Time of Day: Noon
Part 2: Back 2 Good
Once upon a time, there lived five fifteen year old boys who, with the help of a few friends and priceless, now-extinct weapons of mass destruction, fought a couple of wars, and won a peace that still holds nearly six years later. As time and life moved on, as it tends to do, so did those five boys.
Sometimes late at night, or when on an assignment that does not require one hundred percent of my focus, I thought about us, as we were then, and on how we were now. How much we had changed - how little we had changed.
After the Barton event, it seemed too easy to slip into a Preventers role. I knew Wufei felt the same since we had discussed it once a short time after I became an agent. The Preventers organization was familiar, regimented, and challenging. The job as a field agent offered enough excitement to take the edge off of instincts and a lifetime of training. It fed my need to analyze, to plan, and see the plan reach fruition. It allowed the balm of peace to soothe and throttle back the need to take over to maintain the status quo.
Duo's reasons for becoming an agent had more to do with a need for purpose, and to be closer to his friends, than his oft hyped 'legal to blow shit up' rhetoric. He had never confirmed it in so many words, but over the years, I'd come to the conclusion he needed to be necessary, needed to feel that what he did mattered. Moving scrap and playing house left too many holes and too much time on his hands.
But, it was the enigma of why Trowa joined up that had me puzzling through thoughts on those late nights, during the more mundane assignments. I knew that the Commander had been after him for years before he finally signed on, and none of us believed he ever would; it had been common knowledge, then, that both he and Quatre were together. He was the latest of The Five to join, and there was no doubt he would be the last. One night shortly after Trowa had moved from L4 (and Quatre's house), while he still lived in the Preventer's singles dormitory waiting for the right place to move into, Duo had asked him why he'd left 'the good life'. The three of us were at our place, Duo's and my apartment, and had all been drinking steadily by then. I knew that later I'd be helping Duo find his bed, or wind up tossing a blanket over him and leave him to sleep on the living room rug. But at that moment, I remembered holding my breath, watching Trowa find an answer to Duo's question.
'To be who I am,' had been his answer. I didn't quite understand it then, and I knew Duo hadn't, since he'd fallen asleep by the time Trowa replied.
Quatre continued to live and work on L4, though he often had dealings on Earth, and made frequent visits; that he stayed with Trowa during those visits went without saying. Whatever had happened between those two hadn't affected how they felt toward one another; it was obvious to everyone in any room they occupied.
The Five had moved on with their lives, became adults and responsible members of society complete with taxes and bills, and the mundane day-to-day. Remaining friends hadn't been hard, but keeping in contact sometimes was, even for those of us living in the same city, those of us who worked together. So, whenever there was the remote possibility for more than a couple of us to meet, we did as often as possible. Mostly over lunch, to make it easier for everyone involved.
One such occasion came up about a week after the 'Drunken Duo' incident (as I'd taken to calling it). Quatre dropped in to visit, and it happened that both Wufei and I were available for lunch; Quatre let us know that Trowa would be joining us as soon as he finished compiling statistic figures needed for a one o'clock meeting. Duo hadn't been found, and his mobile phone had been left on his desk.
Since the 'incident', it had become par for the course for Duo to avoid having lunch with me.
The three of us, Wufei, Quatre, and I, entered the ground floor cafeteria and went our separate ways, with the understanding that the first one out was to find a table. At the cashier stand, I spied Quatre debating his meal choice at the entrée queue, and Wufei was standing at the deli counter waiting for his usual. When eating in the cafeteria, I usually limit myself to the salad bar with a bottle of water. Duo used to joke that I was the official table finder, and had them mapped out for strategic and logical locations, meeting each of The Five's requirements.
I found an empty, relatively clean table at the back of the cafeteria, close to the rear exit, but far enough from the waste disposal stand to avoid noise and smell. Quatre wasn't far behind me, setting his tray down with an amused expression.
"Wufei's flirting again," he stated, and we shared a knowing grin.
Just as I limited myself to salads, Wufei chose sandwiches from the café deli. We decided he chose them because of the woman who worked behind the deli counter. Since she was at least old enough to be his mother, it was unlikely Wufei really flirted with her. But, there was no denying the connection between them. He told us once that she had grown up on L5, but had migrated to Earth after she married. I suspected there was more to it than a common background; that the two engaged in highly animated conversations in L5 Mandarin, gaining volume the more they spoke, led me to believe she had taken on a surrogate older family member role, and Wufei honored it as much as he fought it.
After taking a tentative taste of his meal, Quatre set his fork down, and looked at me. "Are you going to tell me what's going on with you and Duo?" Quatre asked softly.
My own fork clutched in my hand, I glared at him. "Going on with Duo and I?" I repeated. "Nothing."
Quatre sighed loudly, and picked at his food. "From what Trowa has been telling me, you two have been acting like barely civil strangers."
No one else needed to become involved in this. Especially our friends. This situation was one that I could handle. "We are friends. Nothing has changed." I knew my tone was clipped, and I bent to my salad, hoping to end the discussion.
