Fourteen long-stemmed red roses. Beautiful, elegant, and damned expensive.
Heero clenched his jaw as he looked down at the delicate flowers that he was carelessly crushing in work-worn grasp. Hard calluses, formed by the handles and grips of numerous tools, managed to protect him from the prick of the thorns. Now that he was here at the gallery, trying to remain unnoticed by the fashionable throng that filled the exhibit room, he wondered again at the temporary madness that had made him purchase the bouquet.
Fourteen roses. Fourteen days since he’d last seen Duo.
Heero knew he was to blame for starting the fight. No, it could hardly be called that. It had been much more subtle; a slow drifting apart, so gradual that he hadn’t noticed until it was too late. He had lost Duo and it was his own damned fault.
He’d been surprised when the ticket to the gallery opening had arrived in the mail, but he never even considered refusing the invitation. It had arrived three days ago, and, by then, Heero had been missing Duo so powerfully that he would have grabbed onto any excuse to see him. So, he’d fretted and worried for several days what he would say to Duo when he saw him again, and he’d come to the opening, ready to lay open his heart, for better or for worse.
Skirting the edge of the crowd, the flowers still clutched in his fist, Heero found himself drawn to the myriad pieces of art that graced the walls. They had all been created by Duo’s skilled hand and, looking at them now, Heero felt his stomach clench with the sharp fear that they might be the only way left to him to ever be with their beautiful maker again. He realized that looking at Duo's paintings was like gazing into his soul. They were filled with so much energy, so much spirit, just like the artist himself.
One year of his life stretched across the gallery for all to admire. It had taken only one year for Duo to create all of the pieces and for Heero to irrevocably lose his heart. It seemed like such a short amount of time, but in that brief span he had gained more than what most men achieved in a lifetime of hopes. Each sketch was like a memory, the colors and textures melding together, fashioning a tapestry of their time together.
A vivid study of a beautiful beach reminiscent of a lazy weekend spent in Choushi. Duo had marveled at the powerful majesty of the Pacific Ocean, running in and out of the surf, flirting with the waves like some water-sprite of myth. But, Heero had only had eyes for him, captivated by his lover’s capacity for life.
A rendition of a sakura tree in full bloom, so rich in detail that one could almost see the petals fluttering to the ground on a gentle spring breeze. Heero was forced to turn away, ashamed but unable to prevent the tightening in his groin as he remembered what they’d done under the tree that night after the park had cleared. His body, spoiled by Duo’s lustful energy, railed against him for his recent abstinence.
And, then, there was this painting. More than anything, it had signaled the beginning of the dream. For it was that night, in the warehouse room of this very gallery, that his image had been immortalized in oil and that his heart had been willingly bound by love. Heero looked up at himself, lying draped across a red velvet couch, artfully covered with words fashioned of melted butter, his painted eyes clearly speaking the sentiment which he still had not.
Oh, yes, he could freely admit to himself that he loved Duo; that he needed him more than his next breath. But, he’d been unable to relate his feelings to the one person who most deserved to hear them. He knew that his every glance, his every touch, his every act expressed his devotion for the lovely man who’d held him so enchanted. But, he hadn’t told Duo how he felt, and his failing had slowly begun to take its toll.
Heero couldn’t readily explain his reticence. They’d done everything together that it was possible for two human beings to do. They had spent countless hours basking in each other bodies, sharing precious pieces of their souls. Duo knew that he loved him, just as Heero knew that he was loved in return. Or, at least, that’s what he had told himself.
But, over the past month, the light in Duo’s eyes had begun to dim, his laughter lessening into a rare commodity. Heero had seen it happening, had known that he could stop his lover’s sadness with three, stupid little words. But he couldn’t say them. He’d discovered that he was a coward, lacking the courage to lay heart bare, to give that last sliver of himself into Duo’s care.
And, why was he so afraid? Because, in the deepest corner of his being he knew that he was unworthy. The doubt had festered in his mind, little by little, ever since the day they’d met, coming together high atop of the unfinished building with a passion that had threatened to consume them both. Every now and again, a small voice would whisper to him that he was undeserving of such a gift as Duo. That he was nothing but a common, work-worn peasant who dared aspire to the love of a prince.
Heero knew that his fears were ridiculous, but he’d been unable to silence them. He was afraid that one day, Duo would realize that he could do better than an uneducated construction foreman who barely made over minimum wage, whose hands were rough and scarred with years of manual labor, who was the complete opposite of the refined beauty which Duo personified. He was afraid that, one day, Duo would leave him.
And, that’s why, on what should have been a perfect, magical night, he’d been such an utter fool.
"My goodness! It’s you! That is you, isn’t it?"
