The raindrops tapped out of rhythm against the window, crash-landing wherever the slight gusts of wind sent them. After impact, some shattered, others joined up and drizzled slowly down the glass. Most started out following the path other drops had made before them, but there was always a slight variation in their paths and final destinations. Now and then, the wind brought a dying leaf or two along, a few of which momentarily stuck against the window, before being carried further along on their first and final journey.
From the warm, dry safety behind the protective window of the third-story apartment, Duo studied the networks the tears of heaven made. He smiled, just slightly, sat up in the broad window ledge the concrete wall provided, and took to studying the people milling about in the rain on the street below. He brought a knee up, rested his elbow against it and placed his chin in his palm. Another jagged leaf hit the glass, lingered for a few seconds and fled on, seeking new adventures. Duo sighed. Indeed, he was a bit bored. The current safe house wasn't bad, but it was overly sterile, bereft of just about all forms of potential entertainment, and nearly devoid of furniture. Then again, given that it was Heero who had acquired it, that wasn't so surprising. Other considerations had taken priority when the master of the cornucopian hacked bank accounts of OZ leaders went house hunting. The austere third-story flat had not long ago been an office of some sort - maybe a dentistry or a small accounting firm. The landlord was in the process of refurbishing the entire building, but only the top floor was finished. The five of them had gotten a cut in the rent in return for agreeing to not complain about the continued noise from the rebuilding process below. It fit their bill for masquerading as college students in need of cheap lodging but craving space, quite well. It served the landlord too, whom had been struggling to gather the funds for the remaining work. The boys' security deposit had helped nicely.
Still, Duo knew it wasn't the cost that had made Heero rent this place, nor the fact that they each got their own room for once, and still had plenty of space to spare. It had been its location, and its accessibility.
They had brought in their Gundams on flatbed trucks a few days ago, hiding them in a close-by warehouse, also rented with Heero's hacked cash. Having a safe house nearby was preferable. Having one that was slightly elevated, giving the pilots a decent vantage point, was a bonus. The real deal-maker had been the many escape routes. Spotting danger was no good unless you could also escape it. The three-story block had enough of those; two stairwells, a cargo elevator, and no less than three collapsible fire escape ladders on the three sides leading to alleys. Six escape routes. Seven, if you counted jumping out one of the many windows.
Of course, Duo's in passing question if they could use some of the magical money on more furniture for the spartan place, or maybe even a TV or stereo set, had been shot down by one of Heero's glares, a sure sign he had completely failed to catch the irony, instead interpreting it as a legit - and thus, stupid - question. In all likelihood, they'd be gone within a week, two at most. If they were found, or if the place was discovered after their departure, the less amount of things left for OZ profilers and analysts to work with, the better. For now, they had only sparse intel on the performance of the Gundams. OZ knew next to nothing about the pilots, and this was a great advantage. Vantage point, escape routes and nearby Gundams - all good things - and maybe all in vain.
The rule of leaving no traces pretty much went for personal effects too; If you wanted to keep something, you kept it on your person at all times, or very close at hand. The meticulously packed 'escape bags' they had might not always make it with them, though they had so far. It would take only a few moments of carelessness for that to change.
"What are you doing?"
Duo turned to face the voice. Heero had snuck up on him, from across the living room - a wide open, near desolate room - without him noticing. If it had been anyone but Heero - or maybe the other pilots - Duo's ego might have taken a bruising. Still, it was Heero, and for some strange reason, he alone seemed able to slip under Duo's radar. Duo had an idea why, but wouldn't really admit it yet; barely to himself, not at all to others. He focused on the window again, shrugged. "Just watching the rain..."
Vague grunt. "If you want to be a useful lookout, the warehouse is on the other side of the building. I'm sure it's raining on that side too."
Duo rolled his eyes, funny smile back on his face. "You set up more surveillance and early warning systems than my eyes could possibly best. No thanks, I'm happy right here." Pause. "Plus, I'm not just watching the rain."
"No, I'm also watching the people out there. This is they only side facing the street, and you can't really see ground level from the other windows."
Heero sat down on the low bench below the broad concrete windowsill. "You consider this 'fun'?"
Chuckle. "Well, that depends. I could think of better ways to spend time, but my options are kinda limited right now." He shrugged. "I like the rain, though. I think I'm a 'rain' kinda person."
"Most people aren't, from what I can tell."
Another brief laugh. "Yeah, well... I'm not like 'most people', Heero. I think I'm pretty much a one of a kind guy."
"Rainfall looks so... purifying, in a way. Washes away dust, clears the air..."
