On Track And Off Again
Friday morning was a wet one. The sky had kept open for business all night and the ground had drunk as much as it could. The rest was left in puddles, and yet there was more water coming down. This did not make Duo's bicycle ride any more enjoyable, even though he had one advantage on most venturers through the rain; his bag held dry clothes to change into. Of course, he couldn't do that until he reached his destination, short of giving the morning commuters a spectacle or acting the contortionist in the cramped train bathrooms. His raincoat helped offset the soaking, but his refusal to wear matching pants and rubber boots ensured he still got his share of it. At each puddle he didn't avoid, the wheels added their gleeful help.
To his credit, Duo barely slipped on the pedals twice. There was much cursing - perhaps more of that than actual pain. Metal can be so unforgiving on soft and delicate things. Why it is so that the bikes for ladies lack the accursed crossbar, rather than bikes made for men, is nothing short of a mystery. Likewise the shape of most bicycle seats - but Duo had learned to tolerate that much. Perhaps it was merely someone's revenge for high heels.
As per usual, Duo barely made the train. He secured his bike and hurried aboard the nearest car. The bicycle wasn't much to look at, but as a professional scavenger, Duo knew even scrap had value to the right people.
He made a quick sweep of the interior, only to find all the window seats taken. However, another observation made him grin. Immediately, he sought out the light tapping of keys. "This seat taken?"
His would-be stalker looked up, and Duo took great delight in the flash of surprise that washed across his face. It was covered up quickly, but not quite fast enough. It was enough; Duo was certain there was something to those conspicuous glances - all that remained to figure out, was what.
Heero felt his throat go dry, and tried to swallow as imperceptibly as possible while showing off his best poker face. Neither attempt was entirely successful. The man's grin was deeply unsettling - in a good way, Heero decided. Or rather, mostly good way. He shook his head, tried to calm his heartbeat. "No," he finally managed to croak out.
Duo nodded, took off his raincoat and bundled it. He sat down and put the bag and bundle at his feet. "Thanks," he offered.
Heero acknowledged with a curt nod, and focused on the screen again. For several minutes, his fingers merely lingered at the keys. The procurement report he'd been working on had lost all purpose save one; an escape. He was certain the other's choice of seating hadn't been a coincidence. That conviction did not prevent doubts nagging at his resolve, and they were chipping away at Quatre's supportive words of advice as well. Even uttering a single word as a starting point became an impossible task.
Duo wasn't faring much better. Again the computer got all the attention he wanted a small piece of, and again he waited for the typist to make a smidgen of a move. Certainly, Duo entertained the thought of taking matters into his own hands - or mouth, rather - but he did not want to be wrong about this. He didn't like to cause scenes he couldn't easily escape from.
Thus, they both waited - and much too long.
Without another word between them, they reached Lexington. One thing changed, though - Heero saw Duo leave, and much to his surprise he found the stranger with the long braid leading the way to the subway. He kept a little distance; he didn't want to be thought a stalker.
When he saw the end of the coarse rope of hair vanish onto the Green line train, his nervousness grew. Was this merely a coincidence, or-
Brooding, he barely registered the 'doors closing' call, and got aboard just in time. A quick check of seats revealed only a single free one, and the familiar guy seated by the window next to the spot was grinning directly at him. This did not help Heero's heartbeat the slightest. With unsure steps he made his way over to return a question. "This seat taken?"
Duo shook his head. "Nope."
Heero nodded, and sat down. Granted, it had been a long time since he'd actually asked for a seat on the subway. On the express train, the mild courtesy was more appropriate. Words were nearly useless in the drowning noise of the subway cars, both from the train itself and the passengers shouting to carry conversations over ambient noise.
Except perhaps this time. But no words came to mind, much less lips.
Ten minutes of tense silence later, Heero got up and prepared to depart. Only then did he dare glance at the other, and was rewarded with a direct grin. The car stopped, and Heero rushed out, fighting the warmth building up in his cheeks. There was no doubt in his mind that the other knew. His observations had most definitely been noticed - yet, the handsome devil with the braid seemed content in doing nothing.
The flash of teeth and the playful tint in a pair of blue-shaded eyes haunted his inner eye the rest of the day at the office, taunting him, almost beckoning him to make a response of some form - any form.
And still, he hesitated.
Duo was more than a little frustrated that the morning's chain of events hadn't provoked an actually useful response. Still, as he strove to separate salvage and scrap from pure junk at the new site and jotting down notes on the same, the hasty exit and the faint blush of his would-be stalker stayed with him. It made him smile without thinking, and though Trowa never actually asked about it, Duo could tell from his occasional curious glance that he was dying to know.
Duo was willing to let him.
Heero didn't wait at the platform that afternoon. As soon as the train was set up he went aboard and found himself a window seat. He glanced at his carry bag, and after a great deal of consideration and a rapid loss of nerve, he took the laptop out. He was too afraid to go without a cover, should-
"Anyone sitting here?"
He could swear he saw his own reflection in shiny ivory - or was it in those sparkly blue eyes with the odd purple shade, rather then the wide grin?
At any rate, Heero was yet again barely able to stutter out a "N-no."
It was all the encouragement Duo needed to sit down. This time, however, he went for his bag and fished out a compact, curled-up comic book. He wouldn't let the other one hide alone this time. Also, it was a way to give the man a topic of conversation; a starting point - not that he really expected the other to ask what he was reading.
