Olly Olly Oxen Free
Romantic love was an emotion I had never experienced. At least, not consciously. I had seen it displayed in some of those around me, and felt love of the platonic kind. ‘Like’ was an emotion I knew and could identify, having friends and co-workers I enjoyed being with; all others I tolerated. Having felt body chemicals stirring more than once, I knew what attraction was. The need to protect and comfort burned under the surface, even for strangers, even for those I didn’t care for. Love was all of those blended together and a whole lot more.
Knowing and experiencing were often completely separate entities. That could explain why even knowing what I did, the idea that I was in love with Duo Maxwell escaped me. And why it took me nearly seven years to figure it out. By that time, we were partners again, working for the Preventers as Investigation and Field Operation Specialists. But, we hadn’t started that way.
Between the initial peace and the Barton uprising, Duo had been the only one I had maintained contact with, the only one who was able to find me. In thinking about it, clues were most likely left for him to pick up, clues only Duo would have been able to decipher and exploit. It had become a game of sorts, a high-tech version of hide-n-seek. And when he would find me, those times spent with him felt better than those I spent on my own. A day or more later, he would return to what he had been doing, and I would find a new place to be. Olly olly oxen free...
In the spring of one-ninety-seven, Duo moved to L2 and started a business with Hilde. Our game had come to an end. I became part of Relena’s security task force ensuring her personal safety. The duty wasn’t hard, though it was sometimes demanding. A working relationship evolved into a friendship between Relena and I. It was after my discovery she admitted she had desired more, but had been willing to accept what I offered. By that time, she had found someone she cared for a great deal, loved even.
The restlessness of being her bodyguard didn’t settle in for almost two years. A month of time off, and a lot of traveling later, I knew I wasn’t going to return. Instead, I attempted being a young man my own age. College courses sounded like a good idea, but I soon grew bored with the tedium of having to take classes in subjects I knew more about than the instructors teaching them. With several CLEP credits, and an accelerated schedule, I had my degree in eighteen months.
The months I spent focusing on college, I had still kept in touch with Duo - an email or two every couple of weeks, a colony to Earth call every month or so. Even still, it was a surprise to see him on my doorstep, needing a place to stay for a couple of days until he found his own. He had joined the Preventers. Following suit felt natural, and the offer to be partnered with Duo all the more reason to accept. Why he had left L2 and Hilde we never discussed. If he wanted to tell me, he would in his own time.
Almost seven years to the day after Operation Meteor launched, I was twenty-two, give or take a couple of months, and the five gundam pilots had gotten together for a night of comradery and reminiscences. It was rare for all of us to be at the same place at the same time.
Quatre let it slip that he and Trowa were now living together, that Trowa had accepted a position on the L4 branch of Preventers. It didn’t seem to come as a surprise to Wufei, and after I thought about it for a moment, I realized he was the one who worked the most with Trowa when the part-time Preventer was called into action. Duo said plenty, good-natured teasing, and talk of suggestive housewarming gifts.
He was laughing at something Trowa had called him when it happened. I was smiling at the joke, raising my beer when I saw Quatre’s hand move to cover Trowa’s and Trowa turning to smile at him. It all came together and the world froze for half a heartbeat. Quatre looked up at me then, and knew.
At a large table in the back of an eating and drinking establishment, I had the biggest discovery of my life to date, and had to squash it immediately. Quatre was still staring at me, his look sad, almost pitying, and I drank the last of the beer in the bottle. Standing and pulling out a handful of credits, I started making some excuses about paperwork, and headaches, and early mornings.
No one bought it, but they let it go - thinking that I had had my fill of socializing for the night.
For the rest of the night, and into the morning, I did nothing but sit at my desk and think about what I’d discovered. The end result remained the same, despite my objections. A doomed for failure mission before it began, and on a piece of lined paper, I listed out each point.
Duo was not interested in men. He had lived with Hilde. Had a relationship with her, though he never spoke of its nature. Duo had dated at least a dozen women to my knowledge, and was currently dating the college-student waitress at the diner we ate lunch at all the time. Never had Duo mentioned a preference for men.
Duo was a friend. To be exact, if somewhat fifth grade, he was my best friend. With all that entailed, he was the one I shot pool with every other Saturday, went to baseball games or hockey with, groused about our jobs, the latest mission, the bad mainframe system we had to live with until someone upgraded. I was the one who listened to him joke or bitch about a date, depending on how well or bad it’d gone. I was the one who bailed him out for drunk and disorderly after one of his more serious "dates" dumped him.
Duo was not interested in me as anything other than a friend. I might mean more to him than Trowa or Wufei, and he knew more about me than anyone else on Earth and space, but I was still just a friend. He knew I preferred unsweetened black tea over any other, and most definitely over that sludge he brews. My favorite brand of beer was kept cold on the bottom shelf of his refrigerator. And, he trusted me.
Of that trust, I would not do anything to lose.
I shoved the notepad away and rubbed at my eyes. It was a Saturday, and one of in which we had plans to meet, go out and shoot pool. Canceling it crossed my mind, but after running out on them the night before, any excuse would generate more questions than what I wanted to answer.
It was after six when Duo called. ‘Change of plans’, he said. ‘Meet me out front in a half hour.’ Since I’d already showered, changing into a clean shirt took no time at all. I gave my hair one last toss, snorted at myself for caring, slipped my wallet in the back pocket of my jeans, and headed out the door.