Huff. "I doubt those clouds carry pure water. Acid rain, more likely."
Chuckle. "Whatever you say, Heeyore."
Perplexity. "What did you call me?"
"Huh? Oh. It's from a character in a children's book someone read to me once. You reminded me of him. Your names even cross a little."
Grunt, distant tug of a smile. "Read to? I thought you were an orphan."
Duo nodded. "I am - how did you know?"
Temporary hesitation. "I overheard you mentioning it to Quatre once."
Soft, amused snort. "I'm surprised you noticed."
Another tug at the smile, sideways towards a smirk. "I notice everything that goes on around me."
More mild laughter. "Oh, hate to burst your little bubble of happiness, but you're not all that attentive, oh prodigy of the stars."
Half-smirk. "Okay, I take it back. I do notice a lot of things, though."
"Well, good for you. The devil is in the details, they say. Always nice to know where you have him. Or her, for all I know."
Slight pause. "Who read you stories?"
Sigh. "I... That's... I don't like to talk about that."
Smirk gone. "Oh," Heero quickly remarked, not wanting Duo to explain more, if worry was the only thing to find down that path. He guided them back on the broader one. "So... You watch rain to be entertained."
"I told you, it's not just the rain itself. It's fun to watch how other people react to it. Like you said, most people don't like it. It says something about them, too. That's one of the reasons I sit here - to see how they cope, how they act out there in the rain."
Ghost of a snort. "I don't quite understand the point of that..."
Single, fast-pulsed sigh. "I didn't think you would. That's okay. Nobody does."
Duo grinned, but didn't reply.
"Explain." Not really a question, but not quite a command either. It was intonated in the vague in-betweens, making it a request. Duo decided to indulge him, though he didn't expect comprehension.
The grin widened. "Okay..."
Heero felt suddenly ill at ease, and made a slight grimace. What mad idea was he about to listen to, much less be expected to understand? Still, it was much too late for regrets.
Duo searched the street below for a suitable subject. There was a real apartment block across the street to the right. Straight across, there was a small park, barely some grass, scattered bushes and a few birch and aspen trees fenced in by a green chain-link fence, open gate facing the street. Left of the tiny green lung there was a low office building, a kiosk on the corner at ground level. It was in that doorway he found his first subject; a middle-aged man in what looked like a very expensive tailored blue suit, black leather briefcase in his right hand, newspaper tucked under his arm, ridiculous twisty hairstyle - the latest fashion craze - covering his head. He was switching between studying the dark sky and his wristwatch, evidently busy making a decision. Duo thought he could guess which. "See that guy down there?"
Heero got up to kneel on the bench, in against the windowsill, and nodded. The man sat down his briefcase, opened the newspaper down the middle and placed it over his head. Paper steadied with one hand and briefcase secured in the other, he ran into the thick drizzle.
"That guy is rich enough not to care about his suit getting soaked. No umbrella, no raincoat - he doesn't really care about the rain, it can't hurt him in any way, and he knows it - so, he mostly ignores it as a nuisance."
"He could catch a cold."
Snort. "Well, there's that..."
"If he didn't care, and couldn't be hurt, why the newspaper?"
Smirk. "Well, that's the point - he doesn't care if the rain damages his suit, or ruins his shoes. He can replace those, he probably has twenty spares of either back wherever his fancy home is. It's his hair - that ridiculous fanciful detail - that's what he's protecting. He can't so easily fix that styled swoosh of his on his own, and he looks like a busy fellow."
Smirk, tad more sinister. "Figures you would be the one to think others care so much about their hair."
Duo made a swing at him, not a real one, more like a fake, relaxed slap. It never hit, of course. "Watch it, birds-nest-for-hair." Down on the street, the stressed man stepped right in a big puddle, making for significantly soggy socks. Duo snickered. The man barely paused to register the fact, and ran on. "Definitely in a hurry, that one. Anyway, he's one of the people who don't like rain, obviously - but he doesn't think of it as more than a nuisance. It can't hurt him. It might mess up his hair, but that's the only thing that really irritates him about it."
"The newspaper won't do him much good for long, in this weather."
Duo shrugged. "All the more reason for him to run, then."
Heero sighed. "I fail to see your point, though. All you've done, is judge the man because of his appearance."
Duo resisted the urge to chew on his lip. "Appearances can be very important, Heero..."
There was the slightest of pauses, and Heero was about to comment that last remark, when Duo cut him off by continuing.
