On Track And Off Again
Lexington Southern had wizened up by the end of the day. The line was not cleared yet, but at least the company had arranged for more buses - and moreover, they had worked on the organization of them. This meant the departures from Lexington Grand Central were fairly regular, to the relief of weary travelers.
On the other hand, for two of the commuters this sudden industriousness caused mild frustrations. The buses were on fixed routes now - some went directly to Wilkinshire, others directly to New Edwards, some straight to Hartford, and the rest either to Leigh or to Vernon Falls, the latter making an extra swing to Blue Ridge and Stillwater afterwards. Thus, Heero and Duo enjoyed separate buses on the way back - or rather, they didn't.
Still, it had been a good day for them both. Even small trifles encountered at work didn't bother them anymore; they had each other's names now. Granted, that was far from what both wanted - but it was a beginning. Daydreams took over most thoughts for the separate bus rides home, and the same subtly followed them into the night.
Getting up in the morning is a pain for most of us, especially if it disagrees with your daily rhythm. Being ushered from the comfortable nest that is your bed and into a semi-awake condition by the shrill beeps of an alarm clock is not the best way to start a day - but it is a common one.
On Tuesday morning the track had still not been cleared for traffic, and Lexington Southern chose to set up buses going directly from the various stations to Lexington for the morning commute. They hired cabs for other transfers.
Tuesday was starting to act like a Monday.
Therefore, it was with much relief Heero noted the train had been set up at the usual platform come that afternoon. At least the homeward bound stretch would be fairly comfortable. There was much to be said for normality, as any creature of habit would know - Heero included.
With some expectations, he sat down in one of the four-seater groups, next to the window. He waited, and as luck would have it, not in vain. Through the window he saw a familiar face come up from the stairway to the passages below the platforms. He caught himself just before he tapped the window to let Duo know where he sat. Again, good fortune made Duo head for the nearest entrance, as well as make the left turn that sent him down Heero's way.
Duo finally saw him, gave Heero a smile and a nod. Heero returned the gesture. "That seat taken?" Duo asked, pointing to the window seat across from Heero. Heero shook his head, his own smile bordering on a smirk. "Great," Duo exclaimed. He sat down a bit too fast, almost bouncing up again, and put his bag on the aisle seat.
At that point, the rest of the train as well as the passengers seemed to fade away - at least in Heero's experience. Fortunately, with his carry bag occupying the seat next to him, nobody shook him from this peculiar rapture by asking him for its state of vacancy.
They didn't speak, not at first. All there was, were looks. Some out the window, some at other people boarding, many at each other - but not even in those were anything significant said; nothing more than what they were signs of. Interest. Attention. Expectation.
For a while, at least. "So... who are you going home to?"
Heero had been glancing out the window again, taking in the rapidly passing landscape, and was somewhat startled at the question. He tried his best not to show it and slowly turned to face Duo, giving a slight sigh. "No one... I live alone."
"Oh." Duo had a hard time not grinning. He'd expected as much, but would rather not hear 'my wife', 'my girlfriend' or even 'my mother' from Heero's lips. Or 'my son/daughter'. Better to be safe. He had enough kids to cope with at Saint William's. The most bitter to hear would have been 'my boyfriend', though.
"You?" Heero finally asked, lifting his gaze to strike Duo directly with soft blue.
Duo sat back in his seat, still grinning sheepishly, unsure of what other face to put up - and just as unsure of how to answer. "My family," he finally replied.
Heero's face fell just a bit at that. "Oh..."
Duo chuckled, almost glad to see that mild disappointment - because not only did it mean there was interest in his living arrangements, but also that he got a chance to cheer the handsome guy up again. "I still live at home," he added. "It's a lot cheaper than getting a place of my own in the city."
Heero brightened up at that. He'd been worried for a second - still, his answer felt pathetic compared to Duo's. It had been that of a loner. Then again, he was hoping Duo might help him improve that part, given time. He smirked to himself, but did his best not to show Duo. He'd let Duo know of the plans eventually - preferably right after he was sure Duo's answer would be 'yes', or variants thereof, expletives and gestures optional.
That was but a distant dream, though. Even getting this talk going was tricky enough.
Talk - right, it was his turn to say something again. He blinked, not sure how many seconds had passed in silence, even less sure of what to say next. He had to say something, anything - especially since Duo was about to look out the window again. "Uhm... Nice weather today." Mentally, Heero kicked himself. To the observant eyes, gnashing of teeth within closed lips could be inferred.
Still, it was enough. Duo started laughing. He knew an idle line when he heard one - perhaps it was better than a cheesy pick-up line. "Yeah, I suppose..." It still left his imagination showing Heero serve any number of bad pick-up lines, though. Some lay it on thick with flattery, and didn't seem to suit Heero one bit. Some made Duo want to jump him right there.
None were really spoken outside of Duo's head, though. Perhaps he'd clue Heero in on them at some point.
The rest of the train ride went by in pretty much the same way. One of them served a random casual remark, the other answered - but no conversation was ever truly started. Neither of them dared open up, much less ask the other out for as much as a cup of coffee.
Yet, simply spending that hour on the train together was good enough for a start. As the train reached Stillwater, Duo got up, got his bag and waved Heero goodbye, getting a similar gesture in return.
Duo didn't fail to notice Heero watching him from the window. Heero knew it, but didn't care. It was okay now. If Duo had a problem with it, he could just tell him. At least it would give him another chance to talk - and should he feel desperate enough, perhaps even a chance confess his interest - ask Duo how he felt about coffee, perhaps.
That was not to be today, though. As Duo mounted his bike, the train started moving again, ushering Heero home to Fluffy the Fourth.
The cacti got on another drinking binge that night.
Wednesday wasn't quite as good. Albeit the trains were back on track, Heero managed to miss Duo on the commute in - or vice versa. Heero had scouted for the wayward bicyclist, saw how he made it aboard - but in another car, much further back. He waited impatiently, kept looking over his shoulder expectantly - but to no avail. The train was pretty much packed. As they reached Blue Ridge station, Heero sighed. Duo had probably figured the same, and gone for a nearby seat.
Reluctantly, Heero gave up the seat he'd been saving to an elderly lady upon her archaically polite request.
Duo rushed out of the train once they reached Lexington. Sure, he'd wanted to look for Heero - but he hesitated. He did not want to come on to the guy too strongly, just in case Heero was only looking for friendship, and nothing more. Duo hoped - no, knew there had to be more. If only he could make himself fully believe that.
There was also the case of three bicycles blocking the aisle. With no real freight car, three hapless tourists had dragged their bikes aboard - and with no good place to put them, they'd left them blocking one of the entrances and parts of the adjoining aisles. Duo decided to let the conductors fight them rather than start an argument of his own. It was obvious enough Heero had to be beyond that hurdle, but Duo did not want to make a fool of himself in front of the whole trainload of passengers - much less Heero.
Instead he had found a vacant seat and commenced brooding, counting the minutes until they reached Lexington. It brought some minor glee to overhear the bickering between bicyclists and conductors.
Unfortunately, his master plan of finding Heero on the platform and casually strike up a conversation fell short of one crucial element.
Heero wasn't there.
A bit disgruntled at not having gotten a chance to talk to Duo again, Heero decided to go up through the main hall of the train station and perhaps catch a few newspaper headlines on the way. It wasn't that he was avoiding Duo - he just had a feeling seeing him now would leave a tad of resentment in his words as he pretty much felt he'd been stood up, no matter how false that feeling was.
He smiled weakly to himself, shook his head. They'd only just met, and still he was irked by such a small trifle.
For the entire day at the office, he regretted skipping the chance of seeking out Duo on the platform.
Duo was grumpy. He'd waited for ten minutes at the platform, trying not to look too conspicuous as he scanned the crowd for one particular individual. As it were, the missing person was nowhere to be found in the passing crowd. Not easily, at least. By the time Duo had given up, he had already missed the first subway train going up the Green line, and he had to wait for the next.
Howard was not impressed with him being late - but not overly surprised either. Duo had made up for it by staying fifteen minutes extra.
And now he was paying for that, rushing to catch the homeward bound train on time.
All that meant nothing when he finally boarded, though. He grinned once he found Heero in the same four seater as the day before, very glad to see the other one smile at his arrival too. Duo nodded to the two seats opposite of Heero. Heero gave a curt nod of his own, and Duo sat down. "Thanks."
