Disclaimer: The boys belong to Bandai/Sotsu/Sunrise, honest.

Notes: Detailed notes are provided with the Prologue to this fic.

"Daydreams...like books in the shelf of my mind"
--Lolah Burford, 'Edward, Edward'

Chapter Six
by D.C. Logan

"Favorite movie?" Duo popped his head out from the other side of Mystery and Suspense to see Heero's expression, but Heero's face was mostly obscured by the newspaper he was reading. Heero rattled the paper and lowered it, pleased to note that Duo was interested in his likes and dislikes.

"Metropolis I think. Yours?"

Duo had ducked back behind the shelf, and Heero could just make out the sounds of books being shifted shelf to shelf and watched as a hand came over the top to pull new volumes, two at a time, down below his line of sight.

Afternoons had shifted to this, a quiet balance of thoughts and opinions traded back and forth between tasks and customers.

"Mmm... New or old?"

Trowa worked the late afternoon to night shift, and often as not, Quatre worked alongside him. Heero watched them with interest, he'd never known a couple that was so comfortable trading affection in public as these two were. The odd thing was, no one who came into the store either seemed to notice or seemed to mind. When Duo's sense of humor was added to the general sexual innuendo they bantered across the counter, afternoon conversations often turned downright risqué--at least during the times the store was empty of any but usual customers. The regular crowd often chimed in, pushing the limits of the conversation to obscene levels on an occasion or two. All in jest and fun. Heero absorbed it all like water into dry earth.

"Heero, you want another coffee?" Trowa waited for a reply. Heero looked back at him, surprised to be included in the late afternoon ritual. He nodded, and shifted to retrieve his wallet, but Trowa's voice stopped him. "Naah, I've got this round, you can buy later in the week," he called out as he bolted for the door. Duo shifted against the bookcase, caught by the look of pleased bewilderment on Heero's face, and made a mental note to include him in snack and food runs more often.

Trowa snapped his fingers in front of Duo's face and grinned widely at Quatre as Duo refocused with a lurch of his head and an abused exclamation.

"So, it's not like you're fixated or anything, right?" said Trowa.

Quatre giggled, then tried to muffle the sound, but Duo thought that it only made him sound like a hyperventilating cat with hiccups.

Heero had left for the day, claiming a personal errand that he had to run. Duo missed having him around already, and it had been only forty minutes since the door had closed behind him. The evidence was damming. Hell. He turned to Trowa and leaned against the counter, turning serious.

"You know that kind of giddy excitement that hits you when you first meet someone you think might become important to you--that sense of exploration and needing to know more?"

Trowa looked at Quatre seriously and nodded. Quatre grew silent.

"I'm there; but I'm not sure he is." Duo crumpled the paper he'd been doodling arrows and lines on and pitched it into the trash bin without noting if it was a two- or three-point shot. He shuffled around the counter to sit in Heero's abandoned chair. "And I don't want to scare him off by saying the wrong thing right now. Know what I mean?"

Trowa thought about what he'd seen of Heero, how he acted around Duo, and rewound his memory to see if there was anything that could be said to ease Duo's sense of unease, but nothing came to mind.

Duo, waiting, gave up and walked to the storage room for his coat. It wasn't until he was at the door and had his hand on the latch that Trowa spoke.

"If something is meant to happen, it will."

Duo looked back at his friends, standing alongside each other and looking hopeful for his sake, and nodded once in reply. It wasn't what he wanted to hear right then, but it was honest, and he could respect that.

He draped his coat over his arm and headed out to the coffee shop across the street. Dorothy waved him over to his new regular seat at the table in the back that he'd shared with Heero on that day weeks before. He draped his long coat over the back of the neighboring chair for company and shifted the dessert menu and drink advertisements about to his liking... thinking.

It had been an interesting few weeks in the shop. Very interesting. He and Heero had spent a great deal of time together, interacting and exploring each other's interests; and they'd discovered that they had rather a great amount in common. Duo wanted to explore their differences further both intellectually and mentally, but wasn't sure if he should. He wanted, no needed, more information before taking that perilous next step and committing himself to the game. He dropped his head into his folded arms and rested against the cool tabletop until Dorothy broke him from his reverie.

"Girl problems or guy problems?"

Duo groaned and lifted his head. Dorothy was holding a steaming cup of coffee out to him and looking concerned. Duo accepted the gift with all the reverence due it, and sipped at the edge of the cup while gathering his thoughts. "Yeah, you remember that guy I dragged in here a few weeks ago?"

"The quiet one?" She looked into the left side of middle distance, remembering. "Pretty guy, moved well, _great_ ass?"

"Yeah, that's him." Duo dropped his head back to the table. "I think I've gone and done something stupid."