"Anyway, let's find another victim." No sooner had he said the word, did a perambulator roll out from under the shedding branches of the park trees. A young woman came behind the baby carriage, and directly after her, a lively child, no older than five, tops, heavily shielded from the weather with boots, coat and sou'wester. The child's yellow, all-covering rain gear made it a guessing game as to whether it was a boy or a girl. It didn't really matter, as this child reacted to rain as most children do - with unadulterated glee. The kid spotted a big, muddy puddle ahead, ran for it and jumped in with both feet, repeatedly, splashing water all around, before targeting the next pond of muddy water, staying just a little ahead of the perambulator.
Duo smiled. He could practically hear the kid's laughter, as well as the sighs of the mother. She was also dressed for the weather, though not quite so extensive. The stroller had a transparent plastic cover. "Okay, those three..."
"What about them? They seem to cope just fine with the rain. They're dressed for it, so it doesn't really affect them."
"Right - but in different ways. The baby couldn't care less - it's safe and sound under the cover. To it, the rain is an amusing slide show at worst - entertainment, like everything else in the world. The kid loves the rain, see how he or she uses it almost like a playmate or plaything?"
"And then there's the mom. She's well-dressed too, and more worried about her out-of-control kid than the weather. She looks like a really caring parent."
"Don't all parents care for their kids?"
Duo bit his lip. "No, not all parents..." Quick sigh. "Anyway, the family doesn't really care about the rain. It's good for a laugh or a smile to the young ones, maybe, but not really anything more. The mom seems ambivalent, at best."
The family reached the kiosk, and the toddler was quick to drag poor mom inside, stroller and all. The lure of candy is a strong force for most wee ones - this kid was not an exception.
From the right, a young woman appeared, leashed dog in one hand, umbrella in the other. The edge of the umbrella obscured most of her face, but her jaw and mouth were visible, moving. If both her hands hadn't been occupied, Duo would have guessed she was on a cell phone. A pink bubble appeared on her lips, growing rapidly before exploding and being redevoured. Chewing gum, non-sticky kind, he deducted. Strawberry flavored, perhaps?
While the late teens girl seemed mostly bored, there was a faint anger in her step. Maybe she had been ushered out in the bad weather to walk the family dog by her parents, evidently not too happy about experiencing the flip side of animal ownership; their needs could not be ignored any more than those of a child.
Though the young lady might not approve of the weather, the little dog, what looked like a terrier of some sort, didn't seem to care, walking randomly before his mistress, only resting its short, busy legs when it paused to sniff at places of potential interest, or leave a quick scent mark of its own.
"Look at those two," Duo said. "That girl doesn't like the rain. It only makes her more gloomy."
"Seems to me it's the dog that upsets her, not the bad weather. She wouldn't be out now if it wasn't for the dog."
Chuckle. "Maybe - but that dog will need to be washed and dried when they get back home. If it hadn't been raining, she could probably have gotten away with just cleaning the paws, and throwing away any doggie bags used during the walk."
Slight smirk, soft snort.
"The dog, of course, doesn't really care what the weather is like. It has its own furry rain coat, and besides, the rain shower probably brings new smells for it to study, or alters or dilutes old ones to make them intriguing again."
The dog quit sniffing, walked over to the park fence, and squatted. They could almost hear the girl groaning. They looked away, letting the dog tend to its natural needs in peace. Coincidentally, it brought their eyes to level.
Heero faked a cough, glanced away into the open room. "So, to sum it up, most people either don't care about the rain, or want to avoid it - but kids and animals accept it, and even enjoy the company of it?"
Duo made an amused smile. "Sounds about right." Pause. "Me, I'm like that kid. I like the rain. If this wasn't such a public place, I might have dressed up and gone jumping puddles as well. Just watching the drizzle from in here is nice too, though."
Singular grunt reply.
"Say, How do you feel about rain, Heero?"
Shrug. "I have no real opinion on the matter. Rain is only relevant if it influences operations."
Dim groan. "Come on - you're saying you don't have any personal weather preference? Sunshine, cloudy, blizzard, fog, drizzle, hail, snow - none of those?"
Another shrug. "Haven't really thought about it, other than for mission parameters. There wasn't much weather to speak of on the colonies, and I haven't had time to consider such things down here yet."
Faint sigh, vague smile. "Guess I should have known..." Duo looked out the window again. Dog and mistress had vanished into the park. The street was empty again, except for someone wearing a dark green raincoat, hands in pockets, head down and hood up, covering all but the conglomeration of light brown bits sticking out from under it. Duo grinned. "Hey, looks like Trowa's back."
Heero looked out as if to get verification. "So he is..." He glanced at Duo. "What about him? What's his relationship with rain?"
