On Track And Off Again
Fall progressed, days becoming weeks. Through it all, their friendship grew firm - but that is where it remained. They were both afraid of making anything more out of it, both hoping their counterpart would take the initiative. Neither wanted to take the risk that went with exposing oneself.
They were friends - much in the way many repressed heroes of Greek myth were.
Weeks passed, one after another, such as weeks tend to do when everything sticks to the status quo. More than once, Duo vented his frustrations to one of the few people he entrusted them with - Trowa. It wasn't as if Trowa was his first choice, but he was certainly the most readily available one, given the topic at hand. Despite their ambivalent relationship, Duo knew he could trust Trowa to keep a secret - under enough threats. If he'd said a word to Howard, the whole crew would know before lunch - and given the subject, he wasn't comfortable with mentioning Heero to anyone at Saint William's.
Heero was mirroring those very same frustrations. Unlike Duo, however, he did not vent them. Instead, he bottled them up as best he could. Luckily for him, Quatre was willing to play the corkscrew. One Saturday night the two of them were again spread out on the couch before Quatre's colossal big screen and a table covered in refreshments. Onscreen was an overly sappy romantic comedy which Heero was very much convinced Quatre had picked on purpose. Halfway into the movie, after sensing his intended message had gotten through, Quatre demanded a mission update.
When Heero had briefed him, Quatre had not been too happy with the distinct lack of progress. "Heero..." he had begun, his tone of voice a remarkable mix of sympathy, resignation and frustration. "You still haven't-"
"How come I have to be the one to ask?" Heero had quickly retorted, frowning, but not meeting Quatre's eyes.
At this, the blond had merely sighed and hit the pause button, freezing the movie in the intermezzo of late-night rainy tragedy of a near deserted street, right before the characters would inevitably get it all together and end the flick in bliss and sunshine in complete contradiction to reality. Romantic comedies never shows 'five years later'. That is reserved for dramas. "Waiting can be a good thing in itself - but sometimes, good things have to be strived for." Mouth open to continue, he instead shook his head. "Haven't we had this conversation already?"
Slowly, Heero nodded. "Many times."
"Do I have to plan that business trip after all? Should I be there to hold your hand while you ask?"
"Quatre..." Heero moaned back, much in the same tone of voice Quatre had initially offered him. "Look, I just haven't found the proper time yet, and-"
Quatre snorted. "Believe me, Heero - 'never' is not a good choice. Besides, I'm determined to see this thing through, even if you aren't. It's the first time I've ever seen you smitten with someone, and-"
Heero glared at his friend. "I'm not smitten."
He was met with an expression of untamed glee. "Oh, you're gone, Heero. You're this close to swooning, I swear!"
Half a smirk surfaced in Heero's frown. Damn the bastard for being right.
"Look, if it's so hard to ask him in person, why don't you give him a call instead?"
Heero shook his head and pulled his legs up in the couch to rest his chin against his knees. "That's even worse - it would be even more obvious."
Quatre shrugged. "Perhaps - but isn't that precisely the point of asking? Don't you want to find out if he's... eligible?"
"And even if you got rejected - which I doubt you would be - you wouldn't have to face it directly. Distance can be good, sometimes."
"Maybe..." Heero sighed again. "It doesn't matter, though - he doesn't have a phone. Not one I could call him at, at least. The orphanage probably has one, but what if one of the of the kids pick up? Or worse, one of his chaperones?"
Quatre chuckled. "Chaperones?"
"I'm having trouble thinking of them otherwise - the way he talks about them... they're his parents - in effect, if not in blood."
Quatre cocked his head to the side, also sat up in the couch, embracing his left leg. "This guy is a legal adult, right?"
Heero sent him a quick frown. "Of course he is. You think I'm a cradle snatcher?"
It was met with a grin. "No - but you're acting like a frightened teenager with his first serious crush."
"It is..." he mumbled, staring at the sofa cushions. That one time in Junior High was nothing compared to this.
"Then take the risk, damn it!"
If nothing else, it gained Heero's attention. Quatre hardly ever swore, and frustration laced his words. His friend was right, but it didn't make it easier.
Sensing Heero's resolve not to act was faltering, Quatre got to his feet and marched out in the hallway. Almost immediately he returned, carrying a thick book, pages as flimsy as those of a holy scripture, contents as vague and meaningless without proper interpretation, but harboring answers for those who sought them. Unceremoniously, he plopped the phone book in the middle of the couch, then sat down at the other end again, his foot nudging the tome in Heero's direction.
"I not calling Saint William's, Quatre."
Quatre looked at him intently, smile but a narrow line. "That wasn't what I was thinking. What is the name of the company Duo works at? I forgot."
Heero's jaw grew lax for a moment. "I- You want me to call him at work?"
He made a quick nod. "Look, when you get to the office on Monday, just give him a call and ask him out for lunch. That's innocent enough..." He smiled softly. "But a good start."
Heero stared at him for a while, but eventually matched Quatre's smile with one of his own, though a touch more mischievous. "Continuance," he amended.
Quatre snickered at that. "Fine, whatever. So, are you going to look it up, or must I come with you to Lexington and help you dial the number?"
A dismissive snort later, Heero sat upright and reached for the phone book, sifting through the yellow pages.
Sunday passed in a blur of nothingness, as Sundays tend to. Quatre left Heero alone that day, which was just as well. Throughout the day, Heero stacked arguments for and against calling, for and against trying to make something more than a good friendship with Duo. Daydreams battled nightmares, hope fought doubt - and as is often the result of such conflicts, little - if anything at all - was resolved.
Duo had wanted to nap during the trip in on Monday. Beyond quick smiles of greeting, they hadn't spoken, and for this Heero was glad. If they'd talked, he wasn't sure what might have rolled off his tongue.
As soon as Wufei left his office that morning, Heero had reached inside his pocket and pulled out a very crumpled note with a phone number. Elaborately, he had moved his fingers along the wrinkles in the paper, smoothing them out. He kept it up until the charcoal of the pencil writing started smudging out over the white paper, not to mention his fingertips.
He had taken a trip to the restroom to ease at least one small burden. He had made a detour to the cafeteria and picked up a donut, grabbed a glass of water from the fourth floor water cooler on his return trip, making a mock inspection as he went.
Safely back in his office, he had closed the door - and, after some hesitation, locked it as well. He glanced at the camera hidden in a roof corner, but ignored it. It was just one of the backup recorders, not one of the actively monitored ones. It didn't carry audio anyway. The donut and water vanished slowly. His eyes drifted every so often between the phone and everything else - but always coming back to the phone at his desk, as if the machine possessed some irresistible allure.
Finally, he crumpled up the donut wrapping and deposited it in the trash bin along with the empty plastic cup, reached for the still twisted note, picked up the handset and started dialing the number before he could chicken out of calling. Only Quatre's accusation of him acting a nervous teenager made him keep his fingers off the switchhook when he got an answer.
Ambient noise from the site was plentiful, but not deafening. Still, the voice didn't sound like that of an old man, which was the impression he'd gotten from Duo's tales of his boss. "Uh..."
"You've reached Clean Sweep Construction - Trowa speaking."
Trowa... Trowa... Heero jolted at remembering. Duo had mentioned this colleague a few times, though he wasn't sure what to make of him. Duo's description of him varied from day to day, and Heero was left with the feeling their relationship was ambiguous, at best. "Oh - Hi. Is Duo there?"
There was a slight pause, a ruffled noise as the ambient sounds momentarily vanished, a muted voice shouting, a nearby pneumatic hammer cutting off. Then, Trowa returned. "He's out with Howard, negotiating with the city engineers. He'll probably be out another hour or so - can I take a message?"
Heero clenched his teeth. This was definitely not the way he wanted things to turn out. Still, he'd already come this far... "Tell him Heero Yuy called - I was wondering if he wanted to go out and grab some lunch today. Could you please tell him to get back to me at my cell phone? He should have the number."
Again, there was a pause at the other end. "...sure," Trowa finally responded. "I'll let him know."
"Thanks," Heero tersely answered, a bit worried about the mild surprise in Trowa's voice. Promptly, he put the handset back down. He hid his face in his hands and rubbed his eyes while taking slow, calming breaths. It didn't exactly go as planned. It didn't go horribly wrong either.
It hadn't really gone anywhere.
He stared at the phone for a while before restlessness overcame him, and he tried to go about his day at the office.
