Every few minutes, Heero glanced toward the back door. He wanted to see that guy again, wanted to get beyond being tongue-tied and actually talk to him. It helped that Duo seemed in a much better mood than the previous times Heero had seen him. Maybe that was due to Maggie's influence. She had a way with people, and had even talked Duo into letting them take care of his tree problem. So, Heero labored on for a man he didn't rightly know, but it felt good.
A couple of hours passed, and Heero was thirsty and wondering why Duo hadn't checked on him. He hesitated going to the back door and knocking, but he really needed something to drink if he was going to continue with this project.
He went up on the deck and knocked on the glass door. There was no response and he couldn't see Duo about, so he decided to go inside.
"Duo?" he called as he stepped into the kitchen.
He poked his head into the main room to find it unoccupied. He called Duo's name once more, and then went back into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. God, it really was getting hot out there. Maybe he should quit for the day and start fresh in the morning?
After drinking the water, he decided he needed to pee and ventured further into the house, occasionally calling Duo's name. Though there was no response, he managed to find a bathroom. With that taken care of he thought it best to find Duo and discuss continuing the work the next day. Duo was not in the living room where stacks of sheet music and photos lay haphazardly on the coffee table and floor.
It felt strange walking through the house unescorted. Obviously, the Maxwells had money and influence. The house was grand and tastefully furnished and there were photographs of famous people, and posters of Broadway plays framed on the walls.
He supposed it was possible that Duo had gone out, maybe into town, but it seemed odd that he would leave without telling him. So, Heero peeked into each room on the first floor, knocking on doors before opening them, and calling Duo's name. Then he looked up the oak staircase. Sunlight streamed in through large windows at the top of the landing, inviting Heero upstairs. He started his ascent slowly.
The stairs were well-crafted and did not creak as he made his way. On the landing, Heero looked both ways down the hall. Duo had to be here somewhere. He noticed one door was open, and decided to try that first.
He stepped into the doorway, tapping lightly with his knuckles, and froze. Duo was sitting in front of an open cedar chest. Clothes and boxes were spread around him, his head in his hands.
"Are you all right?" When Duo did not respond, Heero stepped closer. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I came in for a glass of water..."
Duo suddenly looked up, blinking tear-filled eyes at him. "Oh."
"I don't mean to interrupt, but I got concerned when I couldn't find you."
Duo wiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his black shirt and gave a crooked grin. "You were concerned?"
"Yeah, wandering through your house and all."
Duo shook his head as though he was clearing away cobwebs. "What time is it?"
"Man, I lost track of time." Duo set aside a white silk scarf and got up. "I was going through my mother's things. She was a clothes horse." He tried to smile again, but it never quite reached his eyes.
"I shouldn't have interrupted you, I'm sorry."
"Hey, it's no bother. I need a break." Duo stretched his arms over his head, and walked to Heero, putting a hand on Heero's shoulder. "Let me fix you lunch. You're doing all that work for me, it's the least I can do for you."
Heero grinned as warmth rushed through his shoulder from the touch. "Okay."
Duo led the way back downstairs to the kitchen, giving Heero another spectacular view of his behind.
"How about a sandwich?" Duo asked, as he opened the refrigerator and stared at its contents.
Duo rummaged through bins and came out with an armful of condiments, deli meats, and bread. He set them on the kitchen counter.
"What'll it be? Shaved ham or roast beef?"
Heero looked at the offerings and his mouth watered. He had eaten a bowl of cereal several hours before, but obviously it hadn't been enough to keep him going all day.
"Roast beef with cheddar cheese sounds good."
"On white?" Duo asked.
Heero watched Duo's hands as he made the sandwich, piling on the thinly sliced roast beef, and cutting a thick wedge of cheddar cheese.
"Mustard or mayo?" Duo asked.
Duo cocked his head. "Really? How about a slice of tomato? Or I think I've got pickles..."
"No, it's fine just like this."
Duo plated the sandwich, and then got a bag of potato chips out of the pantry. "What can I get you to drink? I've got Coke, milk, water... or I could make coffee."
"Water is fine, thanks." Heero said, putting a handful of chips on his plate.
Duo grabbed a tall glass out of a cabinet, and filled it with ice and water. "Have a seat." He nodded to the kitchen table by the window. "I'll join you in a sec," he said, starting to make a sandwich for himself.