Heero looked down at the well-coiffed woman who’d spoken in, what could only be called an ‘outdoor voice.’ He groaned silently as her astonished eyes flitted between him and the painting. He cursed himself for standing next to the portrait, for coming to the exhibit opening at all, when he knew that he might be recognized. He’d been the subject of many of Duo’s works and his face, if not his identity, was surely well known by the admiring assembly.
"Yes, that’s most certainly you," she rambled on, ignorant or just uncaring of Heero discomfiture. "I must admit, I’d wondered if this so called ‘lover’ of dear Duo’s wasn’t just a figment of his delicious imagination. Surely, I told myself, no one could really be that gorgeous." Heat flooded his face in an embarrassed surge as the woman’s eyes turned from the painting to the more intriguing, though disappointingly clothed, reality standing before her.
Her heavily mascaraed grey eyes ran up and down the length of his body, taking in the new, black slacks and the same blue shirt he’d been wearing the night he and Duo had created the painting. The shirt was one of Duo’s much proclaimed favorites and Heero had chosen it, feeling that he needed any edge he could muster. But at that moment, he regretted picking it, knowing from Duo how the soft material clung to his defined chest.
"But," she purred, her gaze practically devouring him, "I see you are most wonderfully real." Heero cringed when she ran a manicured finger over his bicep before turning briefly away from him, beckoning to an equally chic woman who stood across the room. "Margaret," she called, "you must simply come and see whom I’ve just stumbled across!"
Heero took the opportunity and made his escape, slipping away while her back was turned. He moved deeper into the crowd, hearing the woman’s disappointed "Oh!" when she discovered his disappearance. He sighed, feeling more ashamed at his own cowardice than of the fact that everyone in this room knew what he looked like naked. He hadn’t stopped to think too much about the fact that he might be seen when Duo had painted him; he’d been too wrapped up in his infatuation with the artist. And, in the end, he wasn’t overly discomfited. Duo’s work was truly incredible and he was proud to have been a part of it.
But still, he really wished that woman had been more circumspect. Several pairs of eyes had looked in his direction at her raised tones. He was the subject of more than a few double takes and felt his shoulders hunch as he speculated about the content of the whispers that were exchanged behind politely shielding hands.
"I shouldn’t have come," he whispered to himself, unconsciously looking for the door before the idea to escape was fully formed in his mind. The only reason he was there at all was to see Duo. He wanted, no he needed to apologize, to say something that would explain his irrational behavior. He didn’t know if the braided man would forgive him, but he had to try. If nothing else, he’d discovered that he’d become unused to sleeping alone and the string of sleepless nights was beginning to wear on him. That and he wanted to regain the missing corner of his soul that he’d so carelessly thrown away.
But he hadn’t seen any signs of Duo. Apparently, he hadn’t even arrived at the gallery yet. Whatever the reason for his delay, Heero’s fierce determination to settle things was quickly fading, replaced with the growing sense that Duo’s absence was just fate’s way of telling him to accept the inevitable. It was over. The dream had ended. And, now, it was time to face the grim reality of a future without the man he loved more than life.
Heero reluctantly told himself that it was for the best, that Duo would be better off if they were apart. He decided that he would just go before he saw Duo, knowing that he’d be unable to resist the urge to beg the beautiful artist to give him a second chance.
A dense gathering towards the center of the room caught his attention as he shuffled his way towards the exit. They were standing around a tall, shrouded structure, which had been cordoned off with fat, black velvet ropes. Heero’s brief moment of curiosity about what the covered figure was might have been easily overcome if he hadn’t caught a shred of conversation from those standing around the object.
"It’s his latest work. A sculpture, I heard."
"Yes, his first. It’s supposed to be magnificent. The reason he was finally given his own show."
A sculpture... His first...
The words stopped Heero in his tracks. The sculpture. The naissance of the work was imprinted in his memory, the subject of his fitful dreams. Heero knew that the sculpture had to be incredible. It had been an incredible night. But, it had also been the night that everything had started to fall apart.
He stared at the hidden figure, almost as though, if he looked hard enough, he’d be able to pierce the elegant silk veil. But, at that moment, something inexplicable made him look past the piece. Heero’s gaze shifted slightly, almost instinctively, and, suddenly, there he was. Standing just beyond the sculpture, almost as though he’d been hiding behind it, was the man he’d been both aching to see and desperate to avoid.
He was so incredible, almost glowing in the light that poured down upon him from the ceiling. His chestnut hair, pulled back in its customary braid, hung heavily down his back. It teased the eye as it brushed over his firm buttocks, which were hidden by a pair of stylish slacks. Leather loafers covered feet that Heero knew were more accustomed to comfortable sandals than the constricting, though fashionable, material. A light gray dress shirt, which was cuffed at the arms, gaped at the throat, revealing the silver chain that was never absent. A single diamond, a recent addition and a recent birthday gift from Heero, glinted in his right ear.