I saw Duo’s car pulling into the lot and started heading that way, stopping short when I saw her. The girl from the diner. Duo climbed out of the car, stood at his door telling me something about Tami wanting to check out this new club and her friend being in town and what a great idea. By his tone, he knew it wasn’t a great idea to me. But, I sensed he wanted it to be. Wanted me to do this.
Giving him a nod, I stepped over to his car. The relief was immediate and he moved out of the way so I could climb in back, taking the seat next to Tami’s in-town-for-the-weekend friend. She started talking before I had my seatbelt fastened, asking questions without waiting for replies. I thought she might have given me her name, but I didn’t remember it if she had.
The club was not a great idea. It wasn’t remotely near a good idea. And they didn’t carry my brand of beer. Duo and I had left the girls at a table while we went to the bar for drinks. He apologized without actually apologizing for breaking tradition, and apologized for the poor selection of brews. I let him know without saying that it was okay. It was what friends were for, right?
A couple of hours later, I was seriously changing my mind. Duo and Tami were on the dance floor, again, and Tami’s friend kept raising her voice to be heard over the band playing in the corner. The headache I’d claimed the previous night came marching by in time with the bass drum. The perfume she wore was thick and heavy in my nostrils, making me want to sneeze, making me want to tell her it’d last longer if she wore it more sparingly.
The song changed tempo, from fast and jerky to slow and erotic. She asked me to dance and pouted when I declined. Having put up with her dancing three times already, and Tami once, I didn’t think I was being unreasonable. I did refresh our drinks, and the vodka shot she downed broke the restraint she’d placed on her tongue.
I was out the door inside two minutes, deciding to walk home. That she was supposed to be my "date" had never occurred to me. That Duo offered my company without telling me, I never would have believed. Whichever way it played, I knew I didn’t want to spend another minute with that girl.
She’d asked me if I was gay, and I couldn’t answer her. I bought her another drink, told her to find someone else to dance with and to enjoy the rest of her weekend.
It took me just over an hour to walk the five miles back to my apartment. Only I stopped at the tavern down the street, a hole in the wall joint set in a strip mall. Not the kind of place I pictured Tami or her in-town-for-the-weekend friend spending any time at. But they carried my brand of beer. And they had pool tables set up in back, some dartboards off to one side, and a jukebox that didn’t require you to shout to hold a conversation. It was my kind of place.
There were four messages waiting for me when I finally did get home. Ignoring them for sleep seemed a wise choice. I didn’t want to hear what Duo had to say, and I definitely didn’t want to argue about it.
The alternate pounding on my door and ringing of the doorbell the next morning, made me think that maybe I should have given Duo a call before crawling into bed. Scrubbing a hand through my hair, thinking something was needed in my stomach to settle it with a long shower after, I headed for the door. Time to slip into a new hiding place.
"God damn it, Heero," Duo was shouting before I had the door completely opened. I just raised an eyebrow, turned away and headed for the kitchen. "If you didn’t want to go, you should have said something! You just left Bridget there..."
"Is that what her name was?" I turned up the burner under the kettle and began setting out the tea things.
"Well, yes." Duo seemed a little unsure, and I looked at him over the refrigerator door. "You could have told me, Heero. We could have found something else to do."
I stared at him a moment and turned away. "Put a couple slices in for me, would you?" Yogurt, orange juice, milk. "You were dancing, and I did tell... Bridget." Two cups, two bowls, spoons, napkins. "Besides, it wasn’t as though she was my date now was it?" I was staring at him again.
"Uh..." For some reason, he was having trouble with the toaster. But his ears were red, and I thought I liked it. "Yeah."
"Duo," I said softly, leaning a hip against the counter with my arms folded over my chest. He stopped fussing with the bread tie and looked at me. "Do. Not. Ever do that to me again."
"When was the last time you went out on a date?" Some of his earlier anger reappeared.
"Regardless, if and when I want a date, it will be of my choosing, not yours, or anyone else’s." The kettle whistled, and I let it sputter a moment longer.
"Okay, but..." he said. "I..." Having trouble finding the right words, I suspected. I went to pour water for tea and he turned back to the toast. "Just..." While I finished setting things on the table, I kept glancing up at him. His back and shoulders expanded deeply, and though I didn’t hear it, I saw the breath he took, held and let go. He turned a moment later, four slices of toast on a plate. "I just don’t want you to be lonely."
A sip of tea, a spoonful of yogurt and I thought I could answer him without lying. "At this time, I am not."
Duo nodded, dropping it for now and looked into his bowl. "Yogurt? Heero, man, you have to invest in eggs and bacon. Now that’s a decent breakfast for a man."
"Yogurt doesn’t harden your arteries," I replied almost automatically. His complaint on my usual breakfast fare the same as it always was; his refrigerator was baconless, and rarely held eggs. But, the second shelf always had a plastic cup or two of yogurt.
About the time autumn was heading into winter, Duo started grumbling about the job. His talking never seemed to interfere with work, shuffling through field reports, satellite photos and probability profiles as he spoke. Most of the time, I would listen with half an ear, continuing my own paperwork, my own analysis. But, this time was different. The tone was off. Duo wasn’t happy in what he did any longer.
"Find a new job," I told him. He paused to look at me, hands still spread apart to show me just how thick the new procedure manual was. For half a minute, I held his gaze, and then dropped my head to finish writing.
