On the Steps of a Slow Afternoon in July
It happened during the long stretch of summer, where the days were hot and long, and nights seemed to last for minutes only. It was days like that, where going barefoot burned the soles of feet, and ice cream melted from the cone before it could be licked.
It happened up at the lake house. The one Relena had invited us all to spend some time at; to play at being young adults without the responsibilities we all carried.
It happened as a surprise, in a most unexpected way, and ended in the best way possible.
We had been there four days, and I was already sporting a slight burn across the tops of my shoulders, and on the end of my nose. Hilde had threatened me with bodily harm if I forgot sunscreen again; Heero didn't say a word, but held my chin in his palm while he smeared the crap on over my nose and cheeks that morning. What a guy, what a pal, what a pain in my ass. But at least I didn't burn, and Hilde didn't get exasperated at me again.
This old house was big and sprawling, where the first floor was practically one large room, divided into kitchen and living space. The upstairs had a handful of bedrooms, where everyone was bunking with someone else. I don't think anyone minded, since we were up every night to midnight or later, and awake just after dawn. Besides, I was sharing a room with Heero, and it wasn't as though we hadn't shared a room, an apartment, or hell, even a bed before. Hilde and Relena were in the room right next door, and I swore I'd split them apart if they kept me awake talking and laughing again. On the other side of the two Chatty Cathys, Trowa and Quatre were calling home. That left a room for Wufei and another for a possible drop-in visit that weekend from Une (though Relena called her 'Ann', like they were great friends), and Mariemeia.
So it was just us, almost, since Wufei hadn't arrived yet. But, according to Relena, he should be up sometime the next day. The routine, if there could be one on such a relaxed a trip, was to have breakfast together, then head out either as a group or in whatever pairs, singles, groups we divided into to go swimming (what I did most often) or boating (Quatre's pastime) or to try a hand at fishing (Heero's favorite) or simply lie in the sun (where one was sure to find Hilde).
The night before last, we had piled into Quatre's monster SUV that I swear can seat twenty, and headed down the road to an ice cream and burger joint. The sign on the roof claimed the best hand-churned ice cream that side of the river, and, even after I ate just about the best burger and fries (with extras swiped from both Hilde and Heero's plates), and a large double chocolate shake, I had to agree with the claim. We probably sat out front, taking up a couple of tables, talking, listening to the crickets in the weeds, and pretending for awhile that we hadn't all done what we did; weren't exactly who we were.
We were still sitting there, the sun was about gone, with the stars coming out, and the sky that velvety looking purple-blue color. Heero leaned back from his seat at the table behind me, poked me on the shoulder, and pointed out a shooting star. I watched it fade from sight, and turned to ask him what he had wished for, but didn't. There was such a wistful expression on his face, hopeful with a hint of doubt, that I wasn't sure if I wanted to know what he was wishing. If he had wished for anything.
That night, after we got back and were in bed, I asked him if he ever wanted to go back - to space, to L1, to some place other than earth. He didn't answer for a long time, and that was all right with me. I wasn't too sure I wanted to know that answer either, but was willing to accept whatever he gave me. When he finally said that he wasn't sure what he wanted yet, it even made sense, since I wasn't sure what exactly I was wanting either.
And then it happened. I guess, now, it was going to happen anyway, should have probably happened a long time ago. But... well hell.
The lunch routine wasn't - if one of us was hungry, we made a sandwich. There wasn't anything formal or anyone waiting on anyone else. If I was making a sandwich and someone walked in, I'd make them one too, if they wanted it. It just so happened that day that we were all in for lunch at the same time. Trowa and Heero were back from a 'sure spot' of hiding fish. Hilde, Relena, and me up from the beach, and Quatre in from a drive to town to find some part or other that the catamaran he was playing with needed.
I was pouring ice tea, and Relena was making sandwiches with Heero. Quatre was telling us about a Mexican restaurant that looked decent and thought we should check it out for dinner one night. Trowa was sitting next to Quatre, fiddling with an old radio, trying to bring in a station for the weather report (he thought it might rain and wanted to confirm), and Hilde was sitting on Quatre's other side, cracking snap beans, putting some in Quatre's hands every time he stopped waving them about. One of the lake neighbors had stopped by before we headed down to the beach that morning, and dropped off a huge bag of beans from her garden, and Hilde was dying to make beans with bacon dressing. So, snapping beans was what they did while the rest of us prepared lunch.
In the midst of Quatre talking, Relena and Heero slapping bread and meat and cheese together, and I passing out tall, cold glasses, that damn radio let out a squawk and a news announcer's voice came out loud and strong; I nearly dropped a glass. Relena jumped, tossing the sandwich she'd just made over her shoulder, Heero was crouched on the floor in a defensive stance, Hilde shrieked, and Quatre threw himself back away from the radio.
Trowa only blinked, and turned down the volume. At least I wasn't the only one who cussed, though Heero accused me of being a bad influence on Relena's vocabulary.
Sandwiches were plated and being put in front of a seat, occupied or not, Heero was pulling bags of potato chips from the cupboard, and I was about to bring over the last of the tea glasses when the radio announced a storm moving in later that night. The announcer's voice continued to warn of boating hazards, and choppy waters. Trowa was grinning up at Heero, talking about what a great fishing night it would be, and Heero was ready to abandon lunch to get ready.
"You can't be serious," I was demanding, glaring between the both of them, but mostly at Heero. "Didn't you just hear the man? ' Volatile waters'. Means it's unsafe."
"Unlike piloting a gundam or fighting in a war..."
