2-11-2001

Title: Life Without Friends
Author: Maxwell's Demon
Disclaimers: Duh.
Completed: 2/11/01
Archive: Well, if you actually want it, ask first, please. ^^;
Pairings: 2x1, 13x1, 13 + Catherine, 6+1, Odin x Sally (WTF?), 5 x Catherine
Warnings: Shounen ai/Yaoi, AU, Angst, Death, Cursing, Drugs, Alcohol, Sap, OOCness, Violence, Murder, A teeny tiny bit of implied sex, Crossover fusion type thing with a book
Author's Notes and/or Comments: Yeah, yeah, Heero is so majorly OOC, but, well, it IS AU, ne? ^^;; Ah, and, I don't know why I chose Odin Lowe and Sally Po to play the parts of Heero's parents... Hehe... ^^;
Oh! And, psst, 'Professor Yuy' is Odin Lowe, FYI.
Vocabulary: Chicken (underage homosexual), nudger (homosexual), pillow biter (homosexual), and hodgie (an openly homosexual person).

"..." = Speech
/.../ = Thought
 

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Chapter 1
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The way his father slammed the car door made Heero's ears hurt.

"Inside," he said, teeth gritted.

His stepmother walked in-between them, either keeping them apart, or physically trying not to take sides. Not that she wasn't on Heero's father's side. Everyone was.

Mrs. Lady Une, who was baby-sitting for Quatre, opened the apartment door for them. She had probably been standing at the window for the last two hours. The kind of woman who would really get a thrill out of baby-sitting for Professor Yuy while he took his son to court. Heero could just hear her on the phone to half of Greater L2: "Poor Dr. Yuy. His reputation's just ruined. Had to take that boy of his – you know, the one who's been in all the trouble? – to the trial for that drug case. He's trouble; t-r-o-u-b-l-e; trouble. He wouldn't have custody at all, but the mother kilt herself, don't you know."

Slowly, Heero unbuttoned his raincoat. His stomach was hurting terribly and he wanted to go and take some Tagamet, but his father was bound to make a pronouncement and he'd better wait for it.

He was waiting too, waiting for his stepmother to pay Mrs. Lady Une, who was being quiet, taking her time getting her coat and pocketbook, obviously dying to hear some gory details.

"Thank you very much," Heero's stepmother said, smiling at her. "I'll stop over tomorrow morning, and you can give me a list of whatever groceries you need."

That was an exit line and, reluctantly, Mrs. Lady Une left. She would probably die of curiosity before she got halfway across the street. Unless she had a glass in that big black pocketbook and was going to hold it against the door to eavesdrop.

His father looked at him, and Heero could almost hear him grinding his teeth. A habit both of them had. Some mornings, his jaw would hurt so much that it would be hard to open his mouth. Nice to know that he had a periodontal disease to look forward to.

"For starters, Heero," he said, his voice very tight, "you're going to –"

"Odin, why don't you go sit down?" his stepmother, Sally, suggested. "I'll run up and check on Quatre, and then I'll bring you a drink."

He frowned at her, frowned harder at Heero. "Go up to your room," he said. "I don't want to see you for a while."

Heero went, not looking an either of them. Halfway up the stairs, he felt a wave of such incredible nausea that he had to lean against the banister. The nausea faded back to ordinary pain and he continued to his room, closing the door. He thought about crying, but his stomach hurt too much and he went out to the bathroom to get his medication. The hall was empty, and he made it back to his room without his father or stepmother accosting him.

Avoid stress situations, his doctor had said last year when he first diagnosed the ulcer. Situations like murder trials? Yeah, murder trials would probably count. The ulcer had never made sense to him. You weren't supposed to be sixteen – seventeen now – and have a stupid ulcer. It sure did hurt like hell though.

He lowered himself onto the bed, lying as flat as he could, inhaling slowly, deeply. Sometimes deep breaths helped. Sometimes.

A murder trial. Well, actually, it was a hearing. He had never been so terrified in his life – no wonder his stomach felt this way. Treize had given his best performance: all brunette and muscular and clean-cut, too wholesome to have possibly committed murder. Except that he had. Twice. And from the way he kept smiling over at him, the malicious smile that scared him even in the safety of a crowded courtroom, he knew he wanted everyone to think he was lying and had helped him every step of the way. And by knowing he had done it, and being too afraid to tell anyone, maybe he had.

There was a knock on the door, but he didn't answer. His stepmother came in.

"How's the pain?" she asked.

Heero sat up, moving his hand away from his stomach. "What makes you think I'm in pain?"

"Did you take your medicine?"

"Yeah."

"Good." His stepmother put her hands in her skirt pockets, looking very uncomfortable. Slightly wavy light brown hair, dancer- thin, wide hazel eyes. Young eyes. Today she was conservative in gray flannel, but ordinarily, she wore dramatic hippie sort of clothes = big wool ponchos, hug hoop earrings, black ballet slippers. And jeans. Always jeans. Not a person Heero could take seriously as a mother figure.

"Is there anything you'd like to talk about?"

Not with you. Not with anyone. Heero shook his head.

"Are you sure?"

Heero nodded.

"He's more disappointed then angry."

Right. Heero closed his eyes, willing his stomach pain to leave. "May I be alone, please?"

His stepmother sighed. "If that's what you want."

Heero nodded.

"I'll bring you some dinner later."

Heero opened his eyes. "I'm not very hungry."

"Maybe you will be by then."

"No." Heero shook his head. "Thank you."

His stepmother moved closer. "Heero, I –"

Heero stiffened, not wanting to be touched, and his stepmother withdrew.

"I'll come back when dinner's ready," she said, and left the room.

Alone again, Heero relaxed somewhat, letting his hands unclench. It was hard to believe life could get any worse then this. More then once lately, he had thought about killing himself, erasing the fact that he had ever existed. It would be so easy, so – except that he wouldn't. He didn't respect people who committed suicide.
 
 

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Chapter 2
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On night, when he was in ninth grade, his mother didn't come home from work. He was half worried and half angry – it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for his mother to spend a little too much time at the bar after work, or even during work. He would have told his father, but after the divorce, he met some stupid graduate student at Harvard and they had ended up getting married, and Heero really didn't want to live with him. Not that living with his mother was much better. Those last couple of years, it seemed like half the time, his mother was drunk, and the rest of the time, she was crying. Sometimes she did both at the same time. Heero didn't know what to do, but was afraid to tell anyone because then he would have to go live with his father and his wife. He tried bringing home a couple of bad grades to give his mother something different to worry about, but his mother cried harder. So Heero went back to getting A's. Also, getting dinner. His mother wasn't eating much.

Then one night, right before Christmas, his mother didn't come home. It got to be eight, then nine, and Heero was scared enough to call a woman who worked in his mother's office to ask if she had seen her. It turned out that his mother had never come back from lunch. Really scared now, Heero was going to call his father, but then she saw red flashing lights outside.

An accident, the police said. There was a lot of talk – talk he probably wasn't supposed to hear – about blood alcohol levels and how fast the car was going – but the police had called it an accident. Since when was it an accident to b thirty miles away from home on a mountain road going in the wrong direction and conveniently run into the largest tree around?

His father flew down from L2 and brought him to the apartment where he, his new wife, and his new son lived. He didn't talk to anyone, not even the psychologist who was costing his father at least sixty dollars an hour.

He finished ninth grade at a school in L2, a terrible five months of sitting in the last row of classrooms, constantly afraid that he would cry, not making any friends. And then, in tenth grade, he went to the Baldwin School in Greater L2. There were a couple of kids he knew from his old school, but he had managed to perfect a cool, distant attitude, and no one bothered him.

Since he didn't have anything else to do, he kept getting A's, and when his English teacher asked him to join the newspaper staff, he did as he was told, still not making friends. He even joined a couple of other activities, like yearbook, and chess, so his father and other people would stop worrying about his mental health and leave him alone. Sometimes, especially on the newspaper, someone like Noin Lucrezia from his old school would say something funny or ask a friendly question, and he would want to relax, open up, but was either too afraid, or too much in the habit of being cool and distant. Everyone else seemed so cheerful and normal, like they all came from 2.3-children-BMW-families, and had never had anything bad happen in their lives. Oh, there were divorces all over the place, but that seemed more chic then traumatizing. It was easier to keep to himself.

Junior year, everything changed. Treize Kushrenada started hanging around. Handsome, popular jock, even more bored and cynical then he was, he had probably been invited to every prom and cotillion in the Greater L2 area. Suddenly, he was paying attention to him. Appearing whenever he turned the corner, sitting with him at lunch, showing up at his locker. "We're just alike, Hee-chan," he was always saying. "Neither of us gives a damn about anyone." "I give a damn about you," he would want to say, but Treize wasn't into emotionalism. And he fell completely, totally in love; was so happy that his father and Sally noticed and seemed to relax about him. His father didn't quite approve of the boy who came swerving up to their brownstone in his Porsche, beeping his horn instead of coming in – although, the first time, his father had insisted on meeting him. Treize was the kind of cool guy who "didn't do" parents.

Now it all seemed incredibly stupid, but at the time, he had been convinced that he was wonderful. And he was charming. Because they never talked about families – his parents were never home and he had the whole third floor of his house to himself, anyway – and he never asked him about how he felt about things, he relaxed, knowing that he would never have the pressure of having to talk about his mother – or anything. So it was easy to give in to other kinds of pressure: getting high, doing some coke, sex. He had a lot of parties, and he found himself hanging around with a bunch of jocks and their shallow girl friends or boy friends and genuinely enjoying himself.

Besides, he was careful. He almost never got high at school, he kept his grades up. And is his father was upset, or worried, or mad, it didn't seem all that serious, since he would be going off to collage soon enough. A year and a half wasn't that long. He never actually caught him at anything anyway, just suspected him. He was too careful to get caught.

When Treize started selling drugs, it didn't seem that bad. He was careful, too – letting other people take the risks, mostly just being the supplier. He wasn't really sure where he got the drugs – somewhere in L2 – and he never asked, not wanting to know. No one would ever suspect him: handsome, popular Treize Kushrenada, as All-Colony Bred as they came. And because he didn't seem to worry or care, he didn't either.

But he was becoming erratic – driving faster, taking more drugs. Then, one afternoon, with just the two of them at his house, they had an argument. His father was having company for dinner and he knew he shouldn't drink anything. Treize didn't like it, angry enough to scare him. He tried to leave, but he blocked his was, punching him when he tried to get past him. He fell back against the wall, too stunned to react, and he hit him several more times, yelling terrible things, angrier than anyone he had ever seen. He didn't cry until he was finished, staring down at him, out of breath.

"Tell anyone about this and I'll really hurt you," he said, and ran.

He told his father and Sally that he had been bugged.

"Why did you lie?" the police had asked, later.

"I don't know," he'd told them. To protect himself? To protect him?

"Do you realize that if people had been aware of Mr. Kushrenada's violence, Noin Lucrezia and Trowa Barton might still be alive?"

"Yes, sir," he'd said. "I guess I do."

That lie had been his first big mistake. Like they always said, tell one lie and you have to keep covering up. After a week at home, recovering from the bruises and crying on and off, he had returned to school. Treize was so damn careful that he had called a couple of times, asking if she was feeling okay and if she would be back in school soon – the concerned, solicitous boyfriend – and then, once he was back, engineered a noisy "official" break-up. He ended up going out with his friend Zechs, a nice – if not overly bright – guy, and Treize would show up with what he and his friends called The Blonde of the Week. He let Zechs bring him to the parties; half, he figured, to try and make Treize jealous, and half to punish himself for being so stupid.

Treize was the biggest dealer in the school now, although he and Zechs were the only ones who knew that he was the one behind so much of the drug traffic. He was still so damn careful. Then somehow, Trowa Barton – a really jerky, ingratiating guy a grade behind them – found out and said that he either wanted a piece of the action or he would tell everything. Zechs told him about this, not bright enough to keep his mouth shut. Then, one day, Trowa freaked out in the cafeteria, what turned out to be a fatal LSD experience. An accident, the police said. Right. But he was too scared of Treize to say anything, and just hoped to God that people would forget the whole thing.

And, except for Noin Lucrezia, from his old school, they did. Heero would never excepted such a vehement reaction from her – Noin was the beautiful debutante type, the valedictorian of their class, seemingly a perfect human being – one who would surely forget such a sordid incident. But she didn't – asking questions all over the place. Obviously determined to find out what really happened. Heero avoided her whenever he could. Noin had always made him nervous, asking thoughtful, perceptive questions even when there wasn't anything going on. For all her popularity, she tended to be a loner too, hanging out with Wufei Chang from their old school, although Heero was sure that they weren't romantically involved. Maybe Noin made him nervous because there was something Heero liked about her. If she hadn't been so perfect, they might have been friends.

But all those questions were making Treize scared – he knew that even without Zechs telling him. And before Heero could figure out what to do, the valedictorian of the senior class was found out in front of the school, dead. Another overdose.

Treize had been smart enough to plant drugs in Noin's locker, and the police decided that Noin's death, too, had been an accident. Treize also got a few rumors going, and soon, the whole school was convinced that Noin Lucrezia had been a secret drug user, possibly even suicidal. Just another tragedy.

Heero walked through the next week in a daze. A new girl started school, thin and nervous, and Heero felt sorry for her, remembering what it was like to start school in the middle of the year. For some reason, the girl seemed familiar – maybe it was just the dark eyes, or seeing someone else who looked as if she was always scared, and always pretending not to be scared. Treize, always one for the tough, vulnerable type, latched onto her right away, and at first, Heero didn't do anything, relieved that someone else could be fooled. But he and this girl – Catherine Bloom, became friends in an aloof sort of way, and Heero started trying to warn her, seeing her falling into the same pattern with Treize that he had.

Then, things happened fast. Not only was Wufei Chang hanging around Catherine, but he was also asking questions. Coming home from school one day and finding Sally alone, Heero almost told her everything, but was afraid to start, afraid to admit all of the lies. But she should have, because Treize was waiting for her after newspaper the next day, dangerously off angel dust, and he was too afraid not to get in the car with him. He drove to a deserted road where they had always gone parking, and proceeded to scare the hell out of him, somehow knowing that he knew everything. He threatened to break his ribs, beat him up, kill him if he said anything, making each point with a fist, hitting him in the stomach where it wouldn't show. He threatened and hurt him until he cried, then dumped him out of the car near Altron Square. For the first time, he knew that he was genuinely insane, and he was much too terrified to tell anyone. Since the injuries didn't show this time, he convinced his father that it was an ulcer attack and spent half the night sick in the bathroom.

He made it to school the next day, too scared to stay home, and it was probably the worst day of his life. Treize was enjoying the power of his threat, and he flinched every time he even looked at him. Unbelievably, during study hall, Catherine Bloom started talking about LSD and someone else told her about the two people who had died from it – and Wufei Chang was asking questions, and everything seemed out of control. Heero went to the yearbook meeting after school, but knew he couldn't keep this up anymore. He would have to tell his father everything – and let him handle it.

Then, Wufei Chang "fell" on the stairs, breaking more then one bone. He sat alone in the room where the yearbook staff met, the advisor having sent everyone home; flipping through the yearbooks, not sure where to go. There was a yearbook from his old school, and he couldn't help but looking through it, seeing pictures of Noin and Wufei – and there was a picture of Catherine standing with Noin. They were friends. A picture of Noin and Catherine and Wufei. They were all friends. Which meant that Catherine and Wufei were asking questions because they knew that Treize had killed Noin, and they were trying to prove it, and – Jesus Christ. He stared at the pictures for a long time, not sure what to do.

Realizing why Wufei had fallen on the stairs and who must have pushed him – and knowing that Treize and Zechs would be at Treize's house, at the usual afternoon party – Heero decided to go there. Someone had to stop Treize, and maybe if he showed him the pictures, he would see how crazy it all was and – except, when he got to his house, Catherine was there too.

He was so surprised that he just stood there, staring at the three of them, and when Zechs came over to see what was wrong with him, he let him see the pictures. Let him take the responsibility. Naturally, he panicked, and called Treize out to the hall to see them too. "What do we do? What do we do?" Zechs kept saying. "We get rid of her," Treize said, with that strange, scary smile. Heero was so scared – aware that he was included in that threat if he didn't go along – that he almost let him do it. Stood there, watching Treize corner Catherine, watching him get ready to kill her. When he finally found enough courage to run out of the room and call the police, he had excepted Zechs to try and stop him. Instead, just as scared and horrified as he was, he helped him call them.

The police got there in time and he told them everything, Zechs chiming in, all of them being taken to the station where the interrogations and accusations started. His father, Treize's parents, Noin's parents, lawyers, police officers, yelling, fear, guilt. He told them everything, over and over, today for the last time. Until the trial, anyway. He had been released that first night into his father's custody and he had barely spoken to him since. He was right to hate him – everyone should hate him. Everyone pretty much did.

Going back to school had been horrible, especially with Catherine in all of his classes – a constant reminder of what a coward he had been. He dropped out of his extracurricular activities and even stopped going to lunch, spending that time alone in the library. And even though all the charges against him had been dismissed, because of duress and cooperative testimony and God only knew what else, they would all still hate him. Until the trial, Zechs was in a reform school, Treize off being observed in come place for the criminally insane – Jesus. Suicide might be the coward's way out, but maybe he should really do it. Everyone would be a lot better off.
 
 

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Chapter 3
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Sally brought him some dinner on a tray, but Heero's stomach hurt too much to eat it. Even the smell of the food – salad, garlic bread, spaghetti casserole – made him sick and he moved the tray over to his desk, returning to his bed and huddling under the quilt.

Around eight, his father came in, and he sat up, his hands nervous fists. He stood stiffly, arms across his chest, and he didn't look at him, afraid to see his statement.

"You didn't eat your dinner," he said.

"I'm sorry." He swallowed. "I don't feel very well."

"I'm sure you don't." He moved his jaw. "I'm very disappointed in you."

He nodded, fear tightening the muscles in his throat. Terrible to be afraid of his own father. He was scared of almost everyone these days.

"The constant lying is the part I really can't – " He let out a breath. "Well, I don't suppose we need to go over it again."

He shook his head, still afraid to look up.

"Do you realize how lucky you are? This all could have been even worse."

He nodded guiltily, unable to repress a shudder at the thought of being in a reform school or something.

"Well." He sighed. "We're just very lucky."

He nodded, swallowing so he wouldn't cry.

"I know Dr. J didn't work out very well," he said, "but I've arranged for you to see that new man in Brookline, Rasid. I've heard good things about him."

He didn't say anything, remembering the silent hours in Dr. J's thickly carpeted office, biting his cheek so he wouldn't cry, sidestepping his probing questions.

"Do you have anything to say?" his father asked.

He shook his head.

"Well." He refolded his arms. Communication wasn't exactly one of the bywords of their relationship.

"Do you" – his voice was smaller and shakier then he had expected – "want me to leave after my birthday?"

"Leave? Where are you going to go?"

"Away," he said. "So you wouldn't have to – I mean, so I wouldn't be here. I'll be eighteen, so – "

"Don't be stupid," he said sharply. "That's no solution."

"It would be easier for everyone. I mean – "

"Oh, I see," he said, his face tight. "And how would you live?"

"I don't know." He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Does it matter?"

"What do you think?"

He shrugged, hunching against the burning pain starting in his stomach.

"Now, look," he said, low and stern, "it matters. It matters a great deal. We're not talking about running away, we're talking about starting over. Pulling yourself together."

He closed his eyes, anticipating the predictable shot of pain across his stomach. Ulcers were scary things. Terrible things. "You don't think it's kind of a lost cause?"

"No," he said, sounding angry. "I don't."

"Yeah, right."

"Now, look," he said. "I know it isn't going to be easy, but – "

"I wish – " He stopped before saying that he wished he had been in the car with his mother. His father would throw a fit.

"I wish you hadn't been involved either," he said. "But I think we're a little beyond that."

"Yeah," he said.

"Well." He cleared his throat. "I'll be driving you to school in the morning."

He nodded. He always did these days, apparently not even trusting him on public transportation.

"All right then. I'll call you in the morning."

He nodded.

 

He had more nightmares then usual that night. He had had them pretty regularly since his mother died, but they had gotten much worse after everything happened with Treize. He couldn't always remember the dreams but he would wake up either terrified or crying, the blankets tangled around him.

After his father called him, he sat up very slowly, feeling even more tired then he had when he'd finally turned out the lights the night before. He rested his face in his hands, not sure if he should try to remember the dream, or just shake it off. A jail. Something about a very dark jail. And Treize, standing on the other side of the bars, smiling that smile, saying, "Trust me. Come on, you can trust me." Then, he was laughing and as he turned away from him, he saw Catherine Bloom behind him, smiling the same scary smile, and – shake it off. He should have tried to –

"Heero?" his father said through the door. "Are you up?"

"Um" – he pulled in a deep breath – "yeah."

"Okay, I just wanted to be sure," he said. "You don't want to be late."

No. He definitely didn't want to walk in late. It was such a small school that everyone knew about the hearing, and they were all going to be waiting, and watching, and – he shook his head. If he thought about it, he wasn't going to be able to make it in there at all. Since they were expecting a criminal, he was tempted to wear tough clothes – old torn jeans, jeans jacket, his Judas Priest concert T-shirt – but it seemed safer to go the Fair Isle sweater, nice Levi's route and blend in with everyone else. No point in looking for attention.

When he got downstairs, his father was at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading The L2 Globe, with Quatre sitting next to him, crunching through a bowl of Cheerios and chattering happily.

"Good morning," Sally said, standing near the stove, pouring herself some coffee.

Heero nodded. "I'll be in there," he said to his father, indicating the living room.

He sighed, lowering the newspaper. "Shouldn't you eat something?"

"I'm not hungry." He went into the living room, Quatre following him.

"Can we watch cartoons?" he asked, climbing onto the couch next to him.

"Quatre, I – " He let out his breath. He never yelled at Quatre. He was too little to be mean to. "I have to finish some homework, okay? Why don't you go in and eat your breakfast?"

"Will you play with me after school?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever," he said, tying his right sneaker so he wouldn't fall over the lace. "Go eat your cereal, okay?"

"I can tie shoes too," he said.

"I know," he said patiently. "You're very good at it."

"Can I tie yours?"

He lifted his foot onto the couch and he carefully untied the Topsider, slowly retying it with a large neat bow.

"Double knot?" he asked.

"No, thank you."

"Mommy says – "

"Well, she's right," Heero said. "You'd better go eat your cereal before it's mush."

"Okay."

As he went back into the kitchen, he closed his eyes. This was going to be an awful day.

His father came out, putting on a tweed jacket and checking through his briefcase. Sally walked over to the couch, handing him a lunchbag, as well as a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in a paper towel.

"Eat this on the way," she said. "You'll feel terrible otherwise."

"Thank you," Heero said, although his stomach hurt too much for him to even think about eating. His father was kissing Sally good-bye and he concentrated on his knapsack, not wanting to see them. It probably shouldn't still bother him to see them being affectionate with each other, but it always did.

"Have a good day," Sally said.

That seemed to be directed toward him, so Heero nodded, going outside after his father.

They drove in silence over the bridge to Greater L2. When his father pulled up in front of the school, he made a production of gathering his things together, his hands shaking.

"It's not going to be as bad as you think it is," he said.

"You sound like her."

"I probably do," he agreed. "I want you to be home right after school."

He nodded, opening the door.

"Heero?"

"What?"

He shook his head. "Never mind. Have a good day."

"You too," he said mechanically. When he got to the main entrance, he glanced back, seeing him still parked there, looking at him, with his chin resting in his hand. Probably waiting just to make sure he went in. Nothing like trust.

His legs trembled as he walked down the hall, and he gripped his knapsack tightly. He knew everyone was staring, and conversations stopped when he walked past, resuming to whispers. His hands were shaking enough to make it hard to open his locker, but he managed, and brought the books he needed down to his homeroom, not looking at anyone.

He could feel hatred and bitterness everywhere – it wasn't just paranoia. Or like that stupid joke – yeah, you're paranoid, and yeah, someone is following you. Sally humor. She probably heard it at aerobics class.

It wasn't my fault! he wanted to shout. I didn't know he was going to do it, and if I had, I couldn't have stopped him. I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry.

Instead, he sat stiffly, self-consciously, not sure if people were blaming him personally, or blaming him because Treize – and Zechs, for that matter – wasn't around to take the brunt of it. Noin has been about as popular as it was possible to be.

He focused down at his desk during classes, teeth pressed into his lip, afraid that he was going to cry. Ninth grade all over again. His stomach hurt, but if he took his medication, someone would probably drag him down to the office for taking drugs. If it got much worse though, he would have to go down to the clinic and take some. The nurse would know that Tagamet wasn't a narcotic.

It was strange to be picked last during gym class. Not that he was the world's greatest athlete or anything, but during a game he always took care of his responsibilities. It was easier then calling attention to himself by screwing up, or refusing to play. Now even Relena Peacecraft was picked before he was. The team that got stuck with him would exchange glances – and it really wasn't just paranoia. But the worse was that Catherine Bloom was in his classes. In all of his classes. They hadn't spoken since – well, since the night Heero had almost gotten her killed by telling Treize – Jesus. No wonder the whole school hated him. The blame was pretty clear-cut on that one. Catherine looked terrible – about as bad as Heero felt – thin, hunched, dark shadows under her eyes, her face was very pale against the light pink sweater she was wearing. As if she might be going to cry. Except for Wufei Chang, she kept to herself as much as Heero did, but the difference was that everyone was very kind and supportive around her. Once, during English, their eyes met and Catherine seemed to slump, like a little animal who had been kicked once too often; then, her statement stiffened and she looked away. Heero felt his stomach twist, and stared down at his books, eyes dangerously full of tears.

School ended, finally, and he walked outside. Around him, people were talking and laughing, making after-school plans. Meet in Dorothy's Basement after the orthodontist, go to a movie in Altron Square, bake brownies. Bake brownies? He had to turn around and look at those two. Tenth-graders. Figured.

Not that he would turn down an opportunity to bake brownies with someone. Even a tenth-grader. Suddenly so lonely that he knew he was going to cry, he veered over to a nearby graffiti-scarred bench. He sat on it, fists tight, eyes closed. Maybe if he had a cigarette. He'd probably feel a lot better if he had a –

"Heero!" A voice said happily.

He looked up, startled. Quatre. "What are you doing here?" He glanced around. "Where's Sa – your mother?"

He pointed to the row of parents' cars in the school driveway. Heero frowned. "Why are you guys here?" They only had one car, which meant Sally had taken Quatre into Greater L2 on the subway, stopped at his father's office at the university – but why would they bother? Unless maybe it was to check up on him.

"To see you!" Quatre said, trying to take his hand. "Come on." He followed him uneasily, shaking his head when he suggested that he sit up front with them, and climbing into the backseat. Sally was wearing a hand-dyed dashiki and jeans. All she needed were some love beads.

"How come you're here?" Heero asked, suspicious. "I was going to come right home."

Sally smiled at her. Didn't anything her the woman down? "We thought you might want to come grocery shopping with us," she said. "Grocery shopping?" Heero closed his eyes. Entertainment in his new life, the Life Without Friends. They would probably have to go home and bake brownies. Or snap green beans or something. Jesus.

They went to the Wing Market in Oz Square.

"Why didn't you just go to the one in Greater L2?" Heero asked.

"I like this one," Sally said.

"Well, is it okay if I stay in the car?"

Sally glanced at Quatre, who was having a conversation with himself, something about Mr. T. "No, it isn't okay," she said quietly. "I'm not going to force you, but it isn't okay."

Heero scowled, but got out of the car. "You're not my mother."

"No," Sally agreed. "But I'm much healthier then you are."

"Oh, wow. What are you going to do to me?"

"Force-feeding you would be a start." She held out her hand, checking both ways for cars. "Quatre, come here."

"My name's B.A.!" he barked in a Mr. T. voice. "Bad Attitude!"

Sally gave Heero such an ironic grin that he almost grinned back. "Come here, B.A.," she said, and he took her hand.

Once they were inside, Quatre went up the aisle ahead of them to pick out dog food for Shinigami, their schnauzer, who was ten years old and a fairly grumpy animal. He was mostly his father's dog. Heero slouched after Sally and the basket, knowing that he wouldn't be asked to go after anything. "I need some razor blades," he said.

Sally barely flinched. "How about some of those disposable shavers?" she asked scanning her list.

"It's easier with blades," Heero said.

Sally picked out a package of onion rolls.

"Are we having hamburgers or something disgusting tonight?"

"Yes," Sally said.

"I hate hamburgers."

"You hate most food."

Heero shrugged. "Depends on who's doing the cooking.

Sally just looked at him.

"Well, it does," Heero said defensively. "Some people are lousy cooks."

Quatre came back with an armload of Cycle 4, which he dumped into the basket, Sally moving the rolls out of the way just in time.

"What now, Mommy?" he asked.

"Well," she said, pointing as they turned down another aisle, "why don't you go get some Special K and some cereal you like?" He nodded and went off, mumbling gruffly: "Stay in school! Don't cuss yo' mama!"

"He's too young to watch The A-Team," Heero said.

Sally put a can of coffee in the basket. "You want to be the one to tell him he can't watch it anymore?"

"It's probably corrupting him."

"Probably," Sally agreed, selecting some oatmeal. Heero slouched after her. By now, any normal person would have slugged him. He had almost never seen Sally lose her temper. What a doormat.

"I'm out of cigarettes," he said conversationally.

"Good," Sally said. "Maybe you won't get cancer."

"I can smoke if I want. You can't stop me."

"No." Sally waited for Quatre to catch up. "But I don't have to encourage you."

"Oh, wow. Power trip." Heero walked extra-sulkily.

Quatre came back with the cereal and went ahead to get orange juice.

"If you won't give me money," Heero said, "I'll have to rip them off."

Sally shrugged. "I'll have to report you."

"No way. You wouldn't do that."

Sally looked at him. "Do you want to take that chance?"

"You hate me, don't you," Heero said. "I bet you'd report me even if I didn't steal anything. I bet you'd plant cigarettes on me just to get me in trouble."

Sally laughed.

"I bet you would," Heero said. Why did she have to be so damned good-natured? Talk about irritating.

Sally selected eggs, margarine, milk.

"I bet you'd be glad if I got in trouble, wasn't around anymore."

"But you're such a pleasant shopping companion."

Heero almost laughed that time.

In the vegetable section, Sally got some of almost everything. "I'm not snapping those," Heero said as Sally put a bag of green beans in the shopping cart.

"Then you can chop the onions."

"I hate onions," Heero said automatically.

Sally grinned. "I know." She took the bag of apples Quatre carried over. "Good job. These are beautiful."

"Can we get pears too?" he asked.

"Sure. Pick out four." She reached up to rip a plastic bag off the roll over the tomatoes and handed it to him.

"I love pears," he said. "Don't you, Heero?"

Never pick on small people. "Um, yeah," he said. "Pears are good."

"Come help me."

He followed him, avoiding Sally's eyes, helping him choose the four best pears. Not too soft, not too hard, nice and shiny.

"Oh, great," Sally said when they came back. "What good helpers I have." She looked at Heero over Quatre's head, her eyes so amused that Heero grinned wryly. Sally would make it a whole lot easier if she weren't likable.

Feeling uncomfortable and claustrophobic in the check-out line, he went outside, sitting on the curb in front of the store, staring out at the parking lot. You knew you were in bad shape when grocery shopping – not even shopping, just tagging along after someone – was a terribly difficult ordeal. A hand came onto his shoulder and he flinched defensively.

"Here." Sally gave him a ten-dollar bill. "Why don't you go up and get a new CD?"

"What, you mean at Stereo Jack's or something?"

"Sure."

"They only have old CDs," Heero said, regretting it the instant he saw Sally's unhappy statement.

"Oh. Okay." His stepmother managed a smile. "It was just an idea." She glanced both ways, took Quatre's hand, and started across the parking lot to the car.

Still holding the ten-dollar bill, Heero watched them. What would it be like to be young, marry a man you loved very much, have a little boy, and then get stuck with an absolute rat of a stepson? Probably not much fun. He looked at the ten-dollar bill. Why was Sally so nice to him? She had to reason to be.

He walked over to the car, where his stepmother was loading bags into the trunk, her back stiff.

"Sally," he said quietly.

His stepmother closed the trunk.

"I, uh – I – " Heero sighed. He was lousy at this. He folded his arms, hunching over them. "I apologize."

Sally also sighed. "You make things harder then they have to be."

Heero shrugged, kicking at the cement with one shoe.

"Well." Sally smiled her little-kid smile, all teeth and happy eyes. "You never used to apologize."

Heero shrugged.

"Go get a couple of old CDs, okay? Quatre and I can drive up and meet you."

Heero kicked the cement. "You don't have to be nice to me."