More than once he checked to see that his cell remained safely tucked in his shirt pocket - and that it was still on.
Trowa put away Howard's cell with a slight smirk. So, this was the man that had Duo all riled up? There was a limit to what he could pick up by merely a voice, but the uncertainty lay thick in Heero's. Even so, Heero had sounded pleasant enough to his ears.
And the lunch offer sounded like the most feeble cover for a date he'd ever heard. It seemed Duo was about to get what he wanted.
He might have thought more of it, had not his job as filler-in foreman in Howard's absense taken over his attention. As it were, he resigned to label Duo - and Heero - as lucky bastards and got back to work.
While Mondays in general were a pain, this one was especially hard on Heero's nerves. The afternoon passed with excruciatingly slow speed. Wufei had observed him carefully throughout the day, and around three o'clock he'd finally asked if Heero was expecting an important call of some sort.
Heero had glared at him as if he'd been slapped in the face, but could understand the concerns of the head of security. Sure, he had checked his cell phone a bit more often than normal, and sure, he'd been remarkably quick to answer the few times it did ring, and just as quick in ending the conversations - but was that really so suspect?
In Wufei's eyes, it definitely was. The way Heero's face brightened at each fanfare of his ring tone and how his expression crumbled at the end of the calls only shored up under his reasons for concern. Heero had grown increasingly short-tempered throughout the day, as well.
Wufei knew better than to challenge that glare head-on, though - and despite his job, subtlety was not his way. Instead, he opted to bide his time, and let the way Heero suddenly dug out the cell phone to check if he'd gotten any text messages or unanswered calls slide past without comment.
Four o'clock didn't roll by soon enough for Wufei. As he bid his farewell for the day, Wufei made a mental note to ask Heero of this in the morning. Perhaps he'd be less testy about it then.
It wasn't as if Wufei hadn't made a few thoughts on whom Heero was waiting to hear back from. Granted, his defacto boss hardly ever spoke of his personal life, nor inquired much of Wufei's - but Wufei couldn't shake the feeling the expected call was decidedly personal rather than business-related. Simmons & Simmons preferred delivering promotions and significant raises in person.
Five past five, Heero reluctantly stood up from his crouch over his desk, gathered his belongings in his carrybag, donned his jacket and gloves, turned off the lights and left his office. He hadn't given up on Duo calling, not even when lunch hour was decidedly over - at least for all of those not working long evenings or graveyard shifts.
As he rode the Green line back to Grand Central, his moping shifted to annoyance, even anger. He could understand if Duo had made other plans, but he could at least have called him back, couldn't he?
It wasn't until he was sure the other passengers were avoiding him that he got a hold of himself, fading his deep scowl away and instead looking blankly out the windows at the gray and black tunnel walls. Flashes of passing tube lighting forced him to give that up as well.
Heero reached Grand Central early. He stepped out on the platform, took the escalator up in the main hall, and suddenly became very much aware of the pit in his stomach. The low rumbling sound was as good an indicator as any. He opted for simplicity; he sought out the nearest kiosk and bought himself a sizable hot dog, trapped in bread and buried in condiments.
If any health freak stared at him, Heero didn't care enough to notice. Perhaps his meal didn't look too appetizing, and perhaps it would take a few hours off his lifetime - but it sure tasted great.
Duo barely made the train on time. He'd been trapped down at city hall earlier that day - him, Howard, an aide to the Mayor, some senior engineers representing Lexington and lawyers representing them all - most of all themselves, judging by their hourly fees. Their topic; permission to use high explosives to bring down the larger remnants of Hammond Industrial Park, as well as all the matters of why, what, who, how and when.
It had been damn boring.
It had also been pretty inconclusive. They had filed for permission months ago, but it got tangled severely in red tape. It didn't help when the lawyers on both sides butted in, offering their uninformed opinions and individual takes.
Suggestions or bills, either way sounded proper to Duo.
They would reconvene later and go over everything again. It didn't sound like they'd get blasting permission until sometime in spring - April, at the earliest. Winter was pretty much upon them already, and one of the engineers was worried about snow.
Duo wasn't. If anything, a blanket of snow would help bind the dust down quickly. It'd mean more precautions on the explosives, though. All in all, it was a fairly even trade-off.
Howard was probably more bothered about the delays than Duo was.
It had actually surprised Duo that his level of expertise had not been brought up. He'd been convinced at least one of the gnarly old engineers would comment on his young age, his lacking formal education or his limited experience with large-scale blasting - but none of them did. That had been damn satisfying.
All in all, he still had the strength to smile in greeting as he sought out Heero on the train, despite how he'd worked his rear off carting wheelbarrows of debris away all afternoon.
To his mild surprise, Heero didn't respond in kind. In fact, Heero didn't seem to respond much at all. As Duo sat down next to him, offered a moderately chipper, if fatigued hello, all he'd gotten in return was a low grunt of acknowledgment and the reflection of Heero's eyes in the window.
For a moment, Duo tried to figure out what Heero was looking at so intently, his elbow against the narrow sill, his chin against his palm, a soft frown on his face. After a minute or so of silence, Duo could only conclude that Heero wasn't looking at anything in particular - he was merely trying to avoid looking at him - and Duo really couldn't figure out why.
Tentatively, he took a quick whiff of his shirt. He had worked all day, and had only had time for a quick cat-wash with a wet cloth before changing and hurrying off to the subway, but he didn't stink. He waited for a few minutes more and grew ever more uneasy with the silence. He couldn't think of anything he'd said or done to offend Heero. Then again, perhaps Heero had simply had a bad day at the office? He was about to ask as much when Heero beat him to it, suddenly turning around, all but glaring at him.
"How was lunch?"
Taken aback by the question, Duo missed out on how soaked in a sullen and grumpy mood the words were. "Uh - fine, I guess. Howard and I bought a whole bunch of baguettes and sodas heading back to the worksite." He grinned. "Heck, we probably bought half a truckload worth. Had to feed the whole crew - and food that you don't make yourself always tastes a little better. Besides, the canteen barracks was low on supplies again." He stopped himself from continuing, noticing the faint twitch in Heero's right eye. "Why do you ask?"
Heero looked at Duo for a moment, studied him as if the words of ultimate truth were spelled out on his forehead. Apparently satisfied, he exhaled slowly and returned to glaring aimlessly out the window. "No reason..."
Duo didn't believe that for a second, but Heero's dark mood felt like a mine field. He did not want to dance across it without more information. Instead, he went on talking, hoping Heero would lighten up after a bit. He chuckled to himself, eyes forward. "Howard gave Trowa another 'reminder' about stocking up on supplies, though - that made up for having to lend Howard money for the food. See, Howard's voice can get this really high pitch that-"
From the corner of his eye, he noticed Heero was looking at him intently again, albeit far from glaring this time. Heero looked as if he wanted to say something, but stopped before the words vocalized. Instead, others took their place. "Do you have anything against Trowa?"
That was certainly not what Duo had expected to be asked - and not something he found easy to answer, either. "Well..." he began, thinking fast. "He's a friend, but not too good a friend, if you know what I mean." Heero's mild frown made Duo feel he didn't. "Okay, forget that last part. Trowa and I... we go back a ways. He's a decent guy, I guess - but like all of us, he has some... bad sides, too." He looked for understanding in Heero's face, but didn't see anything conclusive. He sighed. "Anyway... no, I don't really have anything against Trowa, not anymore - but we all like to see others suffer and squirm a bit, don't we?" He gave a sheepish grin at that, not sure if his point got through or not.
Heero didn't say anything after that - nothing important, at least. He quickly excused himself, saying he wanted to take a quick nap during the trip home. Duo accepted that at face value.
With his eyes closed, Heero's mind did anything but rest. Instead, he considered several of the things Duo had said. There was obviously something strange about his friendship with Trowa. A sudden fear that Duo and Trowa were more than mere friends struck him, but was just as quickly suppressed. The way Duo talked about him certainly didn't paint that picture. It seemed more like the outlines of an ex - but that could actually be a good thing, as it at least meant Duo was susceptible to the idea of having a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend. Then again, he got the impression they hung out together after work too. The apparent ambivalence of their relationship was frustrating, to say the least.
For a moment, he wondered if they could be siblings instead - not blood related, perhaps, but both raised in Saint William's? That was a decent fit, too - but it didn't strike him as right, either.
