Changes in Latitude
I found him on the edge of the surf, the waves barely touching his feet. He was lying back in a low beach chair, and that damn braid of his draped over the chair's back, trailing in the sand behind him. A brown bottle of some sort of liquid encased in a foam coozi sat within reach of his hand.
Instead of launching immediately into what I came to say, I looked out over the ocean - or his little cove of it. On the horizon, a yacht lay in anchor, or sat adrift. Gulls flew low over the boat, crying their distant cry and circling away. It was a peaceful beach, a small pocket of paradise, if a person believed in it.
"Why are you here?" he asked suddenly.
It took me a moment to focus on him, to take in his tone. No malice implied, his voice sounded more bored, incurious. "You don't answer your emails, or return phone calls. And I've only received a post card in response to the letters I've sent."
"You," he drew out the word, "only want to talk of 'the good for all' and 'keeping the peace'." His hand found his bottle, and he lifted it to his mouth.
"We need you," I said, feeling the frustration growing.
"I fought my fight, already. It's somebody else's turn."
"The war isn't over, Duo."
"It is for me."
And he drank from his bottle once more. I turned away, looking out over his cove to the ocean again, clamping teeth together. He wasn't looking past the end of the day, much less the end of the year. For several minutes, he didn't say anything, and I wasn't about to. But I turned from the water to look him over; tried to find the boy I once knew.
He looked good; in long, knee-length shorts over legs tanned to a chestnut brown and bare feet half buried in sand. His hair was sun bleached in streaks; unbuttoned and opened, his shirt would have rivaled one of Howard's own. But, it was his hand that drew my attention. It was the same - large, long-fingered, with signs of busted knuckles, calluses in just the right spots to show what he'd been, and I knew if I looked closer, there would be a scar. The one he would've gotten saving me.
"I'm not leaving without you," I felt compelled to say.
His head turned in my direction, but his expression remained impossible to see. His mouth twisted into a parody of a grin, and his eyes hid behind a pair of sunglasses.
"Well, that would be a first." And he laughed a short and dark sound.
"Damn it, Duo!" I raked fingers through my hair. "You know why I had to-you would have done the same!" I expected an argument, a flying fist, something. But Duo only stared at me for a moment and turned away. "You would have," I insisted.
He raised his bottle to his mouth again, held it at his lips for a moment, and said finally, "I would have, maybe, at one time," and took his drink.
"Why won't you consider returning?" I got the idea he was ignoring me, now. "You threw everything away, for what? A shack on some God-forsaken island and nothing to do all day but get drunk?"
"Yeah, go figure." He was laughing softly.
"What happened to you?" I asked softly, crouching down by his chair. "You used to believe in what we did - had ambitions..."
"Yeah, I used to have it all," he spat out at me. "Or nearly all I wanted. But it wasn't me who threw it away, Heero. It fucking wasn't me."
"It was you who quit and walked away." Mouth dry, I could barely force words out of it.
"And what did I have back there? You tell me," he demanded softly. "I had a career, a job I thought I loved. I had a place I called my own. I had friends - or at least I thought they were."
"You had-have friends still," I insisted. "Not a day passes that someone doesn't ask after you."
"But not when it counted."
"Where were those friends when I was left lying in my own blood and vomit back in that lab?" I jerked back, but his hand flashed out and grabbed my wrist, holding me in place. "You might have had to leave me there - at least for a few hours, but where were you when I needed you, huh? Where were you when night came? When the power shut down and the air was slowly dying on me?"
"The extraction team-"
"Oh yes, let's not forget them," Duo interrupted. "They very nearly killed me because someone didn't warn them of what had happened."
I knew he meant me, and he knew I knew. It had been an oversight, but at the time, I was a little busy myself. "You lived," I pointed out.
His grip tightened on my wrist and he stared at me from behind his glasses. His lips flattened. "Yeah, I lived," he said in just as flat a voice. He released me suddenly, standing abruptly, and nearly knocking me over.
"I had a lot of time to think about it, too," he continued, hoisting his beach chair over his shoulder and starting across the sand. "Two weeks in a hospital bed, with nothing to do but think." He looked over his shoulder at me. "And no one visiting."
"You know I couldn't," I protested. "I was still undercover, and half the world away-"
Duo's laugh surprised me, but he began walking again. "It was always about the mission, always the job with you. Never about you or what you wanted, wasn't it?"
"What do you mean by that?" I asked, following him.
He didn't answer me until we reached the edge of his 'yard', the wooden steps of his sagging porch a mere dozen feet away. "I believe you know the answer to that already," he said, turning to face me. "Tell you what," he glanced between me, the rental sitting out under dubious shade, and the door to his shack, "you answer that question on your own, and I'll give serious consideration to going back with you."