"But, you want more." Quatre's voice was more air than sound, and I froze for a moment only. Raising my eyes to meet his gaze, I gave him a tight nod. He smiled gently at me, and continued to pick through his entrée. "It seems to me that Duo is still confused about what he wants."
I nodded in agreement, but didn't say anything.
"A little more time, and he'll know, Heero." He paused in his perusal of his meal, and touched my wrist. "It will work out."
Making a noncommittal noise, I could only hope what he said was true.
By the time Wufei joined us, I was half-finished with my lunch, and Quatre was talking about hopeful plans for a long weekend within the next couple of weeks. Though he hadn't mentioned his name, I knew Trowa would be part of those plans. Wufei sat on the bench seat beside me, removing his lunch plate holding his sandwich with its side of Cantonese salad and a pickle, and a carton of milk from his tray, listening to Quatre finish up the tentative itinerary.
"I've heard of that resort island," Wufei commented, stacking his tray on top Quatre's. "They guaranty privacy for the fees they charge." He inspected his sandwich, and took a bite.
"Yes!" Quatre agreed excitedly. "And the list of amenities is truly remarkable."
Wufei snorted and opened his mouth only to shut it abruptly. "There's Maxwell."
I looked up and followed the direction of his gaze. Duo was sitting in one of the booths that aligned the inner wall - one of the booths I had deemed to constricting, and refused to use. Across the table from him sat the pretty, petite, and very blonde receptionist to the medical wing on the fourth floor. As I watched, she laughed at something he'd said, and ducked her head, the blush on her cheeks as clear as if I were sitting beside Duo. His hand rose from where it rested on the table to her brow, and he brushed the hair that had fallen forward, going so far as to tuck it behind her ear. His fingers stroked the edge of her ear, and the tips grazed the line of her jaw before dropping back to the tabletop.
"Oh Duo," Quatre whispered, and I tore my eyes from the booth to look at him. Quatre was watching me with stricken eyes, a hand clenched into a fist held at chest level. I shot a glance in Wufei's direction, wondering at his sudden silence; he was studiously separating the ingredients to his salad with his chopsticks, not willing to meet my gaze.
Standing abruptly, I gripped the sides of my tray tightly. "I have a phone call to make," I mumbled, and stepped away from the table. In my hurry to leave, I believe I threw away the tray, plate, and utensils.
In the hallway outside the elevator doors, I ran into Trowa. He turned to watch me leave, even as I cut off any question he might have made with a jerking arm motion. Around the corner from the elevators was the doorway to the stairs, and I flung it open with enough force to dent the wall.
Taking the stairs two at a time, I ran. My heart pounded and blood roared through my veins. By the time I reached the roof, spots of grey swam at the corners of my vision, but I was able to key the access code and gained the top of the building. Fifteen floors up weren't enough to kill me, and the pain of my run wasn't enough to drown out the ache that drove me from the cafeteria.
Thirty minutes later, I was still standing at the roof's edge, clutching at the safety rail, and watching unseen the traffic below, both pedestrian and vehicle. Breathing and heart rate returned to normal, and I kept pushing thoughts on what I was going to do next from my mind. Duo was my friend first and foremost. If he had found someone to be happy with, to enjoy his time with, then I should be happy for him. Right?
There were no answers to the questions that refused to be stifled. When I returned to the office I shared with Wufei, he was suspiciously busy, engaged with work I knew we didn't have. More consideration on his part than luck, Quatre stayed away for the rest of his visit earth side.
For the first time since the best weekend of my life, I deliberately avoided home, choosing instead to spend time at the Preventers gym. With knuckles wrapped in tape, I pounded on the gym's heavy bag, using body-powered arm and shoulder strength. In minutes, I was drenched, and working to control my breathing. Sweat flew from my face with each punch; my hair was matted flat, and sweat soaked through my tank, staining the fabric in great, elongated circles under my arms, at my chest and back. Even my shorts weren't exempt.
I didn't stop until the gym supervisor approached, held the bag from the opposite side, and attracted my attention to my now bloody hands. Without a word, he led me away to his office, and doctored my bruised and split knuckles, tossing two small cold packs on the desk where I sat.
"I won't report this," he told me. "But the next time you feel the need to damage something, find another gym. Hell, go find a bar on SouthSide and give 'em my best."
I shot him a glance, strapping the packs over the tops of my hands, feeling the pain now. "I won't harm civilians on purpose," I told him.
He shrugged and dropped into his seat. "But you'll kill yourself for the wanting." His eyes were studying me, shrewd and wise with age and experience. I had to look away. "Woman troubles the worst kind of hurt," he finally said, not unkindly.
I didn't bother to correct his assumption, but finished wrapping my hands. "I can promise I won't be doing this again." And stood, ending the conversation.
My hand was on the doorknob when he spoke again. And then, it was simply to wish me 'luck'. I knew that I'd need it.