Dorothy sat down in the chair opposite Duo, curious now and attentive. "What? It's not like, I don't know, a fetish or kink or bondage thing or something like that is it?"

Duo's shoulders twitched, and he gradually picked himself up from the table and leaned back in his chair, looking serious. Very serious. "I think I've fallen for the guy."

"Oh, is that all?" Dorothy was clearly disinterested in anything that tame and ordinary. Bondage would have been _much_ more exciting. However, this was Duo, and he seemed to take his life so seriously at times. Dorothy stood, dismissing herself from the table, but looked down at Duo. "You really look like a tiramisu today, interested?"

Duo didn't even have to think twice, "No, sorry, I gotta run. Thanks for the coffee though, and the talk."

Dorothy watched Duo's retreat. What talk? He hadn't really said anything.

Duo watched the store from his perch behind the counter. Heero was working his way through the morning paper back to front; he looked relaxed, happy, content. Duo took a mental snapshot and filed it away under 'quiet morning'. He wasn't any closer to making a decision, well, he was afraid that he'd already made one, but that wasn't something he wanted to think about at the moment. He'd found himself in the new habit of saving up moments while around Heero so he had them to relish and re-explore after he'd left for the day. Duo packed away all those bits of memory and derived immense pleasure from thinking about all the little things; walking while matching Heero's stride step for step, unintentional at first, then by intent; catching Heero writing cryptic little notes on napkins and slips of paper; discussing the merits of varied and sundry books with Trowa and Quatre. All the stuff he didn't want to forget; all the things he needed to burn into the fabric of his mind.

Duo had also caught Quatre watching him even more carefully recently, and Trowa had pulled him aside earlier that week for a word of advice. Warning him that they both saw the potential for Duo to get badly hurt by this if it went badly. What went unsaid was that they feared that it would, but trusted Duo implicitly enough to let him make his own decisions. Duo had told them frequently that he'd been content with his life and had given up hope of finding someone else, even in potential. Deep within though, he admitted slowly to himself that he wanted at least a small measure of what Trowa and Quatre had together. They had it, they knew it, and they wanted everyone else to share in that. Duo had been a bit of a disappointment, remaining staunch in his resistance until a blue-eyed man with shy good looks and the manners and intelligence to match had literally walked through his front door.

For better or worse, Heero had managed to alter Duo's perception of his own life from that day forward. There was no turning back now. Duo was tired of pretending to be normal. Tired of doing all the things that smart people did to try to fit in with society at large; the same way he'd learned to place his real self aside at the door every morning before walking out into the world. Here was someone he suspected he could be himself with no masks, no shelters, no diversions. The man was extraordinarily dangerous in that regard. Besides, he loved watching the way Heero moved; he was so... fluid.

Duo reviewed his thoughts again later that week--remembering that feeling of relief he'd had when he'd decided on starting a new life for himself three years before. How he'd finally admitted that he wasn't going to pursue the path that others expected him to take, that he was going to start his store, live content with small means, and do his best to take every day as it came to him without prejudice against it. He'd done that; his safe settle point had evolved into his daily life. It had taken work, tears, and perseverance, not to mention the help of his friends. Now this guy was screwing up his entire system, and Duo had to admit that he found it exciting and somewhat dangerous to follow the new direction that this possibility had opened up to him. He hoped to hell that this guy was worth all the trouble he'd caused him. He rather suspected he would be though.

Heero knew something was up.

The way Trowa and Quatre shared a quick grin every time Heero brought up the fact that someone had moved the sculpture should have been his first clue. The fact that it wasn't there every day of the week should have been his second, but he never thought that far about it.

No, his introduction to Sand had come as a complete and utter shock.

They'd taken to including him in their daily lunch run. As a group, they'd debate the relative merits, advantages, and disadvantages of the local take-out industries, evaluate their budget, vote on a runner, and then sit around the shop with their papers and napkins and other consumables. The book-buying public never seemed to mind finding anywhere from two to four men sitting around and eating their lunch in public view--an observation that continued to amaze Heero. Both that it was done, and that he participated willingly in the process. He'd been quietly munching his way though his sandwich (after removing the onions, they always forgot and added them on) and listening carefully to a lively debate on American versus European interpretation of copyright law when he opened his eyes and looked in front of him. There was a large dog sitting about three feet in front of his chair. He made the statue connection almost immediately thereafter; but not before dropping his sandwich to his lap and making a variety of un-masculine noises that attracted the attention of everyone in the store. Trowa cracked a smile, Quatre beamed, and Duo whooped with laughter. Heero turned pink and pointed at the dog.

"What is that?" Okay, that sounded stupid. It was just that he couldn't figure out what a dog was doing in a bookstore, or why it wasn't jumping and drooling and barking like all the other dogs he'd seen. This one just had a weird catlike presence; and it was staring at him.