Predictably, neither said a word, silently praying the other would.
At Stillwater, their ways parted for the weekend.
Heero's weekend pretty much centered around two things; mentally kicking himself for not daring to take an initiative, and hanging out with Quatre. Nobody he knew had a DVD collection quite like Quatre's, both for size and content. Even some of the more obscure titles Heero wanted to see could be found in Quatre's digital library. On the odd occasion when he pointed out a missing title, it would have a shelf space there in a matter of weeks. If left to his own devices, he could lose himself for days in Quatre's collection. The one night a week he came over had to suffice, and usually did.
Of course, this time Heero's regular Saturday night entertainment came at an expense. Quatre was more than a bit curious to his progress with the handsome stranger on the train - and when Heero reported he hadn't really made any, Quatre gave one of those soft sighs of his that spoke volumes. Heero fought a cringe.
"Heero, why don't you try talking to the guy?"
Heero scratched his neck, just below the collar. "Well, I did."
"He asked me for a seat. Twice."
Quatre frowned. "And that's it?"
Heero took a profound interest in the DVD shelves. He began skimming titles as he muttered the answer, somewhat embarrassed. "No. I told him the seat was free - oh, and I asked him for a seat too, on the subway."
The blond man rolled his eyes and sighed again. "Heero... When I said 'talk to the guy', I didn't mean-"
"I know," Heero mumbled. "It's just... whenever he's around, my mind freezes. I can't think of anything to say. The guy just... stuns me, somehow. I'm almost willing to believe there's something hypnotic about the way his braid swings - like those watches hypnotists use."
Quatre grinned. "Well, you did say it reached all the way down to his butt. I can see how the backdrop of such a pendulum could be distracting..."
Heero gave his best friend a fierce glare, but it had next to no effect on someone so trained at deflecting it.
"What about his name? Do you have his name? It's silly to keep going on calling him 'the handsome guy with the braid', don't you think?"
"I told you, I didn't talk to him other than about the seats. He didn't talk about anything else, either."
"Okay, if that's our only option, let's call him 'Brady'."
The name did not please Heero, and his frown showed it. "'Brady'?"
"You know, 'braid-y'? Until you gather up the nerve to ask him for his real name, we should at least have something to call him, right?"
Heero rolled the eyes, and resumed browsing the shelves. He found an old comedy he'd wanted to watch for a long time trapped between a cheesy sci-fi movie and a tearjerker flick. He picked the case out and handed it to Quatre.
Quatre took it, opened the cover and put the disc in the player. "So... On Monday, you ask Brady for his real name, okay? If you don't, I might have to do something drastic..."
Heero sat down in the couch next to his blond tormentor. "Such as?"
Quatre gave a carefree shrug. "Perhaps I'll arrange a business meeting in Lexington someday - one that begins at a time which makes your morning commute the most convenient way to-"
Heero glared at him as threateningly as he could manage. "You wouldn't."
Face blank, Quatre wiggled his eyebrows once. "Try me."
Heero stared at him for the longest time, but lost the contest. It was clear Quatre meant it this time. Heero groaned in defeat, put his face in his palms and heard the cheerful music play from the speakers.
Quatre chuckled, patted Heero's back in comfort. "So, next weekend, I want to hear all about Brady - starting with his real name. For now, let's just enjoy the movie, okay?"
Heero peered out through splayed fingers. Slowly, he nodded.
If nothing else, the movie let him think of something other than a handsome man and his braid for a few hours - a guy that now, thanks to Quatre's helpful comments, had been labeled as 'Brady', even in his own mind.
He swore to replace the nickname quickly. He prayed that it was not - by some twisted cosmic irony - his real name.
Duo's weekend was anything but quiet. Then again, he'd grown to like the hustle and bustle of Saint William's Orphanage during weekends. With school out for the summer, weekday and weekend were fairly similar at the orphanage. Discipline was largely lax, but sufficient to keep the kids from getting into too much trouble. Over the years, Sister Helen had worked out the balance that appeared to work best.
As most of Duo's time back home, it went to either chaperoning the kids, helping out at the household with dishes, laundry or cooking, doing some quick repairs to the aging building or tending the garden. While not officially part of his rent, the gang at Saint William's was still his family, and it was still his home. Helping out felt right.
Being with his extended hodgepodge family pushed most thoughts about a jittery but good-looking guy with deep blue eyes out of Duo's mind, and unlike Heero's, Duo's weekend was a fairly enjoyable one.
And as all weekends, this one too came to an end all too soon.
After spending two and a half days listening to Quatre's soft urgings and admonishments to 'seize the day' and actually talk to the object of his fascination - 'Brady', that is - Heero was growing ever more ready to do just that.
Yet he still hesitated, not being sure he could actually do it.
Monday morning brought rain - not that Heero cared much either way, once he finally got on board the train. Even without an umbrella, his light coat was sufficient to keep the wet gusts at a minimum level of annoyance in the quick trips beyond shielding roofs and means of transportation.
The rickety old dark red train approached Stillwater Station. Heero glanced out as the archaic wooden platform sailed by, the train coming to a halt. Still, he couldn't see Brady anywhere. He shrugged. Perhaps he'd simply missed him, somehow. Perhaps Brady was wearing something different today - a raincoat Heero hadn't seen before, maybe. Perhaps he had just slipped into one of the other cars before Heero noticed.