It was quiet for the next ten minutes, other than my shifting papers and folders about my desk. A glance or two at Duo showed he was no longer working. The engine being revved and its gears shifted could almost be heard.
"I think I will," he said finally, giving me a sharp nod and picking up his pen.
I tilted my head to the side, hiding a smile.
It shouldn’t have surprised me at how quickly he moved. A new job within two weeks, and out of Preventers within a month. His last day approached with more speed than I thought possible, but Duo was happy with his decision. I had to admit, his new job sounded more in line with his interests, aptitude and abilities. Adjusting to the silence would have to be planned for.
A party was thrown for his going away, and it was expected that I at least show up. I told Duo I would, and I did, even if I hung back, sticking close to the bar out of the way of the revelers - Duo knew what my thoughts and feelings were on his leaving, he didn’t need me to tell him. At one point in the evening, before the drinks became too many, I was teased that personnel was unable to find anyone to work with me. I laughed when everyone else laughed and gave Duo a nod that it was okay when he shot me a worried look. It was okay. And in some perverse way, I hoped it would take personnel a long time before finding me another partner.
Two hours into the party, I left for home. Duo knew where I was, but for a lot of those at the bar, it would be the last time he would spend with them.
The holidays came and went, and I still hadn’t been assigned a new partner. A leaner budget, I was told, and my field assignments were placed with other groups, or I was paired with agents temporarily without their partner. I knew it wasn’t a permanent situation, but...
Duo and I replaced our office talk with hurried vid calls whenever Duo had the opportunity. Sometimes twice a day but typically it was every two or three days he would call. Unless work dictated otherwise, we had a standing lunch date at a mid-way point in the city every Thursday. Most of the hour would consist of planning something for us to do over the weekend or my listening to his plans for the weekend.
He was still dating, though work cut heavily into his free time. But he was happy. Happier than I had ever seen him. His talk was filled with new engine designs, manifold flushings caliper gauges, and piston arrays. He would often arrive at lunch smelling of high-octane fuel, motor oil, and hints of burnt carbide. It was on those days that I felt most attracted to him, and the desire to kiss him would come close to shattering my control.
A little more than a year after my discovery, Duo and I were at my apartment. The early May weather had been warm, and playing a little one on one had worked us both into a sweat. The plan was to grab a quick shower, change clothes and catch a movie opening we had wanted to see. A quick stop at the mailbox, and we were inside, Duo raided the fridge for water while I opened my mail.
The elegantly designed invitation wasn’t a surprise; I had known that they had been planning the civil ceremony for some months. Trowa had asked me to stand up for him as best man, and I knew Quatre had asked Duo to do the same. Reading through the gilded embossed lettering, the memory of that touch and that smile that had set the chain of reasoning in motion, wavered in its strong, nostalgic clip.
"It’s about time you stopped holding that torch."
I blinked, frowned and looked up at Duo. "What torch would that be?"
He leaned with an arm against the door jam between the living room and kitchen, plastic container dangling from his fingertip. He was no longer looking at me but the bare space between the rug and hardwood. "The one you’re holding for the guy you love."
Looking down at the invitation again, I smiled at the words printed there. "I can’t do that."
"Even if you’re alone, never to have him?" Duo pushed himself off the frame and came to stand in front of me.
"I expect to be alone for a very long time," I said, holding his gaze.
He was frowning at the invitation. "I saw it, you know."
The day hadn’t been that hot. At least Duo didn’t appear to have sunstroke. "Saw what...exactly?" I folded the invitation, tapped it against its envelope.
"That look." Duo shot me a look of his own, angry, scared, worried, concerned. "When Quatre spilled the beans about him and Tro... and now, you’re doing it again."
Suddenly, there was no sound but the roaring of my heart in my ears. Duo knew. Duo had known from the start. And... his mouth was moving, he was talking and the roar dimmed a bit. Dimmed enough to hear him chastise me for wanting someone already involved.
"What?" I was blinking at him again.
"Quatre, man. I mean, I know you two spent a lot of time together during the war." Duo was pacing, couch to window to door and back. "I mean, I don’t blame you, mostly. If I was into guys, I’d be in love with him myself..."
I was shaking my head. Duo didn’t know, had not a clue. "Wait... wait. You have got it wrong, Duo."
He stopped, mid-sentence and mid-step. "What? You’re not in love with Quatre?"
At his look of totally knocked off the woodpile poleaxed, I laughed. "No, I am not in love with Quatre."
"Oh." He rubbed the sweatband wrapped about his wrist over his forehead, shifting his bangs around. "Then... why... how come..."
"I’m going to take a shower." I was already heading toward the master bedroom shower, leaving the guest bath for Duo. "The movie starts in forty-five minutes, and I refuse to sit in the front row." With any luck, he would drop it or forget about it.
L4 in July was like L4 at any other time of the year, warm without being overly heated, a moderate climate perfect for growing lush gardens. L4 was home to one of best gardens I had ever seen in any sphere. It went without saying Trowa and Quatre’s wedding had to be held in them.
A ring of hotels, twenty stories and more, blocked the gardens and its surrounding park. The Winner Corporation owned one of those hotels and it was to hold the wedding guests and the reception following. It was palatial; I had been a guest several times during my stint in Relena’s security. Standing out front beside the taxi dropping us off from the spaceport, Duo craned his head back and let out low whistle.