Heero sat down and took a bite of his lunch. It always tasted better when someone else made your sandwich. He liked that Duo had cut it on a diagonal, making two triangles.
"How's the tree coming along?" Duo asked.
"A couple more hours ought to do it." Heero took a long drink of his water.
"You know Howard long?"
"I've been renting from him about five years now," Heero said, getting up to go to the sink to refill his glass.
As Heero walked past, Duo turned to put the bread back in the fridge and bumped into him. "Sorry," Duo said with a chuckle. "Wasn't paying attention."
They stood nearly toe-to-toe as Duo had only stepped back a little after the soft collision. Heero felt his body warm being this close, being able to look into Duo's eyes from little more than a hand span away. Those eyes were blue like Morning Glories in shade, and sad like a lost child's. But it wouldn't do to just stand here, staring at each other, so Heero stepped aside, only to have Duo place his hand on his forearm.
"Thank you," Duo said. His voice was gentle, almost cautious.
"I'm glad to help."
A small smile curved on Duo's lips and then he leaned in, closing the distance between them. Heero sucked in a breath, surprised, but he wanted to feel those lips on his. So, Heero met Duo halfway. At first, their lips merely met, pressing firmly together, but then Duo's started to move on his. Heero felt the other young man's body inch closer, the bread squishing between their bellies. The sound of the plastic bag rumpling made Duo laugh, and he pulled back, his cheeks blushing.
"Sorry, got carried away," he said, ducking his head and gathering up the other food on the counter, and returning it to the fridge.
Heero stared after him, his lips tingling from the touch. He didn't know what to say or do. Was Duo apologizing for the kiss? Had it been a mistake? Heero watched, bewildered, as Duo grabbed his sandwich and sat down at the table. He looked up at Heero and pushed a chair out with his foot.
"Come on, sit down," Duo said.
Heero refilled his glass with water and then sat down at the table to finish his sandwich. Duo started talking then, non-stop, all about the house, when his parents had built it, and the summers he had enjoyed here on the lake. It was nervous chatter, no doubt about it, but Heero let him go on, nodding appropriately and occasionally interjecting a comment or two. Duo was animated, and clever with his words almost like what he was saying was rehearsed. But Heero listened attentively, hoping for clues, and another chance to kiss him.
They finished lunch, and Duo cleared their plates, and then wandered back into the living room with Heero in tow.
"I don't think I'll finish the tree today," Heero said.
"Oh? Well, it's a big job." Duo walked over to the grand piano and leaned against it. "Will you come back tomorrow?"
"I can, if you want... Do you play?" Heero asked.
Duo smiled and cocked his head, eyeing Heero suspiciously. "You mean you don't know?"
Heero shook his head. "Know what?"
Duo chuckled and sat down on the piano bench, lifting the cover from the keys. He placed his hands on the ivories, hesitating just a moment, and then playing a few notes. The sound resonated in the large room. He looked over his shoulder at Heero. "What do you do... for a living?"
"I'm an engineer for NASA."
Duo smiled. "What sort of an engineer?"
"Space aeronautical engineer."
Duo's smile grew wider. "Fascinating. So, you build rockets?"
"I design them. Other people build them."
Duo's hands moved on the keys, playing a melody that Heero didn't know, but was pleasant to the ear.
"And what do you do, Duo?"
Again, that silly smile spread across Duo's lips. "You really don't know. I like that." His hands kept moving, now striking different chords as though he was re-learning the instrument. "I play the piano," Duo said, finally.
"And your parents? Were they musical?"
Duo's hands froze, almost like a hiccup, and then began to play again. "Yeah," he said softly.
Heero realized that was the wrong thing to ask. He remembered hearing about the accident, and wanted desperately to change the subject, and get Duo yammering again.
"What are you playing?"
Duo sighed. "Nothing."
Duo's tone was suddenly cold, and Heero thought he saw a slight tremor in Duo's hands. In a heartbeat the mood in the room had changed, and Heero got the feeling that he had overstayed his welcome.
"Maybe I should go now," he said.
Duo stopped playing and looked up at him. "Yeah, I think you should."
Heero blinked. He didn't have a car, and Duo had promised to take him home. But right now he didn't think he should ask for any favors. "I'll give Howard a call. I'm sure he'll come get me."
"Oh, that's right," Duo said, giving another sigh. "I'll take you back."
"No, that's all right---"
"I said I would." Duo got up from the piano. "Come on."