And amethyst eyes that could see the beauty in everything, even an ordinary construction worker, gazed at him with wary surprise and ill-concealed longing.
"Duo," Heero whispered, his eyes locked upon the much missed sight of his lover. Duo stared back at him across a chasm of misunderstanding, so near and yet utterly out of reach.
An announcement was made and people gathered around the concealed statue, but the two men didn’t move, both fearing that if they lost sight of each other, this time, it might truly be forever. Duo shifted his gaze down towards Heero’s hand as the tasteful music filling the room was replaced by the canned sound of a pre-recorded drum roll, which played out over the gallery from strategically placed speakers.
A helpless smile twitched the corner of his full lips upward as he saw the forgotten, hopelessly crushed roses in the other man’s hand. Heero shrugged ruefully, amazed at the unforced naturalness of their exchange after the tenor of their last parting. But, then, Duo looked back up, meeting his gaze, and the confusion in his eyes broke Heero’s heart. They were full of questions. What had happened? How had something that had been so right gone so wrong? Heero had searched diligently for the answers during the long, wakeful nights of loneliness. He didn’t know if he could explain, but he had to at least try.
"Thank you all for coming." The culture voice of the gallery owner oozed out over the crowd and grated across Heero’s nerves. Of course he’d be here. It was his gallery, after all. Heero dragged his gaze away from Duo for a split second, the sight of bright, platinum blonde hair confirming his suspicion. Tall, blonde, and breathtaking, with an air of cultured refinement that bespoke generations of good breeding.
‘Bastard.’ The word came easily to Heero’s mind and he had to force himself to unclench his jaw as Zechs Merquise continued his announcement.
"Let me personally thank everyone for coming to this very special Sanq Gallery premiere. Tonight, we are gathered here to celebrate an amazing new talent. Surrounded by his astonishingly brilliant works, we can only ask ourselves why we waited so long to acknowledge his genius."
Heero looked back at Duo, ignoring Zechs as he droned on. The man didn’t matter, he knew that now. His insane jealousy was from nothing more than his own petty insecurities. He noted the tension in the braided man’s shoulders and was filled with regret for having caused Duo so much pain.
I’m sorry, he mouthed, not even trying to compete with the polite society laughter that swirled about at Zechs’s urbane witticisms. Duo’s brow furrowed as his poignant expression changed into a look of determination.
We need to talk, he returned silently, his eyes daring Heero to disagree. Refusal was the furthest thing from Heero’s mind. They would talk and he would finally unburden his heart. And, no matter what happened, Heero would never regret loving Duo, even if he had to spend the rest of his life alone. Their eyes remained on each other as they both began to move, intending to free themselves from the people gathered around them. But, this was Duo’s night to shine and his admirers refused to be forsaken.
"And, now," Zechs proclaimed, "we eagerly express our unfettered admiration of this incredible young man as we unveil his latest masterpiece. Introducing, Duo Maxwell and his newest creation, ‘Progress of Man’s Desire!’"
The veil was whisked away and the crowed gasped in amazement. Heero didn’t need to look. He knew every detail of the sculpture that was yet another rendition of himself, meticulously perfected by his lover. Instead he continued to watch the man of the hour as he was surrounded by the adoring masses, reluctantly accepting that the promised moment would have to wait. After all, who was he to steal Duo away from his fans? The braided man was whisked away, his protests cheerfully ignored as Zechs steered him away with an ostensibly casual hand at his waist. With one last glance over his shoulder, Duo was gone, hidden in a miasma of expensive perfume and even more expensive champagne.
With an intense effort of will, Heero managed to tamp down the jealous anger that swept through him at the sight of Zechs daring to touch Duo. He sighed and, realizing that he was alone for now, settled himself, content to wait for Duo no matter how long it took. At last, he turned to get his own first look at the sculpture, marveling as always at Duo’s skill. There he stood, a hard hat in hand and a full tool belt swinging heavily from his hips being the complete extent of his covering. The rest was nothing but rippling muscle from bent head to solidly planted feet, which he was certain Duo had exaggerated even though the other man often assured him no enhancements were necessary.
Duo also swore that no liberties had been taken with the sculpted flesh that hung impressively from the juncture of the statue’s legs. As Heero remembered the events of the posing session, he had to admit that maybe Duo was right about that. He was convinced that never been as aroused in his life as he was that night. Left alone with the embodiment of his memory, Heero felt his manhood harden once more as his thoughts drifted back in time. Neither his body nor his heart had been confused. If only his mind had followed suit, he wouldn’t be here now, praying that he would be able to put things aright.
He looked over to the buffet table, catching a glimpse of Duo as some annoying, scantily clad woman plied with yet another glass of sparkling cheer.
It had all began innocently enough, a simple question asked on a brisk, spring afternoon.
Heero, let me sculpt you.