With a smile I hid from him, I paid for the cab, grabbed my bags and started walking. "It’s better inside."
Check-in was quick, efficient and extremely polite without being overly formal. We were instructed that some members of our "private party" had already arrived, and an envelope each was handed to us. Telling Duo I would meet up with him later, I went to my room, unpacked and read the note inside. It was an itinerary of sorts, for the "private party" members I was sure. I wondered who that would entail, and went back down to the lobby.
Even at twenty-two, Relena could be heard above all else. Facing her with a smile that faltered, I was suddenly at a loss; I hadn’t seen her in some months, hadn’t known she was expecting. But, there she was in a pair of white shorts, light blue, oversized shirt clinging to a little round mound poking out front. She was clutching a straw hat in one hand and sunglasses in the other, looking alternately between excited and happy to upset and near to tears.
"Relena, it’s good to see you," I said as soon as I was close enough. She was giving me a short embrace and suddenly started crying, only to back up waving it off. "Relena? What’s...?"
Between her tears, she shook her head. "Don’t mind me. I keep doing this every five minutes." I handed her my handkerchief and waited. "Take me for a walk in the park," she said, wiping her tears away, already smiling.
"Are you sure..." I did a sort of flailing thing between the tears and the ball she carried under her shirt.
She frowned instantly, glaring at me through her sunglasses. "More than sure," was her only comment, and that was tossed over her shoulder as she left me standing there.
I hurried to catch up.
Skirting the gardens, we found the path that led deeper into the park, and talked of everyday things. That straw hat she nearly decimated in the lobby was on her head now, and its brim would catch on my sleeve if she turned too quickly. Her rubbing a hand over her belly made me more than a hint nervous - even through her reassurances.
At a concession stand, I bought a bag of popcorn; we were approaching the lake at the center of the park, and the lake was home to the greediest geese and ducks I had ever seen. Relena plucked a small handful from the bag, and began chewing.
"He didn’t want me to come."
I glanced down at her, trying to look under that damned hat, but she’d turned her head, staring out at the water. "Who?"
"He’s so angry with me now, Heero."
Ah, that he. I heard the tremble in her voice, and reached out for her hand. "He’ll get over it. He always does." I squeezed gently, and she turned to press her face into my chest. She was crying again. And her hat fell off her head and rolled down the embankment towards the lake. "Relena, it’s going to be all right."
"But he said I couldn’t go, and then he was called away, and I..." She was snuffling and I searched for my handkerchief. "I snuck away and came anyway. Now he’s on his way, and he’s so angry."
I rubbed her back, let her cry and wondered how the hell men put up with women. "He loves you." She nodded and was no longer crying, but still held onto my shirt. "You know Wufei only cares about your welfare, the baby’s health."
Relena drew in a deep breath and stepped back. "I know." She wiped her face down again, blew her nose and handed me my handkerchief before chasing down her hat.
Dropping the now sodden scrap in a nearby trashcan, I joined her by the lake. "You aren’t jeopardizing the health of either of you...?" I let the question hang.
She was already shaking her head, tossing handfuls of popcorn to the small collections of birds at the shoreline. "No. My doctor said we’re both healthy and there wouldn’t be any difficulties with traveling. Wufei is being too cautious."
I made a noncommittal sound, holding out the popcorn for her to feed the ducks with. For a moment I wondered what I would have done, if I would have been "too cautious" had I been in Wufei’s shoes. I don’t think I would have. I liked to believe that logic played a better part of my decision making even with such an emotional subject. Seeing how happy she looked now, not a trace of the tears she had just spent, I thought maybe a little interference might be in order.
It was while we were on the way back Relena snapped her fingers, suddenly excited. "I almost forgot!" She clutched my arm, turning toward me. "I met a friend of yours last week. A friend from college."
"A friend?" I thought of the dozen or so people I had studied with, attended classes with, and could not come up with a name or face of one I would call a friend.
"Cameron Russell?" Her brow scrunched lightly. "At least I think that’s what he said." We began walking again, her hand still on my arm. "He was at a presentation I attended, promoting a new project the government is sponsoring. Something to do with far range communication satellites." She pressed the heel of one hand against the side of her stomach, her smile bright. "She’s kicking."
"Kicking?" The idea of being assaulted from the inside had never occurred to me.
Relena laughed and dragged my hand to the spot she had been holding. I felt the flutter under my palm, a strong push and jerked my hand away. "Does that hurt?" I kept staring at the spot, expecting to see a foot poke out like a third rate horror film.
Laughing again, she pressed her hand back to the spot. "Not really. Sometimes it’s bothersome, especially at night." She was smiling again, picking her way over the path. "I think the baby gets lonely and wants to play."
I held her arm, and thought about it. Even knowing a fetus didn’t have cognitive abilities, it was logical to a degree.
"He wanted to know how to get in touch with you."
It took me a moment to remember what we had been discussing. "Why?" I thought I remembered him. Communications engineering in conjunction with a familiar face seemed to fit one of the few I had studied with.
"I think he wants you to join him on this project he’s working on." Relena took off her hat, and fanned her face. "He wasn’t very clear about it and frankly at that point the only thing I could think of is where to find the ladies." She grinned when I blushed. "I did tell him I’d be running into you this weekend and would pass the message." We were approaching the back side of the hotel, and her steps slowed. "I’ll bring his card when we meet again for dinner."