"You're right," Sally said, pushing the shopping cart over next to two others. "I don't."
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 4
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

So, life fell into a pattern – a tedious pattern, but a pattern regardless. Get up, go to school, avoid meeting people's eyes or participating in class, come home. Get up, go to school, avoid meeting people's eyes or participating in class, come home. Go to his room, listen to music, hang out with Quatre if Sally was going to class or something, study, go to bed. Back to Life Before Treize. It wasn't much fun, but there wasn't any pressure either. Sometimes, just for variety, he went for walks. Wow.

His father drove him to Brookline to his first appointment with Dr. Rasid Kurama. God forbid he be allowed to take the T by himself. He might fall into bad company on the way.

When they pulled up into the parking lot, next to a square brick building full of dentists, podiatrists, and psychologists, Heero's stomach jumped nervously, and he clenched his hands under folded arms.

"I'll come with you," his father said.

"It's not like it's the first time."

"I'll come anyway."

The office was on the third floor, with a receptionist sitting in the waiting room. A stiff tweedy couple and a mother with a mean-looking little boy were sitting in four of the eight tubular chairs. After making sure that he didn't know them and didn't have to be embarrassed, Heero focused on his father and the receptionist.

"My son had a four-o' clock appointment," the older man way saying.

"Heero Yuy?" she asked, and he nodded. "Why don't you take a seat. The doctor will be right with you."

Heero let his father sit down, then sat perpendicular to him. His father didn't look embarrassed. He probably was though. What parent wouldn't be? He glanced at the mother gripping her son's wrist as he slouched down, tried to ignore the tweedy couple's tight- lipped, low-voiced quarrel.

"Mr. Yuy?" the receptionist said. "You can go down now. Second door on the left."

Heero stood up, his fists clenched so hard that his fingers were cramping.

"You don't have to stay," he said to his father.

"I'd rather," Odin said, and picked up a National Geographic.

Dr. Kurama's door was open and she stopped uneasily, seeing a man with dark hair and glasses sitting behind a crowded, yet orderly desk.

"Hi," he said, standing up. "You must be Heero. Come in." Cream-colored shirt, maroon crewneck, gray flannel parts. Loafers, probably.

"Come in," he said again. "Sit down."

Heero nodded, prepared not to like him.

Rasid came over and ushered him in, closing the door behind them. Brown loafers, well worn. Late thirties, three children, fluttery bespectacled wife. Brandies, undergrad; Columbia graduate. Maybe Brown.

He looked around the room. Bookshelves, dark paneling, green shag carpet. There was a couch and two easy chairs, a coffee table with a bowl of daisies. A man with daisies? He frowned. Also, a box of Kleenex. He sure as hell wouldn't be using any. A small refrigerator in the corner, a coffee machine above it. What looked like a box of muffins next to it. He glanced at Dr. Kurama, seeing a bit of a stomach bulge. Definitely a box of muffins.

"Sit anywhere you like," he said.

Did that include the waiting room? He selected the tubular chair across from Rasid's desk.

"You want some coffee?" he asked. "Tea? Soda?"

Heero shook his head.

Rasid sat down behind his desk, taking a sip from a brown pottery mug. Father's day. Or Sunday afternoon at Sank Market. "Cigarette?" he asked, lighting one for himself.

"What kind?"

"Newport."

Heero shook his head. "No. Thank you."

Dr. Kurama opened his desk drawer. "Marlboros? Salem Lights? Camels?"

Heero leaned forward. There were, indeed, several brands in the drawer. He sat back. "What do you do, pick up samples on the street?"

He smiled. "What do you think?"

"I think you get patients upset and steal their cigarettes when they're distracted."

Rasid laughed. "Maybe so." He held out a pack of Vantages. "Would you like one of Mrs. Schbeiker's cigarettes?"

"Is that supposed to be funny?"

"Is it?"

"Not really." Heero frowned. "Aren't you not supposed to mention patients' names?"

"Sorry. Just a joke."

"Oh." He shifted his position, the chair uncomfortable.

"I hear you've been accepted at some very good schools," he said.

Heero shrugged. Apparently, admission committees didn't read The Globe much because he had been accepted almost everywhere he applied: Wesleyan, Smith, Bowdoin, Sarah Lawrence, Middlebury. He didn't get into Yale; he hadn't applied to Harvard.

"Do you know where you want to go?"

He shrugged. His father was probably going to pull strings, get him into B.U. or Northeastern, and make him live at home. He would never trust him to go away to school, not anymore. He hadn't said so, but Heero could tell.

"What are you interested in studying?" Dr. Kurama asked.

"I'm not, particularly.

He nodded. "It's easier that way. Take different courses, see what you like."

Heero shrugged.

"It probably wasn't your idea to come here, was it?"

"No," he said.

"How do you feel about it?"

Heero looked at him, his statement carefully blank.

"Relax," he said. "Okay?"

He clenched his hands less visibly. "I look nervous?"

"A little." He lit another cigarette and he repressed an urge to ask him for one. "Does this bother you?"

Heero shook his head.

"Do you want to tell me something about yourself?"

"No."

"We could talk about the Red Sox."

"I don't like baseball," he said. Actually, he didn't care one way or the other. His father was a rabid fan, and went to every game he could. Even when he had been teaching at Dartmouth, before the divorce, he had driven down to Fenway Park all the time. He and his mother would go too sometimes, when Heero was old enough, and he had kind of enjoyed –

"What do you like?" Dr. Kurama asked.

Heero shrugged. How long was this going to be, fifty minutes? Rasid would probably go for fifty-five. Give them their money's worth, goddamn it.

"There isn't anything you want to talk about?"

Heero shook his head.

Silence.

"Why do you think your father wanted you to come here?" he asked.

Heero glanced at him. Was he playing stupid, or was this some kind of test to see his reaction, or what? "Well, now, I guess you'd have to ask him, wouldn't you," he said, his voice bored.

Rasid tapped the ashes off the end of his cigarette. "Heero, once you come in here, he isn't involved anymore. All of this is completely confidential."

"Oh," he said. Yeah, sure. Like his father wouldn't be on the phone bright and early tomorrow morning.

"I'm telling you the truth."

He shrugged. "What time is it?"

"Twenty past."

Heero couldn't hold back a sigh.

"You're not enjoying this?"

"Give me a break," he said. "I really don't want to be here."

"Where would you be otherwise?"

He shrugged.

"Where would you like to be?"

Not that he was going to answer him, but he couldn't think of anyplace, except maybe places that would have changed the course of events, like in the car with his mother, or – he shuddered. Maybe he really did need help.

"Where?" Rasid asked gently.

Heero's eyes felt hot, as if he were going to cry, so he kept her head down, biting his cheek and remembering the hours of sitting in Dr. J's office, barely speaking.

"Heero?"

He tensed the muscles in his right leg, then his left. "You'll tell my father."

"Never."

He sounded sincere. "You'll think I'm crazy, or – I don't know. Something bad will happen."

Rasid shook his head, and Heero studied his statement. He might want to tell him. If something bad was going to happen, why put it off? "I wish I wasn't anywhere," he said. "I wish I had been in the car with my mother." He didn't explain further – his father would have told him about the "accident." He folded his arms, waiting for his reaction. "You probably think that'd bad."

Rasid shook his head.

"It would have been a lot easier."

"For you?"

Heero shrugged. "For everyone."

"You don't think it would have upset people?"

Oh, yeah. Thousands. "Who?" he asked. "Except for my father, maybe. And he'd be over it by now. Long since."

He looked at him thoughtfully. "Do you really think so?"

"Yeah, I think so," he said, irritated. "What, you want me to say things just so you can disagree?"

"No. Of course not." He inhaled, exhaled a smoke. "Would your not being here have changed things?"

Things. "What, you mean with Treize?"

Rasid nodded. His father had definitely given him the blow-by- blow.

"I don't know." He thought about that. The same thing might not have happened, but Treize was such a psychopath that someday, sometime, he would have – "I don't know. Probably not."

"What about now?" he asked. "Where do you go from here?"

Heero sighed. This was really a drag. "I don't know. Home for dinner probably."

His eyes flickered. Amusement, Heero thought. "And after that?"

"I'll probably study, and then I'll go to bed."

"What about tomorrow?"

Heero gritted his teeth. "What do you want me to do, plot the rest of my life, hour by hour?"

"Do you think about it?"

This guy was really starting to get on his nerves. "No, I'm a carpe diem kind of person," he said, and was even more irritated when Rasid grinned. "I wasn't being funny."

"You're just extremely intelligent."

"Oh, yeah. Right." He tilted his head to try and see Rasid's watch. Was he ever going to get out of here?

"How do you and your stepmother get along?" he asked.

"Oh, for God's sakes." Heero closed his eyes, very tired of this conversation.

"You don't want to talk about it?"

"No. I don't want to talk about it."

"How about your father?"

His father probably didn't want to talk about it either. He rubbed his hand across his stomach, warning pains cutting through the extra dose of medicine he had taken before coming. "Look, it really isn't any of your business."

Rasid shrugged. "Okay. We'll talk about something else."

"Great." A headache was starting too. "Is it time for me to leave yet?"

"Not quite." He took a sip from his mug. "Do you want to come back here on Thursday?"

"No."

"Well, how about a week from today?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"I don't know," he said. "You'll have to talk to your father about that."

Translation: No. "Great. I'll hold my breath."

"Is it me personally?" he asked. "Or psychology in general?"

"I don't know. A little of both, I guess."

Rasid's eyes were very perceptive.

"I don't know." He shifted in the chair. "It's a waste of money. I mean, it's not like I'm going to talk to you or anything."

He shrugged. "You might change your mind."

Yeah, right. Don't hold your breath.

"There's no pressure," he said.

Maybe he was divorced. Who could stand to live with him?

"Well." Rasid looked at his watch. "I guess it's about time."

He stood – almost jumped – up, heading for the door. Rasid came right with him, surprisingly quick. He held out his hand and Heero took it, not sure what else to do.

"I'll see you next week," he said.

He withdrew his hand. "Maybe."

 

"How was it?" his father asked, once they were in the car.

"Do I have to go back?"

"You have to go see someone. Not necessarily him."

Heero slouched down, staring straight ahead.

"Did you not like him?"

He shrugged. "It's a waste of money."

His father also shrugged. "Then, I'll waste my money."

"Whatever." He closed his eyes so he wouldn't yell at him for having a sulky statement.

"If you want to look around for someone else, we can."

"I don't care."

His father's face tightened. "This is a little too important for you not to care."

"Yeah, well, I don't."

His father started the car, reversing abruptly and driving out of the parking lot. Heero knew he was angry, but didn't feel like worrying about it. He was always angry at him. They didn't speak until the car was parked in the spot behind their brownstone.

"Wait a minute," he said, and Heero took his hand off the door handle. His father didn't speak right away and Heero looked at him, noticing that the knuckles of his right hand were while. They were alike that way – very tense people. Stubborn, withdrawn, distant people. Sometimes he wondered what Sally had seen in the tall, taciturn professor; quiet and achievement-oriented. But, he was different around his: happier, more relaxed, less stiff. It was when he saw the two of them and Quatre together, all smiling and comfortable, that he felt the most left out. Like the standardized tests with the "which one of these objects doesn't belong" questions.

"Heero, I'm not doing this to make you more unhappy," he said. "I really think it will help you."

He nodded. "And take the responsibility off you."

"You know that's not fair."

Heero shrugged, studying his hands. Not very attractive hands; calloused and clenched. He only acted like his father, he looked like his mother. Blue deep-set eyes, tousled brown, almost light brown hair, average height, somewhat underweight. Unhealthy looking.

"Well." His father took the keys out of the ignition. "Apparently, you don't want to discuss it."

Heero got out of the car, pausing to tie his shoe so he could lag behind his father.

"Are you coming?" Odin asked.

Did he have a choice?
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 5
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The next Tuesday, he went back to Rasid Kurama's, Sally driving this time, Quatre home with Mrs. Lady Une.

"Do you want me to come up with you? His stepmother asked.

"No." Heero opened the door. "You don't even have to wait."

"Waste a free hour? Are you kidding?" She held up a copy of Robert T. Bakker's newest book. "I want to wait."

Heero shrugged. Good old everything-for-the-best Sally. When he went in, Dr. Kurama was eating a blueberry muffin.

"Want one?" He indicated the box.

"No, thank you."

"I shouldn't myself, he said. "My wife says it's a bad habit to get into."

Heero decided that it would be rude to agree. Too rude. There were limits.

"Would you like a soda? Anything?"

Heero shook his head.

"Well, if you change your mind." He sat down in one of the easy chairs.

"I'd rather sit over here."

"Sure," Rasid said. "But I'm going to sit over here, okay?"

Trying to make a fool out of him. He sat in the other easy chair, legs crossed, arms folded.

"So." He smiled at Heero. "How's everything going?"

"Great," Heero said. "My whole life's turned around. I guess I won't have to come here anymore."

"Well, that sounds terrific. Tell me about it."

"Yeah, right." He brought up his leg up onto the chair, wrapping his arms around it.

"So, things aren't great?"

"What do you think?"

"Well, tell me about it."

"Maybe I don't want to."

"What do you want to do?"

Heero hugged his knee closer. "You're a very repetitive person, you know that? You must drive your wife crazy."

"Sometimes," he agreed cheerfully.

"Do you use this approach all day long? You must get sick of it."

"Sometimes."

"Yeah, you must. I already am." He rubbed his sweater sleeve across his face.

"You look tired," Rasid said.

"Boy, you're really sharp. Did you go to Harvard or something?"

"Columbia."

Heero smirked.

"What's so funny?"

"Nothing. Brandeis undergrad?"

"Tufts."

One out of two, not bad.

"Making a cliché out of me?" Dr. Kurama asked.

"Yeah, I guess." His left leg was getting cramped and he brought his right one up on the chair instead.

"How's school?"

"Great."

"That's good to hear."

"Like I said, everything's great."

Rasid nodded.

"So I can stop coming here?"

"Is it that bad?"

"It's a pain." Heero held back a yawn, very tired.

"Late night?"

"Not really." He had had the usual nightmares, bad as ever. Or worse then ever, depending on how you looked at it. Treize was there, walking after him with the relaxed, malicious smile. Noin Lucrezia was there too, the good-humored model looks strangely flattened, almost zombie-like. Treize was after both of them, except Noin was going to help him, and – Heero had woken up crying, the sheets and blankets twisted.

"Your face is more expressive then you think it is."

Heero shrugged.

"People must be treating you differently."

"Which people?"

"Teachers, your friends."

He hugged his leg more tightly. "Maybe I don't have any."

"Friends?"

"No," he said. "Teachers. What do you think?" Heero shook his head. "Jesus."

"Does it bother you?"

"I like it."

"Why?"

"Because I do."

"Who do you talk to?"

Heero moved his jaw. "Maybe I don't."

"Do you like it that way?"

He nodded.

"Well." Rasid picked up his mug. "That's what's important. You being happy."

"Yeah."

"Are you happy?"

"Deliriously," Heero said.

"That's what's important."

"Yeah."

Dr. Kurama took a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, lighting one. "I quit smoking over the weekend," he said conversationally. "Not doing too well, am I?"

"Doesn't look that way."

"I guess I'm not motivated enough." He rested the cigarette in an ashtray on the coffee table. "Starting is a lot easier than stopping."

Was he being profound or offhand? It was hard to tell.

"What do you do in your free time?" he asked.

"Crusade against smoking."

Rasid laughed. "Seriously."

"What, you mean, do I have any `hobbies'?"

"Sure."

Hobbies. What a jerk. "I make Christmas ornaments out of shells."

"Really?" He looked interested. "What kind of ornaments?"

Total jerk. "Your basic. I make macramé plant holders too." Heero checked his statement. Still interested. What a dolt. "Then, I sell them at local craft shows."

"Sounds like fun," he said.

"Oh, yeah. Lots." Was he really that stupid? He couldn't be. He didn't think. "I also collect leaves."

"Very industrious," Rasid said.

"I like to keep busy."

"Good for you."

It was quiet, and then Rasid laughed. Well, good. He had been worried there for a minute.

"What's so funny?" Heero asked. "My hobbies are very important to me."

He nodded.

"You shouldn't make fun of people. If those were really my hobbies, I'd probably be set back years."

"Probably."

"That's a hell of a chance to take." He sighed. "What time is it?"

"Twenty-five past."

"Is that all?" He covered his eyes with his arm, wishing that he could sleep.

"How did it happen?"

"How did what happen?" He lowered his arm. "You mean, the stuff with Treize?"

He nodded.

"Don't you read the newspaper?"

"The newspaper doesn't always tell the whole story," he said.

Heero shrugged, feeling his face tighten.

"You don't want to tell me about it?" he said and asked.

"Boy, you're really perceptive," he said. "Is that why you decided to go into psychology?"

"I like to talk to people," Rasid said.

"Upset them, more likely." He pointed to the coffee table. "That's not the same box of Kleenex you had last week. Did you make that many people cry?"

"No. I have allergies."

"Yeah, sure." Heero twisted in the chair, just wanting to get out of this place.

"Have you decided where you're going to school?"

What a mosquito. "University of Arkansas."

"Good school," he said.

Heero had to stare at him. "Do you think you're funny or something?"

"Do you?"

"No."

"When do you have to let schools know?" he asked.

"Pretty soon."

"You got in – where?"

"Smith, Bowdoin, Wesleyan, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence." Maybe it was twenty of five now. Maybe.

"Do you have a first choice?"

"I don't think I'm going to go to any of them."

"Take some time off?"

Heero realized that he was knotting his hands together and abruptly relaxed them. "I think I'll be going to school around here. Live at home and stuff."

"Why?"

"Why." He let out a hard breath. "You're really boring, you know that? Have you been married long?"

"Six years," he said, his statement amused.

"Hard to believe."

"I gather you don't want to go away to school?"

"No, I – I mean, they won't let me."

"They?"

"My father. Who do you think?" He shook his head. Dr. Kurama brought new dimensions to the word "daft."

"Have you talked to him about it?"

"I don't have to talk to him. I know what he thinks." He leaned forward to try and see Rasid's watch. "Can I go yet?"

"No."

"It must be almost time."

"Almost," he agreed. "Why doesn't he want you to go away to school?"

"How should I know?" he asked defensively. "Because he doesn't trust me. He want to keep an eye on me.

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"If I go away, I'll just get in more trouble."

"He thinks," Dr. Kurama said.

"Yeah. I mean – " He stopped. How was he tricking him into talking? He didn't want to talk. "I don't know," Heero said, more quietly.

"But you want to go away."

"Well – yeah. Of course." Except he didn't. Lousy as it was at home, it was easier then leaving. The more he thought about it, the scarier –

"Heero?"

He looked up.

"Do you want to go away to school?"

"What do you think?" he asked. "Look, can I go now?"

Rasid checked his watch. "You should talk to your father about this."

"Don't tell me what to do!"

"It's only a suggestion."

"Yeah, right." He scowled. "Can I go now?"

Rasid nodded. "Have a good week."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Absolutely."
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 6
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Dinner was quiet. He played with his food, eating just enough to keep from getting yelled at. Quatre was chattering about kindergarten and how they had been reading, and boy, he knew every word. Sally and Heero's father were saying pleased things, and Quatre got so wound-up that he knocked over his milk. He started to cry, Sally blotting the tablecloth with her napkin and pouring him a fresh third of a glass while his father got some paper towels and cleaned up the rest of the mess.

"May I be excused?" Heero asked when things had calmed down.

His father glanced at his plate. "Are you finished?"

"Yes."

"Well, don't waste that meat – give it to Shinigami."

Heero nodded, seeing his father and Sally exchange glances as he stood up. No, he wasn't anorexic – he just wasn't hungry. Was that such a crime?

He cut the chicken into small pieces – Shinigami was old enough to be having trouble with his teeth – and dumped it into his dish, Shinigami waddling over to eat it, tail wagging.

"Dumb dog." He patted him. Dogs who didn't come up to your knees were stupid-looking.

Heero went up to his room, passing swiftly through the dinning room, and closed the door behind him. He paused by the stereo, in a bad enough mood to put on KMFDM. Loud.

He sat down on the bed. Another exciting evening. School nights were at least better then weekends – he could kill a lot of time with homework. On weekends, you were supposed to be out.

What was Treize doing now? With his luck, escaping. Heero wasn't sure what places for the criminally insane were like: cells with bars, or just hospital rooms with locks? If he woke up in the middle of the night, he worried about Treize coming after him, but he probably wasn't that stupid. If they ran into each other on the street someday, he would probably hurt him, but if Treize got out now, he would head to L5 or L4. Somewhere safe.

Treize being smart made him scarier. Like Heero knew Treize never made a threat unless he was sure he could carry it out. Heero had half expected him to shout something in the courtroom, or send him a scary letter on something, but knowing Treize, he was going out of his way to show the authorities that he was "psychologically on the mend." Treize's lawyers hadn't been able to keep him being incarcerated until the trial, but Heero know that they were probably preparing some kind of "temporary derangement due to substance abuse" defense. Heero was pretty sure that they would never be able to pull it off since there were enough witnesses to prove that he had premeditated –

"Heero," his father said through the door. "May I come in?"

Heero turned the stereo down and sat in his desk chair. "Yeah."

His father opened the door. "Am I interrupting you?"

Heero shook his head.

"How did it go today?"

He shrugged.

"Do you like him any better?"

"He's okay," Heero said, without enthusiasm. He was a lot better than the first guy he had gone to.

"Do you think you should go twice a week?"

"Maybe I should just check into an asylum," he said.

"You know I don't mean it that way."

"Oh."

"Come on, Heero. Let's not fight." He leaned against the door, hands in his pockets, but still stiff. "It's almost May. You have to make a decision about school so we can get the deposit check in."

Heero stared at him, startled out of his slouch. "You mean, he called you?"

"Who?"

"Did you call Kurama to check up on me?"

His father looked confused. "Heero, what are you talking about?"

Maybe Heero had sort of jumped the gun. "I guess I made a mistake."

"Did you and Dr. Kurama talk about collage today?"

"Not really."

"Well, we have to decide pretty quickly. You don't want to be sitting here next September with no place to go."

Heero touched the top of his desk, the surface very clean and shiny. He wasn't one for clutter.

"Heero?"

"No, sir," he said. "I don't."

"I didn't think so." His father took off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Before – well, I guess you'd decided that Wesleyan was your first choice."

He shrugged.

"And what was your second, Smith?"

"Yale."

"Okay," he said, "but Smith would come next."

"Yes, sir."

He frowned and put the glasses back on. "Do you feel the same way?"

"I don't know."

"Well, why don't you look over the catalogs, think about it, and we can talk tomorrow night."

Heero shrugged affirmatively.

"Do you want to visit any of them again?"

He shook his head.

"Well. All right, then." His hands went back into his pockets. "Are you going to watch The A-Team with us?"

Heero let himself smirk. That would be great to have on film: The professor, in his tweeds, off to watch Mr. T.

"Well." His father opened the door. "That's where we'll be."

"Dad?"

He turned, looking at him over the glasses.

"What if, uh, something happens and I end up not going? Do you lose the deposit?"

"Why wouldn't you go?"

"I don't know." Heero didn't look at him. "I mean, just in case."

"Just in case what?"

"I don't know. Just in case."

"Well." His father frowned. "It isn't that much money. Although I certainly don't anticipate your not going."

Heero sighed.

"It's always been my understanding that you wanted to go away to school."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Well, then." He cleared his throat in obvious discomfort. "I don't think staying here and going to school would be advisable."

"You want to get rid of me, right?"

"I just don't think it would be a healthy situation."

In other words: You'll be eighteen, we don't want you anymore.

"Heero, I think going away to school will be the best thing that ever happened to you."

It couldn't be much worse, anyway.

"I'm afraid I really don't understand," he said. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He shook his head.

"Heero – "

Heero took his French book out of his knapsack, opening it to his homework assignment. "Quatre will be upset if you miss the beginning of the show."

His father glanced at his watch. "I really don't think he – are you sure you don't want to discuss it?"

He nodded, pulling a piece of loose-leaf paper from his left drawer.

"Well. Read the catalogs, okay?"

Heero nodded, starting to translate a piece by Satre. He went from that, to his physics, to his English essay, only coming out for a glass of caffeine-free Coke. He wasn't supposed to drink caffeine.

Back in his room, he finished the English essay, then wrote out the extra-credit history "Thought Questions" at the end of the Eve Wars chapter. Even when things had been at their worst, he has always been careful to do his work well. Writing neatly, carefully, using clean loose-leaf paper, carrying the finished homework in folders so it wouldn't get wrinkled. Treize has always made fun of him for it.

When he was finished, it was time for the news. He kind of liked to watch the news, hear about what was going on. Most of the television he watched was news.

Sally was the only one in the living room, folded up in the corner of the couch, reading. She was very close to her Ph.D. in history, but took courses in all kinds of things: philosophy, religion, literature. Even science. Right now, she was plowing through a thick book called Myst: The Book of Atrus.

She lowered her book, smiling. "How's the work coming?"

"Fine." Heero shifted his weight. "Do you mind if I watch the news?"

"Of course not."

Heero turned on the television, keeping the volume low. Quatre would be asleep and his father was probably in the study, working. He moved to sit in the rocking chair – he always sat in the rocking chair – but hesitated, kind of wanting to sit on the couch. Lately, the rocking chair seemed very isolated.

"Why don't you sit over here?" Sally suggested. "That old thing is so uncomfortable."

Heero sat on the couch, in the other corner. But it wasn't quite eleven and he felt awkward. "Um, I'm going to get more Coke."

Sally nodded.

"I meant, um, do you want anything while I'm there?"

"Oh. Thank you. I'll have some too."

Heero nodded, going out to the kitchen, filling two glasses. He returned as the news was starting and they sat, drinking Coke, not speaking until the first commercial.

"It's always so depressing," Sally said.

Heero nodded.

"I hope the Red Sox have a good year. It would make your father so happy."

Heero nodded. It was probably his turn to say something. "Is that a good book?"

"It's an interesting perspective. Very different from other books I've read."

"What about the one you were reading before?"

"Oh, I enjoyed it very much – he's wonderful. It's on the hall table if you want it."

Heero nodded. Sally was big on encouraging reading, and when she finished a book she thought Heero would enjoy or should read, she would leave it on the hall table. Although he didn't admit it, Heero generally always read them and Sally kept the table well supplied. A typical household ritual.

"I suppose you'll major in English," his stepmother said.

What was this, Bug Heero about Collage Day? "Maybe."

The news ended and Sally closed her book, getting ready to leave, but then looked at Heero and settled herself more comfortably.

"You can go to bed if you want," Heero said.

"Would you rather be alone?"

No. God, no. Heero shook his head.

"We could look at Nightline."

Heero nodded.

"Be right back." Sally went into the kitchen and Heero heard her rummaging around, the unmistakable clink of the cookie jar lid. She came back with a plate of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies some friend of hers made. "Want some?"

Heero took one. "Thank you."

"Thank Davina."

What a name. Sally always seemed to know people with weird names – Heero wouldn't be surprised to walk in and meet a Bathsheba someday. It was funny that she had so many freaky friends; they all thought Sally was incredibly straight – married to a tenured Harvard professor, for God's sakes.

"Were people you know horrified when you married my father?" he asked.

"Well, it's a different sort of lifestyle," Sally said. "I guess I was always – I don't know – on the flighty side."

"'Flighty'?"

"Impractical. Impetuous. Irresponsible." Sally grinned, looking much younger. "All those I's."

Heero thought about that. Sally really wasn't any of those things, in spite of her flower-child appearance. When he thought about it, he didn't know all that much about Sally – he had never wanted to know. Like, pretend it isn't there, and maybe it will go away.

"I guess I've changed a lot in the last six years," Sally said. "At least, I hope so."

Six years. Hard to believe. "Has it really been that long?" Heero asked.

Sally nodded carefully. Tactfully.

That made Heero think about his mother, which Sally would have been avoiding, and his eyes filled with tears. He tried never to think about her because even though it had been three years since the accident, he always cried. He had thought that he would at least get over the crying. He lowered his eyes, not wanting Sally to see.

"Maybe it just seems longer," his stepmother said, and Heero could tell that she was making the joke to distract him.

"Yeah," he said, whisking the napkin across his eyes.

Sally reached over to touch his shoulder, and Heero sat very still, almost wanting a hug. He had never hugged Sally, and he hadn't hugged his father since the couple of months after his mother died. Quatre was a hugger, but he was so bouncy and happy about it that he didn't make him nervous. This, however, did. He leaned away from his stepmother's hand and Sally withdrew.

"It's pretty late," Heero said uneasily. "I think I'd better go to bed."

"What about - ?" Sally indicated the television with her eyes.

"N-no. I think I'd better" – he could still feel tears – "go to bed."

Sally also stood up, handing him some cookies. "At least take these with you."

"No, I – I mean – " He looked at his stepmother, but broke the gaze, unnerved by how much he wanted this person – this person he had never let himself like – to hug him. To not hate him. He started crying, unexpectedly hard, and had to run upstairs, slamming his bedroom door behind him before remembering that Quatre was asleep. He leaned against the door, waiting for someone to come and yell at him. But no one did, and he turned off the light, took off his jeans and climbed into bed, crying under the pillow so no one would hear him.
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 7
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He was too embarrassed to go down for breakfast the next morning and stayed in his room, waiting for his father to be ready to go. He appeared in the doorway, wearing a surprisingly bright red V-neck sweater under his gray jacket. Sally thought he needed to perk up his wardrobe and was always giving him things like suspenders and colorful tartan scarves. Snazzy, his father would say, in a voice somewhere between embarrassment and pleasure.

"Running late?" he asked.

"Yeah," Heero said, his physics book open as if he were doing last-minute work.

"Well, I really don't like your going off without any breakfast. Come have something to eat and I'll write you a note."

The thought of walking into class with everyone looking at him, instead of getting there first and sitting quietly in the back, was terrifying. "I can't. I have a test first period."

"Well, get something to eat in the car then."

Facing Sally was far preferable to facing a staring, hostile class. "Okay."

Sally was putting breakfast dishes in the dishwasher while Quatre sat at the table, singing to himself and playing with the raisins in his cereal. Must be nice to be that young.

"Good morning," Sally said.

"Uh, yeah." Heero blushed, not wanting to, and looked away.

"Do you want a sandwich to take in the car?"

Sandwiches were lunch food. The idea of anything but breakfast food for breakfast right now was nauseating. "Do we have any granola bars?"

"No, but I can pick some up today."

"It's not a big deal." He took two half-pieces of wheat toast from the plate on the table.

"Mommy said we could buy Pop-Tarts," Quatre said, giggling slightly.

Sally turned. "When did I say that?"

He didn't answer, practically falling out of his chair with giggles. Must be very nice to be that young.

"Bye," Heero said, wrapping his toast in a napkin.

"Are you going to but lunch today?" Sally asked.

He nodded, although he would go to the library, as always.

"Do you need money?"

He shook his head. "Bye."

He made it to school just in time, slipping into homeroom unnoticed. He sat down, immediately opening the Robert T. Bakker book from the hall table, listening to everyone talk about collage. Cambridge, Greater L2: the land of one-track minds. Just about all of them had decided – Dartmouth, Syracuse, Georgetown, Conn Collage, Smith. He glanced up to see who was going to Smith. Debbie Harris, who had been one of Noin's closer friends. Okay, that cut Smith out. He couldn't go somewhere where the past was going to be dredged up all the time. Probably bunches of Baldwin people would be going to Wesleyan. Sarah Lawrence would be his safest choice. Also, his last choice. Too weird.

What he really had to find out was where Catherine and Wufei were going. Like, he should go to collage in another colony, if possible. Only, who could he ask to find out?

School was lousy. School was always lousy. He had gym last period – they played badminton, oh yeah, lots of fun. He got stuck with Relena Peacecraft. Or vice versa.

When class was over, he took his time dressing, then sat in the locker room for a while so the halls would be cleared out when he left.

Finally, he stood up. If he were late getting home, there would be trouble. Not that his father would be there, but Sally would probably tell him. As he started to open the locker room door, Catherine Bloom came hurrying by, almost colliding with him. They stopped, both stiffening.

"I-I'm sorry," Heero said. "I was just – I mean – "

"I left my – " Catherine also broke off her sentence and they stared at each other in tense confusion, Catherine looking as scared as Heero felt. Then, Catherine moved her way around him to her hall locker, shoulders hunched protectively.

Heero was going to leave, run even, but that seemed – it wasn't – hesitantly, he went over to where Catherine's locker was.

"Catherine?" he asked, very tentative.

Catherine jumped, several statements seeming to flash across her face before she settled into nervous irritation. "What do you want?" she asked.

Heero swallowed, unreasonably – maybe – scared. "I'm sorry. I have to ask you something."

Catherine didn't say anything, eyes on her locker.

"Where are you going to school next year?"

Catherine looked up. "What?"

"Um, I was wondering where you were going to school."

"Williams."

Thank God. "What about Wufei?"

"Yale."

Heero nodded, relieved. He was safe.

