Howard set down the cord of wood next to one of his rental cottages, and then stood up and stretched his back. Years of heavy lifting and bending were catching up with him, and one of these days he’d need to hire someone to do these chores for him.
He heard the roll of a car on gravel and turned to see Heero’s Volkswagen pulling up. Howard scratched his head. He hadn’t expected to see Heero until later that day, or maybe not at all. He watched as Heero got out of the car, shirtless, and slammed the car door.
"Sporting a new look?" Howard asked.
Heero looked up, surprised. "Uh, I lost my shirt."
"Lost it? Like in a bet?"
Heero shrugged and made a motion with his hand as if to shoosh Howard away like an annoying fly. "I’ll talk to you later," he said and turned to head into his cottage.
"You finish that tree?" Howard called to him. "I didn’t hear the chainsaw."
The question stopped Heero in his tracks. His shoulders tensed and he turned back. "I don’t think I’ll be going back there any time soon."
"Is that right?" Howard closed the distance between them, and lowered his sun glasses to take a good look at Heero. "I suppose that means you left my chainsaw at the Maxwell place?"
"And your shirt, too?"
Heero nodded again.
If he didn’t know better, Howard would swear the young man had the disheveled look of sex. Did he dare hope that his mission was nearing completion? And that Heero and Duo had connected in that way? But if they had, things weren’t looking good now.
"You don’t have to tell me your personal business---"
"Good," Heero said and began to walk away.
"But sometimes it’s good to bounce things off people. Get a load off your chest."
Heero sighed and looked back at him. "Like I said before, that guy has issues."
Howard cocked his head. "The Maxwell boy?"
"Yeah, Duo Maxwell."
"So... it didn’t work out for you two?"
Heero’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but Howard wasn’t threatened.
"It’s time for you to stop meddling," Heero said.
"Not sure what you mean." Howard tried to sound as innocent as possible, but he wasn’t sure he could fool Heero.
"I’m not going back over there, so you can let it drop -whatever it is you’re doing."
Howard still had the problem of what was wrong with these two young men, and why his mission to bring them together had hit another snag. He let Heero go, let him disappear inside his cottage where he’d think he was safe. Howard would approach him later when Heero had calmed down and regrouped a little.
~ ~ ~
Heero plopped on his couch, putting his head in his hands. He felt like crap, and it wasn’t entirely the fault of the brownies.
Maybe things had happened fast. Maybe this was all it was meant to be -a couple of quick fucks on a warm morning and move on. And maybe, just maybe it hurt like hell. He didn’t like what he had seen, didn’t like that Duo used drugs and passed them off to people unawares. He also didn’t like that Duo’s moods shifted like the wind. At first, he had chalked it up to snobbery, then to caution, but now he wondered how much of the bad behavior was Duo’s personality and how much of it was the drugs talking.
He had been right to not want to get involved, to see that Duo had issues. And yet he had barreled on ahead, not heedless, but certainly running on desire. In his line of work, Heero didn’t often encounter beautiful, worldly people, except for the occasional V.I.P. who wanted a personal tour of the space launch facilities. The people in Heero’s world wore lab coats, glasses, and khaki pants, not designer jeans, silk shirts, and Italian-made shoes.
But Duo wasn’t that easy to peg. Yes, the articles that Heero had read placed Duo in a different league than himself, but up close, Duo was vulnerable. He had the trappings of that other world -the clothes, the house, the cars, the drugs -but Duo the young man was so much more. His eyes shone with oceans of feeling, and his music seemed to be born out of his very soul. This was the guy that Heero wanted to connect with, had connected with for a few hours. This was the guy lost to grief and drugs, and living in a world Heero could never understand.
It was best just to pull another shirt from the dresser drawer and be done with it.
~ ~ ~
For three days, Howard hoped for a chance to talk to Heero, but the young man had eluded him. Heero had gotten up each morning before dawn and gone fishing, and somehow managed to return when Howard was not around. Howard had seen him out on the lake, solitary as ever. But today, he timed things just right, and accosted Heero as he approached the pier in the rowboat.
"Some small mouthed bass," Heero said, securing the boat.
Howard watched Heero gather his fish, pole, and tackle box. The young man barely looked up at him, seeming not to want this interaction.
"Gonna fry those up for supper?"
Heero glanced at him from under his heavy bangs. "Thinking about it."
"Maggie and I are just about to have hamburgers and corn on the cob. How ‘bout cleaning those and joining us for a feast?"