He'd also caught on to the implication Trowa's memory wasn't the best. If that was true, then perhaps... Still feigning sleep, he tried not to frown, suddenly ashamed of his lashing out against Duo. What if he had never gotten the message? Or what if Duo had, but he had forgotten? Or decided to ignore it, pretend the cautious overture had never been made in the first place?
He couldn't be sure, and the lack of a clear-cut answer grated him like little else.
Lastly, he committed two additional words to memory; 'not anymore'.
He didn't realize they had reached Stillwater until the train started moving and he caught a glimpse of Duo's back through the window, the young man already unfastening his bike.
Duo had thought about saying goodbye, but Heero's face looked anything but peaceful and Duo didn't want to rouse a sleeping lion. So instead he made for a quiet exit, not looking back.
He couldn't shake the feeling Heero was upset with him for some reason. Said reason eluded him, though. He could not remember having said or done anything to anger Heero - not recently, at least. It had been a while since their last fall-out over sports results, the competence or lack thereof of politicians, or how to make the perfect banana split.
It bothered him for most of the evening. Without knowing what the problem was, how could he possibly hope to fix it?
Tuesday morning was a study in awkward silence. Heero was already feigning sleep when Duo sat down next to him. Given that the quirks of fate had put them in the quiet zone car that morning, Duo didn't push for a conversation beyond a quick, muted greeting.
Heero didn't respond. It was more out of fear of saying something wrong than out of anger. It was a good chance he'd messed up the day before, resenting Duo for not returning his call when Duo might not have gotten the notice in the first place. He didn't want to compound his mistake by asking the wrong sort of questions now - tempting as that was.
And besides, they were certainly not in the right place for a conversation.
The arrival in Lexington could not come soon enough.
"I just don't get it," Duo complained, tossing another chunk of broken bricks and mortar into his wheelbarrow. Even through his thick protective gloves, the rough edges clawed at his palms. "I mean, here everything seemed to be going well-"
"Meaning nowhere," Trowa cut in, half a smirk on his face - the visible side of it.
Duo gave him a glare, but had to admit as much. "Not all of us are in such a rush like you, Trowa."
Trowa chuckled. "And not all of us remain a virgin like you, Duo."
Quick gape, virtual daggers from his eyes to Trowa's. "I am not-" Another load of bricks crashed into the rest, almost tipping the wheelbarrow over with momentum. "And that has nothing to do with this! Trowa, I'm being serious here! Heero's pissed at me for something, and I can't figure out what!"
"Perhaps he doesn't think you're moving fast enough, either."
Duo gave a dismissive snort. "Then he would have said something a lot sooner."
Trowa nodded in agreement. "Or done something. Think he has someone on the side?"
That thought hadn't occurred to Duo, but it sure didn't help things. Heck, they were just casual friends - why did he feel such an ownership for Heero already? What business was it of his if Heero had a girlfriend? Or a boyfriend for that matter - though that was almost worse, since it suggested Duo had had his chance, but blown it by being too passive.
Still, Duo just couldn't picture Heero for a player - he'd be surprised if the man had even dated more than once in his life, much less ever had a lasting relationship with anyone.
Not that his own record in that department left much to brag about.
"I doubt it," Duo finally mumbled. "He's a nice guy, but a bit shy."
Trowa nodded. "That's the feeling I got too. He's got a nice voice, though."
Duo produced half a smile. "Yeah... Especially when-" He paused mid-sentence, stared at Trowa. "When did you ever hear his voice?"
Trowa deposited another handful of bricks in the wheelbarrow, straightened up. "When he called yesterday to give you that message."
Eyes widening, pieces falling into place, gloves coming off. "What message?!"
For a moment, Trowa mimicked a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. "Like I told you, he-" Impact. "Fuck! I forgot to tell you!"
Scowling fiercely, Duo closed the distance between them in two steps, grabbed the collar of Trowa's coveralls and fought the urge not to deck his friend, settling for a powerful shake instead. "Damn right you did! What did he say? What did he want? Tell me, damn it!"
Trowa tossed off his gloves too, put his hands over Duo's and wrestled Duo's fists away from his coveralls. "Duo, get a grip - I'm sorry, okay? I forgot. I'm sorry." He waited for Duo to calm down before continuing. "He called Howard's office phone while you and Howie were out - I think he wanted to invite you out for lunch. I was supposed to tell you to call him back on his cell."
Duo took in each word, the reason why Heero asked him about lunch yesterday now much too clear. Heero probably thought he had simply stood him up and not even bothered to let him know. No wonder Heero was a bit grumpy yesterday, and so deliberately distant this morning.
Angry, Duo took it out on the most readily available target. He tore himself free from Trowa's grasp of his wrists and turned away. "I can't believe you! You know how important this guy is to me - how could you not remember to give a measly little message like that?!"
In truth, Duo had not expected an actual answer to that, but got one anyway. Grinning sheepishly, Trowa didn't meet his eyes. "Well... Julian was picking up debris yesterday, and you know how those pants of his don't ride quite all the way up..."
Gaping and staring for a moment, Duo threw his hands up in resignation. "I can't believe-" He bit his lip. "So, you went around creeping him out all day?"
Trowa gave an noncommittal shrug.
Duo groaned. "Just give up, would ya? He's straight."
Amused, Trowa snorted. "Not for long..." To Duo's look of disbelief, Trowa lifted his eyebrows once. That was enough.
Duo took a few steps away. "Damn it... You just have to chase any good looking thing on two legs, don't you?"
Trowa knew Duo wasn't serious, and laughed good-naturedly. "Perhaps..."
He folded his arms and glanced over his shoulder. "You remember Clarisse? That barkeep down at McDougal's? She used to give us free drinks every now and then. Now she won't even smile at us, and that's all your fault. As soon as you had swept over her once, you broke up with her."
Trowa shrugged again. "There was never anything there to break in the first place - I never said anything about it being more than what it was. I thought she knew that."
"Like hell," Duo muttered, but didn't push on. He knew Trowa's nature better than most. "So, do I prepare a trauma team for Julian, then? I mean, has there ever been anyone you've slept with twice?"
The grin transformed into a mild leer. "You know the answer to that one..."
True, he did - but Trowa's fidelity was questionable at best, and he only wanted to highlight that fact one more time, hoping Trowa might actually want to do something about it. As every time before though, he spoke to deaf ears on that matter. "I told you never to bring her up again..."
"I didn't. You did."
After a quick sigh from Duo, a brief pause followed.
"Anyway... Why don't you call Heero, and-"
"What, now? Don't you think that's a little late? Like, a day late?"
Trowa took a step back, recognizing the rekindled fury in Duo's voice. "Look, I told you I was sorry. It slipped my mind, okay?" He looked away briefly, waved at some figure pushing a wheelbarrow on the far side of the pile of rubble. Duo didn't have to look to know it was Julian. "Anyway, can you blame me?"
Duo snorted. "Knowing you... Hell yes - probably not as much as he will next week, if you keep this up."
He snickered. "I sure hope so..." As Julian went out of sight, Trowa focused on Duo again. "Look, you know where Heero works, right?"
"Yeah...?" Duo wasn't at all sure where Trowa was going, and just as sure he liked it.
"Then I have an idea - remember when I made up with Sarah?"
"And dumped her again the next week, because of Sam?" Duo nodded. "Yeah, I remember."
Trowa's eyes grew distant for a second. "Sam... Wait, was it girl-Sam or boy-Sam that time?"
Duo rolled his eyes, not sure he was all that comfortable with the fact that he remembered the details of Trowa's illustrious love life better than he did - and Duo idly wondered what that really said of his own lackluster love life. "Boy-Sam. First time around, it was girl-Sam. You really messed Sarah up, you know that? I heard a rumor she went to a convent."
Trowa gave an unapologetic grin. "I'll have a hard time getting back together with her, then - though she might just be worth the effort. She was good..."
"Then why did you break up?"
He shrugged. "She didn't really understand me."
Duo frowned slightly. "Didn't understand your need to see other people, you mean - and by 'see', I mean-"
Trowa chuckled. "Right... Anyway, my point - when I made up with Sarah, I went down to the supermarket she worked at with a picnic basket, and took her out for the afternoon. You know the place a block down from McDougal's? That small cafeteria on the corner? They have this special offer on lunch baskets - really a niche market, targeting lovers during the summer. I'm sure they'd whip up a basket for you if you called and ordered ahead."
"Uh... Trowa, in case you didn't notice, it isn't exactly summer anymore. Hell, they said it would snow this week! Are you saying I should take Heero out to some frosty park and eat a cold lunch?"