But he grinned, and slipped those damned sunglasses from his face. I nearly gasped aloud, seeing the other set of scars he'd received that day. "But somehow, I think if you can answer that question, it won't be me who'll be moving."
I didn't respond, but watched as he hung his chair up on a peg nailed to the side of the house, watched as he opened a screen door that needed oiling, and watched as it smacked shut behind him. Answer that question, he'd said. It seemed simple enough. But, I had the idea it would be the hardest question I ever had to answer.
When he didn't return after a few minutes, I stopped staring at the door and walked to the rental. Its newness, the gloss paint, and gleaming metal was in complete contrast with its surroundings. Instead of getting in and driving back to the so-called resort hotel where I held reservations, I opened the door, shrugged off the jacket I wore, and tossed it into the back seat. Rolling up shirtsleeves and removing shoes eased some of the heat, and the still chilled bottle of water helped even more.
Thinking I could out wait Duo, I took a seat on the hood of the car. At least it was in partial shade though I suspected it would become a thing of the past during late afternoon hours. I hoped I wouldn't be there to find out.
Answer that question.
It was never about me, not where work was concerned. I had a job to do, an important one in maintaining the peace that continues to be paid for. There was a time I thought Duo felt the same. He'd given the same effort and passion to the job as I did. At least, he had until that one undercover op.
Pushing those memories away was second nature. I would think about that later.
Never what I wanted? What the hell had he meant by that? What I wanted was to complete my assignments and do them well. There was no room for failure. If I had my way, there wouldn't be threats to peace, to those under Preventer's protection. If I had what I wanted, there would be no need for me or my kind.
No need for my kind. Duo was my kind. Or had been once. He was needed, just as I was. Did I want him to be needed? Did I want to be needed?
Off to the side of a patch of weeds disguised as a lawn, a naked faucet jutted up out of the ground, its pipe tarnished and patchy with rust. With a glance at the shack's door, I slipped off the car, walked barefoot to the spigot, and turned it on. At least the water was clean and clear. Scooping up a handful, I splashed my face. It was refreshing and cool. So I stuck my head underneath it, wetting hair and shirt, but not caring at that moment. The island was tropical, the sun unmerciful and relentless. Cool on the surface now, I refilled my water bottle and shut off the tap.
My shirt was soaked; my slacks splotched with water. Mentally going over the list of what I'd packed for this trip, I regretted not bringing shorts. Or swim trunks. But, I wore boxers, and Duo's nearest neighbor was miles down the road by car. I laid shirt and pants over the car's roof to dry, and resumed my seat on the hood.
Duo had found one of the remotest islands in the quadrant. I was positive it was deliberate; took nearly three weeks for physical mail to be sent or received. Even priority correspondence. Internet connection was spotty; the phone lines worst and cell reception non-existent. He lived in the ultimate hiding place.
But. It was beautiful in a wild and abandoned sort of way. Three miles from tip to tip, and almost two from side to side, there was no airport, but the ferry was fairly regular. As long as its pilot wasn't hung-over, which was also fairly regular as well.
Twenty-some miles to the north was another island, tropical and touristy, it had amenities I was used to expecting while traveling. Airports, running water, air conditioning, four and five star hotels, restaurants... I think I was getting soft, and that made me smile.
From my perch on the car, I could still see the ocean. It was just as gorgeous a blue from here as it was on the beach. The sun was moving, and I could feel it brushing on my back. Taking a swim was beginning to sound better than sitting and waiting. Another look at the still closed door, and I returned to the beach where Duo's chair had been set up on my arrival.
The sand was hot on my feet, but the tide cooled them down immediately. The water was unexpectedly warm, cooler than the air, enticing me further into its reach. Swimming in rolling water wasn't the same as swimming laps in the gym's pool. A pool didn't have waves that swamped over and around a body, tossing it around like a rag doll in a dog's mouth.
But. There was something exhilarating about the challenge of staying out of its grip. Of fighting its uncaring embrace to surface for air. The pull of muscle to regain footing in the shallows only to turn back and do it all over again. I must have spent nearly two hours diving in and out of the waves before calling it quits.
Duo was waiting on the beach when I finally emerged. He handed me a towel with a too-knowing smile and headed back to the shack.
"You can use the shower if want," he was saying. "No hot water, but you really don't notice out here."