"Uh, sure," Heero said, stepping up onto the pier.
Howard carried the fish, leading the way up to his house. Maggie was there, sitting in a wicker chair on the deck. He liked her sitting there in her white capris and sandals, and that paisley print blouse. Ever since that morning she had brought him fresh made donuts, they had been spending more time together -outside of the diner. It was nice, damn nice, but he still hadn’t worked up the courage to kiss her.
"You joining us for supper?" Maggie asked, smiling at Heero.
"As soon as I get these fish cleaned."
"Go on in and use the kitchen," Howard said, handing the fish back to Heero. Once Heero was inside, Howard sat next to Maggie and lowered his voice. "This is our chance to find out what happened."
Maggie laughed and shook her head. "Hon, I’d sure like to know, but it’s none of our business."
"Since when ain’t it?" he asked almost indignant that Maggie would suddenly not be interested. "Maybe we can help."
She gave him that sympathetic look of hers, the one that said, "you’re a dear, but you’re in way over your head."
"I really don’t think there’s anything to do," she said. "Mrs. Stohlman told me that a moving van was seen at the Maxwell place."
Howard’s jaw dropped open. "A moving van!"
"Well, hon, it only makes sense for Duo to pack up and leave. As much as we’d like him to stay---"
"And I thought you were my ally in this."
Maggie smiled. "Of course, I am. But sometimes all you can do is set people on a course toward each other. They gotta do the rest."
Frustrated, Howard went back to tending the fire and put the hamburgers on. A few minutes later, Heero joined them with a plate of cleaned fish.
"You are a doll sharing your catch with us," Maggie said, admiring the filets.
"Just my contribution to the meal."
Heero handed the plate to Howard, and grabbed a beer from the small cooler before he sat down. Howard looked over his shoulder at Maggie, pleading with her to intervene.
She looked to the heavens as though seeking divine guidance, and then turned her attention back to her friends. "There’s been some activity at the Maxwell place."
When Howard didn’t hear a response from Heero, he chimed in. "Oh, yeah?"
"A moving van’s been over there," Maggie said. "I suppose Duo is getting ready to sell the place. He’s such a nice young man." Maggie leaned over and patted Heero’s knee. "You were sweet to help with that big ol’ tree."
"Got a ways to go on it, don’t you, Heero?" Howard asked.
"He needs to call a tree service," Heero said, taking a gulp of beer.
"I know it was a big job, but was there a problem?" Maggie asked.
"The guy has issues," Heero said.
Howard gritted his teeth. "You know, you’re gonna need to take that Jaguar back over there and get my chainsaw."
"Why can’t that guy come get his own car?"
"And how would he do that?" Howard laughed. "Last time I checked folks can’t drive two cars at once. Unless you brainiacs at NASA have figured something out that I don’t know about."
"I did notice the Jaguar," Maggie said. "Mind telling me how you ended up with it?"
Howard paused in his fussing over the burgers long enough to watch Heero’s reaction to the question. The young man was staring into his beer like he had lost his best friend. So, this thing, whatever it was, ran deep.
Maggie patted Heero’s knee again. "I see it now. He broke your heart." Heero’s head snapped up and his eyes flashed with the pain of Maggie’s diagnosis. "It’s okay," she said in her soft way. "These things happen. Want to talk about it? You’ve obviously had time to think on it with all the fishing you’ve been doing."
Heero looked over at Howard and then back to Maggie. "We... we made a connection, but I don’t want to get involved with a drug user."
Maggie’s eyes grew large. "Duo’s doing drugs? I hardly knew the Maxwells, but that surprises me. Do you know what kind of drugs?"
"Marijuana, and some pills."
Howard gave a snort. "Hell, we’ve all done a little grass."
Maggie shot him a sharp look and then focused back on Heero. "Those pills... could they be prescription? I mean, what makes you think they’re bad?"
"The way he was shaking before he took them."
Maggie’s brow furrowed. "I’ll bet a doctor prescribed them, but then, Elvis had a doctor prescribing his pills, too. Maybe I should go over there and check on him. Ask him about this straight out."
"Don’t bother. I already did, and he told me it wasn’t any of my business."
"That boy’s hurting," Howard said, waving the tongs at Heero. "I could see it in his eyes. Maybe a doctor gave him those pills for stress."
"You could be right, hon. Duo could be on something, because of the accident."
Heero rubbed his forehead as though a headache was forming. "I don’t know."