He waited five minutes, but did not see Brady anywhere. In the end he sighed, closed his eyes and thought little more of it.
At work, the day passed painfully slow. Some of the tenants enjoyed making big uproars over mere trifles, as if to show they had power over him.
Heero made certain a few select loudmouth executives would have minor trouble with their key cards in the near future.
He made his way to Lexington Grand Central, as oblivious to his fellow commuters on the subway as always. That changed once he reached the right train platform, though. The Inter-City Express was already set up, merely awaiting its passengers and the proper time to depart.
Heero leaned up against a nearby brick wall. He waited and watched, hoping to catch a glimpse of a particular young fellow with a long braid and a broad smile. The problem was to avoid being obvious about it. At first, he pretended he was checking his carry bag, then that he was browsing the information board with the train schedules. After seven minutes of waiting and only the same time span until the train was to depart, he decided to abandon the attempt. If Brady saw him standing there like an idiot, only to react once he was in sight, Heero believed he'd feel utterly foolish.
He didn't like the thought of that. Heero boarded the train and found himself a decent seat amongst the ones still vacant.
At Stillwater Station he looked outside with fervor, but he did not see anyone with a long, dazzling braid step off. He sighed to himself, taking solace in that there was always tomorrow.
Tuesday remained moist. While the main drizzle had passed, the day started out foggy, and small light showers cleared the air throughout the day. Heero kept his office window open to take advantage of it, despite how the city noise from outside disturbed him. There was something wrong with the air-conditioning, and for some reason, the janitors were reluctant to deal with his office. Perhaps the delay was their way of vengeance for recent cutbacks in budgets and benefits to their department.
As another big truck rumbled by on the street below, Heero opted to make a quick inspection of the building - and maybe afford himself a large lunch, while waiting for the air in his office to cycle around a bit.
The fog had made observations tough that morning. The slight valley Stillwater Station was located in made it a haven for the earth-hugging clouds. Heero had hoped to see the seductive grin on the return trip, but he had no such luck. Even though he waited on platform until merely a minute before departure this time - and suffered a second-rate choice of seating because of it - he did not catch so much as a glimpse of Brady. All he accomplished was getting some curious stares from fellow passengers, both as he studied the train schedule intently for fifteen minutes, and then as he sat in one of the couch group aisle seats by the door with a grim, brooding face, staring blankly ahead and thoroughly scaring the kid seated directly across him.
Wednesday passed, and there was still no sight of a braid with a good-looking guy attached. Brady remained missing.
At the trip home, this time seated in a comfortable window seat with a collapsible table for his laptop, Heero began wondering what could have happened. Perhaps Brady was sick, or even on vacation. There were a thousand perfectly sound reasons why he wasn't making the commute, and just as many nonsensical ones. None of them were particularly comforting.
By Friday eve, Heero felt decidedly depressed. The laptop screen glared back at him, but he couldn't focus enough to work on anything. All he saw was that wicked grin, those seductive eyes, those tempting lips - or, as the image of his fantasies turned around and walked away, the soft sway of hips that made the end of the long woven hair dance against a firm ass.
If anything, Heero was miserable for not daring to act sooner. If only he had dared to say something the week before - dare do something, anything.
But he hadn't.
When he got back, his absentmindedness made sure Fluffy the Fourth nearly drowned. The thorny regent survived by mere willpower. One could not afford to grow soft in the Yuy household. The cacti's three predecessors had certainly learned that lesson - if a little late.
Fortunately, a quick call from Quatre made sure he had someone to be sullen with, and so he lost yet another weekend to Quatre's extensive DVD collection. He felt a bit better - but the image of fantasy stuck to his mind's eye. Wisely enough, Heero considered himself lucky to have such a good friend as Quatre. The blond quickly picked up on his unwillingness to speak of the issue of Brady and made neither inquisitions nor renewal of threats - but it was all too clear he wanted to know.
Heero wondered if he might be ready to speak of his absolute failure next weekend, should Quatre dare ask him then. Time heals all wounds, both the visible scratches, and the tears at your soul.
For the most part, at least.
Duo's week had been fairly dull.
The week before he and Trowa had gone over the new site in detail. They had taken note of anything that had the slightest of salvage value. The rest was nothing but debris which needed to be torn down and freighted away, or used as rubble where needed. Hammond Industrial Park was about to become Hammond Terrace - or as Howard had dubbed it, 'hip' was going 'hot'.
Duo had spent this week back at the old site near Salinger, again within his old commute schedule. With Howard's input, plans would have to be made for how to best deal with the new project.
Howard was in a good mood. He usually was when one of their assignments came to a close within the limits stipulated in their contracts. Especially this time, as their finishing a little early afforded them a bonus. It was expected this would reflect on the crew when Christmas came around - barring that none of them fouled up the new job before then.
Other than finishing up a picket fence for the last of the cheap yet respectable homes, they were done. All that remained after that was moving the barracks to Hammond Industrial Park and clean up the plot where they stood now. A new place for their work camp had been prepared in a corner of the park.
Howard stuck his sunglasses across his forehead, and studied the lists Duo and Trowa had brought him. "This is good - very good. Seems like Hammond Industries had a lot of small goodies they didn't take with them. These plates here," he tapped the paper. "What are those?"