He grinned. "Well, that would still be progress - but no. I was thinking more like you surprise him at the office and eat there. You can probably tell the catering people to tone down the contents of the basket, just so he doesn't get the wrong impression." The grin shifted quickly to a leer. "Or perhaps that's exactly what you want? Make a clear statement, I mean?"
Duo considered that for a moment. "I... What I really want to do, is apologize for yesterday - make up for it somehow."
Trowa nodded. "Then let's go get Howard's cell and place your order." Sensing Duo wasn't yet convinced, Trowa pushed. "Look, I'm really sorry about forgetting the call. I'm serious - hey, I'll even go dutch with you on the basket. What do you say?"
If nothing else, that got Duo's attention. Trowa wasn't stingy, but he rarely used money on things that didn't improve his own odds - and his chances with Duo were nil, they both knew that. Not that it discouraged half-hearted attempts. "I say..."
"And I can't believe I accused him like that..." Heero slumped down on a chair. As for most of the last hour, he got no answer. He might as well have been in the room alone. "I think I've blown everything now..."
He glared at the phone, wondered yet again why he hadn't gone with his initial instinct and given Quatre a call - and again, his mind supplied the answer. If he'd told Quatre as much as a word of this, the blond would have made his way into Lexington at the first available opportunity, just to fuss over him like a baby. If anything, Heero didn't want that - not the fussing, nor the emotional turmoil it would undoubtedly cause his friend. Quatre had a way of taking on all the burdens of others and make their problems his own. At the same time, he would do his utmost to solve them and ease small pains.
Heero suspected this ability came from how limited Quatre's own personal life was. The family business had taken over much of his social life, had lost him many friends and cost him a relationship or two at the very least. He couldn't blame Quatre's dedication, neither to his company nor to his few remaining friends. His concern could border on chafing sometimes - and therefore, calling Quatre was not a fair thing to do to either of them, not over something like this.
Heero didn't have that many others to confide in, though - especially not anyone he considered safe to share his innermost thoughts and feelings with. It had come as much a surprise to himself as to Wufei when he had ended their morning briefing by starting a quite different one, beginning with a meek "I've messed up."
Wufei could not remember Heero ever admitting having made mistakes - not so blatantly. That little utterance had therefore definitely caught his interest. The tale that unfolded had surprised him at almost every turn. The first 'him' left Wufei rather dumbstruck, though he covered it up well. He and Heero had hardly ever shared bits of their personal lives; they were both reserved in that respect, and did not interfere with each other's privacy unless it affected their work. It hardly ever did.
He had never expected Heero to gush out his griefs over his love life, insofar that there was a such. That the object of Heero's affection - or affliction - was another man, came as an even greater surprise. "You're saying... You've turned gay?" he'd cautiously inquired after a brief pause.
To that, Heero had closed his eyes momentarily and smiled. "For him, I would."
As their pretty much one-sided conversation had unfolded, Wufei had learned why Heero was so distraught the day before. When Heero had finally stopped talking, Wufei found words hard to come by. He had never been of much help in emotional situations, and Heero's minor dilemma was beyond him, both too simple and too difficult to solve. Simple because there was no real relationship under threat here, and difficult as there certainly was an as of yet unrequited one forming.
Heero had it bad for this Duo guy, that much Wufei could grasp.
After the long monologue in Heero's office, Wufei had tried to console his friend as best he could. He had tried to give his opinion on the matter, meaning his rather concise advice - which consisted of taking the bull by the horns and tell Duo exactly how he felt. It was much too clear Heero wouldn't do that, however.
When Wufei had tried to weasel out of the uncomfortable dialogue, citing important business up in 'eyes', Heero had accepted it - but chosen to follow him up there. Thus, Wufei was trapped in Heero's angst for another hour, silently praying for patience, struggling not to deck his friend as well as with doing his job in calibrating the huge wall of monitors that was the heart and soul of 'eyes'. Every camera in the building was hooked up to this gargantuan console. The mostly black and white images flickering all across it revealed little of interest, as usual. Of course, that was a good thing.
He let Heero go on, half listening. He understood Heero's need to vent, his need to talk of all this to someone, even if he got no real reply.
Wufei wished this someone didn't have to be him, though. "Look, I think that's exaggerating. I thought you said you didn't even know if he got the message."
Heero sighed, studied the water boiler at the table before him, tapped his fingers to the white plastic. "Maybe... but how am I supposed to find out? What if he just decided to ignore it?"
Wufei rolled his eyes, adjusted the zoom on the number twenty-three camera. "It's not like you proposed, or something, Yuy! For crying out loud, would you get a hold of yourself? You just asked the guy out for lunch, that's all!"
His glare was like lightning. "We've never had lunch! We've never met outside of the commute, damn it! This would have been the first step!"
Not turning to face Heero, Wufei altered the angle of camera fifteen. "So? Just ask him again, then - directly. His reaction should tell you what happened to that first request. My bet is that either this guy you left the message with-"
"Trowa," Heero cut in, starting to toy with the lid of the water boiler.
"Okay, Trowa - forgot to deliver the message, or Duo forgot to call back." He produced half a smirk. "Because your cell phone was definitely on and working - you checked that often enough."
Wufei glanced over shoulder.
He was met with half a smile. "Maybe I did..."
Snorting, Wufei made a sweep of the lobby. "Heero... tell me again about Duo..."
Without looking away from the screens, Wufei tapped another camera adjustment. "I don't know... What does he look like?"
Heero put the lid back with a click. "Well... He's about my height... good-looking, tends to wear black, but his whole being seems to be of pure light..."
Wufei sent another amused glance over his shoulder.
Heero chuckled. "Sorry."
Wufei worked the keys again. "Let's see... Brown hair in a long braid?"
"Grin as wide as a canyon, as if he's up to something?"
Heero grunted. "Sounds like him, all right."
"Eyes... some shade of blue?"
Heero was about to answer in the affirmative, but stopped himself and looked at Wufei. "How did you know that? I never told you-"
Wufei gave him a great smirk at that, pointed one of the few breaks of color on the predominantly monochrome monitor wall. "Look at the number two monitor."
Heero did. And promptly gaped. It took several seconds of Wufei's amusement for Heero to regain his control. "I can't believe it... Wait, he's carrying something."
A quick tap of keys brought the scene from the lobby at a more distant angle up at the larger center monitor. "Looks like a wicker basket of some kind."
Duo hurried passed the camera angle. Wufei shifted to another camera, followed the man's progress to the elevators.
"He's taking number four. One sec..."
Heero didn't bother tell Wufei to hurry up. He knew many of the cameras in the building were fake, and quite a few more were merely 'on rotation' for observation, even if their feed went perpetually to backup. The elevator doors were long closed before Wufei managed to patch the right feed through; a gnarly black-and-white image.
"...but why is he here?" Heero muttered, not sure what to think.
"You told him where you worked, didn't you?"
Heero's eyes remained focused on the main monitor; on Duo. "Well, yeah, but... You really think he's coming here for me?"
Wufei snorted. "Think he has any other business in this building? Thought you said he worked in construction. Unless they're refurbishing one of the top floors, I'd say you're it."
While logical, Heero couldn't quite believe it. Duo was here. Duo was definitely up to something. Duo was... carrying a wicker basket? That part didn't quite compute - it looked like a picnic basket, but with winter upon them it was definitely out of season.
The elevator stopped. "Fifth floor," Wufei commented, looking much too smug. "Think you have some place you want to be, Heero? Like, in your office, a floor down?"
Heero frowned at Wufei. Damn if the man wasn't right. Wufei changed cameras again. "Going towards your office, I think - that's the right hallway, isn't it?"
It was. Heero was just about to make a run for it when he noticed Duo stopped and turned around, surprise turning into a smile - and a young woman with short, black hair catching him in a fierce hug.
Heero's jaw fell - out of fear as much as surprise.
Duo had done it. He'd taken Trowa's advice - something he had never thought he would - and ordered the lunch basket, corny as the idea was. Especially during winter.
Trowa had paid for half the basket too, just like he had promised. To make his redemption complete, he had even taken up the task of getting Duo an extended lunch break. Howard had not been too difficult to convince - at least not after Trowa offered to clean up the canteen barracks after working hours - for free - as compensation.
It was probably a good thing to wash the place down before restocking it. Remnants of meals long past were far from appetizing, and occasionally led to tiny unwanted house occupants with a multitude of eyes, legs and germs.
