After four hours loading, it felt good just to sit down and take the weight of his feet. Leaning back, Duo closed his eyes in appreciation of the support on his sore lower back. His shoulders ached. His arms burned from bicep to wrist, and his hands were nearly numb.
He shoved the key into the ignition. After two tries, the engine turned over and flared to life, settling back into its normal unhealthy mumble. He'd left the radio on when he'd parked, but he turned it off, not quite ready to loose the relative quiet just yet. It calmed him down; he could feel the skin on the back of his neck shift in a way that wasn't entirely human, the hair lying flat. The shadows became denser, and he guessed that his eyes had yellowed without his noticing.
Only two days left until Saturday, he reminded himself stubbornly. The week was more than half way done.
Duo sighed heavily. He still had two more days of work this week.
He shifted his car into reverse and backed out of the parking spot. Once he was on the road, he relented and brought the music back, playing with the dial until he found a song he knew the words to. His fingers tapped out the tune on the steering wheel. The air that blew in through his open window was as fresh as it got in the city, still thick with exhaust, but as long as he kept moving, it felt good. Easing down in the seat, Duo shifted into a higher gear and pulled onto the freeway.
The clock read a little after two am, but it felt later. He was lucky it wasn't later -- it was getting close to Christmas, so double shifts were more and more becoming a reality. Four hours of loading boxes hurt. Stopping every ten minutes or so of that four hours to straighten out the cluster-fuck jams which were the natural result of having to opposing chutes on one conveyor belt made it worse; he had to leave his station to fix them, then double time to make his pieces per hour quota. But during a four hour shift, he could talk himself into not overreacting. Because really, it was just four hours. Duo could cope with four hours of anything short of having his teeth drilled. Eight hours, though... he might just walk out after five.
Duo turned up the radio, drowning out the machines that still rang in his ears. The road was open as far as he could see; he let the speedometer creep up a little higher. His Volvo rattled with the speed.
He wasn't really sure where the day had gone bad. It hadn't started out that way. Heero had stayed the night at his apartment, instead of Duo going to his house. Normally it just made more sense that way since the guy didn't have his own car, but sometimes Duo liked not knowing that five other people could hear them when they had sex, or walk in on them making out in the livingroom. It was nice just to be able to talk by themselves for awhile. Clean dishes, clean sheets, nothing growing in the fridge and no penicillin waiting to be harvested off the bread were all bonuses. They'd ordered pizza, made fun of an old Lon Chaney movie, and groped on the couch. In Duo's opinion, that made a good afternoon.
Traffic was thinning by the time he'd dropped Heero off at home and headed in for work; the parking lot was already empty of the nine-to-five office crew when he arrived. He'd gotten a place close to the guard house without much of a hassle.
He hadn't been fussed when Tessa cornered him coming in and asked for a ride tomorrow because her car was in the shop getting the breaks fixed. He'd smiled and agreed. No problem, she wasn't out of his way. No, he wouldn't stop her from paying for gas.
Work was quick, and monotonous. The warehouse got cold after dark, and he'd been glad for the movement. Really, it was no different from any other night. It was more uncomfortable in the summer, when the warehouse was ten degrees hotter than it was outside. Work always sucked -- for some reason, today it had gotten to him.
Shifting to drive one handed, Duo leaned his elbow against the door and let his head fall unto his free hand. Streetlights flooded the road with light almost bright enough to make headlights redundant. Even in the middle of the night, it was bright enough to see.
No... He did know where the day had started going bad. Tilting his head, he scratched the nearly healed line of the cut under his eye.
Ted had commented on it when he came in, saying that it looked better. "The advantages of youth," he'd said, but it had nearly been a question. It had nearly sounded like he knew that wasn't the case.
Heero had been right about that. It had only taken a few days to heal, and there wouldn't be a scar. It was one of the few advantages of lycanthropy.
After that, he'd been more irritable. Every time he had to stop what he was doing to clear a jam, every time he found some goddamn Easter Egg that wouldn't go over his belt or stack in his pile -- a bucket, a muffler, a fucking tire -- it pinged at his nerves. By the end of the shift, he resented having to scan the bar codes on every box. Heaven forbid some shmuck with a computer in Bumsfuck Idaho not be able to track his deliver-me L.L. Bean gun rack, though, or whatever the hell it was that they had to check the progress of every three hours. Because, shit, it takes two whole days to get there.
His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel, and he could feel a muscle under his eye twitch. The yellow lines on the road blurred past. Shadows wheeled across the dash board.
He was gone for the day, though.
He didn't have to think about work again for over eighteen hours.
He'd sleep through nine of them, but hell, that still left most of the day open.
So why the fuck was he still thinking about work?
Because my back still hurts, Duo told himself harshly. And my feet hurt. And my knees are popping. And my shoulders fucking hurt because I didn't feel like getting help tonight, even though I probably needed it.