It was late by the time I'd showered, and redressed. Not wanting to return to the apartment just yet, I pointed my car northward and drove. An hour later, dinner was at a small, dockside bistro up the river, and eating alfresco at a tiny table on the deck suit my mood. Watching the river roll by, and watercraft of most every type motor up, or down, soothe the edges of an anger I wasn't ready to acknowledge.
It was time to go home.
It began not so much as a plan of action, but a need to have life return to normal. Maybe I wasn't the one Duo wanted, despite words whispered in a voice groggy and rough, half-asleep. No matter who he was with - now - he was still my friend and housemate. If he wanted to forget that weekend, I was going to do my best to accommodate that.
The next morning, I started implementing my quasi-plan immediately by waiting for Duo to arrive at work by his desk. I ignored his hesitation when he spotted me, and continued the conversation with Trowa, giving him time to shed his jacket, sit at his desk and boot up his PC. Watching him without watching, I saw he kept shooting little glances my way.
At last, I turned with a casualness belying jittery nervous, I flourished a thin rectangle of paper. "I've got a two-for-one coupon to Razzoli's."
Duo's eyes lit up, and he grinned. "So, lunch is on you today?"
Score! I nodded slowly, casting a look back at Trowa. "If you both can make it today. If not, it's good for a couple more weeks."
"We haven't been assigned anything pressing," Trowa confirmed.
"Alright!" Duo nearly shouted, and I agreed.
"Meet you out front at eleven-thirty?" I asked, rising and making my way to the door.
"Right," Duo confirmed. "Eleven-thirty." His grin faded quickly, and he was frowning at me. "What the fuck happened to your hand?" He was getting to his feet, and I needed to get out of there.
Shoving both into my jacket pockets, I edged to the door. "A round too many with the punching bag," I replied, and slipped out of their office. Shit! I'd forgotten busted and swollen knuckles would attract attention.
"Heero?" Duo was standing in the middle of the hallway, staring after me.
"Eleven-thirty," I said, and turned my back on him, knowing he'd bring it up later.
Lunch was a successful diversion; it helped that the eatery made the best pizza in possibly everywhere outside of Italy. The only mar had been when Trowa went outside to answer a call from Quatre, while Wufei left to pick up drink refills. Duo sobered immediately and grabbed both of my hands in his. He frowned at them, turning them over, and brushed a gentle finger across the broken skin.
"You were late getting in last night," he said in a low voice.
I tried to pull my hands away, but Duo held on tighter. "I went for a drive."
He squeezed them and let them go suddenly, shifting on his seat, and picking up the scrap of a pizza slice off his plate. "Just... call next time, k?"
"You were... worried?" I asked, sure my expression was imitating a guppy.
Snorting softly, Duo tossed the crust rind back onto his plate. "It's not exactly something you do all the time, and I knew you weren't working..."
That confession of sorts oddly created a center of warmth, and seemed to affirm the direction my plans were going.
I tackled the next step on my list that Thursday, knowing it couldn't wait any longer. After dinner and dishes were done, I brought out my laptop, and sat on the other side of the couch from Duo, barely paying attention to the weekly program he tried to catch when it wasn't a rerun. Pulling up a well-used site, I flipped to the available queue, and turned the screen in Duo's direction.
"What do you feel like watching tomorrow?" I asked casually.
Duo twitched, but turned from the vidscreen, and looked over the list presented. His eyes rose to meet mine and dropped back to the list. "I don't know, Heero. I was sort of thinking about going out."
Immediately pulling the laptop back, I nodded once. "Great. I haven't been down to Bally's in awhile. Mind if I tag along?" He couldn't refuse me; wouldn't refuse me.
"Ah..." he stalled, staring at me for a moment before looking away again. "Sure, I, uh, don't mind. It should be fun."
I hid the smile wanting to start, and cancelled the beginning of the vid disc order.
There had been a time when I was a more frequent visitor to Bally's. It was always to accompany Duo, or Trowa, or both, and never on my own. I knew Duo went to the nightclub on his own, and I suspected Trowa did as well, maybe even joining Duo there. Bally's was more than a dance club, more than a bar. Often live performances were given, and while the dance floor took up most of the building's square footage, the sound diminishers placed around the dance floor allowed conversations to be heard at either of the two bars, and the tables surrounding the edge of the dance floor as well as those up on the overhead loft.
Duo headed for the bar, and I found us a table close enough to the action to use as a distraction if needed, but far enough away not to distract. By the time Duo was making his way through the shifting crowd, I'd already turned down two requests to dance, and one to 'find someplace more comfortable'. There's only one I'd agree to follow that suggestion.
"They're out of the Dunbarden, so I got you that stuff from Hokkaido you like," Duo said, setting the glass down in front of me. He stood by his stool a moment, taking a drink from the long neck bottle, looking over its sides out to the floor.
"Thanks," I said, and picked up the glass. Tall as a pilsner, and cold as a flagpole in January, the over-ripened rice grain beer went down fast.
"There's supposed to be a live band starting at ten." Duo gestured to the recessed stage, darkened for the moment, and locked behind a gate of wire mesh.