Softly squeezing her arm under my hand, I nodded. Relena’s expression was worried again.
Just before the entrance, she stopped and leaned into me briefly. "Thank you for taking a walk with me. I needed it." With another smile, she went through the door, leaving me to follow.
The rest of the day and into the night went smoothly. Wufei arrived during dinner, and dragged Relena off; the two returned a few minutes later. I studied both, noting Relena was happy and even while he scowled, Wufei stayed at Relena’s side, his hand in constant touch.
The "special party" itinerary had several small events planned throughout the day, nothing tiring and all leaving gaps between to spend time in talk. Rehearsal was at five and the rehearsal dinner scheduled for seven. I don’t think I did too badly in reciting the few lines given to me; watching Duo recite his, I wondered what it would be like if we could have traded positions with Trowa and Quatre.
As though he knew my thoughts, Quatre looked at me sharply. Trowa looked between the two of us, offered me a short smile and began his lines. For the rest of the rehearsal, I listened, stifled my thoughts and kept my eyes on the civil minister. I ignored Duo’s whispered ‘everything okay?’ while standing in the mock reception line just before the dinner.
Afterwards, I didn’t give him a chance to get me alone. Instead, I did what I never had; I mingled. Moving from one group to another, I spoke to those I knew, listened to those I didn’t know, and speculated on just who would be next to walk the aisle. And always, keeping an eye on just where Duo was, moving on without seeming to avoid him when he started to come closer.
Quatre cornered me on the balcony where I had gone for a few minutes respite. I was standing at the rail, elbows braced on top and looking off at the twinkling lights decorating the gardens when he said my name. He waited for me to acknowledge his presence and came to stand next to me a moment before he turned his back to the rail and leaned against it.
"Will you ever tell him?"
Even if I knew it was coming, the bluntness was unexpected. "No. Not the way things stand at the moment."
From the corner of my eye, I saw him nod. Probably expected that response. "He deserves to know," he said, turning to look at me. "His reaction might surprise you."
For a moment I held a breath. "Do you... know something?" It was barely a whisper.
"No," he was shaking his head. "Not from him personally, but I know him." His hand was on my arm and he was turning me his way. "Give it a chance Heero. He’s not going to throw you out of his life." I held his gaze for as long as I could and had to turn away.
Maybe he realized I wouldn’t say anything more, that I couldn’t say anything more. Quatre turned back towards the opened balcony doors, gave my shoulder a rough squeeze and walked away.
"You know," he was saying and I turned to look at him. "I just hate watching you torture yourself like this." He had stopped at the doors, looking at me. I smiled for him, and nodded, acknowledging what he was saying but ignoring it anyway.
Quatre turned away again, rejoined the small crowd inside, and I thought he might have gone to seek out Trowa, or worst yet, Duo. Only...
Duo. He was walking from the shadows on the other side of the balcony, the worry heavy in his eyes despite the smile. I wondered how much he’d heard. I had to get out of there.
"Fine." My tone was unintentionally harsh, but I was moving already. By-passing the reception room, I went down the balcony steps and reentered the hotel by another entrance. It wasn’t surprising Duo was on my heels. What did surprise me was Duo’s silence. At least until we got to the elevators.
"You and Relena were together for a long time."
I pressed the button for my floor and flicked my eyes over to him and back. "She wanted to walk in the park."
"Hard to believe she’s pregnant, isn’t it?" He was rocking back on his heels, hands in his pockets and his eyes on the floor numbers lighting up, and dimming as they moved on.
"Maybe," I said, watching his reflection on the metal doors. "She used to talk about having a family one day."
"Oh that’s right," he said, canting his head to glance at me. "You used to work for her."
The doors opened and I stepped out into the hallway without answering, Duo at my side.
"You ever think about having a family one day?" His voice was soft, and I paused before my room to look at him. He saw the look and grinned. "I mean, wife and babies and diapers and shit."
I could only laugh and unlock the door. Duo followed me inside.
"I used to think I wanted all that," Duo continued. He had his tie off, and was shrugging out of his coat. "But then, one day it was like I woke up and thought it’d be more a nightmare than some dream."
My own coat half hanging from its hanger, I looked at him a moment. He was lying on my bed, shoes on the thick comforter, pillows behind his head. "Is that what happened with Hilde?"
He glanced at me and stared up at the ceiling. His nod was brief. "Yeah. She wanted it all... babies, rings..." he shrugged, "white picket fence."
"I’m sorry." And I was. My coat was hung in the closet, my tied tossed aside on the dresser, and my shirt half off before he spoke again.
"Fuck, Heero. I still don’t understand it, you know. The only thing we’d ever done was kiss." I kept my back to him, closed my eyes and forced myself to listen. After all, I’d opened that door. "I don’t... I mean, she was sort of like a sister or something. But... fuck."
Throwing my shirt aside, I started undoing my slacks. "More than what you wanted at the time."
He took a deep breath and let it go. "Yeah."
My slacks I hung on the same hanger as my coat, and braced against the wall, stripping first one and then the other sock. "I never thought about it." Duo shifted to look at me. "A family. It’s not something I see myself doing."
Grinning, he said, "Yeah, I could just see you with a baby." But his look softened. "I think you’d do real well with one - family, baby, wife."