The Advil in his medicine cabinet flashed through his head, and Duo decided that popping three or four of them before going to bed might be the plan. Advil, hot shower, bed, in that order.
Why, oh, why had he agreed to pick Tess up? He'd have to leave early tomorrow to get her, then he'd have to deal with her during the commute. Tess was a nice chick, but the thought of having to listen to her talk the whole way to work grated. She'd comment on his driving, his radio. She'd ask about his boyfriend. She wasn't rude, just a little teasing, but he didn't want to listen to it now. Didn't want to deal with the jokes, or the work gossip, or any of it.
Shit. Maybe he'd just call in sick tomorrow.
Except he'd probably need the sick days. This month, the full moon fell on a weekend, but not next month.
Thank god for small blessings, though. At least this once he wouldn't have to weasel out of a night of work.
Duo heard the whine of a police siren an instant before he noticed the flash of blue lights in his rear view mirror. Glancing down at the speedometer, he saw the needle hovering just above ninety.
"Shit!" he hissed sharply. "Shit, shit, shit. Come on, it's the middle of the fucking night!" He slowed and pulled over to the side of the road. The cop pulled off ahead of him, waited in his car a moment before appearing in that self-important way they had. Like the bastard thought he was a fucking cowboy or something. Duo watched as the cop walked up to his window, just a little bow legged. He flinched away when the beam of a flashlight struck him full in the face.
"License, registration and proof of insurance," the policeman said, leaning over Duo's door. Duo smiled an unhappy smile; it felt a little like baring his teeth. But he passed his papers out the window.
Then, "Are you registered, boy?"
"I just gave you my registration," Duo answered.
"You gave me the registration for the car. Are you registered?"
Jesus-fucking-Christ. He wanted to yell it. He wanted to growl. He didn't. "No, sir. That's not illegal now, is it?"
The cop snorted. "Wait here while I run this."
Duo spread his hands in a gesture of agreement, then watched as the policeman turned and swaggered away. His stomach twisted into a hard knot, anger warming him. Already knowing what he'd find, he moved the rearview mirror so he could see his face. Sure enough, yellow spread from around his pupils. In the half-dark, the blue that was left looked black, and it was pressed into a tight ring around the outside of his irises. A part of his brain noted with a little interest that his eyes turned true yellow, while Heero's ambered, and Trowa's turned gold. Dorothy's eyes became a pale, silvery hazel. He hadn't actually seen them before. Fucking yellow.
The police officer came back, and wrote him a ticket. Speeding and reckless driving, one-hundred and twenty dollars. Duo's hands shook as he took the ticket along with his license. His throat went dry. One-hundred and twenty dollars was a whole pay check. One week was going down the down the toilet. The bottom dropped out of his stomach. He laughed when he thought about his insurance: a twenty-year-old guy, with an accident, a speeding ticket, and now a reckless speeding.
He scraped a hand through his bangs as the cop pulled away. "I am so fucked."
Starting the car again in a daze, Duo navigated the nearly empty streets. He didn't want to go home anymore. Advil, shower, and bed forgotten. He just didn't want to go home, didn't want to go to sleep thinking about a ticket, or how he was going to make his rent the next month -- there just wasn't that much extra to spare. He didn't want to still be awake when his neighbor got up to go to work in the morning.
The door wasn't locked; not that he expected it to be. Heero was sitting in the livingroom, still awake. He looked up as Duo came in, mouth open to ask a question. Duo raised a hand, forestalling him. Passing his boyfriend by, he turned down the hall and into Heero's room. He didn't bother turning on the light when he could see fine without it.
On the floor by the bed sat a squat ceramic frog. Marble eyes reflected what little light came from the digital alarm clock. Duo'd given him to Heero as a gift. When the other man had given him a strange look, he'd flipped it over, showing the hollow base. He did the same now, sitting down on the mattress, and fished out a plastic bag, a lighter, and a smooth glass pipe. Slowly, he stood and carried them back out to the couch, where he packed the bowl in silence. Heero sat down next to him, just close enough to feel his presence, calm and concerned.
Duo covered the carb and took a toke. The pot was dry, scratching all the way down his throat, warm in his lungs. He held his breath for a long moment before he exhaled, falling back against the cushions and passing Heero the pipe. He didn't look, but he heard the lighter snick, a soft whistle followed by a sharper inhalation as Heero cleared the chamber. Then the pipe came back to him.
"Want to talk about it?"
"What's the point?" Duo said. The green turned ember red, then black. "It was just a bad day. I'd rather talk about something else."
"Alright. Move in."
Duo coughed, startled. "What?"
"Move in." Heero repeated, taking the pipe back.
"I heard you the first time, babe. We've been over this before. I like having my own space."
The darker werewolf shrugged, then blew out a stream of smoke. "I'd like it if you moved in."