My eyes tracked the stage, and the shadowy figures behind the gate. The place would liven up even more by then. Sliding a glance his way, I noticed Duo was playing with his bottle, not quite sitting yet, watching the dancers on the floor. The song came to an end, and a new one blended into the final notes.
"Want to dance?" I asked, not looking at him. It wasn't common for me to do the asking, but every time we'd ever come, Duo and I had danced together.
"Nah, not right now," Duo said in a hurry. He took another drink, and tilted the bottle to the side, gauging the amount left.
I nodded, and started to take my own drink, only to have a long, tall redhead catch my arm, leaning onto my side.
"Hey handsome," she nearly purred. "Want to dance?" Her well-trimmed brow arched, and her lips slipped up into a wide smile, showing the tip of her tongue between twin rows of perfect, white-bleached teeth.
"I don't think so," I told her softly. "I'm going to sit this one out." She pouted cutely, and I gave her a short smile. "Maybe later," I hedged, and hoped I'd have an excuse then. She was cute, but she still wasn't the one I wanted to dance with.
"How about you?" She tossed out across the table, leaning on her elbows, the muscles of her upper arms squeezing gently against her breasts, making them more prominent.
Duo's eyes were watching the display, and a crooked grin surfaced as his eyes rose slowly to her face. "Sure," he drawled, and slid from his stool. "Hold the fort, Heero?" he asked without looking my way, already holding the girl's arm, and leading out onto the dance floor.
I left when the band was taking the stage and being introduced to the crowd. After 'holding the fort' through three dances, I gave in and accepted a dance with a girl who looked college-aged, and still smelled nice, though I'd seen her on the dance floor several times already. We danced for a song or maybe three - it was one of those raging techno numbers that lasted for two minutes, sometimes they went on for fifteen to twenty minutes, and they usually blended together so you didn't know when one song ended, and the other began.
The girl, Meloney, was nice, and seemed intelligent. I offered to buy her a drink, and she asked for water; I wasn't sure if she was being circumspect, since I was unknown to her, or if she usually drank water. She had followed me to the bar, and we found a place to stand and talk for a few minutes.
On the floor, the lights were dimmed, and the music became a pulsing, thick beat, reverberating off the walls, the ceiling, and the floor. Strobes started to flash keyed into the vocals, and the dance floor became a writhing mass of bodies, a clothed orgy in flashes of blue, red, purple, and white.
Meloney pulled on my arm, wanting me to join her, and I let her tug me out onto the floor, not really watching her, but looking for Duo. The floor was too crowded to do more than undulate to the pulsing rhythm; Meloney was pressed firmly to me, her chest flattened to mine. Her eyes were closed, and she was mouthing the raunchy lyrics. I had the idea she was wishing I was someone else, too.
One moment, I thought I might just be enjoying myself with someone who was enjoyable, and the next, the lie it was brought me up short and gasping. In a heartbeat, I stopped moving, nearly causing the couple behind me to topple, and Meloney opened her eyes, staring wide-eyed up at me. I found Duo. He was plastered chest to back against some twink, a thin waif of a boy, with Duo's arms wrapped firmly around the boy's waist, and one hand definitely making moves of its own. The boy's head lay back on Duo's shoulder, his face turned up, and the two were kissing, their bodies keeping with the beat of the music and the crowd around them.
I broke away from Meloney, backing up, and forcing my way off the floor. "I'm sorry," I called to her, and nearly ran for the bathrooms.
It took five minutes of dry heaving into the toilet, and another five of continually splashing cold water on my face for any sort of calm to return. Other bathroom patrons came and went, mostly ignoring me after the first look. It would have been amusing if it hadn't been achingly sad - I was labeled as having 'a bad trip'.
Leaving the men's room, I saw Meloney waiting by the payphone, a white bar towel and a glass of water in her hands. She gave me a soft smile, and her eyes told me she knew, at least on some level, what had happened. She handed me the towel first, and I found it coolly damp, and used it on my face, the back of my neck and on my chest where my shirt was unbuttoned.
"Thank you," I told her, my voice rough and scratchy.
"Anytime." And she handed me the glass, taking back the towel. Her smile was sad, and her eyes even more so. "I've been there, and I know the feeling."
Closing my eyes against her too knowing look, I finished off the water, and held the cool glass against a cheek. "Does it ever go away?" I asked in a whisper.
Her hand was on my arm, stroking the sleeve of my shirt. "Yes, in time." I opened my eyes to see her mouth twist wryly. "I haven't reached that point yet, but I'm working on it." She got the laugh she was looking for, and we stood staring at one another for a moment.
Down the hall, the floor lights brightened, and the club manager was on the microphone introducing the live band. I glanced down that way, listening to the opening strands of a lone electric guitar, and turned back to Meloney.
"I can't stay," I announced. "I... it's just..." And I shut up, pressing my lips together.
But she was nodding, taking the glass from my hand and setting both the glass and towel on the slight ledge lining the wall behind her. "Let's go. My car's around back."
