When they had tired of the loft, Duo took Heero by the hand into the living room and set him on the floor in front of the coffee table. He then set a rectangular box on the table.
"Monopoly?" Heero asked, reading the lettering across the box's lid.
"Ever play it?"
"No. Am I going to now?"
"Yes," Duo said with his trademark smile.
"And why am I going to play it now?"
"Because it's your birthday and it's tradition to play games on your birthday."
Heero sighed, but the flash of disappointment on Duo's face changed his attitude fast. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt just this once."
"Great!" Duo lifted the box lid and took out the colorful playing board, laying it on the table. He lined up tiny pewter objects. "Now you get to choose a token."
Heero eyed the odd mix of shapes: battleship, wheelbarrow, horse and rider, car, train, thimble, cannon, shoe, Scottie dog, iron, and top hat. He reached for the wheelbarrow and Duo let out a yelp.
"What?" Heero asked, his hand frozen over the piece.
"I give you first choice and that's what you pick? The wheelbarrow!"
"Is there something wrong with it?"
Duo shrugged. "Geez, wouldn't you rather be the cannon or maybe even the Scottie dog?"
"Well, yeah. The token represents you in the game. Do you really think of yourself as a wheelbarrow?"
Heero scratched his head. This was beginning to sound like a session with Doctor Po. "Maybe I do."
Duo's brow furrowed and he gave Heero a curious look as he chose the horse and rider token. He placed it on the square marked, "Go."
Heero did the same with his wheelbarrow and then asked to see the rule book.
"I'll tell you the rules," Duo said.
"I'd rather read them for myself."
"Knock yourself out," Duo said, tossing the book to Heero and then counting out their allotment of money.
Heero was a quick study and within minutes the game had begun. Duo let him go first, since it was his birthday. It didn't take long for Heero to feel like he had a sense of the game. He was buying properties and railroads, and was considering adding houses to increase the value and amount Duo would owe when he landed on one of his squares.
"This is a game of luck," he said, as he watched Duo roll the die and move his piece along the board.
"There's a substantial amount of luck involved in the roll of dice which determines where your token lands on the board and therefore which properties you can own."
Duo was shaking his head. "Why are you over thinking this? It's just a game."
"I'm just commenting on the fairly random nature of the game."
"Ah!" Duo cried out as he hopped his horse and rider onto each square, counting out the roll of the dice. "I landed on Go! I get to collect $200!"
"Yep, if you land directly on Go by dice roll you get a $200 bonus."
"I didn't read that in the rule book," Heero said, flatly.
"Maybe you skimmed over that section."
"I didn't skim anything." Heero reached for the rule book.
"You're going to check?"
"Do you think I'm cheating?"
He leveled a hard gaze at Duo over the edge of the book. "I didn't say that."
"Then why are you checking the rules?"
"Because I want to see what it says about collecting $200 at Go."
Duo crossed his arms over his chest. "You're just mad because I'm winning. You know this game is as much about strategy as it is about luck."
"Then you do agree that luck is involved?"
"Well, of course! Unless you've got magic dice there's no way of knowing what number you'll get."
"Actually, the rules of probability apply to dice. For instance, seven is the most probable roll of two dice, occurring 6 out of 36 times."
Duo threw up his hands in exasperation. "What are you talking about?"
"You said that there was no way of knowing---"
"I know what I said!"
Heero could see the tension in Duo's shoulders and in the increased number of times he sighed and rolled his eyes. This fun, birthday game was quickly turning to torture.
"Maybe we should quit."
"Oh, sure, because I'm winning!"
"Duo, that's not what I meant...."
Ding-dong. They both jumped at the sound of the door.
"Who could that be?" Duo asked, his eyes wide.
Heero smiled, remembering. "It's our dinner. Treize had it specially made for us... for my birthday."
Duo was the first to stand, stretching his arms above his head and then holding out his hand to Heero. He pulled Heero up and they went to the door together. Heero disengaged the lock and opened the door. There were servers dressed all in white standing next to carts covered with silver trays.