Chuckle. "Well, I'd say he accepts it, and takes advantage of it. Rain goes a long way of emptying the streets and providing people like us with cover, you know - nobody reacts if you if you use clothing to cover yourself up in this weather. Even if there are fewer people to hide among, the weather makes most of the people out searching for us less motivated to work, too. Ozzies aren't all that persistent, when their pay checks are delayed." Quick sideways glance, smirk. "Nice touch, by the way."
Restrained snicker. "It was easy enough to delay the cash transfer. Still, some of them might be willing to work in this weather - especially if they're like you."
Momentary perplexity. "Huh?"
"Oh. Yeah, I guess so..."
They fell quiet for a bit, listening to the taps of water droplets hitting the window and the ragged breath of the wind. They couldn't see Trowa anymore. He was in all likelihood already in one of the stairwells. None of them liked the cargo elevator. If it broke down, things could get complicated - repairmen, maybe police officers, upset landlord - best to just avoid things like that. Plus, the little extra exercise could do them no real harm.
"Think Trowa has news for us?"
"Probably." Heero got up on his feet, gave each leg a swift shake to prevent them from going numb, followed that up by stretching his arms and loosening his neck muscles a little. "I doubt he'd come back empty-handed."
Duo got down from the broad ledge, and sat down on the bench below it. They heard Trowa in the entrance hall and waited for him to get out of the boots and raincoat. It didn't take long. Duo rushed to cover up a smirk as he noticed how soaked the tip of Trowa's peculiar unibang was. He opted not to share the brief mental image he got of Trowa wringing his unibang dry.
"Report," Heero requested.
Trowa looked briefly around. "Quatre back yet? Or Wufei?"
Heero shook his head. "Negative. They're both still over at the warehouse. Sandrock's thrusters needed realignment, and Wufei wanted to refuel the flamethrower of his suit. They went back after lunch, so they should be done soon."
Trowa nodded, accepting the information. "There isn't all that much to tell. OZ is still searching the outlaying areas, focusing on the nearby, less trafficked places. No indication of them expanding their search to this city any time soon."
Duo grinned, got up to his feet and stretched, mimicking Heero's earlier routine. "Looks like hiding here was a really smart thing to do, then."
Trowa nodded. "Looks like."
Heero took a few steps towards the kitchen. "I'll make dinner."
Duo paused from his exercise and looked at him, surprised. "I thought it was my turn to cook."
Stop, smirk over shoulder. "It is. I just want to be able to digest the meal too. You can do the dishes, if-"
In pure indignation, Duo crossed his arms and frowned. "Hey, my cooking isn't that bad."
With nary a smile, Trowa combed his fingers through his wet bang, trying to steer it clear of his line of sight. "Duo, I think your taste buds are... a little too tolerant." Shrug. "Or dead," he quickly added, taking a step back, just in case.
Low growl, feint swing. "Great. First you tell me I can't cook, and now you say I have no taste."
Trowa chuckled. Heero grunted once, and resumed walking. The other two watched him disappear into the kitchen, and not before was he out of sight, Trowa leant in to Duo and whispered "I don't think any of us can really cook, Duo. We improvise and learn. Between us, I think your mystery soups and casserole surprises taste just as good as anything the rest of us can make." Shrug. "But that doesn't really say anything positive, does it?"
Frown, voice all a grumble. "Great, compare my stew to Quatre's attempts at scrambled eggs, why don't you? Not to speak down about them, but my cooking has got to be better than his!"
Mild snickering. "Well, he probably had servants prepare most of his meals in the past. Give him time. Give us all time."
Frown to smirk. "I remember you eating his charcoaled eggs, and stating they tasted delicious."
A bit bothered, Trowa took a step back, put on a mask of near-indifference, and shrugged. "He needed a little bit of encouragement, that's all. Heero and Wufei were - even if correct - really blunt about it."
Trowa hovered for a minute, as if expecting another comment. Getting none, he walked away, down the hallway to the bedrooms. Indeed, there was something on Duo's mind. He'd noticed how Trowa had pointedly asked for Quatre's whereabouts first, and added Wufei almost as an afterthought. Trowa was always looking out for Quatre's well-being, so much so that Duo wondered if there was something more there. He hesitated in inquiring, though. He did not want to be wrong, for so many reasons, and he was only having these thoughts in the first place because- He sighed, mentally shook his head, and returned to the window to continue observing the rain and people outside.