Duo sighed heavily, and some of the tension seemed to ease out of him. The ache in his shoulders became less important. "Don't get me wrong. I like being here, but, y'know, I just don't know if I'm ready to be here all the time."
"I know. But I have to remind you it's an option."
"Thanks," he said. He took the pipe back and tapped out the ash, leaving it on the end table. "I'll try to keep that in mind."
A long, comfortable silence stretched out between them. Duo leaned his head against the back of the couch lazily. One arm snaked around Heero's back, fingers playing with the hair at the nape of his neck.
"Are you staying the night?" Heero asked, somehow not breaking the quiet.
_____ _____ _____
First he heard the front door slam and Trowa greet whoever was watching television in the livingroom. Then he heard the shower; the pipes groaned ominously as water pounded against tile. After that there was more conversation and the distinct electronic music of a vintage videogame. Duo turned his head into Heero's pillow, pretending he was still asleep. He wasn't quite ready to wake up alone in Heero's bed, the sheets tangled in his legs oily with the last night's sweat, and their smell surrounding him, thick enough to choke on.
Eventually Duo groaned and stretched out on the mattress. The bedroom was cold, and he'd kicked off most of the blankets while he slept. It was always warm when Heero was there. The guy was nearly as good as an electric blanket. Light peeked around the edges of the makeshift curtain, casting the room in grainy shadows, just a little too bright to ignore. He was sore, his back stiff from work the night before, and his eyes didn't want to believe it, but there was no denying that he was thoroughly awake.
Huffing resignedly, he rolled half out of bed and groped on the floor for something to wear. When he couldn't find his own jeans, he settled for Heero's bathrobe. He hauled himself awkwardly to his feet, shoved his arms into the robe, and belted it as he fumbled for the door knob.
"Good morning, Duo!" Dorothy called, voice cheerful in a way that made the back of his neck itch. She sat on the couch, a console controller in her hands and a bright smile plastered across her face. Her eyes were tilted up with that smile, giving her a sly look.
Duo paused on his way to find breakfast and took in the scene before him. Trowa sat cross-legged on the floor, his attention riveted on the game he was playing with Dorothy. On the other end of the couch, Relena was fixing her hair, knees tucked up to her chest, looking bored. Stifling a yawn behind his hand, he waved a hello to the room. "What's up?"
Relena stopped braiding long enough to wave back. "Dorothy is kicking Trowa's ass at Mortal Kombat. Heero said to tell you he picked up more Fruit Loops, by the way."
"She's not kicking my ass," Trowa said, blowing his bangs out of his eyes. "She's beat me four out of six games."
Dorothy laughed. Glancing at the television, Duo was just in time to see one character throw a harpoon across the screen and drag the other to him. Trowa mashed the buttons on his controller, but a punch combo followed by a sweep staggered his player. An electronic voice prompted, "Finish him."
"Five of seven."
"I hate you."
"Yeah. Okay." Duo shook his head, but that failed to make the things fall into better order in his mind. Fruit Loops and orange soda were calling him from the kitchen. He turned away from Dorothy's invitation to Trowa for another match and the other's grumbled acceptance, and went to the sink to clean himself a bowl. He picked one that wasn't too bad and rinsed it, scrubbed out the ring left behind by what might have been ramen. There was already a clean glass on the rack, for a rarity.
He found the Fruit Loops in the cupboard, and the milk was still good. The soda was flat, and he had to play with one of Quatre's refrigerator pets to get to it. Mac and cheese, maybe? Whatever color it had started life as, it was yellow now. Breakfast in hand, he returned to the living room and took a seat on the recliner.
Halfway through his cereal, Duo decided he was awake enough to attempt conversation. Seeing that the gamers were a lost cause, he turned toward Relena. "So how was your trip home?"
A frown line appeared between her brows as she tied off the small braid. "It went well. My brother might come by at some point. He said he wanted to visit when his schedule allows."
"Sounds good," he said noncommittally and took a drink of his orange soda. "It's cool you're keeping touch with your family and all."
"Yeah." She shrugged. "They've been pretty cool about everything."
"Finish him," the game commanded. On the television, a character dressed in blue obeyed, freezing his opponent, then breaking him to pieces. Trowa chuckled, his posture visibly relaxing. He raked his fingers through his hair and popped his knuckles before choosing a new character.
"Five to three," Dorothy reminded him smugly.
Rolling his eyes, Duo finished his Fruit Loops. The clock on the VCR said eleven-thirteen am, which meant it was only a little after ten -- no one had bothered changing it for the daylight savings switch. He had hours before he had to get ready for work, and no where he had to be before then. With a sigh, he settled back in the chair for a lazy day. When Trowa offered him the controller, he accepted. He hadn't had one of these as a kid, and was prepared to get beaten thoroughly, but he didn't have anything else to do. Dorothy promised to go easy on him.