That was all. They didn't say anything else for a good while, not with words. It was all unsure smiles and quick looks while a few more stragglers boarded and got seated. Nobody asked for the seats next to Heero and Duo. That was just as well; they might not have registered the question.
It remained that way until they've passed Leigh. By then, both had begun looking elsewhere, a bit bothered by their own indecisiveness, and a tad annoyed the other wouldn't take the burden of starting a conversation. Then again, what could you say to someone you didn't even know? Someone you wanted to talk to, but without a clue as to where to begin?
Heero finally caved after Duo had spent three full minutes looking out the window, to all appearances bored. "Uhm... What are you looking at?"
Minor jolt. "Huh?"
Heero made a nervous half-smile. "I said, what are you looking at?"
Duo shrugged, glanced out at the passing landscape again. "Nothing, really... I just noticed that they've begun the harvest."
Heero raised a brow.
Duo chuckled. Heero's expression simply looked too funny. "Hey, I grew up in a rural area - heck, I still live there. I notice these things, that's all. See out there?" He nodded at the nearest field. "That's the third combine harvester we've passed so far."
Heero looked, noted the combine in the distance.
"It's a really old model too. It doesn't even have an enclosed driver's compartment - see?"
Heero nodded. He had seen. He just didn't think it a worthwhile topic for conversation. Still, it beat the deafening silence. "It doesn't look safe... What if the combine tilts over?"
Duo grinned. "Then you've got one squashed farmer. Wouldn't worry about it, though. The area around here is pretty flat - and those old things weren't made to climb hills."
Heero's brows closed in on each other. "There's more than one type of combine?"
Duo was mildly surprised Heero didn't know even that much. "Yeah, sure there is. I mean, you wouldn't use a wheat combine to harvest corn. And there are lots of types of combines - some are good in steep terrain, others can only be used on big flats. The really big combines have really wide cutter bars and high capacity, but they'd be hell to maneuver in hilly or rocky areas." Quick glance out the window, eyes widening a tad. "Heero, look at that one!"
Heero did. It was- "Another combine."
Duo nodded eagerly. "Yeah - biggest damn thing I've ever seen. Just look at-" Duo stopped himself, noting Heero did not seem to share his appreciation for large farming machinery. He sighed, leaned back in his seat. "Sorry... Guess this isn't your thing, huh? I probably sound like a real hick, and-"
"No!" Heero cut in, a bit too loud. He moderated himself. "No, you don't. You sound... enthusiastic, that's all. I'm afraid I'm not up to speed on the details of agriculture."
Duo snorted. "I bet you haven't even seen cattle or hogs or sheep for real..."
Heero's brows met again at the insult. "I'm not that much of a urban brat, Duo. I might not have been born and raised on a farm, but I know how to spot the difference between cows, pigs and sheep. I'm sure you've had more experience than me with all of them, but-"
At that point, Duo burst out laughing. Heero merely frowned, at a loss what was so incredibly funny. Duo slowly regained control of himself. Getting skewed looks from fellow passengers sped the process up. "I'm sorry," he started at last, leaning in, voice low. "I suppose you're right," he added, ending with a wink. "Cows, hogs and sheep... pink-skinned or otherwise."
Heero remained lost for a few seconds, but finally made the connection. He could feel his face heating up. "I didn't mean it like that, I-"
Duo flashed a grin. "I know. That's why it's funny."
Heero disagreed. He loathed embarrassments. This one was likely to stick around in his mind for a while. He turned to look away, but Duo would have none of it.
"Oh, come on..." It didn't work. Duo leant back with another sigh. "Anyway... It's not like I expected you to be a vet, or a zookeeper, or something. Can't really see you as someone taking care of animals - you don't strike me as an pet person, either."
While not intended to, that remark still hurt a bit. Defensive, Heero attacked. "Do you?"
"Take care of animals?"
Duo thought it over for a minute, then started snickering. "Well... I suppose you can say I battle some partially domesticated beasts every day. They can get nasty if they don't get their breakfast on time."
Heero flagged a brow at that. Perhaps Duo really did live on a farm, then. But what sort of animals? Wild horses?
Silence intruded again, and they were fast approaching Vernon Falls.
"It's not that I hate animals..." Heero mumbled.
A bit sulky, he nodded. "I just don't have the time to take care of them. I'm gone most of the day, and my responsibilities at work-"
Duo gave a soft smile. "Look, I'm sorry - I didn't mean to offend you earlier."
Heero shook his head. "No, it's okay." He was about to add that he did have Fluffy, the cacti. Then he remembered reading something about the significance of plants given to you by your loved ones; how they were tests at how good you could tend to another life, and by extension, your lover, or future children. Heero didn't think that being on his fourth cacti - and the fact that Fluffy remained the sole oxygen contributor in his house - was a worthwhile signal to give Duo.
They went quiet again, and other than a quick goodbye at Stillwater they found nothing more to talk about.
Mild misery tainted both of their evenings - Duo with guilt for making Heero feel bad, Heero wondering whether he should look into getting a fish tank, or some other form of low-maintenance pets. Perhaps a spider, or even a snake. He wasn't sure he wanted an animal he'd risk bonding with - it was painful enough to admit his own carelessness at taking the first three Fluffys to the compost heap - especially with Quatre there to supply looks of profound pity.
What he really wanted, was to fix his image in Duo's eyes.
Heero kept a seat reserved Thursday morning too - and this time Duo looked him up. It was a great relief to Heero - albeit only a small reprieve. Other than the first quick words of greeting they did not speak for the entire trip towards Lexington, both opting for naps.
Still, sitting next to Duo, having him trapped between himself and a window, made up for it. More than once, Heero considered letting his hand casually slide off his own knee and onto Duo's, just to test the waters. He didn't dare do more than bump his knee against Duo's a few times, though - and at the same time manage to brush the side of his hand against Duo's. That was nearly as good as watching Duo match it with a smile.
Heero was almost ready to dare ask Duo out for a cup of coffee by the time they reached Lexington.
Duo wasn't considering the same. Heero had been the one to start all of this, and he was willing to wait a little while longer for Heero to dare make a move - any sort of move.
They hang back a bit on the train, departed after the rush and went down to the passages under the train platforms, speaking with lax smiles.
Until they were interrupted by a rather shabby individual, dressed to match. The man coughed twice, rubbed his dirty beard and stepped into Heero's path. "'xcuse me, mister - do you have a few bucks extra? Wanna get a cup of coffee, and-"
Heero merely frowned at the beggar and sidestepped him. "Get lost."
Duo frowned as well, but his was directed at Heero's back. He reached inside his coat. The severely disheveled man stared at Duo, almost pleading - and broke out in a bright yellow smile when Duo handed him a handful of spare change. "Thanks, mister." The man pocketed the money and shuffled off right away.
Heero had stopped as soon as he noticed Duo wasn't following, and had turned around at the jingle of money. He folded his arms and could barely resist the urge to tap his foot. The man was out of hearing range by the time Duo came up to Heero. "You shouldn't have done that," Heero began. "He'll only use that money on drugs or booze anyway."
Duo shrugged, losing his frown at the same time. "You gotta have some faith in people, Heero. Besides, the guy just wanted a cup of coffee."
Heero grunted softly. "You're the kind of person that'll end up robbed, stripped naked and abandoned in a ditch somewhere eventually."
Duo chuckled lightly. "Maybe - but that's better than ending up as cynical, cheap and suspicious as you, pal."
Heero snorted at that, but let the argument fall and resumed walking towards the subway station. He hoped Duo was only joking - judging from the grin, he had to be. Heero did not want to be considered all those things - no matter how close to home some of them hit. When Duo put his hand on Heero's shoulder, Heero felt a pleasant shiver roaming across his spine.
"You know... if you like, we can double back and tail the guy - make sure that he did buy a cup of coffee, like he said. Make it a bet."
Heero made a slight scowl.
Duo's brows wiggled briefly. "Afraid you'd lose?"
Again, Heero grunted. "No. I know his kind - they lie their pants off for spare change. Here's an example. A few months ago, one of those guys approached me. He was a bit more kempt than that guy, not that it mattered. He was still a lying bastard. He told me he was five bucks short on his train fare home to Raleigh, and if I couldn't please help him out."