It took another long look down the hall, but I nodded, agreeing to let her drive me home, to take me away from there.
The ride to my apartment was in silence. I had no desire for conversation, and even if I had, I had no idea what to say. If she hadn't been so nice, and sympathetic without pity, I would be in a taxi or walking, despite the cold.
"Does he know?" Meloney asked, making the last turn onto the apartment building street, and slowing to turn into the parking lot I indicated.
"Yes... no." I sighed and glared out the window. "I thought he did, but... I don't know any more."
"You maybe should tell him," she told me softly, finding an empty slot, and putting her car in park. She turned to me, leaving the engine still running. "He might think you might, but without confirmation, there will be no growth or chance for change in the way things are."
I turned away from her earnest expression and rubbed at the sudden pain between my eyes. "He doesn't want things to change between us. He's made that clear, at least."
Her hand was on my arm again. "I truly am sorry, Heero." And then she was digging into her purse, pulling out a small notepad and a pen. "I'm going to give you my number," she said, writing on the notepad, "I know you're not looking for anyone, and God knows I'm not." She shot a quick smile in my direction. "But, if you ever need to talk, or just get out for a cup of coffee, call me."
"Thank you." I took her number, folded it, and put it away in my pocket, knowing I'd keep it, and maybe, one day use it. I don't have someone I could call a friend who wasn't already friends with my other friends. "I will call you," I told her, and opened the door. "Thank you," I said again, and left before I could say anything more.
I'd like to say that Duo expressed concern for my disappearance from the club, but I text messaged him from my phone once I got inside. Whatever else happened between us, I wasn't about to resort to playing games.
Putting the incident at the club behind me wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I just didn't think about it, at least, not one particular part of it. Over the weekend, I wound up calling Meloney, and making plans to meet her that Saturday night after a meeting she said she couldn't cancel.
We didn't talk about mutual 'lost loves', but we exchanged abbreviated work stories, and she spoke of family living somewhere in a distant city. After a couple of hours over too many cups of coffee and a shared Danish, I left feeling better than I had in weeks.
Work returned to more of a 'normal' routine. Not every day found Duo and I eating lunch together, but it happened enough that I could believe things were normal. Duo made lunch during Quatre's next visit, and our blond friend seemed satisfied things were good between Duo and I, that whatever had happened last time, was a thing of the past.
As the first week past into the second week, life around the apartment gave the impression of being normal. But inside, I felt like an actor on a stage of my life, acting as I would have a month or two ago. I never spoke about the night of the club, never brought up our shared weekend, and never invited myself to go along with Duo when he went out again. And Duo kept his peace along those subjects as well. Though, he had started sticking around the apartment more, and switching Saturdays out, going back to our traditional movie night Fridays, and vidgame play remained strictly vidgame play.
Most of the nights Duo went out, he was home before morning, and he never stayed out late on work nights. I tried not to pay attention to his coming and going, how late (or early in the morning) he was out until. In this world of not-seeing, a month slipped by, and Spring glided into summer.
Meloney let me know on a Tuesday that she would be leaving that Friday for three months as part of a grad student internship. I almost panicked; if she left, who would I talk to about Duo? Not that I ever said much, not after the night at the club. But, I had the option to, if I wanted. Only, I didn't have to with Meloney. She seemed to know what I was going through, and even likened it to a grieving process. It seemed inefficient to me to grieve for a relationship that had never happened, for something that was never mine. But, whatever she thought, she seemed to be recovering from her own melancholy, her own heartbreak.
It was midmorning a week later when Trowa walked through our office door, and cleared his throat for my attention. I nodded in brief acknowledgement, finished keying an entry, and turned back to Trowa.
"Duo say anything about not coming in today?" he asked, his eyes holding my own in a steady gaze.
I frowned and shook my head. "He didn't mention anything to me, though..." I glanced up at the clock, noting the time. "He went out last night after dinner."
"Oh." Trowa shifted, and from the corner of my eye, I saw that Wufei had stopped working to watch me. "I've called his cell and your home land line. He's not picking up on either."
Throttling down the spike of fear, I reached for my cell. "He might have turned it off, or was in the shower." I was grasping at straws, but it was all I had. The apartment number first, and when the machine picked up, I left a message for Duo to call ASAP, or pick up if he were there. I waited a full minute, speaking every couple of seconds to give him time to reach the phone if he were there.
Wufei came around his desk to stand by mine, and I gave him a look, and disconnected the call. With fingers feeling suddenly too large for the buttons, I queued Duo's cell number up, and hit the dial. It rang twice before it was answered. A near breathless "hello?" asked with a voice I didn't recognize.
"Who is this? Where's Duo?" I demanded harshly.
"Ah... who is this?" the voice countered.
"That is none of your business. Give the phone to Duo." Trowa's eyebrows had climbed up to hide in his hair, and Wufei was scowling at me, indignant already by my tone.