I snorted. "But you don’t see yourself like that?" Balling up my socks, I tossed them to the floor to join my shirt. Thumbs hooked in the waistband of my boxers, I slid them from my hips and let them drop to the floor.
"Nah, I ..." His words stopped and I looked over my shoulder at him. He was staring at me, his eyes a bit wide. "Heero, what are you doing?"
Shaking my boxers off my foot, I reached over and opened a dresser drawer. "Changing." I held up a pair of shorts before pulling them on. "I want to get a good run in tonight. I don’t think there will be a chance for much of anything tomorrow."
"Oh." His mouth snapped shut. I picked up a tank and pulled it over my head. "Want some company? It’ll only take me a minute to change."
I glanced at him and nodded. "That will be good." Watching him slide off the bed, snatch up his clothes and leave, I decided he hadn’t heard much, if anything of what Quatre and I had talked about.
The wedding was at two and I spent most of the morning from breakfast through lunch with Trowa. Most of the time I watched him read, pace or juggle. Duo popped in our little "waiting" room every few minutes, handing Trowa a small slip of paper before coming to stand by me. We updated one another on how our charges were doing, and return back to his and Quatre’s "waiting" room with a little slip of paper holding Trowa’s response. He seemed to enjoy his role as messenger boy, and I half wondered if he was up to some mischief.
Whatever the notes contained, it worked to hold off Trowa’s rising anxiety for several minutes at a time.
Relena entered while we were dressing, ignoring the indignant squawks. "Wufei’s with Quatre and Duo, so naturally I thought I should be in here helping the both of you."
Trowa grinned and finished pulling on his slacks. "I think Heero’s going to need help with his cummerbund."
While Relena unclipped it from the hanger, I flipped Trowa off over her head. He was laughing, and maybe it was all right for Relena to be there. Despite our protests, she insisted on tying the bow ties. She was crying again, and I handed her my handkerchief. But she only patted her eyes and blinked away the rest of her tears.
"These damned hormones!" Trowa laughed again. I only smiled and gave her a gentle hug. It was going to be a good day.
And it was. Over the under-toned music, the occasional cough and one incident of baby babble, lines were recited, vows and rings exchanged. I stepped back and caught Duo’s eye when our friends kissed. He was smiling, and winked at me. My mouth opened, and I almost said something then, but the minister started talking, people were standing, and the music grew louder.
Fingernails into palms, I gave a nod and a smile to the newly married couple, and waited the prescribed time for them to walk down the aisle. Stepping up to Duo’s side, we made the walk on our own. Hurried hugs were exchanged before the guest exited the garden arbor, and for the next hour, we stood in an exotic mix of floral scents, shaking hands and mouthing cliched platitudes passed down through time.
That night, I don’t think I was in bed an hour, let alone been asleep long when the phone rang. With a bare squint at the clock, I fumbled with the vid, mumbling a vague "Yuy."
"Is it Trowa?"
Duo. I flipped the visual online and peered at him in the dark.
"Is what Trowa?"
He seemed embarrassed but faced the vid anyway. "The one you love. The one you’re torturing yourself over."
I blinked at him for a moment. He was still partly dressed and I tried to remember if there had been some girl he might have taken to his room. But then, he wouldn’t have called me in the middle of the night to ask that question.
"Good night, Duo." I hit the off button, knowing he wouldn’t call back. Sleep evaded me. Maybe I should say something to him.
Resigning my position from the Preventers wasn’t as dramatic a change as I thought it might become. I had asked my leaving to be kept quiet, that no party to be thrown or that I be given anything more than a handshake and a good luck.
Duo threw a very small "congratulations" celebration, ‘in honor of your new job’, he said. It was autumn already, and nearly a year had passed from when he and I were partners. Another change with the season.
After speaking with the man Relena had spoken of, I finally recalled who he was. He proposed a job offer almost immediately, sent a detailed PDS with scope and schedule, and an invitation to tour the facilities. It took close to sixty days before we came to a deal.
I thought it ironic my last day was the same as the one when Duo decided to find a new job the previous year. I would have delayed my leaving by another month to make it symbolic, but I neither wanted to wait that long to join my new team, nor did I hold any animosity or dislike for my job. I only needed a change.
The transition was almost seamless, analysis and diagnostics with different subject matter and expected outcome. Even entering the project team mid-stream, there were no obstacles and I was welcomed once other members determined I pulled my own weight and was worth the delay to bring onboard.
Before the first week ended, I knew what Duo had been feeling. Engaged and stimulated in ways I had never been while working as an agent, I wondered how anyone could settle for less. I no longer had free time, I didn’t want free time. Hours after the business offices had closed for the day would find me still in the labs, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or more of the other engineers.
Duo’s calls increased to daily occurrences. I wasn’t ignoring him, and he seemed to understand the drive to see my way through this project. He didn’t object, much, to my canceling or rescheduling our get-togethers. Three months into the job, and I stumbled into my apartment close on to midnight to find Duo asleep on my couch, a movie muted on the vidscreen and what looked like the remains of Chinese on a plate on the coffee table.
He woke when I turned the movie off, gave me a sheepish grin and searched for his shoes.
"Just stay the night," I told him. "I’ll bring you a blanket and pillow."
"Heero," he started and ducked his head. "Do you even know what today is?"
I thought about it for a moment, dismissing birthdays and obscure Duo anniversaries. "Friday?"