She then proceeded to pound him. The voice over announced, "Flawless victory."
Duo leaned forward, checked his fingers on the controls, and tried again. He didn't have a problem losing, but losing without getting a single hit in was another matter. That was just embarrassing. Trowa seemed to have had luck with the blue-ninja, so Duo selected him. Dorothy smirked and chose the player in white, with the conical hat.
Sometime after one, there was a knock at the front door; Duo only noticed because Trowa walked in front of the television to answer it.
"Hi," a pleasant, solicitous voice said from outside. "I was wondering if I might have a bit of your time?"
"What do you want to do with it?" Trowa asked. Duo's ear twitched toward the conversation even as Dorothy's character fired a shot at him. Biting his lip, he tried to concentrate on the game.
"Well..." The voice didn't sound sure, but it continued. She continued. It was definitely a woman's voice. "I'm part of RULE. We're a group that helps make lycanthropes aware of what options are available for them, and make the right choices based on that knowledge. We were told that there were lycanthropes living here."
An uppercut sent Duo's ninja crashing through the floor. He landed on the spikes below with a splash of animated blood.
"Go ahead and let her in," Dorothy said. "I always like hearing what the Fourth Reich has to say."
Duo caught the wicked look Dorothy threw Trowa's way as she stood to turn off the game. He saw Trowa's eyebrow crank up a notch and the corner of his mouth twitch toward a resigned smile. Trowa stepped out of the door, letting a girl about Duo's own age through.
She pushed her bleached blonde hair nervously behind one ear. "Are you all lycanthropes?"
"Werewolves," Trowa corrected, motioning for the girl to sit down. "Lycanthropes are those poor people who get infected with a disease, and get treated for it. The state helps them out. Werewolves..." He trailed off, shrugging.
"You're all werewolves then?"
Relena raised one hand, half waving, an encouraging look on her face. Dorothy planted her fists on her hips. "We can find you some more if this isn't enough."
Glancing around, her eyes fell on Duo. "You too?"
"Oh, I don't live here," Duo told her, doing his best to ignore the fact that he was wearing Heero's robe. "I'm just visiting."
Frowning, she opened her mouth to clarify the question, but Dorothy interrupted. "So what does RULE have for us today? A pamphlet? A lecture?"
"An inquisition?" Trowa added, closing the door. His voice held the same wry note of humor it had when he'd said that the first transformation would hurt.
"I have some literature, if you'd like to take a look at it," the girl said. "Or I can talk to you, answer any questions you have about our organization. We publish a news letter every other month, which you can subscribe to for free." She spoke steadily, her eyes moving, but seeking contact with theirs rather than avoiding it. Duo had to give her credit; he wasn't sure he could have stood someplace so hostile without flinching. Still, the memory of the police officer asking him if he was registered the night before was fresh in his mind, and while he couldn't fault her courage, he didn't think he had any sympathy for her either. She'd volunteered for this.
"You'll answer any questions we have?" Relena asked, looking clear eyed and innocent. A nice young lady who'd fallen in with the wrong crowd.
Dorothy clasped her hands together thoughtfully. "Oh, me first. I know. What does R-U-L-E stand for?"
"RULE stand for Religions United for Lycanthropy Education," the girl explained, as though by rout. "We were founded fifteen years ago, when the United States was first defining its stance on lycanthropy. Since then, we've constantly supported research in treatment, and the incentives and aids which help lycanthropes acquire an education and jobs, so they can live normally."
"Come on, you can do better than that," Relena said, playing with the end of her braid. She looked bored. "I've heard that one before. Dorothy, what do you think RULE stands for?"
"Mm. Let's see... how about Ravishing Undersexed Lesbians Everywhere?"
Trowa rolled his eyes. "You'd be a card carrying member if they were."
Duo nearly choked. The RULE girl didn't look much better, blinking rapidly, mouth moving soundlessly.
Tapping her lips, Dorothy made a show of pondering. "Risking Urban Lasciviousness Eagerly?"
Now Duo did laugh. The poor girl was gaping at the three werewolves as though they had lost their minds.
"Ridding the US of Leprous Elements?" Trowa suggested, cocking his head to one side.
"Ribbed, Ultra-Lubricated Erections?"
Relena tossed her hair back over her shoulder. "How about, Righteously Undermining Liberal Ethics?"
The girl's face was pink, her ears red. Her attention landed on Duo. "Are you going to join in, too?"
"No," he said, trying unsuccessfully not to snicker. "It looks like they have it covered.
Pulling herself straight, she glared at him before turning on her heel to leave. The screen door slammed shut after her. Smirking, Dorothy turned the videogame back on. Trowa took the other control and sat down on the floor. When he finally stopped laughing, Duo worked up the energy to get a shower.