Duo had found the Worthstone Building easily enough, and after some quick bickering with the receptionist he had even gotten the route to Heero's office. The rigid woman looked like a librarian short of books and had the voice of a scolding teacher, but she had given the information freely enough. From her, Duo got the distinct impression Heero didn't get many visitors.
At least not unannounced ones.
Duo had signed in, gotten his visitor's pass and made his way to the elevators, thinking of what to say. Perhaps he wouldn't have to, just enjoy whatever face Heero made at his arrival.
He'd gotten off at the fifth floor, made the right turn he was told to make - and froze as someone called his name. It was definitely not Heero; that voice was- He turned around to face her, only to be trapped in a tight embrace.
"Duo, it is you!"
Smiling, surprised, yet decidedly uncomfortable with having both arms trapped, Duo fumbled for an answer. "Uh... Hilde? What are you doing here?"
Embrace ending, she held onto his shoulders. "I think that's my question - how did you know I worked here?"
"Uhm..." Duo's mind raced, trying to think of ways to weasel out of this one. He hadn't seen the girl for nearly five months now. Ever since Trowa - ever since then, they hadn't spent all that much time together. They had remained friends, but with her living in Lexington and him not, they'd slowly grown more distant. A phone call now and then wasn't the same as the nights out at McDougal's.
In the end she helped him out, taking advantage of his hesitation. "I haven't seen you since that time at Maple's with Tess, Nicole and..." she paused for just a moment, trying to remember.
"Earl," Duo helped out, all but growling the name. The walls were painted a dull off-white, he noted.
She snickered. "Right - can't believe I forgot."
He made a lax grin. "Hey, not his fault his parents chose to give him his great grandfather's name as a birthday present."
She shrugged. "It's still funny, though. How are things going with..." she let the question trail off as Duo slowly shook his head.
"Over. His choice. Week after Maple's, I think."
She look a bit baffled at first, then gave him a quick hug. "I'm so sorry..." Looking him dead in the eye, she gave his cheek a soft pinch. "And why didn't you tell me? Last time I called, you said-"
"I know what I said," he cut in. "I just didn't think it was news worth mentioning, that's all. Earl turned out to be the 'all out in the open' kinda guy. I couldn't deal with that, with Saint William's and all. Told him as much - and he promptly dumped me. Probably for the better, anyway..."
"You could have moved out," she suggested. "Didn't your boss offer you a place on site?"
Duo sighed. "Yeah, but you know that wouldn't exactly be ideal, either..."
She bit her lower lip, let a small pause open. "You're still hanging out with that bastard, then..."
He growled. "Hilde... I work with the guy - can't avoid him forever, and-"
Her brows came close. "You could at least stay away from him outside of work..."
Again, he sighed. "Hilde, we've had this argument before..."
She matched his. "I know... Just don't want to see him do the same thing to you, that's all."
"He knows better than to even try."
She cocked her head. "You sure?"
Duo nodded. "Positive." In reality, he was not so sure, but if it would make Hilde feel better, it was worth it. As many times before, he cursed Trowa's frivolous nature when it came to relationships.
A slight pause formed again, and as Hilde took a step back she caught sight of the basket. She took a quick breath as she studied Duo's face again, growing a sly smile. "I get it... You didn't know I was working here, but have... other business?"
He produced a sheepish grin. "Something like that..."
The conversation was taking a turn towards things he'd rather keep quiet about. Hilde wasn't a blabbermouth, but in offices like these, walls had ears. Bad enough he'd told her of Earl. "Uhm... No one you know." He wasn't sure that was accurate - for all he knew, Hilde was Heero's personal assistant. That middle word decided to go for emphasis in his mind, and he didn't like it. "You work here?" He cut in, wanting to deflect further questions.
"Yeah... I got a job as a secretary for Rutger Meyers - do you know them?"
Duo shook his head. "Afraid I don't - care to tell?"
Hilde gave a saddened smile. "Well, they're a small-time stockbroker company, and-" She paused, then gave that knowing smile again. "Nice try, Duo... Now, tell me who, damn it!"
Duo probably would have tried to, if as subtly as he could, given the few passer-bys that slowed down or blatantly turned spectators. Their eyes were on them and the basket, assumptions and guesses obviously being made in their minds. Duo wasn't here to create a flood of rumors - even if that might give Heero the right idea of his feelings.
He never got the chance to tell though, as someone tapped his shoulder. He turned around, faced Heero's slightly flustered expression. Not thinking more of it at first, Duo broke out in a grin. "Heero! Hi!"
"Hi..." Heero wheezed back, looking at Hilde.
"Mister Yuy," she said, a bit taken aback. She looked at his face. "Are you okay? You look a bit flushed."
"I'm-" breath, "Fine," he tried to say casually, placing one palm on the wall to lean on. In truth, he wasn't. Someone had selfishly occupied the lifts. He'd tapped the call buttons on all of them, but none of them came within the ten seconds he had lingered there.
It had been a few days since he'd checked the fire escapes, anyway. Granted, he had never made a quicker inspection, nor a briefer one, finishing after only one flight of stairs. Walking very fast - albeit many people other than himself would judge it a light jog or further up the scale - he'd made his way through the hallways. It took his rushed mind a moment to remember her name. "Miss Schbeiker," he offered, giving her a curt nod. In contrast, Duo got a weak smile. "Duo."
Hilde looked from one to the other, confused at first, but soon enough bringing out that wicked little smirk again.
Any number of alarms went off in Duo's head; one careless word from her could unintentionally ruin everything he'd worked so hard to achieve with Heero - which, on second thought, wasn't all that much. Not along the lines she was probably considering, at least.
He figured she caught on to his concerns since her expression mellowed over, and in the end all she said was a cautious "I see..."
"Duo, is something wrong?"
"Hm?" He faced Heero again. "Wha-? No, nothing's wrong - why?"
Heero took another deep breath, finally in control again. "You were grinding your teeth."
Duo grinned sheepishly. "I was?"
He nodded in affirmative.
"Well, I... Uh, anyway..." He brought up the basket. "I brought lunch."
Heero looked at the basket, then at Duo. He gave Hilde a quick glance, but regained his focus soon enough.
"I'm sorry about yesterday," Duo pushed on. "Trowa forgot to pass your message on - I didn't get it until this morning. I kinda figured... Well, if you haven't already made plans-"
"No!" Heero cut in, barely restraining the desire to grab Duo's wrist, just to make sure he couldn't escape. "I mean - No, I don't have any plans. I-" He glanced at Hilde again, could almost feel the eyes of the passer-bys in his neck. He had to be careful. Whatever he said now would undoubtedly find its way to Relena's ears. Or worse places. He wasn't sure what Simmons & Simmons' unofficial company policies were. "You two know each other?"
She smiled. "I was just about to ask you the same question - but yeah, Duo and I know each other. We're old friends."
Heero hoped his relief wasn't too visible - not to anyone but Duo, perhaps. "Oh..."
Hilde threw Duo the smirk again. "And you two...?"
"Friends," he answered. It seemed a safe choice. "We met on the train a while back."
Oh, what Duo wouldn't have given to have wiped that smirk off of her face. After all, Heero had to be blind not to notice - and what would he make of it?
On his part, Heero didn't notice. His thoughts and eyes were elsewhere, currently at the basket. "Uhm... Duo, isn't that a picnic basket?"
He held it up. "Yeah? So?"
"It's winter," Heero flatly stated.
Duo shrugged quickly. "Outside, sure. Inside, who knows? You have an office here, don't you?"
Heero nodded. Indeed he had. He even had a door. With a lock. And blinders. He suddenly regretted getting rid of the couch that had been there when he moved in.
Hilde decided it was a good a time as any to withdraw. It was clear enough to her that her presence bothered Duo, clear enough that this relationship was rather new - if there was one. Then again, did friends do things like this?
That same thought had struck Duo earlier, but he didn't care. It was a vague enough sign; it could matter a lot, or not at all, all depending on how Heero interpreted it. Either way, he thought he'd be able to talk his way out of it if that became necessary.
"Well, I'd better go. I was supposed to meet up with Relena for lunch." She touched Heero's shoulder. "Nice to meet you again, Mister Yuy." She looked over her shoulder at Duo. "Bye, Duo."
He had to grin. No sooner was she out of Heero's field of view did she overly mouth the words 'call me'. The added hand signals were almost too much, both the telephone and the thumbs up.