He actually rolled his eyes at me. "Christmas, you know that time of year you get together with friends, family and loved ones?"
"Oh." I went to sit on the couch next to him. "So, what are you doing here?" I asked him softly.
"Well I had hoped we could do something together, you know. Like we used to." He yawned, jaw-cracking wide and stretched out his arms.
"I... am sorry." He was watching me, could see I was sincere. "I will make more of an effort to spend time with you."
And Duo smiled. "Yeah, better see that you do." He turned away, rubbed at the back of his neck and mumbled something that sounded like, "I’ve missed you, you bastard."
It was all I could do to keep from kissing him. Instead, I stood up. "You want to sleep now or have a beer, watch a movie or something else?" I was already moving toward the kitchen.
"A beer and a movie sound good." I heard some rustling and suddenly his voice was right behind me. "I saved you some low mien, if you’re hungry. I even had ‘em make it without those shoots you don’t like and extra spicy the way you do like it."
He was raking his hand through his bangs when I turned toward him. "Thanks." I debated eating when I wasn’t hungry, but had a better idea. "Why don’t we save it for tomorrow. Catch a game or two," and hesitated with the refrigerator door open, "unless you have plans already?"
"Nah, I’ve got nothing going on." He was playing with a fortune cookie on the table, spinning it still wrapped in its cellophane.
I watched him for a moment before reaching inside and grabbing a couple of beers. Not five minutes before I had wanted nothing more than to collapse in bed, sleep until noon the following day and then maybe go back into work for another six to ten hours. Now, unless he wanted to, I didn’t plan to leave the apartment.
"What kind of movies did you bring over?" I was asking as we walked back into the other room. Opening my beer, I only half-listened to the titles and summaries. It didn’t matter to me what we watched, it mattered only that I was watching something with him.
Throughout the movie, Duo kept up a running commentary - about his job, upcoming projects, new releases, and the latest goings on of our friends. In spite of my good intentions, I drifted off to sleep, vaguely getting the feeling I was agreeing to more than I bargained for.
The following Friday, Duo called me in the lab - to remind me of our "date". That he’d be picking me up at nine, so I’d better look sharp. It took me more than a minute to recall just what I had agreed to. During the movie, Duo had been talking about a combination end-of-project celebration and New Year’s Eve party the company he worked for had put together. How he wasn’t seeing anyone and did I want to go. Something along the lines of ‘us single guys sticking together’.
I wound up stammering something about being ready when he picked me up and went back to my office to think.
On a pad of paper I wrote several times over - how? why? what?
I circled the why and boxed the what. The ‘how’ I skipped, knowing it was simply my own fault for not being careful, for being too tired and comfortable to pay attention to what Duo had been rambling.
Why had Duo asked me, why now?
What was he expecting, what the hell was I going to do?
If I knew for certain he wouldn’t encourage me to do more than what I wanted to do, I would have called Quatre to talk about it; that maybe he could see more in the situation I couldn’t; explain why I was suddenly feeling like a teenage girl going to her first prom, and still wanting to throw up at the same time.
Duo was not interested in men. He dated women. Though, I was hard pressed to remember the last time he had dated anyone. Not that he told me every time he went out, but often enough I was aware when he was "seeing" someone. The last time he had spoke of taking a girl out had been well before Trowa and Quatre’s wedding. At least six months then.
Duo was my friend. Duo was not interested in me as more than a friend. At least, I wouldn’t allow myself to believe he was.
I threw down my pen and scrubbed at my eyes; chasing my own tail was not getting me anywhere. A note to the project team letting them know I wouldn’t be in for a couple of days, regardless of it being a holiday or not, I shut down my workstation, locked up my research and left for home. After all, I only had four hours to get ready for my "date".
The party was in full swing when we arrived, Duo swearing we weren’t late. I let it slide mainly because it meant we would be there for maybe three hours, four tops. Besides, Duo looked good and I couldn’t stop watching him. From the moment I opened the apartment door, I was doomed.
Standing against the wall behind one of the refreshment tables, I watched him as he moved through the crowd, talking, drinking, dancing. Duo was still Duo. He was dressed in clothes nicer than he would normally, but nothing exotic, nothing that would have attracted more of my attention than usual. I wanted to say he might have gotten his hair cut recently, but it was still long, still in its neat plait, only it looked to hit at his belt-line rather than upper thigh.
The change had been in me, then. My objectivity firmly planted in "just being friends" had shifted.
I made a point to meet Duo’s co-workers, to put faces to the names I had been hearing about for over a year. When one of the designers he worked with discovered where I worked, he pulled me aside. He had an idea, and knew I was just the person to talk about it with - the person who would understand what he meant. The end of one table was cleared, its paper cover straightened, and the designer drew a quick sketch, a logical problem and laid out his idea in such a manner, I was hooked.
In the middle of discussing one point, the designer called another tech over to explain the engine detail, the override system and how the computer calibrated its input. Duo stopped by, leaned over my shoulder to see what we were discussing and walked away chuckling and shaking his head. More table cover paper was appropriated, and I added a couple of touches to their design; I needed to alert the business department of a potential synergy as yet untapped.
Duo’s next appearance was made scant minutes before midnight. He pulled me away, telling the small group collected I could come back and play later. It was only then that I noticed the lights had been dimmed, and music hushed, and couples paired together, all eyes fastened on a countdown clock set in the center of the room.
