Someone had dropped an ice cream cone on the sidewalk. I watched as the chocolate melted in a steady stream down the slope of the cement. Though early summer, the temperature climbed higher every day.
Watching the heavy glob slowly become an unformed mass, its parallel to my life just as certain.
I sat on a bench, hoping for a breeze from the river. The only thing drifting happened to be the odor from the overflowing trash bin a few feet away. My belief the park would be cooler than my apartment hadn't proven itself true. The park had better scenery though.
When there was nothing left but a wilted cone and a drying puddle of brown ooze, I decided to move on. Classes had wrapped up two days ago, and the start of a ten week summer break began. My time became my own, only I hadn't an idea of what to do with it. There had always been something I had to do, a plan, a mission, an ideal. Never had I been left to my own devices.
The desire to stay in one place, to become an unidentifiable substance had its appeal.
The early afternoon sun continued to beat upon the concrete and asphalt I walked. The soles of my shoes nearly squelched crossing the blacktopped parking lots. Even the sounds of the day felt muted, dulled with the grind of the heat. The usually lively city had slipped into a sleepy muddle.
Pausing at an intersection, I hesitated on the direction. Left, my apartment with its close living space, near sweltering on the fourth floor of an overcrowded tenement. Or right, and more walking. As hot as it was outside, the thought of being boxed into the limited rooms of my residence set me in motion. I wasn't sure what I sought, but an undercurrent, an unknown thought kept me restive and on the move. Right.
An open-air café with its umbrella covered tables beckoned, and though my funds were as non-existent as my beloved Wing, I pulled up a chair. Water and a biscotti, I wasn't so sure the waiter would return after placing my order down.
In not signing up for summer courses, I believed I'd have a better chance at finding a job, and being able to work more hours to save money for the upcoming school year. Last semester's books I'd already sold; my monthly stipend barely covered the rent having been cut back from student to subsidized dole, the extra cash had been needed to pay the remaining bills.
One of the other café's customers had left a paper and I picked it up before the table was cleared. Most jobs were advertised on the internet, but old habits died hard, and a few relic beliefs left from the pre-colony days appeared in print daily. I scrutinized the listing, as small as it was, and found a position roughly a block from where I sat. The water and Italian biscuit finished, I rose and left slightly more than the tab total on the table.
Though the lunch hour had passed, movement on the streets was sluggish at best. The heat wave sweeping the region brought customs of midday siestas as citizens attempted to stay cool. The building of the company in the advertisement squeezed itself between two large manufacturing type buildings. I stood across the street, watching, wanting to know a little more about the business before I approached. Electronic assembly, some robotic knowledge necessary. I believed I qualified no matter what the position would be.
No one entered or left in the hours I waited. And though I'd found shade, in the still air it was too hot to remain in one place for long. I decided to return to my pseudo sauna, and seek additional information.
My key didn't fit in the lock. The door jerked suddenly from my grasp, and I lost my balance, stumbling forward. Arms caught and steadied me.
"Heero?" the familiar voice sounded somewhere above, soothing yet puzzling.
I was on the floor and didn't remember falling. Duo tugged my t-shirt off, and placed a cool wet cloth on my head. What are you doing in my apartment? My mouth refused to form the words.
His face appeared in my line of sight, his expression anxious. "Good, you're aware." Some of the tightness about his eyes smoothed away. "You scared me, buddy. Collapsing like that. What the hell you doing outside on a day like this anyway? Don't you know health advisories have been issued?"
If I'd been more alert, the loss of conscious action would have horrified me. As it was, some inner sense knew I'd be safe and taken care of here. The air conditioning in Duo's apartment worked, and worked well. I still hadn't said a word while he helped me to his couch. Instead, I allowed myself to flow with the ethereal surreality I experienced.
Perched beside me on the couch, Duo spoke. I could see his mouth move, but heard words Heathcliff said to Catherine before he left to seek his fortune. My eyes slid from his face to the ceiling. Swirling blue spots chased one another around, and I was amused by their antics. A sharp sting to my cheek, and Duo leaned closer, his face next to mine. The end of his braid peer at me from over his shoulder. Fascinated, I pet it. Duo looked even more concerned.
"It's okay, Levi," I told him, looking back at the ceiling again.
The cold water he poured over my head trickled down my neck, over my shoulders, down my arms. I watched as it collected in my navel like a miniature swimming pool. The cool cloth soaked up the tiny reservoir. A glass was pressed into my hand, and Duo forced it to my lips.
"Drink," he commanded. He wasn't wearing a shirt, and I could see a smattering of freckles across his shoulders and down his arms. I finished off the water drawing mental lines, creating images with the lightly colored dots.