Heero followed dutifully as they walked though the house to the attached garage. There were three cars parked inside, each one nicer than the next.
"Mine's the blue Jaguar," Duo said, opening a lockbox and grabbing a set of keys.
They walked over to the car. Heero opened the passenger side door, but hesitated to get in when Duo didn't move around to the driver's side. Duo stared at the car, his hands now truly shaking.
"What is it?" Heero asked, worry spiking in him.
Duo swallowed and looked into Heero's eyes. "I can't drive you home."
"That's okay, I'll call---"
"No," Duo said, holding out the keys. "Just take it."
"I can't take your car."
The look in Duo's eyes became fierce. "Please... I'll get it later."
"Just drive it yourself! Okay?"
Heero's eyes widened at the intensity of Duo's words. "Okay, okay."
The keys were dropped in his hand. Duo stormed out of the garage, hitting the automatic garage door opener as he fled. Heero stared after him, his heart pounding as his mind turned over the scene. What the hell had just happened? Was this Maxwell guy nuts?
Heero shook his head. He didn't want to drive this expensive car back to his cottage, but he really didn't think it would be a good idea to go back into the house to call Howard. And he certainly didn't want to walk home.
"Damn it," he said, slamming the passenger door shut.
He walked around and settled himself in the driver's seat. The black leather welcomed his lean body, and he suddenly felt lucky. He started the car, hearing its smooth hum and grinned, quickly forgetting his nervousness. He pulled out of the garage and started down the long, gravel drive, and was tempted to take the car the long way around the lake, but decided not to risk it. The Jaguar handled beautifully, and he couldn't help but wonder how Duo would look behind the wheel, or for that matter, bent over the hood.
"Fuck," Heero said, as he arrived back home, shaking the image off. He parked the car as close to his cottage as possible, and went inside.
~ ~ ~
Early that evening, Heero went out onto his deck, and looked down the row of cottages to see Howard firing up his grill. He decided it'd be good to talk, and walked down the shoreline to visit with his friend.
"Hey," Howard said. "You alone?"
"Yes," Heero said, coming up on the deck. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"I saw the Jag."
"Oh, yeah." Heero leaned back against the deck's railing. "Duo preferred that I drive myself home."
Howard blinked as he waved a paper plate over the coals to quicken the flames. "Should I ask?"
"Why not? I know you're dying to."
Howard chuckled. "Anything you want to tell me about?"
Heero's mind flashed on many things -the tremble of Duo's hands, the sadness in his eyes, the unfinished work on the pine, and that kiss, especially that kiss. But he chose not to mention any of them.
"I don't think he likes to drive," Heero said.
"Impossible. How can anyone not like to drive a Jaguar?"
Heero smiled. "Yeah, it's a sweet ride."
Howard unwrapped some butcher paper to reveal bratwurst. "I've got plenty. Want to join me?"
"Thanks. I'd like that."
Howard grilled the brats, and served them up on buns with raw onions and mustard, and cold cans of beer. They sat staring out at the lake, and as the sun began to set, Heero noticed light at the Maxwell place.
"So, something happen between you two?" Howard asked.
Heero shot Howard a surprised look. "Like what?"
"Oh, I don't know... anything."
Heero's brow tightened. Howard was being way too persistent with his questions. "What do you mean by ‘something'?"
"Oh, you know... anything."
"No, I don't know." Heero set down his beer. "What are you up to?"
"Hmm?" Howard took a bite of his brat.
"That whole ‘let's help out a neighbor' routine is suspicious."
"You don't think I'd help someone out?" Howard asked.
"Well, you didn't really. You got me over there and left as fast as you could."
"There was an emergency. It couldn't be helped."
Heero smirked. "Did you get that stove fixed?"
"Yep, but it took me most of the---"
"Ha! You told me you needed to fix a refrigerator!" Heero got up from his chair, his cheeks burning with the discovery of his friend's trickery.
"Well, Heero, it was just a miscommunication. I thought it was a refrigerator..."
Heero's eyes narrowed. "Tell me what's going on."
Howard's gaze turned to the lake.
"Why all the maneuvering?" Heero asked, anger rising in his veins.
"Shh," Howard said, holding up his hand. "Don't you hear it?"
"Hear what?" Heero asked, knowing this was probably just one more trick to distract him.
"Ah... there." Howard smiled. "It's a piano."