Howard knew he should leave it at that for now. The food was ready, and he encouraged everyone to get up and make their own plate. In moments, they settled at the table to enjoy the meal.
Maggie, bless her heart, steered the conversation toward more pleasant matters. She had a gift for finding just the right thing to say.
~ ~ ~
Maggie and Howard kept the conversation going, not seeming to mind Heero’s lack of participation. If anything, it seemed that they were trying to entertain him, make him feel better. He didn’t like knowing that they felt sorry for him.
He nodded at the appropriate times to indicate he was listening, but his thoughts were elsewhere, across the lake. Heero had spent the better part of three days fishing, thinking and staring at Duo’s house. He had glimpsed some activity there, but there was nothing to be done about it. He had concentrated on the way the sun reflected on the house’s windows and imagined he could hear Duo playing the piano.
These four weeks on Deep Lake of fishing, reading and relaxing, sustained Heero for an entire year. He looked forward to it like a man craving a cold beer at the end of a hot day. His work was so focused on space and the vastness of the galaxy to be explored that he guarded this time centered in nature... on Earth. It wasn’t entirely correct that he was a loner, or wanted to be alone. He genuinely liked the people he worked with, and even on occasion went out for drinks with them. But sometimes a man needed solitude to clear his mind, and re-charge.
He had never expected to find anyone out here. He had never looked or hoped for such a thing to happen. But then he met Duo. Heero had resisted the idea, resisted the immediate urge to get closer. He supposed it was inevitable after the stare down. A man only looks at another man like that when he wants something, and not just any something, but sex. And Duo had clobbered Heero with sex -great, glorious, hard sex. It would’ve been wonderful to have explored that more, to have upset his vacation routine with long, lazy days of sex with Duo.
It hurt to have it begin and end so quickly, and to realize that it had meant something more. But tonight, with Howard and Maggie’s insight, the first twinges of relief and hope were stirring again. Duo had been wrong to give him those brownies, but maybe it was more on the level of a college prank than a betrayal. Heero still wasn’t sure about the pills, but now that he thought about it, they looked ‘over the counter.’ Combined with grief, the drugs could be part of the cause of Duo’s erratic behavior.
A light touch on his hand brought him back to the meal.
"It’s time for you to go," Maggie said, smiling sweetly as she touched his hand.
"Go?" he asked.
"You’re thinking about Duo. You should go talk to him before it’s too late and he’s gone."
Maggie’s way of reading people was uncanny, and he supposed honed from many years of standing behind that counter listening.
"And bring back my chainsaw while you’re at it," Howard said, giving a wink.
~ ~ ~
It was a risk to drive the Jaguar and not know if he’d have a ride back. But what the hell, if he had to walk it would give him plenty of time to think. It was damn near dusk when he pulled up in front of the Maxwell place. No moving van in sight, just a sizeable rut along one edge of the driveway where a truck’s tires had dug into the exposed ground.
He was glad that he’d changed out of his fishing clothes. Surprised actually that Maggie hadn’t commented on his fishy smell at dinner. He had rushed home and put on a tan flannel shirt, jeans and athletic shoes. The choice of footwear was just in case he’d be walking back the several miles around the lake. He was grateful for his Boy Scout training.
There was a light on inside the Maxwell house, and Heero’s heart quickened. As angry as he had been the last time he saw Duo, his body still crackled when he thought of him. The scientist in him kept trying to analyze this thing, this attraction. Why had the sex been so great? Why couldn’t he stop thinking about Duo? Carnal desire seemed to override reason, but Heero felt this was more than simple lust, since there was nothing simple about Duo Maxwell.
He stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up at the door. How many times had he been in this very spot not knowing what to expect? He grinned, hoping that one more time wouldn’t hurt him. This was a lot like space travel, after all. You planned and crunched the numbers thousands of times, but at the end of the day it all hinged on that moment when the rockets fired.
He held his breath and rang the doorbell. In seconds it opened with a whoosh to find a surprised and confused Duo standing there.
"Oh, I thought you were the movers," Duo said.
Duo looked impossibly beautiful even with a frown on his face. His hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, and he was wearing faded blue jeans, and a finely tailored beige linen vest. Once again, his feet were bare.
"I heard you were moving, and thought I’d bring your car back." Heero pulled the keys from his pocket and held them out.
Duo nodded as he took them, stuffing the jingling key ring into his front pocket, and then opening the door wider. "You’ll be wanting this..."
Heero stepped up to the threshold and watched Duo walk over to an end table where his denim shirt lay neatly folded. He brought it back, handing it over.
