicate with her while all channels were blocked by the shade. So today’s talk with his widow was little more than an exploration of another possible avenue to getting rid of that shade, and might prove disappointing for nearly everyone involved.

Well aware of this, Hajime felt it would be wise to talk to Sano about it before Mrs. Himura showed up — to give him a cautionary reminder that this was just one step in a longer process and he shouldn’t expect too much. Sano, it seemed, excelled at emotions in general; of course his constant anger had amused Hajime all along, and just now his happiness and excitement over the phone had been almost infectious… but, interesting as it might be, the exorcist didn’t really feel any desire to see Sano in a state of despair.

Actually, Hajime had the most unaccountable inclination to go to Isei Park right now to annoy Sano for the next few hours. It had nothing to do with the ghost; he just wanted, essentially, to poke Sano and see what he did. He’d never had such an entertaining client before. Of course, he’d never had a client with a disembodied soul floating around him; Sano couldn’t help being unusual.

Well, nothing would keep him from it. He had no other cases on — he’d lined up a meeting for next Monday with what sounded like a blue shade victim (though it might turn out to be perfectly natural clinical depression; those situations often did), but at the moment it was all Sano — and he’d cleaned his entire house yesterday. He’d even already had breakfast. And surprisingly little noise came from his conscience in response to this desire deliberately to bother another human being for no better reason than his own pleasure.

As it happened, he didn’t set out right away. He spent a good twenty minutes wearing Misao out with the laser pointer while Tokio watched with a put-on disdain that couldn’t hide her desire to join in, then about the same amount of time answering an email and paying a couple of bills. But it was barely nine o’clock when he did leave the house, and not even nine thirty when he arrived at the park near the center of the Asian district and started looking around for Sano.

Even this early in the day, the convoluted concrete skating area was alive with mobile, shouting kids — it must be Spring Break for more than just Sano. The latter, with his blue-gelled hair, enormous backpack, and glowing undead friend, was easy to spot on a bench nearby. Perhaps this had been where Sano used to hang out; his current look might even partake somewhat of the skater style, but Hajime, unclear on fine subcultural distinctions, couldn’t be sure.

To test the young man’s mood, Hajime greeted him with, “Trying to reconnect with your fellow childish idiots?”

“Wow, that was harsh even for–” Sano attempted simultaneously to turn toward Hajime (who’d approached him from behind), look at his cell phone to see the time, check that the ghost wasn’t making any trouble, and give an angry gesture — all without dislodging the messy arrangement of textbooks and notebooks across his lap and the bench beside him. And in keeping with this, he attempted to say several things at once. “What time– why are you already– are you trying to say skaters are– I’m not even–” And at last, inevitably, he dumped his things all over the ground, and, swearing, jumped up to recover them.

Hajime leaned against the bench and looked down. He might have considered lending a hand, since the spill had to a certain extent been his fault, but it was more amusing just to watch. Sano’s previous level of investment in his studying struck him as negligible in any case. Anger, perhaps — the usual anger — had kept him from better concentration; but Hajime also thought he observed a certain measure of that same excitement and happiness he’d heard over the phone in Sano’s somewhat jerky movements gathering up his stuff from the grass. Yes, they would definitely need to have a talk about today’s prospects; Sano’s optimism pleased him, but he needed to be prepared for its inevitable dispelling.

It turned out Hajime was in for a bit of a surprise. For by the time Sano had gotten himself resettled on the bench and begun stowing his school things away in his backpack in a clear indication he didn’t plan on attempting to make any further use of them right now, he was already well into a dissertation that revealed the cause of his current mood to have far less to do with Mrs. Himura than Hajime had assumed.

“So after you bugged me about it yesterday,” he was saying, “I went online and looked up stuff about geologists and the kinds of jobs available for them and shit… and you were totally right…” Admitting to this didn’t seem to be the slightest problem, so pleased was Sano. “I really needed to look before I decided about that!”

“Of course you did, you idiot.” Though not having expected the friendliness of his own tone, having thus started, Hajime decided he might as well continue; so, with no real concept, himself, of the career options of an aspiring geologist, he went on in some legitimate interest, “Good news?”

Sano twisted to face him, pulling one leg up entirely onto the bench and placing both arms on its back as he gave Hajime a grin almost childlike in its enthusiasm. “So you know oil, that thing everyone’s fighting over all the time? Guess who those companies hire.”

“And that fact never occurred to you before?” Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Hajime either, but he wasn’t the one with an apparently long-standing fascination with weird underground activity.

Sano’s brows twitched a little at the sarcasm, but it sidetracked him not one step. “I’m not really all that interested in finding oil, because that sounds boring and stupid; I’d rather be taking readings inside live volcanoes or something… but there are jobs like that too, and the point is, I can tell my dad about the oil thing, and he’ll totally go for it.”

“So you’ve decided on this?” For the brevity of this statement, the skepticism of its delivery compensated by adding a heavy, unspoken, “Already?”

This time Sano did emit some anger in his response. “I make fast decisions, OK? Nothing wrong with that.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” murmured Hajime. And he truly wasn’t. He wasn’t terribly condemnatory, either; to his understanding, most people changed their majors several times before any permanent fixation, so the distance of the conclusion to which Sano had jumped would likely make little difference in the long run.

“Besides, I’ve kinda wanted to do this for years.” While still defensive, Sano’s tone was creeping back toward the excitement of only moments before, which seemed to be the resilient sort. “It wasn’t just the stuff in Paso… you can’t live by the San Andreas most of your life without getting interested in earthquakes!”

“I think most normal people can,” Hajime said easily.

Sano made one of those frustrated noises he was so good at, but even this held a note of interest and enthusiasm. “Well, normal people are stupid.”

Hajime had to agree.

“Seriously, though, online yesterday, I found all sorts of interesting shit about volcanologists and stratigraphists and people who specialize in just one specific geological era, and…”

And as Hajime settled in to listen to Sano’s ongoing raving, he reflected that, though he hadn’t planned on this precisely, he didn’t at all regret his decision to come to Isei Park two and a half hours early.

To what extent he’d been going on and on about yesterday’s internet discoveries, and, perhaps even more intriguingly, to what extent Hajime had been indulging him in that, Sano didn’t realize until the ghost gave a sudden stiffening or intensifying and seemed to shift its orbit somewhat in the direction of the parking lot and the playground. The usual heat-wave overtook him at this increased ghostly activity, all the greater because his internal anger had, to a certain extent, been pushed aside for the last couple of hours. Of course Hajime had been making rude interjections all along in order to draw it out, but Sano’s excited happiness had been dampening that outlet.

Now he experienced a second instance of the futility of trying to look around behind him and check both the time and the ghost all at once; but Hajime, who had eventually joined him on the bench, announced that it was 11:40 and Kaoru Himura had just emerged from a car over in the parking lot.

“How do you know that’s her?” Now Sano too looked over at the woman, who was distant enough that her features couldn’t be made out in detail.

“Don’t be stupid. She’s an Asian woman arriving near noon, looking around nervously, and getting a three-year-old out of her car.”

Since she hadn’t been doing either of the latter activities when Hajime had made his initial pronouncement, and since being Asian didn’t signify anything when nearly everyone here was, Sano said pointedly, “So you mean you guessed.”

“The man with her is her father.” Ignoring the accusation, Hajime continued to gaze thoughtfully across the grass. “At least she had the sense not to come alone, in case we do turn out to be psychopaths.”

“You’re still guessing.” Sano’s heart wasn’t in it this time, though, as his attention had been entirely caught by the little boy the presumed Kaoru Himura was doing something to the shoes of in preparation for turning him loose in the playground. Even from here the bright red of the kid’s hair drew the eye, in stark contrast to the mother’s black. What was it Aoshi had said about Kenshin? ‘Half Japanese, half American?’ It showed in his son. Sano snorted faintly. ‘American;’ what kind of description was that? He never would have inferred red hair from that.

The man Hajime had identified as Kaoru’s father, closing the passenger door of the car they’d come in, was talking to her with some rapidity, even urgency. Hajime supplied, “He thinks this is a bad idea.”

With a skeptical glance at his companion, Sano wondered, “How can you get that from over here?”

“I can only get a very vague impression,” admitted Hajime, “but that’s more because of all the people around than the distance. But look at his body language.”

He had a point; the man pretty clearly wasn’t happy about the whole situation. Kaoru must have told him the purpose of this trip, and the ‘psychopaths’ scenario suggested a moment ago probably seemed the most likely to him. Apparently, however, having decided to do this, Kaoru would not be to be talked out of it, for she replied with an evident determination despite her body language that suggested she still didn’t feel entirely sure about this course of action.

The little son tugged at his grandfather’s hand, eager to get to the playground; meanwhile, Kaoru gestured quite clearly in the direction of Hajime and Sano over by the skate park, and the man shook his head. “She knows who we are,” Sano muttered. With the ghost twitching in the direction of its wife, tugging enthusiastically at Sano’s psychic hand, he thought he knew exactly how that grandfather felt.

“Your hair,” said Hajime in a tone of reminder, and got to his feet facing the distant party as if acknowledging a greeting. Presently, thinking vaguely mutinous thoughts (he liked his hair), Sano joined him standing. Eventually the three by the parking lot broke up; Kaoru Himura came in their direction, while her father and son moved off toward the playground.

With every step the woman took toward them, the force of the ghost’s straining against Sano’s hold grew perceptibly stronger, just as it had as they’d approached her apartment the day before yesterday. It felt like restraining a large, increasingly excited and persevering dog, assuming it was a dog that couldn’t keep from rendering him more and more irate as minutes went by. He wondered what precisely would happen if he simply let go.

As Mrs. Himura drew nearer, Sano tried to distract himself from the growing anger by studying her face and figure. She was fairly short, with black hair and blue eyes, and he couldn’t really work up much more of a mental description than that. ‘A beautiful Japanese woman,’ Aoshi had said, but Sano thought this had come more from the woman’s husband than the medium, because Kaoru, while not ugly or anything, definitely had a sort of girl-next-door look that Sano would not have described as ‘beautiful.’ And actually, that was interesting, because why– But she’d reached them and, with the stiffest backbone Sano had ever seen, offered the following greeting:

“I haven’t decided I don’t think you’re crazy, or I’m not crazy for being here, but I’m giving you a chance.”

“Thank you,” Hajime nodded. “Of course we understand your reservations, and we appreciate you coming to talk to us at all.” He extended a hand. “I’m Hajime Saitou, an exorcist. And you’ve already heard from Sano.”

Sano hadn’t observed this particular professional act in Hajime before, probably because Sano himself was an abnormal sort of client, and he found the polite, slightly obsequious tone a little creepy. Kaoru, however, seemed somewhat reassured, for just a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders, and she shook Hajime’s hand before turning to Sano.

Although no physical movement was involved in holding the ghost, still Sano felt as if he rendered his grip less secure by giving Kaoru his hand; but he also felt, first, that it would be counterproductive to start this conversation by being rude or unfriendly, and, second, that he didn’t want to be outdone by Hajime. “Good to meet you,” he said as he returned the woman’s firm handshake. Then, because that had already sounded a little angry, he added less darkly, “Glad you came.”

She heard the anger, and the subsequent enforced cheer did not prevent her from tensing up again. It wasn’t merely uncertainty about a weird meeting that showed in her bearing and visage, but unhappiness and weariness too… a weariness of long standing, and an unhappiness that had etched delicate lines around her eyes before this. It made Sano even angrier just seeing it; he couldn’t stand idea of contributing to her pain. And this further increase in ire she noticed too, and stiffened even more.

Hajime stepped in. “Let’s have a seat and talk.”

As if reluctant not to keep wary eyes on the dangerous one at all times, her gaze left Sano sluggishly, followed Hajime’s gesture to the bench, then moved to the exorcist’s face. Without budging she asked, “You say my husband is here right now?”

For the answer Hajime glanced at Sano, who said, “Yeah, he’s…” Helplessly he indicated, knowing how it would look and sound. “He’s right here.” He tried very hard to speak calmly as he added, “I’m working hard holding him still, so we’ll let Hajime do most of the talking.”

Kaoru stared at what surely looked to her like a normal empty patch of air, her eyes directed at a point where she probably guessed the face would be, but which, with the height at which her husband floated, was actually chest or stomach level — assuming this form of the ghost corresponded with his actual physical attributes (which would mean Kenshin, like his wife, was pretty short).

With an expression like a brittle surface that must eventually crack, she abruptly turned away from the ghost and sat down on the bench.

Hajime took the place beside her, though he didn’t look at her, and said, “I’m sorry to have to ask, but what can you tell us about your husband’s death?”

Sano, who hadn’t returned to the bench himself but stood, every bit as stiff as Kaoru, at its end looking down obliquely at her, now glanced at Hajime with a surprise that momentarily cut through his growing anger. No, Hajime’s tone wasn’t gentle or comforting — despite only having known him for a week, Sano already believed with assurance that the world might come to an end at any gentle or comforting tone from Hajime — but in the calm, low voice there was an audible (to Sano) desire not to wound or even disturb more than necessary… and this, from that source, seemed extraordinarily thoughtful.

Whether Kaoru recognized the unusual consideration, Sano could not tell. In any event, she took a deep breath and, staring down at the clenched hands she’d laid on her knees, began speaking very rapidly, perhaps feeling that if she didn’t get through her story quickly she wouldn’t be able to get through it at all.

“I don’t know how much you already know, since I don’t know how you found me, but if you’ve read the articles or talked to the police you probably know as much as I do. On November 23rd last year, Kenshin was taking the bus home from work — he worked at the Humane Society, which you probably know is way across town from here, but we lived a little closer to it then; I only moved back here to be near my parents after…” She gave a pained-sounding clearing of throat and paused for a moment before going on at the same pace as before. “He was on his way home, waiting for his connecting bus, and there was a gunfight in the street near the stop. It was a gang thing.

“They said he must have tried to take shelter down a little street behind the bus stop, because that’s where he was found. It’s not the best area — it was the stop at Hamlet and 11th, if you know it, which is statistically the worst part of the city for gang activity — and though there aren’t a lot of gunfights, they do happen, and there does happen to be a bus stop right there, so it was inevitable that eventually someone would…”

Her face had been growing more and more brittle throughout this dissertation, her voice tighter and tighter. Something was going to crack, and the result would surely be sobbing and tears and probably a good deal less coherence. She cleared her throat again and took a deep breath not entirely steady.

“He didn’t always take the bus to work; we do have a car. It was perfect coincidence that I needed it that day.” Her voice sank as she added in a self-accusatory tone, “But of course I didn’t need it. I work from home… I didn’t have to go shopping that day… if I hadn’t kept the car — I didn’t need it — he wouldn’t have been at that bus stop. He would never have been at that bus stop.” Tears were definitely starting to surface; it was difficult to see her eyes, still turned down as they were toward her knees and the hands clenched thereon, but the intonation could not be mistaken. She was on the verge of losing the careful control she’d undoubtedly built up painstakingly over the last few months of repeating this story.

She was also lying.

This frustrated Hajime to a pitch that heightened with every word she spoke. Exactly what she was lying about, exactly why she’d chosen to lie, and exactly how it pertained to the current situation and her husband’s ghost, he could not begin to determine, but she couldn’t hide from him the general sense of untruth behind her words.

What she could hide from him was just about everything else. She guarded so fiercely, he couldn’t even get at completely unrelated thoughts in her head. Moments like this made him regret never training more thoroughly in communication, and he decided then and there how he would be spending his spare time after this ended, so bothersome was it not to be able to reach a truth that would, presumably, help everyone present.

“He was actually shot twice,” she went on, surprisingly with no great increase in breakdown of control: “once just behind his right ear, and the other just in front of it. He was unconscious when he was found and taken to the hospital, and it took him less than an hour to pass away. I didn’t even make it over there before… I didn’t get a chance to…” After another trembling breath she went on more steadily, “They said, if there was any pain, it was probably over with quickly.”

Throughout this discourse Sano had been shifting restlessly, and, though Hajime doubted the young man could sense the concealment, clearly the woman’s words — especially these last — did nothing to help decrease the already significant level of anger he struggled to deal with. But Kaoru, gaze still fixed on her knees, appeared to notice none of this.

“The police also said the sweatshirt he was wearing might have contributed, since he’d pulled the hood up, probably to hide his face and hair in the dark or something, and that might have made him look more like a member of one of the gangs. I always thought he should wear a jacket that didn’t look so… young… he was thirty-two, but you’d never guess… and it was mine in the first place; I mean, it was grey, but it was a woman’s hoodie…” Evidently these somewhat rambling details were more difficult to relate than the physicalities of the death itself, and the tears now stood visibly on her face. Hajime deemed her distress genuine, but couldn’t pass judgment on the accuracy of her account.

“He was always doing that: wearing my clothes without realizing anyone would think it was weird. And the really weird thing was they looked just fine on him — usually better than they did on me. But I still used to give him a hard time about it, because of Kenji and the neighbors and because he never seemed to notice it was a little weird.” Her words became more and more difficult to understand as sobs broke into her sentences and a constricted throat marred her pronunciation. “For a while after… last November… I kept thinking, ‘If I could just have him back, I’d never get on his case about that again. He could wear anything he wanted — not just jeans and things, but dresses or whatever — if he would just come back.’ And every time I realized I was thinking that way, I got so angry at myself for being so stupid… but it still took a while to stop.”

This latest set of revelations Hajime believed to be totally honest, since it had nothing to do with Kenshin’s death, and the overwhelming sense of deception had faded somewhat from Kaoru’s demeanor. But whether she was making a subtle attempt to get away from the topic about which she felt the need to lie, or whether she really had been sidetracked in her grief by memories of her late husband’s quirks, the exorcist couldn’t guess. In any case, it got them nowhere.

“Mrs. Himura,” he began, in the cool tone of a lecturer, “the problem here — at least the first problem that needs to be dealt with — isn’t so much your husband himself as the angry energy surrounding him. When someone is haunted by this type of energy — which is called a shade — it has a number of negative effects on them; headaches and an extremely bad mood are the most common. As you can see, Sano is currently suffering these effects because, for some reason, your husband has been haunting him for three weeks.”

He’d been ready to go on for as long as she remained silent until the entire situation was laid before her, but at this point she broke in. “Why?” She sounded a little desperate. “Why would he go to a complete stranger?” With an uncertain glance at Sano she added, “Or did he know you and just never mention you?”

Sano, clearly beyond the ability to speak, shook his head. Hajime almost expected a countdown to appear in big visible red numbers above the spiky blue-gelled hair at any moment, and continued his explanation to Kaoru more quickly. “That’s one thing we’d like to figure out. But besides the effects on Sano, just the fact that your husband is still here at all needs to be addressed. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in this world after death, and whatever is holding him here needs to be dealt with.

“But the shade energy is blocking all attempts to communicate with him. We can’t find out what exactly is holding him here if we can’t talk to him — and it’s more than likely that some sort of communication is what he needs in order to move on anyway. So the most important point at the moment is why he’s so angry. If we can dispel the anger, we can move on to the next step in this process. And the probability that his anger is related to the circumstances of his death is overwhelming.”

Her tears were in abeyance for the moment, and she looked faintly confused and equal parts wary; in her mind, the walls seemed to have become thicker and rougher than before. “OK,” she said slowly and relatively levelly. “I can see why that would be important.”

Abruptly Hajime stood, and the movement made Mrs. Himura shy back toward her end of the bench. “I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “As I mentioned, we appreciate that you came out here at all to talk to us. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared to tell us the truth, I’m afraid you’re not going to be any help to us.”

The barriers suddenly doubled, and her level of agitation increased perceptibly. He would never have deliberately put her back up like this — it would have been so much more politic to continue the conversation on a non-threatening level and try to work the answers out of her — but to his left he could sense Sano about to explode. What direction the young man’s anger currently pointed didn’t matter; he might do something everyone would regret after not much longer.

“What–” Kaoru was saying, rising hesitantly from where she’d been seated, wringing her hands.

But in favor of looping one arm through the straps of Sano’s backpack, taking Sano’s elbow in a firm grip with the other hand and pulling him away along the sidewalk, Hajime gave every indication of completely ignoring her.

The entire world seemed to exist behind a thick filter of intense red that fluctuated between the color of fresh strawberries and that of clotting blood. Sano recognized nothing around him, and didn’t entirely know what was going on, like in a video game where half the time you were in a mirror of reality that only corresponded vaguely with it, and the controls had gone all twisted and frustrating. His body trembled; his blood pounded so noisily he couldn’t hear a thing above it. He also didn’t realize for some time — he didn’t know how long — that he was moving.

More than once he’d wondered what the anger would be like when it became ungovernable, but now (Unfortunately? He would have to decide later) his frame of mind disallowed analysis. Nor could he tell exactly what his status might be. Prior to this there had been a sort of scale or gradient by which he could measure the level of his wrath and its probable effects on his behavior, but this had risen right off the chart.

He was walking. With the tenacity of someone in shock not knowing what he clung to, he maintained his grip on the ghost, and every step he took jarred the anger in him as if he were filled with liquid to the brim and about to be shaken into spilling. The anger was all the worse in that it had no object, no rationale. Of course it had been that way all along, but this… he needed an object… he needed a reason for this overwhelming rage. And why was he walking? Hadn’t they been talking to Kenshin’s wife, whom he couldn’t decide if he was angry at or just angry about? Hadn’t they been working on dealing with this problem, not walking away from it?

‘They?’

He turned.

Through the film he saw Hajime, who looked distant and sinister and very red. Hajime, the disdainful jerk still pretty clearly more interested in some dead guy he’d never actually met than in Sano.

Suddenly the wrath had an object.

He realized Hajime had hold of his arm only when he wrenched free. Turning to face him, fists clenched… well, he meant to demand what the fuck was going on, where they were, where Mrs. Himura was, and any number of other things… but the noise that broke from him had no words and practically no semblance of humanity.

Hajime spoke, but to Sano he was every bit as incomprehensible as Sano had probably been to him just now. All that came across was the insufferable calm and indifference with which Hajime always seemed to treat him, and that caused a critical mass. Whether or not he could measure his current level, whether or not he could judge its probable effects, there had clearly been a line, and it had clearly been crossed. With a burst of increased tension that set his muscles creaking and straining, Sano charged the other man with flying fists.

No impact came, but the next thing he saw, as he caught himself and whirled, was Hajime slipping quickly out of his jacket, which he dropped onto what appeared to be Sano’s backpack standing on the grass, and loosening his tie. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to look concerned that Sano had struck at him; on his harsh face appeared merely a sort of bored, almost passive determination to do what had to be done. It was maddening.

The next blow met flesh as Hajime raised an arm to prevent it reaching its real target. The one after that went wide as Hajime retaliated into Sano’s ribs with his left. Pain felt absurdly good at the moment, and there was a bizarre accompanying sensation as if he were slicked over with a liquid coating of anger and the punch had splashed a certain amount of it right off of him. But that was nothing compared to the astonishing, glorious release in tension when his subsequent attempt connected with Hajime’s shoulder and seemed to deliver anger along with kinetic force.

So tightly was he packed with rage that he felt he must literally explode and decorate the park with viscera and pressurized blood. He was so heavy and overheated, his movements seemed reeling and clumsy… and yet somehow, simultaneously, pointed and devastatingly impactful as he drove an elbow toward Hajime’s neck and a knee toward his abdomen. And, though not precisely what he’d been going for, it was hardly any less a release of anger when neither connected and, in fact, Hajime half sidestepped and gave him such a hard hit to the shoulder that he spun past and crashed to the ground.

After half a hot breath, barely enough to bring him the red scent of the grass beneath, Sano stood on his feet again, twisting to throw another punch at the man that seemed to have been waiting for the attack without taking advantage of the fall. This time Hajime’s raised arm didn’t move quickly enough to prevent a hit to his high cheekbone, and to Sano this felt so good that he let out a growl of satisfaction at the cracking contact. It wasn’t unanswered, though, as, in a spray of released anger, that hard left of Hajime’s slammed next into Sano’s face in almost precisely the same spot.

Chaos roared in his hearing like a riotous crowd, and the waves of pain rippling from the point of that last hit temporarily affected his vision as well, but the driving impulse of forward and against kept him active. Hajime blocked him, blocked him again, hit him in the stomach, dodged and kicked and sent him sprawling a second time, but Sano was undaunted. His craving for the feeling of his knuckles against Hajime’s face had not been satisfied by one instance.