Heero blinked and turned toward the lake. He quieted his pounding heart and listened. Yes, he could hear a piano, too.
"The Maxwell boy is playing again. That's a good sign," Howard said. He looked up at Heero. "It's because of you."
This time Heero held up his hand to silence Howard. "What's he playing? It sounds familiar."
Howard turned an ear toward the music and listened for nearly a minute. "It's ‘Rocket Man'."
Heero's eyes widened. "‘Rocket Man'?"
"Yeah, by Elton John. Great song."
Heero was frozen, entranced by the melody. There was only the music, the piano creating the song, but he knew it well enough for the words to come back to him...
Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it's cold as hell
And there's no one there to raise them if you did
And all this science I don't understand
It's just my job five days a week
A rocket man, a rocket man
And I think it's gonna be a long long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I'm not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I'm a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone
Damn, was Duo playing that song for him? It couldn't be.
Howard tapped Heero's arm gently and smiled. "Sounds like you made an impression."
A shiver raced through Heero. He wanted to believe it, but it had to be a coincidence. "He's just thinking about rockets, because I mentioned I worked for NASA."
"That boy hasn't played the piano since the accident. He meets you, and now he's playing again... and of all the songs to choose. Oh, yeah, it's for you."
"Stop saying that."
"Why? Isn't it nice that he's interested?"
"Interested?" Heero shook his head. "I knew you were up to something."
"What's wrong with wanting to bring two people together?"
"What makes you think I'd be interested in a guy? Or him in me?"
Howard laughed. "Maggie Dressler's got your number, and everyone else's in this town."
Had Maggie let his secret slip? Or was it that obvious that he was gay? He knew now that Duo was, but he didn't want his hormones getting away on him.
"That guy has issues," Heero said, trying to quell his own racing hopes.
Howard gave a snort. "I think you should go back over there."
"I can't do that."
"He's practically begging you." Howard nodded to the Maxwell house and the music that was spilling over the lake.
"Stop playing matchmaker. I like my life the way it is." Heero stepped off the deck, heading back to his cottage.
"Whatever you did, you helped him, Heero. It'd be a shame not to follow through."
Heero's back stiffened at Howard's words, but he didn't turn back or respond. It was no one's business. He'd done fine on his own, and he certainly didn't want Duo's problems.
~ ~ ~
Heero stared out over the lake before going inside. The music had stopped, but in his mind he could still see Duo's hands on the keys -the long, pale fingers gliding over them. Not delicately, but with such a knowing touch that it chilled him to think of them now. How would those fingers, those hands feel on him, playing him?
He shook his head. It wasn't like him to be foolish, to feel such longing. He was happiest hunched over blueprints or staring at a computer screen while working out schematics, and testing theories. He didn't have time for attraction, at least not in his regular life. But here, on vacation, maybe it was okay to pursue such things.
He turned to his cottage with the intention of going in and reading until he fell asleep, but he hesitated. He felt restless, and for the first time in years didn't want to be alone. The realization surprised him, but only long enough to set him in motion toward town. The three-quarter mile walk would do him good, and give him a chance to sort things out.
The diner was surprisingly busy for seven o'clock. Usually folks around here ate supper early and were home before dark -one of the quirky things that made Deep Lake so different from the city.
Heero settled on a stool at the counter and grabbed a menu out of habit. He looked it over, but wasn't hungry, and set it back in its metal holder. He was about to leave when Maggie swung by.
"What can I get you, hon?" she asked as she leaned her hip against the counter.
For a split second, Heero thought he might say, "I could use some answers," but instead he said, "I'm not hungry. I just ate."
Maggie nodded, appraising him gently. "Got room for pie?"
"There's always room for that."
"Good," she said with a smile. "Today, I've got banana cream and strawberry rhubarb."
She gave him a long look before heading off. In less than a minute, the slice of pie and cup of coffee were set before him. "You must be tired from all that work today."
He nodded and took a bite of the pie. It was a lovely blend of textures and tastes on his tongue, and for a moment he thought these sensations could wipe away his troubles.
The longer he sat there, eating his pie, and washing it down with the rich, dark coffee, the more he knew he had to talk to Maggie. If she truly had everyone's ‘number' in town, then maybe she'd have some answers. He didn't like that Duo Maxwell had stirred things up in him. He preferred routine, and these feelings had the potential of taking him way off course.