By the time Heero turned to look she was already walking away, leaving the two alone in their awkwardness.
"So..." Duo began.
"So..." Heero reflected.
Duo grabbed hold of the basket with both hands, tapped the short side with his knee. "Gonna show me your office?"
"Hm? Oh! Right. This way," Heero replied, starting a slow pace down the corridor, throwing Duo a weak smile. To hell with what anyone thought - they would probably all be wrong anyway.
Except maybe Wufei.
He made a mental note to disconnect the camera in his office as well as lock the door and unplug the phone. He already had a hand in his pocket, working to mute his cell.
Nothing was going to distract him from Duo.
Wufei monitored Heero's progress. First, the mad flight down to meet Duo and the pretty woman, then their conversation. Over the years, he'd picked up a fair bit of the art of reading lips. It came in handy sometimes. Hilde, was it? He mouthed the name soundlessly, wondering if he could pronounce her last name anywhere close to accurately on the first real try.
It was with a smirk he saw the screen using the camera at Heero's office shift to a blizzard display after the door had been shut. Wufei didn't really care.
The cameras overlooking the watercooler area, the hallway and then the secretary pool of Rutger Meyers were of far more interest.
Duo wasn't sure what to make of Heero's office. While it was a corner office with ample natural light, the interior decorations did not match the stature the location offered. Heero's dark oak desk was kept neatly clean, the in-box almost empty, a stark contrast to the brimming out-box. A few pens rested in parallel with the short end of the desk. A small stack of notepaper filled up the other side. The five-legged functional desk chair seemed just as Spartan, but still comfortable enough for its purpose.
The sturdy chair obviously meant for guests and other visitors did not.
Thus, Duo's choice in where to set up lunch was done for him. The floor it was. The short, gray wall-to-wall carpet at least gave the appearance of softness. He pushed the guest chair aside, took off his jacket and made use of the chair as a clothes rack. He put down and opened the basket, looking for the tablecloth. He'd opted for actual fabric rather than a large, cheap paper spread, even if it cost a bit more. He wanted to rectify a bad impression. Foundation ready, he started unpacking their meal - or at least, their first course. His order had been nothing if not elaborate.
Heero discretely locked the door behind them, made sure the blinders for the hallway window were down and shut, and went to disable the security camera in the corner. Nothing and no one was going to disturb them, if he had anything to do with it. Also, Wufei was not going to watch, much less get it all on tape. Heero had no desire to make it onto one of the special outtakes 'eyes' kept for their own entertainment - at least until something better came along, or there was a serious review of security protocol. The tapes always seemed to vanish then. He plucked the fixed-line phone out of the wall socket and made a final check of his cell phone to ensure it was muted. He had never been so glad that Duo didn't have a cell.
For a moment, he leaned against the wall and watched Duo unpack, not sure what he could do to help, or if he should even offer. Duo seemed to have a mind of where to place each of the small bowls he took out of the basket. Heero briefly considered backdrop music, but decided against it. For one, it'd mean racing back up to Wufei and ask if he could borrow his old transistor radio, but more importantly it'd mean he'd have to trust whatever station he picked up. Given how much advertising they tended to send and how random the choices of music could be, he judged it too risky - at least for a mood setter. Never mind how Duo might interpret such an act.
If anyone dared knock on the door during lunch, he quietly vowed to remind them why he carried an arms licence. He locked his office drawer for a reason - and kept the key with him at all times for the same.
"Okay, think I'm done now..." Duo looked over his shoulder. "What are you standing over there for? Come sit down."
Heero didn't have to be asked twice. Almost a bit too eagerly he sat down at the other end of the cloth and tried to make himself comfortable. A lunch on the floor was definitely a new thing for him - at least without even a flat pillow to sit on, or a low table in front of him. Not that it mattered. Present company did.
The small bowls spread out on the red-and-white checkered cloth didn't match the volume of the wicker basket, though. Why-
Duo noticed his soft expression of puzzlement. "It's only the first course." He unlidded the four plastic bowls at the center of the table and handed Heero a fifth larger bowl, keeping the last for himself. "Raw vegetables and dips." Heero's slight frown made him snicker. "Haven't had it before myself, but I hear it's pretty good. Uhm, that one is a crushed peppers and onion blend, I think," he began, tapping a bowl with a pinkish, thick liquid. On to the next. "This one is something like fondue - that's molten cheese." It certainly looked like it too, Heero mused. Duo tapped the third bowl, the contents of which looked white, but almost lumpy. "That's supposed to be a deviant of tzatziki, and..." He looked at the last one, similar in consistency to the first, but with a red rather than pink hue. "Uhm, and I'm not sure what that is, actually."
"Duo... you didn't make these, did you?"
He grinned. "Does it show? No, 'course not. I had a bit of help in making the order though, so I'm honestly don't know what all of this stuff is, much less what it tastes like - but that doesn't matter, does it? Don't you think surprises can be good too?"
Heero had to smile at that. Yes, they definitely could be. Duo's visit certainly was. He removed the lid of the bowl Duo had handed him, perusing a small selection of raw vegetables to dip; sticks of carrots and celery, small bushes of broccoli and cauliflower, sliced radishes and even mushrooms. He picked up a stem of celery, studied it for a minute.
Duo was not quite as patient. He took a piece of carrot and plunged it in the mild peppers dip. At first crunch, he suddenly remembered he'd forgotten something. Two quick chews later, he reached into the basket again, picking up two tightly lidded Styrofoam cups. "Forgot the drinks - uhm, there wasn't all that much room in the basket, and I had to choose between tea and coffee. Wasn't sure which you preferred, so I took one of each - green tea, black coffee. Which would you like?"
"Either is fine."
He made a lopsided smile. "Okay... but which is your favorite?"
Heero hesitated. "Which is yours?"
Duo could see where this was going, and he sort of liked it. Still, politeness required attention. "Well... I like both, I suppose." Heero's smirk kept questioning him, unnerving him. He buckled under the gentle pressure. "...but I think I prefer coffee."
"I'll have tea," Heero quickly added.
Duo offered him that cup, grinned, tried to keep his cheeks their natural color - successfully - while he picked at the cup to rig the makeshift cardboard handle pressed against the side, then undid the lid. "Uhm, I figured this wasn't enough, so I also stopped at a vending machine on the way." He put his cup down, reached for his discarded jacket and pulled out two cans of Coke from its big outer pockets. He offered one of the cans to Heero. "Wanted to balance out the warm with something cold. You drink this stuff, right? When our train got delayed two weeks ago, you went and bought a can from the machine on the train, so I figured..." Duo shrugged.
"Thanks," Heero said, accepting the can.
Beverages aside, they began eating the sparse first course. Heero had been surprised that even the warm cheese dip went fairly well with the vegetables. Still, the mild peppers dip and the tzatsiki blend reached the bottom of the bowl first. The mystery dip remained peculiarly untouched. While the bowl was cold, the contents gave the appearance of seething. Heero had little doubt the reddish hue came from strong spices, perhaps crushed chilipeppers - or worse.
He shrugged to himself, decided to be adventurous. One chunk of broccoli dipped its head in the substance and was brought back to his mouth... He could feel Duo was watching, waiting for him to play the guinea pig. He did, keeping the can of Coke at the ready in case of fire.
There was none. Certainly, the mystery dip was potent and warmed his tongue in contrast to the chilled, raw piece of green - but it did not burn. Heavily spiced, it did a number on his tastebuds. He finished the broccoli off, reached for his bowl of mixed vegetables again, grabbed a bar of celery and dipped one end in. "This one is really good," he informed Duo. "You should try it."
Heero gave a lopsided grin. Duo obviously wasn't convinced yet. With that in mind, he pointed the dipped stem at Duo.
Not until the gesture was done, and Duo's expression fell in perplexion for just a moment, did he realize he was doing something commonly associated with couples - but hardly as much with just friends. It was too late for regrets, though - especially as Duo leaned in, closed his lips around the piece of celery, his lips so close to Heero's fingertips...
Once he saw what was happening, Duo had jumped at the chance and gone for the celery, a wicked thought on his mind. If this was Heero's way of giving a sign, he planned to give one right back. Slowly, he pulled his closed mouth down the stem, so intent on Heero's face, scanning for reactions, that the taste of the spiced dip almost passed him by.