"What...?" I was asking Duo, and the crowd began chanting from ten in unison.
"Us single guys have to stick together," Duo said.
I was still frowning at him, mouth partly open to ask a question as soon as I found just how to phrase it when he kissed me. Loud pops, shouts, and yells began, the music started up, but for me, there was only Duo. Duo’s mouth on mine. Duo’s hands gripping my shoulders as if to hold me in place. The taste of Duo in my mouth; the smell of Duo in my nose; the feel of Duo against my body.
It was the sudden bereft of warmth, of his lips on mine, and the insurgence of noise from around us that made my eyelids flutter open. I had been leaning into him, holding him to me. What had I done? Duo was my friend. He raised a hand to his face, fingers touching his lips. And he was staring at me, questions I couldn’t answer, didn’t have the courage to answer in his eyes.
Not giving him a chance to ask, I spun on my heels and walked out of the party. A cab had just pulled up, and I climbed in, ignoring my name being called, ignoring the hammering in my chest. I directed the driver to my apartment, and changed my mind halfway there. I could lose myself at the lab and not think of what I had just ruined.
Almost twenty-four hours later I staggered back to the staff lounge, too tired to stand any longer. I needed sleep, I needed a shower, and I really needed to talk to Duo. After dimming the lights, I stretched out on the hard plastic covered couch. Sleep was elusive, even as my eyes burned and my muscles were weakened to the point of trembling uncertainty.
The ceiling didn’t hold any answers, at least not to the questions circling my head. Duo was my friend and would remain my friend no matter what. I trusted him, and he was worthy of that trust. My actions were only hurting the both of us. I had to tell him something if not everything. Decision made, sleep wasn’t far behind.
I woke to voices down the hall, janitorial staff I thought. A quick glance at my watch showed I had been asleep for almost four hours, and the less than subtle ache in pressure points along my back told me it had been three and a half too many. First things first, I had a short list of items that needed to be taken care of before I slept again.
My office was as I had left it, project folders locked away and computer in log-off mode. Threading the blinds between my fingers, I discovered it was still dark, halogen lights in the parking lot casting a blue glow over the few cars there. It was the second day of the new year, and still there were people working.
Turning from the window, I started at the top of my to-do list. The message light on my phone was blinking, and though I knew who had most likely called, I ignored it for the time being. They would come later, after I wrote my email letting Duo know I was alright and would be calling later - much later, after I had slept a good number of hours. My computer was online immediately, launching my daily programs as soon as I logged in. I closed out of all but email.
There was only one new message in my in-box not work related and it was from Duo. Hesitating for only a moment, I clicked the mouse to open. Simple and yet it held such complexity I had not the ability to explain.
Is it me?
I couldn’t, wouldn’t lie. But, there was no way I was going to attempt to tell him in such a manner. With a groan, I lowered my head into my hands. Emotions were too much.
And now I was hearing things. But there was a sliver of light peeking in from the open door - the open door I had closed when I came in. I lifted my head.
He smiled and stepped inside, letting the door shut behind him. "I was just in the neighborhood and wondered if you wanted to subscribe to Mechanic’s Digest." He walked closer to my desk. "A yearly subscription wouldn’t cost you much and if you wanted to go with a life-time subscription," he shrugged, "we can negociate a deal." And now he was sitting on the corner of my desk, still watching me watch him.
"But..." Whatever fuel my brain had been running on had long since ran dry. His words made no sense, and... "how’d you get in here?"
For some reason, my hand was in his, and his thumb was stroking the back it. "I waited out front until someone came in. Told ‘em I’d left my badge at home and couldn’t reach the "wife" to bring it to me."
"Oh." The thought of reporting the breech to security crossed my mind. "How’d you know where my office was?" I felt as though I were five, and had to walk through the baby questions before the adult ones were broached.
He laughed at that. "You’re listed in the directory and the sections are marked. I just walked the section hall you were listed under until I found your name outside the door."
"Oh," I repeated and watched his hand in mine. There were no other juvenile questions left, and I wasn’t ready to ask the big one.
"You look like shit." Duo’s other hand came up and brushed at my hair, fingers drawing down the side of my face. "Heero." The hand holding mine tightened a bit, and his other hand stopped at my ear, his fingers cupped. I looked up from our clasped hands to see him smile. "Is it me?"
His words elicited a shudder, my eyelids closed even as I leaned into the hand at my cheek. I gave him the slightest of nods and waited.
"For you," he was saying softly, "I could let you check out the magazine," his thumb brushed over my cheek and I shuddered again. "an issue at a time, you know, until you decided you wanted to keep it around."
Duo was still smiling when I opened my eyes.
Sometime about three hours before dawn the second day of the new year, I made another one of the biggest discoveries of my life - Duo was looking at me the way Trowa looked at Quatre.
I tugged on his hand, and he slipped from the desk, let me draw him closer yet. We shared our second kiss not even a minute after my newest and biggest discovery had been made. When Duo pulled back, I was smiling and hoped it conveyed the same feeling his did to me.
"Come on, Heero," he was saying. "Let’s go home."
As we walked across the parking lot to his car, he still held my hand. I held it up for a moment looking at it, and then him. He waited to see if I was going to say anything and continued on when I didn’t.
The year was AC two-oh-four, and Duo and I had just ended our game of hide-n-seek.
Olly olly oxen free.