Up around the other side of the shack, Duo waved a hand. Quartered off, paneled in corrugated fiberglass on three sides was a walk-in shower stall. A hook on one post held a ratty, terry-cloth bathrobe, and the hook on the other post, a towel matching the one I held. Inside the stall, a naked pipe came up from the ground, lashed with U clamps and wire to the stall's framework. A showerhead hung from the curve in the water pipe. On one side, a plastic coated metal rack held soap, shampoo, a back scrubber, and a razor. All the amenities of home without the privacy.
I continued to blot at my hair, and shot a look at Duo. He'd taken up a position outside a backdoor to the shack, leaning against the weathered slats making up the outside wall. It was the challenge in his grin that had me setting the towel aside, and shucking out of my boxers. I never could resist one of Duo's challenges, even if it cost me. Besides, it wasn't as though he'd never seen me naked before. Just because it had been years...
The water was warm and more than a trickle, but not the stinging pressure I was used to. Habits die hard, even on tropical isles, especially when one was naked in the presence of a friend. I made quick use of Duo's soap and shampoo, and rinsed the salty residue from hair and skin.
Shutting the water off and stepping free of the stall, I used the discarded towel sparingly, dabbing my face, shoulders and arms. With a quirk of a grin in Duo's direction, I lowered my head and shook dog-like, flinging water from my hair. Duo's startled shout and the genuine laugh that followed made it worth the effort.
I finger combed my hair back, and tied the towel around my hips. "Change of clothes would be in the car," I said, jerking my chin in its direction.
Duo looked at me critically for all of a minute. "Did you bring anything suitable for this place?" He demanded.
Bringing up the mental list of what was packed again, I shook my head. "I wasn't planning to be here long," I said, knowing it wasn't an excuse.
"Come inside then," he told me, already turning away and opening up the back door.
The inside of the shack was unexpected. The lighting dim, mostly coming from the dual windows facing the front and the one smaller window facing the back, the interior was surprisingly cool. A fan twirled lazily overhead, but no other means of air conditioning could be seen. From the backdoor, I had a clear view of the front door, the long room in-between divided into a partial kitchen with the larger portion belonging to lounge space. Beaded curtains hanging from a single door of the interior wall cordoned off another set of rooms.
Just inside the door, I had stopped to look around, but Duo headed straight for the beaded doorway. At a glance, I saw little in the way of furniture. A severely used couch, a battered easy chair, an end table hosting a lamp, and a wall of bookshelves made up the lounge. The kitchen held a simple two-burner stove with a miniscule oven, a refrigerator that was generations old, and a Formica table with a half dozen mix-matched chairs around it.
"I have a pair of shorts and a shirt you can use," Duo was saying from the other room. I cleared the beads, and was surprised yet again.
The 'bedroom' was a long as the shack, a large, unmade bed taking up most of its room. The only other furnishings in the room were a six-drawer dresser, and a makeshift closet built into one corner. My eyes were drawn to the bed, noticing the number of pillows, the way the sheet lay disturbed, the fold of the top sheet and light blanket. I wondered who Duo had been sleeping with.
"Yuy." Duo thrust clothes into my arms. "These should fit."
Taking the pro-offered items, I gave him a short nod. "Thank you." Duo was taller by four or five inches, but appeared much thinner, lankier. With my physical training, and continued routine, my shoulders, chest, arms, and legs were knotted with well-defined muscle.
Seeing no reason not to, I set the clothes on his bed, dropped the towel, and pulled on the set briefs he'd provided. The shorts were a little too long and snug around the waist, but not uncomfortably so. The shirt was a replica of the one he'd worn down by the beach when I'd first arrived, only more sedate in dark blues with a wash of gray flowers.
"I've got chicken and caba salad, if you're hungry," Duo said from behind me. A glance over my shoulder confirmed he'd stood there watching me change. "Was planning to mix up a batch of margaritas, if you want one."
It took me a moment longer than I liked to recall what exactly a margarita was: tequila, lime, triple sec, ice, salt. Giving Duo a nod, I added, "Acceptable."
He only shook his head, and ducked back out the beaded doorway. I followed slowly, picking up my discarded towel, and giving his bed another look. Why it bothered me that there might be someone in his life, I wasn't sure. And at the moment, I filed those thoughts away in the same place I shoved the memories from that mission.
Duo was in the kitchen area, bent over inside the fridge. I draped the towel over the back of one chair, and watched. He backed out, holding a rectangle, baking dish in one hand, and a large bowl in the other. I moved forward and took the bowl from him.
"Thanks, man," he grinned, and set the foil covered baking dish on the stove. "The chicken's cooked, and I can reheat it if you want, but..." he gestured toward the living space. "The oven can really heat the place up, so I usually eat it cold."
"Cold is fine," I told him, still holding onto the bowl.