Duo took pity on Heero and walked over to him, patting the dog on her narrow head in passing. He sat on the chair positioned next to Heero's and waved grandly at the stationary cream-colored dog. "Heero, may I present Sandrock; Sandrock, this is Heero." To Heero's amazement, the dog lifted a paw hopefully and held it in midair for a moment before giving up on him and returning to her plaintive stare.

"She's Trowa's. He rescued her off of the Wonderland race track a few years ago. Then he and Quatre lost their apartment two months ago and their temporary place doesn't allow pets, so she moved in here and we all sort of take turns caring for her. She's so quiet that most people don't realize that she's real. She must consider you part of her family by now, I don't remember her begging from anyone before... besides us I mean."

"This... is begging?" How odd. She didn't even look like a real dog--all thinness and short pale fur and large brown liquid eyes. Eyes that were studying the sandwich laying in disarray across the napkin on his lap. "Can I give her something? Will she bite? Can I touch her?"

Quatre moved behind Heero's chair to watch the introduction up close, and to see what Sand thought of him. She was a good judge of character; that she'd chosen to approach him was very telling.

Duo barked a laugh. "Yes, this is begging, at least for her. Only give her something if you want a friend for life. She'll pester you forever if you give her cheese. No, she won't bite you. Yes, she likes to be touched." Duo's face brightened as he watched Heero tentatively hold out a sliver of cheese to the dog. She, for her part, delicately tongued it from his fingers and scuttled a foot closer to his chair. It was charming to watch, the old hand teaching the new convert.

"She's a part-time therapy dog as well, or we wouldn't risk having her loose in the store like this." Trowa joined the others in appreciating his dog. "Quatre and I take her on visits to local nursing homes and children's hospitals once a week. She had to pass all sorts of obedience, tolerance, and temperament tests before we could get her certified; but it's all been worth it. Right now she's sleeping in a crate in the store room most nights, at least until we can find a new place where she's welcome." Trowa watched Heero's gentle touch on Sand's head and neck, exploring the textures of her face while she waited patiently for another part of his sandwich. "Duo's lease doesn't allow for animals either, so it's a secret. We just pretend to take her home everyday and hope that our landlord never comes in on a day when she's visiting the store."

Heero paused, and then resumed his stroking as Sand impatiently bumped her head against his stilled hand. He nearly smiled, but fought down the temptation to inform them that both of the building's owners had recently been in the store, and neither of them had left the wiser--until now. He'd have to say something to Wufei about modifying Duo's lease to allow for Sand. It was the very least he could do.

He wasn't gaining much headway on his latest novel, but Wufei had been fielding all the questions coming in from his publisher, and Heero was still writing during the evenings. He just couldn't resist the lure of spending the day in Duo's company. They'd spent a portion of every day talking, and he was startled at the ease with which they'd been able to interact and explore each other's interests. He'd found himself delighted by the similarities and encouraged by friendly debate and argument to explore their differences.

They'd both gone out into the world and made their mistakes and had retreated to a position of guarded comfort, taking pleasure in the familiar and normal routines of their lives. Alone, not really isolated, but somewhat sheltered, and at this point in life, hesitant to join up with someone else and jeopardize that stability they'd worked so hard to obtain. It seemed to be a recurring theme to him lately, that careful evaluation of the status quo.

He expected that they were both stalling, enjoying the present; afraid of what intensifying the chase would bring. Duo hadn't said as much in words, but Heero caught the small glances in his direction on a more than regular basis. Trowa and Quatre's additional protectiveness around Duo had not gone unobserved either. They were reading the same signs he was and knew that he and Duo were drifting closer to each other every day they spent in each other's company. By unstated agreement, they avoided real life issues and concentrated on interests, reading choices, places they'd been, and places they wanted to go. As long as they didn't ask the big questions, the prying ones... they maintained the illusion of casual contact. It was enough for now, they'd be time to explore the rest later, hopefully from a closer distance and for years to come.

Duo watched Heero from his perch behind the counter. Sand was a warm statue next to his chair, and he trailed his fingers across her back in long leisurely strokes between turning the pages of the book he was skimming. It had the feel of and looked like an absurdly domestic moment that had been imported into his store, and Duo felt a strong sense of longing rise in him that he'd thought buried deeper. A line from a song he'd heard that morning kept running through his head, "I've been waiting for the questions so my answers will make sense..." The only conclusion that had come immediately to mind was the thought that Heero had quickly become a pivot point in his day-to-day life, a fixture in his store, and he expected him to be there every day.

It was a hell of an encouraging start.

At least until the day Heero disappeared.

on to chapter seven

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