"They're the ceiling of a ramshackle warehouse," Trowa answered. "Still attached, but it shouldn't be too difficult to take them down. No significant corrosion on them, either."
The old man grinned and rubbed his goatee. "Good, good... What about this item down here - a four by four by six feet open box of..." He turned to Duo. "What does it say here, son? Can't read your chicken-scratch all that well."
Duo kept his smile. He knew Howard could read it - if he held the paper a little closer. Like a few inches away from his eyes. Howard didn't like to admit his natural eyesight was failing, and on days when he forgot or misplaced his contacts - such as today - he used any number of excuses to avoid the issue. "A box filled with nails, Howard. Three inch standard and in mint condition, as far as I could tell. Maybe we can cut down on expenses."
Howard nodded. "Good thinking. I'll talk to Harvey about it. Carpentry is his field, so he'll get a vote in the matter." He finished skimming the list, and slammed it back on the small collapsible table. "Good work, boys. Next week we start salvaging. We'll have to prepare all the barracks for the move first, though - I've ordered transportation for this Friday. We should be up and running at Hammond on Monday."
"What about dumpsters?" Trowa asked.
"Already filed the order. We should get a few by next Wednesday. That's for the light junk and stuff we can't recycle. I've rented some bigger machinery for heavier junk - like the buildings. I think we'll be able to knock down most of the small ones without explosives."
Duo grinned at the mention of his specialty. If only the city engineers would let him do it with flair this time... "And the paperwork?"
"Have it in there," Howard stated, pointing his thumb at the trailer behind him - his own trailer. "Need you to help me fill them out after lunch, and then we'll file everything. With luck, we'll be permitted to blast in a month or three, all depending on how fast the red tape comes through." He got to his feet, stretched until his old bones gave audible pops and cracks.
Trowa gave the slightest wince at the sound. Duo made a mental note of that fact, determined to crack his knuckles at first opportunity.
"Well, boys - go give Randall a hand, would you? Told him to start preparing the barracks for transport. We'll need to tie everything down good. Wouldn't want to repeat what happened last time. Cleaning out the lunchbox was not my idea of a good Saturday night."
"Or mine," mumbled Trowa, remembering that incident all too well. Having to help tidy up the mess of the rattled canteen barracks post-transport to Salinger had cancelled a perfectly good date.
Fortunately, he'd been able to make up for it with another the following weekend - and the one after that.
Nobody seemed to complain how infrequently Trowa slept at the barracks from Friday to Sunday. Then again, they all knew. Trowa could brag with the best of them - although he was kind enough to let a few select incidents pass.
After all, Duo had threatened with things worse than murder if Trowa ever dared talk about them.
And so, Duo's week passed quickly. Lost in the turmoil of work, he almost forgot a certain good-looking Asian fellow.
Monday morning had not even a cloud on the far horizon. Unless you attended school, in which case you were complaining loudly about the recommencement of studies. If you were merely commencing, you would not yet have gained the experience to dislike formal education.
Davey Johnson had that experience, and was not a happy boy. He appeared to be sulking when Duo came over the hill and saw the kid being reluctantly corralled into the Johnson's Suburban. Duo gave him a grin and a taunting wave as he went by. Davey stuck out his tongue, but withdrew the grimace before his mother noticed.
Duo chuckled, gave a slight whoop as gravity came to his aid. This earned him a glance and a headshake from Mrs. Johnson - not that he noticed; he had trouble enough keeping the rusty bike fairly balanced as it raced down the hill towards the waiting train. As per usual he made it aboard at the last possible minute. He stood in the doorway for a few minutes, regaining his breath.
This time, he'd jumped aboard one of the rear cars. With a shrug to acknowledge the fact he went inside to search for a place to sit. It wasn't as there was a lack of choices.
Duo was about to go for a seat roughly in the middle of the car shaded by a lack of window, when he heard the soft tapping of computer keys. He grinned as the suspicion hit him, and he looked in the general direction of the sound. Sure enough - further down, close to the end of the car, seated with his back towards him, Duo recognized the fuzzy brown mop of hair he knew belonged to one particular Asian-looking man with a set of wandering blue eyes.
For a moment, Duo wondered if he should even bother, but decided to go for it anyway. Tempted as he was to simply sit down next to the guy, Duo chose not to. Instead, he walked past - with deliberate slowness and just enough shuffling of feet to attract attention. He finally sat down in the aisle seat of the four-seater at the end of the car, on the opposite side of the Asian man, as to have a chance to see his face partly through and partly above the seats.
Sure enough - as Duo turned to sit down, the tapping of keys abruptly stopped. Moreover, the confused eyes of the other were trained directly at him. Score, Duo thought to himself, and grinned right back. The other broke into a cautious smile, and looked away as his cheeks gained the slightest touch of a flush.
Heero was delighted, greatly relieved it appeared he had another chance. It didn't seem like the man nicknamed Brady was much bothered by the attention Heero gave him - rather the contrary. He had a feeling he had been deliberately baited. Still, merely to see the other again was wonderful.
He dared glance up again, not caring how warm his face felt. It didn't matter. Brady's mirthful eyes were trained right at him. Heero looked away again, almost imagining the handsome man snickering. Heero frowned to himself, struggled to regain control of the way his body reacted. He tried to think of a plan, think of something to say, something to do, anything to get closer.
