Heero had never bothered with this side of the lake before. There were no public fishing piers or hiking trails to bring him here, but Howard's directions were easy to follow. He found the Maxwell house in no time.
Strange that Howard couldn't make this delivery himself, or even bother to explain why. But Heero liked Howard, and if the man needed this simple favor, then it wouldn't hurt to see it through.
He stepped onto the stone porch with the jug of milk in one hand, and rang the doorbell twice in immediate succession. While he waited he looked at the clay pots filled with white geraniums on either side of the door. Several of the blooms were old and dried, detracting from the plants' beauty and the prospect of new growth. He hated to see plants unattended, and with the kind of money it seemed the Maxwells' had, it frustrated him all the more that they couldn't hire a gardener.
He lent over and snapped two dead heads off just as the door opened. He stood up straight, flowers in one hand and milk in the other.
"What are you doing?" the young man asked.
"Um..." Heero hesitated as his eyes met the unwavering blue gaze before him. "I'm delivering your milk." He raised the gallon container up for emphasis.
The milk was snatched from him rather unceremoniously. "I don't like you touching my flowers."
Heero blinked. "I was just..." The door closed with a whoosh, and Heero felt as though he had just been slapped. "What the?"
Stunned, Heero got back in his car and drove the twenty minutes back to Howard's Cottages. By the time he got there he was fuming mad. Rich people were such snobs.
"How'd it go?" Howard asked, as Heero got out of the car. It seemed like Howard had been waiting for his return. "Did you see him?"
"I gave the milk directly to him, like you said."
"What'd you think?"
Heero's brow knit. "I think that guy needs to pick up his own milk next time."
Howard took a step back, seeming to react to the intensity of Heero's words. "Was he a little gruff?"
"If slamming the door in my face is gruff, then yeah, he was."
"Hmm," Howard said, scratching his head. "It's to be expected, I guess. He lost his parents in a car crash last year. Don't know much about it, but he was driving the car when it happened."
Heero nodded in simple acknowledgement and went into his cottage, walking to the back door, and opening it onto the view of the lake. This was what he loved, being in the midst of this beautiful scenery -alone. He had never been good at deciphering people and their complicated emotions. He never knew what to say or how to react. Like today, he probably should have rang that doorbell again and told that guy he was doing him a favor by cleaning up his geraniums.
He stared across the water and before he could stop himself his eyes had searched out the Maxwell house among the pine trees. He didn't want to know about that guy's problems, but now that he did, he realized the intense gaze that had met him at the door had been filled with pain.
He shuddered remembering it.
~ ~ ~
It had been foolish to think that when Heero Yuy had laid eyes on Duo Maxwell for the first time that sparks would fly. Well, now that Howard thought about it, sparks had flown, just not in the way he had hoped. He could accept that the first attempt had failed. It had been a reconnaissance mission, and he had learned a lot from it. Duo Maxwell was not going to let just anyone walk into his house, at least not just anyone male.
Phase two of the mission would require a woman's touch. It was time to enlist Maggie's help.
It was the day after the milk delivery debacle, and Howard had the feeling that Heero was still licking his wounds. But it was nothing that a little male bonding couldn't fix. So, he invited the young man to join him for a mid-day snack at the Magpie Diner.
Over a piece of pie, Howard began to weave his magic...
"We've made two deliveries for Jim to the Maxwell place," he said as he watched Maggie set freshly washed glasses behind the counter.
She looked up at him and then to Heero, and grinned. "You boys are sure being a help."
"Jim's in a real pinch," Howard said.
Maggie grabbed the coffee pot and leaned on the counter in front of Heero, filling his cup. "Sweetie, how'd Howie ever talk you into doing his favors for him?"
"Seemed easy enough, ‘til I got there."
"What happened?" Maggie looked concerned, and Howard couldn't tell if it was for Heero or the Maxwell boy, or both.
"The guy doesn't want company," Heero said, taking a sip of his coffee. "He slammed the door in my face."
"Goodness," Maggie said, setting the coffee pot down. "I suppose sometimes a body just needs to be alone."