Through the haze of rage and adrenaline, as he struck out once more and was denied, he wondered vaguely how Hajime seemed so good at this. Hadn’t he seen Hajime with a sword on more than one occasion? What kind of martial arts training did the bastard have? Had he ever mentioned? But attempting to remember things like that not only taxed Sano extremely in his current state of mind — though, he thought, it became slightly easier as moments passed — it was also dangerously distracting with fists flying, and probably what won him the next couple of blows to his chest.

The diminution of his anger had been steady and gradual, but the realization that he was within measurable levels again struck him abruptly and startlingly. The result was a sudden winding down as if a power source had shut off, and he found the arm he’d raised for a punch sinking along with the adrenaline and the desire for further violence. His fist loosened as his wrist came to rest on Hajime’s shoulder instead of progressing as he’d intended. Hajime’s movement also ceased as he perceived Sano’s changing state, and he was looking much less crimson.

“Back, are you?” he wondered, and Sano rejoiced to find the words relatively comprehensible.

His reply that he believed so emerged with no great smoothness, because he turned out to be panting and shaking like a drug addict, but Hajime, at least, evidently understood. He nodded, then gave Sano one final punch across the face.

The unexpectedness of the hit increased the amount of anger it caused Sano to release, and he swore loudly as he sprawled back onto his ass on the ground. But he was seeing clearly now, hearing accurately, and, he thought, properly aware of his surroundings and situation for the first time in he didn’t know how long.

For example, he realized he and the grim-faced man standing over him weren’t alone. Hajime’s thoughtful frown was sufficiently engrossingly infuriating that it took some doing to drag Sano’s attention away from it, but this was accomplished by the recognition of a group of kids loosely surrounding them: primarily the skate park crowd, past whom Hajime had probably paraded Sano to get here, and some of whom looked as if this was the best day of their lives. He doubted they often got to see two grown men (one in a suit!) beat each other up right in the park in front of them. Some still cheered, some laughed; a few, seeing the fight had ended, were analyzing it — evidently Sano had pretty clearly lost — while others stood in interested or even horrified silence.

As the pain of the various instances of successful application of Hajime’s fists began asserting itself, now without nearly as much satisfaction attached as earlier, Sano turned back to the source of this discomfort. Hajime had retrieved his jacket and folded it over one arm; he seemed unmoved by the seam at the shoulder of his shirt that had split or the dark spot already intensifying on his face.

Sano remained quite angry, and was readier than not to turn and roar at the gawking kids if they didn’t shut the hell up — and Hajime had no exemption from this wrath… but the sight of those results of the fight summoned up a simultaneous sensation of almost affectionate gratitude. How many people, even in the pursuit of a significant source of interest in their career, would fall so readily into a fist fight with an non-paying client just to work off some excess anger? When Hajime held out a hand to help Sano up, Sano reached for it thankfully, and, upon standing, clasped it briefly in both of his own in lieu of a verbal expression of appreciation that probably wouldn’t have come out very coherently at the moment.

Beginning to be convinced the entertainment had drawn to a close, the kids were dispersing. This was for the best, since Sano had no clear idea where the ghost was, and he didn’t want breaking up a brawl among a bunch of suddenly incensed little skaters to be the next thing he had to do today.

“You’re quite the thug,” Hajime remarked, sounding unsurprised.

Assuming his mental shields had taken just as much of a beating as his body, and that Hajime could therefore pick up on his memory of just how many fights he’d been in during high school, Sano didn’t bother explaining, only said, “You’re pretty damn good yourself,” as he went to retrieve his backpack from the grass.

Hajime also neglected explanation, which annoyed Sano since he couldn’t read the exorcist’s mind. Scanning the area, presumably watching the kids returning to their previous activities, Hajime straightened his tie in a seemingly unconscious movement. Sano too looked around, and found the ghost not far off doing its usual thing. He gave an angry sigh and addressed Kenshin at a grumble: “Fucking ghost making me randomly attack people… You’re going to owe me big when this is over…” Then he frowned and turned back to Hajime. “Hey, did I hear you say the lady was lying or something?”

“She was. Come on.” The exorcist gestured. “It’s not a good idea for us to be here much longer after that.”

Unsure what the gesture referred to, too annoyed to ask, Sano yet didn’t mind following. Well, it annoyed him to follow, but he did it anyway.

Hajime began to explain, as they walked, about the finale of the conversation with Mrs. Himura that Sano had been too irate properly to mark. That Sano, under Kenshin’s stupid influence, had essentially blown their only chance at getting information out of her could only irritate him further; and as soon as he had the gist of what Hajime detailed, he couldn’t help breaking in with, “Big fucking waste of time today’s been.”

Hajime made a thoughtful sound even as he raised a hand to the growing bruise on his face. “It might not have gone as badly as you think,” he said cryptically, and walked on.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.



One Year, Two Minutes (1/3)



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

When Quatre sat down in his usual place one Friday near the end of the semester, opening his lunch on his knees and leaning against Trowa for warmth in the chilly December air, he noted in a mixture of amusement and pity that his friends had already started the customary Pre-Weekend Harassment Of Heero.

“It doesn’t have to be someone from this school, you know.”

“Though good luck finding another school with this many gay guys.”

“And it doesn’t even have to be someone you really know well, either!”

“Yeah, you should meet more people anyway. Make more friends.”

“And if you don’t like the guy, it’s not like anyone’s forcing you to go out with him again.”

“You know I could find someone for you if you don’t want to bother looking.”

“No, thank you.” Heero would, Quatre knew, eventually drop the ‘thank you.’

Given the clockwork-like prevalence of this conversation — on some Fridays a word-for-word repetition of last week’s — it was a wonder Heero even ate lunch with this group anymore. Force of habit, Quatre thought. Well, and they would probably realize why he was avoiding them and track him down anyway, if he happened to try to find some other, solitary place to enjoy the free period.

“You don’t even have to find someone good-looking! It’ll be dark!”

“Plus it’s a really good movie; I already saw a bootleg before it came out.”

“Yeah, it’ll give you plenty to talk over with someone!”

“Pff, like Heero ever talks things over with anyone.”

“But a movie and dinner aren’t serious enough for you to worry about getting all serious with someone!”

“Yeah, it’s just a casual thing! Come on, man, you’ve gotta come!”

“No,” said Heero.

Quatre hadn’t known Heero well sophomore year — OK, really, Quatre still wouldn’t say that he knew Heero well, but at least these days he referred to him as a friend rather than just a guy he had a few classes with — but it had been obvious even then that Relena was the reason Heero had come out of the closet. Quatre thought Heero would have been perfectly happy to keep the fact that he was gay as quiet as the rest of his personality, despite how friendly the school was toward gay students, if Relena hadn’t been pestering him constantly back then to go out with her.

Of course that hadn’t really stopped; it was just that now she tried to get Heero to join the group dates she was always setting up, whereas before it had pretty clearly been one-on-one time she was soliciting.

“What is your problem?” she was wondering now. “Did you get your heart broken? And you haven’t recovered yet, and you just can’t bear the thought of going out with anyone else, even on a group date with no strings attached just for fun? It is fun, by the way, and you’d really enjoy it.”

Heero looked over at her with an expression that held a trace of ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ but which in general was just his usual nearly emotionless look. “Relena. I’m seventeen.”

“So?”

“So, no, I did not ‘get my heart broken.'”

“You say that like you haven’t had time or something!”

Someone else put in slyly, “I think he’s saving himself for Lady Gaga.”

“What?” Heero demanded in a tone half scornful and half surprised. “For who?”

“More like he’s saving himself for all the more experienced guys he’s expecting to meet at Harvard.”

“I am not going to Harvard.”

Quatre finally decided to step in. Most weeks Heero had to take care of himself, since this happened too frequently for Quatre to be saving his hide every time, but Quatre was feeling generous today. “You know, you guys, it could actually be that he’s telling the truth — that he’s not interested in dating because he’s focusing on his grades and getting into the school he wants.”

They turned on him. “You should talk! You guys hardly ever come out with us either!”

“Yeah, but that’s because we’re…” He threw just the briefest look at Trowa, gave just the tiniest clearing of his throat. “…busy… on weekends.”

Appreciative laughter spread through the group, and Quatre gave Heero a pointed glance to see if he’d gotten the message: that it wasn’t what you said, but how you said it. Trowa and Quatre both usually worked Saturday and Sunday, and did homework the rest of the time; and, though it was true that a weekend rarely passed without their seeing each other at least briefly, it was pure myth that they spent two straight days in bed together or out on exotic dates — myth perpetuated by perfectly true little phrases like ‘we’re busy on weekends’ spoken in the right way and accompanied by the right gesture.

Heero returned the look with a faint, thoughtful scowl. Obviously he wasn’t terribly pleased at how easily Quatre was able to get around the problem he faced on a weekly basis, but at the same time seemed to be struck with an idea; perhaps he really had gotten the message.

“Maybe he’s got performance anxiety.”

“Yeah, he’s afraid he wouldn’t actually be able to ask anyone out, because it would take too many words.”

“You could write ’em a note, Heero… you know, like in middle school?”

Do you want to go out with me this weekend? Check Yes or No.

His brows lowering a trifle, Heero took a deep, quiet breath. “OK, fine, you guys. I’ll tell you the truth.”

Every head turned toward him; everyone went silent.

“I didn’t like to say,” he went on, “because I didn’t want people bugging me about it all the time, but this–” he gestured around– “is worse.”

“What?” Relena was leaning forward eagerly. “What is it? Do you actually secretly have a long-distance boyfriend?”

Heero turned startled eyes in her direction. “How did you know?”

“What?! You really do??” She jumped up. “Oh, my god, Heero, you have to tell us all about him!”

This opinion was immediately ratified by most of the rest of the group; Quatre thought that, Friday tradition notwithstanding, most of them couldn’t actually imagine Heero ever going out with anyone.

“Well,” Heero said slowly, apparently very aware that everyone was suddenly hanging on his every word, “I met him in April… he lives in Gearing…”

And thus began the biggest, most complicated, and by far the coolest and most collected lie Quatre had ever heard Heero Yuy tell.

***

This place was strange.

Oh, the classrooms and hallways and lockers and the way people dressed and the way the teachers treated the students and the schedules and the curriculum were all perfectly normal, as far as Duo could tell, but in what world did everyone you encountered seem to be talking about you behind your back from almost the moment you walked in the door ’til the time you finally managed to locate where you’d left your bike that morning and went home?

Of course it was a little weird — unfortunate, even — for someone to switch schools in the middle of his senior year. Duo would have wondered about anyone in that situation too. Then, his circumstances were pretty interesting… but how many people here could possibly know anything of them yet? Yeah, there were plenty of reasons for most of the school to be whispering about him, but this was just too early. It had started halfway through his second class, for god’s sake! What was going on here?

Applying himself devotedly, on his second day, to picking up what he could of the whispers, he thought he caught an unfamiliar name mentioned in conjunction with his own (to the confirmation that they really were talking about him): Heero Yuy. What he couldn’t figure out was who this Heero Yuy was, what he had to do with Duo, and why this talk had all started up so soon. Presumably the guy had answers, but Duo hadn’t yet been able to determine where and when he might be able to find him, and hadn’t felt like asking directly.

Sometime somebody would have to say something straight out. High-schoolers could keep up gossip in a vacuum far longer than any other group, but eventually they needed concrete to build on. And when someone finally approached him, whatever they had to say would surely tell him what he needed to know.

But it didn’t. Some clues, perhaps, were conveyed by the breathless demand, “So is he a good kisser?” but no real answers. “Nobody here,” the unfamiliar girl in the hall went on, “has been able to find out!”

Duo could have demanded information at this point, but his smartass instinct took over and what he ended up saying was, “Wouldn’t you like to know!” At which point the girl ran off giggling.

So obviously he was supposed to have kissed this Heero Yuy. Being a perverse individual, Duo was unsurprised that his first thought upon learning this was to wonder whether or not Heero Yuy was a good kisser. But his second instinct was annoyance at still being almost entirely in the dark, and after that came even greater curiosity than before.

His third day at his new school (Friday, since the semester had kicked off on a Wednesday) was as provoking as the previous two had been, and the fact that the widespread interest in him and his doings and his apparent connection with the oddly-named stranger didn’t seem to have died down at all was really making him quite wild to find out what the hell was going on. With continued perverseness, however, he was even less interested in asking anyone outright unless that person was Heero Yuy himself. Where to find Heero Yuy was the problem, since it was a big school, and asking someone where to find him would be tantamount to asking everyone why they thought he’d kissed the guy. He would snap eventually, though.

Actually it turned out he didn’t have to.

His new trigonometry class didn’t seem to be quite as far along as they’d been in the old one, so paying strict attention wasn’t yet a matter of great importance. It would be nice to have some homework that was just review, too, for a little while: grab a bit of a break while he got used to everything else here. Things like being endlessly talked about, and Heero Yuy, and all that.

He didn’t realize just how badly his attention had waned until class took him by surprise by ending. Suddenly everyone else was standing and walking out when he hadn’t even started packing. Hastily he shoved loose papers into his notebook and closed the latter, which action knocked his pen to the floor. When he returned from bending to retrieve the dropped article, a new and unfamiliar object lay on top of his things.

Immediately recognizing, from much experience, a private note, Duo looked hastily to see not what it said but, rather, who had left it. And though the guy was moving quickly, rejoining the other students leaving the classroom, Duo could tell he was the one, and got a fairly good look at him before he disappeared.

He’d actually noticed this person earlier — though he hadn’t paid him any particular attention — because of the weird hair. At first glance it looked like a deliberately emo style, but the lack of an outfit or makeup in that vein seemed to contradict such an assessment — which actually made the long hair over the face even weirder. Not that Duo saw a great deal of the face; the guy didn’t turn even slightly back in this direction to see if he’d found the note, and soon was out of sight.

With rising excitement, Duo reached for the folded paper. Was it possible that not-quite-emo guy had been the mysterious Heero Yuy himself, and here was an explanation of all the strange goings-on? This hope was dashed, however, even as a new one arose, when Duo finally opened the note.

It read, Heero Yuy’s locker is B-213, if you’re looking for him.

***

Without having to take in anything more than what the corner of his eye could show him, Heero knew exactly who it was that had appeared so abruptly next to him at his locker. He hadn’t caught sight of the guy prior to this, but knew very well what he looked like, and that he must have good reason to seek Heero out before too long. As a matter of fact, Heero really should have sought him out sometime earlier than Friday afternoon, but hadn’t really had his thoughts in order yet. Well, time to face the music.

The first he’d heard of it had been in his third class on Wednesday. Sylvia, who had been present that unfortunate lunchtime back before break when Heero had made up all that nonsense, sat behind him, and, coming in late, had barely had time to hiss at him before the teacher called them all to order, “Heero, why didn’t you tell us your boyfriend was transferring here?! He’s in my history class, and it surprised the hell out of me!”

There had been no time for Heero to express his shock or issue a denial at this point, as class was beginning. Since the teacher had only a fairly brief greeting for them, however, before getting them started on an assignment she’d written on the board, there was leisure for quiet conversation after not too long.

“Heero has a boyfriend?” was how it started. Heero didn’t know the name of the girl that sat behind Sylvia, but he could tell just from the skeptical tone of these murmured words that she, like the rest of the school, had a hard time accepting the idea.

“Yeah, he’s totally hot.” He could hear Sylvia shifting in her chair to deliver this reply to her rear, but he himself kept absolutely still; if the teacher was going to throw a dry erase marker at anyone for gossiping instead of completing their assignment, it wasn’t going to be at him.

“You saw him?” the whispered conversation went on. “What’s he like?”

“Totally hot; I just said!”

“Yeah, but what does he actually look like? Maybe I’ve seen him in the halls!”

Sylvia poked Heero in the back of the head, which was very annoying. “He looks just like Heero described him.”

Sincerely doubting that, Heero flipped through his notebook, seeking out the page on which he’d written in neat bulleted lines, just in case he ever needed to continue the deception, the points he’d made about his utterly fictional long-distance boyfriend back in December. As they continued talking behind him, he stared down at the improbable list.

“He’s got the longest hair in the world. He’s got it braided today; you can’t miss him.”

Subtly, Heero put a tiny checkmark next to Good-looking, and another beside Hair down to his thighs.

“And he doesn’t exactly have what I’d call purple eyes… they’re blue, but it’s a sort of purpley-blue that I bet you’d definitely call purple if you were going out with him and wanted to make him sound all exotic.”

The other girl giggled madly, and Heero, somewhat reluctantly, checked off Purple eyes.

“He said he just moved from Gearing when he turned eighteen; I bet he came just to be with Heero.”

Sadly, Heero checked off Lives in Gearing while simultaneously trying to shut his ears to the “Aaww!” of the other girl before Sylvia added the final point:

“I think he said he did, like, three different sports at his old school; too bad it’s too late for him to really do anything here.”

Athletic went the way of the rest of the list as the other girl mused, “Well, he could still go for–”

“Ladies, I somehow get the impression you’re not discussing the assignment back there.”

Heero was grateful for the teacher’s intervention, but had a hard time turning his own concentration toward searching for similes and metaphors in the short story they were currently studying. It was obvious that the damage had been done: if Sylvia had jumped to the conclusion that this handsome, purple-eyed, long-haired athlete from Gearing was Heero’s fictitious boyfriend, even if she hadn’t spread the news to everyone she knew, others might well have made the same connection. How on Earth had someone matching all of those improbable criteria shown up here so soon after Heero had invented them? And what was Heero going to do about it?

This question had occupied him throughout the last three days, and he’d never arrived at a satisfactory answer. It would be, he’d thought, good manners to give the newcomer a heads-up… well, it was probably too late for that, but at least an explanation of the weird treatment he was undoubtedly already receiving would be appropriate. But Heero had procrastinated because it seemed so odd a thing to have to confess and he’d never decided how to word what needed to be said. And meanwhile the gossip had only heightened, and the comments people threw him in passing become more and more embarrassing; god only knew how the stranger was taking it.

And now here was this same Duo Maxwell, having very understandably tracked Heero down, standing casually next to him at his locker, giving him an appraising look and exuding an air of curiosity and expectation with maybe just a touch of righteous indignation thrown in.

“You know,” he said at last, “I’ve had a lot of really weird experiences in the past… but having a boyfriend I’ve never met is a new one.”

Heavily, Heero shut his locker and turned toward him. “I can explain.”

“Good! ‘Cause I’m really curious.”

Heero looked around at their fellows, many of whom were surreptitiously watching them. “Not in here, though.”

“That’s fine,” said Duo affably. “I’ve gotta get my bike anyway, from the entrance that I thiiiiink is this way…” He pointed, though he looked a little lost.

Both in agreement and to confirm Duo’s guess as to which direction the bike racks were, Heero nodded. When he turned away and started walking, Duo hopped after and fell into step beside him.

As they moved through the halls, Duo’s glances in Heero’s direction seemed to indicate that he was about to start asking questions, despite Heero’s not yet having allowed the time and place to be right. Heero braced himself. Those selfsame glances, however, seemed to have informed Duo that Heero still wasn’t ready; instead of what Heero had expected, what came out of Duo’s mouth when it opened was, “So, ‘Heero Yuy’ — that’s, what, uh, Martian?”

“Japanese,” Heero informed him, grateful to have this to talk about and a few more minutes to try to come up with a way to explain things that wouldn’t make him sound like a total idiot.

“Oh, cool. Do you speak Japanese?”

“Yes.”

“Awesome! Say something for me! In Japanese, I mean.”

Heero sighed faintly, and wondered, in Japanese, why people always made that request.

Duo was grinning appreciatively. “That’s awesome,” he reiterated. “I’ve seen some of those Japanese cartoons, but they’ve always got the voices all redone in English. Oh, bikes! You found them!” He gave a gesture of mock admiration and gratitude to Heero for the feat of having led them out the correct door to locate the bike racks, and moved to unlock a fairly new-looking grey one from the midst of the line.

Standing back and watching, Heero tried, almost frantically now, to get his thoughts in order. It didn’t help that this Duo Maxwell fellow was… well, ‘totally hot’ on Sylvia’s part had been an understatement. And supposedly he was an athlete too? If Heero had been looking for a boyfriend, this guy would have been way out of his league.

Bicycle extracted, Duo rejoined Heero, cheerfully wheeling the vehicle alongside. “OK, where should we go?”

Heero pointed. “I live that direction; I usually walk home.”

“Oh! Well, I live that way too! Lucky coincidence.” In a slightly louder tone he announced, “Means I can walk you home, boyfriend.”

Somebody nearby giggled. Heero didn’t look around to see who it was or put his burning face on further display.

A brief discussion of relative locations as they left school property revealed that Duo lived a couple of miles past Heero’s neighborhood, which was itself a mile and a half from the school. No wonder he would be biking there and back rather than walking. More of a wonder was that the place was an apartment belonging to Duo and a roommate, that Duo had moved to town without parents or anything. But before Heero could question him on the interesting circumstance, Duo glanced around to verify that none of their schoolmates were nearby and then said, “So what’s the deal? With you and me, I mean. Why does everyone think we’re dating when I haven’t even ever seen you before today?”

Heero never had thought of a good way to put this, so there was nothing for it but just to confess. “It’s because I made you up last December.”

Duo started theatrically. “Are you telling me that I’m a figment of your imagination? And that all my memories of my life never actually happened? And that if something happens to you, I’ll totally cease to exist???”

Unable to remain unamused by this, Heero nevertheless explained seriously. “What I mean is, I made up a fake boyfriend to get some friends to leave me alone about finding a real one, and what I described turned out to match you perfectly.”

“Really?” Duo looked a little skeptical. “Because, not to sound conceited or anything, I’m pretty unique.”

“I know. I don’t know how it happened. I chose the most improbable things I could think of off the top of my head — the long hair, the purple eyes… I was trying to describe someone who didn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

“Huh. Weird.”

“So you showed up and of course everyone–”

“Thinks I’m your boyfriend, yeah. My eyes are blue, though.”

“It’s kindof a purpley blue,” said Heero helplessly.

“So why’d you invent me? Your friends wanted you to find a boyfriend?”

“It’s more like they’re always bugging me to find a date and go out with the group on weekends… but I’m not interested in dating right now. I don’t know how anyone can be, with the amount of homework we get.”

Duo chuckled. “OK, I get it. So you invented a fake boyfriend. Lemme guess — I was from out of town and you only saw me on weekends or something, so it was a perfect excuse not to go out with your friends.”

“You…” That pronoun was a little awkward, actually, in this context. “‘He‘ was from Gearing.”

“Oh, wow. It just keeps getting weirder.”

“Well, we do sometimes get people transferring in from Gearing — and Steppe and Coachroad — because of the whole gay thing… That part wasn’t as weird as the rest of it.”

“Yeah, how’d you manage to get my hair and everything?”

“I have no idea.” Heero shook his head, more helplessly than ever. “And I would never have said all of that,” he added in sincere apology, “if I’d known someone would show up who matched it all so well. I didn’t mean to make everyone think you were my boyfriend, I promise.”

“Not everyone thinks that, though… The guy who told me where your locker was couldn’t have thought we were dating, or else why would he have thought I… didn’t know where your locker was?”

“What guy?”

“Some guy with weird hair.” Duo dug through one of his pants pockets with his free hand, and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “He handed me this in trig.”

Heero opened the note; half a glance was all it took to solve the mystery. “This is Quatre’s handwriting,” he said dismissively. “The guy you saw was probably Trowa, his boyfriend, running errands for him as usual. Quatre is a sort of… social guru. He knows who everyone’s dating, and everyone’s schedule, and a lot more about the entire school than he should. Of course he knows you aren’t actually my boyfriend.”

After a long, pensive silence, Duo said slowly, “Well… I don’t see why I can’t be.”

Heero found himself blushing hot all of a sudden. “What?” He barely got the word out coherently in his surprise and embarrassment.

“Not for real,” Duo assured him hastily, undoubtedly marking Heero’s flustered reaction. “But if everyone already thinks we’re together, why not let them keep thinking that? Then your friends wouldn’t keep bugging you to find a date, you wouldn’t have to admit you made the whole thing up, and you could get on with your life in peace.”