In the end, he never got that far. For the entire hour from Stillwater to Lexington, all that went between them were obvious glances and knowing smiles - but not a single word, not even as they hurried off to the subway where they boarded separate cars in the confusion of the crowd.
Heero vowed to offer a word at the next opportunity. Duo did the same.
When the opportunity showed later that day on their return trip, however, the resolve of both faltered.
The entire week passed in a similar fashion. Both wanted to talk, neither dared. They exchanged glances, but never words, shared smiles, but never seats. Oddly enough, neither of them really cared. Duo found himself enjoying the passive attention, and Heero was content with merely knowing he still had a chance - should he ever work up a nerve to do anything about it.
By Friday, their relationship had advanced to the point where they nearly greeted each other with soft nods. Strangers still, yet not quite.
By Saturday, Heero had gotten quite the earful from Quatre about his lack of courage and effort, and when Trowa came visiting Saint William's to help patch up the roof before the winter, Duo got his share of teasing for his faltering initiative as well.
Then came Monday.
Some things are too good to be true. You want to believe them, but in your heart you know they are false. They merely haven't had the time to show it yet. And, of course, they prefer to show it at the most inconvenient moment.
Duo's morning was progressing well enough. He had escaped the breakfast brawl at the orphanage in reasonable time, but had then been delayed by his bicycle. The contraption was fighting him every bit of the way up the last hill to Stillwater Station - but he was fairly used to that.
The Johnson's Suburban was already gone when Duo passed their home. At least it marked the end of the ordeal of pedaling, and the start of a prayer that the brakes still worked. Fortunately, they did - not that Duo even tested them before the very end of the trip. Briefly, Duo touched his chest, patting the small cross he knew hid beneath the few layers of clothing as a way of saying thanks.
However, the first divergence of the day became apparent at the same time. Down at the station, a train pulled in - but not the rickety red old train set Duo was used to seeing on his new morning schedule. In its place came one of the spiffy, new ICE train sets, gracefully pulling to a halt.
Duo reached the bicycle rack, and made his usual flair of dismount-and-lock. He made it aboard only on the good graces of the conductor.
The train felt almost empty - it was almost empty. Still, Duo didn't mind. The prospect of sitting in a comfortable seat all the way to Lexington was delightful. A seat with legroom, even. He found one, put his bag away, sighed contently and wiggled down in the reclining seat. He closed his eyes, wanting to rest until the conductor got there. He wanted to enjoy this - especially how fresh the car itself smelled, by comparison to the old train sets. Moreover, with so few passengers, even this regular car offered near total silence.
Then again, even the quiet zone cars on the old sets wailed more than any car on the ICE sets.
It was too good to be true.
So of course it was.
Heero had heard the news on Sunday evening. Unlike many of his fellow commuters, he was prepared. Unlike many of those who were prepared, he didn't make plans for alternate transportation. While he did own a car, he barely ever drove it anywhere, preferring to rely on public transportation. The car was a hazard to drive now, a relic merely a whim and sentimentality away from the junkyard. Buying a new car was out of the question too, since there would be no free garage space for it.
So, as on every other business day, Heero showed up at Hartford Station to await the 07:40 train from Wilkinshire to Lexington.
As he had expected, it was pretty much on time. The fact that it was an ICE set rather than his old, trusted morning train didn't surprise him much either. Some of the other commuters were unnerved at the fact, much too used to routines to take new situations at face value - situations like a replacement of train sets. They wanted to know why. The few who knew told them. Many consequently changed their plans and went back to their cars.
The doors closed and the train moved. First to Stillwater, then to Blue Ridge. Heero napped the whole way, knowing what was ahead.
When the announcement came a few minutes before they reached Vernon Falls, Heero was unfazed.
The same could not be said for Duo.
"We regret to inform that because of a derailment north of Vernon Falls, this train will end its route there and return to Wilkinshire. Buses have been set up for passengers heading for Lexington. Cabs will be available for passengers headed for Leigh. Passengers transferring to local trains headed -"
Duo fazed the rest of it out, and muttered a curse or two for himself. He should have known he wouldn't have the luck to get a comfortable ride all the way in.
He cursed the derailed train for good measure. Maybe he'd find a conductor or other representative for Lexington Southern to complain to. Of course, he didn't think he was likely to find any such person not already under siege by angry commuters. Few things are as powerful as an angry mob - and as out of control.
The train pulled up at Vernon Falls station. The lucky ones weren't going any further. The not-so lucky ones were going to Leigh. Duo could see the tiny cabs lined up on the far side of the station. Cab companies and drivers were always available to make an extra buck.
Charter buses were something different altogether.
Duo followed the mass of people to the far side of the station. There were no buses there yet, and as the passengers of Leigh rushed to the cabs there were fewer and fewer of those too. The curb outside the station building filled up nicely with people. The waiting commenced. A few dug out cell phones to call in to inform their various bosses, co-workers, employees, friends or loved ones they'd be late.
Half an hour passed before the first bus arrived. It was swamped immediately. Duo didn't even get close to the door before the driver and conductors were ordering people out again. They couldn't have people standing in a charter bus, after all. Being seated in them was bad enough.