He shrugged. "I told him I didn't carry cash, only plastic. It's believable enough, these days."
Duo snorted. "So, you answered a lie with a lie."
"Yes - but I'm not finished. You see, the same guy came up to me a few weeks later - only then, he was five bucks short on his train fare home to Knightsville, not Raleigh. I was tempted to ask him to stay at home and quit moving so often, but gave him the plastic line again instead."
Duo chuckled at that, and started walking.
Heero followed at Duo's side. "But you're right, I lied. If they lead me off on a wild goose chase, I see no reason to be honest with them in return - much less charitable."
"Yeah..." Duo's smile shifted into a sigh. "Still, it doesn't hurt to trust their word once in a while. Some of them really are just people in a bit of a pinch. Sometimes, a helping hand can go a long way, Heero. Believe me, I know."
Heero shot Duo a quick glare, wondering what he meant by that - but they had just reached the end of the passageway, and he didn't feel good about asking such questions in a crowd. Also, he didn't want to leave Duo on a bad foot.
It wasn't until he'd stepped off at Grenside that he realized the beggar had spurred their first truly spontaneous conversation.
That pleasant thought lingered with him all through the day.
From that point on, small talk gradually became easier. While they didn't always find each other on the train or actively sought each other out, not wanting to be coming on too strongly - every time they did sit next or opposite of each other, they found some trivial topic or other to talk about. Even so, they were cautious in telling of their own lives, and even more so in asking about the personal affairs of the other.
Weeks passed in that fashion. Heero was still very curious about Duo's supposed street smarts, but he could never find the right time and place - not to mention words - to ask.
On the way home one day, Heero finally caught a break. Duo was ranting about his job again. Heero had picked up the names of Duo's boss and a few of his co-workers, but still treasured every new tidbit of information about Duo's life he could pick up without asking.
"Some of the guys live on-site - at least during the week. Their families live all around, really. Most moved into Lexington once we started getting contracts there, but a few stay on out here. Howard - that's my boss-"
Heero nodded. He remembered. Duo's depiction of him made him out to be rather unconventional, if not outright eccentric.
"He offered me room in one of the barracks at the site, so I could stay there either during the week, like most of the guys - or maybe even permanently. Howard lives there, and a few others. I've declined, though."
"Why? Don't you ever get tired of the long commute? It sounds like you know these people well, and-"
Duo chuckled. "Yeah, and that's part of the problem, I think. I know who I'd be shacking up with, and-" Duo cut himself off, not wanting to lead Heero down that particular path. Better to delay his introduction to Trowa as long as at all possible. Still, that left him with another uncomfortable option - but it was better to tell of that. Duo wasn't ashamed of it, but he wasn't sure how Heero would feel about it. "Well, you see - I told you I still live at home, right?"
Heero nodded. "Yeah, at your farm."
Puzzled, Duo raised a brow. "Farm? What gave you that idea?"
Heero straightened up a bit, suddenly uncomfortable. "Well, I just assumed-"
He grinned. "Don't. Not that I can't understand why you thought so. There are lots of farms around Stillwater - but there's more people living in the small suburban clusters in the area. Anyway, what I was getting at, was... I still live at home."
Heero gave a lopsided smile. "So you keep telling me."
Duo's grin turned rather sheepish. "What I meant, is - I still live where I grew up - at Saint William's Orphanage."
Taken a bit by surprise, Heero leant in closer, just in case Duo didn't want to talk too loud about this. "You're an orphan?" He hoped it didn't sound malicious, that it only reflected his curiosity.
Duo's slow, tense nods made Heero sure his voice had been on target. "Yeah..."
Silence threatened to overcome them again, but Heero would have none of it, not now. "Duo, I don't mean this the wrong way, but... aren't you a little old to live at an orphanage - unless you happen to run the place?"
Duo chuckled. "Yeah, well... You're right - but I pay rent for my room and help out when I'm asked, so you could say I help run the place. Besides, Sister Helen and Father Maxwell never bothered to kick me out. If they told me to leave, I'd go. As it is, this works out for everyone." He grinned. "Except that I get a bit of a commute. Howard's company used to operate out of Stillwater, building cabins, villas, tiny, private marinas - that sort of thing. Started out working summers for him."
Heero pursed his lips, not sure if he would dare ask - not until the question came out on its own. "Uhm... you said 'Father Maxwell'..."
"Hm? Oh - no, not my real father - but, yeah. I took my last name from him. I mean, he's the closest thing to a father I've ever had." He snickered. "I could never quite picture Howard in that role - he's more of a loony old uncle."
Heero looked away for a second, scratched the itch at the back of one hand. "Uhm... and..."
"Planning to ask about the 'sister' and 'father' titles next?"
With a wavering smile, Heero nodded.
"They're Catholics, if that's what you wondered. They ran the local church until it was shut down over a decade ago. There was a shift in population, see, and... well - that's when they took over the orphanage. It was really abandoned, but Stillwater is a nice, rural place to ship traumatized inner-city kids - that's the argument the government bought, at least. They never get enough funding, though."
"If they're not officially with the church, why-"
Duo looked out the window, sighing contently. "It's where they started out at, I suppose. It's tough to give up your roots, wherever they've been. Besides, they still hold small gatherings for the few faithful that didn't move out of the area. Oh, and for us staying at Saint William's, of course."
Duo turned to face Heero again, the faint smile still with him. "I'm not, though. Haven't made up my mind yet."
Heero hesitated a bit at that. "So, you're not Catholic?"
Through the beginnings of a grin, Duo answered. "Not at the moment, no." He tapped his chest. "Got a small cross to bear and some healthy childhood baggage, but that's about the extent of it."
Heero made half a smirk.
"What about you?"
"I don't know... I don't believe in all that much, and-" Duo was laughing quietly again. Heero paused. "What?"
"What I meant was, why haven't you moved to Lexington? Why are you commuting? Sounds to me like you've got a nice, safe desk job and a decent salary, so..."
Heero's face fell just a bit. "Oh..."
Duo sat back, waiting for an answer that was slow in coming.
"Well... My house..." Heero mumbled. "It's... an inheritance. It wouldn't be right to sell it and move."
That was all Duo got on the subject. He made more than one theory expanding on that tidbit, but didn't ask. He had a feeling Heero wasn't too keen to talk about his family. Duo wondered if perhaps he wasn't the only one without parents.
For the remainder of that trip, and for those over the next few days, they steered in on safer topics again - things dealing with the ride to and from Lexington; small delays, the trains, the landscape, the people. Recent events, be they world news, local news, sports or politics. They even managed to weave in how they'd gotten their jobs - Heero told of his rapid advancement, Duo reciprocated with the tale of his eccentric and fast-paced college education. While the increasing familiarity was fostering a friendship, neither tried to rush things in favor of that elusive cup of coffee.
The closest they got were the two cups Heero bought them from the vending machine on the train one chilly afternoon. Nothing more than gratitude came of it, but to Heero that was worth the investment.
It was only to be expected that they'd eventually hit upon a snag. You can always count on topics like religion and politics to spawn conflict, if not outright war. It certainly wasn't Duo's fault Heero supported the wrong football team. For several days, they ignored each other.
Or rather, attempted to.
A truce was formed soon enough, and their familiarity - and with it, their friendship - strengthened with every passing day.
While most of the people in the building - meaning those unfortunates not permitted or unable to telecommute on Fridays - were experiencing a sense of relief in the final few hours prior to weekend, Heero didn't share that. Instead, he was sneaking through the corridors, occasionally using the fire escapes or freight elevators to change floors. He remained on the move since he was being hunted.
The day had started off well enough. He'd had a heated debate on politics with Duo on the train in, much to the ire of a few commuters sitting in their vicinity, trying to nap. While they'd earned a few brief scowls and growls from that direction, he and Duo parted as friends. They knew they had different views, but that didn't stop them from trying to convince the other to join the right side - namely their own. Compromise was not an option.
At the office, Heero's inbox showed all the signs of another quiet Friday. That illusion had been shattered when Wufei came in right before lunch, a grin far from innocent on his face. Wufei had handed him a surveillance photo and simply said "She came in today. She's on her way up now."
Which immediately triggered Heero's flight.