“That… that sounds like a perfect setup.” Having regained his composure, at least outwardly, Heero was able to speak in a fairly businesslike tone. “But… not to sound ungrateful or anything… why?”

Duo shrugged. “We’re already going the same direction to get home… I’m going to be working most days, and if you’re going to be doing homework, why not let people think we’re spending all our time together after school?”

“And…” It was a fantastic-sounding plan, but there was a side to it that Duo hadn’t touched on. “And at school?”

“Well, you seem like a decent guy, and I never mind having new friends to hang out with.” Duo grinned. “But even if we don’t hang out all that much at school, it won’t look weird if it still looks like we’re going home together every day, right? And if it turns out we really can’t stand each other at all, we can claim we broke up and just end the whole thing.”

So overwhelmed was Heero by the abruptness of this unbelievably fortuitous idea and the apparent quickness of Duo’s resolve, he couldn’t for a moment say anything. Finally, though, he managed, “But why would you do this? It’s… it seems really nice of you… and you just met me…”

Again Duo shrugged. “Why not? I’m going to be busy too; it’ll be nice if people aren’t bugging me about dating either.”

“But what if you want to go out with someone?”

“Why should I? Truth is, I got a lot going on: I’ve already got hours of homework after only three days, and I have a full-time job.” He gave a nod of satisfaction so brisk it made his braid bounce. “No, I think this will work out really well. I mean,” he added with a sidelong glance at Heero, “if you want to. Don’t let me push you into it if you’d rather just–”

“No, no!” Heero broke in hastily. “You’re right; it seems perfect. I just…” He scratched his head a little nervously. “Just can’t believe my luck.”

“It does all seem kindof astrology or whatever, doesn’t it?” In a deep, portentous voice Duo announced, “The stars aligned that day to throw together two strangers on the path of destiny.” Then his demeanor changed entirely as he asked casually, “What’s your sign?”

“Uh…” Thrown off-balance by Duo’s sudden alteration of tone, Heero struggled to remember. “Pisces, I think?”

“Hmm. No good for a Saggitarius like me. Good thing we won’t really be dating.”

Heero supposed that was as valid a reason as any to be glad they wouldn’t really be dating. “So you’re interested in astrology?” he asked cautiously.

“Sortof. It’s fun to follow. I like reading horoscopes and seeing how stupidly general they are. Like every single one of them could probably apply to anyone, no matter when you were born. The one I just read for myself the other day — no, actually, it wasn’t for myself, sorry; it was for Cancer — it was talking about relationships, and……”

The next mile, spent discussing astrology and Duo’s semi-satirical interest in it, was enough to convince Heero that some stars must indeed have aligned in order to bring them to this pass: his new fake boyfriend, with whom he would, presumably, be spending at least some time on a regular basis for a while, wasn’t just quickly decisive and unexpectedly understanding and helpful; he was also very entertaining. Heero was enjoying the conversation so much that he found himself a little reluctant to stop at the corner where he needed to break away from Duo’s homeward path.

“I have to go this way,” he said, pointing.

“Oh.” Duo looked in that direction, then on down the street where he needed to go. “Hey, I don’t have to work today, and I’m just going to go home and do homework… do you want to actually hang out? Might as well do homework together as separately, right?”

Marveling at the ease with which Duo suggested so friendly an activity to someone he’d just met, but seeing nothing wrong with the idea, Heero said, “Yeah, why don’t you come to my house?” He added somewhat warningly, “If you’re serious about doing homework. Because I have a lot of it.”

“Now, what would make you think I’m ever not totally serious about anything?” Duo demanded in the most innocent of tones as he followed Heero around the corner.

***

Duo had rather hoped to coincide with Heero on the way to school on Monday, but thought the difference in timing between a walker and a cyclist was a decent enough explanation for why he didn’t. Although he’d never hated school the way some people did, it wasn’t exactly his favorite pastime either — but today he was actually quite interested in being there. Having a secret was always fun, as was putting on a show for people; and becoming better acquainted with the quiet, intelligent Heero had its attractions as well.

Besides, this time when someone Duo didn’t know came up to him in the hall and asked what struck him as an extremely rude personal question having to do with the accuracy of the portrayal of Japanese men’s anatomy in anime porn — an inquiry whose significance would have gone completely over his head just a few days before — he was able to reply immediately and cheerfully that he would be quite willing to dole out punches to the face of anyone else that was curious.

The weather was cold, but evidently Heero’s group of friends wasn’t going to let a little thing like January deter them from eating in their customary outside spot. Anything to maintain their territory and avoid freshmen, Duo supposed. And the central courtyard was pretty nice, if a bit of a walk from the cafeteria if you happened to be buying school lunches (which, Duo had determined after some calculations, were cheaper in the long run than trying to figure out something else every single day). So the only problem left was coming up with an explanation for why he hadn’t eaten lunch with Heero last week, why he was eating with him today, and why he might not be again in the future.

Interestingly, Heero was more taciturn with his friends than he had been with a complete stranger on Friday, and evidently they’d been unable to get a thing out of him last week regarding his newly-arrived boyfriend. Since Heero had mentioned in some embarrassment that he’d put off seeking Duo out because he hadn’t been sure what to say to him, it shouldn’t be too great a surprise that he hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone else either. But it also meant that his lunch crowd was even more curious than they might otherwise have been because of the perceived secrecy.

They mobbed Duo the moment he appeared, a little later than most of them due to the aforementioned walk from the cafeteria and a disorientation about the layout of the school that he hadn’t yet quite overcome. Space was made beside where Heero sat unobtrusively in a corner so Duo could squeeze in next to him — right next to him, which was a pleasant warmth in the cold outside air, but Duo couldn’t help wondering how Heero felt about it.

The reason he gave, in response to the immediate questions about why he’d been neglecting his boyfriend, was that he’d been checking out lunch venues throughout the school — which he in fact had. His response to the information that Heero had been unhappy here without him was a serious inquiry of Heero whether or not this was true, to which Heero replied with a slight quirk of a corner of his lips that he’d been fine. His astonishing answer to the demand that he eat lunch here with Heero and the rest of them from now on was something silly to the effect of his being an itinerant at heart and unable to stay in one place long or consistently.

Then, in order to cover up the whispering that started as they all tried to wrap their brains around this and began to speculate what it would probably mean for his relationship with Heero, Duo asked to be introduced to everyone. When it became obvious that Heero wasn’t about to take this task upon himself, it was performed instead by a girl named Relena. Duo was interested to note both the all-knowing Quatre and lackey Trowa among the group, and also that Heero didn’t actually seem terribly friendly with most of these friends of his. It made Duo wonder how it was that he’d come to eat lunch with them every day at all.

Once Relena was finished rattling off names (and accompanying facts that were probably designed for further identification but that meant nothing to Duo), she settled down against one of the large concrete squares stationed throughout the courtyard. These had undoubtedly been intended by their builders as benches, but the one in this corner was used by this group as a shelf and a seat-back; Relena’s current position in relation to it put her near and directly facing Duo in what almost resembled the attitude of an interrogator across a table from an unwilling informant.

“Now,” she said in a complacently authoritative tone, “you have to tell us everything: how you guys met, what it’s been like being long-distance, what made you decide to move up here — everything!”

Duo had actually given a fair amount of thought to this during the long hours he’d worked over the weekend, and entertained himself making things up; though he hadn’t consulted Heero yet about the stories he’d concocted, he deemed it unlikely that Heero had fabricated anything too terribly complicated on his own that would contradict what Duo had to say. However, though Heero might not object, within the context of the scam, to Duo waxing eloquent on their supposed relationship, he might mind for other reasons. The briefest glance in Heero’s direction showed him already blushing faintly just at hearing the questions asked; the answers, fictitious or otherwise, couldn’t improve his condition.

“You know,” Duo said instead, with a grin, “I’d rather not take all the mystery out of that story by telling it all at once; it’ll be so much better if I just give you little hints over time. So for now, how about I tell you all about the fabulous Duo Maxwell instead?”

Relena’s expression of slight discontent was the first hint Duo had that she was perhaps less interested in him personally than as he related to Heero. But all she said was, “OK, fine.”

So he spent a happy lunch hour complaining about how his foster parents hadn’t really wanted a son, but, rather, a minion they could shape and control; how they’d pressured him for as long as he could remember to prepare himself for a military career, and how he’d never been interested; how he’d put up with their demands and insistence for a few years and then rebelled, and how tense things had been thereafter; about the nuclear-level explosion he’d occasioned by announcing that he was bisexual; and, finally, about his lengthy and careful preparations, during the year he would turn eighteen, to get himself out the moment that happy event took place. That had been last December, and as soon as school had halted for the winter break he’d moved away from Gearing.

“I came here — I mean here specifically — because of Heero, obviously,” he concluded, joggling his ‘boyfriend’ slightly with his elbow. “But also because I knew this school was all famous for being so gay-friendly. I read that one article in that magazine–”

“You and everyone else in the world,” someone put in laughingly.

Duo grinned. “Yeah, the one where they said this was probably the only school in the country where you could get beaten up for being a homophobe — and I was like, ‘I am so there.’ I figured even transferring schools in the middle of my senior year would be worth it to come here for a while.”

“And he didn’t tell me any of this,” Heero put in unexpectedly. It was the first time he’d spoken in quite a while.

“What do you mean?” Relena sounded incredulously amused. “He didn’t tell you he was moving here?”

Heero shook his head.

Taking the cue, Duo grinned broadly and expanded on the subject. “It was pretty much the best surprise ever, if I do say so myself. Whenever I was complaining before about how much I hated living at home, Heero would remind me that high school was almost over, if I could just hold on a little longer…” This fictitious advice seemed consistent with what Duo had observed of Heero so far. “He had no idea I was already planning on getting out before high school was over!”

“So you just showed up here with, what, a truck full of stuff or something…” Incredulity now tinged with delight, Relena turned to Heero. “And that was the first you knew he was coming here?”

“Something like that,” Heero mumbled. He looked embarrassed, maybe because he was so bald-facedly lying, but Duo thought this had been a good move on Heero’s part: it would at least partially explain why he’d been in a weird mood last week — anyone might be a little stunned if his long-distance boyfriend suddenly joined him in his hometown without warning.

“So if you and Heero met and started going out last April…” This was the very innocent- and harmless-looking little blonde Quatre, and he had Duo’s immediate attention. “And you were getting ready to get away from your parents all of last year… that means you already knew you’d be moving and changing schools before you even met him. Did you have this school in mind then?”

Duo wondered where Quatre, who knew the truth, was going with this question. Maybe he was just trying to guide the topic back to something that would embarrass Heero less. Perfectly happy to accept the subject shift in that or any case, Duo nodded. “Yeah, ever since I read that article…”

“So you were already interested in this school,” Quatre mused, “and then you met Heero.” His pointed yet half-veiled gaze indicated his awareness that, with the way he’d worded it, this was totally accurate. “It’s kinda like destiny or something.”

Duo remembered his own comment last Friday about stars aligning, heard the giggles and charmed noises of some of the girls in the group, and grinned as he leaned over the very small distance it took him to rub his shoulder against Heero’s. He still wasn’t sure what Quatre meant by that line of inquiry, and didn’t know that it was likely to embarrass Heero any less, but he didn’t hesitate to agree, at least verbally.

It turned out he needn’t have worried so much about Heero’s level of embarrassment. On their way home that afternoon, almost immediately they were down the street away from the school and the ears of fellow students, Heero brought it up.

“I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t happy not to have to get into relationship talk over lunch,” he said, “but I’m not fragile. You’re obviously a better actor than me, so you’re welcome to choose what we talk about to everyone, and I’ll just try to keep up.”

“Well, I thought you did fine,” Duo assured him. “That idea that I supposedly didn’t tell you I was moving out here was pretty funny, and I thought you pulled it off perfectly.”

“Thank you.” Heero smiled slightly; it was the first time Duo had seen him do it, and it was remarkable what a striking, attractive change the expression made to his face. “This is…” The smile turned into a bit of a grimace as he admitted the unpalatable fact. “Well, I didn’t think I was going to like this, but actually it’s been kinda nice so far.”

Duo wondered whether this unobtrusive person had ever received so much positive attention at school before. “Even if some of it was embarrassing?”

“I said I’m not fragile,” said Heero, now somewhat irritably. “Just because I get a little embarrassed about something doesn’t mean anything changes.”

Now Duo had to wonder whether anyone around here took Heero at all seriously in a social sense. He was an exceptionally good student — Duo knew that quite well even after such a short time — and there was a general tendency among people their age to equate that with a lack of social skills. Maybe that was at least part of the reason everyone had been so interested to discover Heero ‘had a boyfriend.’

Anyway, Duo didn’t feel like trying to analyze Heero’s place in the high school strata right now. “We’re only a day in,” he said instead with a grin that was both cheerful and warning. “It could get better or worse from here.”

“And if it’s worse,” Heero said calmly, “we can always ‘break up.'”

It wasn’t real; since they weren’t actually dating, they couldn’t actually break up. But Duo couldn’t help considering this — particularly Heero’s self-reassuringly cool manner of delivery — rather cold. No wonder, again, everyone had so marveled at the idea of Heero with a boyfriend!

After this, however, they moved on to Heero’s favorite topic (homework), with the occasional mention thrown in of Duo’s job at a restaurant not far from his apartment, and Duo pretty much forgot he’d ever felt put off.

***

“So it ended up 37-20, and they’re obviously in. With Manning in there, they’re practically unstoppable. That guy can find a receiver every single time, no matter what kind of heat’s on him; it’s fucking amazing. There’s no way in hell San Francisco can… god, are you even listening?”

“Yes,” Sylvia replied abstractedly, “and I totally agree.”

“Then what did I just say?”

“That you’ve got a crush on Eli Manning,” she replied promptly, finally turning her eyes back toward him.

“Not funny,” Alex growled. “That’s what’s wrong with this fucking school… everyone assumes everyone’s fucking gay.”

“I was totally joking,” she assured him. “But you have been talking about football a lot.”

“Well, what would you rather talk about?” he demanded in that exasperated ‘Oh, my god, why can’t girls ever make sense?’ tone guys sometimes used, glancing around to see what kept grabbing her attention past his left shoulder. Evidently he couldn’t tell what she was looking at, for he turned back to her with no enlightenment on his face.

“Look again,” she commanded, grinning. “Aren’t they totally cute?”

His expression darkened. “I’m not looking again if it’s just to see something ‘cute.'” Then, briefly, a flicker of puzzlement crossed his face and, contrary to his words, he did look again. “Oh, god,” he said as he slowly turned back. “You’re talking about that new guy Duo and that nerd guy, aren’t you? Please, Sylvia, please tell me Duo’s not gay.”

“He’s not gay,” she said immediately.

Alex breathed a huge, exaggerated sigh of relief. “Good, because he’s in my P.E. class, and if I thought–”

“He’s bi,” Sylvia broke in.

“So he is gay! Goddammit, he’s probably been staring at my ass in the locker room ever since he got here!”

Sylvia tried not to laugh. Alex actually seemed angry, but she couldn’t feel sorry for him. “I totally wouldn’t blame him if he did,” she said. “And why would he anyway? He’s together with Heero.”

Alex appeared somewhat consoled by her flirtatious remark, and also curious in spite of a very strong inclination not to be. “Is he? I heard he played soccer at his old school… and Heero’s in, like, five different Honor Societies… why would they–”

“Duo’s totally got a 3.8,” Sylva said, proud of her inside knowledge. “Or at least that’s what he had at his old school; I don’t know about here. I think Heero’s got, like, a 4.7 or something, but anyway they’re both really good students. Probably,” she added in satisfaction, “because they spend, like, every day after school at Heero’s house doing homework.”

“You sure that’s what they’re doing?” Alex asked darkly.

“No,” she tittered. “But they won’t come out with us on Fridays, and they always go home together. Duo doesn’t always eat lunch with us, because I guess he’s already got a lot of friends all over the school, even though it’s been, what, like, three weeks? And I think Heero misses him at lunch, but with Heero you can never tell.” She laughed again. “Anyway, they always go home together.”

“Why are you so interested in this?” Alex’s tone was suspicious as he closed his locker, gave the couple they were discussing one last, somewhat venomous look, and turned away to walk down the hall.

Following him, Sylvia answered cheerfully. “Because I’ve been eating lunch with Heero practically every day for two years now, and we’ve never seen him go out with anyone, and we always thought it would be cool if he did, and now he finally is!”

“I can’t believe that Duo guy’s gay.” This was more in muttered apostrophe than as any sort of reply to Sylvia.

“He’s bi,” she corrected.

“Oh, come on, like any girl would go out with a guy who’d been with another guy,” he said harshly.

I would!”

“God, would you? Have you? Seriously, if you say yes, you are not getting a ride home.”

That, Sylvia thought, was a terribly rude comment, but she had to admit that she never had gone out with a bisexual guy… and she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of a date with Alex on Friday by calling him on his homophobia. She did, however, as a sort of passive rebellion, keep talking about Heero, and how pleased she was to see him with the very likeable Duo, all the way out to the student parking lot and half the way home.

***

The previous three Januaries had been the heaviest homework months of the school year, as if the teachers were trying to make up for the long winter break and get the new calendar year started off right, and this January had sustained that trend admirably.

“And you know how many pages he wants?” Duo was complaining as they made their usual way out one day near the end of the month. “Freaking ten! That’s practically a book! And he was very specific about margin widths and font sizes, too, so we can’t cheat.”

“Triple-space it,” Heero suggested.

Duo stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. “You’re a genius!”

Heero, who didn’t stoop to such tactics himself but somehow knew them all, and who moreover had written two seven-page essays this month and was inclined to feel sorry for his companion, gave a sympathetic look.

“But, seriously, I’ll still end up having to write eight or nine pages,” Duo groaned. “Who does that?”

“Have you chosen a topic?”

“I was thinking the Civil War.”

Heero laughed. “You can’t just do ‘the Civil War.’ That’s way too general.”

“Way too General Lee?”

Heero rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’ll figure something out. Stupid research paper.”

“Just wait ’til college. We’ll be writing twenty-page research papers, and we won’t have nearly as long to finish them.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. How’s it going with Stage, by the way?”

Willum Stage University, located in a town called Placette only a couple of hours’ drive from here, was the school Heero had in mind, and he’d just finished the application process earlier this week. For this he was duly congratulated, after which they fell silent for a block or so — one of them, presumably, still mulling over the paper that had been assigned in his history class today. But it was just occurring to Heero to wonder something about Duo.

Finally he asked. “Where do you want to go to college? I’ve never heard you mention.”

Duo pushed out his lips in a silly, almost pouty way and looked sidelong at Heero. “Iiiii don’t know if I do want to go to college,” he said a little reluctantly.

Surprised, Heero said, “Really? You’re a good student; I thought…”

“Yeah, that’s how everyone reacts,” Duo mumbled, “which is why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Everyone does tend to assume we’ll all be doing the same things once we’re done with school,” said Heero carefully, “but… some people work for a while first… some people travel… I guess some people don’t go to college at all…”

Duo made a weary, protesting noise. “You make it sound like it’s a really weird concept.”

“College has been my goal for as long as I can remember,” Heero admitted apologetically. “What do you have in mind instead?”

“I kinda want to be a chef.” Duo apparently didn’t have a great deal of hope that this would be in any way acceptable; his parents probably had something to do with that.

It sounded fine to Heero; he didn’t even have to give it much thought. “So, a culinary school, then?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Evidently heartened by the lack of immediate condemnation from Heero, Duo went on more enthusiastically. “What I think would be really cool is to have a combination restaurant and car repair shop so people could drop off their cars for whatever and then come inside and eat! Except I don’t actually want to run the place, I just want to do the cooking. I might take a few business classes just so I’ll have some idea what’s going on, but mostly my plan is to do some other cooking jobs so I can get really good at that and save up enough money to find a partner who can handle the business end of things while I make all the awesome food. And of course we’ll need a really good mechanic who…” He paused. “I lost you at ‘combination restaurant and car repair,’ didn’t I?”

Trying very hard to stifle his laughter and speak seriously, Heero said, “No, no, I think it’s a great idea.” In truth he considered it a remarkably childlike idea: something not necessarily impractical or inappropriate, but that few adults would come up with. Obviously one of those few was Duo, whom Heero couldn’t help considering, in light of this, rather adorable. Forcing calm upon himself he reiterated, “Really. Not a bad idea at all.”

Across the bike that separated them, Duo peered suspiciously at Heero. “You mean it?”

Solemnly Heero nodded.

Breaking into a brilliant grin, Duo exulted, “Hah! You’re the best ‘boyfriend’ ever!”

With a slight blush Heero said, “Who you should really talk to is my mom. She sometimes does catering. Just for small events, because it’s just her and a friend doing the cooking, but she still knows some things about the business…”

“Oh! That explains why she always has the Best Snacks Evar for us whenever I’m at your house doing homework! I meant to get the recipe for those little potato skin things, but I forgot. How come you didn’t tell me she did catering??”

“I didn’t realize you were interested.”

Duo frowned. “It’s probably not good that we ‘boyfriends’ don’t know all this stuff about each other. I mean, what if someone asked? Anyway, it’s definitely not good that we real, actual friends don’t know.”

Unexpectedly pleased at having Duo refer to him as a real, actual friend, Heero suggested, “We should have a question and answer session.”

“Yes! Yes, we should! OK, let me think of questions.”

This activity occupied them the rest of the way to Heero’s house. There, because Duo wanted to harass Heero’s mother and Heero wanted to do his homework, they agreed that the best way to go about this was for each of them to write down a list of questions, which they would then exchange and answer in between their other tasks as they had time and inclination.

Between the culinary discussion in which Mrs. Yuy was happy to indulge Duo for quite some time and the homework that Duo, who wasn’t nearly as irresponsible as he sometimes acted, started in on afterward, it wasn’t until nearly two hours later that they gave each other their questions. And then, not for the first time that day, Heero had to try to stifle his laughter.

1. What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?

2. What was one thing you used to want to be when you grew up that totally changed?

3. If you could take the characters from any movie and put them into a new movie about a DANCE COMPETITION, which movie and characters would you choose and why?

4. If you could have any animal in the world for a pet (and it would be friendly to you no matter what it was), what would you choose?

5. Do you have any awesome tattoos, and how do you feel about tattoos?

These weren’t really the sort of questions Heero had had in mind, and totally dissimilar to his list, which was about things like politics and important formative experiences… but honestly he was rather looking forward to answering them. Not only that, but it struck him after a few moments of thought that Duo actually had the right idea: Heero had conveyed plenty about his plans for the future and other such serious topics; it was the extracurricular aspects of his personality Duo would know least about at this point — and vice versa for Heero about Duo.

So, setting aside for the moment the book he was reading for English and the notes he was taking thereon, he centered Duo’s sheet of questions in front of him and set down his pencil without looking in order to choose one at random. Upon rereading it, he decided he would need more space than what Duo had allowed him, and extracted a fresh sheet of paper.

Am I limited to animals? he began writing. Because if it will be friendly to me no matter what it is, a banyan tree……


One Year, Two Minutes (3/3)



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

“We’ve got a problem.” This was Heero’s rather dire-sounding greeting when he met Duo after school.

“Uh-oh,” said Duo. “Is someone on to us?”

“Prom,” Heero replied flatly.

“So you mean we’ve got a Promblem. Is Prom a problem?”

Rolling his eyes and trying to stifle a grin at the idiotic joke, Heero nodded. “Are we going to… you know… do all that?”

“Go to Prom, you mean?” Duo seemed to give the matter the first serious consideration he’d offered during this conversation; it ended with him shrugging, as Heero had rather expected. “Yeah, we probably should.”

Heero swallowed, and reminded him reasonably, “It’ll be expensive. We’ll need tuxedos, and you’re expected to go out to dinner first, and…”

“It’ll look weird if we don’t go,” was Duo’s just-as-reasonable counterargument.

“And I can’t dance,” Heero finished pathetically.

Kindly Duo smiled at him. “Everyone can dance. It’s only funny shy people like you who decide they can’t.”