The smell of detergent reached Heero’s nostrils and he felt a twinge of disappointment that Duo had washed his scent away. "Look I---"
"Hey, let’s not get into the whole thing," Duo said, holding up his hands. "We had a bit of fun, right?"
"Yeah," Heero said, softly.
Now Duo’s hand was on the door, preparing to close it. Heero’s heart thumped in his chest. He didn’t want to say goodbye... just yet.
"It’s none of my business, but I’m concerned about those pills you were taking."
Duo sighed. "You’re right. It’s none of your business. See ya, Heero." And the door began to close.
Heero stepped into the house, blocking the swing of the door with his foot. "Did a doctor prescribe them? Are you addicted?"
Duo barked a laugh. "What is this--‘60 Minutes’?"
"I want to know that you’ll be okay."
"I’m okay. Now beat it." Duo pushed the door, but it didn’t budge. "What’s your deal, man? We had sex. It was great. That’s it."
A grin twitched at Heero’s lips. "You thought it was great?"
"Yeah, I said so, didn’t I? But you don’t have to get all clingy. I have plenty of people to look after me already."
"It doesn’t look like it."
"Hey, just because I came up here alone doesn’t mean there aren’t hoards of people watching out for me night and day."
"And you’re tired of it."
"I needed a break from them is all." Duo threw up his hands in frustration. "You know what it’s like to need a break, right? That’s why you come here every year to fish and be alone. Well, I thought it would do me good to face my ghosts -on my own." He walked away then, heading toward the back of the house as if it no longer mattered what Heero did.
Heero watched him from just inside the door. He had the distinct impression that Duo was tired, not just of the so-called hoards who catered to him, but of making decisions. He was leaving this decision to Heero as though saying, "Have the sense to leave or the guts to stay."
Heero set the shirt down on the table and followed Duo’s footsteps. All the furniture in the house was covered with white sheets. What exactly had the movers moved? It looked as though the house was being made dormant, not ready to sell.
"So," Heero said, as he came within a few yards of Duo. "Have you faced your ghosts?"
"No," Duo said. He was turned to the grand piano, the only item that remained uncovered. "I just packed them away." He placed his hands on the piano’s body, leaning on it for support.
"When are you leaving?"
"In the morning," Duo said, quietly. His shoulders slumped forward, but Heero hesitated rushing to his side like he had in the kitchen days before.
Heero stared at Duo’s back, stared at the long mane of hair hanging to his rump. Duo’s body was in harmony with the instrument, standing next to it, leaning on it, as comfortably as hanging arm-in-arm with an old friend. Heero admired this co-dependence, one relying on the other to create music. He was in awe of Duo’s talent.
"Would you play for me... again?"
Duo peered over his shoulder with an amused smile. "What would I play?"
Heero swallowed hard, his nerves as solid as they could be in this moment. "‘Rocket Man’?"
Duo chuckled. "I might owe royalties if I play that again."
Heero laughed, too, and then held his breath as Duo pulled out the piano bench and sat down.
The keyboard cover was lifted with care, but then Duo placed his hands on his thighs.
Heero stepped forward, closing the distance.
"There is something...," Duo said, flicking a glance at Heero and then turning his eyes back to the piano. "I call it ‘Blue.’"
He laid his hands gently on the ivories. There was a moment’s hesitation and then he depressed the keys, causing a beautiful sound to fill the room. Then the uncertainty seemed to be gone, and Duo played a melody that was unfamiliar yet pleasing.
His hands and fingers moved with grace, and his entire being seemed caught up in the act of creating music. And then he began to sing...
Carried on summer’s wings
Lighting the morning sky
He came into this plain
Bringing blue calm and space
Covered in soft denim
A warmth that is strong and young
His lips taste of blueberry and spice
I sought the solitude in his eyes.
The song ended all too soon with the last note of the piano hanging and fading on the air. Heero’s cheeks were warm, embarrassed by this private performance, but also hopeful of its meaning.
"If I wrote poetry," Heero said, placing his hand on the piano. "That’s what I’d say about you."
Duo grinned. "Funny, ‘cause that song’s about you. It’s not finished, but that’s the gist of it." Large blue eyes looked up at Heero, seeming a little unsure. "I hope you don’t mind that I used you for inspiration. These days, I gotta take it where I can find it."
"And you found it in me?"
"Yeah." Duo stared at Heero a moment longer, and then turned his eyes to the piano. "I’m glad you came back - even if it was only to return the Jag."