Fifteen minutes later, another bus - and the same course of events. Duo cursed, wondering if he should use the almost childish sharp-shoulder tactics some of the businessmen used to get aboard. He decided against it. Better to be a little late. Besides, there were fewer of them waiting now. Another bus or two, and they'd all be heading for Lexington.
Then - after another fifteen minutes - the next train from Wilkinshire headed for Lexington showed up, adding greatly to the number of commuters impatiently waiting for further transportation. Duo took a deep, calming breath and trotted off in search of a pay phone. Sometimes, being too stubborn to own a cell phone was an inconvenience.
Then again, he didn't have many to call in the first place. The few people he called friends he either lived with or saw almost every day - and there were precious few of those he wanted to call without good reason. He had one now, though.
He found an old coin-op set over at the corner, and searched his wallet and pockets for change. Satisfied he had enough for a call, he unhooked the receiver and dialed the number for Howard's cell phone.
Heero had expected there would be some delay in his commute. Even so, he had not left home earlier than normal, for two reasons. For one, he thought that since the railroad company had had since yesterday afternoon to arrange alternate transportation, they would have gotten it fairly well organized by now. This was obviously not the case - there weren't enough buses, and they came much too infrequently to suggest there was a coordinated schedule for them. This lack of administration grated his senses, but beyond a quick muttering, he let it slide.
The second reason... he caught a glimpse of after the first ten minutes.
Brady looked pissed. That much was understandable. Heero didn't take delight in waiting for a bus, either - especially as there were no benches nearby to rest on. The best alternative was to lean up against the stone walls of the station hall itself. A few patient souls went inside the hall; there were a few benches there.
Heero didn't. He was enjoying the view. There was something amusing in watching the many expressions that flashed across Brady's face - even if most showed frustration, anger, resentment and disappointment. For some reason, Brady made them come alive in a way Heero hadn't thought possible before - and even in a positive light, despite the negativity of emotions.
When the first bus showed up, Heero deliberately refrained from trying to board, as he calculated Brady wouldn't make it. He was right. He used the same tactics for the second bus, and when the next train from Wilkinshire unloaded its passengers onto the sidewalk, he kept Brady under observation, wanting to see his reaction.
When Brady walked over to the pay phones, Heero followed, trying to be discrete about it. He was working up the nerve to talk to Brady. He struggled to think of something appropriate to say, something that wouldn't be suspicious, but would result in him knowing 'Brady's' real name.
His ever helpful mind pretty much came up blank.
The hums were unbearably long. Duo had taken a gamble. Howard did have a cell phone, but he was renown for misplacing it. His last one had been buried under one inch of concrete. The number was unlisted now, but it had made an interesting sales pitch for the house, with the foundation sounding off the first few beats of 'The Flight of the Bumblebee' at the realtor's push of a speed-dial button.
At long last, someone picked up. "Yeah?"
Duo hesitated. That certainly wasn't Howard's voice. "Trowa?" he asked cautiously.
"Hello? Anyone there?" came the answer.
"Trowa," Duo said, much louder this time. The crowd all around made for a good background clutter - and things didn't sound very quiet on the other end either. Perhaps they were busy dismantling that roof already. "Trowa, it's me, Duo?"
A circular cutting saw groaned around Trowa's voice, almost drowning it out. "Do? Do what?"
"No, it's Duo! Duo Maxwell!" Duo hurriedly looked around him, wondering if anyone was giving him odd stares given that he had nearly shouted into the phone. It wasn't until he looked along the station wall that he saw anyone paying him any interest whatsoever - and it was him.
Duo's jaw hung a little loose, and mophead made a slight smirk back at him, leaning up against the stone wall. In the distance of a phone call, the shrill noise of the saw died off. "Duo? Duo, is that you?"
After chewing a little bit of air, Duo had the clarity of mind to answer. "Uh - yeah. Hi, Trowa. Look, is Howard around?"
There was a chuckle. "Probably. Problem is knowing where, specifically. Want me to leave him a message?"
Duo nodded to himself. "Sure. Tell him I'll be late today. There's been a rail accident outside of Vernon Falls, and I'm waiting for a bus ride into Lexington. Might take me a while - I've already waited here for a damn hour."
More snickers came from the other end of hte line. "Okay, I'll let him know. See you when you get here, Duo."
"Yeah... Thanks. Bye, Trowa."
There was a click on the other end of the line. Duo's eyes still hadn't left the Asian-looking man, much like their counterparts hadn't left him. Absentmindedly, Duo hung up the phone. It took two tries to make the receiver stay put. He took a few steps towards his onlooker, but then decided differently. He stopped and leaned back against the stone wall, once more waiting for the other to take the initiative.
Heero was certain this would be it. This time, they'd actually speak to each other. Or Brady - no, Duo. His name was Duo. Duo Maxwell. He thought a silent prayer for having been granted that small gift. Still, Duo might not appreciate his all-but-staring. Heero half-expected Duo was coming over to give him a piece of his mind - and possibly a knuckle handshake to the face.
He was almost disappointed when Duo stopped halfway there, leaning up against the wall. He felt he had to do something, say something - get things moving again. For a few minutes, he was at a complete loss as to how.