Duo brought more water, and freshened the wash cloth. He spoke little, only enough to keep my attention. After he'd brought the third glass, he remained on the edge of the cushion, walking through the first aid steps in treating heat stroke. He continued to bathe my exposed skin with cool water, asking the right questions. While part of my mind analyzed his actions, most thought processes had shut down. Outside of unconsciousness, I'd never felt as separated from who I was as I did then.
Even as I touched him, my mouth finally finding its voice, my brain screaming for me to cease. "Where did this one come from?" A finger traced the jagged white line down his left shoulder, stopping just above the nipple. In the years I'd known him, roomed with him, I couldn't remember a time I'd seen him shirtless.
He looked startled for a moment. His eyes lost their intense focus. "Ah, well, you know it was a bit rough on L2." Folding the cloth back over my forehead once more, one hand lingered on my own bared chest. "These are from ... New Edwards, right?" his voice had become low.
I knew what he asked about, it was for that reason I rarely disrobed in public. Most of the scars had faded, but there were a few that stood out, twisted, mangled areas of flesh. I gave him a brief nod though my eyes never left his chest. Far from marring, the scar enhanced the tone of his skin, defined the pectoral muscle.
"You feeling all right now?" his tone drew my gaze upward.
It might have been the dampness of the pilled fabric clinging to my back, or the heat his hand generated on my chest, but the position I found myself in became sharply real. Duo hovered over me, one arm braced on the back of the couch for support while he'd cool my body. Watching the muscles shift under his skin as he moved did not top the list of things to do with friends.
Responding to my growing embarrassment, Duo straightened, and slid down the couch. In the space given, I sat up, putting my feet on the floor. "I'm fine, now," I finally answered from between fingers. My elbows dug into my knees and my briefs absorbed even more water.
"I'd just started getting dressed when I heard you at the door," Duo was saying, folding and refolding the wash cloth. "Thought I'd fix some lunch and maybe catch a matinee later." I nodded, not really listening. "Why were you out looking for a job in this heat, anyway?"
"Broke," I answered automatically, and flushed. My situation did not concern him.
The single page newspaper lay folded with the want ad circled. Duo threw the cloth towards the kitchen before grabbing an arm, pulling my attention. "Listen Heero, stay away from these kinds of places, you hear?" I blinked, not understanding his sudden intensity. "Let's just say I know someone who knows someone, and if the governance board found out you were working in anything smelling like an MS factory, no one, not even Relena herself could keep you from that bitter group and their star chamber procedures."
I couldn't help the frown. "But the money..." I knew what he said, however, when one barely had two coins rubbing themselves together, even unethical practices seemed enticing.
He released my wrist, his hand going for his jeans. "I'll give you the money!" Pulling out a handful of credits, he shoved them at me. "I can't tell you what to do, but I can keep you from giving them a reason to do what they've been wanting since the war."
The money I held was more than the monthly allowance they gave. I eyed it, sliding the folded paper between my fingers. "I'll pay you back. I just have to find a job."
"Hey, listen Heero," his voice was low and he leaned in close. "Don't worry about it. I should have seen it coming, and realized the situation for what it was months ago." When I glanced at him for clarification, he smiled. "Howard and I talked quite about it between the wars. He suggested I take a few actions, set myself up for anything that might happen. He sort of thought this governance board crap would come about, warned me against the tricks they might pull. I should have told you sooner, is all."
When the full impact of his words sank in, I looked around quickly, as though expecting a raid.
"That's been taken care of as well." Duo stood and motioned for me to follow. At the window, he parted the curtain just enough to nod at the roof across the way. "Howard's brother-in-law specializes in surveillance electronics. He's embedded a little gem that blocks and scrambles anything the government can come up with to listen in." He grinned at me.
"So that means..."
"They'd have to be standing in the bathroom to hear me singing in the shower."
I shot a look at the roof again, and wondered how I could get one for myself. Duo drew me away, the hand on my shoulder leading me back to the couch. "Have a seat. I'll grab us something to eat and we can talk about what your options are." He tossed most over his shoulder, heading for the kitchen.
The couch was wet. Briefs clinging to my skin and suddenly chilled, I worked to suppress the shiver and looked around for my clothes. I could hear Duo opening cupboards, making small noises and whistling a tune I didn't recognize. My jeans lay crumped against the door; my shirt next to it. Duo appeared as I held the shirt up, it's neck ripped at the shoulder.
"I couldn't get it off," he ducked his head, and dropped an armload on the table. "I'll get you another."
Nodding silently, I folded the shirt. "You expecting company?" I asked jerking my chin at the food he spread out.