"That’s not the only reason."
"Oh, and to get your shirt."
"As far as I’m concerned, you can keep the shirt."
Duo looked up, his eyes sharp. "Okay. So, you came for the sex."
Heero sighed. "The sex is great, but that’s not all." He leaned against the piano, wanting that closeness with Duo. "I like you."
A smile lit across Duo’s face. "Yeah? I like you, too." Duo scooted over on the piano bench, and nodded to the space beside him. Heero accepted the invitation and sat down.
"I may have overreacted about the brownies," Heero said.
"No, you didn’t." Duo put his hand on Heero’s knee. "I’ve been a prick, and not just to you. I’m not making excuses, but I get defensive about my life. My father gave me shit all the time."
Heero recalled reading about the argument between Duo and Solo Maxwell the night of the accident. It seemed a lifetime of disagreements had led to disaster.
"You don’t need to explain," Heero said.
"Yeah, I do. I’m sorry for how I acted." Duo looked down, seeming embarrassed by his actions.
Heero took his face by the chin and tilted his head up, smiling as their eyes met. "I bet you make life interesting for everyone who knows you."
Duo laughed. "You make that sound like a good thing."
"Well, I like a challenge."
"Oh, yeah?" Duo leaned in, slowly, as though unsure of his reception, but Heero was eager to renew what they had begun.
Their lips met in a languid kiss, filled with nips and warmth. Heero slipped his arms around Duo, pulling the slender body close, and moaning as the kiss deepened. Duo’s hands moved from his knee to around his back, tightening the embrace, but then broke the kiss, laying his chin on Heero’s shoulder.
"The pills were prescribed by my doctor after the accident."
"It’s okay, Duo."
"No, let me finish," Duo said, pulling back to look into Heero’s eyes. "I want to get rid of them. That’s why I’m leaving tomorrow. I found a program that will help."
"And when I get back, I’d like to see you again." Duo kissed him. "I don’t want this to be over. I want to see what other solar systems we might explore."
Heero smiled. "Then I’ll map us a course."
"And you’ll build me a rocket?"
"I told you, I only design them---"
Duo kissed him again. "Let’s pretend you’ll build me one," he said, licking Heero’s ear. "And I’ll ride your rocket to the stars."
Heero swallowed hard. "It seems it’s already under construction."
Duo’s hand slid to Heero’s lap and squeezed the bulge. "Mmm, to my exact specifications. I’m sure it’ll surpass the previous launches."
Heero groaned. "Hurry up or it’ll be a premature launch."
Duo laughed, but heeded the advice and quickly divested himself of his clothing and Heero’s.
"How’s this?" Duo asked, standing in glorious nakedness.
"Beautiful." Heero’s eyes raked over Duo’s body, and then glanced at the lights.
Duo got the message and switched them off, leaving only the deepest shades of sunset to light their way.
Heero straddled the piano bench, and then Duo straddled him, wriggling on his lap. Heero’s desire burned white hot.
"Time for blast-off," Heero said, holding his cock upright in launch position and waiting for Duo to engulf him.
"I’m yours, rocket man." Duo kissed him hard as he joined them, hanging on as Heero took him to the stars once again.
~ ~ ~
Across the lake, Howard and Maggie stood overlooking the water from his deck. Their eyes settled on the Maxwell house, visible only by the lights in the main room.
"Heero’s been gone awhile," Howard said. "What do you suppose they’re doing?"
"Talking," Maggie said, sounding hopeful. When the lights suddenly went out, she smiled. "Guess they’re done talking."
Howard’s grin turned into a full-blown smile, and then he and Maggie burst into laughter.
"Mission accomplished," he said, immensely proud of himself, and relieved.
"Not just yet," Maggie said, her smile turning wicked. She stood on her tiptoes and leaned into him, placing a soft kiss on his lips.
He was stunned. He’d spent days, weeks, and more imagining Maggie’s lips on his, and here she’d done it for him. Yep, Maggie was a great conspirator, and an even better kisser.
"Now you can say it," she said, kissing his cheek.
"You know, hon. About that mission of yours..."
He smiled. It had only taken twenty years, a youth’s sad eyes, and the prospect of getting closer to Maggie to do it, but he had done it. He had found the best path to heal life’s mistakes and miseries, and it started and ended with love -Duo and Heero’s love, and now his and Maggie’s.
"Mission accomplished," Howard said, and this time, he was the one doing the kissing.