When she came by to re-fill his cup, he caught her eye. "What do you know about that guy?"
She paused, but seemed to know instinctively who he was talking about. "Oh, more than my fair share thanks to my niece over in White Lake. She's a big fan."
"So... he is somebody?"
Maggie chuckled. "We're all ‘somebody,' hon. But yeah, he is."
Just then an order came up, and Maggie stepped away. Heero's heart was beating a little fast. He was uncomfortable asking these questions, especially with so many people around. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. He should finish his pie and head home. A good night's sleep would clear this up.
A couple more bites and he was done, and heading for the cash register. Even though Maggie was busy with customers at the counter, and another waitress was waiting on folks in the main part of the diner, Maggie always worked the register. She frowned at him as he handed over his money.
"Got plans tonight?" she asked.
"Just some reading."
She nodded, and hesitated handing back his change. "You really never heard of Duo Maxwell?"
"Nope," he said, a little impatient now.
"But you'd like to, right? Know about him, I mean."
"Yeah, I guess so." He hoped his voice sounded sufficiently nonchalant.
"Well," she said with a smile. "If you're not in a rush, you could do a little research on my office computer."
He resisted the urge to take her face in his hands and kiss her. Computer access was exactly what he needed. If Duo Maxwell was the slightest somebody, Heero could find him on the Internet.
"Thanks," he said.
Maggie's smile grew wider. She gave him his change and nodded for him to follow her through the diner to her office. She opened the door and turned on the overhead light. The room was small, part storeroom and part office. The desk was tidy with an inbox for unpaid invoices and another marked ‘miscellaneous.'
She sat down at the desk, and booted the computer. "I'll trust you not to surf for porn."
He laughed, thinking it a joke, but when she raised an eyebrow at him, he knew she meant business. "No problem."
She left him alone then, without another word. He could see why Howard might conspire with Maggie. She was perceptive and discreet.
It didn't take Heero long to discover that Duo was a big somebody. He'd won a Grammy for "Best New Artist of the Year," and had sold millions of records. Page after page of search results reinforced Duo's popularity and notoriety as a pop music artist. Duo's parents were equally famous in the world of Broadway musicals. The Maxwell Family was a tour de force, and when Dorothea and Solo Maxwell had died in that tragic accident just nine months ago, the repercussions in the entertainment industry had been huge.
Heero felt overwhelmed and disappointed. There was no way that Maxwell guy would be interested in a dull, space aeronautical engineer. Duo Maxwell was used to a glamorous life and all the perks that came with fame, money and good looks. Heero didn't have a chance in hell.
He pushed back from the desk and sighed just as Maggie walked into the room.
"What is it?" she asked.
"He's too much somebody for me."
"Well, you're not nobody." She sat on the corner of the desk, setting her hands in her lap. "I guess his fame doesn't faze me, because I remember him as an awkward teenager. He's just like anyone else."
Heero doubted that very much. From what he'd read, and seen of Duo Maxwell, he was anything but ordinary. And the mood swings he'd witnessed were evidence of someone who was used to getting his way.
"Thanks for letting me use your computer," he said, getting up from the chair.
"Yeah, I've read enough."
Maggie frowned. "So, in less than an hour, you think you've done enough research to know him?"
"Heero," Maggie said, putting her hand on his arm. "I think you like Duo."
"What if I do?"
"Then don't let what you've read on the web discourage you. I only meant for it to enlighten you a bit."
His mind flashed on the articles about the wild parties Duo attended, the accolades he received from the music industry, and the tension between Duo and his father, Solo. Heero knew he had barely scratched the surface of Duo's life, but even this glimpse was enough for him to know he didn't fit in.
"Maggie, don't worry about this. I'm just here to fish." He patted her hand on his arm, and walked out of the office.
He was heading down the street to his cottage when she came running up to him.
"Here," she said, breathless as she handed him a compact disc. "Listen to this."
He looked at the case. "Duo Maxwell?"
She smiled and shrugged. "I know. I'm as relentless as a pit bull's bite." She turned on her heel to head back up the hill.
"Hey," Heero said, waiting for Maggie to look back. "If I give this a listen, you owe me."
"You think it's that dangerous?"
He knew it was. He could see the movement of Duo's fingers even now.
"Name your price," she said.
"Ask Howard out."
Her breath caught, and then she laughed. "Whatever for?"
"You'd be doing us all a favor." And with that he turned and continued on his way.