He only grinned, and continued to bring out more. "Have a seat. Just getting the drinks."
It'd been a long time since I'd last eaten with Duo. At least a meal at his house. A sandwich in the school's cafeteria didn't count. I believed residue fear he had to eat while he could still lingered; I rarely commented on the amount he provided.
We ate, mostly in silence. And surprisingly, the provender held light fare, mainly succulent fruits. Duo bit down on a grape, watching as I drank. The slow grin let me know one of those ideas he thinks are funny just spawned.
"Catch!" He fired a grape in my direction. I caught it in my mouth. He'd deliberately waited until both hands were occupied. His laugh was short lived; I tossed back without the warning. My aim perfect, he didn't so much as catch it, as it landed where'd I'd thrown it. He swallowed it whole, and smiled fiercely while grabbing a large bunch from the bowl. "This means war, Yuy."
I didn't say anything, but the smirk and small wave of my cupped fingers told him all he needed to know. His first throw bounced off my chin. I raised a brow. "And you won marksmanship metals?"
"Shut up! A handgun is way different than a stupid piece of fru..." My shot landed in his mouth while he was speaking. In retaliation, he fired one after another in rapid succession. Three of them I caught, but the fourth went wide. I couldn't help the smile as I chewed; Duo was laughing too hard.
His laughter stopped, and suddenly he reached across the table to grab my hand. "Come on vacation with me, Heero. Let's get away from here, and do something different." I wasn't sure how to respond. Such an intense expression was highly unusual for him. "This place, it's wearing you down. Can't you see? We've ten weeks until school starts again, and I am sick of the city."
"I thought you were going to work for Howard this break."
He dismissed it. "Howard doesn't need me. Besides, he'd actually make me work." Duo managed to look outraged.
"But, I have to find a job..."
"I'll take care of it. I know a couple of people that'll find something for you... and not just a shit job either." He'd brush away my words.
"I can't just leave my apartment... my mail..."
"Heero," he'd dropped my hand, his eyes still holding mine. "Just let the apartment go. You can move in here. And we can have the mail forwarded."
The reluctance I felt in accepting his invitation more than doubled. As my best friend, Duo had proved himself worthy of my trust time and again. Though he'd lived in the apartment for nearly a year, he'd yet to share it with anyone, and despite his gregariousness, he rarely had company. His offer held more than a spur of the moment utterance or some misguided sense of pity. I lowered my gaze, finding the remnants on my plate suddenly interesting. "They want me in counseling starting next week."
When he didn't say anything for several seconds, I raised my head. He was watching me, his face had lost all animation. "I know," he said simply.
He continued to watch me, gauging what my reaction to his answer would be. When he spoke, he kept his voice low, earnest. "For two reasons actually. The first, I can't think of anyone else I'd rather go somewhere with. But mostly, you've never fainted on me before." He grinned at my half-hearted glare. "We can go somewhere for the weekend, or wait until after you see that psychiatrist next week. I'll leave it up to you."
"Where..." I had to clear my throat suddenly. "Where would we go?"
Duo smiled. "Anywhere you want. Cannes, Monte Carlo, Corsica, Sicily, Greece! Hell, we can even stay here and pretend to be tourists if you wanted."
That idea had a certain appeal to me. "Tourists? What would we do?"
His hand waved about. "You know, check out the Louvre, climb the Eiffel Tower, visit the Bastille, have picnics in the park, eat escargot and drink Pernod on the Champ Elysee." His voice had grown more excited as he spoke, and for a moment I could see us doing some of those things he mentioned. "We could even pretend to be different people," a quick flash of annoyance. "Besides Gene and Pete." His eyes took on a mischievous light. "I got it. We could be like that book from class. You could be Henry Miller, and I'll be Anais Nin."
Brows puckered, I puzzled it out. "Henry Miller and Anais Nin? But..." I frowned slightly. "They were lovers." His eyes widened slightly. "And Anais was female." His mouth opened. "You never read the book, did you?" He shook his head. "How do you do it? Pass all your classes and never study."
One shoulder hiked up higher than the other, dislodging his braid. "I never figured that part out. Just lucky that way, I guess."
Luck. For more than a year, I'd muddled through life, attempting to make something from the existence given to me. I'd done what'd been expected, followed their rules, made the right choices as dictated by some group of old men. I'd been a melting lump of ice cream. And luck never played a part.
"I'll accept your invitation, but only on one condition," he waited for it. "I get to be Anais Nin." At his startled look, I added, "I've decided I need more unconventionalism." I also decided Duo's laughter was a good thing to hear.