His attempt at creating a scene for dirty minds failed miserably however, since Heero didn't think in the same way Duo did from the get-go. Heero had thought Duo bit down as well, wanting to be fed the whole vegetable. Therefore, as his fingers left the piece of celery, so did Duo's lips lose their grip on the other end of it, and the long piece of green fell to the checkered mat, tumbled a few times and settled next to an almost-empty dip bowl.
Duo was visibly embarrassed now, quickly wiped his mouth with thumb and forefinger and winced just a bit. He picked up the celery and chewed off one end of it.
Heero gave him a concerned look, not sure what just happened. "Didn't the dip agree with you?"
"Hm?" He swallowed. "No, it was fine, it-" Duo shook his head, grinned away his flush. "Never mind, give me another."
Heero nodded, smiled faintly and picked up another vegetable. He repeated the dipping and offering, but didn't let go this time - not until Duo's lips touched his fingers. Even then, he hesitated for just a second.
Duo abandoned his tricks this time, and just went for the mouthful. Chewing, taking his time in tasting, he concluded Heero was right. The mystery dip was very good.
Their appetizers were fast running out. A few minutes later the vegetables were all gone. Duo considered asking if they should finger-lick the dip bowls clean, but decided against it. One failed attempt at that trick was bad enough.
Instead, they put all the empty canisters aside. Duo reached into the wicker basket, found two paper plates and handed one to Heero. It was time for the main course - two sizable submarine sandwiches, reaching from end to end of the basket. They hardly fit on the plates while still intact, but that mattered little - at least as long as the plastic wrapper was still on.
The sandwiches were cleverly designed. The bread had clear, breakable boundaries where the condiments changed. The people at the store had said the baguette wasn't meant to be eaten whole, since tastes differed so much - but that there should be something for everyone in them. Studying his own sandwich, Duo finally believed them. One end held the traditional ham and cheese, the next section contained tuna and capers, then there was a chunk of strawberry jam and sliced bananas, followed by chocolate and peanut butter, finally ending in pat and cucumbers. To eat all of it sounded more like digestive trouble than a meal. He quickly related what the storekeeper had told him.
Heero certainly agreed with the 'something for everyone' bit. One or two of these bread bits he'd gladly eat - another he was far less enthusiastic about. To eat the whole thing would be asking much.
They unwrapped their sandwiches, broke off the parts they felt like and ate, not conversing beyond quick comments to current news headlines.
Duo had just swallowed the last chunk of his ham and cheese when he noticed Heero's grimace. The man had taken a sip of his green tea, and it obviously didn't quite agree with him, given how quickly the brim of Styrofoam left his lips. "You okay, Heero?"
After a quick cough, he forced a smile. "Yeah, I'm fine."
Duo started to frown. "Well, I still have lots of coffee left - if you want to share-"
Heero shook his head. "Can't do that. We only have these two cups, and I don't think making the attempt at pouring over in the Coke cans is worth the effort."
He chuckled. "So what? It's not like I've got a cold right now..."
A thin smile at that, quiet acceptance of the slight dare. He handed Duo his cup of tea, got the coffee in exchange. Heero took a hold of the handle, brought it up - and paused, glancing at Duo. "Which side did you use?"
To the left of the handle. "I... don't remember." It was a small white lie, but for a purpose. If Heero had objections to this, their odds of kissing any time soon were low indeed. Which was, of course, the entire point of stretching the truth.
Heero's hesitation had a similar reason - if only the other approach. If he'd blatantly done as he had planned, he wasn't sure how Duo would take it, even if this was his idea. Heero wasn't blind; he knew Duo wasn't left-handed. Thus, on the left side it was. He was sure Duo knew that, too. That little detail did not escape him, and it was with a faint smirk he turned the cup and took a sip, eyes locked with Duo's.
Duo broke contact soon enough, stared down at the tea cup in his hands. Heero was right-handed too, so all he had to do was-
Except, Heero had not bothered with the handle. It was still pressed in against the cup, unused. That minor snag in his plan made him look up a bit too quickly, only to be met with a widening smirk. Duo blinked, stared at the cup, tried to remember from which side Heero had drunk.
As if on cue, Heero put down his cup, spun it to cradle either side of it, the cardboard handle pointing Duo.
Duo grinned and quickly aligned his cup to match.
Their looks met.
Simultaneously, they raised their cups, made a 'down the hatch' gesture and drank, something almost ceremonious over the moment.
It was the closest they'd ever been to kissing.
It was the closest they'd ever been to confessing too; the closest to blurting out what they both knew - or at the very least suspected - yet continuously kept from saying out loud because of the lingering traces of doubt.
In the end Duo broke the moment, wishing he'd gone for two cups of coffee. Heero's grimace had been right on the money; the tea tasted awful, and he went for a swig of Coke to wash the aftermath away. Still... the tea had done more than much else for their non-relationship - which was a pitiful thought in and of itself.
Heero chuckled at his expression. That made it even more worth it.
Their sandwiches soon lay broken on either plate, some sections discarded as their contents did not agree with two certain palates - but the leftover parts allowed for yet another trade, which was done as soon as Heero suggested it.
Of course, there was no possibility of spit swap this time, real or imagined. It didn't matter. They were most definitely eating, and together. One could be excused for calling it a date - which was why they both - and separately - agreed to dub it just 'lunch'.
Done eating, Heero rubbed one fist against his stomach, covered his mouth and tried to burp as discretely as possible. The sandwiches were definitely enough to fill the belly, especially with the appetizers gone before. There was no question this was a far richer lunch than Heero was accustomed to.
Perhaps it had something to do with the company.
"Thank you, Duo - I think I'm full now."
Duo chuckled softly. "Hey, there's always room for dessert, right?" With that, he went for the basket again, taking out the last items within - two flat lidded bowls of thin, transparent plastic, one sporting washed and topped strawberries, the other whipped cream.
Heero studied the bowls with a mix of dread on behalf of his stomach and of hope given any number of connotations this particular dessert spawned in his mind. "I don't know..."
Already removing the lids, Duo was not about to take that for an answer. "Oh, come on. You can at least try one, right?" With that, he picked up a berry, dipped the tip in the cream and offered it to Heero - albeit not with the intent to simply hand it over. 'If' was not an option, nor the question. He wanted to see how Heero accepted the strawberry.
To his absolute enjoyment, Heero snorted, gave a lopsided smirk and leaned in to take the berry with his mouth. Duo couldn't help but grin as Heero's lips grazed his fingers, all but sucking the tiny red thing out of his grasp. He watched carefully as Heero chewed the berry, then swallowed. "...okay, maybe just one more."
Duo made a move to offer him another, but got intercepted by the bowl of cream. He glanced at Heero, momentarily confused.
"My turn now."
The strawberry Heero held out before him cleared things up. Duo grinned - and went for it.
The bowl had not been big to begin with and was quickly emptied - especially as they took to serving themselves after the first few helpings. There is a limit to how much self-denial one can accept at a time, and theirs ran at three strawberries each.
There was still a bit of cream left, however. Duo promptly suggested they share that too. He scraped a finger along the side, licked it off - not bothering to do it slow or symbolically. The race for the cream was on soon after - and ended just as fast.
Heero sucked his fingers clean, accepted the paper napkins Duo pulled out from the wicker basket, grinning. "I haven't eaten like this since I was a kid..."
Duo chuckled. "But you enjoyed it, right?"
Heero nodded firmly. "Oh, yeah..."
"Besides, your childhood isn't that long ago, is it?"
Heero's hands paused, then made a last wipe and discarded the napkins. His face fell a bit, relaxed in brief remembrance as he sighed, other memories of strawberries and cream coming to mind. Memories of his mother. "...I suppose not..."
Duo fell quiet, not sure what to make of that. He sensed something was wrong, but quite what, he could only make bad guesses at - and asking didn't seem right, either. Needing time to think, but something to do to fill the void, he glanced at his wristwatch.
And immediately panicked, eyes wide. He didn't notice the words coming out of his mouth until he read the reaction to them off of Heero's face. He quickly flashed Heero a sheepish grin. The short string of curses was a bad slip, and not quite the way he wanted this lunch to end. "Uh, sorry about that - just noticed the time. I'm supposed to be back at the site in no later than ten minutes." He looked down at the cluttered cloth. "But I guess we're done, right?"
Upon Heero's nod in agreement, he scrambled to pack the used bowls and plates back in the wicker basket.