"Great!" He gave me another grin, and bent again, pulling out a blender from a cupboard under the small countertop. "Just set that on the table and have a seat. I'll have these whipped up in no time."
I took a seat, and put the bowl (holding what I suspected was the caba salad, whatever that was), toward the center of the table. Watching Duo move about the kitchen, I could believe drinks would be served in 'no time'; he appeared practiced enough in the art of margarita making. On the heels of that thought, I wondered who else had shared his table, shared his talents at bartending.
In minutes, Duo had two unmatched glasses poured, plates, flatware, napkins, and the chicken set on the table. He pulled up a chair next to mine, removed the foil wrap from the chicken and the lid from the bowl, and immediately began dishing up his plate.
"Eat up," he was saying, before taking a drink from his glass. A large swallow and a lusty smack of his lips, he flashed me a grin. "Nothing like a bit of tequila and lime to rid you of what ails you, eh?"
I lifted my own glass hesitantly, sniffed, and took a sip. It was not distasteful. Sour and salty disguised the kick of the liquor. "You have troubles?" I glanced in his direction, scanned the room, and then out the front windows. "Here?"
"Well now, that all depends." Duo seemed flushed behind his tan, and I wondered. "Sometimes paradise isn't, yanno."
"You are unhappy?" I asked quietly deliberately not looking at him by taking a scoop of the salad and putting it on my plate.
"Eh, it's not so much I'm unhappy," Duo was definitely flushing now, "but more, this wasn't my first choice of locations to live."
Staring at a forkful of 'salad', I could identify a handful of ingredients. It appeared to be made mostly of fruit, some vegetable greens, what looked like a red onion, and some kind of nut. I ate the mouthful before saying anything more. The salad was acceptable.
"What location would be your first choice?" This time, I did look at him.
He tossed the bones of his chicken wing back on his plate, and wiped fingers on his napkin. "Doesn't matter any more," he finally answered. "Ain't going to happen, so no use bringing it up."
I let his answer hang between us, spending the next few minutes in silence, eating. The wings were flavorful, heated in a spicy way with an underlying smoky taste. I hadn't seen a smoker or grill, but I hadn't seen all there was to see about Duo's place. Yet.
"What are your plans for tomorrow?"
"Same as today with the added attraction of fishing for dinner," he said, reaching for another wing. "Have more. What's leftover will be tossed to the dogs."
Pausing, I gave him a look. "Dogs?" I hadn't seen any since I'd arrived.
"Palo and Manny's dogs," Duo answered, waving his wing westward. "Two old guys who live on the other side of the trees."
Satisfied, I nodded and helped myself to another wing, and another sip of my drink. I was surprised to find it halfway gone, and would have suspected Duo of nipping from it, but I knew he hadn't.
"So, why'd you ask?" Duo prodded me with an elbow.
I blinked at him, trying to recall why I had asked. What I'd wanted was for him to return with me. To pack his stuff, get in my rental and go back home. With me. Was that what I wanted? The last of my margarita was gone in two long swallows.
"Whoa there, buddy. You packing for a first class trip to margaritaville?"
The alcohol coursed through veins long sober, and the burn ate its way inside and out. I was blinking at Duo again, and shaking my head. "No, just thirsty," I said, knowing it sounded inane.
Duo eyed me unamused. "I do have water."
My eyes dropped to my plate, and I shook my head again. "I'm good."
"Okay," he might have said, but his tone told me he was anything but accepting my answer. "So, tomorrow?" He prompted me again.
Worrying at a fruit cube with my fork, I couldn't look at Duo any more. "I-" I stumbled, caught my breath and started again. "I want to stay with you." And shook my head violently. "No, I mean," I shot him a quick look, and back to my plate. "I would like to spend the day with you."
From the corner of my eye, I could see he was puzzling out what I'd said and what I meant. He was wearing a half-frown, and scratching at the back of his neck like he did when he was nervous or thinking hard. That had me wondering which he was feeling more of; I knew what I was feeling, and it had nothing to do with the brain.
"Uh, sure. If you want. The boat's big enough for six, so there'll be room for the both of us." He fussed with his salad, then set his fork down abruptly and turned to face me. "Why the hell are you here, Heero?"
"You," I told him, and pushed my chair away from the table and stood. "I'm here for you."
In the ten years I'd known him, I'd never seen Duo as surprised as he was then. But, the courage the margarita bought me was fading, and I was the one to turn away first. I grabbed at my dishes, and took them to the sink. Dumped bones and the remains of uneaten salad in the waste can, and the dishes in the sink.
"Do you have the answer to the question, Heero?" Duo asked softly from right behind me.