It wasn't as if he was actively trying to avoid Relena. At any rate, he was due another inspection tour of the building. It was vital the fire escapes were in proper order, after all - which was probably why he checked several flights of them repeatedly.
While not his usual systematic floor-by-floor sweep searching for abnormalities, he still got quite a few notes on things that would have to be addressed the following week. He also managed to stay clear of Relena - though every time he ran across Wufei, he got an update on her search. After two hours, she had still not given up.
Wufei had called him a fool. Heero had merely frowned and walked away. Wufei didn't know what unwanted attention was like - he only served it from the other end, with all his little surveillance cameras.
Heero had initially thought of just leaving his office for a short while, thinking that would be enough. He had not anticipated that Relena craved to see him this badly. He was beginning to worry she still had a crush on him. Perhaps it had even grown in strength in their time apart - her new tenacity certainly suggested as much.
Therefore, it was with great relief he bumped into Wufei again as he emerged from the freight elevator at the sixth floor and got the 'all clear' message. He had walked back to his office thinking that was the end of that, and that he would just have to deal with Relena another day.
When someone other than himself closed the office door behind him, he knew he was not that lucky.
"There you are!" came the singsong voice.
Heero froze and turned around slowly.
Relena smiled at him. "It's been so long - how have you been, Heero?"
Heero's jaw worked air. "Fine," he finally pushed out and went for his desk, intending to sit down and use the dark wooden furniture as a barrier.
She cocked her head, gave him a look of slight disappointment. "Well, that's good, I suppose... Did you get my letter?"
Heero clenched his teeth. Yes, he had gotten it. He had never read it, though. It was probably still at the bottom of the Miscellaneous pile, out of sight, but not out of nose until just last week. He had forgotten about it then, forgotten she was coming back to work here. That part he had gotten a refresher of in passing as he and Wufei replaced a camera in Flaherty's office.
He really didn't like that man, and pitied Relena for not landing a better job.
She tilted her head forward. "Did you read it?"
Damn. He had hoped to avoid that question. "Uhm..." He sat down with a sigh, mind racing. Light bulb. "I'm sorry, Relena - I got caught up in something and forgot. It must still be in one of these piles." He waved over the stacks of letters, memos and printouts to further his point.
Her smile grew a tad sad. "I see... Well, I just wanted to come say hi. It's been so long since I saw you, and I never got to thank you for-" The smile shifted towards a grin. "For helping me. I tried to in that letter."
She nodded, put her hand on the door handle. "I don't know how I got admitted to Rinsbury College, but I suspect you had something to do with it. You see, I overheard their tech supervisor speak your name once, with some context. The rest wasn't too hard to put together." She giggled briefly. "So, thank you." She gave him a wink, and opened the door.
Still a bit taken aback, Heero blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Leaving already?"
She paused, tilted her head to the side. "Yes - I know you're busy, and like I said, I only wanted to say hi. I don't start working here until Monday - just thought I'd stop by an old friend before then."
Heero was struggling to find something to say when her purse started singing a few bars of fluffy pop music. She reached inside for the cell phone, skimmed the text message.
"Oh, I had better get going. Have another appointment, and-" She smiled, made an elegant, discreet curtsey. "Hope to see you again soon, Heero."
With that she was gone, and the door closed.
Heero took a few moments to process it all, folded his hands behind his head and leaned back into his chair, looking up at the ceiling.
Perhaps it was Flaherty who deserved his pity.
"So, what's he like?"
It wasn't the first time Trowa had asked. Duo knew it wouldn't be the last either. He'd been reluctant to tell his co-worker and occasional friend anything about Heero, for several reasons. This last week had seen one attempt after another at avoiding either having to answer, or to hear the question in the first place.
This time, there was no easy escape - besides, it was becoming more of a hassle than it was worth.
"Come on, Duo. There are days when you look like you're walking on air. This guy has to be special."
Duo sighed, smiling. "He is..."
Trowa put a hand on Duo's shoulder, waiting for the other to make eye contact. "Then tell me. What's this mysterious, handsome guy like?"
Duo put away his sandwich. He didn't think he'd get back to his lunch until Trowa had what he wanted. "Well... he's got a great sense of humor - very dry and subtle. He's a bit jaded about the world, but I think he cares far more than he let's on. He's reserved, almost a bit too shy, sometimes. He's good-tempered, and-"
Lopsided smirk. "No, no, no - tell me about him."
Duo cocked his head and studied Trowa's face for a while, then rolled his eyes and sighed again, smile but a line. "Fine. He's about my height, lean, but strong - I saw him help a couple get a damn big suitcase off the train once. He made it look completely effortless." He grinned, but took note of Trowa's expecting mien, and continued. "He's got dark brown hair - doesn't look like he's having luck combing it, but that's okay. I love that messed up hair of his. He's got these deep blue, intense eyes, and a smile to die for." He gave a quick sigh. "He doesn't to that nearly enough, though."
Trowa snorted. "Well, he sounds like quite the looker. You said he was Asian? Did he dye his hair?"
"No, It's not like that. He's got a few features, that's all. I haven't asked him about it yet, but to me, he looks a bit Asian."
"Ah-huh..." He grinned. "Next time, take a picture of the guy. I want to see."
Duo frowned. "Is that the only thing you ever think about, Trowa? How someone looks?"
Trowa shrugged. "As I see it, their personality doesn't matter much, not beyond what they're willing to do." He gave a quick chuckle, his grin becoming a leer. "I mean, I only have to stand their personality for one night..."
To this, Duo snorted. "Oh, you hopeless romantic..."
The sarcasm earned him a chuckle.
"You know, someday you'll get a taste of your own medicine, Trowa. There'll be someone who you really want, not just for the night - but that someone will ditch you after getting a good shag out of you."
Trowa shrugged it off, smirking. "Well... Then at least there was a good shag."
Duo groan and threw his arms to the sky. "You're missing the point, Trowa."
Trowa's chuckled was fairly good-natured. "No, I hear you. I just have trouble seeing that scenario you painted out, that's all."
He grunted. "Yeah, well... Sooner or later, it'll happen. Then we'll see who comes running to me, bawling like a child and crying his eyes out."
Trowa sighed, smile fading a bit. "You're not going on about that again, are you? It's not my fault that-"
Duo frowned as he reached for his sandwich. "It was you who dumped her, and quite brutally, I might add. Yeah, I'm still pissed at you for that, and I probably will be for a long time. You can be really rotten, Trowa."
With a soft snort and a lopsided smirk, Trowa couldn't resist mentioning it. "And still... later that very same day-"
Duo's scowl made him stop. It was a forbidden topic - but as all things forbidden, that state alone only increased the allure of them.
Today wasn't the day for it, though. Trowa took another bite of his own sandwich, while mentally shaking his head. Duo's predictions couldn't have been more wrong. He was a hunter, not prey. Trowa would never be bothered about little things like that, as long as he got what he wanted first. And there was absolutely no way he'd break down over it, like she had.
Still, it had turned into a pleasant evening anyway, thanks to Duo.
Trowa didn't raise the subject of Heero again - at least not that day. He was very curious about him, though - even more so now that he had Duo's description to go on. Heero sounded like a handsome individual.
And not much of a hunter.
Their friendship had certainly evolved to the point where they reserved each other seats now. Heero took care of it on the trip in if there was a vacant double seat when he boarded. It usually was. The problem was letting Duo know which car he sat in. Heero had been a bit stumped to learn Duo didn't own a cell phone, and he had been sorely tempted to buy him one. Cell phones could be quite useful in coordinating such things.
Not to mention, a cell would offer him an excuse to talk to Duo more often.
Heero didn't dare, though. He wasn't sure how Duo would react to the gift, and he got the profound impression Duo didn't like cell phones, for whatever reasons. If his prospective boyfriend insisted on acting irrationally about cell phones, Heero wouldn't push the issue. Not yet. Maybe later.
That cup of coffee remained as elusive as ever, but Heero was growing to like Duo's company. It wasn't worth rushing. Or rather, it probably was, and Duo seemed interested enough - but there was always that last sliver of doubt that made him hold back asking for even the most informal of dates. Duo didn't appear to be in a hurry to ask either.
At least they sat close nearly every morning and afternoon now. If that was as close to joined at the hip they could be right now, Heero had no complaints.