Then it struck him. An eye for an eye... and a name for a name. He searched his pockets for his cell phone, flipped it open and started dialing Wufei's number. Halfway through, he hung up. No, he wasn't just going to report in to the office this time - he had to find some way of-
The spontaneous plan came to him. He smirked, and dialed the number for the switchboard in the reception, deliberately taking a few steps towards Duo, planning to walk past at just the right moment. It hummed three times before a chipper sounding woman picked it up. Heero had met the woman in person, and knew the voice hardly ever matched her sour facial expressions - or the menthol cigarettes and permanent plume of smoke about her.
"Hi, this is Heero Yuy." A garbled reply came first. "Yes, that one." A toned down insult came next. Heero ignored it, not even making a mental note of it. "Listen - I need to leave a message for Wufei Chang. He's with-" He chuckled. "Yeah, the peepers. Could you let him know that I'll be late today? The train has been-" The lady at the other end made a quick reply - evidently, Heero wasn't the only commuter in the Worthstone Building currently short a train and a proper phone number. Of course, Heero had proper numbers to call, including Wufei's - but this was the easiest way to deliver a second message - and from the corner of his eye, he saw that it had been received.
Heero Yuy, Duo mused. So, that was the name attached to the handsome face and fussy hairdo. At first he'd thought it was 'hero', but it was lengthened somewhat and stressed funny. 'hiiro', it sounded more like. In the end, he decided for a compromise between first impression and intonation, for both pronunciation and assumed spelling. 'Heero Yuy' sounded both exotic and enticing enough.
Heck, pretty much any name beat 'computer-guy-who-ignores-me', 'brown mophead', 'not-so-stealthy-glances' or plain old 'gorgeous'.
Then there was his laughter. Slightly nasal, but damn charming. That half-curve of lips as he projected a smile into the cell phone... Duo didn't pay much attention to what was said, exactly. He focused more on the voice, on the slight movements of facial muscles. He didn't have all that much of a choice; Heero had stopped right in front of him.
When Heero finally hung up, he made sure to give Duo a very obvious glance. Heero smirked, and could barely contain the urge to give Duo a wink for good measure.
Yet, they both remained almost as if frozen, their odd standoff broken only when three more buses pulled up at the curb. They both turned to look, and without coordinating beyond giving each other the occasional glance they both headed for the last bus of the line-up. It seemed by far the least crowded.
Heero stepped aboard first - that is, not until he was certain Duo would board the same bus. He blatantly ignored the first available double seat, and moved further back, all the way to the end. The final row of seats suddenly made him make a mental connection to the last row at a cinema complex - thoughts that hastily connected with Duo. He smirked, enjoying the thought - but decided against sitting there. Instead, he chose the double seat at his immediate right side.
Passengers filed into the bus, and predictably they spread out, starting at the front. Given how most had boarded the first two buses, Heero didn't expect this one to fill up entirely. This gave this seat some privacy, and-
Duo approached, also ignoring all other seats, at last stopping at Heero's. Grinning, he asked "Is this seat taken?"
Heero struggled to calm the butterflies in his stomach. He felt stupid for feeling that way, but if it was means to a most desirable end... He shook his head, tried to smile back.
It came off more smug than friendly. It didn't deter Duo, though. He sat down and put his bag between his legs, halfway in under the seat.
The last passenger boarded, all in all leaving the two with a small space of their own at the back of the bus as it started moving. The butterflies danced even harder, and there was the oddest tingle racing along his neural pathways. Heero had locked his eyes front the moment Duo sat down, afraid to even look. The bus turned hard to the left, and Heero found himself blessing the cramped nature of charter bus seats as Duo's hip and thigh brushed against his own. He dared a glance from the corner of his eye, but no more.
Five minutes went by in quiet delight over the rushed bus driver and the sharp corners of city streets. Then, they hit the fairly straight highways.
Duo was just about fed up by then. It was much too obvious Heero wasn't going to dare speak first - so it was up to him to take the initiative. By now he was certain he wasn't getting the wrong vibes - but he still wanted a cover. This was most definitely his chance for that. "Hey," he said, tapping Heero's shoulder. "Do you know what's causing all this?"
Startled at first, Heero made a ghost of a smile and nodded. "A train derailed yesterday. They're still working on clearing the track. I thought they would have gotten it done last night, but..." He shrugged.
Duo chuckled. "Yeah, that's efficiency for you." He sighed. "Hope it won't result in busing more than today."
"I wouldn't be so sure - you should at least assume they'll have trouble this afternoon too."
"Probably... Caught me completely by surprise, too. Didn't hear about it until we reached Vernon Falls." Duo groaned softly. "I should have known something was up when I saw the ICE, and not the old crap..."
That throaty sound was something of the most pleasant Heero had ever heard. Of course, he added it to a mental list of sound files reserved for entirely different purposes - daydreams. The not entirely innocent kind. He did his best to avoid making his smile a leer as a few clips flashed his mind's eye. Still, he struggled to think of what to say next. Precious seconds went by.
Duo came to his rescue. "So... Where are you headed? - I mean, what's forcing you to Lexington?"
"Work," Heero answered. "I'm the building manager of the Worthstone Building - it's on Grenside Street."
Duo nodded. "Haven't heard of the place - but the job sounds important."
Heero chuckled as he scratched the back of his left hand. "I suppose it sounds more fancy than it is - but it's a decent living."
Duo gave a polite grin.
It took Heero a few seconds to figure out the proper continuance. "What about you?"
"I work for a small construction company. Demolition, scavenging and putting up cheap housing, mostly. That's why I'm always on the commute. Have to go where the job is, right?"