"Listen, buddy, I don't know who you think you are, but Duo's indisposed at the moment. I'm not about to-" The voice broke off, and I heard Duo demanding his phone. A slight shuffle sounded, and suddenly Duo was speaking.
"This is Duo."
"Duo," I said forcing my voice to be calm, my tone to contain no inflection. "Trowa has been trying to reach you." And without waiting for him to say anything more, I shoved my cell in Trowa's direction.
"Duo..." Trowa started, but stopped. His eyes darted to me, and then he turned away, stepping closer to Wufei's desk.
I rose and walked without faltering to the door. "I'm going to get something to drink," I lied, and fled. I didn't want to know where Duo was, or what he was doing, why he wasn't at work, or who he had allowed to answer his phone.
As if it were the start of a new phase, Duo stayed away for the next two nights, but was there for movie night. I almost didn't care. The pizza was cardboard in my mouth, and the beer - well, I stopped drinking it after the first. At least the movies were distracting, and didn't require conversation to fill in the gaps. And romance was nonexistent.
It was during the second movie, near the climax, when Duo's cell rang. He glanced at me before looking at his caller ID. The frown he wore eased some of the irritation that leaped at the interruption. He ignored that call, but five minutes later, his phone chimed with a text message, and after reading it, Duo levered himself up off the couch, and padded back to his room.
When he didn't return by the time the movie ended, I put the pizza away, shut off the disc player, and threw the trash out. He was only down the hall, but so far out of reach.
I went out on my morning run a little later than usual, but Duo's leaving had awakened me, and sleep was elusive for hours afterwards. It was a warm morning, though the ground bore hints of a light rain from the night before. The sun felt good, and the breeze was enough to keep me from getting too hot. Adding another five miles to my run was no hardship. I was in the zone, no thought or errant emotion intruded.
Entering the apartment, I was smiling, fresh from the run, and looking forward to a hot shower. I had thought to head out for the river walk and an afternoon of music by a handful of amateur musicians. Wufei had expressed an interest, and we were going to meet up at about noon.
Duo was awake, up and leaving the kitchen, a mug of coffee in each hand. He was shirtless, wearing a pair of rumpled jeans I recognized from the night before. I froze just inside the door, my smile fading as the good feeling I'd gained leaked away.
"Uh..." Duo stopped to stare at me. "Morning." He glanced down at the cups in his hands, down the hall toward his room, and back to me. "Uh... I really should go."
Nodding, I shut the door behind me, heard his footsteps muted by carpet fade down the hallway, heard his voice and a muffled answer come from behind his bedroom door. Slowly I turned and leaned heavily against the door.
In all our years of living together, Duo had never brought anyone home. Not to stay the night, not even over for dinner. There had been a girl he brought over to introduce me to, but that was just a quick stop to pick up some tools.
I blocked out all sound that might come from Duo's room, and instead, locked myself in the bathroom, stripped and showered, not lingering but making it fast work. Back in my own room, pulling clothes on in automatic fashion, I heard Duo's door open. There was a soft knock on my own door, and I froze, glaring at it.
When the knock came again, a little louder this time, I barked out a response, turning my back and pulling my shirt over my head as it opened.
"Ah, say Heero," Duo's voice came from behind me. I heard the door snick closed, and glanced over my shoulder. Duo was dressed now, but barefooted with his braid needing attention. "Uh, I'm sorry 'bout -" his hand waved vaguely back toward his room. "You know."
I grunted and tucked my shirt into my jeans with deliberate stiffness. "It's your apartment, too."
"Yeah, but, we never... I mean, bringing someone else over..."
"Forget it," I demanded, not wanting to hear more. Jeans up and zipped, I sat and pulled on my sneakers.
Duo sighed, and I knew he wanted me to look at him, to say something more; I just wanted the hell out of there. "You going somewhere?"
I paused in tying laces to look at him. "Yes."
His hand tugged on his shirt and rose to rub absently on the side of his neck. "Anywhere special? Anyone special?"
Snorting softly, I finished tying my shoes and stood up, going to my dresser. "That's none of your business."
"Hey," he said sharply, and I heard him take several steps forward. "I thought we were friends. And in my book, friends share those kinds of things."
For a long moment, I looked at him, took in the details I'd failed to see before. He appeared tired; his eyes bore hints of sleepless nights or too much nightlife. His skin seemed shallow and pale, almost yellowish in tint. He looked used, and not at all like the Duo I knew, the Duo I loved.
"I thought we were friends, too," I whispered, and brushed by him to exit my room without looking back.
It was too early to go to the music festival, too early to meet up with Wufei. I drove randomly at first, but found myself in familiar territory, and pointed my car in the direction of the coffee house Meloney and I used to meet at. I had become rather a regular, for the barista called out a greeting, and had my 'usual' on the counter before I got there. Paying for the drink, I dropped the change and a little extra in the tip jar.
Taking a seat at one of the far tables, I sipped at my tea, and absorbed the blend. I tried to focus on the current music track playing, lost it in a flash memory of Duo standing in our living room barely dressed with two cups of coffee in his hands.