For a moment Heero simply watched Duo stress, amused at the spectacle. Then common courtesy kicked in, and he started to help. He gulped down the last of his coffee and tossed the empty Styrofoam cup in the basket as well. Duo reapplied the lid to the tea. Perhaps Trowa liked cold green as much as warm pink. What was left of the sandwiches would probably get eaten if he left them out in the lunch barracks.
They stood up. Heero took the task of folding the checkered cotton cloth while Duo put on his jacket. As Heero handed the cloth over, he only slowly let it go, their fingers slipping against one another. Duo unceremoniously shoved the piece of cloth down in one corner of the basket, safely away from the hastily wrapped sandwich leftovers. Heero straightened up, cleared his throat. "Thank you for lunch, Duo. It was... an experience."
Duo grinned back, reached out to clutch Heero's hand, still not entirely retreated. "Hey, a meal is supposed to be, right? And you're welcome - see you on the train home?"
Duo's grip lingered for just a moment, and only with some hesitation did he let go - and made a run for the elevator.
A run that was cut short by the rattling knob of the door. "Hey, is this locked?"
Heero's face flushed just a tad. "Uhm - I don't like being interrupted during lunch, that's all."
Turning the lock, Duo gave him a sly grin, but accepted the explanation. After all, they were certainly making progress in their non-relationship - except the bit of actually admitting it, much less make it official.
That didn't stop either of them from walking on air for several hours afterwards. At least, that was the comment they got separately, Heero from Wufei and Duo from Trowa. Unlike Heero and Duo themselves, they seemed to understand the significance of the rather spontaneous meal.
Of course, it couldn't last. Doubt remained. Not much, but still enough to cause concerns.
Neither of them was sure if the other had really given any clear 'hints', or whether they had imagined such signs. Perhaps it was all coincidences. Neither of them was sure if they had given clear enough hints, either to go unnoticed or unrequited. It was hard to say which outcome was less desirable.
Therefore, both Heero and Duo started the trip back home carrying a fair bit of insecurity, a good portion of worries that perhaps the other was still unattainable for more than friendship, no matter their wishful thinking.
They met up and sat down, as usual - Heero got there first, found a double seat and looked out at the platform while he waited. A few minutes later Duo showed up. Their greetings were a bit reserved, even by their usual standards. They didn't start talking, either. They merely sat there, both faking fatigue and desire to rest.
Not that Duo required much acting skills for that. He had gotten back late and worked double-time for a while to make up for it. It was not so much for Howard's sake as for his own. Getting paid for even five minutes of not being there gritted with his work ethics. He wondered if Trowa would have felt the same way. Given how he'd been tailing Julian for most of the afternoon, Duo didn't think so.
Duo closed his eyes, settled in as best he could and took a couple of slow, calming breaths. He never noticed when the train started moving, and he faded out the conductor's standard information speech over the PA system, having heard it countless times before.
As they ducked through the first tunnel, Heero's excuse of staring blankly out the window lost its validity. He turned to face straight ahead, slumped a bit in his seat. He glanced down and to the side, saw Duo's hand resting on the collapsible armrest between them. For a mad moment, he considered grabbing a hold of it, perhaps even caress it, if only to shatter the illusion they could stay only friends. Lovers or bust, a distant voice in his mind whispered. He even began doing it, his palm hovering over Duo's slightly curled knuckles, only a few inches above his goal-
And again, doubt struck back. He pulled his hand back, sighed and stared out at the blur of passing landscapes again.
Duo never noticed this little spectacle. He had indeed paid a quick visit to the land of dreams - or at least slumber. It was only the jolt of the train as it came to a halt in Leigh that shook him awake again. He made a quick check, but as Heero was still looking out the window, Duo once more closed his eyes, briefly wondering if he'd gone too far. It was only lunch, after all.
Except the overwhelming subtext he'd poured into it, not entirely unaware of doing so.
The train rolled out of Leigh, and his mind drifted in similar thoughts for a while.
Slowly, he became aware of his fingers. His left hand was sprawled over the armrest, leaning in over Heero. With the shaking of the train car, his fingernails touched the side of Heero's thigh, right above his knee, tapping a slow rhythm against it. It apparently didn't bother Heero. In fact, he didn't even seem to notice.
Then again, why should he? Duo hadn't, either - not until now. It wasn't as if they hadn't bumped into each other in similar ways before. The cramped train seats made it an occasional hazard - not that it had ever felt significant. Not until now.
He kept his eyes closed, and with a line of a smile he contemplated letting his hand slip just a bit further, letting his palm land on Heero's thigh, his fingers perhaps even sliding in between his legs - still at a safe distance down, of course, just to gauge reactions. He would have to fake sleep and not let his face give it away though, and his hand had to be as limp as he could make it. He knew he would have a hard time doing that, especially with keeping his expression a blank. Even so he almost did it, shifted his arm a tad forward-
And completely lost his nerve when he felt Heero tap his knee to his own, a bit too rough to be attributed to the motions of the train. "Duo...?"
He slowly opened his eyes, pretending to have been asleep. Heero's eyes told Duo he hadn't fooled anyone, but at least he was permitted to finish the act. "Yeah...?"
There was nothing fake about Heero's smile. "I really did appreciate lunch..." Heero glanced away. "And I'm sorry about yesterday. I didn't mean to snap at you like that, I just..." He shrugged, then sighed. "I don't know, I-"
Duo found the spectacle too cute for his own good. Heero was worried about - then, surely- "Don't worry about it," he answered, grinning. For a moment, he paused. "Perhaps I should consider getting my own cell phone, huh?"
He chuckled. "Perhaps."
Again, Duo struggled to find the right words. Seconds passed. By the time he had finally thought of something to say the PA system intervened, the garbled voice of the conductor announcing "Next stop - Stillwater."
Duo jolted upright, looked past Heero and out the window to corroborate the statement and began putting on his jacket, flashing Heero a grin laced with traces of regret. A few minutes more might have been all he'd needed, but that was not to be - at least not now. But there was always... "Well, I'd better get off - bye, Heero. See you tomorrow."
Heero nodded, watched him get up and move to the exit. "Tomorrow..." he mumbled to himself, beginning to smile.
For the remainder of his ride back to Hartford, and continuing on his final leg on the bus home, Duo's parting words kept ringing in Heero's mind. Indeed, there was always tomorrow...
But when was the specific tomorrow he sought going to be 'today'?
Silently, he vowed that day was not going to be the only day he and Duo had lunch together. Still, their places of work lay a bit distant. Their lunch hours probably didn't match perfectly either - especially as Duo's tended to fluctuate, something he had ranted about on a few homebound train trips. Something as simple as sharing a meal would undoubtedly be inconvenient, perhaps downright troublesome, if not close to impossible. Also, if Duo started showing up at the office frequently, it might even become a topic by the fourth floor watercooler. Heero didn't particularly mind that - if only the rumor he had in mind were true. It still wasn't, as much as he wanted it to be.
It didn't matter, though. It was his turn to make a move now, his turn to buy lunch. He certainly intended to go for it.
There was only one small snag to his plan, as far as his immediate concerns went. It wasn't that Duo might say no - that thought was dismissed as highly unlikely, courtesy of wishful thinking. No, the first problem was finding a proper place to eat. Somehow, he didn't imagine Duo's worksite held any private areas quite suitable for a repeat of the picnic basket - not that he wanted to duplicate Duo's clever move. Unfortunately, he didn't know of any good luncheon spots in the area, and the cafeterias in the Worthstone Building certainly weren't worth the trouble.
The solution, he decided as he stepped off the bus and walked up to his front door, would be to call Quatre for advice. He knew the young blond occasionally had business lunches in Lexington, and not just in the skyline districts. Perhaps he'd know a place to recommend - somewhere nice, but not too fancy. Somewhere they might feel comfortable visiting again later - preferably as more than friends, and just as friends if need be.
Heero unlocked the door, went in, shed his jacket and shoes and bolted the door behind him. He might have simply used the Yellow Pages and done some hunting on his own, but calling on Quatre seemed so much easier. A phone book could not rate atmosphere and tastes. Besides, he had to talk to someone about the picnic - especially about the strawberries. Would mere friends do that, given all the popular mythos surrounding the small red berries? All they'd missed was the bucket of crushed ice, a bottle of bubbly, a king-size bed and fluffy bathrobes.
As if on cue his stomach rumbled - but not out of hunger. He apparently had to make another quick stop before making that call. It appeared Duo had tempted him to things his body couldn't quite handle - and not quite in the way he'd initially expected.