"Happy birthday, sir," one of the young servers said. "May we bring in your dinner?"
Heero smiled and stepped back, watching as they brought in the carts. He was more excited for Duo than himself. He thought this would be a nice treat for them to share.
The wait staff offered to serve the meal, but Heero declined. He much preferred privacy and was certain that he and Duo would find ways of enhancing the meal. The waiters set the table with fine china trimmed in silver, elegant silverware, a silver candelabra with bees wax candles, linens, and of course, a vase filled with two dozen roses.
"From Mr. Khushrenada's personal rose garden," the server said and bowed.
They left the food covered, and an ice bucket with champagne and two crystal glasses.
"This is insane," Duo said, after the servers had gone. He lifted a silver covering off one of the platters. "Lobster!"
Heero's grin grew wider as he watched Duo remove lid after lid to reveal all the glorious courses of their meal. There was lobster, steak, shrimp in garlic butter, pasta, Caesar salad, freshly baked French bread with rose scented butter, white asparagus, and parsley potatoes. He was about to tell Duo not to open the dessert tray, but knew that Duo would protest.
"Freshly sliced oranges with chunks of dark chocolate, white chocolate mousse, and chocolate covered strawberry and rose petals!" Duo's eyes were impossibly wide as he admired the beautiful meal. "I can't believe this. Does he do this every year for your birthday?"
Heero shook his head. "I usually spend the day elsewhere. I guess he knew I'd be at home this time."
"Oh, Heero..." Duo walked over to him, slipping his arms around his waist. "Happy birthday," he said and covered Heero's lips in a soft kiss.
The kiss left Heero a little stunned. Duo's tenderness was almost magical like Treize had sprinkled fairy dust on the occasion, transforming them to another realm, while he sat in his Tower smiling down at them.
Heero blinked the strange illusion away and gently directed Duo to a seat at the table. He suddenly didn't feel worthy of all this. Like it was a dream and any second he would wake up to find that he was alone, terribly alone like he had been for all those years. He sat down at the head of the table, staring at the meal laid out before him.
The touch of Duo's hand on his knee broke the trance. He turned to Duo and nearly gasped at the beauty of him. He was dressed simply in a black polo shirt and jeans, but tonight by the light of the candles, his eyes were violet... like deeply colored flowers.
"You okay?" Duo asked.
"Guess I'm a little overwhelmed by all this."
"Yeah? Maybe you should let people fuss over you more, then you'd get used to it."
It was true that he had refused much of the fringe benefits that had been offered to him. His quarters and the private pool were all he had needed... until Duo came along. He imagined that Treize was pleased tonight to be able to offer this banquet not only to Heero, but to Duo as well. How very observant of his mentor to make a point of that.
"Let's eat before it gets cold," Heero said and passed Duo the asparagus.
~ ~ ~
Doctor J clicked his metal hand as he left the message on a technician's desk. He'd made sure not to be seen, even though it was not uncommon for him to be in this part of the laboratory.
This little surprise he had planned could be interpreted a number of ways, but J was hoping for something akin to pandaemonium. Word of Heero's growing affection and growing distraction threatened the very fiber of the Project. Even with a new operative arriving any day, Heero would still be the best in the world. If J had anything to do with it. There was no way he was going to let some boy with easy morals hijack the Project into the gutter.
It was understandable that Heero had found gratification, but disappointing that he could not see the threat it brought. And for Treize to call out J in front of the entire team was inconceivable. Had they all gone mad? Every day that Doctor Po's whore house continued meant they were one day closer to losing all they had worked years to achieve.
Treize's reprimand had taught J a lesson, but not the one he had intended. Grand gestures of regaining control were frowned upon, so J would do what he did best - be the puppet master behind the velvet curtains. It paid to be subtle.