"I suppose you got into Brown," Catherine said bitterly. "They have an empty space."

Noin Lucrezia had been accepted at Brown, early decision.

"I didn't even apply there," Heero said, keeping his voice steady.

Catherine blinked a few times, looking away, her hands fluttering into her locker to get her book.

"I'm sorry, I – " Heero let out a breath. Incredible that this was the only person in the school who would really understand why he had to ask this. "D-do you know it anyone's going to Wesleyan?"

Catherine glanced at him, also recognizing the irony or something of the situation. "Jay Goldberg," she said. "And I think, Shirley Lassiter."

A hockey jock and a chorale star. No one to worry about. "Thank you," Heero said. "I'm sorry, I – I'm sorry."

It was awkwardly silent.

"I – " Heero swallowed. "I really couldn't have done anything, you know."

Catherine sighed, sitting down on the cold floor in front of her locker. "All you had to do was tell someone," she said quietly.

"I thought – I mean, he – " Heero stopped. "Yeah, I could have done that," he said, even more quietly. There didn't seem to be anything else to say and he walked, almost ran, out of the school, letting the door swing loudly shut behind him.

 

He told his father that maybe Wesleyan would be okay. He nodded, in evident relief, and probably mailed the check five minutes later. They were cutting it close.

Having spoken to Catherine took at least some of the pressure off, and while he would still go the other way if he saw her coming, the fear of walking around a corner and running into her by accident wasn't as bad.

Besides, school – as terrible as it was – was better then weekends. At least school was something to do, somewhere he had to be. The freedom, and subsequent emptiness, of weekends was scary, Saturday and Sunday were so damned long. Sally was always thinking of projects – I know, let's refinish the rocking chair! – but Heero rarely felt comfortable enough to participate.

It was Saturday, and he paced around most of the morning, even sitting to watch cartoons with Quatre. Horrible cartoons. Whatever happened to Freakazoid? He could maybe go to a movie, but he would feel like a social deviant going by himself. He probably was a social deviant, but there was no point in going out of his way to feel like one.

The Red Sox were out of town, so his father was installed in front of the television, Quatre sitting next to him on the couch, scribbling crayoned pictures on thick manila paper.

"Zoe and I are going up to work on the garden," Sally said, tying her hair back with a light blue bandana. "Do you want to come?"

Heero smirked, managing not to ask if Chloe would be there. Did Sally know any Chloes? At any rate, she and Zoe and this friend of theirs, Irving, had applied for a garden plot in Wolfwood – the city had to approve you and everything. The combined plots were called the Victory Gardens – Heero thought that they had been started during the Eve Wars, some sort of morale thing, but he wasn't sure. Zoe had wanted to plant vegetables, but they ended up putting in flowers mostly.

"Are you sure you don't want to come?" Sally asked.

Heero shook his head. He wasn't really into nature. Especially not elbow deep. He went up to his room and looked at his CDs, not in the mood to listen to any of them. And Christ, he couldn't take another afternoon at the library. He went back to the living room.

"Dad?" he asked. "Is it okay if I go for a walk?"

His father glanced up, wearing old loafers, flannel slacks, and an un- tucked button-down shirt. Casual, yet professional. "Where?"

"I don't know," he said. "Around. I won't be long."

Odin nodded, attention returning to the game.

Feeling lonely, he almost asked Quatre if he wanted to come, but he seemed so happily occupied that he didn't. Shinigami, sound asleep and wheezing, probably wouldn't be interested, either.

He put on sneakers, decided it was too warm for a sweater, changed his mind at the front door, and went back for one. He felt safer inside a lot of clothes. Sally had left a book by Stephen King on the hall table, and Heero took that with him, in case he got bored. Most of the time, when he went on walks, he would go to the library, or end up sitting on a bench in the Public Gardens. The Public Gardens were very pretty.

Outside, he walked down Marlborough Street, taking a right on Exeter Street. The Back Bay was one of L2's nicest sections – lots of red brick brownstones and a surprising number of trees. Not that Heero was really keen on cities, but Greater L2 was probably all right. He walked over to Boylston Street, toward the Winner Corporation Building, one of L2's two tall buildings. Compared to New York or someplace, it was a pretty stupid looking skyline.

He was going to go into a store but didn't bother. It was depressing to wander around in stores alone, especially when salespeople thought you were a shoplifter. They always thought he was a shoplifter, not that he had particularly taken anything. Jewelry, a couple of times. Not even very pretty jewelry. There was this girl Ann, who used to hand out with Treize and Zechs and this guy Alan, and sometimes Heero had gone wandering around stores with her. Not that they had been bosom buddies or anything. Ann was sort of a dolt.

He walked quickly past the library. He was sick of the library. Beyond it was Copley Square, which was just starting to get crowded again with the warm weather. Before the Eve Wars, it had probably been quite a beatnik hangout. Now, it was farmers markets, bag people, or religious types. Students too. There was this old church there, Maxwell Church, and because the Winner Corporation Building was so heavy, the church was sinking, a few inches every year. Kind of a depressing thought. A metaphor, even, although the religious fanatics who shouted things through megaphones, standing in front of the church, had probably never thought of that.

The Public Gardens started at Arlington Street. Willow trees, flowers, a man-made pond. Tourists were always taking pictures of the swan-boats being pedaled around the pond, full of even more tourists. An L2 tradition. Quatre loved to ride on them.

He walked down one of the cement paths – you weren't supposed to walk on the grass, although lots of people did – and around the man-made pond once before sitting down on an empty bench, under a willow tree. Very peaceful. Most of the people walking in the park were either tourists, happy little families, or loving couples, but it didn't seem too bad to be alone. Other people were. No one really bothered anyone in the Public Gardens. Across the street, in the L2 Common, you could run into trouble maybe, but the Public Gardens were very quiet.

Since the flowers were just starting to come out, there were a lot of city workers around. Weeding, picking up trash, cutting the grass. Telling people to stay off it, probably. He opened his book.

One of the workers was fairly near him, emptying trash, and he wondered if he should move. While he was deciding, the worker saw him looking and grinned a crooked, arrogant grin. Oh, Christ, that was all he needed. Heero moved to another bench, away from him. He was a classic low-life: battered work shoes, old Levis, faded green, maybe too tight. T-shirt. Chestnut brown hair, braided down to a little below his mid-back. Red Sox cap. A couple of years older, maybe more.

He tried to concentrate on reading his book, but couldn't help wondering if he were going to come over and say something rude. Or something sexual. You had to watch out in the city. Maybe he should leave.

Except that there were a lot of people around, and damn it, he didn't feel like leaving. He had just gotten here. The city worker would have to keep his distance – couldn't he lose his job for harassing people? Yeah, he was probably safe.

Heero glanced over and noticed that now he had his shirt off, tied casually around his waist, trying to show off his early tan or something. What a jerk. Why were guys like that? Did that worker think he was going to faint over his stupid muscles? What a total jerk.

He resumed his reading, but stiffened slightly, seeing out of the corner of his eyes that he was working his way closer. Major jerk. He was going to have to move again.

"'Scuse me," the worker said, hefting the trashcan closest to Heero onto his shoulders, the tight muscles in his back flexing.

Big wow. Hope you get a hernia. Heero kept reading, or trying to, anyway.

He carried the can over to a Colony of L2 pickup truck, dumping the contents in and carrying it back. He deposited it next to Heero's bench and he could tell the worker carefully wasn't out of breath.

"Good book?" he asked.

"It was," Heero said.

He shrugged an embarrassed, but cool, male shrug. "'Scuse me," he said, and walked away. Swaggered, sort of.

Jerk. He was probably a rapist. Heero hunched over his book, waiting to see if he were going to come back. If he did, Heero would leave. Of course, he could have just been being friendly. Friendly. Yeah, sure. Guys were all alike. When they were friendly, it was because they wanted something. Like Heero couldn't guess what that was.

The worker had a rake now, and was industriously raking the grass in Heero's area, getting every scrap of trash. Still pretending to read, Heero moved to the edge of his bench, ready to leave. He was raking very hard, every muscle obvious.

Big deal, Heero said silently. So you have a good body. You want a medal or something?

"You come here a lot," the worker observed.

Heero sat up straight, scared now. Why was he talking to him? Maybe he was some kind of maniac. But he had to say something. "So what?" he asked in a "what's-it-to-you?" voice.

"Dunno. I was just saying." He raked still more industriously.

"Yeah, well, why don't you quit saying?"

He shrugged. "Dunno. Figured you were too cute to be by yourself."

Heero slapped his book shut, standing up. "Screw you, buddy," he said in a low voice and walked swiftly away.

"Hey, wait!" He came after Heero, rake forgotten, grabbing his arm.

Heero jerked away, both scared and furious. "Touch me," he said, his voice shaking, "and I'll punch you so hard that you pass out."
 

The worker stared at him. "What's your problem? I wasn't going to do anything to you."

"Yeah," he nodded. "Sure."

"Well, I wasn't."

"Bully for you." Heero hurried across the swan pond bridge, towards the exit of the park. Great, now even going to the Public Gardens was spoiled. What a jerk. One of the few places he actually enjoyed going, and now he wouldn't be able to anymore. At least, not without being nervous. It really wasn't fair. Why did guys have to be such jerks?
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 8
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

But for some reason, even after he got home, he couldn't get the incident out of his head. Big wow. Some stupid, probably illiterate guy was halfway friendly. What was this, the highlight of his month? His year? Like the saying went, how low could he go? From murderers to park psychopaths. Terrific. But he still can't stop thinking about it.

His father and Sally wanted to go to a movie, so Heero stayed home with Quatre, playing game after game of Candy Land. Heero despised Candy Land, but Quatre was really into it. Heero put him to bed, read him Horton Hears a Who, then went into his own room to read. He shoved the unfinished Lurie into his bookcase, starting Mansfield Park instead. You were supposed to have read all that stuff before you went to collage.

Quatre only woke up once, wanting orange juice, but Heero appeased him with a Cameo cookie instead. They were supposed to avoid giving Quatre liquids at night, since he was sort of at that age. Heero was glad he didn't have to deal with it. Quatre was getting much better though.

His father and stepmother came home around midnight, and while he couldn't hear exactly what they were saying, their inflections were relaxed and happy. In-love sounding. Had his father and mother ever sounded like that? They must have. He had only been in the third grade when they separated, so maybe he just couldn't remember – he bent over his book, not wanting to think about it.

His father knocked and stuck his head in. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah," Heero said. "He's been asleep since nine. How was the movie?"

"Nod bad. Not wonderful." Odin yawned. "Old Acquaintance is on, if you want to watch it with us."

At least he was trying. Heero couldn't deny that. But, he would feel in the way, especially if they were being in-love and all. "No, thanks." Heero held up his book as evidence.

"See you in the morning, then."

"Yeah." He read for a while longer, then turned out the light. Another wild and crazy Saturday. And stupidly, the last thing he thought of before going to sleep, was the guy in the park. At least someone was friendly to him, someone his father wasn't paying. Oh, the novelty of it all. Christ. He sounded like Relena Peacecraft.

Sunday promised to be another long boring day. He slept late and when he got up, his father and Sally were immersed in The Colony Times. An all-day affair. And Quatre was going to a birthday party.

Unusually jittery, he went from his room, to the kitchen, even to the rocking chair in the living room.

"You want to make yourself useful," his father said, behind The Week in Review, "take Shinigami out."

"How far is he allowed to walk?" Lately, they had been cutting back on Shinigami's distance.

"Oh, I don't know." His father drank some coffee. "No further then the Public Gardens, say."

Hero glanced at him. Maybe that was a sign, like that he really should go down there, maybe – "Okay."

"Can you pick up some milk on your way back?" Sally asked, reading the magazine section, and as Heero nodded, his father took out his wallet, handing him five dollars.

Shinigami seemed to enjoy the first couple of blocks, pausing at his regular trees and street lights, but was more reluctant as they walked further.

"Come on," Heero said. "You're supposed to like this." But Shinigami moved listlessly, not even stretching the leash. Heero sighed. Smart dog. He knew when he was being used.

In the park, Heero paused, looking around. Because it was Sunday afternoon, it was pretty crowded, and he walked toward the bridge, seeing other, older workers. But then he located the boy – man? – mowing the grass near the main entrance, closer then he had anticipated. Today he was wearing a different T-shirt, faded navy, but that was about the only change. Heero stopped walking, feeling like an idiot. Talk about grasping at straws.

"You're right," he said to Shinigami. "This was a dumb idea." Well, he would just have to get out of here before he – damn it, damn it, damn it. What a moment for him to look up. Damn it. Heero turned to face the other way, hoping that he hadn't recognized him. But the sound of the lawn mower was coming closer. Damn it.

Heero bent down to pretend to adjust Shinigami's collar, his face feeling hot. The lawn mower came even closer, then stopped.

"You forget something yesterday?" the worker asked.

Oh God, this was dumb. This was really dumb. "I'm walking my dog," Heero said stiffly. "Is there a law against that?"

He shrugged. "Dunno. Not on Sundays."

That was funny, and Heero considered smiling, but found himself blushing instead, wrapping Shinigami's leash tightly around his hand.

"I have to go," Heero said nervously.

"Who's stopping you?"

Heero clenched the leash, the chains hurting his hand. "No one."

"So go already."

"I'm walking my dog," he said, stupidly, and did so, away from the boy, who really was a jerk apparently.

"Pretty dumb-looking mutt," he said after Heero.

Heero spun around. "He's a schnauzer!"

"'Scuse me," he said. "It's still dumb-looking."

Heero bent to give Shinigami a protective pat.

"Doesn't mean it's not cute," the boy said.

"Oh, right. Dumb and cute?"

The boy grinned.

"I'm not stupid!" Heero said, feeling his cheeks flush.

"D'I say you were?"

"Yeah, well, I'm not cute either!"

The boy shrugged. "'F you say so."

Completely embarrassed, Heero turned to leave, so self-conscious that it was hard to walk naturally. The boy caught up with him with three long steps.

"Uh, look." The boy took off his Red Sox hat, frowned at the brim, put it back on. "I get off at five."

"Most people do," Heero said.

"Yeah, well, I kind of – I dunno, thought you –"

"Hey, Maxwell!" another worker yelled. "Let's move it!"

The boy glanced at him, then stuffed his hands into his pockets, not looking at Heero. "I gotta go."

Heero shrugged. "So go."

"Yeah."

"Get it in gear, Maxwell!" the supervisor said.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming." He looked at Heero. "You, uh, coming here tomorrow?"

"Hey, look, pal," Heero said. "I just go where the dog wants to."

The boy studied Heero, his mouth twisting into an amused grimace. "'F you say so," he said, and went back to the lawn mower.

 

Heero decided not to go back. Some stupid high school dropout, big deal. If he was going to spend his time lurking around the Public Gardens, he really had problems. So he came home from school on Monday – another lonely day – and paced around the apartment, sick of reading. He was so bored that he even sat in the kitchen and watched Sally brush Shinigami.

"When's Quatre going to get up?" he asked.

"Not anytime soon, I hope," Sally said. "It took me over an hour to get him settled down."

Heero sighed. He was bored enough to play Candy Land even.

"You're pretty restless."

"No, I'm not," Heero said.

"Sorry. My mistake." His stepmother smiled at him. "Why don't you go out and get some fresh air? You'll feel better."

Heero glanced at her. "You're telling me to go for a walk?"

Sally nodded. "Go burn off some energy."

Heero thought about that. Well, see, it's not like I came down here on purpose – my stepmother made me. Heero jumped up. "Okay. See you later."

Sally looked startled. "Just like that?"

"Yeah." Heero opened the front door. "Bye."

"Heero –"

"Bye!" He closed the door, ran outside and down the front steps, then slowed to a walk, heading for the Public Gardens.

Except that the boy wasn't there. He looked all over the park, and he definitely wasn't there. He waited on the bridge, surprised by how disappointed he was, waiting around in case he had gone off to a men's room or something. But when he didn't show up after fifteen minutes, he gave up, the thought of returning home very depressing.

There were other workers around, so he decided to embarrass himself, walking up to two of them, his arms tight across his chest, making an effort not to blush.

"Uh, hi," he said to one of the men, who grinned. "I'm looking for one of the guys who works with you. His last name is Maxwell?"

"Duo, hunh?" The man grinned and winked at his friend, who also grinned.

Duo. Hunh. "Is he working today?" he asked, having to blush.

"Yeah," one said. "Over in the Common."

"Graveyard, I think," the other contributed.

"Thank you." Heero hurried to the park exit, not looking back in case they were watching him.

The graveyard, a historical landmark, was by the Boylston subway station, across from the Colonial Theater. The boy was in the far corner, weeding, and Heero took a minute to decide what to say. He couldn't come up with anything, so just walked over. From behind, the boy looked very tired.

Heero coughed. "Um, hi."

The boy turned, shoulders relaxing. "You again."

"You mean, you again. Don't you ever have days off?"

"Tuesdays. Every other weekend." He wiped his hands on his jeans. "Where's the dog?"

"He's old. He doesn't like to walk much."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah." Heero folded his arms, feeling like an idiot. Who was this guy? Just some jerky dropout. Why was he wasting his time like this?

"Leaving?" the boy asked.

"I guess so."

"Well, see ya." He turned back to the weeds.

"Yeah." Heero turned to leave. This time, he really wasn't coming back. Not ever. No more straw-grabbing.

"How's it look?"

Heero stopped. "What?"

"The graveyard. It look okay?"

Heero glanced around. It did look nice. The lawn neatly mowed, the grass around the headstones trimmed, almost all of the weeds gone.

"Been in here most of the day," he said.

"Well – it looks good." Pretty bland. "Very historic."

"Yeah? Think they had lawn mowers and everything?"

Heero flushed. Why was this boy making fun of him? He didn't even know Heero.

"That was a joke," the boy said.

"I know. Do you think I'm stupid or something?"

"Think you take things personally, is all." He straightened one tombstone, brushed off another. "You live around here?"

What a stupid question. "No. I walk up from Providence."

"No wonder your dog's tired."

"Yeah." This was so, so stupid. He started edging away.

"You go to school around here?"

Heero couldn't tell him the truth. If they ended up being friends, and he found out who Heero really was – there was no way he could live in L2 and not have heard about –

"Where you go?" he asked. "Winsor or someplace"

Winsor was the best private boys' school in the city. Heero shrugged affirmatively.

"How come you're talking to me if you go to Winsor?"

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know." The boy gathered up the garden tools. "Don't guess I'm in your league."

"Well." Heero refolded his arms. "Maybe I'm not in any league."

"Free agent, hunh?"

Heero shrugged, looking at the grass.

"Why you wasting on me?"

"What's your problem?"

"My problem?" The boy straightened up, taking a pack of Marlboros from his T-shirt pocket. "You smoke?"

Heero shrugged.

"Does that mean yes?"

Heero nodded and the boy handed him one, lighting it, then his own.

"Uh, thank you," Heero said.

"Y'owe me a nickel," he said.

Heero glanced up, startled.

"That was a joke."

"I know," Heero said defensively. "What, do you think I'm totally stupid?"

The boy looked at him, inhaling, then very slowly releasing the smoke. "Think you're totally weird," he said finally.

"Thanks a lot."

He grinned. "Don't mention it." The boy reached over to touch Heero, and Heero recoiled. "Uh, sorry." He pulled back, his statement both embarrassed and confused. "You like, have a problem with guys?"

"No!"

"'F you say so." He walked over to the cast-iron fence, leaning against it, staring out at the street. "Can't figure what you want me to do."

"Who says I want you to do anything?"

"Well, I dunno," the boy said, turning around. "Seems like you keep getting mad."

"I'm not mad."

"Still can't figure what you want." He put his hands in his pockets, the cigarette hanging out of his mouth. "Like, if you weren't so totally weird, I'd ask you out." The boy frowned. "You'd prob'ly call the cops `r something."

Heero looked at him slouching against the fence, braid flowing in the breeze, cigarette hanging. "Is this your James Dean imitation?"

"Give it more pain," the boy said, and slouched lower, demonstrating. He straightened. "So, do I ask you out, or what?"

"Couldn't we just be – friends or something?"

"Friends," he said.

"Well, yeah. I, uh," Heero coughed, "don't have so many right now."

"There something wrong with you?"

Heero tightened his arms, hunching over them.

"Sorry," the boy said. "That was mean." He took out his cigarette, studied it, then put it back in. "Actually," he exhaled, "I don't have so many myself."

"What's wrong with you?"

He shrugged. "Lots prob'ly. Anyway," he shifted his weight, "you don't seem like you'd be too bad of a friend."

Heero also shrugged, his fists nervously tight. "Might not be that great."

Neither of them said anything.

"So, uh," the boy spoke first, "you doing anything tomorrow afternoon?"

"No, I – " Dr. Kurama. Heero sighed. "Yeah. I have a doctor's appointment."

He looked suspicious. "For real?"

"Oh, yeah," Heero said. "This is starting off great."

"Guess you really have a doctor's appointment."

Heero nodded.

"Well. You busy this weekend?"

"I don't think I can go out at night," Heero said uneasily.

"You turn into a werewolf?"

Heero shook his head.

"We could do something during the day." The part of his mouth without a cigarette grinned. "Hear friends do that sometimes."

Heero nodded.

"Can I call you? Like to –"

"No," Heero said quickly. "I mean – my father's strict."

"How strict?"

"Look, you want to meet here at one? On Saturday?"

The boy looked around the graveyard. "Here?"

"Why not?"

"Why not," he said.

"Okay." Heero took a nervous first puff of his cigarette. "Then, I'll – I'll see you then."

"Okay," he said, giving Heero a James Dean grin. "See ya."

Heero nodded, turning to leave.

"Hey, yo."

Heero paused.

"What's your name?" the boy asked.
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 9
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"So," Dr. Kurama said. "How was your week?"

"Splendid," Heero said. Duo's Marlboro had gotten him back in the mood and this time, he asked Dr. Kurama if he could have one of the Salem Lights from the desk drawer. "Your wife divorce you yet?"

"Not yet. Why was your week so splendid?"

"I don't know." Heero was tempted to knock his ashes onto Rasid's carpet, but used an ashtray instead. "Because life is such a special gift, I guess."

"Well, I'd have to agree with that," Dr. Kurama said, but Heero could tell that he was amused. "What –"

"What makes it so special?" Heero asked, anticipating his question. What a boring guy.

"No," Rasid said. "Actually, I was going to ask you what time it is."

Heero almost laughed, but managed not to.

"Really, how was your week?" Rasid asked.

"I hardly know where to begin," Heero said.

"What did you do over the weekend?"

"The usual whirl or activities." Heero sighed. "Is it time to go yet?"

Dr. Kurama shook his head.

"Christ." Heero slumped down in his chair. "Your wife must have a job that takes her out of town a lot."

Rasid smiled, picking up his coffee mug. "How's school?"

"Oh, super."

"Looking forward to graduation?"

Heero frowned at him. "That's a stupid question."

"What do you mean?"

"Would you want to go to graduation if you were me?"

"I don't know," Rasid said.

"Well, you wouldn't." Heero pulled over the pack of Salem Lights, lighting another.

"Why?"

Heero rolled his eyes, losing his patience. "Are you really this stupid, or is it an act you pull to get people to talk?"

"I just want to be sure I understand," Rasid said.

Heero moved his jaw. "Because I don't feel like being there when they get to Kushrenada and say Katerine instead. Because" – it was hard to say the name Noin – "because, um, Noin Lucrezia was going to be the valedictorian. What do you think they're all going to be thinking when Dorothy was giving her speech?"

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"And Christ, with me sitting there, they'd really – I mean, they all –" Heero frowned. Was Dr. Kurama trying to trick him into talking?

"They all what?"

Heero didn't answer, concentrating on his cigarette.

Rasid waited briefly, then sat back. "What was she like?"

"Who, Noin?"

Rasid nodded.

"Well –" As questions went, that one was probably harmless enough. "I don't know. Smart."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"Really popular, really pretty – you know."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"She was kind of funny too. Like, she hated gym, so she was always showing up with canes and eye-patches and slings and all." Heero smirked a little, remembering Noin refusing to get on the balance beam on the grounds that she suffered from vertigo, and when the teacher made her, she'd requested smelling salts. "I don't know," Heero frowned, almost forgetting where he was. "It always seemed funny that she didn't have more friends."

Rasid raised his eyebrows.

"I mean, yeah, pretty much everyone liked her, but she didn't seem like she had a lot of friends. Mostly she hung out with Wufei Chang." Heero shifted in the chair, not enjoying remembering any of this.

"What about Catherine?"

"Well, she –" Heero bit his lip, hearing Catherine's very quiet, "All you had to do was tell someone."

"Heero?"

Heero scowled at him. "I guess they were good friends, but Catherine had moved away, okay? Christ."

"Were you and Noin friends?"

"Right."

"Why?"

"Don't you get it at all?" Heero asked. "I've never really been friends with anyone." Not since elementary school, anyway. "And don't, for God's sakes, ask me why."

"Is there a reason?"

"Because I want people to leave me the hell alone, okay? Jesus!"

"Heero –"

"Just leave me alone," Heero said, turning in his chair so he wouldn't be facing Dr. Kurama. "Please, just leave me alone."

 

His week didn't exactly go uphill from there and by Saturday morning, he was a nervous wreck. The thought of having to hang out with someone for an afternoon was terrifying; the thought that he might not show up was even worse.

"You have any plans today?" Sally asked, sitting at the kitchen table, writing on a legal pad when Heero came in to get some orange juice.

"Plans?" Heero asked, trying not to sound guilty. "Uh, not really. The library, I guess."

"Well, we're never going to get your father away from the game, but I thought that maybe you and Quatre and I could –"

"Um, I have a lot of work to do," Heero said.

"Oh. Well, okay." Sally scanned the three books open in front of her, and went back to writing.

"It's nothing personal," Heero said, feeling guiltier. He's spent the last three years refusing to go places. "I just – because the library's open today and –"

"It's really all right," Sally said.

"Yeah, but I don't want you to think –" Heero blushed. Since when did he go around apologizing to Sally? Very red, he finished pouring his orange juice and put the carton away.

"Why don't you have a bagel or something too?"

Not wanting to cause trouble, Heero got himself a bagel from the brown paper bag in the refrigerator.

"And some cream cheese," Sally said.

Heero looked up uneasily and saw his stepmother's grin.

"Chop up some olives too," Sally said.

Heero took a bite out of the bagel without even cutting it.

"Then again," Sally said. "You could just have it plain."

Heero opened the refrigerator, lifting out the butter dish. Margarine, actually, so his father wouldn't eat too much cholesterol. He cut the bagel in half, neatly spreading margarine on each side.

"Then again," Sally said, and went back to writing.

By twelve-thirty, Heero was even more nervous. He tried on a couple of different outfits, ending up with well broken-in jeans, but a very nice pale blue sweater. He put on just enough cologne for his father not to notice, grabbed a couple of notebooks and went downstairs to the living room where Odin was correcting papers, Quatre sitting next to him on the couch and telling some long, involved story.

"I'm going to the library," Heero said.

His father looked up, then frowned. "That's what you wear to the library?"

"Jeans?" Heero asked, purposely misunderstanding. "What, I have to dress up?"

He was still frowning. "When will you be back?"

"I don't know. Dinnertime?"

Odin checked his watch. "You don't have that much to do. I want you back by three."

"Yea, but –" Protesting would make him more suspicious. "I have a lot of work to do, Dad."

"Not that much."

"Yeah, but –" Heero sighed. In the old days, he would have yelled that he didn't have any power over him and stormed out of the house, but these days – well, he had power over Heero.

"What's going on?" Sally asked, in the kitchen doorway, her eyes on Heero's father.

"Everything's under control," Odin said stiffly.

"Strict control," Sally said.

"For once, stay out of it, okay? He's my son!"

Sally started to say something, looked at Heero, and stopped. "Fine," she said and went back into the kitchen, Heero hearing a cupboard door slam open harder then necessary.

"Is Mommy mad?" Quatre asked, sounding worried.

"No, don't worry, everything's fine," Heero's father said, giving Quatre a reassuring smile. He looked at Heero, the smile fading. "Four-thirty," he said grimly. "Not one minute later."

Heero nodded, opening the front door.

"Hey, wait!" Quatre scrambled off the couch after him. "Can I come too? Can I?"

"Not this time," Heero said. "I'll do something with you tomorrow, okay?"

"Will you play when you get home?"

Heero nodded.

"Candy Land?"

Heero nodded.

Finally outside, he sat on the front steps for a minute. Just barely out of the apartment, and he was already tired. Maybe he should just go to the library. Except that it was getting close to one, and if he was late, the boy might leave. If he had come at all, that is.

Heero walked as quickly as he could, not slowing until he was actually in the Common. What if he wasn't there? There was a good chance he might not have come. Maybe he – Heero could see someone in the cemetery as he walked closer. Jeans, jeans jacket. Heero was the Red Sox cap and cigarette, and relaxed.

"So," Duo said. "You came."

"So did you."

Duo nodded. "Looks that way."

There was a brief silence.

"I-I have to be home by four-thirty," Heero said.

"Guess that means we can't leave the state."

Don't overreact – that's Duo's sense of humor. "You think you're a pretty funny guy, don't you," Heero said.

Duo grinned. "Kind of."

"I figured," Heero said, nodding.

"What, you don't think I'm funny? Most hodgies think I'm funny."

"Hodgies?" Heero said.

Duo shrugged. "Hodgies, nudgers, pillow biters."

"You really call homosexual men `pillow biters'?"

Duo shrugged. "When I'm being polite."

Heero stared at Duo, hands moving to his hips. "That's terrible."

Duo shrugged again. "You, you're more of a chicken."

"A chicken?"

"A gullible chicken."

Got him again. Embarrassed, he kicked at the grass with one tennis shoe.

"Watch it," Duo said. "People work hard planting that stuff."

Heero stopped kicking.

"I was kidding," the braided boy said. "You weren't hurting it."

Completely self-conscious, Heero folded his arms.

"You wanna go get something to eat?"

Heero looked up. "Eat?"

"I don't know," Duo said, then grinned. "Friends say one – I figure lunch."

"You figure lunch," Heero said, smirking.

"Absolutely." Duo moved his arm as though he were going to drape it around Heero, hesitated, and put his hands in his pockets. "C'mon."

They walked out of the cemetery, a few awkward feet apart.

"I'm not a rich guy," Duo said, very defensive. "Can't take you to the kind of place you're prob'ly used to."

"Who says I'm used to a particular kind of place?"

"Dunno," Duo said. "Just figured."

"Well, that's pretty stupid."

"'Scuse me." Duo jammed his hands further into his pockets.

"Well, it is."

"I dunno," the braided boy said, still defensive. "You mind McDonald's?"

Heero stopped. "If you're going to act like this, I'm going home."

"So go."

"You wouldn't care?"

Duo shrugged.

"Fine," Heero said. "Have a nice lunch." He strode away, feeling more shaky then angry. What a jerk. What a completely stupid jerk.

"Hey, wait! You leaving?"

Heero walked faster.

"Heero, wait!" Duo ran after him. "I didn't mean it."

Heero turned, arms wrapped around himself even though it wasn't cold.

"I'm sorry," Duo said, quietly.

"Just don't yell at me," Heero said, also quiet. "Okay?"

"I wasn't, I just –" Duo slouched against a tree. "You make me nervous, is all."

"I make you nervous?"

Duo nodded and they didn't say anything. Duo slouching, Heero studying a piece of gum someone had dropped.

"Oh, hell," Duo said. "Let's start over." He straightened. "How about we get something to eat?"

Heero nodded.

"McDonald's okay?"

Heero nodded.

There was one on Boylston Street and going in, Duo held the door for him.

"What do you want?" Duo asked.

"Um, just a medium 7-Up."

Duo frowned. "You got one of those diet diseases?"

"N-no. I just – well, I had a bagel before."

"Oooh," Duo said. "Blimp City."

Heero flushed.

"You get us a table, and I'll surprise you."

Heero pulled a few dollars out of his pocket.

"This one's on me," Duo said.

"No, I –"

"Friends can do that," Duo said, walking up to the counter.

Heero was going to protest, but it would be too embarrassing to shout after him, so he looked around for a table. There was an empty booth on one side and he sat down in it, folding his hands in his lap.

Duo carried over a tray with soda, two coffees, a Big Mac, a Quarter Pounder, a hamburger, a cheeseburger, and two large orders of french fries.

"Is someone joining us?" Heero asked.

Duo grinned, sitting down. "Thought you might want a choice."

"Seems like kind of a waste."

"Don't worry, I'll eat what's leftover." He studied the tray. "Can prob'ly eat twice this much."

Heero also looked at the tray. "That's disgusting."

Duo just grinned, opening the two coffees, dumping half a packet of sugar in each. Heero took his 7-Up and the small hamburger.

"Not even a cheeseburger?" Duo asked.

"I had a bagel before."

Duo switched the hamburger for the cheeseburger.