The weather remained dark into the following day. Quatre left the safe house apartment early. He was getting in touch with Rashid about a few spare parts for Sandrock, not trusting his own ad-hoc repairs and adjustments over replacement parts. 'Better safe than sorry,' he had said before leaving. Trowa decided to accompany him - 'to get a new status report', he explained, but Duo thought he knew better.
Wufei had gone to the store for groceries. It was his turn to prepare dinner, and apparently he had found a new recipe he wanted to try - not that anyone expected the result to be especially appetizing. Still, they were always willing to try each others cooking... once they got hungry enough.
Duo had gone down to the warehouse to check on Deathscythe, leaving Heero alone in the apartment. He didn't mind the solitude. The first hour went by typing up status reports for Doctor J, as well as evaluating a potential target for his next mission. With the living room free, he spread the maps over the designated area out on the spacious open floor, and spent a good hour taking in every small landmark, making mental notes of all terrain features that could severely influence the mission. Satisfied, he rolled the maps up again, and discarded them in a metal bucket, before fetching a lighter and burning them to ashes. He'd take the ashes to the basement incinerator later, to get rid of that minor problem of evidence as well.
He decided to look around in the apartment a little; inspect the place. If they had to leave in a hurry, it'd be preferable to leave as few clues as possible to OZ investigators. He didn't have much to worry about, as the other pilots knew this just as well as he did. However, as he walked down the corridor to the bedrooms, he noticed a large, white paper taped to Duo's door, stating 'Keep out!' in big, bold black letters. A dismissive grunt later, he had torn the note down. This was the kind of imperfection he did not want to see - something not quite sterile. It wasn't all that big of a deal, but if this was a sign of how Duo kept his things in order... He had ignored checking the rooms of the others, assuming they kept things quite austere, ready for flight. Did Duo? With that as an excuse, he decided to take a quick look-see in Duo's room.
He would never admit he was simply curious as to what Duo had to hide behind that note.
Duo's room was as bland as the others; a bed, a dresser, a wooden chair and a small desk. When they had moved in and noticed the type of second-hand furniture already present, they had presumed the landlord intended to rent the place out as a board house for students, using the old furniture as a further incentive to get tenants. It fit the pilots nicely. Pretending to be students was as good a cover as any other.
The bed was dishevelled and the dresser shelves were all out, but those things he had almost expected. What caught his eye was the messy desk. At the center was an open book of some sort, with cut-away strips of what he first thought were paper laying strewn about it. A pair of scissors, two rolls of tape and some assorted pencils lay amidst the scraps.
A step closer. Heero noticed the Polaroid camera resting above the book. Another step. The scraps weren't paper, they were chopped-off bits of Polaroids. Step three. The book was a scrap book of some kind; he could see pictures taped in it, attached with the double-sided tape. Closer. He frowned. The pictures were of the pilots; all of them, though it didn't appear anyone knew they were having their pictures taken. Heero certainly hadn't been aware of it - a fact that bothered him quite a bit.
The first he saw was an image of Quatre by an old stove, triumphantly displaying a frying pan containing a soggy mass going from yellow to green to black. Heero gave a lopsided smirk when he read the caption above; 'Scrambled eggs, mortician style'. Yes, he remembered those eggs. He'd stopped after two bites, and had only taken the second after Trowa kicked him forcefully in the shin for his completely honest comment after the first bite. How Trowa had been able to digest his entire helping was a damn mystery. Or miracle.
On the left of that, there was a picture of Wufei practicing with his katana, no caption given yet. On Quatre's right, one of Trowa, looking to somewhere outside the cut-away white Polaroid frame, a slight sparkle in his eye, and a faint smile on his face. In tiny golden letters below, as if whispered, a text said simply 'I see you...'. Heero wasn't quite sure what to make of that.
Intrigued - or, if you will, nosy, Heero shifted to the next page. And the next. And the next, and kept going. Ever more pictures, some with captions, nearly all featuring at least one of the pilots as the obvious motif. There was nothing about the Gundams, nothing that suggested any of them were anything but ordinary teens, living in dorms away from their parents. Not even their names were written anywhere. He flipped another page, and found an image of himself in dead center, under the caption 'In your dreams...'.
His image-self was straddling a chair, leaning on the back of it with folded arms, looking somewhere to the left. And he was smiling. Not a smirk, not a grin, but a truly genuine, warm smile. With no more than that to go on, he could even remember when it had to have been taken. He frowned, closed the photo album with a thump, turned his back to the desk and leant back against it, clutching its edge.