"Hello?" Meloney's voice sounded from my cell, and I thought I was losing my mind. I had no memory of calling her, no thought of even calling her.
"He brought someone home last night." Now that she was there, I wasn't going to waste the call.
"Heero?" she asked, and I heard her say something as an aside. "Just a minute, Heero. I'm in a bad place and can't hear you." There was a moment of shuffling; the sound of wind blowing through the receiver, and a loud thud, and then Meloney was there. "Okay, so who was home last night?
"Duo. He..." I closed my eyes, and lowered my head, my other hand shielding my face from the rest of the shop. "He brought someone back with him last night. That person stayed... is still there now."
"Did you meet him - or her?" Meloney asked briskly.
"No, but I heard someone in his room. And Duo... Duo was carrying two cups."
"What are you going to do?" Her voice had softened.
I looked out the window and watched a car leave the parking lot, entering the street, and accelerate off. "I don't know," I murmured. "I... I can't go back."
"Is this it, then? Are you calling it quits?" her voice was so soft, I almost hadn't heard her.
"No!" I gripped the phone tightly, and then eased up before the plastic became stressed. "I just, don't want that to happen again."
"Without his commitment, it might. As long as you're living with him." Meloney sighed gently. "We talked about that, Heero."
"Are you saying I should move out?"
"Is that what you want to do?" I could hear her shifting, and then she added, "Sometimes a little distance can bring clarity - not only for you, but for him as well."
"I can't... I don't want to leave." I was barely whispering, and I wasn't sure if she even heard me.
"Heero," her voice was clear and direct, "tell me how you felt, what you experienced when you found Duo at home, when you discovered that he was there with someone else."
The pain was there in a rush, my heart trip firing in sharp, lethal-feeling beats. Blood roared through my veins, drowning out all other sounds, leaving me shaken. "Oh God," I gasped. "I can't... do that."
"Okay," she said gently, "It's going to be okay, Heero. A little distance is what you need. Something temporary, until you can gain some perspective, okay?"
"Distance, yes." Like out in space, alone in the darkness and the stars and the cold. Someplace - safe - I could find my control, someplace to ground myself.
"Good. Let me make a call, and see if I can't find somewhere for you to go tonight." Meloney sounded as if she were smiling.
"Tonight?" I mumbled, my lips were already numb. This was happening.
"I was thinking of loaning you my place. I'm not using it."
"All right," I agreed, and closed my eyes.
"I'll call you back in a few minutes, and let you know where to meet my girlfriend for the spare key." She was already sounding distant.
I might have told her 'goodbye', but I think I closed my phone without doing so. I spent the time between my call to Meloney and her call back to me letting the pain and adrenalin bleed away. Casting away thoughts of Duo, and who his date might have been, what they might have done in the room across from mine, I finished drinking my tea, marking the time, and wondered briefly, what I was going to say to Duo about my upcoming move.
Meloney called back within fifteen minutes, telling me to stay put, that the friend who'd been watching her place and collecting any errant mail would arrive in the next half hour to hand over her keys.
I had a new home, if only for the next few weeks. Temporary or not, I knew that before Meloney returned from her internship, I would either be back at the apartment with Duo, or I would be looking for my own place.
It occurred to me as I waited, that I finally understood in part on why Trowa had left L4 and his lover, why he'd joined the Preventers.
I won't say the rest of the day was easy, but the wall I'd begun to erect while waiting on Meloney's call was in place by the time I met up with Wufei, and strengthened as the day wore on. Meloney's friend arrived in a rush, key in hand, and a note of instructions given to her. She patted my shoulder and left with a clichéd platitude trailing behind her.
It was between lunch, and after the second music set that I felt able to finally approach the subject with Wufei. "I'm moving out," I told him quietly, watching the boats on the river through my sunglasses.
He had been speaking, telling me about a concert he'd attended earlier in the spring where the saxophonist in the upcoming group had played. His words faltered, and his mouth snapped shut. "You're what?"
I turned my head to look at him, keeping my sunglasses in place. We were sitting on white folding chairs, being rented for the event with all proceeds going to an arts benefit, and I found myself wanting my chair to fold up on me, to hide me from the perceived scorn in Wufei's tone.
"Moving." Looking away, I jerked my shades from my face, and rubbed at my eyes. "It's only temporary - until I can get a handle on what's happening."
"Happening...?" Wufei started to question, but shook his head. "What did Maxwell say about you leaving?"
"He doesn't know yet." I held my head in my hands. "I decided to move this morning after... shit." Standing abruptly, I scanned the audience before looking down at Wufei. "I can't talk about this any more." I left as the next group was making their way onto the platform.
"Heero," Wufei called out to me a moment later. His hand gripped my shoulder, and I slowed to a stop. "Do you need any help in the move?"
Thinking about what I would need to move, I shook my head. "I'm only packing my clothes, immediate need things. A duffel and a couple of boxes should be all."
"Okay," he was saying slowly, "Do you need me to be there when you talk to Max-Duo?"