~ ~ ~
Duo glanced at the pile of dishes and platters on the dining room table as he made his way into the kitchen. They had certainly made a mess last night, feeding each other lobster and steak morsels, and bringing the chocolate to bed and eating it off each other's bodies.
The apartment was quiet once again. Heero had a meeting with one of the scientists and Duo was left to sleep late. He had showered and was now dressed in blue jeans and a tight lavender, sleeveless shirt ready for another slow day. It seemed impossible to be hungry after stuffing himself with that lavish meal, but Duo supposed it was like the hunger he felt for Heero - easily renewed and infinite.
Making love had become all consuming. Nights were never long enough, and sleep was a nuisance, but food was very necessary. It brought a new level of enjoyment to their explorations. Amazing all the nooks and crannies that chocolate-covered rose petals fit into so nicely.
With a whoosh Duo opened the refrigerator door to find the leftovers. Somehow Heero had had the strength and presence of mind to stumble out of bed after their last round of sex to take care that the food didn't spoil. Duo had felt a twinge of guilt, but fell asleep so quickly that he barely remembered Heero coming back to bed.
Now, what to have for breakfast... He looked at the clock. Okay, it was a bit late for breakfast. He'd call it brunch. Instead of making up a plate he stood with the door open, peeking under plastic wrap and nabbing lobster and aspargus remnants. The lobster wasn't nearly as succulent now that it was cold. When Heero had dipped each mouthful in melted butter last night, Duo had sucked the offering from his fingers....
He peered toward the living room with a suspicious glare. He wasn't expecting anyone. Snatching another asparagus, he wandered to the door.
"Yeah?" he asked, holding the communication button down as he nibbled on the veggie spear.
"Well, come on in!" He stepped back and watched as the security system was bypassed and the door opened. Clementine appeared bright-eyed and cheerful in the doorway, wearing her cleaning clothes, but to Duo's surprise she was not alone.
She smiled timidly. "This is Jamie Collaird, a tech on the Project."
Duo blinked. Who? He'd never heard of the guy. "Okay. Well, Heero's not here right now."
"That's all right," Jamie said, holding out his hand in greeting.
Duo hesitated and then took the hand in a firm shake.
"Nice to meet you," Jamie said.
"You work with Heero?" Duo asked.
"Not directly. I work in the laboratories with the scientists."
The guy was young and polite and looked straight out of college. But Duo still didn't understand what he was doing here.
"Are you going to help Clementine clean up this mess?" he asked, hooking a thumb toward the table.
Jamie laughed. "No, Clem's my escort."
Clem? Duo thought that sounded a bit too familiar. He looked at his friend, puzzled. "You running sightseeing trips here now?"
"Oh, Duo, it's not like that. Jamie has some exciting news for you, and he asked me to bring him here so he could tell you in person."
Duo crossed his arms over his chest. "Lay it on me. What's your exciting news?"
"I've been directed to take you to Storage Bay 10."
Duo's heart thumped. "And what's in Storage Bay 10?"
Duo gasped and sputtered out, "W-what?"
"Isn't it exciting, Duo?" Clementine put her hand on his arm, looking up at him brightly. "It's like getting part of your life back."
He stared at her dumbfounded. Were they actually telling him that all this time his measly possessions were on site? Damn.
"Shall we?" Jamie asked, gesturing towards the door.
"I can't leave the apartment," Duo said.
Jamie smiled and took a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket. It seemed he'd thought of everything. Duo accepted the paper and opened it. Emblazoned across the top of the memo-sized sheet were the words: The Project. They actually had letterhead? But there was nothing written on the page. It was blank.
Duo held the paper up, turning it front and back. "What's this mean?"
"It's your passport."
"But there's nothing on it."
"Doesn't matter. It means that someone high within the Project team has given permission for you to come with me... and Clementine."
"I don't get it."
"What's to get, Duo? It's a gift. Just accept it," Clementine said, tugging at his arm.
He supposed that could be true. Everyone had been so accommodating lately. Miss Noin had joined him for lunch, and Treize had sent that delicious meal last night...