"Heero, I really don't –"

"What the hell," Duo said. "Walk on the wild side."

Heero glanced up. "You like Lou Reed?"

"Sure," Duo said. "Why not."

Duo was eating the Big Mac, so Heero opened his cheeseburger, taking a small bite.

"You sure you don't have a diet problem?" he asked.

Heero nodded.

"Must have been one hell of a big bagel."

Heero nodded. He couldn't think of anything to say, so he sipped his soda and Duo drank some coffee.

"Want some french fries?" Duo asked.

"Um, a couple maybe."

He shook some onto Heero's cheeseburger wrapper, Heero nodded thank you, and he nodded back.

"Catsup?" Duo asked.

"No. Thank you."

Duo nodded, picking up his Big Mac, and Heero ate one of the fries.

"Can't figure what to talk about," Duo said.

Heero couldn't either, so he took a napkin from the tray, spreading it on his lap.

"Don't guess we have a whole lot in common," Duo said.

"I guess not."

Duo folded his arms, leaning forward on them to look at him. "Bet you're the smart kid in class and that's why you hang out alone so much."

Heero shook his head.

"Bullshit, you're not smart." Duo indicated the notebooks. "Why else would you carry those around?"

"My poetry," Heero said.

"You, uh, write poetry?"

Heero shook his head.

"That's good," Duo said, opening the Quarter Pounder. "I prob'ly wouldn't have appreciated it."

Heero chuckled.

"Decided I'm funny?"

"Yeah," he said.

As Duo ate, Heero noticed how dark his hands and wrists were. From being outdoors so much, probably. Except that he had looked pretty dark that day he was walking around with his shirt off. Tans like that took effort.

"How come you have such a good tan already?"

Duo stopped chewing. "Y'haven't heard?"

Heero shook his head.

"Chickens really go for tans."

"Oh, they do, hunh?"

"Absolutely," Duo said, and winked at him.

"Not impressed," Heero said.

"And here I was," Duo's voice was sad, "thinking you were. Bet you go for guys who like chemistry and wear glasses and stuff."

Heero shook his head, one fist involuntarily tightening as he thought about Treize. Big, brunette, and arrogant. Like Duo. Oh, God. He gripped the side of the table, feeling such a wave of fear that he was dizzy. What if it was a pattern? Big, tough guys who –

"You okay?" Duo asked, his hand tentatively coming over to cover Heero's.

Heero stared at it, then up at him, aware that he was trembling. The eyes were different. Treize's were always cool and superior. Cynical. Very light, more grey than blue. Duo's were much brighter, with maybe a violet tint. Kinder too. Treize's eyes had never been kind. Surely his judgment couldn't be that bad twice. Except that he didn't know anything about this guy and maybe –

"What is it?" Duo asked.

The voice was gentle too. But maybe Treize had sounded gentle, at least when he wanted – "I, uh –" Heero swallowed. "I have an ulcer," he said finally. "It hurts sometimes."

"Are you okay?" Duo asked, sounding nervous. "Should I get you some milk?"

"I'm fine," Heero said.

"Yeah, but – will you have an attack?"

"I'm fine," Heero said, picking up his cheeseburger to prove it.

"How'd you get it?"

Heero sighed. "Jordan Marsh was having a sale."

"What are you, seventeen? Isn't that kind of young to be getting ulcers?"

Heero pressed his molars together. "Probably."

"Well, I mean, should I –"

"Nice weather we're having," Heero interrupted, "don't you think?"

"Uh, yeah," Duo said. "Real nice."
 

 
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 10
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The conversation was pretty awkward after that. Even more awkward.

"How about a milkshake?" Duo asked, the food finished.

"Duo, I'm fine."

"I buy it, you have to eat it," Duo said and got up, returning with a chocolate one and a vanilla. "Have one."

Heero sighed and pulled over the vanilla shake.

"Yup," Duo said. "Knew you'd pick that one."

"Do you want it?"

"Hell, no." Duo took out his cigarettes, lifted an eyebrow at Heero, and Heero nodded. Duo lit two, handing Heero one.

"Bet chickens really go for that," Heero said.

Duo grinned. "You know it."

For some reason, the milkshake tasted very good.

"Want a couple more?" Duo asked.

Heero blushed and shook his head.

"Okay, then." Duo smiled at him. "Let's travel."

"San Francisco's nice," Heero said.

"Thought you had to be home by four-thirty."

"Yeah." Heero looked at the clock up behind the front counter. Two-fifteen. Two hours. What were they going to do for two hours?

"So," Duo said, holding the door for him. "What do friends do after lunch?"

Heero shrugged uneasily.

"Prob'ly be stupid to go get something to eat."

Heero nodded.

"Most afternoons, you prob'ly go to museums."

Heero shook his head.

"What do you do?"

What did he do? Heero shrugged.

"You're like, real good with words," Duo said.

"Um, yeah," Heero said.

"Always thought that like, the chicken chaser was supposed to be the shy one."

"Um, yeah." Heero had to say something. "Do you, um, have any brothers and sisters?"

"A brother. He's in the Navy."

"What's his name?"

"Solo."

"Where's he stationed?"

"Pensacola."

They both nodded.

It seemed more natural to walk now, and they headed up Boylston Street.

"What about you?" Duo asked.

"Um, a half-brother," Heero said. "He's five."

Duo nodded, and they crossed Arlington Street.

"Where'd you tell your father you were going today?"

"The library." Heero indicated the notebooks.

"Good," Duo said. "That means it isn't poetry."

"No," Heero agreed. "Philosophical essays, mostly."

Duo's smile was only a little uncertain. "Don't guess your father would approve of me, hunh?"

"No," Heero said quickly. "It doesn't have anything to do with you. He's just – strict."

Duo started to say something, but stopped. "What's he do?" he asked finally. "For a job, I mean."

"He's a professor."

"Harvard, prob'ly."

Heero blushed, but nodded.

"No shit?" Duo shoved his hands into his pockets. "Guess he really wouldn't approve of me then."

"Why?"

"I'm not exactly Joe College."

More like Joe Street Punk. Heero wanted to ask if he was a dropout, but that seemed kind of ruse. No matter how curious he was. Maybe if he phrased it – "Um, where'd you go to school?"

"L2-English," Duo said. "Graduated last June."

Heero wanted to ask why he hadn't gone to college, but that would be obnoxious. Not everyone automatically went to college. "So, you're nineteen," Heero said.

"Yeah." Duo glanced over. "You're what – a senior?"

Heero nodded.

"Guess you're going away to college and all in September."

Heero hesitated, but nodded.

"Suppose you're going to some really good school," Duo said.

"Um, Wesleyan."

"Where's that, Connecticut or something?"

Heero nodded.

"You looking forward to it?"

"I guess so."

"My family's not much for college," Duo said.

Heero nodded, hating himself for feeling like a well-meaning white-collar liberal.

"Doesn't mean I'm stupid," Duo said, sounding more defensive. "Just never liked school much."

Heero shrugged. "Most people don't."

"You've just never met one."

To his horror, Heero blushed. "Of course I have."

"Oh, yeah. Lots." Duo's shoulders hunched a little. "My brother's having an okay time. Gets to go lots of places and everything. Figured I might do that, or join the Army."

Heero nodded, feeling as if he were doing so too vigorously.

"Prob'ly sounds weird to you."

"People should do what they want," Heero said.

"Well, don't guess I'll ever go to college."

Heero shrugged his liberal shrug.

"You embarrassed to be seen with me?"

"No."

"Just too embarrassed to tell your father."

"Duo – " Heero stopped and looked at him. "It has nothing to do with you, okay? It's just – a situation."

"Well." Duo's hands went further into his pockets. "Don't guess I'm one to pry."

Heero nodded, relieved, and they kept walking.

"D'ja get caught screwing?"

"Duo!"

"Sorry," Duo said. He looked over. "You get a B in a class maybe?"

Heero sighed. "No."

"You never got a B in a class?"

"No, I – " Heero stopped. "Look, can we drop it?"

"'F you say so."

They walked without speaking.

"I guess," Heero sighed, "it does seem weird that you would want to go join the Army or something."

"Doesn't bother me as long as you admit it," Duo said, then tilted his head to look at Heero. "How come it seems weird?"

"It's not that someone would want to do it, but – I don't know. You don't seem the type."

Duo shrugged. "Not much future on what I'm doing now."

"Yeah, but – " Heero frowned. "I don't know. I don't see you taking orders from people. And what if you had to fight?"

"I don't know," Duo said, his shrug more unhappy. He pointed at a store up the street. "You want to go look at CDs or something?"

"Sure," Heero said.

They walked in, both hesitating near the front of the store. Heero looked at him and decided to move first, going over to the Goth and Industrial section, flipping through CDs by Die Form in great fascination. Duo didn't follow him, and Heero turned around, locating Duo at the Opera section, just as mesmerized. Heero walked over behind him, sure that Duo knew he was there, and heard Duo sing "O sole mio", making his voice a surprisingly good, deep vibrato.

"Trained voice, hunh?" Heero said, and smirked.

Duo nodded, singing "Mio, mio sole."

"You're very good," Heero said.

"Kind of," Duo agreed, reading the back of a Placido Domingo record.

"Maybe you're funny after al," Heero said.

"Maybe you are too," Duo said.

Duo put the CD down and they walked over to the Industrial section.

After hanging around in the CD store, they wandered up Boylston Street, drifting in and out of stores.

"Think I need ice cream," Duo said as they passed a Brigham's.

"You're going to eat again?" Heero asked.

"I'm hungry."

"You ever been checked for worms?"

Duo laughed and went inside, returning with a two-scoop cone. Chocolate and chocolate chip.

"What a pig," Heero said.

"You sure you don't want some?"

Heero nodded. There was something too romantic about sharing an ice cream cone.

"You live near here?" Duo asked. "It's going on to four."

"Yeah, on Marlborough."

"'M I going to be allowed to walk you home?" Duo grinned. "Just like, to make sure you make it okay."

"I'll be fine."

"Yeah, but I'd like to – "

"Really," Heero said, "I'll be fine."

"Whatever." Duo shifted his weight. "Can I call you or anything?"

"My father – "

"Yeah, your father," Duo said.

"I can't help it."

Duo shrugged, eating his ice cream cone.

"Are you mad?" Heero asked uneasily.

"I don't know. Prob'ly not." Duo sighed. "'M I ever going to see you again, or what?"

"Do you ever want to?"

"What the hell," Duo said, then let out his breath. "Don't guess your father would believe the library on a Sunday."

"No," Heero agreed. "Anyway," he gestured towards his Red Sox cap, "you can watch the game."

"Hey, yo," Duo said, "you like baseball?"

"Well – " Heero smirked sheepishly. "I don't know. It's okay."

Duo grinned. "You're more of a Bruins fan."

"Yeah," Heero said, to save time.

"So, you busy Tuesday?"

"Uh, yeah," Heero said."

"Let me guess. Doctor's appointment."

Heero flushed.

"What, you have one every week? What kind of – " Duo stopped, looking guilty. "Oh."

"It's not that big a deal," Heero said.

Duo nodded the same way Heero must have when Duo said he might join the Army.

"Duo – "

"You know," Duo said, "you come by around three-thirty, afternoons, I can take my break then."

"Any afternoons?"

"Absolutely."

"Well." Heero grinned shyly. "Maybe I will."

Duo insisted on walking him to the corner of Marlborough and Exeter, just like, to make sure he made it safely; Heero worrying every step of the way that they might run into his father walking Shinigami. But they didn't, and it was only four-fifteen, so he made it home with time to spare.

"I'm back," Heero said loudly.

His father grunted, watching the Red Sox wrap-up.

"I mean, I'm home in time."

Odin nodded, frowning at the television.

"Well." Heero hugged his notebooks closer, kind of deflated by the lack of response. "Did they win?"

"No," his father said, frowning. "Damned Orioles." He leaned forward to turn off the set. "Did you finish your work?"

"Mostly."

"Good." Odin took off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Sally and Quatre went up to the garden. They should be back soon."

Heero nodded.

"Well, then," he said and put his glasses back on.

Heero couldn't think of anything to say, so he edged towards the stairs and his room.

"Your exams must be approaching," Odin said.

"Um, yeah. Pretty soon."

"And you expect to do well."

Heero nodded.

"Good," his father said, and reached for a book. End of conversation.

"Dad?"

Odin looked up.

"What am I going to do this summer?"

Odin frowned. "In what sense?"

"I don't know. Can I at least get a job or something?"

His father nodded. "That would be a good idea." He opened his book. "I'm sure I can find something at the university for you."

"I can't just – I don't know – work at McDonald's or something?"

"I'd prefer you being at the university."

Working in his department, no doubt. But better than nothing at all. "Okay," Heero said.

"Then I'll look into it."

Heero nodded, starting up the stairs.

"Would you mind watching Quatre for a few hours tonight, and maybe making some dinner for the two of you? The Walshes invited us for cocktails."

Heero shrugged affirmatively.

"Good," Odin said.
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 11
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

All anyone at school talked about was the prom. Like, big deal. He and Zechs had gone to the Junior Prom; Treize had taken this incredibly beautiful and incredibly vacuous girl named Priscilla. Zechs had worn a pale blue tux. Jesus. They had all gotten pretty coked up, and Heero couldn't really remember the parties they went to after, except that they weren't much fun. He had gone to a lot of parties like that with Treize – dark rooms thick with marijuana smoke, the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd blasting. And a bunch of completely blown-away people, half of them passing out or getting sick from drinking too much, the rest making out all over the place. They'd been kind of boring. What he remembered.

In the locker room before gym, the endless prom conversations went on around him – who was going with whom, what everyone was going to wear, if Relena was going to be able to get a date. Talk about boring. Heero changed quickly, almost looking forward to getting out to the gym and playing badminton.

"So, who are you going with?" Thomas Patterson asked, his voice extra-loud.

Heero knew without looking up that the question was directed at him, and concentrated on tying his sneaker to keep from telling him to fuck off. Thomas had been his tenth grade biology lab partner. Heero had always done all of the work.

"No one asked you, hunh?" Thomas said, a few people laughing nervously, the others watching.

Heero tied his other shoe.

"Maybe if the Parole Board meets in time, you can get a date."

It was very quiet, everyone waiting to see what would happen, and Heero swallowed, not sure if he was going to cry, or just run out. He glanced across the locker room at Wufei, who looked away guiltily, suddenly very busy with something inside his locker.

"No one wants you there anyway," Thomas said. "You'd just – "

"Okay, boys," their teacher, Mr. Jenkins, said, coming out of his office. "Let's hustle."

Heero jumped up, making it out to the gym first, his back feeling very exposed. He stood by the bleachers, wanting to hide underneath them as the others came noisily out. But then he pictured Noin, lying on the bleachers once, clutching her side, saying, "Dear God, it's the Lucrezia gallbladder." Even Mr. Jenkins had laughed that time. Heero closed his eyes, moving away from the bleachers.

Mr. Jenkins blew his whistle. "Come on, boys, get some games going!"

Heero watched people choose partners, taking badminton rackets and shuttlecocks from the pile by the stack of gymnastics mats. Relena Peacecraft looked and him and he nodded, going over to get a racket. What was he going to do if Relena was absent someday?

 

It seemed overeager to go down and see Duo right away, so he waited until Wednesday afternoon, telling Sally that he was going for a walk. Sally, who was pretty busy working on her thesis these days, nodded almost without looking up from her legal pads, obviously trying to finish something before it was time for Quatre to get up from his nap.

It was exactly three-thirty when he got to the Public Gardens. Duo was cutting the grass over in the Beacon Street side of the park, wearing a maroon T-shirt, his cap down low over his eyes. Heero walked over, waving when he looked up, and Duo turned off the lawn mower, grinning and pushing his cap back.

"Was kind of figuring you'd come on Monday," Duo said.

"Well, I thought – I mean – " Heero blushed. "I don't know. I thought it might be pushy."

"Well, I was kind of disappointed and stuff." He turned toward some other workers near the supply shed. "Yo, Howard! Taking my break now!"

One of the men nodded and Duo turned back.

"So," Duo said, and took his cigarettes out of his T-shirt pocket. "Want one?"

"Yeah."

They sat down on a bench near the street.

"How you doing?" Duo asked.

"Okay. How are you?"

"Not bad."

They sat and smoked, Heero with his leg crossed over his knee, Duo slouched down with his ankles crosses, arms stretched out along the side of the bench.

"Keep thinking it'll get easier," Duo said.

"Easier?"

"Talking to you and stuff. But – I don't know."

Heero looked at him, noticing how strange it was to see someone so big, so nervous. Very cool, but still pretty obviously nervous.

"What's your life like?" Heero asked.

"My what?"

"Your life. I mean," Heero's face felt warmer, "what do you do? Where do you live. That kind of stuff."

"Hunh," Duo said, then grinned. "Grew up in a small mining town here in L2."

Was that Duo humor? Sounded like it. "So did I," Heero said.

"Hey, yo. Guess we have more in common than I thought." Duo looked at him, eyes amused. "D'ja mine coal or iron?"

"Gundanium," Heero said. "Up in the Poconos."

"I'll be damned." Duo lifted his hand as though he were going to touch Heero's hair, but let it fall back on the bench. "We were copper people."

Heero smirked. "What's your life like really?"

"I don't know. Not too interesting."

"I'm interested," Heero said. "Where do you live?"

"South End."

"Do you have an apartment?"

"It's more like a cave," Duo said.

"I meant, do you have an apartment, or do you live with your family?"

"My family. It's not like I'm scared to move out'r anything, I just – " Duo looked at his watch.

"Do you have to go?"

Duo shook his head.

"With your brother gone, they must have lots of room."

"Kind of," Duo said briefly.

Silence. Unable to think of another conversational gambit, Heero concentrated on what was left of his cigarette.

"See," Duo said, "the thing is, my father's not real reliable. It's not that he's not – well, he's not so great about money."

Heero nodded.

"I don't know. Solo prob'ly had the right idea – joining up and stuff. But, I figured – " Duo looked at him uncertainly. "This is, like, really boring."

"No, it isn't."

"Well, I got the job here and I just figured that – well, instead of moving and all, I could give my mother money, tell my father it was like me paying rent, and then my mother wouldn't have to worry so much about bills."

"Hunh," Heero said, impressed. Duo was a nice guy.

"Old Solo never got along so great with my father. I always figured he'd take off soon as he was old enough." Duo stubbed his cigarette out on the side of the bench, very slowly. "Tried a couple of times when he was younger, but the cops – " Duo sighed. "Hell, I don't know."

"It sounds like he took off and left you with all the responsibility."

Duo glanced over. "Wouldn't of figured you to be much of a listener."

"Of course I listen," Heero said, offended.

"Guess I didn't figure your hearing'd be so good."

"What's your father like?"

"He's an okay guy. Not really there when you need him, but at least he feels bad about it."

Heero nodded.

"It's not that he's not – I mean – "

"Hey, Duo!" A man – his supervisor, probably – called, tapping his watch with one hand.

Duo nodded back, putting his cigarette out, then leaning over to drop it into a garbage can.

"Back to work," Heero said.

"Yeah."

They stood up, not really looking at each other.

"Y'coming back anytime soon?" Duo asked.

"Um, is tomorrow okay?"

Duo grinned. "Yeah."

 

Except for Tuesday – and Sunday, when he couldn't think of an excuse, since the library was closed – he went every day. Finals were so close that neither his father nor Sally were suspicious.

"Guess you still say you're going to the library," Duo said on Monday, indicating Heero's knapsack.

"I do go," Heero said. "Finals start next week."

Duo grinned. "We going to see a nice card of A's?"

Heero also grinned, but wryly. "If not, they're going to be pretty suspicious, what with all this time at the library."

"Sure would make it easier if you'd tell them the truth."

"If I tell them the truth, you'll never see me again."

"What, I'm so bad a guy they wouldn't – "

Heero closed his eyes. Duo had to stop pushing him. Heero couldn't be friends with him if he kept pushing him. "Don't keep doing this, okay? Please?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Duo sighed. "Just wish I could see you more, is all."

Heero glanced over nervously – that was a boyfriend remark.

"It's nice to spend time with a friend," Duo said, with such and innocent little-boy statement that Heero forgot to be tense.

"You're such a jerk," Heero said, trying not to smirk.

"Because I want to be with my friend?" Duo asked sadly.

"What a total jerk."

Duo grinned, lighting two cigarettes and handing him one.

"Chickens really go for that," Heero said.

"Yup, you know it." Duo looked across the park and sighed. "Oh, hell."

Heero followed his gaze and saw his supervisor motioning Duo over. Twenty minutes sure went fast.

"How long you stay at the library?" Duo asked.

Heero shrugged. "Four-thirty, five."

"How about I meet you there a couple minutes after five?"

"But I have to go right home."

"So I'll walk you."

"Yeah, but – "

"Gotta go," Duo said. "See you out in front."

"Um, okay," Heero said.

Heero was sure that they were going to run into his father coming home – and almost hoped they would, just to get it over with. But his block was pretty quiet.

"Looks like you're safe," Duo said.

"Yeah."

"'Course," Duo sat down on the brownstone steps, "I could always wait."

Remembering Duo humor, Heero managed not to overreact. "I'll deny everything."

"Think he'd beat me up?"

Heero smirked, picturing his father involved in what he would no doubt describe as "fisticuffs." "Probably not."

"Don't guess I'll risk it though." Duo stood up. "See you Wednesday."

Heero nodded.

Inside, Sally and Quatre were watching Blue's Clues talk about how nice fish were.

"Can we get some fish, Mommy?" Quatre was asking.

Fish. Quatre asked for a different pet almost every day. Heero figured Sally would get him a cat – as soon as she could persuade Heero's father that Shinigami's psyche wouldn't be damaged by this. "Uh, hi," Heero said, closing the front door.

"Heero, guess what!" Quatre said. "We're getting fish!"

"Well, I don't know," Sally said. "I thought some ferrets would be nice."

"Um, yeah," Heero said, heading for his room. Weird.

"How was the library?" Sally asked.

"Fine."

"Stir-fry sound okay for dinner?"

"Whatever." Heero shifted his weight, anxious to leave.

"Do you have more studying to do?"

Good, an exit. "Yeah, lots. I'll be in my room if anyone wants me."

Sally nodded, and he left.

 

"What was it like living with your mother?" Dr. Kurama asked.

Heero shrugged. "Quiet."

"So, it changed when your father left?"

Heero had to smirk, trying to imagine someone describing his father as "noisy."

"What?" Rasid asked.

"I don't know. My father isn't exactly rowdy, you know?"

"So, how was it quiet?"

"Well – I don't know." Heero stopped smirking. "I guess my mother got quiet. I mean, especially after we left Hanover, and – " Heero shook his head. "I thought you weren't going to pressure me."

"Just trying to get a clearer picture of things," Dr. Kurama said.

"Christ."

"Just give it a try."

"For Christ's sakes." Heero saw that Rasid wasn't going to let him off the hook, and folded his arms. "They got divorced. He got a chair at Harvard – Harvard-L2 – and moved. We moved to Manchester."

"Why?"

"How the hell am I supposed to know? I was little."

"Why do you think your mother got quiet?"

"Why do you think? Mom – " Heero tried not to stutter over the word, clenching his fist so he wouldn't cry saying it – "I guess she felt funny with people she knew because everyone else was all tied up with the university, and she wasn't anymore. I mean – if he hadn't moved to L2, we probably would have. She really liked cities. So, Manchester was kind of like one."

"What then?" Rasid asked when Heero didn't go on.

"I don't know," Heero said, defensively. "She was sad. Her mother died, she couldn't get a good job because she hadn't been able to finish her degree before she and my father – I mean, she went to a school in Manchester, but she didn't really like it, or – I don't know."

"Where was she working?"

"I don't know. She didn't really like – I mean, different places. Like, an office supply house. A real estate office. A place where they did data processing. I mean, she wanted to teach, but to do that, she had to finish – " Heero stopped, remembering night after night of finding his mother sitting alone, a book open on her lap, not turning pages. "Then, um, when my father got married again, she felt really bad."

"How soon after the divorce was that?"

"Well – " Heero frowned at him. "I mean, not that soon. He didn't even meet her for a couple of years. I mean – she may not be my favorite person in the world, but she's not that much of a jerk."

Dr. Kurama nodded. "Why, particularly, did your mother feel so badly?"

"Well – why else? Because Sally was so young and all. She thought my father was being a real – I mean, she hadn't met anyone she liked, so she felt – " Heero stopped again. He should have told someone. The goddamn story of his life.

"Well," Dr. Kurama said, "maybe – "

"I'm not talking about it anymore," Heero said, tightening his arms across his stomach.

"Do you think what happened to her has anything to do with things that have happened since?"

"Boy," Heero said, "you must have majored in psychology."

"Did you ever wonder why you have an ulcer?"

Heero scowled, moving his hand away from his stomach. "It can be hereditary." Not that he knew of any relative who had one.

"Maybe you have a tendency to internalize."

"Gosh, I don't know," Heero said. Talk about understatements. "Maybe."

"Maybe here would be a good place for you to practice opening up."

Heero shrugged.

"Think how much better you feel when you have a nightmare, and you tell someone about it," Rasid said.

Heero frowned. "I don't ever tell people my nightmares."

"It can make it easier to – "

"Oh, yeah, right," Heero said. "Like I'm going to tell you. You'll think they're all about sex or something."

"Are they?"

"No," Heero said, impatiently. "They're just like – they're blatant. Treize trying to get me, Catherine and Noin there, maybe. Or other people from school. Or like, I don't know, seeing my mother somewhere and she doesn't know who I am – I mean, Christ. It's not like that's hard to figure out."

"What do you think they mean?"

"Gosh, I don't know," Heero said. "Must be I'm tense."

He nodded. "How do you feel when you wake up?"

"Like killing myself," Heero said without thinking, "how else?"

Rasid nodded.

"Oh, Christ, now you're going to call my father and tell him, right?"

Rasid shook his head.

"It's not like I'm going to do it," Heero said. "I think it really sucks when – " He stopped. Damn it, damn it, damn it. He was saying too much. "I mean, Christ, the most I'd do would be live dangerously, or – " Terrific. Open mouth, insert other foot. He sat back, folding his arms.

"Heero – "

"I really don't want to talk about it," Heero said.

"Well, maybe – "

"Look," Heero interrupted, "if you want to know stuff, why don't you just ask my father? You guys talk about everything that goes on here, right?"

"I think you know we don't," Dr. Kurama said.

"Oh, yeah, right," Heero said. "I bet he's on the phone every Wednesday morning."

Rasid looked at him thoughtfully. "A lot of people have let you down, haven't they? People you've trusted."

"Oh, yeah," Heero said. "All those people."

"Treize. Your mother. Your father."

"What exactly is it that my father did?" Heero asked stiffly.

"He didn't understand."

"Oh?" Heero clenched his fists under his folded arms.

"You thought he would understand that you needed help even thought you weren't able to tell him."

"Yeah, well – " Heero shut his mouth firmly. No way was Rasid going to trick him into more talking. No way at all.

"What do you think's going to happen if you relax, let down a little?"

Heero moved his arms lower, tightening them.

"Every time you do it, it gets easier."

"Boy," Heero said, keeping his voice even. "You're a really profound guy."

There was something disappointed in Dr. Kurama's statement and as he picked up his coffee mug, Heero knew he was safe. For now.

"Heero," he started.

The phone buzzed, which meant they were running overtime. Heero jumped up, heading for the door.

Rasid came after. "Heero, I hope that next week, we can – "

Heero left, closing the door hard behind him. Too hard, because everyone in the waiting room looked up. He stayed there, bright red.

"Hi," Sally said cheerfully, coming over to meet him, not embarrassed at all.

Heero followed her out, his hands tight fists in his pockets, watching the floor so he wouldn't have to look up. Once they were in the hall, he walked swiftly, almost leaving his stepmother behind.

"Here." Sally handed him the car keys. "Why don't you go ahead and open the car up?"

Heero nodded, almost running out of the building. By the time his stepmother got to the car, he felt somewhat more composed, arms across his chest, staring out through the windshield.

"You know," Sally took her time starting the engine, "most of the people in there have so many problems of their own that they probably wouldn't notice if you walked out with a Twin Buster Rifle."

Heero gritted his teeth, the embarrassment back, full-force. "When I want your help, Pollyanna, I'll ask for it."

Sally looked at him for a minute. "I hope so," she said.
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 12
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was cooler the next day, and Duo was wearing his jeans jacket.

"Everything okay?" Duo asked as they sat down.

"What do you mean?" Heero asked, arms already folded.

"I don't know. You seem kind of pissed off. You have a fight with your father or something?"

Heero scowled. "No." Actually, he had – that morning, on the way to school. He had made the mistake of asking Odin to please not make him go to Dr. Kurama's anymore and ended up getting a long lecture about his attitude. Then. He was late to French and his teacher – Noin had always been his favorite student – yelled at Heero. Then, in history, his teacher made a big deal out of praising his research paper and just about everyone in the class scowled at him. In gym, they played volleyball and he got picked last again. Not a red-letter day.

"Something happen at your appointment yesterday?"

"Just drop it," Heero said.

"'F you say so." Duo lit a cigarette without offering him one.

Terrific. Heero was going to lose the only friend he had. "I'm sorry," Heero said. "It wasn't such a great day."

Duo nodded.

"What about you?" Heero asked.

Duo shrugged. "Kind of boring." He glanced down at his cigarette. "Hey, yo, sorry," Duo said, and handed him the pack.

Heero took one, and let Duo light it for him.

"Way I figure," Duo said, "it's okay if you're upset or something, but you should like, tell me so I don't, you know, take it personally."

"I'm sorry."

"Didn't mean for you to apologize. I just – " Duo fell back on the James Dean grin. "I'm this real sensitive guy, you know?"

"You are," Heero said seriously.

"Well, don't be telling anyone. I kind of have a rep and stuff."

Heero chuckled. Duo humor was pretty amusing.

They sat, smoking.

"I kind of have a problem with Saturday," Duo said. "Like, most of the afternoon." He looked over. "And I guess you have trouble getting out on Sundays."

Heero nodded, feeling a tremendous thump of disappointment at the prospect of not being able to see him for a couple of days.

"You mind?"

Heero shook his head, afraid that if he said "Yes," he would be too vehement.

"See, it's not like it's any big deal or anything, I just – well, I'm in this baseball league. Just like, a guy's league, nothing big. We have our first game and I kind of ought to be there."

"Where do you play?" Heero asked.

"The field is in the Common. It's really not a big deal, I just – "

"Could I maybe come watch?"

Duo glanced over. "Thought you didn't like baseball."

"I don't have anything against it."

"Well, don't worry," Duo said. "I mean, I won't feel bad if you don't, you know, want to come." Duo ducked his head, suddenly very busy with his cigarette, and Heero grinned.

"You won't, hunh?" Heero asked.

"Hell, no. `Course if you wanted to, I wouldn't mind or anything." Duo glanced at Heero out of the corner of his eye as if, that way, he wouldn't be able to see him doing it. Pretty cute.

"What time should I be there?" Heero asked.

 

On Saturday, Heero's father had tickets to the Red Sox game – and even asked him if he wanted to come along – and it struck Heero as funny that they were both going to baseball games. That Heero was going at all, actually. Quatre was going with his father, very excited, in a little warm-up jacket and shiny plastic batting helmet. Sally was staying home, making no secret of the fact that she was delighted to have an entire afternoon free to work on her thesis. Since finals started on Monday, Heero asked his father if it would be okay to spend several hours at the library – until it closed, even. Odin was in a good mood because of the game and just told him to be sure and be home by five-thirty for dinner. Duo's game was supposed to start at three-thirty, which would give him plenty of time.

Heero went to the library – since finals really were on Monday – and studied until it was twenty past three. Then, he walked down to the Common, wondering if he was going to have to be introduced to a bunch of teammates, or something otherwise terrifying. Maybe this wasn't such a great idea.

As he crossed Charles Street, he could see the field, and could see Duo at first base, throwing warm-up grounders to the other infielders. Heero paused, some yards away, to watch. Duo was wearing a baseball shirt with light blue sleeves, navy blue sweat pants, and ankle-high Nikes. In the winter, Duo was probably in a basketball league.

Duo seemed to be a good player, not that Heero knew much about baseball, but he wasn't dropping the ball, and he could throw pretty hard. He also seemed like he was pretty popular; other teammates shouting things to him, Duo shouting back. He had a Molson sitting a few feet behind first base and when he turned to pick it up, he saw Heero.

"Hey, back in a minute!" he shouted to the other infielders and loped over to the fence.

"Hi," Heero said.

"Want a beer?"

Heero did, but his father would be sure to smell it. "No, thanks."

A couple of other players wandered over, grinning "Duo's got a boy friend" grins. Embarrassed by the scrutiny, Heero turned partway away.

"Don't worry," Duo said. "They get rowdy and stuff, but they're good guys."