"See, that's where he's gone wrong. When you're down, you need company. Need someone to cheer you up," Howard said.
Maggie stood up, putting her hands on her hips, and looking at him like he had three heads. "What do you know about it?"
"I lost good friends in the war," he said, surprised at his own openness. "Back then, no one talked about it. Men don't know how to support each other."
Her look softened. She put her elbows on the counter and reached her hand over to pat his arm. He felt his face grow warm as she smiled at him.
"I'm sorry, hon. I'm always barking at you, forgetting you have a softer side. That's real sweet."
Howard tried to keep his eyes on hers, but he couldn't help shifting them just a bit to enjoy the endless cleavage on display. "Uh... yeah," he said, feeling awkward now.
She nodded and stood up again. "What kind of neighbors are we? We're gossiping about the Maxwell boy's loss, and no one goes out there to see how he's doing." Her eyes slid down the counter to the freshly baked cherry pie sitting under glass. "I think I'll take him that pie."
"That's a great idea, Maggie," Howard said, smiling.
"And as long as you're in such an amenable mood, you should come with me," she said.
"And Heero," Howard said, the mission still foremost in his mind.
"Why me?" Heero asked.
"To put things right," Howard said. "Like Maggie said, he's a neighbor."
"His place is three quarters of a mile across the lake."
Maggie looked between Heero and Howard and then grinned. "You old dog," she said, playfully slapping Howard's hand.
There was a twinkle in her eye, and Howard knew she had connected the dots.
"What time should we pick you up?" Howard asked.
"Now would be best," Maggie said, looking at her watch. "It's a couple hours ‘til the supper crowd."
She untied her apron and tucked it under the counter. After a quick word with the cook, she grabbed her purse and the pie and was standing at the door waiting.
Howard pushed Heero along.
"You go without me," Heero said, looking unhappy. "I'm heading back to my cottage."
"It's best if we all go," Maggie said, pushing the door open with a bump of her hip. "It won't take long and you'll have set things right. Just think how good you'll feel."
"That's right, Heero. And I'll feel bad if things aren't smoothed over, since you made that delivery for me."
Heero shook his head, but followed them to Howard's car. Now Howard wished he would've thought this through better. Heero wasn't dressed for matchmaking. Oh, his appearance was tidy in his white t-shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes, but a splash of color would've been more interesting. Surely, Duo's star status meant that he was often surrounded by glamorous society types. What chance did Heero have of getting noticed, other than being the only eligible gay man for hundreds of miles?
~ ~ ~
At the Maxwell place, Maggie wasted no time getting out of the car and heading for the front door, pie in hand. Howard followed quickly, and when he turned to see if Heero was in tow, found the young man checking his reflection in the car's window. Howard grinned. Maybe that door slamming in Heero's face had been a good thing? There was nothing like a challenge to get a young man's engine running.
The men let Maggie lead. She walked up to the front door, ringing the bell, while they instinctively remained at the foot of the steps. It took a moment, but the door opened.
"Hi, I'm Maggie Dressler. I run the Magpie Diner in town. I knew your mother. Well, only a little, but I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thanks," Duo said.
"Mind if we come in?" she asked.
"I'm kind of busy right now."
"Oh, we won't stay long," Maggie said, stepping forward, causing Duo to take a step back and allowing for the door to open fully.
Howard chuckled at Maggie's masterful technique. He'd have to remember to compliment her on it later. For now, he hurried up the stairs, with Heero close behind, and walked into the house.
"Nice place," Howard said, getting his first good look around.
The house was even larger than it appeared from the outside. The main room had a double-wide fireplace, cathedral ceiling and was decorated in autumn colors. A grand piano set in front of a row of floor to ceiling windows at the back of the house with a spectacular view of the pine trees and lake.
"I wasn't expecting visitors," Duo said, tucking a piece of hair behind his ear.
"We probably should've called," Maggie said. "But I had this freshly baked pie and thought it'd be nice to share it with you."