Did he really smile so little that he could remember each time? Did he afford himself that little true happiness? Frustrated, he left Duo's room, and began pacing the apartment to calm down from his slight agitation. And what had Duo meant by that line, anyway? Did Duo think it impossible for him to smile like that? Did Duo want him to smile more often, relax more?
Heero sighed. Maybe he'd ask. No, he'd definitely ask. Even if there was nothing alarming in the album itself, it did contain pictures of all of them, and if it was found at a place that could tie it to the pilots - such as an abandoned safe house - it'd give OZ an unnecessary and quite complete photo record for their 'wanted' posters. They would also get someone to analyze each image and word to hell and back again, trying to figure out who the pilots were; what made them tick. Then there was the fact he hadn't ruffled through the entire thing. Maybe Duo had slipped up somewhere, and left a fatal clue. Maybe-
The main door slammed. Heero faced the entrance hallway, put on the best stoneface he could muster - slightly frowning, nevertheless - straightened up and placed his hands behind his back, right palm around left wrist, prepared to execute a mild inquisition - normal, not Spanish. Duo should see this one coming a mile away.
And he did, after two steps inside the spacious living room, taking note of Heero's posture, immediately aware. He froze. Heero didn't speak, merely frowned a little more, touch of glare in his eyes. Duo sighed. "Okay, what now? What have I done to piss you off? You didn't use the shampoo in the green bottle or-"
Impatience with irrelevance, slightly snappy voice. "I didn't touch any shampoo bottle."
"Oh. Never mind, then. Just - well, don't. It's for Trowa. A surprise." He grinned, but hid it quickly enough. Seconds of silence followed.
"I was in your room today," Heero flatly stated.
Duo's eyes widened just a tad, before anger took over. "What?! Didn't you see the damn note?! I-"
Undeterred. "I saw the photo album, Duo, and-"
Fuming. "What gives you the right to go through my stuff? That was-"
"You have a photo record of all of us. That can become a considerable liability."
Heero kept his voice calm through their rapid exchange of interruptions, but Duo was anything but calm now. He took a few quick breaths, tried to relax. He pinched the bridge of his nose, at last succeeding in returning to a civil tone of voice. "Look, Heero - that album was personal, okay? There was a damn reason I stuck that note on the door. If you didn't like what you saw, too bad. You weren't supposed to see it, ever." Almost as an afterthought he added "You went through all of it with a fine tooth comb, didn't you?"
Heero shook his head. "Not really. I only flipped through from where it was open - right up to the picture of me on the chair - the 'in your dreams' caption?"
Duo blinked twice, and looked away, voice suddenly going meek. "Oh..."
Heero didn't quite know what to make of it, and remained quiet.
"What did you think? Are you angry? Like I said, you weren't meant to find out - at least not like that."
Perplexity. "Find what out?"
Duo lifted his chin, blinked a few times at him. "What do you mean, what?"
Heero sighed, threw his arms up in frustration. "I haven't got a clue what you're talking about, Duo. What the heck do you mean, what do I mean?"
Quick mental headshake to avoid getting dragged further into the downwards spiral of meanings. "Didn't you look at the other page?"
Arms down, crossed. "What page?"
"The one to the left of the chair picture of you - if you had it open down the middle and not folded over, there was a page with-" Duo stopped himself, turned around. "Never mind."
Pause. "Duo, is something wrong?"
Heero let go a ghost of a sigh. "Look, if I offended you by intruding on your privacy, I apologize - but that doesn't change the fact that-"
Duo spun around to face him again and cut him off, eyes hard. "You're right. It doesn't change a damn thing." Odd grin, sigh. "You were probably going to find out sooner or later, anyway... Just - Just go back and look at the album again, okay? Then we'll talk. Or fight, or whatever." Another sigh. "I need something to drink, something strong."
Duo was halfway to the kitchen before Heero called out "We don't have any liquor."
"I didn't mean booze," came the reply - and Duo was out of sight.
Heero hesitated a bit, not sure what to do. Still, Duo had asked him to look in the album again. Had he missed something? Something that was as compromising as he feared? He walked back to Duo's room with firm steps, determined to find out. At least this time, Duo couldn't scream 'privacy' in his face.
The album was right where he had left it, but some of the clippings had been blown to the floor from his earlier rash action. He hoped he hadn't damaged the album, even if there was a good chance they would have to destroy it soon anyway. It obviously meant something to Duo, and should thus be treated with at least a shred of respect.
He opened the album at page one, and meticulously studied his way through. All he saw was more of the same, the pilots in various situations - but none of them war-related, other than perhaps the few featuring Wufei's katana, or any random two of them facing each other in hand-to-hand combat training, neither of which appeared more threatening than someone owning a mock sword or guys preparing to play-wrestle. The brief captions were mostly trivia, or quip remarks to the depicted situations. More than one picture brought a smirk to Heero's face, as much as he tried to resist them.