"Can I at least put on some shoes?"
Clementine and Jamie smiled, and Duo took that as a yes. He went into the bedroom and put on a pair of black loafers. When he returned to the living room, his escorts were waiting by the door.
"You're sure this is okay?" he asked, unable to get past the strange feeling in his gut.
"Of course, silly," Clementine said. "You'll be with me."
Part of him wanted to believe this was the sincere gesture they were making it out to be, and part of him thought they were leading him into a trap. When he wasn't looking they'd shove him into a laundry chute and he'd never be seen again. But that was impossible, right? Heero had made all sorts of guarantees.
Clementine took his hand and pulled him along into the hallway. He had gotten used to the safe passage he received with Heero, so maybe this was the next level of clearance?
His escorts walked on either side of him, Clementine eventually letting go of his hand. They took the elevator to a sublevel, and exited onto a wide corridor lined with glass doors. They walked along until they came to a warehouse operation. There were pallets loaded with wooden crates and men driving forklifts and wearing hard hats.
"It's this way," Jamie said, nodding toward another egress partially hidden by the stacked crates.
They were careful to walk the perimeter of the loading area to stay clear of the activity. They went down another corrdior, wide and industrial with doors marked in color-coded numbers.
"Here were are. Storage Bay 10," Jamie said. Without further hesitation he input a code on the access panel and the door's locking system disengaged with a distinct hiss as though the contents were under pressure.
"Uh, you go ahead," Duo said. He still wasn't buying that his belongings were here.
Jamie chuckled and turned the door's handle, opening it and automatically triggering flourescent lights overhead. Jamie went in first with Duo close behind, and Clementine stepping in last. The room was cold and smelled of filtered air. Stacked in rows, four high and five deep, were cardboard boxes. Duo walked up to the neat array, cocking his head to read the label on one of the box fronts.
Box 1 of 21
He blinked. Fuck, this was the real deal.
"I'll get us some chairs," Jamie said.
Duo nodded only half registering what the guy had said. This was his life or what had been his life before they had taken it away. So, this is what it boiled down to... twenty-one boxes. He looked to the right along the wall to a cluster of shoddy, second-hand furniture. The pieces looked more worn than he remembered. It had taken him months to find them by trolling the streets on garbage day. At the time, he had felt immensely proud of his frugality.
He shook his head not understanding what the point of this was. Why bare his former life out before him this way? Why let him touch a past he could never regain?
"Are you all right?" Clementine asked, placing her hand on his back.
"Why did you bring me here?"
"I thought you'd be glad... there must be something here that holds sentimental value to you."
He wanted to laugh at her, shove her aside, but he knew this wasn't her fault.
He lifted the lid off a box labeled Ephemera. Inside he found neatly stacked magazines, unopened mail and pictures he had taped to his refrigerator door. They had touched every single item in his life. Box after box he opened to find that every postcard, every fork, every piece of clothing had been inventoried, boxed and labeled. Who were these people? How had they gotten into his apartment? Why had his landlord let this happen?
And then he remembered Heero's words: You don't exist anymore.
The air filtration system kicked on, stirring Duo's bangs with a cool breeze from the ventilation above. This was a nightmare, a frigging nightmare and his friend Clementine just kept smiling at him like a loon.
Jamie returned with two metal folding chairs, setting them up near the boxes. "Here you go."
Duo was standing between two rows, his mind swirling. He needed to lay everything out before him. Re-assemble his life. Yeah, that's what it would take to put this in perspective. He wanted to remember. What had his life been like just weeks ago before he'd been snared?
He grabbed a box, it didn't matter which one, and dumped its contents on the floor. Baseball trading cards and cds in their jewel cases spilled onto the cement.
"Are you looking for something?" Clementine asked.
Duo waved his hand in the air, dismissing her intervention. He didn't want to be bothered. A lump had formed in his throat. He would stay here all day and into the night if that's what it took to touch each piece of his former life and assemble it back together.