Heero nodded, grateful that Duo understood how he felt without him having to say so. Definitely a perceptive guy. Duo's friends were closer now, making remarks like, "Who'd of figured he'd have good taste?" and "Whaddaya see in him?" But they were friendly sounding insults.

"Yo, Tasuki, Nuriko," Duo said, and jerked his head towards Heero. "My friend, Heero."

"They're just friends," Nuriko said to Tasuki, who laughed.

"Combed his hair for `bout the last hour," Tasuki said to Heero, who almost forgot about his shyness to chuckle.

"You gonna sit on the bench with us?" Nuriko asked.

Heero blushed, and shook his head.

"What," Tasuki said, his statement extra-hurt, "you don't like us?"

"Heero's not the bench-sitting type," Duo said, and winked at Heero.

Now, Heero grinned, since Duo had almost never seen him when he wasn't sitting on a bench.

"You guys ready to play?" someone yelled.

"We better go," Tasuki said, and Nuriko tipped his cap to Heero before the two boys returned to their positions.

"Me too," Duo said, scuffing his sneaker in the dirt. "If I can, I'll talk to you and stuff when we're up."

Heero nodded. "Good luck."

"Yeah."

Heero watched him jog back to first base, his run a little self-conscious. Kind of funny to see a big athletic guy being clumsy.

There were some bleachers, and Heero sat discreetly at the end of an empty row. There were a few other spectators: two young wives with children, an older man, three boys about twelve years old. Afraid one of them might make eye contact, he took his calculus book out of his knapsack and pretended to study. Once the game started, he could focus on that.

Mostly, he just watched Duo, but baseball was more interesting then he'd thought. Not violent or anything. Duo was playing really well too, making lots of outs at first, fielding a couple grounders. He hit a double his first time at bat; then, the second time, he hit a fly ball all the way to the fence, but the left fielder caught it. Coming back to the bench, he shrugged apologetically at Heero and Heero shook his head. Duo continued to the fence, motioning him over.

"Was trying for a home run," he said sheepishly.

Heero nodded. "Chickens really go for that."

"Yeah."

"It was a good hit."

"It was a good catch," Duo said. He turned, someone else just having made the third out.

"I thought it was a good hit," Heero said.

Duo grinned wryly and jogged over to get his glove, one of his teammates tossing it to him.

Duo came up to bat in the last inning, glancing over before stepping into the batter's box. He hit the second pitch deep to center field, the outfielder catching it on one bounce. Duo ran to second and continued to third base, the ball and the third baseman arriving at the same time he did. But the third baseman hung onto the ball, and he was out. They helped each other up, being jolly, but Duo looked like he might be hurt. Heero clenched his fists involuntarily, watching.

Duo headed for the bench, his teammates saying things like, "Good try," and "Y'okay?" Duo nodded, but his walk was a little stiff, and Heero hurried down to the fence to find out. But someone flied to right and the game was over, everyone shaking hands. Finally, Duo came out to meet him, his walk still seeming funny.

"Are you all right?" Heero asked.

"Yeah." Duo shrugged. "Hell, yeah." Being cool, he put more weight on his leg, and Heero saw his face tighten.

"You are hurt," Heero said.

"No way."

"Oh." Heero flexed his muscles. "I can play, Coach. I can play."

"I'm fine."

"You want me to run, Coach?" Heero asked the fence. "How many miles?"

"You're being a real jerk," Duo said.

"You're being more of a jerk. Sit down and let me look at it."

"What do you know about it?"

Heero sighed impatiently. "Enough to know you're being a macho jerk. Sit down already."

Duo saluted sarcastically and limped over to the bleachers.

"Oh, now you're limping," Heero said. "What a jerk."

Duo shrugged.

"Total jerk." Heero moved the leg of Duo's sweat pants up, careful not to hurt him, holding the elastic wide apart. The left side of Duo's knee seemed to be swollen and he touched it lightly. "I'm sorry, tell me if I hurt you."

Duo didn't say anything, so he explored the knee with both hands, deciding that it was swollen, but it probably wasn't serious.

"I don't know. It might be sprained. Or – " Heero saw that he was staring at him. "What?"

"Dunno." Duo reached out, his hand grazing Heero's tousled hair. "Didn't figure on you being gentle."

Heero flushed, moving away, folding his arms across his chest. "Um, anyway," he said unsteadily, "if you put ice on it, it should – "

"Heero – "

"Hey, Duo!" Nuriko came over with Tasuki, both of them grinning. "He fix you up?"

Heero turned his back, bright red.

"Did he kiss it and make it better?" Tasuki wanted to know.

"Come on, shut up," Duo said.

Tasuki laughed. "Whatsa matter? Thought you – "

"Shut up, okay?"

The boys grinned.

"Later," Nuriko said.

"Yup," Tasuki said.

When they were gone, Duo stood up, adjusting his sweat pant leg.

"You prob'ly have to get home for dinner," Duo said.

Heero nodded. His estimate of the length of a baseball game had been a little off.

"I'll walk you."

"Why don't you take the T," Heero said, still red. "So you won't hurt yourself."

"I could maybe lean on you," Duo said, sounding pitiful.

"Yeah, right."

Duo limped more seriously, walking with great effort.

"It's not that bad," Heero said.

"It is," Duo said. "It hurts lots."

"But you're going to be a martyr and walk me home."

Duo nodded sadly.

"Boy, what a man."

"Maybe," Duo winced, "if I lean on you for a minute."

"What a jerk."

Duo put his arm around Heero's shoulders and his limp improved. "Ah," he said. "Much better."

Heero didn't answer, torn between pulling away and moving closer.

"Friends can help injured friends," Duo said.

Heero nodded uneasily.

"Look." Duo moved his arm away. "Maybe I should just walk you."

Heero nodded.

They walked across Charles Street, not looking at each other, then through the Public Gardens, a couple of workers waving. They walked onto Commonwealth Avenue, Heero looking at anything else. A Coke can someone had dropped. A man in a BC sweat shirt jogging. A boy and a girl walking a basset hound.

Duo's hand came over, touching his. "Maybe I'd feel better if I could hold this," he said.

Heero hesitated, then nodded.

"Nice hand," Duo said.

"You too."

They didn't speak again until they were in front of Heero's building.

"I-I think I'm late," Heero said.

"Yeah," Duo said.

They dropped hands.

"Take care of your knee," Heero said.

"Yeah."

Feeling very awkward, Heero backed up the front steps. "Bye."

Duo nodded, then suddenly came after Heero in two great jumps, grabbing him around the waist and kissing him. Duo broke away with a huge grin.

"Duo – "

"See ya!" Duo jumped down the steps and jogged down the block.

"Wait, I – "

He was already around the corner.
 
 

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 13
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Heero stood there, feeling almost dazed, then took out his keys. When he let himself into the apartment, they were eating dinner.

"Where have you been?" his father asked, angry.

"Sorry." Heero closed the door. "I lost track of time."

"Where have you been?"

"The library." Heero blinked. "I mean, I told you before."

"Who were you with?" Odin asked suspiciously.

"No one." Heero grinned, guessing the reason for his bad mood. "Sox lost, hunh?"

Odin came over, lifting Heero's chin to frown at his eyes, looking for signs of him being high probably.

"Dad, let go of me!" He jerked away.

"Odin, come on," Sally said. "He lost track of time."

"Let me handle it, okay?" Heero's father said.

"Heero, sit down. Your dinner's getting cold." Sally served his plate: chicken, asparagus, salad.

"Who were you with?" his father asked, then paused. "We saw you, so there's no point in lying."

Heero frowned. They weren't near the front windows, so how could they have? Besides, he could out-bluff him any day.

"Well, I don't know what you could have seen, Dad," he said calmly. "I was alone."

Odin studied him. "Then, why were you late?"

"I don't know," Heero said. "I was studying and I forgot."

Odin looked at him, then sighed. "Try not to let it happen again."

"No, sir."

Odin indicated Heero's chair with his head. "Eat your dinner."

Heero nodded, sitting down gratefully. "How was the game, Quatre?" he asked, reaching across the table to get the baked potatoes.

"Fun," Quatre said happily.

"With the possible exception of the sixth inning," Sally said, and winked at Heero's father, who looked amused. Sort of.

"Oh, that's too bad," Heero said. For some reason, the food looked wonderful and he started eating, hungrier then he had felt in months, even taking seconds.

His stepmother smiled. "Want to go for three?"

"No, thanks, I'm full. It was good though." Heero finished his milk. "Want me to clean up?"

"You don't have to."

"It's no problem. Really."

Sally smiled again. "I'll give you a hand." She glanced at Heero's father. "I'll put some coffee on."

"And cookies?" Quatre asked.

"Lots of cookies," Sally promised.

As Heero loaded the dishwasher, his stepmother put away leftovers, whistling Peter and the Wolf.

"Did you get a lot done?" Heero asked.

Sally nodded. "Did you?"

"Some." Heero caught himself before whistling too. "Do you whistle that a lot?"

"Every chance I get," Sally said, and kept whistling. She took down two coffee mugs, putting a teaspoon of sugar in each of them. "What's his name?"

Heero stiffened. "Who?"

"The boy who walks you home."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"What's his name?" his stepmother asked.

Heero sighed. "Duo."

"Where'd you meet him?"

"The Public Gardens. We're just friends."

"I'm not accusing you of anything – I just – "

"So, you really saw me tonight."

Sally shook her head. "A few days ago. I was watering the spider plants."

"Oh." Heero shifted his weight, the dishes forgotten. "And you ran and told Dad and everything."

"No."

"Yeah, sure."

"He just happened to make a lucky guess." Sally glanced over. "Why didn't you mention that you'd met someone?"

"Oh, yeah, right," Heero said. "Like I'd be allowed to see him."

"Why wouldn't you be?"

Heero gestured toward the living room. "He'll think I'm going to get into trouble."

"Are you?"

"Oh, for God's sakes," Heero said, and closed the dishwasher.

"Your father and I worry, that's all."

"Why would you worry?"

"Oh, I don't know," Sally said. "No reason."

Heero thought about that. "You must not have been very happy when I moved in here."

"It wasn't a very happy time," his stepmother said.

"I mean, with Quatre and Dad and all. I screwed everything up."

"No, you didn't."

"Right." He saw the kettle boiling. "The water's ready."

"Heero, I really wish you didn't feel that way."

"You're not going to do the coffee?" Heero crossed to the stove, turning off the gas.

"Heero."

"He'll get mad if he doesn't get coffee."

"He'll recover."

Heero shrugged, returning to the sink.

"Heero, your father and I – "

"How's the coffee coming?" Heero's father asked, coming in.

Sally picked up the kettle, pouring the water into the coffeemaker. "Coming along nicely."

"Wonderful." Odin rested a hand on Sally's back, and Heero bent over the pan he was scrubbing. He really hated it when they did that. Unexpectedly, his father's hand came onto his shoulder, and he jumped.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you," Odin said.

Heero shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does. I'm sorry."

Heero stared down at the pan, then let out his breath. "I was with someone."

Odin's hand tensed. "Oh?"

"A friend of mine. His name's Duo."

"I see." Odin's hand left his shoulder. "From school?"

"No. He works in the Public Gardens – " He stopped. Jesus, what a way to start explaining. "Well, we just got to talking one day, and – I haven't been doing anything bad."

"Other then lying about going to the library."

"I have been going to the library," Heero said. "I have finals."

"Then when is it that you see this boy?" Odin asked, his voice very stiff.

"On his break. And he walks me home sometimes."

His father didn't say anything.

"I bet I'm grounded now, right?"

"Well, I wouldn't describe this as the sort of behavior that's going to make me trust you," Odin said.

"Fine." Heero started for the door. "So I'm grounded."

"Why don't you hear him out," Sally said.

"I already know what he's going to say."

"How do you know if you don't listen?"

Heero sighed, but stopped by the door, waiting for one of his father's Pronouncements.

"Why don't you sit down," Sally said, "instead of looking as if you're about to run out."

Heero scowled. "I don't want to."

"Heero, sit down," his father said.

Heero sat down.

"Thank you." Odin sipped some coffee. "Now then. Is there something particularly objectionable about this boy?"

Heero shook his head.

"Then, why have you had to go behind my back?" Odin glanced at Sally. "Our backs?"

Heero reached for the salt shaker, twirling it once.

"Why?" Odin asked.

"Well, it's not like I'm allowed to have friends, right?"

Odin glanced at Sally before answering. "I think you need friends, Heero. It's simply a question of your having the right sort of friends."

Heero sighed, looking down at the wood grain of the table. No way was Duo going to be the right sort for his father. "What do you mea, the right sort?"

"I mean someone who – Heero, you know what I mean." Odin blinked and took off his glasses. Professor Yuy, at a loss for words.

"Why don't you invite him over?" Sally suggested. "Your father can meet him, and we can go from there."

Heero frowned. "Just – invite him over?"

"Sure," Sally said, shrugging. "For dinner."

Heero frowned more. "You invite fiancés for dinner."

His stepmother's smile was maybe just a tad exasperated. "Then, invite him over for after dinner," she said. "Coffee, dessert, that sort of thing."

Heero looked at his father, who was nodding. "When?"

"Whenever you want," Sally said, and his father nodded.

"Well." Heero stood up. "Is it all right if I go see him at work on Monday? To ask him, I mean?"

"It's all right," his father said.

"Thank you." Heero turned to leave.

"Heero," Odin said.

Heero paused.

"Things are much less complicated when you sit down and discuss them. Remember that, okay?"

Heero nodded. You too, Dad.

 

After school on Monday, Heero went down to the Public Gardens. He couldn't find Duo at first, then located him pedaling one of the swan boats around the pond. Heero walked down to the little green dock to wait for him to pedal in.

"Hoped you learned a lot about nature and stuff," Duo said to his passengers, two women with little children laughing, the three nuns smiling. Duo tipped his Red Sox cap to the nuns and they smiled, one of them taking his picture. A little boy was having trouble climbing off the boat and he lifted him onto the dock.

"Hi," Heero said.

"Hey, yo." Duo grinned, pushing up his sweat shirt sleeves. He indicated the swan boat with one jerk of his head. "Dig my new wheels?"

"Is this a promotion?"

"No, guy called in sick." He watched another group boarding. "Wanna come?"

"On the boat?"

"'Less you'd rather swim along next to it."

"I'll ride," Heero said. He knew Duo was going to put his hand out to help him on the boat, which was kind of boyfriend stuff, so Heero jumped on before he got the chance, sitting on the bench closest to the back, where the driver sat.

"You can navigate," Duo said.

Heero wasn't much of a one for boats. "Um, these things never tips over, do they?"

Duo just laughed, and as he pedaled the boat into the pond, he whistled the song from Gilligan's Island so quietly that only Heero could hear.

"Thank you," Heero said. "That makes me feel better."

"Yup. Knew it would. Hey, yo," Duo said in a tour-guide voice as the boat drifted past the little man-made island. "This is where the ducks migrate in the winter. To hibernate and stuff."

Passengers who heard him laughed.

"Hibernate," Heero said.

Duo nodded. "You know it. They dig tunnels in the ground and everything."

"The ducks," Heero said.

"Hell, yes. You must be an Earth kid."

Heero liked Duo humor.

"And," Duo said, "they build like, these webs, to catch littler birds to eat."

Almost all of the passengers were listening now, listening and smiling.

"Then," he said, "they fly to the ocean to spawn their babies."

"Do they die after that?" Heero asked.

Duo looked sad. "Ducks have it rough."

"Boy," Heero said. "You must be a forest ranger or something."

"Yeah. I'm like a chief." Duo pointed to the tulip beds near Arlington Square. "Know how we grow those flowers?"

Heero shook his head, amused.

"Well, I'll tell you. You can do it at home too." Duo turned the boat, heading for the far side of the pond. "We buy bags of potatoes at Stop and Shop. Just ten pound bags, you know? We wash them up good, then cut `em in pieces. We put spices on them so the flowers'll be different colors, then we bury them in the ground. And in like, five days…" He gestured to the flowers beds.

"Wow," Heero said.

"You seem like a nice boy," Duo said. "Not too bright, but nice. So, I'll tell you a secret." Duo leaned closer, still pedaling. "If you plant Chunky Vegetable soup, it'll grow."

Heero grinned.

"Hey, I'm not kidding. I know this stuff."

Heero grinned again, feeling a strangely powerful urge to hug him. He never hugged people. Never had.

"Enjoy the ride?" Duo asked, when they were back at the dock.

"I learned a lot," Heero said.

"Just doing my job."

"Hey, Duo," his supervisor called. "Take twenty if you want."

They sat on a bench below willow trees.

"How's your knee?" Heero asked.

Duo shrugged. "Good weekend?"

Heero shrugged.

Duo took out his cigarettes, lighting two.

"Um, I told my father," Heero said.

Duo glanced over.

"He wants you to come over so he can meet you."

"See if he approves and stuff."

"Um, yeah." Heero took a puff of his cigarette, not looking at Duo.

"Hunh," Duo said, also smoking. "When?"

"Whenever."

"You have finals and stuff all week?"

Heero nodded.

"How about Saturday?"

Heero nodded.
 

 
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 14
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was a pretty bad week. He was tired after his two finals on Tuesday – physics and French literature – that he didn't even feel up to fighting Dr. Kurama.

"You look pretty tired today," Rasid said.

Heero nodded, slouched back in the easy chair. "I have finals."

"How are they going?"

He shrugged. "I did lots of studying." He watched Dr. Kurama pour a cup of coffee. "Are you, um," Heero coughed, "mad about last week?"

He shook his head. "It doesn't work that way."

"But – "

Rasid stirred milk and sugar into the mug. "Some people find it harder to talk about things than other people do."

Dr. Kurama smiled, sitting down. "Everyone's different."

Heero looked around the office, noticing that he had a little vase of tulips, as well as the unusual daisies. "Is this job really depressing?"

"I find it very interesting," Rasid said. "And, sometimes, rewarding."

"I don't guess I'm in the rewarding category, am I?" Heero asked.

Rasid laughed. "Shoot from the hip, Heero, don't you?"

Heero folded his arms, not quite sure what he meant.

"It's a compliment," Dr. Kurama said.

Heero shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "I, um, I don't exactly shoot at any of the right times. The important ones."

"Maybe not," Rasid said. "But I think you have a pretty solid moral code back there." He picked up his coffee, looking at Heero over the mug. "What do you mean by `important ones'?"

Heero shrugged, not looking back.

"You must have meant something."

Heero let out a short, hard breath. "Maybe I meant the times it could have helped someone, as opposed to hurting them."

"Such as?"

"Oh, for Christ's sakes," Heero said.

Rasid didn't say anything, his eyebrows up, waiting for him to go on.

Heero let out another irritated breath. "All I had to, for Christ's sakes, do was tell someone, okay? Like not telling how bad my mother was feeling, and letting – or not telling that he killed Noin when I knew he did. I even saw him after, when everyone else was outside, just kind of – " Heero stopped, the memory too scary to go on.

"Heero?"

Heero shook his head, trying to shut the picture out. The school was small, and word had spread fast that Noin Lucrezia was outside – had killed herself or something. Knowing what really must have happened, Heero had, in the confusion of everyone else running outside, gone to the boy's bathroom and had been sick. When he felt strong enough to come out, the hall had been empty – almost. Empty except for Treize, standing all alone by a row of senior lockers, smiling, rocking slightly as if he were humming to himself. Terrified, he had jumped back into the bathroom, waiting for Treize to come get him, the two of them quite probably the only ones in the building. When he was sure Treize hadn't seen him, he was sick again. And again.

Aware that Dr. Kurama was watching him, he looked up, laughing shakily.

"What did he do?" Rasid asked.

"He didn't – I mean – " Heero closed his eyes, feeling how hard his heart was beating. When he felt calmer, he opened them. "You know like, those Friday the 13th movies? We used to go to them and – they don't know anything about what's scary. Scary is quiet. It's – " Heero shuddered, feeling his heart start up again. Dr. Kurama nodded, not saying anything, and Heero listened to the tiny little sound the coffee machine was making.

"You know," Rasid said, "maybe – "

"I don't know why I went over there," Heero said, and saw Rasid's eyebrows go up, "I mean, when I found the yearbook, and saw Catherine and Noin – I don't know why I didn't remember Catherine. I mean like, I started at that junior high right around when she moved, but you'd think I would have – " Heero shook his head. "And then like, there's this picture of them during Fifties' Day or something –" Heero reached across the table to get a cigarette, his hand shaking so much that it was hard to get one out of the pack.

"What did you do then?" Rasid asked.

"I don't know." Heero got the match going after three tries. "I mean, that whole day was so – everything was out of control. Even Treize – " Heero took a very long pull on the cigarette, slowly releasing the smoke. "I didn't even have to go to school. It was the day after he hurt me in the car, and since Sally just thought it was my stomach, she wanted me to – " Heero stopped. "I can't. I really – I have to stop."

"I know it's hard," Dr. Kurama said. "Just try."

Heero shook his head, inhaling deeply on the cigarette.

"Why didn't you stay home?"

"I couldn't," he said, "don't you understand? He would have – I mean, there's Sally saying, `Come on, a day off won't kill you', when – " He had to stop again. "She's the one I should have told," Heero said more quietly. "My father would have gotten too – but, I mean, I generally don't even tell her what time it is, so I couldn't suddenly – " He closed his eyes, pulling on the cigarette.

"What happened when you saw the yearbook?" Rasid asked.

"I don't know," Heero said. "I mean, it was a really scary day. First, Treize was kind of following me around, saying stuff like, `Think about what I said yesterday?' and like, jabbing me in the ribs or something. Then, Wufei Chang – I guess Catherine didn't tell him she was trying to find out about what happened, because he was asking Zechs all this stuff about drugs, and Catherine was asking stuff too, and – " Heero rubbed his hand across his forehead, the whole thing – almost – a blur.

"And then you found the yearbook," Dr. Kurama said.

"Well – sort of. I mean, I was on the yearbook staff, and we had a meeting. Only, everyone else went home, and – " He stopped, remembering another commotion in the hall, this time because Wufei had "fallen" down the stairs. Heero looked up, remembering Dr. Kurama. "It was scary – I mean, for everyone, I think. Baldwin's supposed to be this really nice little prep school and it's like, all hell is breaking loose." Heero shook his head, lighting another cigarette.

"What did you do?" Dr. Kurama asked.

"Well – " Heero should stop. It would be a lot easier to – "I don't know. I was just sitting in the yearbook room. I knew Treize and those guys would end up at his house, getting high and all, and I didn't know if I should go home, or go over there like usual so he would know that I wasn't going to tell on him or anything – and I just – there was this yearbook from my old school – you know how you use old ones so you can plan format? – and I was just kind of flipping through it, and there's Catherine."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"She looked kind of different – I mean, she moved to L4 and all, and so she didn't really have a L2 – " Heero shrugged, not sure of the word he meant. Attitude, or something. He thought about seeing the picture, not quite sure if it were his imagination. He looked and he looked, and there were more pictures, and – "I was really scared then. I mean, one minute you think she's new, and the next it's like she's a friend of Noin and – I don't know. I just kind of sat there looking at it."

Heero sat there for a long time, so long that a janitor came in and kicked him out because they were getting ready to lock up the building. He walked around outside, in the general direction of Harvard Square and the T – but Treize lived in that part of Cambridge too. If he didn't, Heero might not have – might not have – gone there. Treize's house looked scary in the darkness, with only the hall light on the third floor on, but he went in. Christ.

Heero let out a breath, wanting to finish up and just get the hell out of this office. "I guess I was like, too scared not to go to his house, but I really didn't want to get Catherine in trouble. I guess I just wanted to tell him so he'd stop, so he'd know that he couldn't – " He sighed. "I sure as hell didn't expect her to be there. When I saw her, I was too – I couldn't even think."

"Is that when you told him?" Dr. Kurama asked.

"No. Zechs came out to see what was wrong, and I ended up telling him." Heero shrugged, too tired to waste energy hating himself right now. "Same difference, I guess."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"It was pretty hateful." Heero looked at what was left of his cigarette, not even having enough energy to finish it. "Please tell me it's time for me to leave."

Rasid checked his watch, then nodded.

"Thank God," Heero said.
 

Heero had finals right through the end of the week, and it was a relief not to have to think – about anything other then calculus, English, and twentieth century Earth history, that is. He didn't want to upset his father, so he didn't go see Duo for the rest of the week, not wanting to do anything to spoil Duo's coming over Saturday night.

Duo was right on time, looking very nice in jeans and a freshly ironed white shirt. And he's gotten his hair trimmed. Heero felt both pleased and embarrassed by the thought of him going to trouble like that. He was about to introduce him, but Duo had his hand out.

"Hello, Mr. Yuy," he said, his voice sounding deeper then usual. "I'm Duo Maxwell."

"Odin Yuy," Heero's father said, sounding as if he approved. Of the handshake, anyway.

Duo nodded at Sally. "Mrs. Yuy," Duo said, and Heero blinked. He never thought of Sally as being "Mrs. Yuy." "Hey, kid,"
Duo was saying to Quatre, then winked at Heero. "Hi."

Heero nodded shyly, so tense that he wasn't sure he would be able to speak.

"It's good to see you, Duo," Sally said, indicating for him to sit down. "We've heard a lot about you."

Duo looked embarrassed, and Heero realized that Duo was nervous too.

"Would you like some coffee?" Sally asked.

"Yes, ma'am."

"How do you take it?"

"Um, black, thank you." Duo sat, somewhat clumsily, in an easy chair, his posture very straight.

Sally poured coffee for everyone, except for Quatre, who had milk, and Heero, who stuck with ginger ale.

"My son tells us that you work for the city," Heero's father said.

"Yes, sir. Grounds and maintenance."

"I see," his father said.

Heero closed his eyes. This was it.

"My father's in construction," Duo said. "But I just – I don't know. I'm not really interested in that."

"More in – grounds keeping?" his father asked, and Heero gritted his teeth. Did he have to be such a jerk about it?

But Duo kept grinning. "Be something to work in Fenway Park, wouldn't it?"

His father perked up. "Sox fan?"

"Absolutely, sir."

"Catch many games?"

"As many as I can, sir."

"Well," Heero's father said, sounding pleased. He picked up his coffee cup and Heero relaxed a little. Only, now what? Heero looked at Sally for help, but she was cutting cake and passing it around. Quatre was leaning against Duo's knee, smiling shyly, and Heero was startled to notice that it was exactly the same shy smile he had.

"Hi," Quatre said.

"Hey, kid." Duo ruffled his hair. "How you doing?"

Quatre giggled.

"You're what, `bout ten years old? Eleven maybe?"

Quatre giggled harder.

"Hey, how should I know?" Duo lifted Quatre onto his lap. "You're a pretty big guy."

"Sure am," Quatre said, his chest visibly expanding.

"Do you have any younger brothers and sisters, Duo?" Sally asked.

"No, ma'am," Duo said. "Just wish I did."

Quatre smiled up at Duo. "You look like Heero's friend from before."

For a few seconds, it was scarily silent, Heero able to hear his heart beating.

"Maybe a little," Sally said smoothly. "Come here and have some cake."

Quatre climbed off Duo's lap, taking a plate from her. "Don't you think they look the same, Mommy?"

Heero closes his eyes, afraid to look at his father.

"You do," Quatre was saying to Duo.

"Yeah?" Duo said. "Well, I'm a new friend." Duo pointed at Shinigami, asleep and wheezing across the room. "That your dog?"

"Yeah! Want to see his tricks?"

"Oh, absolutely," Duo said and Quatre brought Shinigami over, noisily demonstrating "Sit," "Shake," and "Lie Down."

During this, Heero glanced over at his stepmother, who gave him an approving nod; then at his father, who was statementless, but in a benign sort of way.

After that, things went a little better. His father pumped him some more, wanting to hear about Duo's parents, his brother, his future plans; then Duo asked questions about what he wan Sally did, Quatre interrupting every so often. Heero didn't say anything, unless someone asked him a direct question. Mostly, he nodded and sipped his ginger ale.

"Well," Heero's father said after Sally took Quatre to bed, and it seemed as if the interrogation might be over.

Duo finished his coffee. "Sir, is it all right if I take your son out for a" – Duo grinned – "diet 7-up?"

Heero's father studied him before answering. "Bring him back early," he said finally.

"Yes, sir. Absolutely." Duo looked at Heero. "Okay?"

"Uh, yeah. I'll go get a sweater." Heero hurried up to his room, almost stunned that he had permission to go out. His father approved. His father actually approved of Duo.

It took a few minutes to get out – Duo waiting for Sally to come back so he could thank her and everything, and when they finally got outside, Heero sank onto the front steps, exhausted.

"That wasn't so bad," Duo said.

Heero laughed weakly.

"Didn't make too bad of an impression," Duo said.

"You made a good impression."

"Sure did try hard." Duo sat next to him. "Um, look," he said. "About your little brother."

Heero clenched his fists, waiting for the questions. Like, who was the guy, and how come everyone got so upset, and –

"Little kids talk too much," Duo said. "Don't know any better."

Heero nodded, fists still tight.

"On the other hand, guys like me," Duo touched Heero's shoulder briefly, "guys who are old and stuff – they know better."

Heero let his hands loosen a little.

"So. Let's go."

"Thank you," Heero said.

Duo shrugged. "Let's go already."
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 15
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They went to Brigham's where Duo – naturally – ordered a cheeseburger, french fries, chocolate milkshake, and a vanilla one for Heero.

"You just had two pieces of cake," Heero said.

"Yeah." Duo gestured toward the milkshake. "Drink up. Bet your stomach's killing you."

Obediently, Heero took a sip.

"Feel better?"

He did, actually. "Yeah."

"Well, good," Duo said, and drank some more of his own.

Heero couldn't think of anything to say, so he kept sipping.

"Your father's an okay guy."

Heero scowled. "He was being a real jerk to you."

"Cares about you, is all."

Cared about his reputation, more likely.

"Your stepmother's pretty cool."

Heero shrugged, clenching his fist under the table. Now it was question time.

"Want a cigarette?" Duo asked.

Heero looked up, surprised and relieved. Not exactly the question he had been expecting.

"What the hell," Duo said, taking out his Marlboros and lighting two. He put one of them in Heero's mouth, and then let his hand rest against his cheek.

Heero sat very still, not sure if he was going to burst into tears or jerk away from Duo.

"You have a hell of a time making it through the day, don't you," Duo said gently.

Heero hesitated, but nodded.

"I'm sorry," Duo said. "Wish you didn't."

Heero shrugged, turning his fork in a slow circle on the table.

"You know, nothing's that bad," Duo said. "If you're afraid I'll – "

Now Heero pulled away, still not looking at him.

"Okay. Forget it." Duo sat back too. "Drink up," he said, indicating Heero's milkshake. "Time you started getting healthy."

"I'm healthy," Heero said.

"Hate to see you when you're sick then."

Heero hunched over, not looking at him.

"Makes it worse," Duo said.

"What?"

"Folding your arms." Duo demonstrated. "Looks like you think someone's going to hit you."

"I like to be prepared," Heero said stiffly. Except that he hadn't been. That first punch, smashing into his lip and teeth, had caught him completely off guard. He'd stood there, too dazed to move or speak, and Treize kept swinging until he was on the floor, kept swinging until – Heero closed his eyes, trying to force the image out of his mind.

"You okay?" Duo asked. "Your ulcer bothering you?"

Nice to have a crutch handy. "Yeah."

"You want I should take you home?"

"I'm fine." Heero gestured to the waitress. "Here comes your food."

"Would you like anything else?" the waitress asked, after serving him.

Duo nodded. "Yeah. Could you bring my friend a dish of strawberry ice cream please?"

Heero stared at him. "Duo!"

"Please," Duo said to the waitress.

"Duo, I really don't want any ice cream."

"Didn't want the milkshake either." Duo picked up his cheeseburger. "Have some french fries."

Heero laughed, shaking his head.

"Strawberry's kind of cute, know what I mean?" Duo said when Heero's ice cream came. "All pink and stuff."

"You ordered me cute ice cream?"

"Don't seem the maple walnut type."

"More the rocky road type," Heero said wryly.

"Hey, yo. You getting deep or something?"

Heero laughed again. "Eat your cheeseburger, Duo."

They didn't say much, but Heero had a nice time. He ate the whole bowl of ice cream even.

"'F I ordered you a banana split, bet you'd eat that too," Duo said.

"If you order me a banana split, you're going to be wearing it."

Duo grinned, running his hand through his bangs, which fell neatly into place. "You know me. Feel naked without a hat."

That was a cue for Heero to acknowledge Duo's haircut, but he felt shy and put out his cigarette instead.

"Well." Duo glanced at the check and put some money on the table. "Guess we should get out of here."

"Um – " Heero stopped his hand halfway to his pocket. "Shouldn't I - ?"

"Come on," Duo said. "Told your father I'd have you home early."

It was nice on the street. Quiet. Warm, without being hot. They still didn't talk much, and crossing Newbury Street, Duo put a protective hand on Heero's back, leaving it there long after they had crossed safely.