After a while they formed a quiet consensus on which car to meet in - namely the one that usually stopped near the bicycle rack at Stillwater Station. On the homeward bound, Duo attempted to reciprocate the favor. Heero certainly didn't mind. That way, he could walk with Duo directly to the subway in the morning and have time to pass and browse newspaper headlines on the way home. Nevertheless he rarely did that, and often beat Duo to saving a seat. Heero didn't know the full details, but there seemed to be times when Duo purposefully took a later train than the one he used himself. Heero didn't ask. It could be as trivial as having to take a detour to the porta-potty before going home. As long as they got to sit next or opposite of each other on the train, it didn't matter.
But even perfect arrangements have its flaws.
The flaw of theirs became apparent when Heero slipped a comment to Duo one afternoon, somewhere between Leigh and Vernon Falls.
He looked away, bothered. "About tomorrow... I'm going to take the day off, so you'll have to find your own seat." His gaze returned. "I'm sorry."
Duo chuckled. "Is that all? Heero, I've been commuting for a lot longer than I've known you, you know. I can find a seat on my own, if I have to. It's no big deal."
He grinned. "Positive. Sheesh, and here you had me worry you were about to tell me something serious, like... a change in your work hours, or something."
Heero showed a thin smile, his eyes going mellow.
"So... Planning on doing anything special?"
The smile faded away. Heero had rather hoped to avoid telling more about it. "Kind of..." he all but whispered. He looked out the window.
Duo was about to ask, but it was clear enough Heero was reluctant to talk about it. That was okay; Duo had things of his own he'd rather not tell Heero yet. He understood.
Instead he filed the question away for later.
The following morning had been straightforward enough. Duo had slid off his bike as every morning and managed to board the train just before it started moving. He had found himself a window seat in one of the four-seaters, opposite of a prim, hawk-nosed business woman who scowled at him when he sat down, despite the fact Duo had asked if - and had gotten confirmation that - the two seats at her opposite were vacant.
The homeward bound was different, though. Not only had Duo skipped one subway train in favor of the next simply to avoid taking a ride with Trowa back into the city core - the one he did catch was significantly delayed. When it finally stopped at Lexington Grand Central, Duo had had to run to catch the ICE train home, and only barely made it aboard before it departed the station.
Even worse, the train was absolutely packed by then. He'd gone nearly the full length of the train before he found a vacant seat in the last four-seater - and that seat he was reluctant to take. He stared ahead at the specially reserved section further up in the train, a remnant of what was once 'First Class'. There, there was probably still room - but he'd have to pay extra for those privileges, and it wasn't as if he needed them. He didn't feel like paying ten bucks extra for a cup of complimentary coffee, a read of some newspapers, an outlet for a portable which he didn't have and a seat to plant his keister.
This left him with two options. Stand, or sit next to the elderly lady occupying the window seat. He gritted his teeth, and asked. The woman had smiled up at him and removed her handbag.
Duo knew her. Not by name, but by face - and above all, scent. This woman was only an occasional commuter, perhaps taking the train to visit her grandchildren, or perhaps an old friend in Lexington. She stood out in the otherwise faceless crowd though, not just because of her warm smile and peculiar flat hat with fake fruits on top, but also because of her perfume. It was used much too freely, and Duo had seen more than one traveler covering his or her nose - if they were merely sitting behind her, that is. The Armani man across the table was putting on a brave face, but obviously having trouble breathing normally. The timid woman seated next to the corporate suit was clutching her purse, taking discrete little coughs now and then, often under the veil of a handkerchief.
The fumin' granny noticed none of this.
Reaching Stillwater Station had rarely been a greater blessing. Duo took a couple of deep breaths the moment he stepped onto the platform and shuffled over to the bike rack. When the train and most of the other dismounting passengers were out of sight, he lifted the collar of his jacket to his nose, fearing the smell had set in. While the old lady did smell of roses, she reeked more of a garden than any single flower.
And rose gardens at least diluted their fragrance a bit in the air.
After the windswept bicycle ride home, most of the lingering scent had cleared out, thankfully.
Even so, Sister Helen gave him a slanted, knowing smile when she first passed him that evening. Duo suspected what she was thinking, but beyond a quick groan and palm to hand, he didn't refute her. Experience told him that would only lend credibility to her imagination.
There was great relief the following morning when he stepped aboard the train and found Heero at the window of a double seat. Duo flashed a grin, crashed in the seat next to him and made a light grab for the hand Heero had casually rested on his own knee. Duo did not want to be without a 'safe' seat in the future. "Promise me," Duo began. "That you never, ever take a day off again."
Heero had been startled at the touch, and couldn't quite figure out what Duo was thinking - but what did that matter? He gave an unsure smile, quickly put his other palm on top of Duo's hand, effectively trapping it. "Uh... Okay, Duo. I'll try."
They lingered with their hands like that for a few seconds. Then, someone in the cart coughed - in all likelihood of a ticklish throat and not because of them, tricky as it was to see their little spectacle - but it was enough to shatter the fragile moment.
They spoke remarkably little that day, content to just looking at the passing landscape - together.
It was sometime around then that they took to other pastimes than just talking on the train. Duo brought a deck of cards one day, and they took to playing. Mostly for points, occasionally for money - but only on spare change level. Neither was fond of losing. Given that they played a wide range of games, neither managed to best the other significantly - so overall, their gains and losses - be it in points or money - evened out.
They wouldn't have wanted it any other way. A clear winner and an equally clear loser are rarely on speaking terms for long - and that was certainly not an option.
Fall was fast coming. The fields were cleared, some ploughed. Leaves lost their green, but made up for it with a final show of shades reaching into reds and yellows, even light browns. On sunny days, it was quite beautiful. On rainy days, not so much. The temperature slowly but steadily crept down the scale too - and the outfits of summer became scarce.
Duo had made it to the train going home early, for a change. He was quite happy about that. His chances to repay Heero's favors of seat reservation were few and fairly far between. Heero didn't seem to mind, but Duo did. Equal exchange of services was his only choice to keep a balance, given that their friendship was still limited to the commute. While he'd picked up a name or two he supposed were Heero's friends, Duo had learned remarkably little of Heero's life outside of work. Sure, he'd picked up on opinions, but he knew nothing about Heero's family.
Then again, he hadn't been too forward with that sort of information himself. He was hardly in a position to feel bad about it.
He grinned when he looked out the window and saw Heero running towards the platform, prepared to greet his friend with a big, satisfied smile and-
Heero all but ran into the car, spotted Duo, walked very fast over to him and all but tossed his carry bag at Duo. "Here, hold this."
And with that, he ran further up the aisle.
Duo glanced at the bag, then at Heero's back, then at the bag again - and looked up just in time to see Heero duck into one of the cramped train bathrooms. Duo broke out in a chuckle, struggled to muffle it to the point where nobody would give him strange looks.
The train had begun moving by the time Heero slunk back to Duo, looking much chagrined. "Uh..." Duo looked a bit too amused for his embarrassment. Duo lifted the carry bag out of the seat, and Heero sat down, accepting it back. "Thanks..." He dared a glance at Duo's face, saw he was close to laughing again. He could guess why. "There aren't enough public restrooms at Grand Central..." he mumbled, careful not to face Duo. "I finally found one, but..."
Duo's grin was dangerously close to letting lose a laugh. "But what?"
He gave Duo a quick angry glance. "It was a coin-op."
The snicker escaped. "...and you didn't have change?"
Heero shook his head, stared sullenly into the back of the seat before him. "And by then, I figured the train was already here, and I remembered there are restrooms aboard, so..."
Duo chuckled. "All is well that ends well, Heero. At least you didn't wet your pants or decide to go in the passages below the platforms."
Heero tugged on a smile, managing a lopsided one, followed by a snort. "Yeah... Perhaps those corridors would stink a little less if they had free public restrooms in the main building..."
They fell silent for a while.
It couldn't last.
Especially not as Duo's curiosity got the better of him. "What are the toilets here like?"
Heero stared at him, not sure what to think.
And from there, they went into a discussion on what were better; train toilets or porta-potties. It turned into a rather light, if somewhat gross conversation. The six-year-old directly across the aisle found it amusing to overhear; his mother less so, although she smiled a few times at just the right punch lines. The chubby guy taking up the double seat behind them was halfway through a hamburger when they started, chewed gradually slower and eventually packed his greasy meal aside, unable to finish.