He still wasn't sure what Duo had been talking about by the time he reached the serene image of himself again. Indeed it was on the right side, and Heero hadn't even noticed the other page his image-self was looking over at. Now he did.
Smirk gone, surprise replacing it. Throughout the album there had only been a very few pictures of Duo, mostly what looked like staged shots with the camera timer on. On this page however, was one Duo had taken of himself without the timer, evident by the dark spot in the top right corner, where a finger had covered part of the lens at the moment the picture was taken.
Duo's head was tilted down, and he was wearing a black baseball cap which obscured most of his face, other than the sullen smile. The background was dark, and obscure streaks suggested the picture had been taken outside, in heavy rainfall. Both Duo's cap and what could be seen of his jacket, also black, appeared soaked. Briefly, Heero tried to remember if Duo had ever come back to any of the safe houses in such a state, but failed to. The caption read, quite simply, 'Rain'.
His eyes slid over on the image of himself, and it was easy enough to see where his picture-self was made to look. In your dreams... What did it mean, then? Did Duo want him to notice him for some reason? Did Duo want his friendship? Or did Duo want...
Heero glanced at the door. He could hear noises from the kitchen; the knobs of the stove twisting, the clinking of glasses, liquid being poured. He looked back at the album. Upon closer inspection, there were a few other words scattered about both pictures, purposefully made very hard to spot, compared to the golden marker pen captions. Some were nearly impossible to make out. Duo's handwriting wasn't the most legible thing to begin with, and it looked like his hand had been trembling somewhat when these tiny words were written. The words 'outcast', 'hated', and 'stranger' were at the fringes around Duo's picture, 'mountain', 'hope' and 'wish' encircled his own. A faint 'alone' was written across the split of the book, two first letters on Duo's side, two latter on Heero's, the 'o' left in half-circles on either side - and there was something else a little above that.
There was a barely perceptible doodle along the split between the pages. He pressed the pages further apart. With a thin, blue pen, a shape had been drawn, an inverted tear shape, slanted, running upwards, as if it had been intended to be something else. The flattened side was almost at the split, and-
Heero recognized the shape. It wasn't an inverted drop, it was half a heart. He let go of the album, turned to stare out the window. Duo wanted more than friendship, then? Was that the implication? Duo was - Duo wanted... him? He blinked. And blushed again, not quite getting it, and a far way from completely understanding. Still, he knew enough. He got up and went searching for Duo, nearly on automatic.
He found him in the spacious living room, sitting in the window ledge as the day before, once more focusing on the lasting rain - only this time, he cradled a big mug in his hands, and he wasn't smiling at all. Heero took a few steps closer, deliberately not being his usual fleet-of-foot. He wanted Duo to know he was there, not sneak up on him. A few feet away from the low bench below the window, he stopped, waiting for Duo to acknowledge him.
Duo took another sip of his beverage before slowly facing him, carefully steadying the mug with both hands. "Hey."
Nod, nothing more. A quick glance at the mug.
Faint smile. "It's cocoa. There's probably enough left in the kettle for another mug, if you want some."
Heero shook his head. "No thanks."
"Suit yourself." Duo shrugged, took another slight swig. "There's nothing like a big cup of hot cocoa when it's cold and raining. Warms you up nicely on the inside. Feels really good." Pause. "Sure you don't want some?"
Again, a negative headshake, dim smirk accompanying it.
Duo returned to studying the rain. Another birch leaf hit the glass, lingered for but a second, and flew on. "Did you have another look at the album?"
Duo waited for Heero to continue, but no words came. He grew impatient. "Well?"
"Don't you have a question to ask me?"
Sigh. "I dunno - the question, for starters? 'Duo, are you gay?' or 'Duo, do you have the hots for me?' or 'How long have you been playing candid camera?' - any of those, and any of a hundred more - in various levels of politeness and temper."
Full smirk, half a chuckle. "I think you just answered your own questions, simply by asking them."
Duo shot him an icy glare, and returned to drop-gazing. "You can be such a bastard sometimes..." Another sip. "Well, if you want to scream at me, hit me, just be generally pissed at me, pretend you never saw it - whatever... Just get it over with. If you decide to hate me now that you know, that's okay. It was only my little fantasy anyway. Just... Never mind."