"So," Duo said when they were standing in front of Heero's brownstone.

Heero nodded.

"Have work tomorrow. Leastways, until five."

Heero nodded.

"You feel like – I don't know – doing something? A movie or something?"

Heero nodded. "I'll tell you all about it after."

Duo looked startled, then grinned. "Sounds fun."

The street seemed too quiet now, and Heero watched a taxi coast past them.

"Well," Duo said. "Don't want your father getting mad."

"Yeah."

Duo leaned towards him, hesitated, and moved back. "Uh, okay if I stop by after work tomorrow?"

Heero nodded.

"Okay." Duo's grin was shy. "See ya."

"Duo?"

Duo turned.

"I like your haircut," Heero said and hurried up the steps without looking back.

 

After seeing Duo three days in a row – they went to the movies Saturday night, and just hung out Monday night – Heero felt much more relaxed at Dr. Kurama's office.

"Glad to have your finals over?" Rasid asked.

Heero nodded.

"How do you think you did?"

Heero already knew, actually. He had gone by the school the day before to clean out his locker, and the final class rankings had already been posted. "I came in second."

"That's terrific," Rasid said.

"Not really. Ryuu Fei Kazuhiko should have, but he didn't study for physics."

"And you did."

Heero managed not to sigh. "Yeah."

"You must be proud of yourself."

"Oh, yeah," Heero said. "Terribly."

"What did your father say?"

He hadn't even told his father. "Nothing much."

"I'm sure he's proud of you."

"Oh, yeah. Took an ad out of The Crimson."

"Did you tell him about it?"

Heero was going to lie, but blushed before he could.

"I didn't think so."

"What's the point?" Heero asked defensively. "He'll make me go to graduation."

"Why, particularly?"

Heero sighed. "The person who comes in second is supposed to make a goddamn speech."

"That would be tough," Dr. Kurama said.

That was an understatement. "I told the Guidance Office I wasn't going to be there, so they'd tell Ryuu."

Dr. Kurama nodded. "I think you should tell your father too. It would make him happy."

"Oh, yeah. Deliriously."

"You know," Rasid said, "she might not have studied either."

Heero shook his head. "Noin always studied."

"That doesn't guarantee anything."

"She was way ahead. I mean, it was really stupid – I didn't have to do that well."

"That would have been stupid."

Heero shrugged.

It was quiet for a minute.

"I met someone," Heero said.

"Oh?" Rasid's statement and voice were very interested.

"Yeah." Heero drummed lightly on the arm of his chair. "He's a really nice guy."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"I mean, we're just friends and stuff. We're not – well, you know."

"Someone from school, or - ?"

"He graduated last year. From Boston-English." Heero checked his statement again. Pleasantly interested, but definitely waiting. Now he was to have to keep talking. Great. "He, uh, he came over to my house the other night to meet my father and everything."

"How did that go?" Dr. Kurama asked.

"They liked him. I mean, my father let me go out with him after, and Sunday and all."

"What did you do?"

"Well – " Heero frowned. "Does it matter?"

"Just curious."

"Well, we – " Heero stopped. "Is it just me, or are they going to put that on your tombstone?"

"They're going to put that on my tombstone," Dr. Kurama said, smiling. "What's he like?"

"Tall." Heero flexed his muscles. "Big." Cute.

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"You probably want more then that."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"He smokes Marlboros."

Dr. Kurama grinned, and Heero found himself grinning back.

"Just that kind of guy," Rasid said.

"Yeah." There was such a nice feeling in the room that Heero was embarrassed, and leaned forward to get a cigarette. He was definitely smoking too much these days. Maybe he'd try to work on just holding them and not inhaling as often. He took out the match and leaned back in his chair. Dr. Kurama was also leaning back, eating a corn muffin. Heero hadn't wanted one.

"He's really nice," Heero said. "I mean, he's about the nicest person I've ever met. He's just – I don't know. He looks all bit and tough, but he turns out to be really gentle and like little kids and everything. Like, he stops and pats dogs all the time." Picturing Duo playing with a little golden retriever puppy as they'd walked back to Heero's apartment on Sunday keyed off another memory, one bad enough to make him stiffen.

"What?" Dr. Kurama asked.

"I – " Heero shuddered. "Jesus." He looked up. "We were going to run over a dog once," he said slowly. "I mean – Jesus. I guess I thought he was kidding."

"What happened?"

"Well, I – " Had it been raining? No, just kind of foggy maybe. Heero had been so drunk that it was hard to remember. There were other people – Zechs? – in the backseat and Treize was driving. Fast. Heero was the kind of drunk that made speed seem both exciting and relaxing. Fun.

"Heero?" Dr. Kurama asked.

It was hot in the car. The radio blasting, voices laughing and yelling over it, Heero blurrily aware of Treize's hand on his leg. It felt nice, warm. Like they were separate from everyone else. Older then the others.

"Ten points!" Someone was yelling. "Moving target!"

Treize's hand left Heero's leg, going to the wheel, and everyone was laughing as he aimed for the small animal – it was a poodle or something. He had been drunk enough to accept it, almost drunk enough to be amused. Except – its eyes were yellow-green, and it was trapped, and – everything seemed slow, but it must have been fast.

"Treize," Heero said quietly. "Treize!"

Heero was going to grab the wheel and Treize must have known that, because at the last second, he put on the breaks and swerved, the smell of rubber hot and strong in the air. In the taillights, Heero could see the dog running away, one of his hands rigid against the dashboard, his arm hurting from the shock of his weight being thrown against it.

The car was silent for a second, but almost as quickly, everyone was noisy again, with a lot of yelling and laughing.

"You stupid son of a bitch," someone was saying to Treize, not sounding angry at all. "Someday you won't be able to stop in time."

And Treize was laughing. "I always stop in time," he said. Treize looked at Heero, and again, it was as if they were alone as he reached into he back and got another beer, opening it and drinking some before handing the can to him. "I was just kidding," Treize said. "They know how to get out of the way."

But it was wrong. Heero knew it was wrong.

"You pissed off?" Treize asked.

Heero was, but he was also tired, and drunk, and confused. The dog was long gone, and it seemed easier to gulp the beer, everything pleasantly blurry by the time he was halfway through another, and when Treize put an arm around him, Heero leaned against him.

"Heero?" Dr. Kurama asked, very quiet.

Heero shook his head, rubbing his eyebrows to try and get rid of his headache. Later, after they'd dropped everyone off, Treize pulled onto a deserted side road and, drunk enough to have pretty much forgotten why he had been angry, Heero didn't protest. About anything.

Heero looked up at Dr. Kurama. "Drunk isn't much of an excuse, is it?"

"Probably not," Rasid said.

"I mean, I would just let him – " Except that wasn't quite true, either. "I let him do things even when I wasn't drunk," Heero said finally.

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"Do you think – I mean, is there something really wrong with me? Would I have" – Heero shuddered, even thinking such a thing – "followed Charles Manson around or something?"

"Do you think you would have?"

"Well, I – " Heero thought about Charles Manson's eyes, about how when he was on television, coming up for parole or something; even the reporters seemed mesmerized – by the insanity? The evil? Treize's eyes had changed so gradually that maybe no one else had noticed. Or maybe, after Treize hit him, Heero never saw his eyes any other way again. To other people, he looked – cool. Confident. Normal. "I don't think I would have," Heero said, uncertainly.

"For what it's worth," Dr. Kurama said, "I don't either."

"He, um, he wasn't always like that. Treize, I mean. I think he only really cracked up those last couple of days." They way Treize looked at Heero in the car, watching Heero crumpled over in pain from having been punched in the stomach, saying softly, "I wish you cried, Hee-chan. I like it a whole lot better when boys cry." And Treize's eyes had that blank vicious pleasure in them, the same statement he had had when Heero had seen him in the hall, humming to himself after killing Noin Lucrezia.

Heero glanced at Dr. Kurama, wondering if his face looked as scared as he felt. "He really seemed normal. I mean, everyone had crushes on him. Really pretty girls and really hot guys had crushes on him."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"Really pretty," Heero said. "Like, I couldn't figure out what he saw in me." He stopped. "He didn't think I was like him, did he?"

"What do you think?"

"I don't know," Heero said. "I mean, sometimes – like right after – " He flushed. His sex life was nobody else's goddamn business. "Sometimes, he's look at me funny and – it was almost like he was scared. Or that he wanted to trust me, or – " Thinking about those parts was almost worse than thinking about the scary parts. "I guess I mean he wasn't always a monster."

Rasid nodded.

"Do you think – "

Dr. Kurama's phone rang, signaling that they had run overtime.

"Do I think what?" Rasid asked.

Heero shook his head, feeling almost dizzy. Like this was reentry or something.

"Are you sure?"

Heero nodded, getting up to leave.

"Have a good week," Dr. Kurama said.

Heero paused for a second, looking at the doorknob, and the safety of the hall. "Um, you too."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 16
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Everything okay?" Sally asked on the way out to the car.

Heero started. "What? I mean, why?"

"You seem quiet, that's all."

"Yeah. Usually I'm not," Heero said.

Sally grinned. "It's a different sort of quiet." She unlocked the passenger's side, then walked around to the front of the car. "Do you want to stop somewhere for a Coke?" she asked, once they were both inside.

Heero glanced over, surprised. "Just us?"

"Unless we run into people we know on the way."

"Oh." Heero frowned. "Why?"

"I'm thirsty. I thought you might be too."

"Oh. But, what about Quatre?"

"Your father's coming home early today."

"Oh." Had he and Sally ever gone anyplace alone together? Voluntarily? He'd been forced to do some things, but –

"Or," Sally said, "we could head straight home."

"No, I – " Heero stopped. He hadn't just sounded eager, had he? "I mean – well, if you're thirsty."

"Okay then," Sally said, and Heero couldn't tell if she was amused, or just smiling in general.

They stopped at a little restaurant in Watertown, both rustic and quaint. They sat at a small picnic table, covered with a red checkered tablecloth.

Heero looked around at the sawdusty floor, macramé plant holders, and waitresses in peasant blouses. "I suppose they have folksingers here at night," Heero said, keeping his statement blank.

"They used to," his stepmother said, looking at the menu.

"Did you hang out here?"

"Sometimes."

Heero left the "Figures" unsaid.

"It's not your father's sort of thing."

Heero had to grin.

"Are you ready to order?" a waitress asked. Peasant blouse, prairie skirt and scuffed leather sandals.

"Do you drink beer?" Sally asked.

Was this a trick? "I have," Heero said.

"Do you want one?"

"Sure," he said evenly. This was a trick – relate to the screwed-up stepkid on her own level.

They ended up with two Beck's Darks. Sally's recommendation. Sort of strong, but okay.

"Your father thought it might be a nice idea for all of us to go out to dinner Thursday night."

Graduation. Heero sipped some Beck's. It tasted better when you got used to it. "My father didn't mention it."

"I guess he didn't have the chance."

"Oh," Heero said. "That must be it."

"Do you want to invite Duo?"

"Fiancés come to dinner."

"Right." Sally picked up her beer. "Well, if you change your mind – "

Heero shook his head, wishing he had a cigarette. But, no point in mentioning that.

"Are you and Duo doing anything tonight?"

"Why, am I not allowed?"

Sally grinned.

"Yeah, well, I wouldn't be surprised," Heero said.

"Are the two of you going to do anything?"

"He probably doesn't want to."

"Did you ask him?"

Heero kicked the table leg, just hard enough for Sally not to notice. "No."

His stepmother didn't say anything.

"What are you laughing at me?"

"No," Sally said. "I was just thinking how nice it is to sit and have a relaxing beer."

Heero frowned at her. "Is that supposed to be funny?"

"That was the plan."

"Jesus." Heero shook his head. "I don't know what my father ever saw in you."

"Must have been my looks," Sally said.

"Oh, yeah. Definitely."

"Then, it must have been my pleasant companionship," Sally said cheerfully.

Heero let out a breath. "Are you going to get mad at me, or what?"

"No." Sally grinned. "I can always take it out on your father later."

Heero stared at her. "You would do that?"

Sally just laughed.

"Does that mean yes or no?"

Sally laughed again. "Do you want to join my aerobics class?"

Heero blinked. Nothing like non sequiturs. "Is that another joke?"

"No. I thought it might be fun."

"But – I don't do exercise," Heero said.

"I know. I think you should."

"Healthy body, healthy mind," Heero said grimly.

"There's probably some correlation."

Heero scowled.

"I didn't mean it that way."

Heero shrugged, picking up his beer.

"Well," Sally said. "How about some tennis lessons?"

Heero laughed. "Jesus."

"Windsurfing? Jujitsu?"

Heero shook his head, still laughing.

"Bocce?"

"Can I just drink my relaxing beer already?" Heero asked.

 

When they got home, they found Duo sitting at the kitchen table with Heero's father, Quatre sitting on the floor playing with a Tonka truck.

"Hi!" Quatre said, scrambling up to hug Sally.

"Hey, yo," Duo said, gesturing with his glass. Obviously, it was Beer Day.

"Uh, hi," Heero said, too surprised to respond to Quatre's enthusiastic hug.

"Duo came by looking for you and I told him to hang around for dinner," Heero's father said.

"Oh." Heero blinked. This was too weird. "I mean, good."

"You mind?" Duo asked, sounding uncomfortable.

"No. I mean – I was surprised." Heero glanced at his father and Sally being tastefully affectionate, his father with his hands on Sally's waist as she stood at the stove, lifting pan lids to see what he had made for dinner. Heero looked at Duo, suddenly so happy that he had come over that Heero almost wanted to be a little affectionate himself. "I mean, I'm glad. That you're here."

Duo's face relaxed. "Good. Guess it was kind of nervy or something."

"Kind of," Heero said and really had to fight to keep from giving Duo a little hug. So instead, he sat in the chair next to his.

"Guess what?" Quatre climbed into Heero's lap. "Duo was showing me tricks `n stuff!"

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah, look!" Quatre put the first knuckle of one thumb against the bottom knuckle of his other thumb, covering the separation with his forefinger to make it look like one thumb. "Look!" He pulled the two knuckles apart as though the thumb had been cut in half.

"Oh, no," Heero said, with appropriate horror.

Quatre giggled and showed Heero his unharmed thumb.

"Hey, wow," Heero said. "How'd you do that?"

Quatre giggled. "It's a secret."

"Handed down for generations of men," Duo remarked, drinking his beer.

Heero laughed.

"You sure it's okay? Me coming over and stuff?"

"Yeah. I mean, I'm glad," Heero said, giving Duo a smile. "Really."

"Thought we could maybe go to a movie or something after."

Heero glanced at his father laughing quietly at something Sally had said. "I might not be allowed."

Duo grinned. "Already asked him."

 

Dinner, to Heero's surprise, was kind of happy and relaxed. Duo ate a lot, but he talked a lot, too. He and Heero's father seemed to be getting along okay, and Quatre obviously thought that Duo had fallen off a Christmas tree or something. After, it even seemed natural for Duo to be helping with the dishes and saying things like that he was kind of a fan of Brillo pads. What about Silverstone? Sally asked. Me, I'm a cast-iron man, he said.

"Mr. Yuy," Duo said, when the dishes were finished, "is it all right if Heero and I head out for a while?"

His father nodded. "Not too late."

Heero's father liked him. A friend he had chosen. Unreal. Heero started up to his room to get a sweater.

"Hey, don't worry about it," Duo said, handing Heero his jeans jacket. "You get cold, you can wear this."

Heero flushed, but took the jacket, holding it awkwardly in one hand. "I will be home early," he said to his father, who nodded. A benign nod, not a stern one.

"So," Duo said when they got outside. "You feel like going to a movie or what?"

Heero shrugged, noticing it was kind of cold, but too shy to put the jacket on. "Whatever."

"How about we go over to the Sack Cheri and just see whatever's playing when we get there?"

Heero nodded.

"You look cold," Duo said as they walked towards Boylston Street, and draped the jacket over Heero's shoulders.

"No, I'm – "

"Wear it," Duo said. "'F you catch cold or something, your father'll be mad at me."

Heero slipped it on, noticing right away how nice it smelled, rolling the sleeves up to his wrists. Cigarettes, sawdust, grass cuttings. A little motor oil, maybe. Manly smells.

"Look better in it than I do," Duo remarked, reaching into the front pocket of the jacket to get his cigarettes, lighting one for each of them.

Heero smiled, and as they walked, automatically let his hands go into the side pockets. There was stuff in the pockets, and he lifted each object out an inch or two to look at it. A couple of packs of matches. What was left of a roll of ButterRum LifeSavers. A soft, neatly folded, navy blue bandana. Some change. A Swiss Army knife.

The knife made him nervous, and he ran his thumb along the outside of the closed large blade. "Um, what do you use this for?"

"Weapon mostly," Duo said. "Corkscrew's pretty damn lethal."

Heero smiled uneasily.

Duo took the knife, pulling out various blades and tools. "Comes in pretty handy. Like, I'm always forgetting to buy beer with twist-off caps and stuff."

"You don't just do it with your teeth?"

Duo shook his head. "'F I do, I just end up biting off the end of the bottle and then it's hard to drink."

Heero laughed. One thing for sure, he was quick.

"See, like, it has all these screwdrivers and an awl and tweezers – all kinds of excellent stuff."

Heero nodded.

"And sometimes, I don't know, when work is stupid, I make stuff, you know? There's all these sticks and stuff around, and – I mean, I make stupid stuff – throw it away mostly – but sometimes, I make little – boats and things." Duo coughed. "Dumb-looking boats. I just – " He stopped. "Getting kind of verbal, hunh?" He closed the knife completely, putting it in his pocket.

"Like, what do you make?"

Duo shrugged, his shoulders hunching up.

"I'm interested," Heero said. "What do you make?"

"Stupid stuff. You know."

"Like what?"

Duo sighed and pulled a long, thin piece of wood out of one of the top pockets of the jacket, handing it to him. Heero frowned at it: about eight inches long, very smooth, with six sides, and a point at one end, the other end flat.

"I call it," Duo paused, "'Ballpoint.'"

Heero laughed, recognizing the object.

"Was trying to make a cap and all," Duo said, "but the wood kept splitting."

Heero turned the wood over in his hands, amused. It did look like a Bic pen. "I like it."

"Oh yeah?" Duo put the wood back in the pocket, Heero kind of surprised that his fooling around with the jacket while Heero was still wearing it didn't bother him. "Got one at home you'd really like then. Call it `Door Key.'"

Heero laughed.

"'F you're nice to me, I might make you a toothbrush or something."

"Never use them," Heero said.

Now Duo laughed, holding the door of the movie theater for Heero. They were early for all three of the movies, but after wasting quarters on video games, they ended up in the outer space action one. The theater wasn't very crowded and they sat in the middle, near the left. Duo, of course, had gotten popcorn and candy. Lots of candy.

"Want you eating some too," Duo said, opening the box of Juicy-fruits.

Heero leaned over, examined the array of candy, then leaned back, shaking his head. "I only like Raisinettes."

Duo started to stand up. "Hey, no problem, I can just – "

"Joke," Heero said.

Duo stopped halfway. "I knew that."

Heero nodded.

"I did."

Heero nodded.

"Just, you know, didn't want to burst your bubble." Duo just looked at the candy, then slapped the box of Milk Duds into Heero's hand. "Eat these."

"Chickens really go for that," Heero said and slapped them into Duo's hand.

There were some previews – pretty dumb action movies, mostly –then, the lights went down.

"Arm's kind of stiff," Duo muttered.

"What?"

"Just have to stretch it out or something," Duo said, and slung it across the back of Heero's seat.

Heero smiled shyly. Cute.

"I mean, don't want to get in your way or anything," Duo said.

Heero glanced around, afraid that other people were being bothered. "Just shut up and watch the movie."

"Oh." Duo settled himself more comfortably. "So, it's okay?"

Heero gritted his teeth. "Duo."

"Just making sure."

Heero nodded.

"Good." Duo was quiet for a few seconds, and Heero started to relax against Duo's arm. "So, it's okay?" Duo said.

People turned around, frowning, and Heero jabbed his elbow into his ribs.

"I want you to be happy," Duo said, with his little-boy statement.

"Then, shut up."

"Okay," Duo whispered, the same people turning to frown.

"Jerk," Heero said.

"Yeah." Duo sat back, smiling up at the screen, and looking at him, Heero smiled too, moving very slightly closer before looking up at the movie.

"This is such a nice shirt you're wearing," Duo whispered. Loudly.

Heero pressed his teeth together. "Duo, it's a sweat shirt."

The people in front of them got up, moving across the theater.

"It's lovely fabric," Duo said.

"Duo, if you don't shut up, we're going to get thrown out of here."

"Aw, hell," Duo said, looking unhappy. "And I'm supposed to be reviewing it for The Globe."

Heero was tempted to smack him, but Duo was looking at him with such a cute smile that Heero just shook his head and focused on the movie. It was a dumb movie – mostly asteroids and lasers – and Heero found himself watching Duo instead. Duo's eyes and mouth looked all happy – he pretty much always looked happy – and suddenly, unexpectedly, he liked Duo so much that he leaned up to kiss Duo's cheek.

"Hey, whoa," Duo said.

He'd turned to look at Heero, so Heero kissed his mouth this time.

"You, uh," Duo shifted the popcorn to his other leg, "you don't like the movie?"

"What," Heero kissed him again, "you like it?"

"Well – " Duo cleared his throat. "Kind of. I mean, before. I mean – " Duo hesitated, not kissing back. "Do – friends – do this?"

"Yes."

Duo's mouth relaxed into a grin. "They do?"

"All the time."

"Well, hell with the movie then." Duo dropped the popcorn, bringing his left arm over to put it around Heero. "I'm kind of an animal," he said against Heero's mouth. "Just slap me if I bug you or anything."

Heero laughed. "Count on it."

Things got intense pretty fast, the arm of the chair between them very definitely in the way – Heero not sure if he was disappointed or relieved.

"You are an animal," Heero said quietly.

"Yeah, I know." Duo withdrew his hand. "Been slapped so many times, I lost track."

"That many men?"

"No. Just that many times." He rested his arms on Heero's shoulders. "Guess I forget myself or something. Especially like, with you being so beautiful."

"I'm going to slap you," Heero said.

"Yeah, I figured." Duo tried to move to a move comfortable position, the seat arm still in the way. "Can see why people buy those DVD things."

"Yeah." Heero swallowed, noticing that the other two people near them had moved. He looked back at Duo, regretting having initiated the whole thing. Things would be different now; Duo pressuring him all the time, wanting –

"If you'd rather," Duo said, "we could just hold hands or something."

Heero nodded, relieved.

"And, you know, look at the movie."

Heero nodded.

"Like to get my money's worth," Duo said.

"A financial wizard."

"Yup, that's me."

So, they held hands and looked at the movie. Whatever the hell it was.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 17
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After the movie, they walked quietly toward Marlborough Street.

"Bet you think you opened yourself quite a kettle of fish," Duo said.

Kettle of fish. How very Duo. "My thoughts exactly," Heero said, and grinned.

"Just don't want you to be nervous or anything. I mean," Duo coughed, "you know. Not feel safe or something."

Heero glanced over, uneasy now.

"Swear to God you're not. I mean, I'm not. I mean – " tentatively, he touched Heero's shoulder " – like – " his smile was particularly nice " – I just like, consider us good friends and stuff."

Heero looked at him. "How come I have a feeling you're serious?"

"I am," Duo said. "I really – I want you to trust me."

They were at Heero's building now and he looked at Duo, then up at the lights coming from his apartment. Trust me, babe, Treize had always said. Heero backed up a step, remembering.

"Heero?"

"It's, uh, getting sort of late," Heero said.

Duo glanced at his watch. "Not really."

"I have to go."

"What do you mean?" Duo frowned. "Am I like, crazy, or were we having fun a minute ago?"

"I just – " Heero sighed, sitting down on the steps. "I'm sorry."

"Well," Duo sat down next to him, "kind of hurts my feelings when I don't know what's going on."

"I'm sorry."

"Is it your stomach?" Duo asked. "Or something else?"

Heero was going to blame it on the ulcer – it was easier – but changed his mind. "No, just me," he said.

"Will you give me a little hug maybe?" Duo asked. "So I won't, you know, take it personally?" Duo moved somewhat closer, his cute smile back. "I think it's nice when friends give each other hugs."

Heero looked at him, not seeing any resemblance to Treize at all – just gentle eyes, a nice smile, and clean silky hair. "You sensitive guys are like that," Heero said.

Duo nodded. "I need hugs like, constantly."

Heero found himself reaching out to run his fingers in Duo's hair.

"That's nice too," Duo said.

Shy again, Heero withdrew, letting his hand caress Duo's shoulder on its way away from his hair.

"Just a little one," Duo said. "Won't be too scary."

Heero sat very straight as Duo leaned over, his arms going gently around Heero's back.

"Feel free to, you know, hug back," Duo said.

Hesitantly, Heero let his hands touch Duo's shoulders.

"That the best you can do?"

Heero let his arms go all the way around him.

"Very good," Duo said.

"Can we stop now?"

Duo laughed, his arms tightening. "I'm like, so totally sensitive I need long hugs."

Heero tried to hug back, but was so uncomfortable that he kept himself away a couple of inches, his arms stiff.

"Come on," Duo said gently, "relax."

Heero nodded, able to feel himself trembling.

"Get the feeling you don't do this much."

"No. Not really."

"D'you hate it?"

Heero smiled.

"'Cause if you hate it, I could stop."

"I don't hate it."

"Good." Duo turned his head and Heero could feel Duo's breath against his hair. "Guess it'd be kind of nervy to ask of you liked it."

"Yeah."

"Yeah what?"

"Yeah, it's nervy; yeah, I like it," Heero said, and felt his cheeks get very much hotter.

Duo laughed, kissing the side of Heero's head. "Can I tell you something?"

Duo's voice was so affectionate that Heero swallowed. "I think I'd rather that you didn't."

Duo laughed again. "Right."

"Um," Heero leaned away from him, "I kind of, um – "

"Yeah," Duo said. "It's getting late."

Heero nodded, and they stood up.

"Might be I'll have to come by tomorrow," Duo said.

Heero smiled shyly, the heat back in his cheeks.

"Well," Duo said and reached out to touch Heero's face before starting down the steps.

"Duo?"

Duo turned.

"How do you get home?"

Duo pointed. "My driver waits over on Commonwealth."

"I mean it."

Duo shrugged. "Subway'r walk."

"Are you careful?"

Duo looked so happy that Heero blushed again.

"Absolutely," Duo said.

 

Inside, Heero closed and locked the apartment door.

"Is that you?" his father asked from the kitchen.

"Yeah." Heero swallowed nervously, walking over. "I'm sorry, am I late?"

"No." Odin pushed his glasses up, exams spread out across the table in front of him. "Did you have a nice time?"

"Well – yeah. I mean – the movie was good."

"Good," his father said.

"Well – " Heero edged away. "I guess I'll – "

"Are you hungry?"

Heero paused uncertainly. "Well – "

"I could make you a grilled cheese sandwich."

"Really?"

"Sure." Odin stood up. "You didn't eat much dinner."

"N-no, but – aren't you busy?"

Odin shook his head, opening the refrigerator. "Sit down. Would you like a glass of milk?"

"Um – okay. I mean, thank you."

"Good." Odin poured him a glassful, which Heero politely sipped as his father got out the frying pan and ingredients.

"Do you have a lot of exams to correct?" Heero asked.

Odin shook his head. "Just a few more."

Heero nodded, watching his father melt margarine in the pan. "Dad?"

Odin inclined his head in Heero's direction, slicing a loaf of whole grain bread Sally's friend Yolanda had made.

"D-do you like Duo?"

"It would be hard not to," Odin said.

"Does that mean yes?"

Odin nodded, slicing some Swiss cheese.

When the sandwich was cooked, Odin set it on a plate with a dill pickle, looking pleased with himself. When Heero would come down from his mother's place, he'd eaten a hell of a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches.

"Thank you," Heero said. "It looks good."

Odin smiled, sitting across from him. He felt too self-conscious to eat, but Odin took an orange from the bowl in the middle of the table and started peeling it, which made it easier.

Heero took a bite of the sandwich. "It's good."

Odin smiled again, separating the orange segments.

The silence made Heero nervous enough to speak again. "I-I came in second."

Odin glanced up.

"In the class."

"That's very good," his father said.

"I didn't mean to. I mean, I didn't – "

"You studied very hard."

"Yeah, but I didn't mean – " Heero swallowed, almost sure that he could feel his heart racing. "D-Dr. Kurama said I shouldn't feel bad about it because there's no way to be sure – I mean, I should just – " Heero shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"He's right," his father said. "You should be pleased with yourself."

"But – are you?"

Odin barely hesitated. "It shows something very good about you that you can come up with that sort of achievement in spite of everything."

Heero looked down at the table, wishing to hell that he had never brought it up.

"Yes," Odin said, sounding awkward. "It makes me proud of you."

Heero looked up, unexpectedly close to tears.

"Eat your sandwich," his father said, his voice gentle. "It's going to get cold."

Heero nodded, obediently picking it up.

 

Walking into the kitchen the next morning, Heero found Sally sitting at the table, surrounded by open books, jotting notes on a series of legal pads spread in front of her. Funny that there was a big desk and special light and everything in the den, and Sally and his father worked in the kitchen more often then not.

Heero opened the refrigerator. "Uh, morning."

"Good morning," Sally said, cheerful as ever. "Did you have a good time last night?"

"Uh, yeah, it was okay." He poured himself a glass of orange juice and stood facing the sink to drink it.

"What are you going to do between now and the job next week?"

Heero shrugged, restraining a sigh. His father, as he expected, had gotten him a job in the political science department, answering phone calls and doing filing. Heero could hardly wait.

"Would you like some breakfast?"

"No, thanks." He sipped his juice. "Um, what are you doing?"

Sally shrugged. "Nothing special – just some reading until I have to pick up Quatre."

Heero nodded. Quatre was taking swimming lessons.

"Unless, of course, you have a more interesting idea."

Heero shook his head, turning to face the sink again. "Could I, um, borrow some money?" he asked, when his juice was finished.

"You could even have it," Sally said. "How much do you need?"

"I don't know, I – " Heero shifted his weight. "Well, I was thinking, you know, about exercise, and I thought – well, maybe I could get some running sneakers."

Sally nodded, leaning back to get her wallet from the counter.

"To, you know," Heero coughed, "run in."

Sally nodded.

"Do they cost a lot?"

"Not really. Depends on what kind you get."

"Oh." Heero shifted again. "D-do you have to be careful? I mean – well, don't you get hurt if you don't get the right kind?"

"I guess so," Sally said, sounding athletically uncertain.

"Do they know at the store?"

Sally nodded, handing him fifty dollars.

"Thank you," Heero looked at the money, then at his stepmother. "Do you think – " He stopped uncomfortably.

"What?"

"Nothing." Heero folded the bills neatly in half and put them in his right jeans pocket. "I mean – nothing."

Sally capped her felt-tip pen and pushed away from the table. "Would I be in the way if I tagged along?"

"Oh." Was he that transparent? "Aren't you kind of busy?"

Sally grinned wryly. "I'm at that stage where I wonder why I ever wanted a stupid Ph.D. after my name in the first place." She turned off the heat under the coffee pot. "Let's go."

"I'll, uh, go get a sweater." Heero left the kitchen, acutely embarrassed. Two outings with Sally in two days?

It was cold for June, and as they went outside, Heero buttoned his cardigan, Sally swinging an old, heavily-fringed poncho over her head. His stepmother seemed to know where to go, heading right for Massachusetts Avenue, so Heero half walked with her, and half followed her.

They ended up in a store that didn't seem to sell anything other then athletic shoes. Sort of a scary thought.

Heero was too embarrassed to ask anyone for help, but his stepmother didn't seem to have that problem because soon, a salesman named Tamahome was hovering around, full of advice and questions.

"Do you want the shoe for competition or training?" Tamahome asked.

"Well, I don't know," Sally said. "I should think that recreational use would do us nicely, wouldn't you, Heero?"

"Nicely," Heero said.

Tamahome took down various shoes, saying things about cushioned midsoles, nylon uppers, waffle soles, ad polyethylene inserts. Embarrassed by his ignorance, Heero let Sally do all of the smiling and nodding. Tamahome had Heero sit down and laced him into several different pairs, mentioning features that helped rear the foot control, or prevented chafing.

"Do you have any idea what he's talking about?" Heero asked when Tamahome went off to get another pair.

"None," Sally said, smiling away.

Tamahome and one of the other salesmen, Gourry, decided that one of the Nike models, with special air-cushioning midsole, was the best shoes for him, ad since it was a nice discreet grey color, nothing too flashy, Heero agreed. Tamahome assured him that the color was actually pewter.

"Um, thank you," Heero said as he and Sally walked out of the store.