At Stillwater Station, their ways parted, as usual.
Oddly enough, it wasn't their argument that stayed with Duo that night - nor was it his amusement over Heero's embarrassing flight between bathrooms. No, it was the fact Heero had trusted him with his bag, handing it to him without a second thought. As he passed the Johnson's, he cursed himself for not daring to sneak a peek inside the carry bag. Who knew what dirty little secrets Heero had in that bag? For all he knew, there could have been an 'I love Duo' note with swirly doodles on it inside, or perhaps something otherwise suggestive, like a half-used - or better yet, new - tube of lubricant and a couple of fresh condom packs.
From that point on, imagination got the better of him, and he was barely able to wipe the leer off his face before passing the gates of Saint William's.
Relena had changed.
Or been replaced by her nice twin.
Or done quite a bit of growing up.
Heero wasn't sure which. Maybe it was all three. He couldn't argue with the result, though. Even after she had been working at the Worthstone Building for weeks, their run-ins had been short and polite, if not outright formal. Heero was almost ready to believe she no longer gave a damn about him - at least not as boyfriend material.
Peculiarly enough, he wasn't happy about it. Even though he used to dislike her attention, her lack of it was equally discomforting.
He tended to forget that as soon as he left the building. There was another giving hints of interest, and that made all the difference.
Heero had only been to Flaherty's office once in those weeks - and it was evident Relena was having an impact. The messy piles of paper were cleared out, the file cabinets clearly marked, and Flaherty looked thoroughly undecided about the whole matter. A quick inquiry with Wufei later that day had ensured him a look at one of the top ten clips 'eyes' had on tape - Flaherty trying to put his cupped hand somewhere it didn't belong, and Relena taking a toll on his chances to ever reproduce. Words were exchanged, and even on the grainy video feed, it was possible to discern the words 'tell', 'wife' and 'father' on Relena's lips. Apparently, that was enough to kill Flaherty's spirits and prevent further misunderstandings between them.
In the Worthstone Building, the fourth floor watercooler was the gathering place, if you wanted the latest office gossip. Coincidentally, many people took a detour there heading to or from lunch - whether or not they used the cafeteria on the same floor or went out of the building to eat. Even though there were several oasis in the building, none could counter its popularity and placement. Some even felt the water was first class.
Heero only came for the water, not to overhear the public secrets of the various firms situated in the building. At least, that's what he claimed when Wufei cornered him there once. Wufei hadn't pursued the matter. The fact Heero had pointed out the camera and audio receptor parked across the room from the watercooler and how that placement would soon be up for re-evaluation might have had something to do with it.
At the moment, the watercooler was surrounded by no less than four young women, all smiles and giggles. Heero hesitated. Ever since his last - and only - girlfriend back in Junior High, he'd been somewhat evasive to their kind. Relena's pursuit had only strengthened that reserve. Perhaps he had overreacted to her behavior back then. Now, he almost missed it.
But only almost. Relena spotted him, and after a quick exchange of words with her little flock, another snicker ensued. Heero couldn't shake the feeling they were laughing at him, although that was unlikely. Gathering his resolve, he approached them, focusing on the object at hand - a cup of water.
Relena would have none of that. "Oh, hello, Heero."
He presented a curt nod and a line of a smile. "Miss Peacecraft."
In contrast, she produced a great curve of a smile. "Oh, do call me Relena... We are friends, are we not?"
Again, Heero gave a quick nod. He kept his eyes on the objective. Alas, even that became tricky as one of the young ladies stepped into his line of sight, and proper decorum required that he lift his eyes, lest he be thought enjoying landscapes ranging from hills to plains to chasms. He ended up facing Relena again, and she did not let the opportunity escape her.
"Oh, this is Rebecca Chalmer," she shot in, her polite open hand gesture indicating the tall, impeccably dressed redhead at her right. "She works at Emmerson Holding up at the ninth floor."
Rebecca was smiling, albeit her eyes were not. Heero could feel a chill race his spine, but made no show of it.
"And this is Amy Sygot-" A slight pause of embarrassment followed. Relena made a quick glance at the short, dark blonde woman. "Uhm, Sigov-"
"Zigowzkaia," the square-faced woman cut in with an accented voice, extending her hand to Heero. "Nice to meet you."
"She works at... Wang Imports, was it?"
Amy nodded, grinning, stifling down a snort. While certainly an old joke by now, the matter-of-fact way Relena spoke the name - and the word - remained amusing.
"Isn't that on the fifteenth floor?" Heero quickly inquired. "Wouldn't it be easier to use the cafeteria at the seventeenth floor, rather than come all the way down here?"
The woman shrugged. "It would be quicker - but the food up there is much too bland. Half my colleagues bring their own lunches."
He produced half a smile. "Simmons & Simmons wouldn't have it any other way." Heero vividly remembered what lunch was like back in Hartford. It had been with a slight wince that he'd accepted the fact the cafeteria lady was one of the people making the move to Lexington.
"Oh, and this is Hilde Schbeiker," Relena said, indicating the young woman whom had stepped into Heero's line of sight. At least now he could appreciate the fact that her hair was black, and eyes rather cheerful - if not downright mischievous. She, too, made for a handshake. Heero was equally quick about this one.
"I just started as a secretary at Rutger-Meyers."
He nodded. "Fifth floor?"
Hilde tilted her head, a bit surprised. "Yeah. How did you know?"
Relena gave a quick giggle. "Ladies, this is Heero Yuy. He's the general manager of the Worthstone Building."
A quick "Ooooh" of appreciation came through the air. Heero found it most unpleasant. At least Hilde had stepped clear of his path now. He moved forward, filled himself a cup of water while hearing the fast series of whispers going on behind his back. He didn't struggle to catch any of it. He had a feeling it would only make him more uncomfortable.
Mission complete, he prepared to return to base. Meaning, his office.
Alas, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Or friends. Or pretty much anything.
"Heero, would you mind giving us a tour of the building sometime? I'm sure you know everything there is to know about it, and I'm sure it would be very interesting."
Heero was nowhere near as sure - and he definitely didn't feel good about escorting this set of young women about in the building. His only tours were his inspections, and not only would tagalongs reduce his efficiency at it, but those trips would also be incredibly dull to outsiders. It was bad enough trying to get Wufei to come along when needed. Even so, he found himself nodding in an empty promise. It seemed the quickest way to get out of there with his prize. "Perhaps..." he said in passing, and walked just a bit faster.
Round the corner and out of sight, he broke into a light sprint.
The water was treasured greatly upon his return to base.
The day had started as most did, and they'd had a good game of poker on the way in. Money was involved, and Duo bore the greatest grin as they stepped off the train, eager to invest his gains.
It was only change anyway, so Heero wasn't too upset about it. The loss of self-esteem was far greater than the mere monetary loss - but Duo was a remarkably good player. Or he himself was a tremendously poor one. Either way was unsettling.
He followed Duo down the stairs to the underground corridors, through the passageways and into the basement of Grand Central towards the subway station.
"Hang on - just need to make a quick detour," Duo explained, veering off towards the 7-Eleven at the nearest corner. To answer Heero's puzzled expression, he added, smiling, "Didn't have time for breakfast this morning. Going to get a donut and a cup of coffee. You want something?"
Heero shook his head, growing a smile of his own. Yes, Duo had mentioned he'd had a bad start of the day, with some of the kids being exceptionally grumpy. There was something about a food fight, he vaguely recalled. He hadn't paid too much attention to the chatter; the card game had taken precedence.
Obviously, he'd made the wrong priorities, betting on a lost cause.
Without his usual focal point, Heero's attention strayed sufficiently to actually listen to the music reverberating the cramped passageway. At one end was the stairs up to Grand Central, at the other end the entrance to the lower floors of a big mall, and between them were the stairs down to the subway station. The little deli sure had found a good placement to catch the rush hour crowds.