Blushing faintly, Heero had to return the smile, just a little, but still also to protest. “I’m pretty sure some people really can’t. Some people have no sense of rhythm, and some people are just clumsy…”

“Not you,” stated Duo, simultaneously positive and dismissive. “So don’t worry about that. I still think we should go. How would it look if people saw us two great boyfriends not going to Prom?”

“Especially after I said it’s our one-year anniversary,” Heero muttered.

“Did you? Well, that’s good to know. Yeah, so, anniversary date at Prom. Besides, you only get one Senior Prom in your whole life; it’d be stupid to miss the chance just because we’re not really together.”

The cavalier manner in which Duo made statements like ‘we’re not really together’ bothered Heero, but there was nothing to be done about it… especially when he was the one uninterested in dating anyone. There was no way he could admit now that he secretly wanted to go to Prom with Duo, even if he honestly was uneasy about the public social nature of the event and the dancing required. All he could do was agree in terms of their subterfuge.

“It probably would look weird. I guess you’re right.”

“I’m glad you think so…” Duo looked down at his bike, flexing the fingers of his left hand out to encompass the brake and retracting them again in a movement that almost seemed nervous. “‘Cause I… kinda… already bought us tickets.”

“Did you.” It was half annoyed demand and half amused acknowledgment.

Duo looked sheepish but unrepentant. “One of us should probably still officially ask the other, though. People expect that.”

“I’ve noticed,” Heero muttered. He sighed slightly, but once again (as was not infrequently the case around Duo) couldn’t help smiling a bit too. “Well, let me take care of that.”

“Really?” Duo sounded startled.

Wryly Heero said, “I’ve got to pull my weight sometime.”

“OK, then! I’ll try my best to be surprised at whatever you have in mind.” Duo was grinning as if his expectations were not terribly high, and undoubtedly with good reason.

Because what Heero had in mind was not likely to be particularly surprising, given that it was exactly what he’d done before — or rather, what Duo had done for himself in Heero’s name. The student council, as he’d been informed earlier by just about every single one of his friends while discussing Prom, had once again set up a service by which flowers, candy, and miscellaneous romantic items could be delivered to classmates in the middle of school in front of everyone. Heero was going to take full advantage of it this time to try to assuage his bitterness at not having done so before.

The only way this course of action could be regarded as original or romantic was with the knowledge that Heero hadn’t actually been the one to send Duo roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and regretted it. And since Duo would take the offering as just another playact in their long deception, and wouldn’t know of Heero’s regret, it was likely to look pathetic and uncreative to everyone. But Heero was going to do it anyway. He was going to order Duo the biggest bouquet they offered and a whole box of the type of chocolates he’d liked best in the sampler last time, and he was going to mean it.

***

Duo wasn’t terribly surprised when Heero’s idea of a surprising method of asking him to Prom turned out to be to mimic Valentine’s Day. Heero hadn’t seemed too enthusiastic about the idea of going to Prom at all, and couldn’t be expected to waste much thought on a clever way of requesting that Duo accompany him. Actually, Duo considered himself lucky that Heero hadn’t been annoyed at him in the first place for buying tickets without any prior discussion, or even flatly refused to attend.

He’d definitely gone all-out, at least. He was probably trying to outdo ‘himself’ from last time, for there was an entire planet’s worth of flowers (which Duo didn’t have any idea how he was going to get home) and a big box of the caramel pecan things Duo had so passionately adored at Valentine’s Day.

By coincidence, these romantic offerings were delivered during the same class in which the latter holiday’s had been. At least Duo assumed it was coincidence, since he doubted the student council was interested in minute schedule coordination. Anyway the teacher, obviously remembering the already-extravagant presents of that instance that were, improbably, outdone by today’s, raised her brows at him. Duo just shrugged and grinned.

She kept throwing him skeptical looks, though — or what she could see of him past the flowers taking up most of his desk — so it was several minutes before he felt safe attempting to read the folded sheet of notebook paper that had been delivered along with the more colorful items. He’d seen at a glance what it was, but class was almost over before he managed to apprise himself of what it said.

1. How familiar are you with the Metric System, and do you think switching to it on a nationwide level is a good idea?

2. If you could assassinate one person without any type of consequences to yourself, would you do it?

3. Will you go to Prom with me?

4. Do you think solar energy is a viable renewable energy source for the majority of the world’s population (sometime in the future)?

5. What are your thoughts on other methods of fortune-telling besides astrology?

Somewhat to his own shock, Duo felt the beginnings of tears in his eyes. He wasn’t in any danger of actually crying over this, but there was a definite prickle back there. Damn Heero and his attractive cleverness that could make this repetitive gift suddenly fresh, and his desire not to really go out with anyone, and his unexpected sweetness that made Duo wish more than ever before that it could be otherwise.

Trowa had been right — this little game was stupid. It was the type of thing that got people hurt. Never again would Duo do anything like this, neither to keep himself free to get things done nor out of pity on anyone else.

But he was definitely going to Prom with Heero. At least he would have that to look forward to, and to look back on after this was all over. With a careful glance at the teacher, he reached for a pencil with which to answer the questions on the paper, starting with #3.

***

Zechs had only an unclear idea of what his roommate and the ‘boyfriend’ were doing out in the tiny apartment living room, but so far it had been pretty hilarious to listen to.

“It’s just clinging to each other and kinda shuffling in a circle,” Duo was saying reassuringly; “it’s not hard.”

“I do know how it’s technically done,” the grim-voiced Heero replied. “It’s not like it’s a ball or something.”

“It’d be pretty cool if it was, though.”

“No. It would not. If it were a ball you would not catch me within a hundred miles of it.”

“So you’d actually travel away from here to make sure you weren’t that close?”

“I’d take a Greyhound.”

Duo laughed. “OK, fine, no ballroom dancing for you. But you’re going to have to come here and prove you do know how to do it before I let you out of this room.”

“You can’t just take my word for it?”

“Not with Prom on Saturday!”

This was one of those reminders Duo sometimes inadvertently delivered… In light of how accountable he was and the fact that he hadn’t been late or short on his half of the rent even once, the fact that Duo was still in high school sometimes escaped Zechs. Actually the discovery had made for a very pleasant surprise; Zechs had been leery at first at the idea of a roommate so young, but at that point he’d had to have some roommate or find a cheaper apartment, and Duo’s timing had been just right… and he’d never regretted it.

For all Duo seemed childishly easygoing on the surface, he was perfectly responsible underneath; this faux-boyfriend thing, Zechs thought, was his only real immaturity. Why not just actually date the guy? Heero wasn’t necessarily what Zechs would have considered Duo’s type, but he was definitely good-looking.

And a little awkward, which was what made the pseudo-couple’s occasional visits to the apartment so funny to overhear.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Heero was still trying to get out of what Duo was trying to get him to do. “Don’t you have anything to eat around here?”

“Probably not,” Duo admitted. Which was true: he got a free dinner at his restaurant every time he worked, bought lunches at school, and sometimes ran culinary experiments at home, but the result of this was that all he ever stocked the kitchen with was ingredients that would take an hour to turn into an actual meal; everything immediately edible in there right now probably belonged to Zechs. “And you’re not really hungry; you’re just making excuses.”

“Yeah, well…” Heero’s tone, Zechs thought, was one that acknowledged the truth of Duo’s statement but insisted perversely on arguing anyway. “Why today? I’ll probably repress this traumatic memory by the time Saturday gets here.”

“So harsh!” protested Duo, sounding dramatically wounded. “How could you say something like that to your very own boyfriend?? Besides,” he added, abruptly switching back to a normal voice, “I have to work for the rest of the week, so there won’t be time. So come over here.”

Heero laughed faintly, but it didn’t sound as if he obeyed the command just yet.

Really, it was idiotic those two weren’t actually together. The impressive Duo, who was successfully juggling his last semester of high school, a full-time job, a cooking hobby, and a fake relationship while managing to remain energetic and optimistic, seemed to have met his equal in the hard-working, intelligent Heero that had gotten himself accepted to the college of his choice and had the steady upward route of the next several years of his life meticulously planned out. They were fools not to be together.

But of course it wasn’t any of Zechs’ business, except as far as he enjoyed laughing disdainfully at them from the next room.

“I need to get my mom’s car back home. I already feel bad about taking it from her all day.”

With this topic, it sounded as if Heero had successfully distracted Duo from whatever his nefarious purpose was, for Duo said sincerely, “It was nice of you to think of bringing it.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to give you all those flowers and then make you try to carry them home on your bike.”

“You are so thoughtful,” Duo crooned. Then, in a very different tone, “Gotcha!”

There was some shuffling and a few noisy footsteps. Zechs couldn’t be sure what trick his roommate had used to get the ‘boyfriend’ to… whatever he’d gotten him to do… but that foul play of some variety had been involved he did not doubt, especially when Heero said in a mixture of amusement and bitterness, “You’re a sneak.”

“Yep!” Duo agreed cheerfully. “And now you’re going to prove that you know how to dance!”

Given that Zechs’ classes were in the afternoons and evenings — as a matter of fact, he needed to be leaving pretty soon for today’s — and Duo barely even came here except to sleep and make the occasional staggering mess of the kitchen, they didn’t actually run into each other very often. This only enhanced Zechs’ opinion that someone as faithfully industrious as his roommate deserved a little fun (read: romance) in his life. He was fairly sure the only reason Duo wasn’t actually dating Heero was that he was so busy, and that was stupid. Greater difficulties than that were surmounted in the name of love on a daily basis.

For this very reason, to set a good example for the misguided young men, Zechs had overcome his own romantic difficulties (namely a vicious, determined rival that he’d been a little worried might actually offer him bodily harm) and struck up a thus-far-very-rewarding relationship with one of his classmates.

Well, he might have had more reasons for this than just wanting to prod Duo. But that had definitely been at least some fraction of his motivation.

Out in the living room, Duo had started loudly singing some slow love song from twenty years ago. Whether his lack of adherence to its key was deliberate Zechs had no idea, but at least he kept the timing right in order to have a beat to dance to. Halfway through the first verse, however, he cut off abruptly. “You don’t have to be so stiff, you know.”

“Sorry,” Heero replied. “But it’s hard to do right with you yelling that awful song right in my ear.” Zechs didn’t have to see him to detect the stiffness Duo objected to; the statement might have been written in block print on a piece of plywood for the tone in which it was uttered.

“OK, how about this one–” Duo started in on a different song, this one hip-hop and a good deal faster.

“No!” Heero said vehemently, now sounding very flustered. “No! I’ll do slow dances because it’ll look weird if I don’t dance at all. But not fast ones.”

“OK, fine. One more slow one, then.”

Perhaps because the threat of the faster piece had been so much worse, Heero acquiesced without argument this time. Duo toned down both the volume and the (apparently purposeful) out-of-tune nature of his singing, and evidently they managed to get through the rest of the song.

“I knew you could do it,” Duo said when he’d finished his more musical vocalizations.

“Then why did you make me do that?” Heero demanded.

“Because you didn’t think you could do it,” was Duo’s soulful answer. “But you just had to believe in yourself!”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘believe in yourself’ mean ‘be forced into it.'” Sardonic though he was, Heero seemed much less stiff and unhappy now that the ordeal was apparently over.

“You’ve been a very good boy,” Duo commended him.

Dryly Heero wondered, “What’s my prize?”

“You get to do homework with me for the rest of the day!”

Heero laughed. “You are incorrigible.”

“I’m sure I am,” was Duo’s complacent reply. “And I just remembered… I think I do actually have some Swiss Cake Rolls left, if Zechs hasn’t stolen them.”

Zechs, who had, jumped up quietly and headed quickly for the door.

***

Heero had cut it rather close with his asking; they’d discussed going to Prom weeks before, but he hadn’t actually asked Duo until five days prior to the dance. Fortunately, they’d long since agreed on colors and gotten fitted for their tuxedos, and Duo had put in his request for time off work plenty early; so the asking was a mere formality — one that needed to be observed, yes, but not something that would throw a wrench in any plans if it came a little late.

Actually, it was probably for the best that Heero had sent the stuff essentially at the last minute, since that minimized the amount of time to be survived between that and the dance. Because Duo wasn’t bothering to lie to himself and try to pretend he wasn’t hugely looking forward to the event. Roses and homespun dancing practice at his apartment on Monday got him good and excited, and then four long school and work days had to be endured before the big Saturday — but at least it wasn’t eleven or seventeen.

All the upperclassmen were, of course, talking about Prom, and a student council member just might have approached Duo with instructions regarding one particular aspect of it, and these facts didn’t help him get through those four days at all; he had to struggle not to be absolutely useless in every subject and annoy all his teachers by paying the poorest attention he’d ever done; not to mention twenty-four hours of work that he couldn’t remember a single minute of afterward… but somehow he did manage not to explode throughout the rest of the week, and finally Saturday came.

Heero had obtained the loan of his mom’s car for the night — she was always so obliging about that, though that might have been because Heero didn’t ask very often — and arranged to pick Duo up at seven. They’d discussed a price range for dinner, and then Heero had chosen a restaurant without yet telling Duo which one it was; if it turned out to be as unexpectedly romantic a surprise as his gifts on Monday, Duo knew he was in for a great night.

He was looking forward to a great night no matter where they ate, to be honest. This was as close as he was going to get to a proper romantic outing with Heero, and he planned on making the most of it. And as such, he’d fussed over his toilette more than he had in he didn’t remember how long. He’d spent an awfully long time in the shower, especially considering the standalone water bill; he’d brushed his teeth as if his life depended on it; he’d agonized over cologne and body glitter far longer than any such decisions should ever take; and he’d had some actually-rather-too-enthusiastic assistance with his hair from Zechs, who was going to beauty school to be a stylist.

After this Zechs had informed him pointedly that he would be out all night on a real date with his real boyfriend, so if Duo, for whatever unexpected and totally unforeseen reason, happened to want privacy in the apartment after the dance, he would have it. Then Zechs had swept grandly out, leaving Duo to wait in solitary agitation for his fake boyfriend to arrive for their fake date.

He spent that time trying to prepare himself mentally for the sight of Heero in a tuxedo. Like practically everyone, Heero wore t-shirts and jeans to school, and he looked damn good in those; Duo had never seen him in anything more formal, and was afraid that his first encounter with such a remarkable sight might be overwhelming if he wasn’t braced for it. So he was lost in a fluttery daydream of angelic beauty when the real thing appeared to prove or disprove the mental image.

The latter had been deliberately extreme, but still the former almost lived up to it. Which was a little silly… there was no real reason for the sight to have such an effect. It was just a guy in a tuxedo. Duo already knew what Heero looked like, already knew what tuxedos looked like. There was no real reason for his lungs to refuse to function and his heart to try to make up for that by working double-time and his whole body to heat up like a furnace. Just a guy in a tuxedo.

Just a guy he really, really liked in professionally-fitted formalwear of glossy black with accessories in a particularly flattering shade of red. Heero had steadfastly resisted Duo’s attempts to get him to wear a red tuxedo, and not merely because it would have been more expensive than the black one, but at least he’d agreed to that as a secondary color.

As Duo was attempting to get hold of himself and not drool all over the floor, Heero was returning the examination with an eye easily as minute, if a good deal steadier. Evidently he approved, for he nodded shortly. Then he produced a boutineer in a clear plastic box, and handed it informally to Duo.

The latter was relieved to see that this item was no more fancy or attractive than the one he’d bought; he’d somehow managed to forget completely about that particular tradition until just yesterday, and when he’d placed his order at the grocery store floral department, the harried old man there had given him a little lecture about timely planning.

They spent the next few minutes wordlessly helping each other pin the tiny flower arrangements in place. It was unusually quiet, actually: Heero, who was probably bracing himself for an evening he didn’t want to spend the way he was going to spend it, was even more taciturn than usual; and, busy with admiration of his attractive companion and working hard not to express this and other forbidden thoughts aloud, Duo didn’t say much more than Heero did.

Before they left the apartment, however, he insisted on snapping some pictures — just a few at arm’s-length with the camera in his crappy phone — since they’d opted not to do any formal Prom photos. The expense seemed unnecessary in their situation, but Duo would be damned if he came away from this with nothing by which to remember Heero in a tux. He had no rational excuse to offer Heero for this behavior, but evidently the casual bravado with which he carried it out served him well enough, for Heero did not protest. And then it was off to dinner.

It was the first time he’d been at a restaurant with Heero since Valentine’s Day, and perhaps Heero’s choice of Japanese cuisine was a sort of small revenge against Duo for that incident. Not that Duo had any objection to trying new things or foreign foods, but he certainly felt as out of his element here as Heero obviously had in that party restaurant back in February. Why weren’t there chairs at this table? What were the damp cloths for? How the hell did you eat with chopsticks?

Or perhaps Heero had just chosen it because he’d heard that a group of school acquaintances would be eating there as well; he’d been getting better, of late, keeping an eye on their visibility as a ‘couple.’ He didn’t acknowledge their classmates, but Duo exchanged waves and ‘You look great!’ greetings with them before sitting down.

By tacit mutual consent they did not discuss Prom or any other aspect of their fake relationship over dinner. Instead, they talked about race relations, Heero’s experience as a Japanese-American, attitudes, stereotypes, Duo’s complete inability to manage chopsticks, and so on. This might by anyone else have been considered potentially more awkward and agitating than the other subject, but here it was worlds better. In fact they were so absorbed in the interesting conversation that they barely noticed the passage of time, and, before they knew it, not only was the restaurant closing but they were past due for the beginning of the dance.

“Well, that was pretty delicious,” Duo said as they headed for the car. “Good choice!” He was trying to keep things at the same level of ease as inside the restaurant, but unfortunately his endeavor failed. Heero, obviously slipping back into the greater-than-usual silence of earlier now that he was once again being forced to think about the ordeal ahead, just nodded. And as Duo couldn’t think of anything more to say at the moment, he found himself quickly following suit.

***

Heero had been to exactly one school dance prior to this, during his freshman year when his mom had convinced him to give them a try before making an indiscriminate entry on the list of events in which he was actively disinterested, and that had been nothing like this. For one thing, that had taken place in the larger of the school’s gyms, whereas this was in a nice hotel’s ballroom with a grand staircase and everything. For another, there hadn’t in that previous instance been nearly so many emotional complications.

He wished he could say that the room they entered now looked good and the setting promisingly romantic, but in fact the decorations were overdone to the point of tackiness, the refreshments on the sideboard made the place look like a kid’s birthday party, and the music was too loud. But, then, it had never been the dance itself he’d been looking forward to, just the opportunity of attending it with Duo.

Of course various people — the majority of them from the lunch group — ganged up on the ‘couple’ the moment they walked in, and their excitement bombarding Heero from all sides made him long to escape out the open double doors at the far end of the room onto the patio or into the garden beyond. People had either to shout or lean close to him to make themselves heard, and then the only thing they had to say was how glad they were to see him there or how nice he looked in his tuxedo. Neither of these bright and original sentiments did much for him, but it only got worse after a few songs had played and they turned to queries about why he wasn’t dancing.

Honestly, he feared dancing poorly less than he feared dancing with Duo at all. He was absolutely certain he would, under those circumstances, transform instantly into a slack-jawed, glaze-eyed, tripping-over-his-own-feet, unable-to-force-anything-from-his-mouth-but-drool stupid idiotic moron, and this was something he wanted to avoid at all costs — even the cost of actually nerving himself to ask other people to dance instead.

Relena was the obvious first choice, since she was certain to be enthusiastic about accepting, but it was still a little difficult — and not because of the slight glower this won him from Wufei. Fortunately, it soon became easier. The actual dancing turned out not to be a problem (as Duo had said, it really was ‘just clinging to each other and kinda shuffling in a circle’), and Relena talked so happily and incessantly, about the song and the decorations and the refreshments and where she’d found her dress and how happy she was to see Heero and Duo there and probably some other things, that Heero wasn’t really required to speak.

The ice thus broken, further forays onto the dance floor were less of a problem (though Heero still couldn’t say he really enjoyed them). His friends were pleasantly surprised to be asked by him, and, seeing that he was willing to dance, some of them asked him where apparently they hadn’t originally planned on bothering to try. He even danced with a couple of straight guys; being comfortable with gay people was the cool thing to do around here, and though that didn’t stop them from being about as nervous and awkward as Heero was, he appreciated their willingness to make the attempt.

So he was pretty thoroughly booked, and thought he was doing rather well. But he also came more and more to question the expediency of this strategy. Surely it seemed strange to everyone else that he never danced with his ‘boyfriend…’ and hadn’t he been looking forward to this because it would be a romantic night with Duo even if they weren’t in an actual romantic relationship? Yet here he was avoiding him like mad.

Still he couldn’t bring himself to risk it. He met Duo sometimes between slow songs (he absolutely refused to attempt dancing to fast ones under any circumstances), and then they partook of the refreshments and chatted in just as friendly a manner as ever… but it must look weird, and Heero really wished it could be some other way.

Duo sometimes danced the aforementioned fast numbers, and at these times Heero’s eyes were glued to him from afar. Because when the dance didn’t consist solely of kinda shuffling in a circle, Duo… Duo danced like a complete dork. He flailed maniacally, did silly moves based on various ungraceful gestures such as fishline-casting, dragged people around him into his absurdity, and made everyone laugh.

And Heero adored every moment of it. That was his fearless, energetic Duo, who a few minutes later would come grinning back to Heero’s side to guzzle some punch and calm his breathing, and whom Heero could never quite manage to compliment properly. And still Heero fled him during slow songs.

Eventually, when it felt they’d been going through this for an ambivalent eternity, and after dancing with everyone else in his lunch crowd and, in fact, practically everyone he knew — including a teasing Quatre that seemed to comprehend precisely why he was avoiding Duo, a very stonily silent Trowa that obviously didn’t want to be here, and a couple of extraneous lesbians (one at a time, of course) whose names he barely remembered and that seemed to have some inside joke or something regarding him and Duo — Heero came to be dancing with Sylvia. And her odd behavior was enough to drag him, finally, away from his thoughts about his predicament and the guy he’d come here with.

“Why do you keep looking around like that?” he wondered, trying not to sound uncomfortable. Was she counting down the moments until she could get away? Was his dancing that bad? Clearly he was too distracted.

“I’m…” She gritted her teeth. “I’m kinda worried about how the rest of the night’s going to go.”

“Why?” Heero should have known he wasn’t the only one likely to be having problems at Prom. Promblems.

“I’m… I’m breaking up with Alex tonight.”

“Sylvia!” He did something he had done maybe once throughout the entirety of high school, and he couldn’t even remember when before that: he voluntarily hugged someone. Of course it wasn’t a huge change in relative position, given that they were already pretty close for the dance, but it was a pointed gesture that couldn’t but shock her practically out of her wits.

He drew back to find her blushing and gaping. “My god, Heero,” she stammered. “Did you just hug me?”

“Yes,” he said. “Sorry.”

“No!” Her expression turned to an astonished grin, and Heero thought she might start to cry at any moment. “That totally makes me feel more confident. I’ve been really worried about it.”

Getting the feeling they were being stared at, Heero tried to encourage Sylvia to start dancing again.

As she complied, she went on. “Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you hug anyone — not even your boyfriend.”

Heero cleared his throat. “Well, it was good news.”

She beamed at him. “I kept seeing the way you and Duo are together… you guys are always so… like… considerate of each other… and I started thinking that maybe a guy just being cute and whatever isn’t enough. And I know Alex wants to have sex tonight,” she went on, blushing more deeply, “and when I say no he’s going to be a jerk about that, and I just… I’m tired of it. So I’m going to tell him at the end of the dance, and go to Relena’s after-Prom.”

Heero couldn’t quite decide how he felt about the fact that his ‘romantic relationship’ with Duo had set that kind of example. Was it delightful or painful? Honestly, if it had helped Sylvia to this resolution, he didn’t care. “That’s fantastic,” he reiterated. “Let me know if you don’t want to go to after-Prom, and I’ll give you a ride home. Do you mind if I tell Duo?” Because he couldn’t wait; Duo was going to be ecstatic.

“No,” she said, “but don’t let it go any further, OK?” He wondered how many people she’d said that to tonight. Not that it mattered.

His promise that he would keep quiet, and hold Duo to the same, came just as the music began to shift into a different song — a faster one this time — so they wandered off the dance floor and parted in warmer friendship than they two had ever before shared.