Duo looked shy and uncomfortable. He was dressed in tight fitting, faded blue jeans, and an oversized red sweatshirt, and his feet were bare. Maybe he looked more sleepy than shy, like he'd been napping.
"You've met Howard and Heero, right?" Maggie asked.
Duo's eyes settled on Heero. "The flower guy. We haven't been properly introduced."
"Heero Yuy," Heero said, extending his hand and meeting Duo's gaze.
Duo looked between the hand and Heero's eyes, hesitating just long enough for Heero to drop his hand back to his side.
"How about if I make us some coffee to go with the pie?" Maggie asked, her tone now sounding a little nervous.
"I can do that," Duo said.
"No, no. We barged in on you. Just point me in the direction of the kitchen."
"Through that door."
Maggie was gone in a flash, leaving the three men staring at each other.
"So... you like to fish?" Howard asked.
"I haven't fished since I was a kid."
"Heero here is a great fisherman," Howard said.
"Um, Howard!" Maggie called, poking her head out from the kitchen. "Could you help me in here?"
"I can do that," Duo said, taking a step toward the kitchen.
Howard rushed past Duo. "Nope, you stay put. I can help!"
Duo looked a bit dazed. "What was that about?"
"They want to be of help."
Duo turned to Heero, appraising him once again. "I didn't ask for help."
"Sometimes that's the best kind to get." Heero wasn't sure where that wisdom had come from, but it seemed to set things at ease.
He watched as Duo walked over to a couch and plopped down, the young man's long braid swishing behind him. Not knowing what else to do, Heero followed, sitting across from him on a matching couch. He was unhappy that Howard and Maggie had left them alone, and he kept looking to the kitchen in hopes of their quick return.
"What makes you so great?" Duo asked.
Heero's attention snapped back. "What?"
"That guy said you're a great fisherman."
"Oh, that. He was joking."
Duo leaned back in the couch, looking like the oversized cushions might swallow him whole. "But you do fish?"
Heero knew he should say something more, talk about what type of fish he caught or explain his method of lure selection, but he felt a little tongue-tied looking into that guy's eyes. They conveyed every twitch of emotion, making Heero uncomfortable and intrigued all at once.
At last, Maggie and Howard returned with coffee and pie, and a tray full of cups, plates and forks. The treats were set on the coffee table between the couches. Once everyone was served, Maggie sat next to Duo, and Howard settled into a large easy chair.
"You've outdone yourself, Maggie," Howard said.
"You say that about all my pies."
"That's because every one of them deserves a blue ribbon."
She shook her head and laughed. "Silly man."
"What do you think, Duo? I'll wager it's the best pie you've ever had," Howard said.
Duo was staring at his plate. Only one bite had been taken.
"Don't you like cherry pie, hon?" Maggie asked, patting Duo's knee.
"I like it fine," he said, quietly.
His voice was almost inaudible, and Maggie leaned in closer to get a look at his face. "Are you all right?"
"This... this tastes like mom's pie," he said, looking up with shining, sad eyes.
Duo set his plate down and got up. "Excuse me," he said, and quickly left the room.
Maggie, Howard and Heero stared at one another.
"Heero, you should go talk to him," Howard said.
"Me?" Heero asked, surprised.
"I'll talk to him," Maggie said, getting up. "It's my pie that made him sad."
Maggie followed Duo out onto the deck. He was leaning on the railing, his elbows set there, and his eyes fixed on the water before him. He looked older in profile than he did face on. The hint of baby fat that still clung to his cheeks was less noticeable from this angle.
"Your mother told me once that she wasn't good at making pies," she said, standing next to him.
"I always wondered why there weren't any dirty dishes after she made one."
"I'm sorry, hon. I just assumed you knew that she bought her pies from me." Maggie put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
"It's okay. It's nice knowing I can still get one of her pies." He looked at her and smiled.
Maggie relaxed a little at that smile. "You're welcome to come to my diner anytime. Or we can make a delivery." When Duo looked over his shoulder toward the house, Maggie laughed. "They're good guys. You should let them help. It looks like you could use some extra muscle around here." She nodded towards a fallen tree that was partially covering the deck.