"Or being a Preventers agent..."
"I agree with Duo. You shouldn't put yourself at risk-"
"There's no risk," Heero was quick to negate Relena.
"Bullshit!" I interjected slamming down the last glass, sloshing its liquid over the sides and on the table. "You won't even wear a life jacket, will you?"
"I-" Heero glared at me. "I can swim."
"In waters like these? This isn't gym's lap pool, Heero." Damn, but the boy wasn't seeing sense.
"And you're not my keeper!"
"But you're mine?" I was up in his face, and not giving an inch. It was as though everyone else had disappeared, and there was only Heero and me in that kitchen. "It's not okay for me to go without that chemical crap and maybe get a little red. But far be it for someone sane to point out how stupid it is for you even to think about heading out in a motorboat with a storm coming. Without wearing a life jacket."
"That's because you were being an idiot to let yourself burn when something simple could keep you from doing so!" The bag of chips was squeezed into crumbs between Heero's hands.
"And you're being stupid to go out in the middle of a storm without a Goddamn life jacket to fish!"
"Trowa will be there too," Heero shouted back. "How come you're not all over him about this?"
"Because I don't love him, you moron!"
It was the jerk Heero gave; the instant softening of his eyes that clued me in on what I'd said. By then, Relena was standing just inside my peripherals, a hand to her mouth, but I'd heard the stifled giggle. Hilde or Quatre, I wasn't sure which and I wasn't about to turn away from Heero to find out either, had gasped.
"Damn, Duo." That was Hilde whispering.
Heero, he stopped squeezing the bag of chips, let his arms drop to his sides, and his mouth opened and closed a couple of times.
And me, I was doing my own impression of a netted fish. "Uh..." finally forcing some sound out, even if it was incoherent. "Gotta go," I mumbled, and spun around, racing for the door.
I think I heard my name, but I wasn't waiting around to find out. I figured I would head on up the road, see if maybe I could catch a ride to town, and maybe wait out the night there. Only, I'd left my wallet back at the house. I'd been swimming all morning and only slipped into a pair of jeans after a shower just before lunch.
But run I did. I was half way to the market-cum-post office-cum-café when I thought how stupid I was being. It wasn't as if I could run away from home. For one, I wasn't home. For another, I wasn't a kid any more. Running was what I did when I was six (and a couple of times when I was sixteen). I was a man now, or supposedly, I was.
Hell. If Heero was going to punch my lights out, he would have done it a long time ago.
So, instead of running, I stopped. Found myself a rock to sit on down by the lake, and took to watching the birds dip and dive after insects off the water. The wind was picking up a bit, and the water rippled with it. A look up showed those storm clouds gathering, though they weren't threatening yet - just patchy things scudding against the blue.
About an hour had passed, maybe, I wasn't sure exactly. Enough time for me to get a grip and pull my ass up off the rock. The walk back didn't seem to take enough time; I wasn't sure if I was ready to face any one of my friends, let alone Heero. First thing I noticed though, Quat's SUV was gone. Made me wonder if someone (or all of them) had gone off looking for me.
The house looked quiet from the outside, and I kept glancing up at the windows, hoping to see a face, (or hoping not to see anyone). I was thinking that maybe I'd throw on a pair of trunks and hit the beach for an hour or so, at least until the storm made its presence known or the wind got stronger.
Heero was sitting on the steps leading to the kitchen door. He was just sitting watching me, waiting for me, with his feet on the step below and his arms resting on his thighs. I recognized that look he was giving me. I should; I'd seen it just the other night at the ice cream shop.
My palms were suddenly sweaty, and for some reason it became hard to breathe. But my feet were still moving and I was standing in front of Heero before I knew what I was doing. He peered up at me, and I gave him a short shrug and a tiny smile.
"I already knew," he said softly. And he wasn't looking at me any more, but at his hands and they were clutching each other like a drowning man to a lifeline.
What could I say in answer to that? Not much, especially since I think I'd left my brains somewhere down by the lake. So, I sat on the step next to him - not too close, but not really keeping him at a distance either. He wasn't saying anything, and neither was I. Instead, I watched the wind pick up leaves and dance them around.
"I feel the same way, you know."
That was Heero talking, and I had to look, just a little, to make sure. His face looked like he'd been the one out in the sun without wearing sun block. In that moment, it was good between us again.
I eased back on my hands, inching a bit closer to Heero, close enough to bump his knee with mine. "Looks like the storm will be a sure thing." I kept it easy, soft. "Supposed to be good fishing tonight."
His knee rested up along side mine. "Person would be foolish to go out on the lake in the middle of a storm."
"Not if he knew how to swim," I told him, watching the lake, eyeing the clouds. "Wore a life jacket." Heero snorted, and glanced at me. "And was smart enough to come in if there's a hint of lightning."
Heero made this choking laugh and knocked my knee with his. He was giving me this little sideways look, head tucked down peering at me from around his arm. It was a soft look, something tender and special.
"I'm not going out on the lake tonight," he told me, and turned to lie on the side of his hip, leaning back and bracing on an arm, with his long legs stretched out down the steps. He was still looking at me, even as I was looking at him. A gust of wind blew, and he raised a hand to brush hair from my face. "There's something else I'd like to be doing instead."
It was nearly impossible to pull away from his look, but I did, and sought the lake again. I hadn't known that Heero felt the same, but it didn't matter any more. That was the past, and I knew now. Tonight, we might talk, or we might not. I don't think that was important, not yet anyway.
It was good enough, for now, just to know.