When Heero located his ‘boyfriend,’ he pulled him back into a corner in order to tell him the good news. The latter was received by Duo with as great a joy as (and, indeed, a much greater show of excitement than) it had been by Heero, and they stood discussing the matter happily throughout the next couple of songs.

Then, as another slow number began to play, Heero suddenly realized that there was nobody else around for him to dance with and therefore that Duo might ask him at any moment. Shifting uncomfortably, forgetting the conversation they’d just been engaged in and how incongruous his question might seem in its wake, he asked, “How much longer is this thing?”

Duo glanced at his watch, but Heero got the feeling he wasn’t checking for the answer to that question. When he raised his eyes to Heero’s face again, it was with a deep breath and a slightly nervous expression. “Actually, we… kinda need to… go over there.”

“Go over where for what?” Heero demanded suspiciously.

“Promise you won’t kill me,” was Duo’s urgent reply.

“I won’t kill, but I reserve the right to maim.”

“I guess that’s the best I’m going to get…” With another deep breath Duo spilled his secret. “We… may have gotten elected Prom Kings.”

Heero felt the blood draining gradually from his face. “Please,” he faltered, almost inaudibly, “tell me you’re joking.”

Duo looked at him somewhat miserably and shook his head.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Heero was still unable to speak above a whisper — well, the equivalent of a whisper in a room this loud.

“I’m sorry… You wouldn’t have wanted to come at all if you’d known… and I really wanted to…”

Heero got a grip on himself. No use admitting that, despite his utter horror at the idea of being Prom King and whatever that would require of him, that last statement on Duo’s part was all it would have taken. Which didn’t mean Heero wouldn’t be contemplating some appropriate manner of revenge in the future, but at the moment it would probably be best to steel himself and get this over with.

“All right,” he said calmly. “What do we have to do?”

On the face of it, the procedure didn’t seem too terribly bad, if he concentrated on keeping his nerve up. They would have to wear sashes and jewel-encrusted plastic crowns and walk out on the stairs in front of everyone, but at least this would take place to the tune of their various scholastic achievements being announced. And if Heero had to make a spectacle of himself, while having his academic prowess acknowledged was certainly the best time to do it.

He wasn’t surprised that Duo, so charming and so celebrated in so many circles, had won this particular popularity contest, which of course dragged Heero along in his wake; what did surprise him was that Duo had managed to keep it a secret from him. Didn’t people… talk about… the Prom Court? Shouldn’t Heero have had to… sign something… or something? He tried to recall what he knew about that, exactly, or what he’d heard in previous years, and realized he really had no idea. Which, he supposed, was what he got for generally ignoring gossip and those that purveyed it.

There was one other thing to be said for this parade that was about to take place: Duo looked fantastic in that silly sash and crown. It was such a little thing that shouldn’t have made much of a difference, but it had a remarkable effect. Duo really resembled royalty with that strip of red velvet across his chest. Its glittery gold edging wasn’t the only thing that sparkled; he’d obviously also combed something shimmery through his hair, which hung loose except for a well-placed couple of small braids.

Heero had managed sufficiently to admire the effect of a sparkly-haired Duo in a cream-colored tuxedo earlier, when he’d arrived at Duo’s apartment, without too much brain-dead foolishness on his own part, and thought he’d been ready for the rest of the night… but here, in this mixture of shadow and light, at the top of the stairs getting ready for this Prom Court presentation nonsense, he couldn’t take his eyes off him. He just knew he was going to trip over something on the way down, and somebody was sure to get a picture of it. If Duo was also in the picture, Heero didn’t even think he would mind; he would have a much better excuse for requesting a copy than he would asking for the ones Duo had taken earlier.

Somehow, whether it was the buzz he got from holding Duo’s arm and walking beside him, or the sincere sound of the applause and cheers as the announcements were made, or just that this really wasn’t as difficult as he’d convinced himself it must be, he made it through the introductions without disintegration or spontaneous combustion or any of the other fates he’d vaguely feared upon being informed that he had to do this. The rest of the Court was composed of people Heero didn’t know very well, and none of them had the type of academic accomplishments to their record that he did. This, combined with the fact that he and Duo were the only gay couple in the lineup, filled Heero with a sort of pride of exclusivity that probably helped him through the ceremony as much as anything else.

And he’d just thought of himself and Duo as an actual couple.

Eventually all the names and credentials had been listed, a lot of pictures had been taken, and Heero had begun to think this wasn’t so bad, and in any case must be about over. But he realized the next moment what a very false sense of security this was when the girl doing the announcing (another senior he recognized but didn’t really know) said, “And now your Prom Court will perform the traditional Royal Dance!”

“The what?” Heero hissed in a panic.

“Just a normal dance,” Duo whispered in reply. Then, stepping back, he made Heero a deep bow that would have been more elegant and courtly if he hadn’t turned a grin beneath twinkling eyes up at Heero at the last moment.

That answer had not dispelled Heero’s panic. Obviously this, more than any dance prior, was the reason Duo had insisted he practice on Monday, but Heero didn’t think he was ready for it… and that had nothing to do with how much practice he’d had. He and Duo had never taken their charade as far as close physical contact, which was not only in-character for Heero but also the most morally appropriate way to handle a pretend relationship; so the closest he’d ever been to Duo all along had been sitting against him sometimes at lunch and the occasional instance of Duo throwing an arm across his shoulders, which was really more friendly than anything else. And even those had been growing more and more difficult to deal with calmly as the weeks went by. He’d barely survived the dancing practice… here, in this much more serious setting, with everyone watching, he was sure he couldn’t do it. He was going to fall apart. He was going to make a complete fool of himself. He was going to–

And then Duo reached for him.

***

Sometimes it seemed as if everyone in the entire school knew everything about everyone else — or at least all the wrong people knew all the things you’d rather they didn’t. Things like the fact that Relena had pursued Heero through half of freshman and sophomore year and only given up perforce when he came out of the closet. It wouldn’t have been a problem for them to know this if they hadn’t then whispered viciously to each other that the only reason she was going out with Wufei was that he, as another Asian guy, was a stand-in for Heero, whom she’d never gotten over.

It was more insulting to Relena than to Wufei, the latter thought, which meant there wasn’t much he could do about it. He’d noticed that intelligent girls didn’t like having a guy try to defend their honor. And anyway, Relena was here with him, and Heero (even if he had made a rather suspicious beeline for her when he’d entered) had that long-haired boyfriend of his. Everything was going fine.

Of course, Relena was watching Heero now, but just about everyone else in the room had been at one point or another, including Wufei himself. Duo had made such a splash on the social scene, and seemed like such a polar opposite to Heero, it was difficult not to be at least a little interested in their relationship. Besides, though he considered himself straight, Wufei was confident enough that he could acknowledge the attractiveness of others of his sex, and had to admit that both of them were good-looking (and even better-looking in combination).

Still, he didn’t much care who the Prom King and Queen were — or in this case, he supposed, Prom King and King — and he’d been fidgeting (at least mentally) through the presentation ceremony. He wanted to dance with Relena, but, despite the fact that others had taken up this pastime after giving the Court a verse or so to get started, she insisted they wait until the Royal Whatever was finished. Which meant there was nothing much to do at the moment besides watch Relena watching Heero and Duo and be discontented at how rapt she was at the sight. His consolation must be that she wasn’t the only one.

Those two just were not that interesting… though their visual contrast did rather draw the eye. They’d gone with this cheesy inverted-colors scheme, and… well… it actually looked pretty good. Wufei supposed that was one benefit to wearing the same type of garments your date was; god knew it was a hassle to try to find a cummerbund to match what your girlfriend described as ‘peacock blue…’ if you could both order your outfit from the same place, it would probably be much easier. He wondered if they’d notified the student council in advance that they would be dressed in black and off-white and red so whoever was setting up the Prom Court thing would know to get crowns with red jewels.

This was stupid. Why was he standing here analyzing some dudes’ clothing when he could be dancing with Relena — whom, incidentally, peacock blue suited extremely well? He shifted irritably. She didn’t even seem to notice.

Heero and Duo were certainly into each other out there. They looked like they’d forgotten everyone else in the room, and their gazes were locked together with easily as much steadiness and fascination as half the room’s gazes were locked on them. Then, there was something about the way they moved… they weren’t any more graceful than any other couple on the floor (though, honestly, ‘graceful’ wasn’t a word that could generally be applied to this type of dancing), but they seemed to fit together, somehow, better than anyone else currently visible. Ah, the profundity of true love at a high school dance. Now if they would just stop being so damned interesting so the rest of the attendees could have some too…

The song was finally coming to an end, and the slow, small circles made by the gyrating couples were halting as well. Wufei, who’d given up trying not to watch the same thing Relena was, had to admit that it was rather nice to see the distance between Heero and Duo close and their lips meet. From what he knew of Heero, it wasn’t a gesture many outsiders were likely ever to see again; those two must really have forgotten where they were.

At the sounds of applause and cheering and some wolf-whistling — most of it, probably, in response to the successful conclusion of the ‘Royal Dance,’ but some of it, definitely, specifically aimed at the kissing couple — they parted. It wasn’t an abrupt separation, but, rather, a gradual drawing away as if they were only slowly realizing there was a world beyond themselves. An intense but glazed look on the face of each, they hadn’t yet broken their eye contact.

Heero said something that presumably no one but Duo could hear, and then, taking him by the hand, drew him out of the mob in the center of the room toward the open doors onto the veranda and into the garden.

At last Relena turned toward Wufei once more. The expression on her face was the same he’d observed there, in the past, at the happy endings of various movies, and he definitely liked it in this context; it seemed to him a pretty good indication that she really wasn’t interested in Heero anymore (romantically speaking) if she was so pleased to see him making out with someone else.

“Thanks for humoring me,” she told him, and kissed him on the cheek. “Now let’s dance.”

It may have been a little pathetic on his part, but he found himself completely mollified. Far greater amounts of annoyance than he’d just suffered could be wiped away by a kiss from Relena.

***

Duo couldn’t believe he’d just done that. Could not believe it. Well, OK, actually, he could easily believe it. He’d been soaring back there in Heero’s arms, moved by music with Heero so close against him, riding on the energy of everyone’s approval of their togetherness, feeling as if that togetherness was something real, something Heero was feeling too, something they could keep forever; it had been entirely natural, almost subconscious or instinctual, to kiss him in the midst of sensations like that. And the kiss itself had been so sweet and so perfect, he could never have believed it anything but real and pure and a promise of a future every bit as wonderful as these last few minutes had been.

But Heero’s solemn face and vulnerable eyes — unhappy eyes, wounded eyes? — and the low, serious tone in which he’d immediately announced that they needed to talk had brought Duo crashing down from his romantic high into painful uncertainty and growing fear.

He had started this whole thing. At the time, he hadn’t known Heero well enough to realize that he should be a little gentler with his suggestions; maybe Heero had never really wanted to do this at all. Duo had press-ganged him into it in the first place; then he’d tricked him into a variety of public scenes, dismissed all his concerns about Prom (for which he’d gone over Heero’s head to buy tickets), deliberately neglected to tell him about the Court thing, and then kissed him in front of everyone. He’d been pushy and inconsiderate throughout their entire acquaintance, and the fact that he had a huge crush on Heero was not a valid excuse. Now Heero was going to let him know that he didn’t appreciate this kind of behavior and that they needed to ‘break up.’

Duo had had a lot of really weird experiences in the past, but being dumped by a guy he wasn’t even dating was a new one.

Heero still held his hand, pulling him along to wherever he thought would be the best venue for a heart-shattering breakup conversation, and Duo concentrated on the warmth and strength of that hand around his own while he had the chance. If only he’d said something earlier, before he’d made Heero uncomfortable multiple times in front of half the school. If only he’d controlled himself better and not kissed him.

And yet he couldn’t regret that kiss. It had been so amazing, so much what he wanted. At least he would have that to remember, to cling to once this was over and he was miserable and lonely and bereft of Heero for the rest of his pathetic life.

So he thought until, upon reaching the very private lee of a giant grey urn full of trailing vines, Heero paused, released Duo’s hand, and turned to face him. Even in the shadows of the low-lit garden at night, it was not difficult to see that Heero’s eyes were more vulnerable and worried than before. Obviously Duo could regret that kiss; he suddenly found himself blathering without remembering when the impulse to speak had arisen.

“Heero, I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have kissed you without making sure it was OK with you first. That was totally–”

“No, stop,” Heero broke in firmly. “Don’t apologize.”

Duo fell silent, staring at him hopelessly, waiting for what he knew must come.

After a deep breath, without breaking eye contact, in a perfectly level tone that still seemed, somehow, to contain all the hesitance and concern that showed in his eyes, Heero said, “Duo, I really like you — in a romantic way, I mean. I want–”

“What?!” Duo cried. “What??”

“I know I got into this as a trick to fool everyone else,” Heero went on hurriedly, probably misinterpreting Duo’s surprise. “I know I said I wasn’t interested in dating. And I know I sound like a complete idiot now, after specifically saying that, turning around and telling you I like you. But I can’t keep it to myself anymore. Not after you kissed me like that.” He gave a weak and wary smile. “If you kissed me at all. I thought it was more me kissing you. Anyway, I want–”

Again Duo interrupted without really meaning to. “Heero, you are unbelievable!” He gripped Heero’s black-clad shoulders, staring into his face with what expression on his own he couldn’t quite tell, and went on breathlessly, almost wildly. “Why the hell would I think you were an idiot for saying that when I’ve been doing the exact same thing all along? You didn’t want to date anyone, and I was so damn busy, and we’d agreed this was all for show, so I felt like telling you I was madly in love with you would just be really stupid, but I swear, it’s been since at least Valentine’s Day — god, maybe since we first met; I don’t even know!”

Heero’s tentative smile had spread into a disbelieving grin as Duo spoke. “If we’re complete idiots together,” he whispered, “I guess it’s OK.” His eyes had lost all trace of the discomfort that, Duo realized now, had been in anticipation of the confession he was worried about making, not because Duo had been too forward. “I want–” he began again. But Duo kissed him.

It was even better than before. Heero, obviously no expert in this area, was a little clumsy, but, far from objecting to this, Duo thought it rather enhanced the experience. As his lips moved avidly against Duo’s, Heero’s hands ran up Duo’s back and into his hair, where they knocked his crown free; abstractly Duo heard it clatter to the ground, but didn’t give it a thought since the movement of arms had pulled Heero’s body right up against his.

Duo’s own arms snaked around him, hands clutching, never wanting to let go. Even when they finally separated to stare into each other’s eyes again, Duo didn’t allow Heero farther away than a few inches. He loved to be so close, to see every little detail of Heero’s wondering face, the glint of his wide eyes, to feel the panting breaths emerging from between faintly-smiling lips. Only after several moments of this near-silent beauty, and then only gradually, did he remember…

“I am a terrible person,” he declared. “I’m so damn pushy, and I keep interrupting you. What were you going to say you want? Tell me everything you want.”

“‘Everything’ sounds about right.” Heero’s voice was intense and unusually cheerful, and Duo loved the sound of it. “I want all sorts of things I probably can’t have. I want you to be my boyfriend for real; I want you to let me spend the night at your apartment sometime; I want you to come live with me in Placette when I go; I want you to marry me someday.”

“Wow, you don’t ask much, do you?” Despite the lightness of his tone, Duo’s face was very hot and probably very red. “But I don’t see why you can’t have all of that.”

Heero’s grip on him tightened, and his smile became wider and even more full of overjoyed astonishment. “Really?”

“Yes! Yes! Anything you want!” Loath as Duo was to let him go even for a moment, there was motion to which he was irresistibly compelled. He broke away from Heero and spun around giddily, laughing. “My god, this makes me so happy!” Heero was watching him with a grin, and once Duo had finished his wild demonstration of glee he was drawn back to him as if by a magnetic force. “Speaking of which,” he said as he moved close again, “happy anniversary.”

With a slightly derisive chuckle Heero said, “We can stop lying about everything to everyone now.”

“This isn’t a lie!” protested Duo. “We’ve been together for two minutes! That’s, like, the air molecule anniversary! It may not be gold or platinum or whatever, but it’s still important!”

Leaning over so his forehead came to rest against Duo’s and their eyes, very close, locked through the shadows once more, Heero let out a soft, warm breath that brushed gently against Duo’s lips. “Happy anniversary, then,” he said quietly. And Duo, overcome with joy and affection, slipped forward into his arms again, squeezing him tightly.

“I think, though,” said Heero, a little breathless in Duo’s crushing hug but still with his usual precision, “that’s it’s been more like six or seven minutes by now.”

Duo laughed. “I guess it depends when you’re counting from.”

“From that kiss inside, obviously.”

Perfectly happy to debate the matter, Duo replied, “From there I think it might have been more like eight… maybe even ten minutes.” The conversation could have been plenty more inane than this, with his head on Heero’s shoulder, and he wouldn’t have minded. Actually, if the felicity of the circumstance became any more overwhelming, his brain was probably going to turn to jelly and the conversation would become plenty more inane. And he still wouldn’t mind, as long as Heero’s arm was around him like that.

“We’ll probably never know for sure,” said Heero with mighty solemnity.

Again Duo laughed. Seeking another kiss, he straightened, but in doing so had his eyes caught by the stars that shone in the sky past Heero’s beautiful profile. As he turned his gaze even farther upward to see them he murmured, “I think some stars really did align for us.”

“I don’t care what it was,” Heero said. “The result would have been the same.”

“Yeah, that’s destiny for you,” grinned Duo. And, letting his eyes fall back from the bright constellations to the beloved face near his own, he kissed his boyfriend again.

***

Quatre had stationed himself firmly beside one of the double doors, where it would very logically seem, in the growing heat of the room, that he was enjoying some of the cooler air from outside, rather than waiting for anyone in particular to return from an unexpected foray into the garden and soothe his curiosity. Nobody would ask him to dance as long as Trowa continued to brood beside him with that palpable aura of discontent and scorn, and, anyway, if the song currently playing wasn’t the last, it must at least be part of the final countdown — so he deemed himself safe to carry out his purpose.

After a dance during which a clear connection had been made and a very public kiss that hadn’t appeared to be at all for show, there were only a few reasons Quatre could think of for a couple of Prom Kings that weren’t actually a couple to escape into the garden alone, and he was more than a little eager to find out which it had been and what would be the result. He had his theory — a very logical and orderly theory based on careful observation of Heero and Duo since January, and one he fervently hoped would prove true — but there was always the possibility that this was just another part of the deception and they were platonically talking homework out there… or, worse, that one or the other of them had gone too far and they were now ‘breaking up.’

Even if he hadn’t been so interested, personally, in the outcome of this situation, still he would have been waiting here to see it. Since he and Trowa were — as far as he knew, which was generally pretty far — the only ones in the room aware of the true nature of the relationship between Heero and Duo, they must also be the only ones to understand the potentially momentous changes that might be taking place out there in the garden. Such an important moment — or at least its immediate aftermath — required witnesses; Quatre would not shirk his social duty.

But he was personally interested. He’d been entertained by this affair from the moment Heero had unwittingly described Duo to the lunch crowd last December; he’d been hoping for a legitimately romantic outcome almost as long. And he was on tenter-hooks now waiting for their reappearance from the garden. He could see it all: the dramatic mutual confession, the fall into each other’s arms, and… whatever might follow. If only that was indeed what was happening out there!

He wasn’t so lost in his warm and fuzzy mental images that when the wanderers actually did return he was in any danger of missing them… but they were obviously lost enough in their warmth and fuzziness entirely to miss him. In fact they came through the very door he was standing beside, but his little wave and wide smile of greeting seemed to go completely unnoticed as they passed without so much as a twitch in his direction.

The only aspect of their appearance that didn’t tally perfectly with his hopeful predictions was that, although Duo had lost his crown somewhere and Heero didn’t appear aware that his was askew, they were in general less disheveled than Quatre had expected… but he supposed, when Heero was involved, there was only so far to go in a place so public. Everything else — eyes so bright they practically produced their own light, a smile of the most exquisite happiness on each face, buoyant steps, clasped hands — everything else was precisely what Quatre had anticipated and wished for.

Several of the other members of the lunch crowd, observing their reentry, moved toward them like a group of paparazzi with noisy jocular comments about their time in the garden and questions about which (if any) party they would be going to from here, but the newly-minted couple sublimely ignored every one of them and moved to take up the dance for however much longer it lasted. And now they appeared even more detached from the rest of creation than before, even more enthralled by each other, even more perfectly fitted.

Quatre was satisfied and delighted.

“You know, if I didn’t know you as well as I do,” Trowa murmured suddenly, darkly in his ear, “I might get just a little jealous at the way you’re always staring at other guys.”

“I stare at girls too!” Quatre reminded him with a grin.

“Yes,” Trowa allowed flatly. “You do. Can we leave yet?”

“Yes… our work here is done.” Quatre had to laugh at his own tone and wording, since he really hadn’t had any part in this except for observing it from beginning to end and perhaps dropping a helpful hint here and there. But that complete observation gave him a feeling of gratification almost as great as if he’d indeed taken a personal hand in the matter.

He turned toward Trowa, looking up into green eyes almost desperately bored, and his grin widened as his own eyes narrowed. “Let’s go find you something more interesting to do.”

This was written for the 2012 Moments of Rapture contest, whose theme was “anniversary,” but it might have been better suited to the previous contest that was all about cliches, because I think this is the tritest thing I have ever done. Seriously, make a trope drinking game out of this and let me know at what point in the story you pass out. Especially when one major concept here was directly inspired by The Materializing of Cecil by L. M. Montgomery (which may be read via Gutenberg here).

That doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied with it, however. I had fun writing it, and I’ve had fun rereading it. There are some tropes I will probably never get tired of, and the fake dating thing is one of them.

Here you can take a look at the gorgeous cover/title illustration, drawn by the amazing hasu, without the lines and words:

Of course at that point in the story, technically, they’re wearing their sashes and crowns, but since that would be a minor spoiler to have in the title image, I did not request it when I commissioned the artist. I mean, just the fact that they dance together in tuxes at some point is a minor spoiler, but it is is a high school AU, after all…

I’ve rated this story . For the ebook, this .zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats.


His Own Humanity: Plastic 31-35

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

“If only my thumbs moved,” Duo complained, “we could play cards or something. I wouldn’t even need the rest of my fingers to separate even, if I just had one opposable digit.”

Heero laughed sympathetically. They’d been discussing things to do besides watching television, and, while discussion itself sufficed for the moment, this particular topic had already been so thoroughly canvassed as never to last long anymore.

“Why did you take a week off, again?” asked Duo next, partly because it seemed natural in the current conversation and partly because he liked hearing Heero’s answer.

“Because all this magic stuff is so interesting it was distracting us at work,” Heero replied as expected. “We hoped things might be worked out by the end of the week, or at least we’d be used to it, and we could go back to work without all the distraction.”

“Mmmm,” said Duo in a tone of revelry, “I’m a distraction.”

Heero gave another of his cute monosyllabic laughs. “Yes, you are,” he agreed. “But you’re not distracting enough and Duo, I swear to god if you turn that TV on again while I’m in the room, I will–“

“Take me to Goodwill?” Duo broke in, stealing all the thunder from Heero’s threat.

“Yes,” Heero agreed.

“Can it be a date?” Duo wondered.

Heero rolled his eyes.

“Well, what do normal guys do when they’re bored?” Duo asked.

“All sorts of things,” Heero answered in some exasperation, “most of which you can’t do.”

“‘All sorts of things,’ huh?” Duo echoed, but by now he’d approached this type of statement from this particular angle so many times that the suggestive tone was starting to sound a bit stale. “Well, how about…” But he trailed off. The truth was that he really didn’t know much about what normal guys did when they were bored. He knew what children did when they were bored, but apart from the fact that he couldn’t do most of that either, he didn’t think Heero would be terribly interested in any pretending games of that sort.

They’d spent the first half of Heero’s week off talking, trawling YouTube for music videos and generally interesting stuff, talking, and, yes, watching a lot of TV; apparently Heero had reached his breaking point when it came to the latter, and was absolutely determined to find something else to do. Duo was honestly touched that Heero was so bent on doing things with him, and didn’t mind at all that Heero’s insistence was making him miss all his favorite shows.

“You know what we could do…” Heero said eventually into the pensive silence.