"They look grey to me," Sally said, then grinned. "Want to go find a jazzy warm-up suit somewhere?"

"Oh. Well – " Heero shook his head. "No. No, I don't think so. I mean – people might notice me."

"Ah," Sally said. "Well, how about we go to the Army/Navy store and see if we can find something in – pewter?"

"But, won't that cost – "

"Let's be crazy," Sally said, and started toward Boylston Street.

At the Army/Navy store, Sally picked out grey sweat pants, a grey sweat shirt, a navy blue one, some white athletic socks, and a couple of sweatbands.

Afraid that his stepmother was going to pick out even more things, Heero coughed. "Um, I really don't need – "

"Happy graduation," Sally said, carrying everything up to the cash register.

When they were outside again, Heero holding both bags, paused, seeing a bookstore.

"Sally?" he asked.

His stepmother turned.

"Could I" – Heero flushed – "go in there and but a book?"

Sally grinned at him. "Throwing caution to the winds today?"

"No. I mean, I know how much all of this – I just don't want to do anything wrong."

Sally laughed. "What a pair of athletes we are." She opened the door. "Come on."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 18
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The book was very precise. It was bad to run during the heat of the day, so he waited until almost four o'clock. He felt sort of stupid doing the warm-up exercises, but apparently they were important, so he locked his bedroom door and did the series of stretches.

"I'll be back in a while," he said in the direction of the kitchen as he left, Sally saying something affirmative but unintelligible back, hard at work because Quatre was taking his nap.

The book said to start gradually, so Heero decided to walk a quarter mile, jog a half mile, then walk another quarter mile. More or less. And, maybe, he would run very fast for the last block or so of the half mile. Yeah.

It was both easier and harder then he thought. Maybe it really was time to quit smoking. Nobody paid any attention to him, which was nice. He did the actual jogging part by the Charles River, since that's what everyone seemed to be doing. A guy coming from the other direction – he was going fast, so he was probably good – smiled and said, "Great day, hunh?"

"Yeah," Heero said casually, like he had been running for years and his lungs were working right. He didn't look suspicious, and Heero ran a little faster, kind of pleased with himself.

When he was back on his own block, walking until his lungs actually were working right, he did the series of cool-down exercises the book recommended, feeling self-conscious now that he had actually been running. Feeling – legitimate.

Going into the apartment, he was surprised to hear voices. Duo. It must be after five. He was going to run up to the bathroom to take a shower, but they must have heard Heero come in because he was already in the kitchen doorway.

"Hey, yo," Duo said cheerfully.

"Yeah." Heero straightened his posture. "I mean, hi."

"You like being a jock?"

"Um, well – "

"Went out to get you a present to celebrate," Duo said.

"You did?" Heero took one step up the stairs. "Well, let me take a shower, and – "

"Oh, see, you don't get it," Duo said. "Most of being a jock's hanging out afterwards."

Heero smiled uneasily and followed Duo into the kitchen, nodding hello to his stepmother.

"Was the air-cushioning midsole a good choice?" Sally asked.

"Oh." Heero blinked. "Well, I – I mean – "

Duo opened a small paper bag, pulling out a bottle of Gatorade. "For you," he said, handing it to Heero.

Heero laughed. "Jesus, Duo." He glanced at Sally, regretting having sworn, but his stepmother didn't seem to have noticed. His father would have.

"Drink up," Duo said.

"Oh, come on," Heero said. "People don't really – "

"I'm a man," Duo said. "I know this stuff."

Heero smiled, going over to the cupboard to get some glasses. He took down two, then looked at Sally. "Um, do you - ?"

"I don't," she said, checking the clock, "but I'm willing to bet I know someone who will after I wake him up."

"Yo, you really don't get it," Duo said as Sally left the room. "Watch." He opened the bottle, then tilted it up, gulping some. He lowered it. "See?"

"That's disgusting," Heero said.

"Yeah, but it's what you do. It's no good otherwise."

"I'd rather drink it the normal way."

"That is the normal way."

Heero hesitated.

"Please?"

Heero sighed, but lifted the bottle. He tried to drink some, spilled most of it down the front of his new sweat shirt, then looked up quickly to see if Duo was laughing.

"Need some practice maybe," Duo said.

"Yeah." Ordinarily, Heero would have run to his room to change, but found himself sitting down, lifting the bottle to try again. This time, he was more successful, and he set the bottle on the table. "Okay?"

Duo grinned. "Absolutely."

Heero ripped off a paper towel to wipe off the Gatorade that had gotten on his face.

"Use your sleeve," Duo said.

"This is only my first day, Duo."

"You're right," Duo said. "Better give you a couple of weeks."

Heero nodded, crossing to the sink to wash his face.

"Might be you'll want me to teach you how to spit and all," Duo said.

"Might be," Heero said through the wet paper towel.

"I know all kinds of excellent sports junk."

Heero smiled, dampening another paper towel. "How was work?"

"Okay." Duo tilted his chair back. "So," his voice very casual, "do I get to come to your graduation tonight?"

"It's tomorrow," Heero said without thinking.

"Oh." Duo frowned. "The Globe must have listed it wrong."

Winsor. Duo still thought he went to Winsor. Oh, God.

"Guess you kind of forgot to invite me, hunh?"

"No, I – " Heero swallowed. "I'm not even going."

"Could prob'ly dig up a tie," Duo said, "so I wouldn't embarrass you too much."

"Try listening," Heero said stiffly. "I'm not even going."

"Why not?"

Heero turned away from him, washing his face again.

"Are you really not going?"

Heero gritted his teeth. "Can we drop it?"

"Yeah," Duo said, his voice as stiff as Heero's. "Sure."

Heero turned around. "What's your problem? I can skip my graduation if I want."

They looked at each other, Duo's jaw as tight as Heero's felt, then he shrugged.

"You're the boss," Duo said, and bent over to pat Shinigami.

Heero crumpled the paper towels in his hand, wishing that Quatre would hurry up and come down, focusing out the window over the sink. Hearing Duo get up, Heero tensed his muscles, afraid of how angry Duo might be.

"Seems like it might be nice for you to talk to me," Duo said, leaning against the counter. "Seeing as we're supposed to be friends and all."

Heero didn't say anything, realizing something – maybe for the first time. He already knew that if he didn't tell Duo everything, he would never speak to Heero again, but – inevitably – if Heero didn't talk to him, the same thing was going to happen.

"You ever going to be straight with me?" Duo asked.

No. "I hear Quatre," Heero said.

Duo nodded shortly, sitting back down. "Guess that answers my question.

Heero didn't say anything, reaching for a cup to pour Quatre some Gatorade.

 

Graduation day – except for running, the book said to establish a pattern – Heero stayed in his room, either thinking, or trying not to think, he wasn't sure which. His father came in at one point, suggesting that he come down for dinner, but Heero managed to convince him that he really wasn't hungry, and Odin left.

It was dark, but Heero didn't turn the light on, sitting at his desk, staring out the window. Not that there was anything to see. The backs of other brownstones. An alley. Parked cars – primarily Subarus, Saabs, and Volvos.

Graduation was probably half over by now. The salutatory address would be finished, and maybe now, it was time for the valedictorian. He didn't exactly envy Ryuu, having to give his speech, when everyone knew he shouldn't be up there either. Also, Ryuu was kind of on the tedious side, and Noin had always been so – Jesus Christ, he shouldn't be sitting here thinking, he should just sleep or something. Not that, with the nightmares, sleep would be much of an escape.

But thinking about one sad thing led to others, and it would be really stupid to – in the light from the window, he looked down at his bottom desk drawer, not opening it. He never opened that drawer – hadn't in a year, at least. It was pictures, mostly. Of his mother, of the two of them together. Some with his father in there too. A few notes and old shopping lists his mother had written. Her watch. Actually, Heero looked in the drawer so rarely – and even then, usually only for a few seconds – that he wasn't quite sure of everything that was in there. His father had been the one to do most of the packing up at his mother's apartment, and Odin had collected a lot of things that he thought "Heero might want someday."

But it would be stupid to open it tonight. Masochistic. Like it wasn't masochistic to think about graduation, and Noin, and what the hell Treize was doing. Pretending to be a model prisoner, no doubt. Reformed. Which made Heero think of poor dumb Zechs, whose main mistake was having some misguided ideas about loyalty toward his friend Treize. He had helped Treize with Noin, but Heero knew that he had thought that Treize was just going to scare her. That the concept of his best friend being psychotic was beyond him. Poor dumb guy. Actually, judging from the way he had followed Heero when he finally ran to call the police, he probably should have told him about Treize hurting him and him being too afraid to do anything about it. Zechs just might have taken his side.

Except Heero really didn't want to think about any of that. He looked down at the drawer. Maybe he should just go ahead and – there was a knock on the door and he flinched.

"Heero?"

Sally.

"Okay if I come in?"

Heero sighed. Sally had a way of making statements sound like such pleasant requests. "It's open."

Sally carried in a tray. "I brought you some dinner. You don't have to eat it, but – well, just in case."

Heero nodded. "Thank you."

Sally put the tray on the bedside table, started to turn on the lamp, then lowered her hand. "Duo called, but I told him you weren't feeling well." She hesitated. "Good guess?"

"Such insight," Heero said.

Something flickered in his stepmother's statement but he didn't say anything. "He, uh, he said he'd call you tomorrow afternoon," she said finally.

Heero nodded, looking out at the alley. His stepmother started to leave, but hung back, and Heero could tell that she was feeling sorry for him.

"It's kind of dark in here," his stepmother said.

"Yeah." Heero said. Two cracks about her insight would start trouble. "Kind of."

Sally nodded.

"Look, if you want to turn on the goddamn light, go ahead."

"It might be more cheerful," she said, and flicked it on.

"Yeah," Heero said. "Cheerful is exactly how I want to feel."

"Well, I'm sure tomorrow – "

"Don't say it, okay?" Heero said. "I just – please, don't."

Sally moved toward the door. "Well, try to eat something – you'll feel better."

"If you're leaving, can you turn the light off?"

Sally paused, her hand on the door, but came back and turned it off. As she was leaving, Heero found himself speaking again.

"Do you think my mother would be ashamed of me?" he asked. "I mean, if she knew."

"I think she would want to help," Sally said.

"So you think she knew how much – " Heero stopped, not sure is he could say the word "suicide" – "it was going to fuck me up?"

His stepmother didn't answer right away. "I think she must have been desperate."

"What to you mean?"

"I mean," Sally's voice was very careful, "she probably wasn't thinking clearly."

"Oh." Heero felt his molars clench together. "You're saying she was crazy."

"I'm saying she must have been desperate," Sally said, quietly. "And very afraid."

His stepmother's hands were in her pockets, and Heero was surprised to see outlines of fists. Sally never looked nervous. "Whose fault was it?" he asked. "Yours, mine, or my father's?"

"I don't think it was anyone's fault," Sally said. "Even if – it could have been an accident."

"Yeah." Heero took a pencil from the mug on his desk, breaking it in half. "Right."

"It could have been – the road was pretty icy."

"And she just happened to be up there?"

Sally shrugged, her posture acutely uncomfortable. "I don't know." She shifted her weight, the fists more obvious. "It may have just been an impulse, or some sort of tempting fate, or – she may have been feeling so badly about herself that she thought you would be better off in the long run."

"You didn't even know her – how can you say she was that stupid?"

"I know," Sally said, her voice so quiet that Heero almost couldn't hear her. "I'm sorry that I wasn't able to know her."

"She didn't want to know you."

Sally nodded. "I know." She looked up. "I don't imagine that she heard very nice things about me."

"No." Heero has enough grace not to be able to look her in the eye. "Not very."

"If it makes you feel any better," Sally said, "I do blame myself. At the very least, for being a catalyst."

Heero pressed his teeth together, not saying anything.

It was quiet for a while, then Sally let out her breath.

"If you had asked me ten years ago what sort of man I would end up marrying, I assure you, your father would have been my last answer."

"Then, how come – ?" Heero wasn't sure how to finish the question.

"We were just friends. I met him at a party in Oz Square, and – " Sally shrugged. "I don't know. We used to run into each other periodically. He was very lonely, and I was going through an unhappy time, and – well, I don't think either of us expected it to end up the way it has, but I'm certainly very happy about it."

Heero moved his jaw. "You have unhappy times?"

"Everyone has unhappy times, Heero." His stepmother took her hands out of her pockets, but then put them back in. "You know, you wouldn't have liked me any better if I had been ten or twelve years older."

"It would have been less insulting to my mother."

Sally nodded. "I wish she had known that it wasn't really like that."
 

Heero didn't say anything.

"We weren't even comfortable being friends with each other, but – well, peope become fixtures in your life much more quickly than you'd expect."

Duo. Heero sighed. "Yeah. They do."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 19
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He didn't sleep will that night. But it wasn't nightmares, so much as just plain not being able to sleep. And instead of worrying about the past, he found himself – at four-thirty in the morning, the first birds starting up outside – worrying about the future. Worrying about Duo. About how he was going to keep Duo from finding out everything, and what he would do if Duo did. What he would have to do.

He didn't think he was going to be able to get out of bed, but it was raining and he knew Sally wanted to get some work done, so he spent most of the day playing with Quatre. Heero did manage to get outside for his run, but it seemed a lot harder and a lot less fun than it had before.

A little after six, the phone rang.

"Heero?" Sally called up the stairs. "It's Duo."

"I'll get it up here," he said. Christ, when was the last time he had actually talked on the phone with someone?

"Can I move for both of us while you're gone?" Quatre asked, the Candy Land board set up on his closed toy chest.

"Uh, yeah," Heero said. "Sure." He picked up the phone in the hall. "Um, hello?"

"Hi," Duo said, sounding happy, but a little tentative. "You feeling better today?"

"Yeah, I guess." Very tired, he leaned against the wall, Duo's voice bringing him back to four-thirty in the morning, lying in bed, staring at the dark ceiling. "I, uh, I didn't know you had my phone number."

"Well, like, I know where you live, and your father's name – are you not glad I called or something?"

"No. I just wondered."

"Oh." Duo cleared his throat. "Can you maybe like, go to a movie tonight?"

"No. They're going out, and I said I'd stay with Quatre."

"Oh," Duo said. "Well, I'd kind of rather watch the game, anyway."

"Good," Heero said, getting ready to hang up. "Maybe we can do something over the weekend, or – "

"Hey, yo, you don't get it at all," Duo said. "I meant like, can I come over and like, baby-sit with you and watch the game?"

"Well – I don't know. I don't think I'm allowed."

"Well, you could ask," Duo said. "Unless you don't want to see me or something."

Oh, Christ. The one thing he didn't want to do was hurt Duo's feelings. "I didn't mean that, I just – "

"So, ask him," Duo said.

Heero put down the phone, going to the bottom of the stairs, his father in the living room reading the paper.

"Uh, Dad?"

"Dinner in twenty minutes," Odin said.

"Okay." Heero glanced in the direction of the kitchen. Maybe he ought to run this one by Sally instead. "Is it, um, all right if Duo comes over to watch the game tonight?"

Odin lowered his paper, and his glasses. "Excited about the game, are you?"

"No. But he is." Heero sighed. "It's okay if you don't want him to, I – "

"I don't mind," his father said. "As long as Quatre doesn't feel left out."

"I'm probably going to be the one who feels left out."

His father smiled, and lifted the paper.

"Is he allowed to have a beer if he wants one?"

"In moderation."

Heero nodded, going back upstairs to the phone. "Um, what time is the game?"

"Eight-thirty," Duo said. "Milwaukee."

Heero nodded. "Okay. See you then."

 

Duo was early, and Heero gave Quatre permission to stay up for one game of Candy Land with Duo. Heero, personally, was sick of Candy Land. There were still a few pans left over from dinner and he went into the kitchen to wash them, Duo and Quatre sprawling on the living room floor to play. They sounded nice and happy, one voice deep, the other one almost squeaky. And there was something jarring about standing in a kitchen, washing dinner dishes, and listening to that. Like that was the way marriage might be.

When Heero was finished, he stood in the kitchen doorway, watching them. Duo was propped on his side, with Quatre leaning against him, both of them intent on the board.

"I'm going to win," Quatre was saying, giggling.

"Oh, yeah?" Duo picked up his Saint Pauli Girl and drank some, his other arm around Quatre's little shoulders. "I'm going to cut you off in that like, Lollypop Forest."

Quatre just giggled and shook his head.

"You just wait. Once I start down that Gumdrop Lane – you're history, pal."

Quatre giggled, and made what seemed to be a very good move.

"That's right, sport. Get cocky." Duo noticed Heero standing there and grinned. "Competitions getting ugly here. `F you have a weak stomach, might be you'll want to wait in another room."

"My stomach? Weak?" Heero said, and sat down to watch.

"I'm winning, Heero! I'm winning!" Quatre said.

Heero nodded. "Looks that way. Watch out for him though – he's sneaky."

"I am wily," Duo said, making a dramatic move.

"Wile E. Coyote," Quatre said.

Duo nodded. "You know it."

To no one's surprise, Quatre won easily.

Duo shook his head, looking sad. "Good game, sport."

"Can we play again?" Quatre asked. "All of us?"

"Next time," Duo promised, swinging Quatre up off the floor, making him laugh. "Right now, your sister and I are going to get your little teeth cleaned and stuff you into bed."

"You don't have to – " Heero started.

"Do it for my cousins all the time," Duo said, and swung Quatre down, bending to be at his level. "Tell you what. Pretend that you're that Roadrunner and see if you can be in your pajamas by the time your brother and I get up there."

"Beep, beep," Quatre said obediently, and ran upstairs.

Heero shook his head. "You should be running a day-care center."

"Three're about my limit." Duo reached out to brush Heero's bangs away from his eyes. "You feel okay? You look tired."

Heero moved away, embarrassed. "I didn't sleep very well last night."

"You still mad about the other day?"

Heero wasn't the one who was going to be mad. He shook his head.

Upstairs, Heero supervised Quatre's teeth-brushing, and Duo picked out a Babar book to read to him. By the time Quatre was tucked in, night-light on, door open about six inches to let light in from the hall in too, it was quarter to nine.

"I'm sorry you had to miss the beginning," Heero said as he turned on the living room.

Duo shrugged, picking up his beer bottle. "'Less I missed a triple play, I'll prob'ly get over it." Duo sat down on the couch. "Sure you don't mind watching this?"

Heero sat down with a glass of ginger ale. "Baseball's okay."

"You wait," Duo said. "Time I get finished with you, your like, dream in life'll be to visit Cooperstown."

"The Hall of Fame?" Heero guessed.

"See?" Duo said. "You're already excited."

The Red Sox were batting – no score, no one out in the second – and Heero sipped his ginger ale, well aware that Duo wanted to put his arm around him. But, Heero shouldn't – at some point, probably sometime soon, this would all have to end, and he should be trying to break away, not getting even –

"Have to stretch my arm out," Duo said. "Okay?"

Heero had to smile as Duo's arm dropped casually around him. Smooth.

"You mind?" Duo asked.

No. As a matter of fact, he liked it. Christ, maybe he should have told Duo the truth right from the beginning. But Duo was so damned forthright and nice that he never would have wanted to be around Heero or – he would have missed out on – Sally was right about people becoming fixtures. How the hell was he ever going to get out of this?

The game was pretty boring – the Red Sox up by four runs by the top of the fifth inning – and it was a struggle not to let his head rest on Duo's chest.

"Sleepy," Duo asked, touching Heero's hair.

"No, I – " Heero sat up with some difficulty. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to – "

"So, take a little rest," Duo said, tightening his arm around Heero. "I don't mind."

"I can't, I – "

"Why not?" Duo asked, moving Heero a little closer.

"Well, I mean – it's rude."

Duo smiled. "I'll try to get over it." He smoothed Heero's hair with his hand. "Take a little rest."

Heero blushed, but let his head sink onto Duo's chest. It felt warm. Solid. "I promise I won't fall asleep or anything."

"You worry too much," Duo said. "Anyone ever told you that?"

Only half of the entire Colony. Heero felt uncomfortable being so close to a person, but his chest was so warm and safe that he kind of wished – except that he shouldn't – maybe if he just closed his eyes for a minute.

When he opened them, the living room was very quiet, the volume on the television much lower. Very embarrassed, he tried to sit up, but Duo kept his arm around him.

"Um, was I asleep long?" Heero asked.

"Eight, maybe ten hours."

Heero twisted to look at him, alarmed. "You mean, they came home, and I was – "

Duo laughed. "Okay, maybe an hour."

"An hour?"

"So what? You were tired." Duo kissed Heero's hair. "If you want, you should sleep more."

"No, I really – "

"I like it." Duo grinned. "Makes me feel – manly."

Heero relaxed a little. "Manly, yes; but I like it too."

"Me, I'm an Ivory boy."

"Gosh," Heero said. "I never would have guessed."

Duo grinned, pushing the Off button on the remote control.

"What happened with the game?"

"Sox won, six-three." Duo yawned. "You didn't miss much."

"You look pretty tired too," Heero said.

"What, time for my nap now?" Duo adjusted their positions so that his head was on Heero's chest. "Can I hear a little story maybe?"

"Right."

"Or, you could sing me a song?"

"You're the one with the trained voice," Heero said.

"'You are my sunshine, my only – `"

"Oh, very nice."

"What, you don't like that one?" Duo said. "'Take me out to the – `"

Heero laughed, covering Duo's mouth with his hand.

"Hey, look," Duo said, moving free. "This is like, a Requests Only hour, so if there's anything – "

"Are you always so nice?" Heero asked.

"What?" Duo shook his head. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know. You're just so damned – sweet."

"Sweet?"

"Yeah."

Duo shook his head. "No, see, I'm a man – men don't like to be sweet."

"You are though."

Duo sank down, sighing deeply. "My rep is just like, out the window."

Maybe he should tell Duo. It was quiet, they were alone – "Do you ever lose your temper?" Heero asked, the muscles in his throat starting to tighten from nervousness.

Duo shrugged. "I don't know. Guess I don't like to see people hurt other people."

Heero sat up straighter. "Like, what do you mean?"

"I don't know. I mean, I especially hate it when people gang up, and – " Duo frowned. "Am I answering this right?"

"I was just curious." Heero moved down the couch to get his glass of ginger ale, wrapping his hands around it. "Is there anything you'd find – unforgivable?"

"I don't know." Duo grinned. "I mean, if someone got killed, yeah, I guess – how come it seems like I'm not answering this right?"

"I told you, I was just curious." Heero stood up. "Do you want another beer?"

"I didn't mean like, an accident. I meant, you know, murder, not self-defense or – "

"I know what you mean," Heero said, the teeth-grinding ache in his jaw starting. "Do you want something to eat while I'm in there?"

"Wait, I – "

"I'll see what we have," Heero said, and went into the kitchen.

 

He avoided Duo for the next couple of days, telling Duo he was tired one night, and that he didn't feel good the next. The only thing his did do was go running. Which was getting easier. Plus, there was no competition, and no one thought it was strange if you were alone. His kind of activity.

Finishing his mile – he'd taken another book out of the library, which was equally stern about working gradually – he walked up to Mass. Ave., waiting for his breathing and heart rate to slow down. There was a "Summer help Wanted" sign in the window of Zell's Ice Cream, and he paused. Significantly more interesting than spending the summer under his father's frowning supervision. Maybe he could just go in and apply, see what happened – but if he did it behind Odin's back, he would really be angry, and – Heero's breathing was back to normal, and he headed toward the apartment.

After showering and changing, he went out to the living room where his father was finishing up the magazine section.

"Good run?" Sally asked from the kitchen, where she and Quatre were baking cookies. Naturally.

"Um, yeah. It was okay."

"Come eat cookies!" Quatre said. "We made lots!"

"They smell good," Heero said politely. "I'll come in in a minute." He looked at his father, not sure how to open this conversation.

Odin picked up Arts and Leisure. "Seeing Duo tonight?"

"Uh – no. No, he's busy." Heero watched him read, still not sure if he should bring this up.

"Do you want to ask me something?"

Heero shifted his weight. "Well – they're hiring up at Zell's."

"I was under the impression that you already had a job."

"Well, yeah, but – " Heero sighed. Nice try.

"Is there something particularly objectionable about the political science department?"

Heero shook his head.

"Well, then." Odin returned to the paper, saw that Heero wasn't moving away and looked up, his statement considerably more annoyed. "Heero, I went to quite a bit of trouble to set this job up for you."

Heero nodded.

"If you're worried about my watching over you, that isn't my intention."

"I'm worried about the rest of them, Dad."

Odin took off his glasses.

"They all know everything that happened, and they're going to be waiting for me to – " Heero sighed again.

"I don't know."

Odin sighed too. "Why didn't you mention this when I first suggested the idea?"

"I did."

"Oh." Odin's eyebrows came together. "Then, perhaps, my actions were ill-advised."

His way of speaking amused Heero suddenly, and he smiled. "Perhaps, Dad."

Odin started to frown, then smiled back. "If you'd like to apply for a job up there and see what happens, you may."

Heero stared at him. "Really?"

Odin already had his glasses back on, reading. "Sure. Of late, your instincts seem fairly well on target."

"Um, thank you," Heero said. "I mean – is it okay if I walk up there now?"

Odin glanced at him over the newspaper. "Perhaps I shouldn't ask if you intend on wearing what you have on."

Heero looked down. Jeans, green Die Form shirt. "It's an ice-cream store, Dad, not Preventers Headquarters."

"Very well," Odin said, "Good luck."

The store wasn't very crowded, and a girl came over to wait on Heero right away.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

"Uh, yeah, I – " Heero swallowed. "I saw the sign in the window, and – "

"You want to fill out an application?"

Heero nodded, and the girl took one from below the counter, handing him a pen along with it.

"You can sit down wherever you want," she said.

Heero nodded and took the application over to a table near the door. He filled it out quickly – since he didn't really have any experience – hesitating only at the part where he was supposed to write down his high school. He was going to lie, but decided that if it were going to be a problem, he might as well find out early on. Finished, he brought it up to the counter and then, too shy to talk to anyone, put it down, turning to leave.

"Wait," the girl said. "The manager'll want to talk to you." She turned to a slightly overweight bearded man near the cash register. "Fred? He's here about a job."

The man came over, his smile both friendly and absentminded. "Hi." He picked up the application. "Let's see what you have here."

As Fred studied what he had written, he folded his hands, not wanting to forget and put them in his pockets and look unsavory.

"Going to Wesleyan in the fall," Fred said.

Heero nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Do you like ice cream?"

"Well – sure," Heero said, not certain of what the proper answer would be. "I mean – sure."

"But you're not crazy about it."

"Well – I mean – "

"Good," Fred said. "I like to avoid taking on people who like it too much." He patted the stomach. "Profit margin, you know." Fred put the application back on the counter. "What's your schedule like?"

"I have a-a class" – yeah, right – "on Tuesday afternoons, but other than that – " Heero shrugged to indicate large amounts of free time.

"Can you come in this Thursday at ten-thirty?"

"What? I mean, sure."

"Good," Fred said. "You're hired."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 20
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

By the time he went to see Dr. Kurama, he still hadn't seen Duo – which was making Sally, at least, pretty damn suspicious – and his stomach hurt so much that he hadn't really been able to eat since Sunday dinner. Heero sat in the easy chair in his office, absolutely determined not to talk today.

"Tough week?" Rasid asked.

Heero shrugged, not looking at him.

"Everything okay?"

Heero nodded, looking at the sole of his running shoe.

"What are you going to do now that school's out?"

Heero shrugged.

Dr. Kurama didn't say anything, watching him, and Heero slouched down in the chair, drumming on the wooden arm. Today, instead of making Heero nervous, the silence made him angry. Angrier.

"I was at Lourdes over the weekend, and I ran into your wife," Heero said.

That caught Rasid off guard and he laughed, but the thoughtful statement came back. "Are you sure nothing happened this week?"

Heero nodded, wondering what time it was.

"Well, you seem pretty upset."

"Gosh," Heero said. "Maybe you should open a Guess the Emotion booth at the carnival." Oh, hell, he hadn't just gone and admitted it, had he? Christ, talk about stupid. He banged the chair arm once with his fist.

"Something about graduation?"

Heero didn't answer, still angry about slipping.

Dr. Kurama looked at him for a minute, holding his coffee mug without drinking any. "How's the Marlboro man?"

Heero's head snapped up. "None of your business!"

"What happened?"

Heero turned away, feeling hot tears, digging his teeth into his lip to keep from starting.

"Can you tell me about it?"

Heero closed his eyes tightly, pushing his fingernails into his palms for more control. He wasn't going to cry. No way in hell was he going to cry in front of Dr. Kurama.

"Heero – "

Heero jumped up, heading for the door.

"Wait a minute." Rasid came after him. "Heero – "

"Fuck you," Heero said and stepped out into the hall, slamming the door behind him.

Everyone in the waiting room looked up, Sally glancing at the clock, and Heero strode through the room, slamming the main door.

Sally didn't catch up with him until he was almost at the car. "Everything all right?" she asked, somewhat out of breath.

"Don't even fucking start," Heero said through his teeth.

His stepmother started to say something, then looked at him. "Okay," she said through her teeth and went ahead to open the car.

"I'm taking the T home," Heero said.

His stepmother turned. "You want to take the T, take the goddamn T!"

They stood there looking at each other, Heero breaking the gaze.

"You'll get me in trouble if I do," he said, "right?"

"Grow up, Heero," Sally said and got into the car, slamming her door.

Heero got into the backseat, slamming that door too. Hard.

They didn't speak all the way home, and once they were in the apartment, Heero went straight to his room, slamming that door and putting KMFDM on his stereo. Loud.

When the knock finally came, he opened the door, preparing to be yelled at.

"It's dinnertime," his father said, and Heero could tell that he was grinding his teeth too.

"I – " Heero backed down a little. "My stomach's bothering me." Which wasn't a lie.

"I see," Odin said. "Well, why don't you come down and sit at the table, anyway."

"My stomach's really hurting me."

"I see." Odin moved his jaw. "What happened this afternoon?"

"Nothing."

Odin looked at him for a minute, then nodded. "Very well," he said. "Please lower the volume."

Later, there was another knock. This time, it had to be Sally. He turned Die Form even lower and went over to open it.

"Duo's here!" Quatre said happily, wearing Mr. T beads.

Christ. Exactly what he didn't want. "Can you tell him – " Heero stopped. This was Quatre. He couldn't use Quatre.

"Aren't you coming?" Quatre asked.

"Uh, yeah," he said. "I'll be down in a minute." Heero washed his face, then went downstairs, finding Duo standing in the living room, where the television was on.

"Hi," Duo said, moving toward the stairs so his voice wouldn't disturb the show.

Heero nodded, having to fold his arms across his stomach.

"Seeing as you don't talk on the phone, I decided I had to show up," Duo said.

Heero didn't say anything, feeling too guilty to look at him.

"Can you come out for a while?" Duo asked. "I kind of thought it might be nice if we talked or something."

"I – " Heero glanced at his father, who was sitting on the couch, not nearly as engrosses as Quatre was in the show. "I don't think – "

"You aren't even going to ask?"

Heero walked over to the couch, his stomach feeling as though it were trying to constrict completely. "Is it all right if we go out?" he asked his father quietly. "I won't be gone long."

Odin studied him before answering. "Make certain of that," he said.

Heero nodded, checking his pocket to make sure he had his keys, not looking at Odin or Sally.

"You'll need a sweater," Duo said, at the door.

Heero nodded, walking slowly upstairs to get one.

"Brigham's okay?" Duo asked when they were outside.

Heero nodded, so nervous that it was turning into fear.

Duo took out his cigarettes. "Want one?"

Heero shook his head, hunched over his arms.

They didn't really speak walking down Exeter Street, and once they were inside the restaurant, sat in a small booth on the side.

"You want a milkshake?" Duo asked when the waitress had come over.

"I'd rather have a ginger ale," Heero said.

Duo nodded. "Could you bring us a ginger ale and a cup of coffee, please?"

"You're, uh, not getting food?" Heero asked, when the waitress was gone.

"Don't have much appetite, somehow." Duo lit another cigarette, stubbing out the old one in the ash tray.

They sat there for a while without speaking, even after the waitress brought their drinks.

"So, what's the deal?" Duo asked finally. "I mean, if I said something wrong the other night, I'm sorry, but – I mean, if you don't tell me anything, how'm I supposed to know?"

Heero shrugged, his stomach so jumpy that he couldn't even attempt the ginger ale.

"Look, I know you've got this whole privacy deal going, but – it's really getting in the way, you know?"

Heero didn't say anything, his stomach even more unsteady.

Duo frowned, lighting up another in a series of cigarettes. "Is it something about your mother?" he asked suddenly.

Heero looked up. "What about my mother?"

"I don't know. I mean, she isn't around, you never talk about her – I figure something bad must have happened."

Heero swallowed, gripping the edge of the table with one hand to steady himself.

"I mean, Christ," Duo said. "If that's – "

"Look," Heero said, quietly, not looking at him. "I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I can't see you anymore."