A gust blew another rapid pitter-patter of droplets against the window. Heero came to a decision. He tried to relax, placed one knee on the edge of the bench. "Duo..." he started. No reaction. He reached out his hand, carefully cupped Duo's cheek, and with very limited resistance, he turned Duo's head so they faced each other again. Heero finally managed to mellow his smirk into a smile - a genuine smile. "Duo... I think - I think I like rain, too." He struggled not to smirk as he noticed Duo's eyes momentarily widen in surprise. Yes, he had apparently understood just fine. They both had.
"A-Are you sure? How do you know?"
Heero softly moved his thumb, leant in a bit closer, placed his right hand against the wall for support, a bit closer still - and crossed the final distance, delivering a kiss to Duo.
Said boy needed only a moment to compensate, and kissed back, mug balanced precariously in his right hand, if shaking a little, left hand seeking out the back of Heero's neck, not so much to pull him closer, if that had even been possible, but to keep him there, prevent him from backing away from the path he had chosen.
In the end, it was Duo who relented, for no other reason than to catch his breath, coughing twice, as some of the remnants of the cocoa evidently found its way down his windpipe. He looked up at Heero again, just in time to see him lick his lips for the mixed taste of chocolate and Duo. "Now I know."
And that smile - smile, not smirk, not grin, not smugness personified - Duo put his mug down, close to breathless. "Please... please tell me this isn't some freakish dream," he said, sliding down from the windowsill to the bench, beside the still kneeling Heero. Duo looked him straight in the eye, his own a little hazed. "But if it is a dream, let it be a wet one."
Heero laughed, a soft, mellow laughter, not a snicker in mocking, and turned to sit down next to Duo. "Well - it's not a dream, Duo - and I don't think either of us are anywhere near ready for 'wet' just yet." Tentatively, he searched out Duo's hand, wrapped his own around it, caressed the back of Duo's with his thumb. Looking away, smile growing slightly lecherous, he stuttered out "I - I'm not adverse to acting on that idea eventually, though..." Heero could feel his cheeks warming up. He didn't dare look what Duo's reaction was. He could barely think, with all the new thoughts stirred to life crowding his brain, all because of some pictures, all because of a smile - and the myriad of random thoughts spawned an impulsive one, one he wanted to follow through with immediately. "Please, wait right here," he pleaded Duo, and ran across the room and down the bedroom corridor.
Still in a state of mild, delighted surprise, if not outright shock, Duo finally managed to produce a grin. It was just too good to be true, too good for- He shook his head, not wanting to board that train of thought. Instead, he looked out the window again. It was still raining, and the wind still howled, if a bit less. An aspen leaf hit the window, lingered... and lingered... and lingered. For a moment, it look like it had stuck, but the wind caught a bit of it, causing it to flutter against the glass. Right before the wind could tear it away, another aspen leaf hit the shaking side of the first one, the two overlapping reddened leaves remaining plastered against the window, despite the wind doing its best to force them apart. The best the forces of nature could do, was move their stems, shaking them, occasionally crossing them.
Duo was idly wondering how long the leaves could last when Heero returned, left hand behind his back, the smile on his face just a teeny bit impish. That was a first, as far as Duo could remember. Whether that was good or bad, he didn't know. Other firsts today involving Heero had turned out rather pleasant, though. "Why are you smiling like that?"
Heero shrugged. "Because I feel like it, I guess..."
Duo shot a glance at Heero's left elbow. "And what's that? If you're having second thoughts already, and that is your gun, or something-"
Chuckle, free right arm extended, palm open.
Duo could barely believe the sound of Heero's unusually relaxed laughter - yet he was happy to hear it. He took the offered hand, and got pulled up from the bench. He felt the same hand lead the rest of Heero's arm on a trek around his waist, slowly pulling him closer. Duo vaguely - and not entirely without reason - felt like a fly caught in a spider's web - but by then, it was too late. Heero's lips were suddenly on his cheek, and he barely had time to form the universal 'o' of surprise with his own before the lips were gone again and the item in Heero's left hand; the Polaroid camera, went off. Beyond that, there was only good-hearted laughter.
Later that evening they made a new page in the album together; one picture only - that picture. In the center of it, Duo was looking more than a bit lost. To the right, a softly smiling Heero, and a portion of his thumb covering the lens. Behind to the left was the window, dark clouds and rain outside, as well as two reddened aspen leaves clinging to the glass. The white frame had not been cut away, but the picture had cut Heero as it left the camera, thin, reddish smear of dried blood from the cut trailing the far right side - and in an arc above, the caption read in clear, thin, golden marker letters; 'Rain - and Sunshine'.