"I haven't gotten around to worrying about that yet."
"Well, I'm sure if you asked---"
"No," Duo said, shaking his head and turning his eyes back to the lake. "I appreciate the offer, but I really just need to be alone."
Maggie frowned. "It must be difficult coming back here... without them."
"Yeah," Duo said with a small nod.
She put her hand over his, and felt it tremble. Their eyes met briefly, and then he pulled his hand away. Had it been shaking?
"Are you going to be all right by yourself?" she asked.
"Yeah, sure. I've been living on my own for years." He turned and headed back into the house.
She stared after him a moment. Her heart swelled with the thought that pies were not enough to make him well again.
~ ~ ~
"We can't just go out there with a chainsaw and expect he'll let us in," Heero said, watching as Howard loaded the chainsaw into the trunk. "If I saw us coming with one of these, I'd bolt the door."
"That tree is a hazard," Howard said, slamming the trunk closed. "Doesn't matter if we're not invited. Maggie wants us to take care of this."
Heero remembered the previous day and the way Maggie had looked after speaking privately to Duo. Her mood had changed. She had gone sad, adopting the same pitiful look that clouded the Maxwell guy's face. And now she was insistent that Howard and Heero go back out there and get things in order.
The fact that this project would take the better part of a day, eating up Heero's vacation, didn't bother him so much. What did bother him was the fact that he felt speechless around Duo. Not that Heero was a great conversationalist, but he knew a thing or two, and usually wasn't shy about sharing that knowledge. But when he was near that guy, Heero couldn't make up his mind what to say. Or maybe he was afraid that once he started talking he wouldn't be able to stop? Duo Maxwell made him feel conflicted... to the core.
"Isn't there a tree service he can call?" Heero asked.
"It's your good deed for the day. Now get in the car."
Heero's brow furrowed. Why was Howard so insistent? And Maggie, too. Hell, he should go fishing and forget about the whole thing, tree removal be damned. But instead, he was getting into the passenger seat of Howard's car and buckling up. Good thing he'd brought hiking boots, and the blue plaid shirt he was wearing put him in the mood to do the work of a lumberjack. Okay, he'd spend the day in some hard labor and then get a good night's sleep.
~ ~ ~
The door opened before they rang the bell.
"Hello there," Howard said, his voice pitched slightly higher from being caught off guard.
"Hi," Duo said, stepping onto the front porch. "Maggie said you were on your way."
"Did she? Well, that was nice of her to call," Howard said.
Duo's eyes swept over them, seeming to inspect his helpers. "Follow me," he said, coming down from the porch and going around the side of the house.
Howard nodded for Heero to go on ahead while he grabbed the chainsaw. Heero followed Duo, several paces behind, and found the view extraordinary. Duo was dressed in those tight jeans again, but this time with black combat boots and a black, long sleeved t-shirt that fit his torso like a glove. The outfit left little to the imagination, and then there was that braid wickedly brushing across Duo's ass as he walked. Heero swallowed hard. Duo had to be the most attractive guy he had ever met.
They walked under the fallen pine tree that was leaning on the deck, and then stopped to wait for Howard.
"When did this happen?" Heero asked, staring at the fifty feet of timber.
"This spring, I guess. I haven't been here since..." Duo's words faded, and he turned away toward the lake. "You could be fishing."
Heero followed his gaze and nodded. "Yeah, but today I'm more interested in being a good neighbor."
Duo turned back around quickly, his eyes flashing surprise at Heero's words. His mouth opened, lips curving into a cocky smile that seemed ready to smart off, but then suddenly snapped shut as Howard joined them.
"Next time you're carrying this damn thing," Howard said, practically dropping the chainsaw on the ground.
"You said you wanted to carry it," Heero said.
"Yeah, well, I'm getting too old for this." Howard bent backward, trying to soothe the strain on his back.
"There's no need for you guys to do this," Duo said. "I tried to tell Maggie that."