I shuddered, suddenly feeling him there. He was so close, closer than he'd ever been to me physically before. Legs turned to jelly, I leaned heavily on the counter, and closed my eyes. I'd traveled half the world, and more hours than a person should remain awake to be right where I was. There were only inches left in this journey.
"It wasn't supposed to be about me," I told him through lips too numb to feel. "It was supposed to be about fixing what was wrong, about maintaining the peace." Shifting around, I turned to face him, looking at him directly for the first time since my arrival. My hand was shaking as I raised it, touching a fingertip to his face, to the scar that edged his eyebrow to his hairline. "You took what was meant for me, and I left you," I was whispering now, words nearly choking in my throat.
Duo's hand caught mine, and he pressed it flat to his cheek. "I'd do it again-a hundred times if I had to-"
"No!" I cried, moving to embrace his head with my arms. "I couldn't bear it again." His hands were wrapped around my wrists, his eyes watching mine. "Don't you see?" I asked in whisper, leaning my forehead against his. "I thought I'd lost you. That I'd failed you that day."
"You-you didn't fail, Heero. God no." Suddenly, his arms were around me, pulling me close. "You did what you were supposed to do; what I would have done." His lips ghosted over my temple, along my forehead.
"But you doubt me, hate me for not coming to see you," I reminded him in a long shuddering breath.
"No, no, no... never hate. Not you." I was pressed hard with my back to the counter. Duo's arms tightened around my shoulders. He loosened his hold long enough to look at me. "A little disappointed you only managed a note, but I don't hate you. Never did. Never could."
"Then why..." I had to close my eyes, had to shut out what I hoped I was seeing reflected in Duo's eyes. "Why did you leave? Why did you stay way?"
He ran a soothing hand over my hair, pressing my head to his shoulder, and I cling to him as a drowning man. "You didn't need me, not then. Maybe not even now." He brushed a kiss to the side of my face, and I raised my lips to touch his.
"I need you," I told him. "You said it was never about what I wanted, but that was what I had then. You were part of it."
Duo pulled back, turned, and walked half a dozen steps away from me. His hands rose to press thumbs against the ridge of his eyes sockets; he let out an abridge shout full of frustration, anger, fear.
"I can't do it any more, Heero," he said, dropping his hands and turning back to me. "I can't put my life on the line for meaningless reasons." His hand reached for me, held palm up. "For you, a thousand times infinity. But for Preventers? Never again."
I took his hand and pulled him to me. "What do you want, then? What will make you content?"
He chuckled softly, holding me like I held him. "You, me, a good tide and a blender full of margaritas."
"You have that now." I was smiling.
"Then I am content." His hands were exploring places they'd never been, places I'd only dreamed they'd touch before.
"I could be content here," I told him, pushing his shirt from his shoulders. "At least for awhile."
His hands and mouth stilled. His look serious. "And that will be the crux of it."
Running both hands down his chest and hooking my fingers into the waistband of his shorts, I nodded and pulled. His body crashed into mine, and I sought his lips for a kiss -hard and demanding. I didn't want to think about tomorrow or next week. I didn't want to think beyond the moment now, and what I would touch or feel or taste next.
It was an enlightening night. I found out personally why Duo's bed was so large, why in its unmade state it appeared as though a troop of acrobats had performed on it. Duo did not sleep in stillness, but used every corner of his bed, and me by de facto.
Sex with Duo surpassed imagination, and when he woke, I planned to show him again that it was all about what I wanted. That it was about me. That it was all about us.
And, in the morning, when we went to the dock where his boat anchored, I planned to make a call. I had vacation time coming, plenty of it. I was going use it to make it about me, about us. If at the end of that time a change needed to be made, I thought I was ready to make a change - that I could make a change.
Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitudes lyrics
I took off for a weekend last month
Just to try and recall the whole year.
All of the faces and all of the places,
wonderin' where they all disappeared.
I didn't ponder the question too long;
I was hungry and went out for a bite.
Ran into a chum with a bottle of rum,
and we wound up drinkin' all night.
It's those changes in latitudes,
changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same.
With all of our running and all of our cunning,
If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane.
These changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes,
Nothing remains quite the same.
Through all of the islands and all of the highlands,
If we couldn't laugh we would all go insane
Reading departure signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I've been.
Visions of good times that brought so much pleasure
Makes me want to go back again.
If it suddenly ended tomorrow,
I could somehow adjust to the fall.
Good times and riches and son of a bitches,
I've seen more than I can recall
I think about Paris when I'm high on red wine,
I wish I could jump on a plane.
And so many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailin' again.
Oh, yesterdays are over my shoulder,
So I can't look back for too long.
There's just too much to see waiting in front of me,
and I know that I just can't go wrong