So had the violinist with the open violin case at the opposing corner. When a passer-by deposited some change, the artist nodded a smile in gratitude, but kept on playing without flaw. Heero listened, and he had to admit the man had talent, despite his gruff appearance. The violin was unlikely to be worth much, but that only made the way the street musician could make it yield clear tones and fluent melodies even more impressive. The piece played was not of the standards, the ones that people would easily recognize. No 'Ride of the Valkyries'. Nothing of Beethoven or Mozart. No, the man was playing 'Dance of the Knights', a section of 'Romeo and Juliet' of Prokofiev. Heero only recognized it from one of his compilations of classical music. Much like the mainstream of people, classical beyond a select few composers was scarce in his CD collection.
But the piece was beautiful - the violinist even tried to make up for all the missing instruments, trying to get the oomph back into the melody - and even succeeded, to a point. Heero made a lopsided smile and nodded to himself. Yes, that was certainly worth a small token of appreciation. He dug into his pocket, fished out the few chips of the poker game he had not lost and deposited the coins in the violin case. The shabby man smiled, gave a slight nod and returned to his music. Heero took a few steps back, then turned around-
And stared right into Duo's face, almost a bit startled by the great grin there.
"Okay, got what I came for," Duo said, a pastry in one hand, a lidded Styrofoam cup in the other. He took a bite of the first and a sip of the second.
"If you'd like to eat first..."
Swallow and chuckle. "No, that's fine. I'll chew as we go."
Heero nodded. They took the escalator down to the subway platform, sat down at a bench. It'd be a few minutes before the next Green line train showed up, judging from the schedule monitors. Duo finished off his pastry in a hurry, tossed the wrapper in a garbage can and focused on his coffee. Another minute passed.
"You know, I really can't figure you out..."
Heero was taken aback. "Hm?"
"Well, I mean - you wouldn't give money to that beggar a while back, but now-"
Heero gave a quick snort. "There's a difference. This guy earned it."
Duo grinned softly. "Oh, yeah?"
Presenting half a smirk, Heero nodded. "I happen to think that those who actually do something for the money rather than just beg, lie or cheat you for it, deserves it far more - and that man played really well, Duo. I thought he had earned that handful of pennies, just for keeping me entertained while I waited for you."
Duo huffed. "Well, I'm glad you liked the tune - but I only found it annoying."
Heero's brows closed, then relaxed again. "I take it you don't like classical music...?"
He chuckled. "Sure, I like classic stuff - as long as you stop in the nineteen fifties."
Heero went as far as rolling his eyes towards the ceiling, but kept the smirk. "Duo, you have no taste at all. You actually prefer the screeching of electric guitars-"
"-Over the whining of fiddles? Sure - any day of the week, pal."
Heero merely shook his head, pretending to be appalled.
They might have continued the mock argument, had not their train arrived. Duo chucked down the remainder of his coffee and tossed the empty cup in the trash, hurrying aboard before the doors closed. For the short trip to Grenside Station all they exchanged was soft smiles.
On the train back that evening, they had a lengthy discussion on the topic of music. Somehow they ended up in a draw, both silently pledging to convert the other, and agreeing to lend each other a few CDs to start out with.
As pretty much every morning, this one too started out in a rush for Duo. One thing is to scramble for bathroom time in a home with that many people, another was to survive breakfast. It came as no surprise that he was late leaving Saint William's, though he did his best to make up for it. The wind was coming in over the lake today - meaning, it came in his back, and not against him. Blessed be life's little mercies.
The weather was bitter. Over the last week, the temperature had dropped quite a bit. Duo didn't like it. He risked having to find some alternate means of getting to the station soon. His rickety old red bike wasn't good on ice and snow. Skis or skates weren't really an alternative, given all the hills.
It was a good thing the station wasn't that far from the orphanage - at least not in a direct line on the map. He could make a few shortcuts over fallow fields in winter, provided there wasn't too much snow.
As it was now, however, the bike was far preferable. As usual, he conquered the hill and raced by the Johnson's place, just in time to see the train come to a stop. With a few seconds to spare he got on board and sought out Heero, still panting as he sat down beside him.
Heero gave a soft snort, made half a smirk. While he'd gotten used to Duo's tardiness in boarding, it still amused him. Little Davey Johnson wasn't the only one wondering if Duo would ever miss the train because of his narrow margins.
Then again, Heero didn't want that to happen. It would have made the trip to Lexington rather boring.
They were well into a quiet argument over the previous night's news headlines when the conductor came about; a young lady with a smile that seemed genuine, not merely the service type. Perhaps there were people who enjoyed their work.
Heero and Duo both showed her their transit passes. She nodded as she confirmed Heero's, but paused as she examined Duo's. "Uhm... excuse me, sir - but I believe your transit pass has expired."
"Huh?" Duo made a quick check. Sure enough, the last date on it was the day before. He muttered an expletive. The conductor didn't catch it, but Heero raised a brow. "Right..." Duo mustered up a smile again. "Well, I guess I'll just have to buy a new transit pass, then. How much-"
She coughed discretely. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid we don't sell monthly transit passes on board the trains anymore. There are new governmental regulations after the first of October, and while there is talk of rescinding some of those regulations, we currently can't offer-"
"Fine," Duo cut her off, a bit snappier than he had intended. "How about a weekly..." He mumbled into nothing as she shook her head.
He took a deep, refreshing sigh. "A round trip ticket, then."
Her smile wavered. "I'm afraid we only sell tickets one way at a time now. You would have to buy the rest at the ticket sales at one of our manned stations or order online."
Duo closed his eyes, momentarily pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger and counted quickly to ten in his mind. "Fine, one of those single trips." He opened his jacket in search of his wallet as the conductor prepared the ticket. A quick check later informed him he was just a little short. He flashed her a sheepish grin, along with his credit card. "Uhm... you do take plastic, don't you?"
She nodded, tapped the mechanism attached to her hip belt. "Yes, we do - but I'm afraid that particular card isn't accepted here, only at the stations. Do you have another card, sir?"
Duo made a frantic search in his rather slim wallet. There was another card there somewhere, he was sure of it. "I think so, hang on..."
All through this, Heero's smile had grown ever larger, and he even got started on a low snicker. In his despair, Duo noticed - and immediately sent a glare in Heero's direction. It was noted, but not heeded. Even so, the quiet laughter subsided. Heero fished out his own wallet. "Here, I'll pay."
"Wha- Hey, no. I can-" Heero handed the conductor two bills, reaching right before Duo's face.
"It's okay, Duo. It really is," Heero said as the young woman took the bills and returned the change and the ticket stub.
Duo kept a soft frown trained on the hand before him, albeit it vanished as Heero's retreating fingertips grazed his chin. Mouth slightly agape, he stared at Heero, getting a smirk in return. He blinked, smiled softly, a bit bothered, but grateful. "Thanks, man... I'll pay you back, I swear."
"I know," Heero replied. He wanted to suggest he get his payback right then and there, but that was hardly the way to start a relationship. If he was ever to kiss Duo, he wanted the moment to be perfect - and in full consent; not forced, not bought and paid for.
Soon enough, their banter returned to their original, safe topic.
Waiting on the platform for the train home sucked. Clear and simple. Especially as autumn was well under way. While there were roofs over the platforms at Lexington Grand Central, those gave no shelter from the winds - and when there were winds, little protection from rain or snow.
This afternoon was blessedly dry - but still cold. Heero cursed himself for not taking the long route through the main station hall. That way, he could at least have lingered at the exit, waiting for a sign the next ICE back to Wilkinshire had arrived from its shuttle trip.
Instead, he'd gotten there early. A bit too early, for once. Rarely did he feel the need to get out of the Worthstone Building ahead of schedule. Today however, there had been a salary adjustment for the maintenance staff again. Coincidentally, the heater in Heero's office had malfunctioned, and gone overly warm. Tropical temperatures are nice for a vacation in the sun, next to a beach - but not in the office you're supposed to work efficiently.
He expected the retaliation would subside tomorrow. If not, he'd take action. Wufei and his AIES - Advanced Internal Electronic Surveillance - were sure to have something for him. The offices, elevators and hallways were not the only places in the building that were monitored, and more than one janitor had done things they probably shouldn't have - and gotten caught on tape in the process.
Heero didn't like blackmail - but he wasn't the one to start it. He would finish it though, one way or another.
The train was late, too. While there were no announcements regarding his departure home, scheduled to go on the hour, they had finally updated the information boards regarding the inbound train from Wilkinshire - it was running five minutes late. Usually, it arrived fifteen minutes to the hour - more than enough time to secure a good seat if you were on the platform then.