Based on Heero’s already somewhat hesitant tone, Duo decided not to respond to this with a suggestive remark that would have been a repeat of something he’d said earlier anyway, and just prompted, “Yeah?”

“If you wanted,” Heero went on, still slowly and a little warily, as if it was something strange or unpleasant he was about to suggest, “I could read a book aloud to you.”

Duo’s first thought was that it was absolutely adorable that Heero was so shy about such a thing. His second thought was that he had no idea why it should be so adorable, nor why Heero should be so shy about it in the first place. His third thought was that he would very much like to know, and would definitely have to keep his eyes open. And his fourth thought was that he’d better answer before Heero decided from his silence that it had been a bad idea and retracted the suggestion.

“That is a thought,” he said, in appropriate thoughtfulness. “Do you have any good books, though?”

With a skeptical look as if to ask, “Would I have suggested it if I didn’t?” Heero rose from where he’d been sitting, as he had been quite a lot these last few days, on the couch. His inexplicable and wholly welcome determination to do things with Duo during his week off had led him to start carrying Duo around with him much of the time, so it was no surprise when he picked Duo up now before he headed down the hall.

But when they entered the room where the computer and bookshelf and spare bed lived, Heero stopped for a moment in the doorway, as if pausing in thought, then reached around behind him with the hand holding Duo so that the doll was facing the opposite direction Heero was and held against the small of his back.

“Is this like making me sit in the corner?” Duo wondered as Heero moved into the room. Heero was clearly perusing the bookshelf, but Duo was now looking at the computer desk and the opposite wall.

“It’s more like not letting you see what kind of awful taste in books I had when I was younger,” Heero replied evenly.

“What?!” Duo yelped. “Now you have to let me see!”

“No, I don’t.”

“Did you read the Babysitters Club, or what?” Duo was flailing his stiff limbs in impotent rebellion. “Come on, put me back around there!”

“No,” Heero said, and there was some laughter in his voice.

“You know, I could have seen them any time yesterday when we were looking at stuff on the computer,” Duo pointed out. “How do you know I don’t already know everything you’ve got up there?”

“Because you were facing the computer, and I notice when you turn your head all the way around,” Heero answered logically and with a slight shudder.

Duo began spinning his head around and around and around.

“Stop that,” Heero commanded; he could undoubtedly tell what Duo was doing by the feel of the doll’s braid rhythmically running counterclockwise over his hand.

“Let me see your books!” Duo replied.

“No!”

“I am going to make it my life’s work to find out what you have on your bookshelf, Heero Yuy,” Duo declared, finally ceasing his spinning. “You just wait.”

Heero chuckled triumphantly. “All right,” he said. Then he added, “How about the Oz series? Have you ever read those?”

“Aren’t those, like, kids’ books?”

“Um, yes,” Heero admitted, sounding a little embarrassed. “That’s mostly what I have.”

“What else do you have?”

“Well, there’s also the– wait, are you asking because you don’t like the idea of the Oz series, or are you just being sneaky?”

You just wait,” Duo repeated, then laughed evilly. When he was finished with that he said, “But I have no objection to the Oz series. I’ve seen the movie, of course, and some other version that was a horrible, horrible cartoon with these hilarious songs in it…”

“OK,” said Heero, and a moment later they were returning to the living room. Heero replaced Duo on the end table, and himself on the couch, and now Duo could see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in his hand. Heero too looked at it, at the very ugly illustration on its old paper cover, and smiled slightly. “I used to love these books, but I haven’t read them for years. I’m still pretty sure they’re not nearly as bad as any of the other series I used to read, though.”

“Other series such as?” Duo prompted.

Heero laughed, and made a great show of settling more comfortably into the couch cushions and opening the book. “‘Chapter one,'” he read: “‘The Cyclone.'”


Trowa was a little surprised, on Friday evening, to see Quatre in his house again despite the fact that he’d been there earlier for lunch. He supposed this shouldn’t have been much of a shock — Quatre was proving excessively tenacious — but he somehow thought he’d met his quota for the day. Or was Quatre going to start insisting Trowa eat dinner, too? Surely not.

He’d essentially given up trying to understand Quatre, who, while clearly a follower like the rest of them, didn’t quite behave like the rest of them. He still hadn’t ever asked for anything, and yet he fussed; he interrupted and intruded, and yet wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to have around. It didn’t make sense, and Trowa had other things to think about.

And now Quatre was walking the room slowly, coming to stand beside the table in front of Trowa, with arms crossed and a frown on his face. “I had a feeling…” was the first thing he said.

From his chair, Trowa looked up at the other man in vague curiosity.

“I’ve been watching you all week,” Quatre said, in a tone that suggested the delivery of bad news, “and…” His frown deepened. “You aren’t really working on anything, are you?”

Startled, Trowa blinked, and at first had nothing to say. It was a blow, and probably more than it should have been coming from a follower. On top of everything else, on top of the guilt and the sorrow and the hopelessness, now Quatre had noticed…

“I’ve seen you really working a couple of times,” Quatre went on, and by now he sounded almost apologetic, “but most of the time — especially these last few days — you just sit there staring into space.”

Trowa lifted his gaze the final few inches necessary to meet Quatre’s, and found there a strange mixture of accusation and pity. This did nothing to help with the weight on Trowa’s heart, which had only been increased by Quatre’s words. Feeling his lips tighten, Trowa stood abruptly, letting the book that had been on his lap — which he never had really looked at today — slide unheeded to the floor, pushed past Quatre, and left the room.

Through the dining room windows he could see the failing light of evening. He noticed as well in the glass the reflection of Quatre immediately behind him. “It’s none of your business,” Trowa said preemptively.

“It is my business,” Quatre replied at once, firmly. “I consider Duo a friend — and you too, no matter how you feel about it. Neither one of you is going to have a decent life until this curse is broken, so I want to know why the only person who has any chance of breaking it seems to have given up.”

Trowa frowned. A friend? Quatre considered him a friend? Was that why he expressed concern without making demands? Why he kept coming over here? Actually, it would explain all of Quatre’s behavior fairly well; Trowa remembered that some people did do things like that sometimes.

It was certainly more than he deserved.

“Being my friend can be unhealthy,” he said stonily, still staring out the window, tackling this secondary issue while he evaded the main one. “It’s best avoided.”

“You haven’t had any real friends since back then, have you?” Quatre guessed in a quiet, pitying tone. “Just those people who wanted magic from you.”

“You’ve seen what I did to my last friend,” Trowa explained a bit harshly.

“Trowa…” Quatre had taken another step forward and put his hand on Trowa’s shoulder, causing the magician to go stiff. “That was an accident. It was a bad combination of circumstances. Duo’s forgiven you for it.”

Although at least part of him didn’t want to, Trowa shrugged Quatre’s hand off. “That’s because that’s what Duo does.” It came out almost in a hiss. “He gets angry, and then he gets over it. But there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven that easily.”

“That’s why you’ve stopped working, isn’t it?” Quatre wondered next, in the same soft, sympathetic tone as before. “You can’t forgive yourself for what you did to him, and it’s driving you crazy. So instead of trying to solve the problem so you can move past it, you’re just sitting around being miserable doing nobody any good.”

It was many years — decades, perhaps — since Trowa could remember being truly angry, but now the agitation he felt at this conversation was close enough that he thought it counted. He couldn’t deny the truth of what Quatre had said, but he felt that the other man didn’t — couldn’t possibly — understand him. He whirled on him, fixing his cursed eyes on Quatre’s face. “Do you have any idea,” he demanded, “how it feels to know that you’ve destroyed the life of someone you love?”

“No,” said Quatre quietly, steadily. “But I have done things I regretted, and–”

“You haven’t done anything like this,” Trowa interrupted harshly. “Something like this hangs over you forever, so you can never think right or feel like yourself again, so that every single moment of every day you’re…”

He trailed off, and not just because it was so strange to be putting into words how he felt, how he had silently felt for so many years, to someone else. He realized even as he said it that it was no longer entirely true. It wasn’t ‘every single moment of every day’ anymore. Because lately… somehow… with Quatre around… there had been moments…

But that didn’t matter. The fact that he hadn’t been entirely miserable at certain points during the last couple of weeks didn’t change anything.

Realizing that Trowa wasn’t going to continue, Quatre said, “I’m sorry. I can’t claim I know exactly how you feel, but I see what you’re saying. And normally I’d say that you need to get yourself straightened out before you can try to help someone else. But in this case, I think breaking the curse is what will help you. Giving up or slowing down is the worst thing you can do.”

It was sound advice. Whatever his motivation, he should be focused entirely on breaking the curse. But this thought only made Trowa feel worse. He said nothing.

Quatre’s face hardened slightly. “Even if you can’t do it for your own sake, at least think of Duo,” he said flatly. “I assume you haven’t come to see him because it’s painful for you… but it’s hurting him. He acts very casual about it, but he’s obviously unhappy that he hasn’t seen you all week.”

Trowa turned hastily back to the window, unwilling to let Quatre see his face crumple as it was now threatening to. The thought that he was prolonging Duo’s suffering by his own weakness was the worst of it, and made the rest that much harder to bear.

Finally, after several moments of silence, “I don’t know where else to look,” he said in the soft tone of absolute despair. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Again Quatre put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing this time as if eager to give what comfort he could. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I could help you.”

And it occurred to Trowa that he didn’t have to understand Quatre to know that he wasn’t like the followers — that perhaps he wasn’t like anyone Trowa had ever met. He genuinely cared about Trowa and Duo and their situation, and he honestly wished he could help… and at the same time wasn’t afraid to risk Trowa’s displeasure by confronting him with unpleasant truths Trowa needed to hear. That was something friends did, wasn’t it? God, it had been so long. He’d been alone so long… it was no wonder he’d forgotten what it was like not to be…

“Maybe you can,” he found himself saying in a low, unaccountably level voice. “Will you stay here?” He thought there was a faint hissing breath behind him as he spoke the question, as if the latter had come as a shock to more than only himself. “Just… stay here with me while I work? I think it would help.”

Whether or not Quatre was surprised at the request, however, all he said, in a tone very much like Trowa’s, was, “Of course.”


Quatre had never in his life found himself so distracted from a basketball game, especially not at the beginning of April. He’d done a little better paying attention to today’s earlier game, but after that he’d gone to force lunch on Trowa, and now his thoughts had so overtaken him that he noticed only about half of what was happening onscreen.

He’d sat in Trowa’s study yesterday for hours, doing almost nothing besides watching the magician work — honest, genuine work, if Quatre was any judge — joining in the occasional random brief conversation, and struggling with a mixture of emotions.

The idea that Trowa found his presence helpful in any way was elating, to the point where Quatre had been hard pressed not to sit there grinning the entire time; but he felt guilty too. He hadn’t recognized the depths of Trowa’s unhappiness, despite their being so understandable as to be almost predictable; and surely he shouldn’t be so damn happy about Trowa wanting him there when that stemmed simply from the fact that Trowa had no friends.

He wasn’t sure that Trowa had actually accomplished anything yesterday, but he’d definitely been working — first researching, then setting up another complicated divination ceremony — and that alone felt like a triumph. That alone seemed to make the whole week off worth it, even if the original wish that Duo might be human again before the time was up remained unfulfilled. Just to know that Trowa’s crisis of hope had been averted, at least for now, made everything worth it.

Quatre had been reacting only sluggishly to everything in the game he was supposedly watching, and he was sure Heero had noticed. Uncertain whether he wanted to relate to Heero or Duo what had happened yesterday, Quatre took a deep breath and tried to pay better attention to the TV. So when, not long after, a failed layup was saved by two of their players at once moving in such close synchronization that it was almost impossible to tell which had actually made the dunk, Quatre was able to respond appropriately and in good time.

He noticed when he’d finished cheering, however, that he wasn’t the only one reacting oddly today. Duo’s little voice, usually the most enthusiastic of the three of them, if not exactly the loudest, was even more excited than usual at the moment for some reason, and had transitioned from expressing great appreciation for what he’d just seen to shouting incoherently. It wasn’t long before both Quatre and Heero were staring at him, and a moment after that Heero had jumped to his feet, evidently losing all track of the basketball game.

“What is it?” Quatre asked, watching Duo flail his little plastic arms and swivel his head from side to side. Then, finally, he saw it too, and, like Heero, jumped from the couch.

Heero had picked Duo up and was staring down at him in agitated wonder. The doll was still waving his arms wildly, not as if he was struggling but simply for the sake of the movement itself — for, inexplicably, for the first time that Quatre had ever seen, his elbows were bending. And though Duo was no longer shouting, he was still making noise: babbling almost as incomprehensibly as before, he was exclaiming nonstop about his elbows and how long it had been since he’d had any. Heero, meanwhile, kept interjecting incomplete congratulations and broken questions as to how it could possibly have happened.

Abruptly it occurred to Quatre how utterly absurd this looked, and he laughed out loud. This seemed to break through the ongoing incoherence in front of him, and two heads — one with stiff, messy dark brown hair, the other with a tiny chestnut braid — turned toward him.

“This is wonderful, Duo,” Quatre said, smiling broadly. “I’m going to run over there and tell Trowa.”

Duo, who was still lifting both forearms over and over as if he couldn’t get enough of the motion, stretched his plastic smile as wide as it would go as he looked at Quatre. “Thanks, man!” he said ecstatically. “I don’t want you to have to miss more of the game, though.”

They all glanced almost reflexively back at the TV, which had gone to commercial while they weren’t paying attention, and Quatre shook his head. “Trowa will want to know this good news right away.” He started toward Trowa’s door. “Besides, he’ll know what it means better than we do, and it might help him!”

Despite the purely idiomatic quality of the phrase ‘run over there,’ Quatre was almost running as he came into Trowa’s entryway. All he could think of was that this information would surely give Trowa hope, allow him to work more steadfastly, perhaps even make him happy, if just for a moment. He probably appeared a little wild to the magician as he burst into the study.

In fact, he realized immediately, his desire to deliver a cheering report had been somewhat betrayed by his demeanor; for Trowa, observing his agitation, rose precipitously and came toward him, saying, “What’s wrong?”

Quatre reached out as they met halfway across the room, seizing Trowa’s arm and giving it a little shake. “It’s good news,” he said hastily. He let go of Trowa immediately, lest he be tempted further to test the shape of that wiry arm beneath its long buttoned sleeve and distract himself from the conversation. “Duo,” he went on excitedly, “just bent his elbows. He says he’s never been able to do that before as a doll, but now he can.” He realized even as he voiced this that it sounded every bit as stupid as it had looked back in Heero’s apartment; but there really was nothing to be done.

He wouldn’t have thought Trowa could possibly become any paler, and he would have been wrong; as Trowa’s eyes widened slightly, his face seemed to blanch as if with shock. For a moment he was obviously unsure of what to do, looking as if he might push past Quatre at a run and simultaneously as if he wanted (or perhaps just needed) to return to his chair. Then his face took on a faint expression of concentration, his bright moon eyes seeming to glaze over a bit as if he were no longer seeing anything in front of him, and he said something.

Quatre knew by now that these incomprehensible sounds were words in the magical language, and he wondered what Trowa was doing. He speculated that it was a divination to find out why this had happened, and considered this guess confirmed when Trowa focused again on the world around him and spoke, in almost a whisper, what sounded like an answer to a specific question on the subject:

“Because he’s been with Heero all week.”


Divination was in some ways the simplest branch of magic, since at its most basic level it involved just asking a question. Not infrequently, however, it also proved the most frustrating of the three branches to which Trowa had access, because the universe was so picky about what information it would give out. The more general a question you asked — “How can I break Duo’s curse?” for example — the more general an answer you were likely to receive — such as a meaningless vision of the moon. But to ask a more specific question, you had to have some information already, which was why Trowa had, up until this moment, been consistently thwarted.

Knowing both that Duo had been with Heero all week and that Duo was now able to bend his elbows, an answer that simply pointed out the correlation between the two facts was wonderfully easy to obtain. And that answer was the first step on the path to the greater answer — a path that was an interconnected series of questions, answer leading to question leading to answer. Trowa could see it now before him, bright and clear, and he could feel the stinging of tears in his eyes.

Quatre had brought him what real diviners — which Trowa had never pretended to be — called the ‘gateway fact’ or sometimes just the ‘key:’ the elusive piece of information that, once found, put you onto that path of productive questions. It took only five or six of the latter, after the initial “Why can Duo bend his elbows now?” to reach the complete, final conclusion and to understand why things were the way they were.

It seemed impossibly, almost agonizingly simple now that he saw it; it was the same twisted sort of logic that lay behind all curses, purposeful or unintended, and now that he recognized it he found it almost incredible that he hadn’t seen it all along… He had accused Duo of being fake and superficial, of fabricating an attachment, and then he had cursed him; so what Duo required to escape the curse was a real attachment, a connection to someone that went beyond the superficial.

Of course there was more to it than that, or else the curse would have been broken decades ago, but that was the baseline. And it couldn’t be Trowa, since he was restrained by the curse as well. Obviously it could be Heero, though… and Trowa had a feeling he knew exactly what kind of attachment it was — though naturally he wasn’t going to walk in there and say that. The last time he’d given his opinion on what Duo felt for someone else, it had ended in plastic and almost a century of grief. But he could explain the physicalities that were required, and the curse could be broken.

The curse could be broken. After eighty-seven years, the curse could be broken.

He had completely lost track of what he was doing, so deep in his own thoughts and the attendant emotions that he’d forgotten Quatre was here — and, as a matter of fact, where ‘here’ even was. Now he looked around, gradually noticing and remembering. He was seated in the armchair in his study, very still, staring at nothing, and Quatre was beside him with a box of Kleenex. This was undoubtedly because tears were still pouring down Trowa’s face, running unchecked over his cheeks and neck to soak his collar or sneak beneath it.

Turning his head, he met Quatre’s eyes, and saw hope and curiosity and a certain amount of worry in the attractive face. And he realized belatedly that Quatre, devoid of magical skill, wouldn’t have any idea of the breakthrough he’d just had. He reached out a faintly-trembling hand, took a tissue from the box Quatre held, and said, “I know how to break the curse.” His voice shook a little, but the words came out clear enough.

Quatre drew in and then let out a long breath, his mouth curving into a pleased smile that seemed at once to commend Trowa and invite him to share further insight. “I knew you could do it,” he said quietly, his tone an echo of what that welcoming smile conveyed.

Trowa paused in the act of drying his face and said, “I couldn’t have without the news you brought me. Thank you.”

Quatre’s smile became even warmer, but all he said, in a somewhat amused tone, was, “I was just the messenger.”

“Messenger,” Trowa murmured, echoing him almost blankly. Inside he was momentarily overwhelmed by the thought of carrying this infinitely good message to Duo. When he found that once again he’d moved without really noticing it — this time standing from the chair into which he’d sunk at some point in his shock — he also found himself smiling at Quatre. And it wasn’t the first time he’d smiled at Quatre lately, was it? He looked around, then headed for his bathroom. When he returned, he found Quatre leaning on the doorframe between the study and the bedroom looking curious.

Trowa raised his newly-lensed eyes to meet Quatre’s again and said, “No reason to distract them from the point.” Quatre grinned his understanding and turned to lead the way out of the house.

Stepping into Heero’s apartment for the first time in over a week, Trowa found his old friend and Heero involved in a rather strange-sounding discussion that might have been about basketball and might have been about elbows, and either way seemed to be pushing the limits on how animated each was capable of becoming. Trowa discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that his smile only grew at the sight of them. Yes, he could see it all now.

Heero looked over, his gaze fixing on Quatre. “Duke won,” he said, then added as if in afterthought, “Hello, Trowa.”

At this, Duo’s head swiveled entirely around — causing, Trowa thought, every single human in the room to wince. “Trowa!” he cried. “I have elbows!!”

“I heard.” Trowa had sobered again. Yes, he knew now what needed to be done, but it definitely fell into the category of things easier said. Heero was off to a good start, but could he keep it up for as long as was necessary? If not, was it likely Duo would ever find another person that could? He’d waited eighty-seven years for someone that could get him even this far…

Trowa moved to stand before them, between the silent television and the sofa and end table, looking down at both doll and human. They stared back; his new position (thankfully) required a far less extreme angle of Duo’s head, and Heero gave Trowa the usual polite blankness. Trowa neither knew nor cared why Heero disliked him; Heero liked Duo, and that was all that mattered — and probably, Trowa thought, the reason there was just a touch of intrigued anticipation to his expression as well at the moment: Heero was hoping Trowa had come in here with good news. They’d just have to see how good he considered it.

“I know how to break the curse,” Trowa said at last, slowly and clearly.

Duo went absolutely still. Of course this wasn’t difficult for him, given his construction, but seeing someone go so impossibly motionless, no matter what he was made of, was actually almost as uncanny as seeing a doll moving on his own. It was reminiscent of death, and Trowa didn’t like it. He reached out and picked Duo up in a sudden, impetuous gesture.

Heero twitched forward slightly, as if with an instinctive movement immediately restrained, and seemed to attempt to cover this up by saying a little breathlessly, “How?”

“Yeah,” said Duo, speaking at last nearly inaudibly. “How?” As he had that night when they’d been reunited, he sounded as if Trowa’s words had given him a sudden, desperate hope that he was trying wildly not to indulge lest he be hurt again.

Trowa fixed his gaze on the doll’s face, so disconcertingly, painfully, simultaneously close to and far from the face of the human that had been his best friend. How he wished he could be the one to break the curse. As it was, he wouldn’t have any control whatsoever over whether or not this was successful. Hell, he didn’t even know if Heero was going to be willing to try it. He had the information he needed, but it was crashing down on him more and more heavily just how uncertain the situation still remained.

“Having a friend who knows about the curse and wants to help you out of it is the key,” Trowa said, gesturing at Heero. He’d chosen these words very carefully — they were technically true, but not intrusive enough to get him into trouble. “You and Heero have hardly been apart at all this week, have you?”

A silence followed this statement, but this one was less shocked and anticipatory than it was contemplative. Finally Duo said, “That’s right, isn’t it? Actually, Heero, I don’t think you’ve even gone anywhere since, like, Tuesday or something… except to get the mail, wasn’t it? But you took me with you then…”

Heero confirmed this with a brief sound.

Trowa nodded. “And you’ve seen the result.” He reached up with his free hand and drew a finger over Duo’s arm, from the stiff little sleeve down to what would be his wrist if it were willing to bend.

Immediately Duo lifted his forearm, turning his head to look at it with a little plastic grin, and Trowa saw that the newly-revealed elbow was more like a human joint than a doll’s — that is, there was no sign of it; the arm simply bent. “Yeah, I can totally make rude gestures at people again finally,” Duo was gloating. “I won’t demonstrate on you, though,” he added magnanimously, looking back up at Trowa and continuing to grin.

Despite knowing Duo could not feel it, Trowa squeezed him affectionately at this typical statement. “So what you need to do to become fully human again,” he went on, “is to stay close to Heero.”

“How close?” Heero asked.

“Within your psychic field,” Trowa replied, glancing briefly at him. “For anyone untrained, that’s usually about a five-foot radius, though I’ll do a spell to determine more precisely how large yours is. In your own home, or any place that bears your psychic imprint, you may have a longer working distance, but I would not count on it.”

Duo said nothing, obviously digesting this, but Heero put his finger right onto the center of the issue with another laconic question: “How long?”

Trowa turned his full attention to Heero now, examining his impassive face intently. This, he knew, was the crucial point, the moment that would determine whether Duo would have a chance at being human again or would start another perhaps century-long search for someone else to fulfill the curse’s cruelly personal requirements. He took a deep breath and answered steadily, “A full lunar cycle.”

A moment that seemed to stretch into forever followed as the complete implications of Trowa’s words hit home.

Five feet.

A full lunar cycle.

Good lord.

Heero thought about his ‘private’ cubicle at work. He thought about his co-workers on the sales floor, difficult to put up with at the best of times, and remembered fleetingly how he’d been sure they would react, that first day, if they saw him carrying a doll. He thought about how quickly gossip spread through the building, heard it repeated in a dozen shrill but lowered voices that the Sales Coordinator had a Barbie sitting on his desk. He thought about grocery shopping with a doll seated in the cart, then trying to explain to the checker that, no, he hadn’t pulled it off the shelf and opened it, but had brought it in from home. He thought about going down to the apartment office to drop off May rent holding a doll. He thought about dinner at his parents’ house tomorrow with a doll in his hand, and felt a little faint.