"I suppose..." Heero hesitated again. "Uhm, you don't exactly look like a construction worker..."
Duo laughed good-humoredly at that. "I'll take that as a compliment - yeah, I know. I'm not hired as muscle. I'm mostly there to handle explosives and set up demolitions. Beyond that, I sorta help out wherever they need me - light carpentry, simple wiring, basic brickwork, gardening - that sort of thing."
Heero made a quizzical expression. "Gardening?"
He nodded. "Yeah. We build the homes all the way up to the end - we make the picket fences and lawns too." He paused to shrug. "Get them started, at least. We don't always have time to stay to see if the seeds grow into anything. Depends on how many houses we're putting up on the same street."
"You sound like you're good with your hands."
Duo gave him a blank stare. Heero bit his lip. How had he made that slip of tongue? He didn't mean it like that, but given how many times he'd been caught looking it was only natural if Duo thought he meant something different entirely. Then Duo smiled again, and Heero's nerves calmed somewhat. "Maybe I am... Molding explosives and handling sticks is more my area of expertise, though. I like to make fireworks."
Heero almost choked on his own breath. Oh, Duo certainly knew how to make implications in his comeback - if they were implications, and not merely figments of Heero's overactive imagination. Heero shifted in his seat, affected by the flashes of daydreams, imagining Duo doing what he'd said; molding and handling sticks, triggering fireworks - but not along the lines of plastique, dynamite or gunpowder.
Again came the uncomfortable silence. For two whole minutes, Heero struggled to push out a sentence along the lines of 'want to go grab a cup of coffee sometime?' - but couldn't get the job done.
Duo helped out again. "Uhm... No offense, but what does a building manager do, exactly?"
A bit taken aback at first, Heero gave a vague snort, amused. It was a valid question. He'd asked pretty much the same thing to Simmons & Simmons when he first got the job. At least he had a better answer. He began talking, mentioning the quarrels with the clients and staff, struggles over budgets and duty rosters, the layout of the building - he kept talking, tossing in small, insignificant anecdotes here and there. Duo laughed at several of them, and each time, Heero swore to provoke another. He found a significant liking for Duo's laughter. It wasn't malicious, not excessive, just... perfect.
After a while, Duo told some stories from his place of work too. Granted, he did not flesh out anywhere near the detail Heero had. Then again, Duo didn't feel the need to pour out his very soul, like Heero had.
Their luggage wandered into the conversation at some point. Duo told him the bag contained spare sets of clothes, a comic book, a lunch box and a few other necessities. He didn't disclose the full contents, or in detail.
Heero almost did.
Then again, his carry bag pretty much contained only his laptop and its accessories. He usually had lunch at the fourth floor cafeteria, and what paperwork he had to deal with was on the portable computer. He had little need to bring other frills to the office.
When they reached another slight silence as they entered Lexington, Heero decided to investigate another thing that had been bothering him. "I didn't see you on the subway last week..."
Duo grinned at that. Heero fought back the building warmth in his cheeks. Fine, so he had just about admitted he had been on the lookout for Duo. He didn't care - he wanted to know why Duo hadn't been on the same train - or the subway.
"Well, I didn't go up to Hammond Industrial Park last week - that's where we're setting up shop now. Had to go back to Salinger to make arrangements. You know, paperwork, plans, all that boring stuff."
Heero resisted the urge to state planning wasn't boring. At least he'd learned why Duo had been absent. He hadn't been sick, hadn't been fired - and most importantly, hadn't reverted permanently back to his old train and subway schedule.
The bus came to a halt outside Lexington Grand Central, and its passengers exited with haste, all of them late for one thing or another. This included Duo and Heero. They shared the occasional soft smile as they hurried towards the subway station.
As they walked, doubts began gnawing on Heero again. "Hey, Duo."
Duo brightened at the mention of his name, glad Heero had picked it up. It was the first time Heero had spoken it aloud, and he liked how the Asian's slightly accented and nasal voice pronounced it - even if it was pretty much the same as how everyone would say it. It was just a little more... special when Heero said it. "Yeah?"
"Uhm... Is your company going to work at Hammond Industrial Park for long?"
Duo shrugged. "Probably. Why?"
Heero copied the gesture. "No reason. I was just curious." He fought back the urge to cheer at that little nugget of good news. At least this meant Duo would share his commute schedule for the indefinite future. He'd have another chance to talk, another chance to get to know more about the guy with the braid - and perhaps some day, he would work up the nerve to ask Duo out for that cup of coffee, or something.
His imagination was more than happy to supply options for 'something'.
Heero's ears were somewhat reddened by the time they reached the subway platform.
As luck would have it, the Green line train pulled in merely seconds afterwards, the crowds whisking them both inside. They were too far apart for a conversation now, separated by the moderate mass of people trying to get aboard the car. They were left standing, trading smiles and the occasional grin at a distance. When they reached Grenside, Heero fought his way out, but not before giving Duo a nod in goodbye. Duo waved in return - and that was that.
Despite being late, and way off his regular schedule, this particular Monday at the office didn't turn out too bad, in Heero's opinion.
Of course, his mind was brooding on a face, a voice, a long braid - and now also a name.
Even Wufei's slightly worried inquiries couldn't bring him entirely out of his daydreams.