The minutes crawled by as he got steadily colder. If it weren't for the fact that he wished to reserve a double seat, he would have returned to the main hall.
He was thus not in the best of moods when someone tapped his shoulder.
"Sir? Excuse me, sir-"
Heero glared at the plainly dressed man who'd disturbed his gritting of teeth and mild suffering.
Undeterred, the man scratched his faint nine o'clock shadow and pressed on. "I'm a drug addict, but I could really use a hand-out - I'm trying to scrape together enough money for a meal."
Heero was, to put it mildly, perplexed at that. The man hadn't looked like a beggar, and hadn't served him any of the usual song and dance stories. He had not expected honesty or such a fairly clean appearance. Still sceptical, he studied the young man's eyes, looking for signs. He couldn't find any. Even so, he found himself reaching for his wallet. They were on a crowded platform, so he didn't expect to get mugged - and if anyone made the attempt, they would get themselves a nasty surprise. All those self-defense classes had not gone to waste on Heero, quite the contrary.
The man brightened at the donation. Sometimes, honesty brings its own rewards. With a quick thanks he was gone, searching for the next victim. Heero watched him go, but was soon enough distracted - the train was finally arriving. Right before he boarded to find an empty double seat he smiled for himself and shook his head. Duo's way of thinking was slowly getting to him.
If Duo noticed the quaint smile on Heero's face that day, he never mentioned it.
Days were growing shorter. Soon enough, waiting for the homeward bound train was done without direct sunlight; the bright disc was gone over the horizon by the time their train left Lexington.
On this particular day, however, the ICE from Wilkinshire stopped at a different platform and a quick announcement was made. Heero growled to himself, not very willing to adhere to the voice over the speaker asking passengers bound for Wilkinshire to have patience.
Even so, he could do little more than what everybody else was doing - that was, wait.
Five minutes to the hour, Duo made his way up from the underground passages, his erratic breathing suggesting he'd rushed there. He glanced at the empty track, noticed the absent train and the crowded platform - and finally saw Heero giving him a wave. Duo mustered up a grin, waved back and shuffled his way over. "Hey, Heero - what's going on here?"
"They're replacing the trains."
Heero nodded to the platform two tracks down. "That's the ICE from Wilkinshire. They said there's a crack in the windshield, so they have to replace the train."
Duo frowned. "What, a real crack, or just a scratch in the glass? I don't see a fracture from here..."
Heero shrugged. "They probably know best."
He snorted. "Right... Have they said anything about when the replacement train set is to arrive?"
Heero shook his head. "No. I just hope they're not bringing in one of those old sets they use for the short routes. Have you ever taken those? The ones with the really cramped seats without headrests?"
Duo winced. "Yeah, I've taken those... Sure as hell didn't like it. They do have a spare set ready, right? I mean, if they noticed the 'damage' to that train, they have to have had time to find a decent replacement - one with enough room for all the passengers? I'd really hate to stand all the way back to Stillwater."
He sighed. "I don't know... Maybe, but-"
There was a beep, a call for attention, from the speakers again. "The train to Wilkinshire, scheduled to depart at six PM, will today depart from platform sixteen."
Immediately, the crowd started moving, most choosing the quick route of the passageways crossing the tracks underneath. Heero and Duo went with them.
They still had to wait another five minutes at platform sixteen before a train backed up in the adjoining track - one of the old sets they used on their morning commute. Duo sighed. "Well, could have been worse."
Heero gave a quick huff. "Don't jinx it."
No sooner did the train come to a halt did the crowd start boarding. Only luck - and sharp elbows - made sure Heero managed to get a seat by the window, Duo soon seated beside him. Both made themselves as comfortable as they could. While far from the bucket seats of the ICE sets, at least the seats were soft.
They didn't talk, not even as the train started moving. Duo hooked his transit pass over the rim of the net at the back of the seat in front of him, leaned back and closed his eyes, intent on not being disturbed. He gave Heero a quick glance and an unvoiced apology, gave a fatigued smile as Heero nodded in understanding. Heero followed Duo's example with the transit pass, but had trouble with the rest. Instead, he took to looking out the window, taking in the passing landscape as he'd often seen Duo do.
It wasn't until then he realized that he'd taken the spot he usually reserved for Duo. He gave Duo a glance, smiled slightly at the calm face. Well, Duo hadn't objected, perhaps it was okay.
They passed Leigh. It was right about when they hit the open landscape past Leigh that the tranquility was shattered by Duo's snoring. It wasn't much, considering the hustle of the rest of the crowded train and its passengers, but it still bothered Heero a bit. Not quite as much as it amused him, but close enough. He gave Duo a gentle push of the shoulder, hoping that'd be sufficient to rustle Duo out of whatever caused his snoring, but not enough to wake him.
It did neither. Heero made another attempt, a bit harder this time.
Duo did stop snoring.
He also fell in over Heero, his head coming to rest against Heero's shoulder. Heero froze momentarily, then grew a nervous smile, doing his utmost not to move; not to disturb his friend. Duo ground his cheek against Heero's shoulder. The best Heero could offer, was to relax said shoulder as much as possible, hoping it'd make a decent pillow.
As they approached Vernon Falls, he grew daring enough to tilt his head just a bit, resting his cheek against Duo's head, careful not to administer too much pressure. It was everything and nothing. It was incredibly significant, and completely meaningless.
But it was real.
And that was enough.
Heero closed his eyes, utterly content with the world, not caring one bit if any of the other passengers reacted. Nothing mattered but the person resting against his shoulder, in turn supporting himself.
As they approached Stillwater, Heero contemplated letting Duo sleep on, so he could bring Duo home with him. It was certainly tempting. He could claim he'd fallen asleep too, and had thus not been able to issue Duo a fair warning of his stop. He could offer Duo room for the night, rather than have him take the first train going back again. Yet he could see any number of impracticalities of such a plan. He had no idea how Duo would react, for one.
And a time when Duo was under duress was certainly not the best time to confess his feelings, no matter how apparent those might already be, and no matter how much he wanted to. Reluctantly, he tilted his head upright and winced as the pain in the neck registered. It had been worth it, though.
He turned to look at Duo's tranquil face again. There was a vague smile there now, soon enough etched in Heero's mind as his personal Mona Lisa. Tentatively, Heero reached out his palm, softly cupped Duo's cheek, no more than a brush - at least not until Duo turned his head, leaning into the touch, murmuring something incomprehensible. He was still not awake, but he would get there soon enough.
Jitterish, Heero withdrew his hand. He didn't want to give Duo the wrong idea - not unless said idea was invited, that is.
Doubt, ever lurking in the shadows for a chance to nag, chose that moment of vulnerability to attack.
He hadn't misread Duo's actions, had he? Certainly, Duo hadn't been opposed to their friendship, even if they hadn't done much - if anything at all - to move beyond that. What if Duo only wanted that? Heero sighed to himself and shook his head. He stared out at the passing landscape, noticed the train slowing down, fast approaching the next stop.
He turned to give Duo a last look, and smiled softly. Well, if this was all there was... a few stolen moments... then at least he would made good use of them - and for now, that could suffice.
That cup of coffee could wait a little longer.
Hesitantly, he reached for Duo's shoulder and touched it gently, then shook it likewise.
Still drowsy, Duo opened his eyes and blinked drearily. "Hmm?"
Heero smiled softly. "You're home..."
"Oh...?" Duo blinked again and returned the smile. "Am I...?" He straightened up, rubbed one eye with the back of his hand and looked out the window as the lights of Stillwater station slowly passed. His eyes widened. "I am!" Shocked awake, he scrambled for his bag and jacket, and gave Heero a quick, sheepish grin as he got to his feet and the train ground to a halt. "Sorry, Heero - got to go."
He chuckled. "I know. See you tomorrow?"
Duo nodded eagerly. "Count on it - thanks for waking me up, Heero." He hurried to the exit, intent on getting off before the impatient conductor waved the green flag for departure.
Heero merely eyed Duo's retreating back, then watched as he walked across the platform, heading for the bicycle rack. "You're welcome..." he muttered at length as the train shook into motion again.
An old saying came to mind. Indeed, it was the little things that made life worth living.
But he wouldn't object if they were just a tad bigger.