He thought about having Duo with him all the time.

He thought about Duo human, and resolve filled him. Because, really, he didn’t care what it took; he didn’t care what he had to suffer; if he had to live in Hell for a month to break this stupid curse, then that was damn well what he was going to do.

The moment stretched on — it was probably two or three seconds, actually, but it didn’t matter much; his thoughts were moving at light speed in any case — and it occurred to him next how he would react if he were in Duo’s position… if a friend of his were being asked for his sake to go through what he vaguely anticipated now. He knew how he would feel, and he was fairly sure Duo’s response would be much the same. But for Duo to feel guilty or at fault about this was the last thing Heero wanted; the process of breaking the curse shouldn’t make it worse for Duo. He’d gone through enough already.

So as the moment ended, Heero said calmly, “That’s it? Duo just has to stay within five feet of me for a month, and he’ll be human again?”

“‘That’s it?'” Duo, still in Trowa’s hand, echoed weakly. “Heero, are you…” He trailed off, apparently unable to complete the thought.

“No blood sacrifice?” Heero went on coolly. “No dragons to fight or Nome Kings to outwit?”

“That’s it,” Trowa confirmed. He was still staring intently into Heero’s face, and Heero thought he knew why: it was all on his shoulders now, for some reason, and Trowa was anxious to know that he was up to the task. Why Trowa couldn’t do it himself Heero didn’t want to ask; he would rather not even sail near those waters, since he thought the ensuing discussion would probably drive him crazy. He was simply glad (on the level beneath the one on which he was already feverishly bracing himself for the month to come) that he could be of use to Duo — and perhaps secretly, horribly, a little glad that Trowa couldn’t.

“That’s easy,” he said confidently.

“Easy?” Duo burst out. “Easy?? Heero, are you thinking about this? Sneaking me down to the laundry room in a basket is one thing, but a whole month??”

“Yeah, do you think you can put up with me for that long?” Heero asked, trying his damndest to speak lightly.

“Heero, me putting up with you is not going to be the problem.” Duo still sounded shocked, but simultaneously amused and a little exasperated. “Are you thinking at all about what this will involve?”

“He’s right, Heero.” It was the first thing Quatre had said since entering. He too seemed somewhat amused, and a little uneasy. “This may be really hard on you.”

Heero forced a shrug. “If that’s what it takes.”

“Heero…” said Duo faintly.

Trowa still hadn’t withdrawn his pointed gaze, but at Heero’s statement he gave a brief little nod, apparently satisfied. “I’ll go draw up a spell to find the exact dimensions of your psychic field,” he said quietly, and turned to set Duo down.

Duo looked up at him from the table as Trowa’s hand withdrew, and said just as quietly, “Thanks, Trois.”

Trowa appeared startled, and Heero could tell without even asking that nobody had called him ‘Trois’ in a very long time. Trying to stave off jealousy, he reminded himself that a month’s close proximity trumped a cute nickname any day; but that didn’t make it any easier to hear Trowa’s parting, “Just hope it works, Deux,” as the magician touched the top of Duo’s head with two fingertips before he walked away.

When Trowa was gone, a long silence fell. It was very much like the last time he had walked out of this room, back when he’d done his failed divination with the candles. Heero was staring down at Duo thoughtfully, and he knew Quatre was staring at him. Duo was staring straight forward at neither of them, but Heero was certain they were all thinking about the same thing.

This guess was confirmed when Duo finally swiveled his head to look at where Heero still sat on the couch. “Are you sure about this?” he asked.

“It can’t possibly be as tough as being a doll for a hundred years,” Heero said, still struggling for a casual tone.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not going to suck,” said Duo bluntly. “I mean, I can’t ask… you don’t have to do this for me.”

“But I’m going to anyway,” Heero shrugged.

“Well, thanks.” Duo sounded a bit baffled and perhaps, despite Heero’s best efforts, a little guilty, but definitely grateful.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” Heero reminded him. “Start thanking me a week from now. Oh, and, once you’re human,” he added with a wry smile, “I think you’ll owe me lunch every day for a year.”

Duo laughed. “OK, fine,” he said, in something more like his usual tone. “I just hope you know what you’re getting into.”

“I hope so too,” replied Heero. He looked around, though he couldn’t see down the hall to the glass balcony door from this angle. “What’s the moon like right now, anyway?”

“It was full four nights ago,” Quatre said unexpectedly. “April’s only got thirty days, so May third’s probably the day you want, but I’m not sure. It’ll be easiest to look up a lunar calendar online or something and find the exact date.”

Heero hadn’t had any idea that Quatre paid so much attention to the moon, but wasn’t going to turn down the advice.

Quatre shook his head, evidently not quite sure what to think. “This will be… interesting.”

Heero snorted.

“Well, I’m going to head home,” Quatre said next, a little reluctantly. “But you guys will definitely be seeing me tomorrow.”

“Night, Quatre,” said Duo abstractedly.

“Yeah, see you,” said Heero.

Quatre nodded and made his way to the door, and Heero thought he was chuckling faintly as he let himself out.

Then Heero turned to stare again at Duo, who seemed lost in contemplation. Several moments passed in silence before Heero finally reached out to pick the doll up and stand. “C’mon, Duo,” he said. “Let’s go to bed.”

And it was a sure sign of how serious were Duo’s thoughts at the moment that all he said in response to this was, “OK.”



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

For those not in the know, the Nome King is a recurring villain in Baum’s Oz books.

Then as for the French nicknames… Everyone may go around with a straight face in canon being acquainted with someone named Duo and someone named Trowa and someone named Quatre (even if they don’t notice all the other ones), but I don’t think there’s any way a couple of best friends with sequentially numeric names in a relatively modern setting (where the names in question are romance-language-derived and that’s what they’re speaking, at any rate) could possibly let this go unremarked.

I thought a lot about which language to base the nicknames on, and eventually went with French, despite the fact that the French words are very little different from the actual names; of the various languages that Trowa and Duo were logically likely to have heard around (which, in their large, mixed city in the 1910’s and 20’s, was admittedly quite a few), French had numeric words that sounded best to me. Spanish was a close second, but ‘tres’ sounded too much like ‘Treize,’ so that was out. Then I had a couple other little ideas that made French the perfect choice, at least one of which will be mentioned in a later part.



His Own Humanity: Plastic 0-5

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”



“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”


Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”


“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



I Dream I Know Not How



“When he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

Eventually he stirred from his motionless stare, and his limbs felt heavy and sluggish. It took more effort than it should have to haul himself up onto the railing. The water appeared even closer now, despite its being technically a few feet farther from him. He glanced around at the rest of the dark world. Why did it seem he was expecting something? Expecting someone? Expecting… Saitou… to say something… What would Saitou say?

Well, he probably wouldn’t bother trying to stop Sano, but he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to mock him. What are you doing, ahou?

“What does it look like I’m doing, old man?” Sano replied to the hypothetical question out loud.

And just what do you intend to accomplish with that?

He had no answer.

Do you think you’ll be helping anyone? Saitou would persist. Do you think the state of the world will improve? Do you think anything you’ve ever lived for will be carried out in that kind of death?

“Well, no, but…” That would be a fairly good point.

But what?

“I… don’t know…”

A typically well formulated justification.

“Pretty sure you’re dead, bastard,” Sano growled, as if Saitou could really hear it. “Why do I have to justify myself to you anyway?”

It makes no difference to me, of course. Rushing into things without thinking is what you’re best at. This will be particularly glorious — something you’re not even sure about but can’t take back once it’s done. Yes, you’ll really outdo yourself here, boy.

“You just don’t want me to come bug you in the afterlife.”

That could be.

“Well, if you still hate me so damn much, why don’t you just stop haunting me?”

For this the fictional Saitou had no answer. But suddenly, whether it was the hazily imagined conversation, the thought of Saitou actually haunting him — watching him, demanding concrete reasons for this course of action — or something else entirely, the blackness in the water below did not look nearly so enticing. Staring down, Sano’s eyes grew wide and he began to shake. That’s right… it wouldn’t help anything… it would only make things worse. What had he been thinking?

Oh, were you thinking something?

“Shut up… just shut the hell up…”

He imagined he could hear Saitou chuckling.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat. But as he still dreaded further questioning, it was at least another day before he tried. That made it he did not know how long since he’d had any food; he couldn’t imagine how he looked to the others in the scummy little restaurant to which he eventually dragged himself… since he had no problem getting a meal on credit, it must have been either intimidating or pitiable. At any rate, he wasn’t disturbed as he ate, and his mood slowly grew less black.

He started leaning toward the ‘intimidating’ theory, however pathetic he felt, when on the way out the door he nearly ran into an incoming restaurant patron whose reaction was to yelp, jump, and scurry out of the way. Normally Sano would stop and talk to the guy — make sure he was all right, probably tease him for being twitchy, find out if he wanted to buy a drink for the ex-mercenary that had startled him so badly — but today he didn’t feel up to it, and moved on without looking back.

He’d already muttered, “I’m as scary as you, I guess,” before he even realized he was thinking of Saitou again. Still.

You’ve always been somewhat frightening, Saitou replied easily, as if he’d been expecting Sano’s remark perhaps more even than Sano had, if only because of your terrifying fashion sense…

“Hey, now,” Sano grunted, but did not continue as Saitou went on.

But I think a drug-addict river rat like that would probably jump the same way no matter who he bumped into. It could be that shy little girl from the Akabeko and he’d still probably piss himself if she surprised him.

The image of Tsubame scaring a man twice her size out of his self-control just by appearing in a doorway was unexpectedly hilarious, and the laughter it induced unexpectedly relieving. “Shit, I can just picture her face,” Sano chortled. “Tsubame…! I love you…”

His laughter stopped along with his movement and breathing.

Had he really just said that out loud?

He hadn’t meant it like that; it had merely been an expression of appreciation, albeit a stronger one than he might normally have used — his tone must have been enough to convey this — but once the words were out, he found himself frozen in place with his head spinning. Because now that he thought about it…

Now that he’d said it, couldn’t take it back, couldn’t help but think about it…

Now that he’d slipped…

“Maybe I really do,” he whispered.

He’d been anticipating ridicule for the original statement alone; in response to this addendum he didn’t know what to expect. Certainly he did not hope. It was a foolish thing to have admitted so carelessly, to have realized so late. So… late…

Suddenly he did not feel at all well.

He stood very still, waiting for Saitou’s derision.

It did not come.

His breathing returned to normal and the nausea receded gradually, yet he heard nothing but the wind. He couldn’t say that whatever cruel remark he’d been expecting was worse than this, but no response at all he simply could not deal with. “Saitou?” he queried.

Still no answer.

Sano looked slowly around. Of course he saw nothing more than he ever did… but he felt very much alone.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Too weak to handle a little pain?

“Thought I told you to shut up,” Sano snarled, as if Saitou, living or otherwise, would actually do as Sano told him.

Which hurts more, came the easy tone, the pain or the truth about yourself?

“I didn’t go through with it, did I?”

You had to be talked down.

“Not like it’s totally unheard-of for someone to get suicidal.”

Yes, you’re perfectly normal… very mainstream… You help people in ways that will get them killed, you try to kill yourself and don’t know why, and you talk to dead cops.

“Guess that makes us pretty damn similar, then, since you did the same thing and did get yourself killed so you are a fucking dead cop who doesn’t seem like he’s got anything better to do than hang around talking to me!”

Nobody ever suggested I was normal.

“Ch…” Sano was home by now, and fell to his futon gratefully, dragging an arm across his eyes although there was no light in the room to block them against. He lay silent for a long time, getting his breath back and letting the trembling stop. He needed something to eat and then he would certainly be all right.

Even before Saitou wondered idly, Nothing more to say? Sano could not feel entirely alone in the room, but with his vision obscured it almost did seem the other man was actually present.

“Hey,” Sano asked in a weary and nearly indifferent tone, “are you really here?”

Of course not. When was the last time you talked to a ghost?

A little startled by the question, Sano paused in the slow act of sitting up, supported on one elbow and still half recumbent. “Not too long ago, actually…” He hauled himself up and glanced around at the empty apartment. “But I still don’t think I believe this.”

Do as you please.

“Yeah, I always do.” Sano stood and shuffled to a cupboard to see if he had any food.

You know it’s empty. You’ve checked it every day since you came home.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. What he did say was, “Seems like it’s gonna get real crowded around here pretty quick.”

If you had a job, you could afford a bigger apartment.

“Fuck you,” Sano replied, turning toward the door to go find somewhere to freeload.

Telling his buddies the story of his wounds did not appeal to him. Katsu undoubtedly already knew about the kidnapping-related events, and talking to him about it didn’t really appeal to Sano either. Obviously the dojo was out of the question. This was going to take a little more effort than usual.

But more effort was exactly what he didn’t have to expend. For the night was different now, colder and heavier — so heavy, in fact, it seemed to weigh on Sano’s shoulders and slow his steps until walking became useless for as far as it was likely to get him before he inevitably collapsed. He felt suddenly very weak. Weak in more ways than he’d often worried about in all his energetic days.

The sky looked like the water had: black and ready to swallow everything. He faltered to a complete halt as he stared up. There was a feeling of grasping emptiness to it that matched his soul, or perhaps it was just that the coldness of his frame and the coldness of the stars seemed to be one and the same. And he was still in pain.

Even if he wanted to ignore certain conclusions, wanted to forget certain emotions, the wounds would not let him… so he gave up, gave in, and started to ponder the last few weeks: the news, the coincidence, his own decisions, the bridge… Had Saitou actually had some hand in those events? Had he actually shown up, just at the right time in the right place to keep Sano from suicide? Was he still here, still near Sano, even now?

It didn’t really matter.

“Thank you,” Sano told the man, wherever and whatever he was, in a gruff murmur, forcing his gaze now toward the ground rather than that disturbing sky. Then, almost as if he couldn’t contain the words, he added, “You know, I don’t really hate you. I never did.”

There was no answer.

He stumbled back home.

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat.

If Saitou were here, he would ask why Sano had done it. But it wouldn’t mean quite the same thing coming from him.

This was Sano’s first coherent thought, though Sano himself was far from coherent. It seemed too much of an effort to struggle for real consciousness, and he didn’t mind how disordered and incohesive was the parade of images marching past his mind’s eye, the play of sounds that did not always match.

Kenshin, solemn and quiet, telling him the news. There was no ambiguity this time. There could be no mistaking the matter. There was no misunderstanding, misinformation, or misinterpretation. Kenshin had seen the body.

His head hurt so much. Someone was talking, but he couldn’t quite hear any words just yet.

Footsteps, swift and urgent, coming his direction. They pounded across the bridge on which he stood. He looked up.

“…boy and his fiance were killed…” There were the words at last, still a bit distorted.

He’d been the only one Kenshin had told, because he’d been the only one Kenshin had thought would care. In that supposition he was wrong, of course. Sano had never cared.

“…should have gone to the police…” He wondered if he’d taken a blow to the side of his head that might have done something to his hearing.

The river beneath him. That was the only real reason the news was so unsettling — because the river he looked out on was gilded by the sunset to just the color of Saitou’s eyes. He’d thought that old man would never go. Well, he’d thought that old man was invincible. But Kenshin had been in Kyoto by coincidence just then, and had seen the body. Had made sure to see the body, so there could be no mistake this time.

His chest hurt; he thought he was breathing shallowly, out there on the other side of consciousness where he could not quite reach.

Although he didn’t care, he questioned Kenshin rather carefully about circumstances, as he’d been deceived once and didn’t want it to happen again. Kenshin gave explicit answers to the best of his knowledge.

Apparently Saitou had gone alone to attempt the rescue of a abducted child, feeling he would have a better chance at infiltrating the kidnappers’ hideout by himself. But he’d been discovered and the enemies’ numbers had been greater than was generally supposed. Greater even than Mibu no Ookami could handle on his own. Although Kenshin did hint that Saitou might have been more aware of that beforehand than he’d let on. That perhaps there had been more… bravado… in the act than many others believed. At any rate, he was killed, as was the hostage; the police were still looking into the affair, but now there was no longer any hope of recovering the abductee, the case was likely to be dropped rather quickly.

Sano could see it all, even when only half awake. He could picture every detail: Saitou striking blow after deadly blow but slowly hemmed in by an overwhelming group of thugs, falling finally of many wounds… the last justice the wolf would ever deal out.

“…what was he thinking?”

The bridge. The figure of a much-distressed youth whose rich fiance had been kidnapped from under his nose. It was just too tempting, too perfect — too coincidental. Did you set this up, old man? Sano wondered. But Saitou would not have answered such a stupid question. “Don’t bother with the police,” he said. “They fuck everything up. I’ll go get her out.”

“But why did he do it?” That was the question the voices all kept asking. Saitou would have asked that too, if he were here. If he were still alive. Except that Saitou wouldn’t mean it the way they did. Saitou saw through everything, and Sano knew he would know.

The light that shone on his closed eyelids was as golden as the river had been.

The river. He knew what Saitou would say if he saw him here, watching the shining water roll away beneath him endlessly in the long dusk and thinking fixedly of a rival he would never see again. It would be something to the purpose of, Ahou — because that was how it always started — why don’t you find something productive to do?

And he probably should. After all, it wasn’t as if he cared. But then the sun set completely, and the water seemed to burn for a moment and then go black, like a bright flame suddenly extinguished. And Sano wondered… had it been like that? Had the fire in Saitou’s eyes gone out that abruptly? From gold to crimson to sable in an instant, just so?

Saitou would mock him: A little fanciful, are we? But Sano couldn’t help thinking that so it must have been. Also that it was terribly inviting, such a deep black color of death. He couldn’t blame Saitou for having accepted it. The best way to go would be to flame and burn out; would Saitou have thought so too?

And perhaps now…

And then the footsteps.

Too convenient, he reflected at the thought of the circumstance and its timing. You really must have set this one up.

“…should have known it was too big for him to handle alone…” He wondered if voices had asked the same questions, made the same comments, if in perhaps more hushed tones, after Saitou’s failure. Although he noticed Kenshin had no input. Kenshin probably saw through it too; he alone knew how similar Sano’s situation had been to the one he’d described earlier that very day. He must have his guesses as to why Sano had been so foolish.

“Hey, bro, haven’t you heard of me? You’ve got Zanza on your side now!” The young man seemed to perk up at this, and didn’t mind so much the idea of leaving the police out of the business. But still he insisted on coming along too. Well, that was fine. Sano could show off a little.

His body hurt all over: bruised, he thought. Lots of heavy bruises. As soon as he woke fully, he would be able to move and figure out if he had any cuts or broken bones.

There were too many of them, and the girl was too front and central for him to get her out first and then go down fighting. He’d left behind the days when he’d refused to admit he was dangerously outnumbered, and now he knew perfectly well this was not a battle he could win.

Saitou must have known that too.

“…but I don’t understand why he…”

Yes, if Saitou were still alive, he would surely say the same. Except that he would have seen the answer to the immediate question and would be asking something a bit more profound:

There were better ways you could have chosen to be like me. Why would you want to die like I did?

And Sano would have no answer for him.

No more than for the other question Saitou would probably ask — Why did you want to die at all?

He was waking up now, slowly, finally. He must have made some noise, probably a groan at the heightening pain as consciousness approached, for the conversation whose bits and pieces had been reaching him through the haze abruptly ceased. Or perhaps more time had passed than he realized, and they’d all gone away.

He could open only one of his eyes; the other ached and stung, obviously swollen. His throat ached with dryness, so much that he could make nothing more than a croaking sound when he tried to speak.

Megumi appeared, blurry and overly bright, and gave him a little water. She spoke no word, but her eyes were like books, and what Sano read in them made his heart sink. It was more than just Why did you? — it was You shouldn’t have. As if she were at all qualified to make that judgment when she didn’t know why… but he might be imagining things.

“Sano,” Kenshin’s voice said.

Now to see if Kenshin saw through it. He didn’t always see things the way Saitou had, so maybe he couldn’t tell.

“Yeah,” Sano rasped. “Hello.”

“I’m glad you are awake,” Kenshin said.

Sano honestly couldn’t bring himself to say the same. Despite the chaos of his jumbled thoughts, being halfway conscious had been a good deal less painful than being fully so. And he didn’t like Kenshin’s tone. So the only answer he made was inarticulate and low.

“Sano, please do not do that again.” It was a tone that tried not to be hurt or reproving, and failed.

For several moments Sano was tempted to reply, “Do what, Kenshin?” as if he didn’t know perfectly well his friend had him figured out. But he had a sneaking suspicion, somehow, that pretending ignorance, forcing Kenshin to explain it to him plainly, would not make him feel much better. So finally he merely said, “I won’t.” And didn’t add, Unless another coincidence like that pops up. Actually, he tried not to admit that thought even to himself.

“Thank you,” said Kenshin softly.

That was the worst it got, but the next step down was almost less tolerable for being more protracted. Megumi, Kaoru, and Yahiko, not to mention the other friends that came to visit, were ignorant of the true depth of the circumstances, so all they could do was ask why… but that was enough.

“Let’s have a look at this thick skull of yours,” Megumi would say, sardonically pleasant, then add silently, with real darkness, “Why did you give me more work for no good reason?”

“I brought you lunch, Sanosuke!” Kaoru would chirp, turning severe with, “And don’t you say a word about how it tastes!” But her true comment was, “Why did you ruin everyone’s peace?”

“If you don’t hurry up and get better, I’m gonna move into your place,” Yahiko threatened. What he really meant was, “Why did you let me down?”

Sano pretended to need a lot more sleep than he was actually getting.

Kenshin saw through this, of course, and his ever-present and far more penetrating “Why?” was the worst of all.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know. But, again, now he’d been forced by his own carelessness to think about it, Sano couldn’t decide whether this was good or bad. Did he want Saitou to know? It was too late now anyway, and what could Saitou possibly say in response? Even if he didn’t tear Sano to pieces for his foolishness, it was still… too late. A certain nausea, the same that had twisted his stomach the first time, again threatened his already-dubious physical well-being every time he considered the matter, and this as well as everything else that had happened lately made Sano doubt himself. He wasn’t as certain of the clarity of his own reflections as he would like… should he really share them with someone else, someone so… capable of hurting him… if he wasn’t sure?

He lay awake, or half-awake, meandering through pain and dreams and contemplating this question for hours in the darkness… and eventually reached the conclusion (a conclusion he perhaps should have expected and therefore reached much sooner) that some things needed to be said regardless of the outcome. Regardless of his state of mind.

Coming out with something like that, seriously saying it aloud, premeditated and deliberate, wasn’t as easily done as it was decided upon, however. Days passed before he managed to work up the requisite resolve (he couldn’t quite call it nerve, as he couldn’t quite call what held him back fear), and during that time he grew restless and agitated. It didn’t help that Saitou said little and Sano had no hint of a clue about what the response might be when he finally managed to tell him.

Eventually he forced himself out of the quiet apartment and took to the streets. He had no idea where he was going, but the impetus to movement had something to do with not wanting to see or be seen by anyone. Anyone living, that is. He felt his confession nearly ready, that it was creeping up on him, and he didn’t want to be around people when it burst out.

A field he came upon in a sparse, quiet, distant area of town beckoned him to its center, for the wind-ruffled yet empty feeling that hung about it seemed appropriate somehow. He wandered across, steps slowing in the rustling grass. Finally he stopped and took a long look all around him.

You’re more aimless than usual today, Saitou commented, and it was as good an opening as any.

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

Startled by a soft noise behind him, he whirled suddenly, and found himself looking unexpectedly into the face of an uncertain Kenshin.

“Shit,” he muttered, lowering his hand and letting it go lax. He hadn’t considered how loudly he’d been talking; he hadn’t felt the need. Had Kenshin heard the whole thing? Sano must sound certifiably crazy at this point.

Such seemed to be the case, for the look in Kenshin’s eyes that the rurouni was not very well able to conceal seemed to be one of pitying horror.

“Kenshin…” he began. “Hey… this…”

“Sano,” whispered Kenshin with a minuscule shake of his head. “Sano, I am so sorry.”

“Sorry?”