Howard tugged hard on the deck's railing, and looked up under where the tree had landed. "The rail's cracked. You'll need to fix it after the tree is removed."
Duo sighed. "Well, don't hurt yourselves. If you need anything, I'll be inside."
"Don't you want to supervise the work?" Howard asked.
Duo smiled, and flicked a look at Heero. "It's tempting."
But he didn't stay, and when the back door closed behind him, Howard turned to Heero with a bright smile on his face. "Did you see that?"
"What?" Heero asked.
"The way he looked at you just now."
Heero had noticed, but why did that matter to Howard? Was the guy an old pervert? "What are you up to?"
"What would I be up to?"
Heero's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure."
"Well, then let's get to work." Howard handed over a pair of gloves and a small hatchet.
Heero put on the gloves and eyed the tree as his mind wandered back to the look Duo had given him. His cheeks warmed. Could it be that Duo was attracted to him?
For an hour, the two men worked together, clearing branches and beginning the slow task of cutting and removing the fallen tree. And then, Duo came back out onto the deck, signaling for them to cut the chainsaw's motor.
"Is the noise getting to you?" Howard asked.
"Maggie's on the phone for you."
"Oh?" Howard gave Heero a puzzled look. "Guess I better see what she wants." Howard removed his gloves and went inside.
Duo leaned on the railing, looking down at Heero. The sun was bright behind Duo, and Heero had to raise his hand to his eyes to see him. They stared at one another, neither saying a word. Heero thought about all the things he could say to get the conversation started, like how nice the pine tree smelled as they cut into it, and how quickly the day had gotten hot. But instead, he just stared, content not to say anything as he watched a pendant dangle from a silver chain around Duo's neck.
Duo tilted his head and his braid slid over his shoulder, dangling down with the pendant. Heero wondered what the guy was thinking, why he was staring at him like that, but he'd have to answer the same question. He was doing just as much staring.
The stomp of Howard's boots on the deck straightened Duo's posture, and turned him away from Heero.
"Is everything okay?" Duo asked.
"One of my renters is having a problem. I need to head back."
Heero's eyes widened. He didn't want to head back yet. "What kind of problem?"
"The refrigerator's on the fritz." Howard scratched his head, looking at all the work left to be done. "You think you can do this on your own, Heero? I hate to leave you, but it's gotta get done."
Heero tried to hide his grin. "Yeah, I can do it. I don't mind."
Howard turned to Duo. "I don't think I'll be back today. Could you give him a lift?"
"Uh, I guess so," Duo said with a nod.
"Good." Howard came down the deck's stairs and gave Heero one last look. "Be careful with this thing," he said, patting Heero on the back. "I'll talk to you later."
"Yeah." Heero could've sworn he saw a look of glee in Howard's eyes. He supposed the man was happy to get out of the hard labor.
Once Howard was out of sight, Duo leaned over the railing again. "Thirsty?"
More than you know, Heero thought as he blinked up at him. He didn't trust his voice, so he just nodded. Duo went back into the house, returning a moment later with bottled water. He squatted down and handed it through the wooden slats of the railing.
Heero removed his glove, and reached for the bottle. His fingers brushed Duo's as the bottle was handed over, and he looked up shyly through his bangs to find Duo looking at him.
"Thanks," Heero said.
Duo nodded, watching him a moment longer, and then got up. He went into the house, leaving Heero to make headway on the project.
Heero blew out a breath before gulping the cold water. Damn, that guy was attractive.
~ ~ ~
Duo exhaled fully as he closed the door behind him. Wow, he had never been so intensely attracted to anyone before in his life. Heero had a ruggedness about him that scorched Duo's insides, and an absent-minded beauty that was mesmerizing. If it wouldn't have been so awkward, Duo might have stayed out on the deck, staring at Heero all day. And this was the same guy that had picked his geraniums? Duo guessed he had been so mad that day that he hadn't let Heero's looks register. He had just wanted the guy off his porch and away from his mother's geraniums.
Damn, this attraction was inconvenient.