I clasped his arm, and squeezed it gently. I wished I dared have him there with me. But, if I were repair things with Duo, I needed to let him know where I stood, and why. 'Ganging up' on him or putting our friends in the position of making a choice was not going to help.
"No, I can take care of it myself." I gave him a brief smile, and put my sunglasses back on. "I need to talk to Duo about more than the move."
Wufei nodded and followed me to my car, waited until I'd unlocked and opened the door. "Call me if you need to talk, Heero. I don't need to hear about the drama, but I am there if you need me to be."
"I will," I told him. "Thank you. It means a lot to me."
He snorted, and looked back toward the way we'd come. "Maxwell isn't... stable." His head snapped around, and I could see his eyes widen. "I don't mean he's crazy, more that he's ..."
"I know what you mean," I interrupted. He could say nothing new about Duo that I didn't already know, or hadn't thought of already. "I'll see you Monday," I told him, and slid into the car, and closed the door.
Duo - did not take my proposal well. He argued, told me he wouldn't let me leave, made ridiculous promises, even threatened to handcuff me to my bed, and in the end, he wound up in his room, turning his stereo up loud while I packed.
I made dinner that night, a light stir-fry, knowing it was one of Duo's favorites, knowing it might be the last time. By the time I was serving it on plates, Duo came out of his room, sat in his usual seat, and glared at me.
"I don't understand why you think you need to leave, Heero," he told me, accepting the plate I handed him. "We've never had a problem before, and I've already told you, I'm not going to be bringing anybody home again."
I paused to look at him before taking my own seat. His friend hadn't been there when I returned, and if anything, Duo looked worst than he had that morning. "Wehaven't had a problem," I said quietly, mixing a little rice and bringing it to my mouth. He seemed to relax at my words, and began to eat. Good. It meant that maybe he would listen, and not close himself off from me.
"I have been having a problem," I added after another bite. "And unless something changes, I don't think I can handle the results."
"What..." Duo's voice croaked. He dropped his chopsticks, drank from his glass and tried again. "Problems? Changes?" His hand reached for mine, just a touch and a retreat. "What's going on Heero? I don't understand."
With a sigh, I pushed my plate away; I wasn't hungry anyway. "That... weekend," I shot a look at him, and his eyes dropped to his plate, but he gave me a tight nod, "I realized that I... loved you. Loved you as more than a friend." His head jerked up, and his mouth opened. I rushed ahead, delaying anything he might say. "I know you don't - didn't feel the same, and I'm not asking you to. At least, I'm trying to not ask you to." I couldn't sit there any more, and stood, picking up my plate. "But, I can't stay here and watch you with others, I can't..." And I fled to the kitchen, hoping he wouldn't ask me for more. I'd given him all I could.
Duo was standing in the kitchen doorway when I turned from rinsing my plate. He looked lost, and I gripped my own elbows to keep from reaching for him. Sighing, he looked away, and slumped against the kitchen wall.
"I can't... feel the way you do." His lips pressed together into a tight line. "But I don't want you to leave, either."
I stayed silent, not trusting myself not to say something I couldn't retract. But, I watched him. His throat worked, and he brought his arms up to cross over his stomach. Protection, physical and emotional, I knew. He laughed a short, gruff sound, and pinned a look on me.
"I'm a selfish son-of-a-bitch, Heero. I want you here, but I can't be who you want me to be..." He shook his head, and studied the tiled floor. "It's not fair to you."
"No," I agreed, and backed up to the counter. "No, it's not," I said stronger.
He began to breathe hard, his chest rising and falling in rapid succession. With an oath, he flung himself out of his slump, turned his back to me, and punched his fist into the wall. He stayed there, shoulders shaking slightly under his shirt.
"It's only temporary, right?" he asked the wall, his voice broken and rough.
"Yes," I said softly, fingernails digging into the flesh of my arms. "A couple weeks, a month. Some time to gain some perspective."
Duo took a deep shuttering breath. "I guess I can live with that. I'll still see you at work, and we can still get together, right?"
"Yes." My hands fell to my sides, and I took a step forward. "Nothing's changed, Duo. I mean nothing in that way."
"Do you need some help with stuff?" Duo asked, still facing the wall.
"No, I've got it." I needed to get going, to settle into Meloney's apartment, and not give myself any more time to think. "I've left the address on the pad by the phone, and I'll still have my cell."
Duo nodded, but didn't turn, didn't speak.
I left the kitchen and went down the hall to my room. I brought out the two boxes I'd packed earlier, carried them down to my car and put them in the trunk. Duo hadn't come out when I came back upstairs, and I went back to my room, shouldered the duffel, and looked around one more time, making sure I had what I needed.
Back in the living room, I hesitated, wanting to go after Duo, but wanting to give him the space he seemed to need.
"I'm going now," I called out. Duo didn't respond, and I opened the door. "I'll see you on Monday." There still wasn't a reply. With a last look toward the closed kitchen door, I walked out of my apartment, and shut the door behind me.