It appeared Kenshin didn’t quite have words to convey his feelings or thoughts at the moment.

“Kenshin, look,” Sano said, trying to sound reasonable. “I know that sounded kindof… um, crazy… but, seriously, I’m not. It’s… it’s just something…” There wasn’t really any way to explain it, though, that wouldn’t sound just as insane as the overheard one-sided conversation must have.

“This is my fault… I never should have told you…”

“Told me what?” Sano demanded, a little impatiently. He didn’t like that expression of Kenshin’s, the one of sympathetic despair. “I’d have known he was dead soon enough when he started haunting me, wouldn’t I? It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“Sano, I never thought your liking him was a good idea. He didn’t think so either, so–”

“What, he knew??” Sano broke in. “He knew I liked him?!” The fist clenched again. “That fucking asshole,” he muttered, looking away so as not to direct his pained rage straight into Kenshin’s face. “He knew before I even knew and he didn’t say anything, and he won’t say anything now even when I fucking tell him straight up.”

“Sano… Sano, Saitou is not–”

“Don’t even go there, Kenshin. I’m not crazy. I know perfectly well nobody else can hear him. Doesn’t make me crazy. I’ve met ghosts before; doesn’t make any difference that I just hear him and don’t see him this time.”

“Sano…”

“Dammit, just leave me alone, Kenshin,” Sano commanded, a little wearily. “I’m pissed enough as it is.”

Appearing helpless and desperate, Kenshin seemed to be contemplating a variety of things to say; finally he just shook his head. “All right.” And he turned and walked away.

Days wore by without another encounter with the rurouni. Of course Sano hadn’t been around him much lately anyway, but now he didn’t even see him, walking through town, as he usually did. “Guy must really think I’m crazy,” Sano remarked on this at a mutter after a week had passed, “and he’s avoiding me now.”

You were ranting like a lunatic, was Saitou’s helpful, amused-sounding comment. Himura’s tolerance level is high, but everyone has to draw the line somewhere.

“If you goddamn heard me ranting like a lunatic, you could have answered my fucking question,” Sano protested.

Hn. He still sounded amused, but at the same time somewhat disinterested. Obviously Saitou didn’t feel like answering, and what exactly did that mean? What did it mean that he was willing to stick around, to converse with Sano at all hours of the day, to share inside jokes with him and comment carelessly on almost every aspect of Sano’s private life… but unwilling to respond to what might be the most important statement Sano had ever made, the most meaningful question he’d ever asked?

Because Sano wouldn’t like the answer? He couldn’t believe that; Saitou would not have so much consideration for him. Why, then? He didn’t understand.

And perhaps the reason Saitou didn’t answer was part of the reason Sano didn’t understand… some deficiency in him that rendered the answer as well as Saitou’s motives incomprehensible? He’d never been good enough; that almost made sense.

But of course Sano could not accept it.

He couldn’t run. Despite the fact that, figuratively, that was exactly what he was doing — running from an array of accusing eyes and pursed lips and soft voices asking endlessly why, why, why?? — he was still too weak actually to run. He thought a few more good nights’ sleep would have him up to a decent level of strength again, but he wouldn’t spend them at that quiet, accusatory clinic. So he stumbled home.

He felt sure he knew what Saitou would say if he saw him stagger into his dirty little apartment and hit the futon like he weighed a ton with a grunt to match. Well, Saitou would just call him some rude name. But if he were in a mood to elaborate, he would surely mock Sano for being so weak he couldn’t handle a little disapprobation in order to get the medical attention he needed. And Sano would insist he didn’t need any medical attention, and Saitou would probably point out the worst of his wounds and ask facetiously if they were cosmetic.

Sano couldn’t help grinning up at the ceiling a little at the thought.

Here he could sleep, for there was no interminable conversation of why‘s on the other side of consciousness to invade his dreams. Soon he would be completely well again, if left alone like this. That was all he really wanted: to be alone.

You’re lucky you didn’t get sick, then, Saitou would say. The words would be a disinterested observation, but the tone would be sarcastic. If a fever had come with those bruises of yours, you wouldn’t be able to make it on your own.

And that was true. Sano was glad he didn’t have a fever. He wouldn’t have much to say in response to that.

The passage of time eluded his comprehension. When he awoke, he couldn’t remember what part of the day it had been when he’d left the clinic, and therefore couldn’t determine how long he’d been asleep. His head still hurt. He was excessively hungry.

Forcing himself to sit up, however laborious and painful the process, he slowly checked his bandages. Some had come loose, and they could probably all do with a change. When he would have the energy to wash the used ones, though, he didn’t know. He hoped he had enough of his own to keep himself alive until then.

Saitou would certainly have something to say, on observing this, about Sano’s forethought, and Sano muttered preemptively, “Shut up…” as he lay back down. Then he contemplated, for a very long time, sitting up again. He needed to change the bandages so he wouldn’t get infected, but somehow all he could give any serious thought to was the memory of the bridge and approaching footsteps just as the sun set.

“That guy’s dead now.” He didn’t realize he was talking to Saitou until he added, “Dead as you are.”

He thought that if Saitou were feeling relatively light-hearted, he might inquire into Sano’s assignment of degrees of deadness. Otherwise he would probably just comment that most people died eventually.

“Most of the time it ain’t my fault, though.”

Maybe it is, and you’re just not aware of it, Saitou might say.

And Sano laughed quietly, painfully, at the thought of expecting any kind of comfort from that man. He fell asleep again.

How many days passed in similar manner he couldn’t tell, and probably didn’t want to. His own convalescence might have served as some type of measure — how at first even taking stock of his condition exhausted him, but eventually he was actually able to stand and move — but he did not heed it, not wanting to risk Saitou’s hypothetical derisive comments on his recovery rate.

Eventually his apartment and the heavy awareness of what he had done or hadn’t done, not to mention the why‘s in his own mind, became too oppressive, and he stumbled out for a walk despite the pain. He couldn’t bear bright sunlight just yet, so he waited until dusk; in the cool evening he found there was a sensation vaguely like freedom about escaping his empty room and moving about as if he were perfectly well in mind and body, and this almost made him able to forget or ignore his condition. Thus he walked farther than he’d intended, farther than was probably healthy, and found himself after not too long, unexpectedly and yet so appropriately, on that bridge again. He couldn’t quite say this was where it had all started, but still it fit so well to revisit this spot.

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

But of course Sano could not accept it. Time slipped by, however, without any possible solution occurring to him. He didn’t exactly have a history of getting likeable answers out of Saitou, and Saitou’s current state just made things more difficult.

Kenshin was around town again. Sano saw him once or twice, but avoided his eye, and Kenshin did not solicit his company. Sano didn’t regret this; he was avoiding all of his friends right now while he grew more and more agitated within himself, felt more and more helpless and trapped and just unutterably stupid. He took to going on a lot of long, aimless walks, greeting or even looking up at nobody he passed.

And then, not to his surprise but perhaps a little to his dismay, he found himself again in the field where he’d made his first deliberate confession. As he looked around and remembered that day, a frown formed slowly on his face.

Saitou, who had been rather quiet during that walk, now commented sardonically, Returning to the scene of the crime, are we?

“What crime?” Sano demanded, instantly incensed. He definitely hadn’t come here to revisit the previous conversation, as he’d yet to determine how to word what he wanted to say, hadn’t actually figured out whether he really wanted to know… but, as was or had been often the case, a statement seemingly casual on Saitou’s part was unbearably stabbing to Sano; it set him off, and, all hesitation and uncertainly flung aside, he plunged on without thinking:

“Is it so wrong I finally figured out how I feel about you? I know it was fucking stupid that it took me so long, so go ahead and mock me for that… but first you better tell me one thing straight out: what the hell do you think about me?” Trying to calm down wasn’t working. “Did we ever have a chance?” He wasn’t sure whether he sounded (or felt) more angry, sad, or confused. “And if you like me, why didn’t you ever say anything? And if you don’t, why the hell do you still hang around?”

No reply, only a tense, foreboding feeling in the air as it stilled; in no part of the field did the wind move, and the anxiety heightened as Sano continued to wait for a rejoinder that never came. It seemed to him that whatever was about to happen here would change everything — there was something dark and ominous in the stillness — but that it simply wasn’t going to happen, for better or worse, if Saitou didn’t want it to; it was Saitou’s move.

“Why is this the one thing I say that you can’t answer?” Sano burst out at last, his blood heating even further. “Anything else I say or do you’ve got some smart-ass comment on, but the one thing I really want you to respond to makes you suddenly shut up? I think it’s pretty damn important, when somebody tells you they love you, to give them an answer at least! Especially when… goddammit, Saitou, you’re fucking dead! I know you can’t hang around here forever, so at least tell me if…”

As his voice faded, thick, pensive silence again enveloped the field, and Sano’s heart-rate and desperation increased. “You set up that stupid coincidence, with the kidnappings and all,” he growled. “Almost like you wanted me to go like you did and join you; then you started hanging out around me when that didn’t work, when there’s gotta be better afterlife shit you could be doing… If you don’t care about me, why would you go to all that trouble? Why would you still be here?”

At the continued strained quiet, Sano crouched and pounded the ground in anger, sending a slight tremor out a dozen feet around him and causing the grass to ripple. “Dammit, Saitou, answer me!”

He stood straight again, staring ahead of him with wild, unblinking eyes, as if by gazing hard enough he could cause the outline he envisioned to materialize, even if in a non-corporeal form, force his will on Saitou and get his questions answered. “You can’t go forever without saying anything!” he shouted. “Do you think I’m just going to let it drop, stop bugging you about it? Saitou!!”

Into the next silence he gave a frustrated roar as he fell to his knees and slammed both fists into the ground this time. “Damn you!” he gritted out. “Damn you.” His hands opened to lie flat against the earth as his voice sank to a whisper. “Damn you… even if you fucking hate me, doesn’t it mean anything to you that I love you? Can’t you even have the decency to let me know, let me stop wondering? Are you gonna make me go forever not knowing what I mean to you, why you had to get into my head while you were alive and why you decided to haunt me now you’re dead?” His hand clenched again, clawing at the dirt as his eyes squeezed shut against tears that wanted to fly from them as his head dropped to face the ground.

For the next few moments, his ragged breaths were the only sounds to disturb the thick and sober atmosphere, until finally a slight breeze shifted the air in his direction. Startled, he drew in a gasp and opened his eyes, for it seemed he suddenly smelled cigarette smoke.

“S-saitou?” he stammered.

“Himura was right, it seems. What he thinks I can do about it, I’m not entirely sure, but when he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

Sano’s eyes grew wide with disbelief, and he found he couldn’t quite get his shaking body to move, to stand as he wanted it to. So like an animal he clawed his way around on his knees to face the sound of that voice, that voice whose source he had to find, because it had come not from the hazy nothingness of the afterlife as he was accustomed to, but from just behind him at a normal human level, with normal human tone and volume.

He scrambled the one hundred and eighty long degrees, all the breath gone from his body, his mind at once numb and exploding, his gaze unblinking but faltering badly as every part of him shook except his abruptly motionless heart, to look up — up what seemed a hundred miles past despair and insanity and denial — up into the eyes of a very present, very real, very living Saitou Hajime.


Would God I could awaken!
For I dream I know not how,
And my soul is sorely shaken
Lest an evil step be taken, —
Lest the dead who is forsaken
May not be happy now.

–Edgar Allan Poe


This story, which I’ve rated , was dedicated to MsJadey because I originally discussed the idea with her and because it was just the kind of tragic and messed-up take on this pairing that she always seemed to like.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. And therein, to great extent, lies the theme of this fic. Unhealthy and unhappy, isn’t it?

But it’s only partly the fault of this attitude of Sano’s; Kenshin and Saitou are very much to blame as well. Apparently Kenshin hasn’t yet learned his lesson — that he shouldn’t try to interfere in the Saitou/Sano thing. At least Saitou was in on the heinous plot this time. Of course, if he hadn’t been, I would have succeeded in writing a Saitou/Sano story that did not actually feature Saitou.

I commissioned a sort of illustration/concept piece for this fic of Link Worshiper:

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Death Wish


“Sir? Are you all right?”

He turned with distant surprise toward the sympathetic woman’s voice that had spoken, but couldn’t at first get his eyes to focus on her.

“You’ve been standing there packing those for five minutes,” she explained.

Saitou’s hands paused in the middle of said motion, which he hadn’t realized he’d been doing for so long. Once he’d made the transition from one action to another, it was with automatic if jerky movements that he opened the package, extracted a cigarette, brought it to his lips, and searched for his lighter.

The woman, whom he eventually hazily identified as a member of the janitorial staff cleaning out the ash trays here on the smoking deck, looked at him pityingly, especially at his arms onto which some of the blood must have soaked through his jacket before he’d removed it. After a moment she offered her own lighter, seeing he was absently continuing the search despite his inability to find his (it was in his jacket). “Waiting for someone in surgery?” she guessed quietly.

Dumbly he nodded. The smoke worked to clear his head a little, but not enough for him to attempt a verbal response.

She glanced again at his uniform. “Partner?”

He nodded again, not up to the task of differentiating between types of partners.

“I hope everything goes OK,” she said as she wheeled her cleaning cart around to face the door back inside. “Keep the lighter.”

Saitou was left alone, watching the ambulances come and go but not really seeing them, nor hearing their wailing sirens rising up from below. Presently he tossed what remained of the cigarette into the ash tray and started another.

They hadn’t come in an ambulance. He hadn’t wanted to wait for one when he had a car with a siren right there. It was a breach of protocol, but he didn’t give a damn. That wasn’t the only thing he’d done wrong… a shooting, and he hadn’t pursued… had opened fire in a public parking lot… had barely been coherent enough to relay information to someone in the vicinity…

Justice was one thing. Revenge was one thing. Prevention of further crime was one thing. Saving someone’s life was something entirely above and beyond.

He gave a short, sarcastic laugh as he started his fourth cigarette. Above and beyond justice? Above and beyond the only ideal that had mattered to him his entire life? Guns are loaded with truth, the saying went. He’d never liked it. He still didn’t like it. At least now he’d found an applicable situation, though. The truth here was that the police were coming up very short in this city if somebody in the company of an officer couldn’t cross a parking lot without getting shot.

His hand, he found, was clenched with vicious tightness around the lighter, and he forced it to loosen. Whose lighter was this, anyway? He’d just bought a new one, along with the cigarettes, at the store, before… Well, that one had been black, and this was red.

In the midst of lighting his sixth stick, his hand clenched again inadvertently, and he growled, bending his will to pry it open and reignite the lighter. He sucked hard on the cigarette, but found its soothing quality inferior to some he’d enjoyed in the past.

The idiot had a death wish. That was the only explanation. Wasn’t there some psychologist somewhere with a theory about beautiful people being more reckless? Typically stupid. Somebody beautiful shouldn’t care if some moron he didn’t even know called him a faggot, shouldn’t have to respond to everything said to him, shouldn’t have to turn everything into a confrontation, then a fight… then a shooting… but Saitou should know better by now — much better — than to associate, even indirectly, charm with sense. Because it should have been obvious to anyone familiar with the streets, not to mention that particular neighborhood, cop or otherwise, that those guys were trouble. There were visible bullet holes in their car, for god’s sake.

He accidentally snapped the eighth cigarette between fingers that shouldn’t have been quite so unsteady. Irritated, he pulled out another one.

How absurd, to go through life assuming you were invincible! Though perhaps that attitude was only present in the company of a cop? Saitou thought it was more likely a permanent thing. He took a long, angry drag on the tenth cigarette. What kind of cop was he, anyway, letting someone get shot right in front of him? True, he’d put a few more holes into that wreck of a car as they’d peeled out, but he’d been intending to hit their tires. He couldn’t remember when his aim had been so off.

His aim was still off, and he had to bend and retrieve the half-spent cigarette from wet concrete to deposit it in the ash tray. Then the lighter blew out twice and it was several moments before he got the twelfth one lit.

And what kind of timing was this? It was like some cosmic sense of irony had decided to make a joke of him, of both of them, or like something out of a bad tear-jerker ‘romance’ movie. Did everyone suffer similarly disastrous consequences of important admissions? Or had it only happened here because he’d been so stubborn for so long? He flicked ash from the fourteenth cigarette and it unexpectedly blew right back into his face. Representative of anything? Possibly. But it was a cruel form of punishment for one‘s obstinacy to let the other get shot.

Or maybe it was just a message from the great beyond. He’d given in because he had a weakness for pretty, stupid, adorable people, but maybe he should have held out. Perhaps this was the universe’s way of telling him that, of taking the choice he’d handled badly out of his hands. Except that would have to mean…

The thought was so unexpectedly chilling, the resultant shiver so intense and unexpected, he nearly dropped both the lighter and his sixteenth cigarette. Fumbling just to keep them in his hands, it was a while before he got the thing lit. He didn’t know why that idea was affecting him so much; he didn’t believe in destiny and being guided by the hands of fate. It had been an unfortunate and ironically timed coincidence, nothing more.

“Hey, Saitou…”

Even his own name could hardly gain his attention.

“You’ve been out here the whole time, haven’t you? You’re soaking wet! If you catch a cold or something, Sano’ll be pissed at both of us.”

The name, not to mention the accompanying implication, was enough to bring him ten steps closer to reality. He suddenly recognized just how cold he really was, as well as the sight of the young man standing in front of him, and the fact that by now… by now it must be over. A little more aware of the real cause of his shaking hands, he was able to control them much better than he had before as he stubbed out his cigarette in the ash tray.

“He’s going to be fine,” the long-haired man said as Saitou straightened and looked at him again. “At least, he’s out of immediate danger, and they don’t expect complications.”

“With him there are always complications.” He was surprised at how dark and harsh his voice sounded. Unfamiliar, somehow, as if he hadn’t heard himself speak for a very long time.

The young man — Katsu, that’s who he was, the roommate — smiled, wry and weary. “I don’t understand any of this.” Saitou found himself struggling to hear the words over the pounding in his chest, which sound even overrode the very close-by noise of the lighter striking and flaring up. “You seem like a complete asshole, and that’s basically how Sano’s described you… but he’s been totally obsessed with you since he met you.”

The officer nodded, accepting the unflattering assessment of his personality as well as confirming the history.

“But you wouldn’t have him for the longest time,” continued Katsu, “until you just randomly changed your mind tonight when you ran into him at a gas station on your way home from work… and then — just then — there just happens to be some trigger-happy homophobe waiting outside to shoot him. Am I right so far?”

Saitou nodded again, not bothering to explain that there had been physical involvement for quite some time, and tonight had merely been the first expression of emotional involvement. It came to the same thing — Sano had finally gotten what he wanted, and then this…

“So first I get a string of texts from Sano I can barely read because he’s so happy and excited about you… and then you call me up, cool as cucumber, asking does Sano have medical insurance and can I meet you at the hospital! Almost give me a heart attack, and you’re just calm and disinterested, and then disappear the moment he goes into surgery.”

Saitou wasn’t aware he came across as so very indifferent, but neither was he surprised. He had nothing to say in his own defense.

“And finally.” Katsu shook his head, smiling faintly. “I find you out here, where I guess you’ve been the whole time, still pretending to be a stoic asshole.”

“Pretending?” Saitou echoed, vaguely startled.

“I don’t really know you at all, but it seems to me that getting hypothermia pacing in an ice storm and not even noticing means you’re pretty damn distracted.”

Saitou looked around at the heavy sleet, realizing for the first time it was there. “I would hardly call this an ice storm…”

“Have it your way,” Katsu shrugged. “My point is, you like him enough to worry yourself sick over him, so I just wonder what took you so long.”

Still filled with the same unfocused surprise, Saitou again had no answer.

“He’s in room 354,” Katsu said with a snort that might have been amused and might have been exasperated. “It’s two floors up from here. Be there when he wakes up.”

Saitou thought he nodded, but he didn’t even see Katsu there anymore — only hallways and elevators, and the only thing in his head was a number.

And there in the bed was his stupid boy. There was nothing else — no small and painfully white room with ceiling, walls, and floor; no potted plants to add cheer to the scene; no curtained window providing the slap of frozen rain from outside; no TV near the ceiling to keep the patient from insanity; no worn and comfortable chairs for family members to worry their hearts out in; no IV or heart monitor or folded tray table or even sterile sheets or breathing tubes or anything else at all in the entire world but Sanosuke lying there pale, asleep, alive.

Saitou didn’t think he’d ever remained so utterly still, nor stared at something with such profound fixedness. He felt like he stood in the eye of a huge storm; here there was agonized calm and quiet, but around him everything was spinning and chaotic, and nothing would ever be the same again. How such a simple thing as a sleeping face could have such an effect on him, he was not and would probably never be sure.

Eventually, after how long he could not even begin to guess, he found his way to one of the chairs and continued his intense study of Sano’s visage from there. He felt inexplicably weary, as if he had been the one shot, as if he’d done anything tonight other than pacing. It was illogical and troublesome, and for a while he fought the onslaught of sleep with irritated vigor. Sano’s tranquility was contagious, however, and after a while Saitou gave in.

When he awoke, the young man still lay silent, his breathing as shallow as before. Saitou stretched, rearranged himself in the chair, and started watching once again, almost as if he had never been interrupted. The light had changed, the storm outside had evidently passed during the night, but everything else remained the same.

After an indeterminate while — a clock ticked somewhere in the room, but Saitou’s eyes had never left Sano’s form to locate it — a nurse entered. “Oh, you’re awake,” said she. “We let you stay because you looked so tired, and because the roommate mentioned that Sanosuke would want to talk to you as soon as possible, but normally we only allow family members to sit in the room all night — especially no police officers, because patients don’t need to be questioned right after–”

“I’m not going to question him,” Saitou broke in. “I’m his–” he forced himself not to stumble over the word– “boyfriend.”

“Oh!” The nurse looked surprised and sympathetic. “Well, of course you can stay, then.” She added as she went about whatever business she’d come in to do, “He’s going to be just fine.”

Saitou nodded silently and continued watching Sano, barely noticing when the woman left.

Not long after that (he thought), Sano’s lids finally opened. Despite not seeming to see much more than he had with them closed, at least at first, just this tiny motion on Sano’s part caused Saitou’s deliriously spinning world to come down so abruptly it left him shaking. He was beside the bed before the brown eyes could even come into a half-focused state.

“Oh,” Sano said blearily. “You really are here.”

“Yes,” Saitou replied.

Sano gave a vague smile. “I thought I heard you talking… thought I heard you said you’re my boyfriend.”

“I did.”

The smile, which was remarkably childlike, widened. “Gotta get shot more often, then. Every day. Did I get shot?”

“Yes.”

Sano’s hand emerged slowly from under the blanket and found Saitou’s. “I don’t feel it,” he murmured. The smile turned almost into a grin. “Don’t really feel anything.”

“You will,” Saitou assured him. “It’ll hurt sooner than you want it to.”

“You should kiss me,” Sano mumbled.

Normally Saitou would have refused to kiss someone with a plastic tube up his nose, but at this point he couldn’t deny Sano anything. Still, it was a very brief, gentle kiss.

“Smell like so many cigarettes,” was Sano’s faint statement. “You been chain-smoking again?”

Saitou lifted the mostly crushed package that was still in his other hand and glanced at it. One cigarette remained, and he was surprised it wasn’t crushed as well. Yes, he supposed, he had been chain-smoking. He hadn’t noticed.

“That’s the pack you just bought!” Sano protested with a little more energy. Saitou made no attempt to stop him as he reached out and took it in loose fingers, then threw it weakly across the room. Whether he’d awakened at some point earlier and looked around or by coincidence, it landed somewhat near a small trash can. “You have a death wish, I swear,” he chastised as his hand fell limply to his side and his eyes drifted closed.

“Yes,” Saitou said softly. “We’re a matching pair of suicidal idiots.”

With a dim smile, Sano whispered, “OK, sleep now.”

Saitou kissed Sano’s forehead and stepped away from the bed. He turned and went to the fallen cigarette package, bending and retrieving it. Silently he returned to the chair and sat down to continue his vigil, after decisively tossing the package into the garbage.



This was originally going to be called Twenty Cigarettes, but I liked the “matching pair of suicidal idiots” theme better. I’ve rated this story .

I commissioned Candra to draw a picture for this fic, and I don’t have words for how much I love it:

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).