"Yeah." Duo nodded. "Figures."

"It's nothing – I just can't, okay?" The tears that had threatened in Kurama's office were back, full force, and Heero got up. "I can't."

"So, what does that mean? You just – "

Heero shook his head, the tears so close now that he had to leave, hurrying for the door.

"Heero, wait – Christ." Duo took out a couple of dollars and dropped them on the table before coming after him.

Heero turned down Exeter Street, walking as swiftly as he could, his stomach hurting too much for him to run.

"Will you wait for me, for Christ's sakes?" Duo asked.

"Please leave me alone," Heero said, not turning.

"Oh, yeah. Let you walk around in the middle of the city at night."

Heero walked more quickly, Duo breaking into a trot to keep up.

"Hey, come on," Duo said as Heero crossed Commonwealth. "Come on, Hee-chan, don't."

Treize always called him Hee-chan. He ran now, Marlborough Street only a block away.

Duo caught up to him in front of his brownstone, taking his arm. "Come on," he said. "Can't we at least – "

Heero jerked free, scared now. "Don't touch me!"

"I just – "

"Don't hurt me!"

"Heero – "

"Look," Heero said, hearing his voice shake. "I don't want to see you anymore. I don't want you to call me, I don't want you to come over, I don't want you to do anything, got it?"

"Yeah," Duo said, "but – oh, come on," he said as Heero walked up the steps. "Can't you at least – "

"There's nothing to tell you," Heero said.

"Look, no way am I leaving until you talk to me."

"Right," Heero said, opening the front door.

Duo watched him for a second, then nodded. "Okay," he said. "Okay, fine. It's your loss."

"Fine," Heero said and slammed the door, unlocking his apartment door and hurrying inside. He tried to lock it, hand shaking, but before he could finish, burst into tears.

"Is that you?" his father called from the kitchen.

"Um – " He gulped to try and stop crying. "Yeah."

Odin came out to the living room, holding his glasses in one hand.

"I'm sorry," Heero said before he could say anything, aware that he was about to burst into even harder tears. "I – I'm really tired." Heero ran upstairs and into his room, closing the door gently so Odin wouldn't come after him.

He removed his shirt, struggling to stop crying, and was just about to turn the light out when there was a knock on the door.

"I-I'm changing," he said.

"Are you all right?" Sally asked.

Jesus! Heero yanked the door open. "I'm crying, okay? You satisfied?"

His stepmother hesitated. "Did you and he – "

"That's none of your goddamn business," Heero said and, this time, did slam the door.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 21
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Heero cried for most of the night, his eyes, head, and stomach all hurting pretty equally. He should never had made friends with him in the first place, he should have known what this would – he gave up on thinking and just plain cried.

It was finally morning and, as he expected, there was a knock on his door.

"What."

His father came in, frowning. "Heero."

He lifted his head slightly, not wanting Odin to see how red his eyes were.

"Duo is on the front steps."

Heero scowled. "So tell him to go away."

"Actually – " His father blinked several times. "Let me clarify. Duo is asleep on the front steps."

Heero looked all the way up. "Like he spent the night?"

His father nodded, blinking again. "Exactly like that."

Heero sighed, covering his face with his hands.

"It looks quite uncomfortable," his father said.

"Oh, Christ." Heero reached for his sweat pants and sweat shirt.

Duo was sitting on the front steps, hunched into the cast-iron railing, his head at an awkward angle, and seeing him, Heero sighed again.

"Duo."

Duo jerked awake, looking confused. Once he figured out where he was, he sat up, winced, and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.

"Did you really spend the night here?"

Duo yawned, rubbing his eyes, then stood up with some difficulty. "You don't even bring me a little cup of juice?"

"Oh, for Christ's sakes."

"Just a little one?"

Heero gritted his teeth. "What kind."

"Orange is nice," Duo said. "'Less you have grape."

"We have orange."

Duo nodded pleasantly.

Heero stood there, realized that Duo was waiting for him to go fetch it, and frowned. "You look terrible in the morning."

Duo rubbed his hand across the stubble on his jaw and grinned. "People gen'rally do."

"Mmmm." Heero frowned and went back inside.

In the kitchen, he took a glass down, banging it on the counter, and crossed grimly to the refrigerator. He could feel his father and Sally watching him – Quatre oblivious, coloring in his Blue's Clues coloring book – and scowled. "He wants juice."

Sally started to laugh, but covered it with a cough. "Would he like some toast too?"

"Oh, most likely," Heero said, grimly. He poured the juice as Sally fixed a plate with toast, jam, napkins, and a green Flintstones vitamin.

Seeing the vitamin, Heero scowled harder. "I'm glad you find this so funny."

"Hard not to," Sally said, and handed him the plate.

"Oh, yeah." Heero scowled, and carried the plate and glass outside, putting them on the steps. "Here's your damn breakfast," he said, and turned to go inside.

"It's really sad to eat alone," Duo said.

"Yeah, well, if you're smart, you'll eat on the way to work – you're already about an hour late."

Duo stopped chewing long enough to look at him. "Fuck work," he said, and continued chewing.

"That's mature."

Duo nodded, drinking some juice.

"The vitamin wasn't my idea."

Duo grinned. "Must have been your father then, hunh?"

Heero leaned against the front door, tapping his foot.

"So," Duo said, very conversational. "Are you going to talk to me now?"

"I don't see what the big deal is," Heero said stiffly. "I just don't want to see you anymore."

"Well" – Duo stopped smiling, looking – for the first time since Heero had met him – genuinely unhappy – "that'd have to be your decision, but seems like it'd be polite to say why."

"I don't have to be polite."

Duo pushed the toast away, unfinished. "I don't know. I mean, I guess I thought we were – I don't know."

"Look," Heero said. "I just don't – for Christ's sakes, I don't have to explain it."

Duo smiled a little, his eyes still very unhappy. "You do if you want me living on these steps."

"The cops'll kick you off soon enough."

"Yo, come on." Duo shook his head. "I mean like, maybe I'm a jerk, but I was thinking we were friends and – I don't know."

Heero didn't way anything.

"So, what happened with the guy who looks like me?" Duo asked.

Heero stiffened. "You don't look like him."

Duo shrugged. "Way I figure, he must have done something pretty bad."

"Maybe I don't want to talk about it."

"But I do."

Heero turned to go inside.

"We're friends, remember?" Duo said. "Christ, nothing's that bad."

Heero turned around. Whirled, really. "Okay, okay, fine," he said, hearing his voice already starting to shake. "You want to hear about it, I'll tell you about it. Then, you can see how damn much you want to be my friend."

Duo shrugged, patting the step next to him. "So, sit down."

"I don't want to!"

"So, don't sit down."

Heero sat down, several feet away from him.

"You could sit near me," Duo said. "I mean, you know how totally stiff my arm gets."

Heero looked at him, much closer to tears than he wanted to be. "This isn't a joke, okay, Duo?"

"Okay," Duo said, more gently. "Don't worry."

"Yeah." He laughed shakily. "Right."

Duo stayed on his side of the step, drinking his orange juice, and Heero took a deep breath, trying to start.

"Don't worry," Duo said, again.

Heero closed his eyes and started; telling Duo everything, defensive and nervously defiant at first; then speaking dully, the story seeming more unreal on such a bright, sunny morning. He started with his mother's killing herself and ended with him skipping graduation, then sat very still, hands twisted together in his lap, waiting for Duo's reaction.

"I can't believe someone would hit you," Duo said softly.

Heero looked up. "What?"

"That son of a bitch," Duo said, reaching out to touch Heero's face, his other hand clenched.

"But – weren't you listening to me?"

Duo nodded.

"Don't you hate me?"

Duo shook his head, his smile so nice and kind that, without meaning to, Heero burst into tears. Duo moved over, putting his arm around Heero, and he tried to stop crying.

"I'm sorry," Heero said. "I just – I'm really sorry."

Duo shrugged. "Things happen."

"But, I should have – I mean – "

"So, you made a mistake."

"A mistake?" Heero said. "People are dead because of – "

"Because of him," Duo said. "Not you. I mean, yeah, you should have told your father, but the guy sounds like such a psychopath, he probably would have come after you."

Heero wrapped his arms around himself, cold in the sunshine. "But, I should have – "

"So, you were scared," Duo said. "What are you going to do, kill yourself?"

Heero looked up guiltily.

"Jesus," Duo said. "And what would that prove?"

"It would have been easier."

"Easier for you," Duo said. "And totally stupid and selfish. I mean, Christ, if you feel bad because you maybe weren't brave enough, doesn't it make sense to tough it out now? I mean, Christ."

"I just – I really hate myself," Heero said.

Duo grinned. "Could've fooled me."

Heero smiled a little, still hunched over his arms.

"I mean, not much you can do about it now, right? Except, like, say, `I did something stupid and now I know it's maybe not cool to try and be like, alone.'"

Heero smiled a little more.

"I mean, it seems like to me you've got plenty of people who'll do whatever to help you feel better. Me, that doctor guy, your father – " Duo paused. "Sally's a pretty cool lady."

Heero nodded.

"Bet your mother was too, except maybe she didn't know what to do about being totally scared either."

Heero was almost surprised to feel himself nodding.

"So," Duo said, and kissed the side of Heero's head.

"What about what you were saying before?" Heero asked. "About you not being able to forgive – "

"Oh, hell, I was just talking," Duo said. "I mean, I thought you were just upset because you'd like, gotten some chick pregnant and she got an abortion or something. I was just trying to – I didn't mean anything by it."

They sat there for a minute.

"I'm really tired," Heero said.

Duo laughed. "Yo, me too."

"You should be mad at me. I still don't get – "

"I don't know," Duo said. "Must be because I love you or something."

Heero looked over, the tears back in his eyes.

"Just so you know." Duo stood up, stretching. "How much you want to bet your father's in there all uptight because he isn't at work yet?"

Heero had to smile. "I bet you're right."

"So." Duo put his hand out to help him up. "How about we go inside, and you let me use your phone and I can tell my boss I'm sick or whatever."

Heero nodded, slowly standing up.

"And maybe we can like, make me a little more breakfast?"

Heero smiled. "Do you like French toast?"

"I love French toast," Duo said.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 22
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Quatre was delighted to have French toast with them. His father was delighted to be able to leave for work. Knowing Sally, she was just plain delighted. Not that Heero told them anything, but it was probably pretty obvious that there had been some kind of mood change.

"Ah." Duo pushed his plate away, finishing the last of his coffee. "That's more like it."

"You don't want another couple of loaves?" Heero asked.

"No, this'll hold me till lunch."

"It'll hold me until Friday," Heero said.

Quatre held up his plate. "Can I have more?"

"You're supposed to say, `May I?'" Heero said automatically.

"May I?"

Heero lifted a piece from his own plate. "That this one – I haven't touched it."

"Boy," Quatre poured little circles of maple syrup on it, "I can eat more'n Duo even."

"Sure looks that way." Duo yawned. "I'm starting to lose it here."

"Maybe you should go home and sleep," Heero said.

Duo nodded. "I'd, you know, stay and talk to you and all, but" – he shook his head – "might not be as entertaining as usual."

"And you have a rep and stuff," Heero said.

"Yeah." Duo carried both of their plates over to the sink, rinsing them.

"Don't worry," Heero said, "I can – "

"What, are you kidding?" Duo put the plates and silverware into the dishwasher. "Chickens totally go for guys who do housework." He pointed a spatula at Quatre. "Remember that."

Quatre nodded seriously, bringing his plate over.

After the dishes were finished, Heero walked with him to the front door.

"Prob'ly be a good idea for you to take a little rest too," Duo said.

Heero nodded.

"I'll call you when I wake up?"

Heero nodded.

"Good." Duo took his hand, giving it a little squeeze. "My day off's Thursday this week – you feel like doing something fun?"

"I, um, I have to work, actually," Heero said.

"Oh, right. Your father – "

"I got a job at Zell's," Heero said, kind of pleased by the sound of that. "The one on Mass. Ave."

"Yo, excellent," Duo said, then grinned. "So. You get a discount?"

 

Heero was amazed that he could feel so much better, so quickly. Not that it was a miracle cure or anything, but life in general just seemed easier. Like an albatross had flown off his shoulders or something. He was hungrier at meals, he didn't have as many nightmares, he felt strong enough to run the whole mile, instead of walking half of it. Even the job wasn't as scary as he had anticipated, although scooping rock-hard ice cream seemed, so far, like an excellent way to pull all of the muscles in one's forearm.

Except he wasn't looking forward to seeing Dr. Kurama.

"Hi," Rasid said, by the coffee machine when Heero came in. "How was your week?"

Heero stayed at the door. "Am I in trouble?"

"What do you think?"

"I'm sorry," Heero said. "I was really rude."

"I hope everything's better." Dr. Kurama indicated the machine. "Do you want anything?"

Heero shook his head, sitting down. He crossed his legs, then folded his hands. Dr. Kurama carried over a cup of coffee, then held out his cigarettes in Heero's direction.

"I'm, um, cutting down," Heero said. It seemed kind of imbecilic to be running, and trying to keep healthy, and then smoke constantly.

"Good for you," Rasid said, and sat down. "So. How's your friend?"

Heero smiled sheepishly. "Fine."

Rasid lifted his eyebrows.

"I sort of told him everything," Heero said. "I mean, instead of waiting to see if he was going to hate me when he found out."

"Which, I gather, he didn't."

"Well – no." Heero frowned, still surprised by it. "He didn't seem to mind at all."

"That's good, isn't it?"

Heero nodded. "My father and Quatre went to a baseball game with us."

"Was it fun?"

"They sure had fun."

"You didn't?"

"Well, sort of," Heero said. "I mean, I'm still not so sure about baseball."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"I mean, Duo was talking about how practically the happiest job he could imagine would be making baseball bats. You know, hand-sanding the wood and all."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"He says aluminum bats are un-American."

Rasid laughed. "Did your father agree?"

"Oh, yeah. Completely."

"I gather your stepmother doesn't like baseball much?" Dr. Kurama asked.

"Well, sort of. Lately, she just works on her damn thesis."

Rasid nodded.

"That was a direct quote," Heero said. "Not me being rude or anything."

Rasid nodded. "How do you feel about her these days?"

Reading you loud and clear, Dr. Kurama. "I got a job at Zell's," Heero said.

"Good for you," Rasid said. "Do you like it?"

"It's okay. I've only had to do it three times."

Rasid nodded his interested nod.

"Sally brought Quatre up for some ice cream on Saturday. I thought it was sort of embarrassing, but other people at work said their families show up sometimes too." Families. Christ, a Freudian slip. And from the way Dr. Kurama nodded, Heero could tell that he had noticed too. "Anyway," Heero said, "the job's not so bad."

It was quiet.

"Okay, so I like her," Heero said. "Is that such a damn crime?"

Rasid grinned. "No."

"I mean, she's a goddamn doormat, but – " Heero shrugged.

"How is she a doormat?"

"Well, she – how do you think?"

"Just in general," Rasid said.

"Well – yeah. I mean, she's so busy being reasonable, that you can practically kick her in the teeth and she just stands there smiling, you know?" Heero shook his head. "If I were her – she – there's a bunch of times I would have smacked me."

"You give her a hard time?"

"Sure. I mean – she even likes coming here, so she can just sit and read for an hour. If it rains, she goes out for a walk in it. You could put her in the goddamn lion's den, and she'd say" – Heero put on a Sally happy face – "`Hey, guys, I know a great place to get steaks in Saugus – feel like going?'" Heero grinned wryly. "And you want to know the stupid thing?"

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"They'd go." Heero shook his head. "They'd have fun." He had to grin. "They'd keep in touch."

Rasid laughed. "She sounds like a very positive person."

"A damn doormat," Heero said, finished with the subject.

"How do she and your father get along?"

Not finished. Okay. "I don't know," Heero said. "They seem like they're happy."

"It's like – well, this is stupid, but it's like he's a balloon or something, and she walks around letting air out so he'll act normal. Not be so uptight."

Rasid nodded.

"Sometimes – I don't think he and my mother were very good influences on each other. Like, people should be different."

Rasid nodded.

"I don't know." It was quiet again, and Heero sighed. "I think about my mother lately."

"How so?"

"I don't know. Just in general."

Rasid nodded. "Why do you think you've started thinking about her?"

"I don't know. I just do." Heero swallowed. "Before, I always used to cry, but now it seems like I can think about it."

"That's good."

"I guess." Heero let out his breath. "Sally said that it wasn't anyone's fault, but that she feels like it was hers."

"Do you agree?"

"I don't know. Probably not."

"Do you think it was anyone's fault?"

"I don't know." Heero thought about that, but shook his head. "I really don't know."

"Do you ever think it was your fault?"

"No," Heero said. "I mean, yeah, but I know that's stupid.

Rasid nodded.

"I mean, Sally said – " Heero stopped. What was he doing quoting Sally all over the place?

"What did Sally say?"

Heero sighed. "You're starting to annoy me."

"Just curious."

Right. Heero sighed again. "She said that she must have been really scared and desperate, and that it might have been an accident. Like, it was subconscious, I guess, but maybe she didn't really mean for it to happen."

Rasid nodded.

"It could be true," Heero said, and felt his jaw tighten. "I, personally, think she just went and ran her car the hell off the road."

Rasid nodded.

"But, I don't know. I mean, if she were going to do it on purpose, you'd think she would have waited until I was somewhere with my father, instead of doing it with me sitting at home in front of the stupid Christmas tree, wondering where the hell she was."

Dr. Kurama nodded.

"It's hard not to take it personally," Heero said.

"I can see why it would be hard, but I doubt that she meant it that way."

"I think Sally thinks she killed herself too, but was too nice to say so."

"Could be," Rasid said.

"But, I'll never really know, right? And there's not much I can do about it at this point, anyway."

"Forgive her, maybe," Rasid said.

Heero smiled a little. "Maybe."

The phone buzzed and Heero glanced over at it, startled. "It's over already?"

Dr. Kurama nodded, eyes amused.

"I mean, Christ," Heero said, flushing. "It's about time."

Rasid laughed. "Have a good week."

"I still maybe think you're a jerk."

Rasid laughed again.

"Well." Heero stood up. "See you next week."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 23
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

His shift was almost over on Thursday afternoon when Duo showed up.

"Hello, sir," Duo said, taking off his baseball cap. "Would you make a milkshake for a poor, tired city worker?"

"No one gets milkshakes here, Duo. You get Mixins." Which was ice cream with crushed Heath bars or raisins or M&M's or whatever mashed in.

"Oh." Duo looked sad. "But I like milkshakes."

"What kind do you want?"

"What do you recommend, sir?"

"Cinnamon-raisin."

Duo winced. "What, are you trying to make me sick?"

Heero started scooping. "Is that a yes?"

"Just make me the most normal chocolate you have."

"Is carob okay?"

Duo shrugged. "Nothing personal," he said as Heero scooped, "but this place is sort of upscale for me."

"Brigham's more your taste?"

Duo nodded, watching him make the shake.

"Thank you, sir," he said when Heero gave it to him, along with his change. "What time do you get off?"

"Six."

"Could I maybe walk you home?"

"If you sit down and drink your milkshake and shut up."

Duo grinned, heading for an empty table.

"We working the same shift Saturday?" a boy asked Heero as he left.

"Eleven to six?" Heero asked.

The boy nodded. "See you then."

"Who was that?" Duo asked, when Heero was out from behind the counter.

"His name's Citan. He works with me," Heero added unnecessarily.

"Oh." Duo frowned, looking at Citan. "He has glasses."

"Yeah. So?"

"Where's he go to school?"

"Brown."

"Oh," Duo said, and frowned more.

Heero sighed. "You ready to go, or what?"

"Prob'ly wants to be a doctor," Duo said as they went outside, "right?"

"He's majoring in economics."

"'Scuse me," Duo said.

Heero stopped walking. "A, he's not interested in me; B, I'm not interested in him, okay?"

Duo shrugged. "D'I say you were?"

"Everything but."

They turned onto Commonwealth Avenue.

"Was work fun?" Duo asked.

"It was okay. What about you?"

Duo shrugged. "I was mostly talking to girls."

"Give it a rest, Duo."

"Are you jealous?"

"I'm annoyed," Heero said.

"Would you be jealous if a girl you didn't know was talking about seeing me on Saturday?"

"Yes. Okay?"

Duo smiled. "Yeah."

"Are you going to do that every time you come by there?"

"If guys're talking to you, yeah."

"I can't wait," Heero said.

"Guess it's because, you know, of you being so beautiful and all."

"What does the expression `pushing your luck' mean to you, Duo?"

Duo grinned. "We going to do something fun tonight?"

"Sure." They were at Heero's apartment now, and Heero sat on the steps. "Like what?"

"Would a movie make you happy?"

Heero shrugged agreeably. "I have to go running first though."

"I'll come over around nine then?"

Heero nodded. "What do your parents think about you never being home?"

"My father says, `Hope you're not slacking off at work, mooning around all day,' and my mother says, `Look how happy his is, Maxwell. Leave him alone.' And then, she fixes me a little snack."

"She must spend most of her time fixing you little snacks."

"Kind of a lot, yeah," Duo agreed. "Maybe sometime you'll meet them maybe?"

Heero nodded, the thought making him nervous already.

"Not like, tomorrow. Just sometime." Duo bent over him. "Do I get to give you a little kiss?"

Heero nodded, still shy about that aspect of the whole thing.

Duo leaned over, giving him a tiny, quick, little kiss.

"What was a little one," Heero said.

Duo shrugged. "All I asked for."

"Was it all you wanted?"

"No," Duo said, patted Heero's hair, and straightened up. "See you."

Heero nodded.

 

Duo was definitely a fixture. Even more then a fixture. Like Heero would come into the apartment after running and find Duo sitting in the kitchen with Irving and Zoe while Sally was upstairs giving Quatre – all muddy from the garden – a bath. Or his father would say, "I'm thinking of getting tickets for the game on Sunday. Should I pick up two extra?" Baseball was actually starting to grow on Heero.The job was okay, he even felt like he was sort of making friends there; Dr. Kurama was okay. Just about everything was on the fairly okay side.

It was July, and he and Duo walked down Charles Street, heading for the movies. Duo had on a white shirt, which made him look particularly tanned and handsome, and Heero saw more then one girl check him out as they passed. Actually, a few guys checked him out too, which sort of made Heero glare at them.

"You have a lot of admirers," Heero said.

"They're looking at you."

"Right." Heero shook his head as Duo held out his cigarette pack. He was up to two and a half miles a day, and had pretty much decided to make smoking a thing of the past. "Do you purposely buy your shirts a size too small so you can show off your muscles?"

Duo shrugged. "Keep growing out of them, is all."

"Because of work?"

Duo shrugged.

"No, seriously. Why do you have such a good body?"

"I can make kind of a lovely story about it," Duo said, flexing his arms.

"Oh, well, go for it."

"Actually, it's a stupid story."

Funny, they were almost starting to talk like each other. "So, tell it anyway."

Duo shrugged, releasing some smoke. "Well, it's just I was this really twerpy kid when I was thirteen and fourteen and all. Got tall all at once, but I weighed about eighty pounds. So I was always eating like crazy, but I never had money, so I just ripped places off. So like, one day, I rob practically half of Wing Market, and they catch me, right? They guy was going to call the police and all, so I asked him for a job and said I'd work free for a month to work off what I store, and then he could fire me or whatever he wanted."

"This is a lovely story," Heero said.

"Yeah. A little long maybe."

Heero nodded.

"So, he let me be stock boy, and I was such a good little cowboy that he gave me the job for real, and even paid me for three of the weeks."

"I'm feeling proud to know you," Heero said.

Duo nodded. "Usually have most people crying by the end. So anyway, I took my first check and bought this set of barbells at Sears. Only," now Duo grinned, "the sad thing is, I was such a twerp, I had to get old Solo to carry them home for me. He thought it was pretty funny."

"It probably was," Heero said.

"I didn't think so. Anyway, I practice every day so I'd get big, and now I even have a bench and everything." Duo shrugged to indicate the end of the story.

"It's inspirational," Heero said.

"Be better if I'd had a polio or something first."

Heero laughed.

"What, you don't think so?" Duo put a hand on Heero's back to cross steer him across Cambridge Street, then lit another cigarette after carefully stubbing out the other one and throwing it away.

"I wish you wouldn't smoke so much," Heero said. "It's not good for you."

Duo shrugged, tossing the package into the trash can.

"That's kind of a waste of money," Heero said.

Duo shrugged. "You want me to quit, I'll quit."

"Just like that?"

"Sure," Duo said. "Always figured if someone asked me to, I would. So – " He shrugged again.

"You really just quit?"

"Yeah." Duo held out the cigarette in his mouth. "Remind me to really enjoy this."

"You'd really quit? Just because I asked you?"

"Well," Duo looked at him, "always figured it'd depend on who did the asking, you know?"

Heero blushed.

"Better start buying me gum though."

Heero always found gum disgusting. "Can I buy you hard candy instead?"

Duo sighed deeply. "All right." He reached across his body with his free hand. "Will you maybe hold this and like, console me?"

Heero smiled and took his hand.

"'Course, it might be easier if you walked on my other side," Duo said.

"Why don't you walk backwards?" Heero suggested.

"I'm kind of too cool for that sort of thing."

Heero sighed deeply, but moved to his other side, taking Duo's hand back. "You should have switched your cigarette to your other hand."

"It's my last one – I want to smoke it right-handed."

"Enjoying it?"

"Oh, yeah," Duo said, and blew a smoke ring.

At the movie theater, they bought tickets to some sequel or other, then stood in line to wait.

"So," Duo slung his arm around Heero's shoulders, "you looking forward to this?"

"Well, I hated the first one," Heero said, "but – "

"Shit, really?"

Heero laughed. "No."

"I mean, if you want, we could – "

"Duo, really," Heero said. "I'll just suf – " He stopped.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Heero said quickly. Catherine Bloom and Wufei Chang were heading towards them, obviously to go to the same – Heero turned the other way, but Catherine had already seen him, stopping a few feet away. Wufei noticed, and his arm protectively circled Catherine's waist.

They all stared at each other, no one speaking. Then, Catherine turned and hurried across the parking lot, almost running. Wufei hesitated, maybe about to say something, but then went after her. Heero let out his breath, sinking against the cement wall of the building.

"Kind of think I know who that was," Duo said.

Heero nodded, his eye closed.

"You okay?"

"Do you mind if we leave? I'll pay you back."

"Oh, hell, don't worry about that." Duo stepped out of the line, intercepting a boy and a girl who had nervous "this is out first date" expressions. "Yo, must be your lucky day," he said, handed them the two movie tickets, and took Heero's hand.

"I'm sorry," Heero said. "I didn't mean to – "

Duo leaned over to kiss the side of Heero's head. "Don't worry about it. There anyplace you want to go?"

Heero shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"Like I said, no problem."

Heero didn't want to walk down crowded, brightly lit Charles Street, so they walked on the flat of the Hill instead.

"Doesn't hate you as much as you think she does," Duo said.

"Yes, she does."

Duo shook his head. "Could tell by looking at her. Looked more scared more'n anything else."

"Of me?"

"I don't know." Duo looked over. "Bound to happen someday. L2's that kind of place."

"Yeah, but I know she lives on Beacon Hill. I should have known better than – "

"Could've happened anywhere," Duo said. "There's only like, so many movies."

They emerged across from the Public Gardens.

"We could go in there and sit down," Duo said.

Heero shrugged, letting Duo take him over there, and they sat by the water, under a willow tree.

"See that duck?" Duo said, pointing. "I know that duck."

Heero tried to smile.

"Might be, you'd rather hear about it another time." Duo patted his picket, looking for his cigarettes, then remembered and lowered his head.

"I'm sorry," Heero said. "I didn't mean to ask you to quit."

"I forgot, is all." Duo put his arm around him. "You want to talk, or not talk?"

"I don't know," Heero leaned against him, feeling very tired. "I'm sorry."

"'Cause we ran into someone?" Duo said. "Hell, worry about real stuff."

They sat there, watching the duck swim over to some other ducks.

"I lied," Duo said suddenly.

Heero looked up, surprised, the word sounding very strange coming from Duo.

"'Bout the barbells," Duo said.

Heero waited for him to go on.

"See, my father used to kind of beat up on Solo, and I figured – well, Solo was joining up, so I was afraid – seemed like he might be going to start up on me, and – shit." Duo bent down, picking up a small rock and tossing it into the water.

Heero didn't know what to say, so he just waited.

"I mean like, I would never hit him back or anything because I totally don't believe in that, but I was thinking – well, I'd like, leave my door open and lift weights and just like, look at him. Didn't seem as bad as saying – " Duo stopped, looking for another rock. "Kind of pathetic, hunh?"

"Kind of brave," Heero said.

Duo shrugged, flipping a stick into the water.

"Has he ever - ?"

"No," Duo said, and sort of smiled. "Try not to give him a reason. They looked at each other, Heero lightly touching Duo's cheek.

"Anyway," Duo said, "he doesn't do it anymore. So – " He shrugged.

"I guess everyone has kind of a tough time," Heero said.

"Yeah. Sometimes." Duo straightened his cap. "So. How about I walk you home?"

"Unless you'd rather – "

"What the hell," Duo said, and looked at his watch. "Can catch the last few innings."

"Sounds nice," Heero said.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 24
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was hard to sleep that night and Heero went down to the living room, sitting in the dark to think.

He didn't hear his father until Odin was passing the couch, and they both jumped, his father maybe even more startled then he was.

"I thought you were asleep," Odin said.

"I thought all of you were."

"I just came down to get a drink." Odin paused. "Everything all right?"

Heero shrugged.

"Well," Odin said, uncomfortably, and headed for the kitchen.

"I ran into Catherine Bloom tonight," Heero said.

Odin stopped. "That was unfortunate."

"Yeah."

"Did you – speak?"

"No."

Odin nodded.

"I wish she knew how sorry I am."

His father looked even more uncomfortable.

"Do you know how sorry I am?" Heero asked.

Odin nodded.

"I really hate it," Heero said. "I hate all of it. And I'm trying to be different."

"Your – Sally and I noticed," Odin said.

"I'm trying to be different to her."

Odin nodded.

"I guess you're looking forward to August thirty-first." Which was the day Heero had to be at Wesleyan for orientation.

"In all honesty," Odin said, "this summer hasn't been quite what I anticipated."

"Is that good?"

Odin nodded.

"I am sorry," Heero said. "I really am."

"I should have don't more to help you," Odin said. "A number of years ago, I mean."

Heero shrugged.

"I'm not – inherently parental, shall we say."

Heero didn't want to agree, so he didn't say anything.

"It's not a case of my not wanting to, just – " Odin sighed. "I've learned a great deal from Sally."

"Does that mean you hate Mom?"

Odin folded his arms, not looking at Heero. "I wasn't any better with her than I've been with you."

"Do you think about her?"

Odin nodded. "Often."

"Do you feel bad?"

"I married your mother because I loved her," Odin said. "No matter how difficult things get, that doesn't completely go away."

Heero nodded.

"I wasn't – supportive," Odin said. "At the time, I don't think I realized the degree to which I wasn't, but I very definitely wasn't."

"Did you know it was going to happen?"

Odin shook his head. "I was aware that her problem with alcohol was increasingly serious, but – "

"She was sad," Heero said.

"I know," Odin said. "I wish I had realized how sad."

"Is that my fault?"

"No. I was probably the closest adult to the situation, and – I should have been more aware."

Heero couldn't think of anything to say and bent to pat Shinigami, who had wandered downstairs, presumably after his father.

"As upset with you as I've been over the past year, Heero, I've never been able to forget my own part in the whole thing."

Heero looked up from Shinigami. "What do you mean?"

"The fact that you turned to someone like him is quite an indication of what you weren't receiving here."

"I really thought he loved me," Heero said. "And I did love him."

Odin nodded.

"You trust Duo, right?"

"Implicitly," his father said.

 

Saturday at Zell's was very busy and – unfortunately – very short-handed.

"And honey vanilla with M&M's and walnuts," the person Heero was waiting on said, the end of a long order.

Heero nodded, bending into the ice cream case. Honey vanilla and Oreo were hard as rocks today.

Citan was next to him, doing something with carob.

"What's the deal with the guy in the baseball cap?" he asked.

"Well," Heero worked on the edge of the ice cream, prying it away from the side of the metal container, "he likes Red Sox."

"I mean – here" – Citan reached over – "let me loosen that for you."

Rather than argue, Heero stepped back.

"I just meant," Citan was having almost as much trouble digging it out as Heero had been, "if I asked you out, would you say no?"

"What?" Heero realized the customers were listening, which was either funny or embarrassing. Funny for them, anyway. "Oh, thank you," he said, as Citan scooped the appropriate amount of ice cream out onto the counter for him.

Citan went back to the carob. "So would you?"

Heero used the little ice cream shovel to make a well in his honey vanilla, dropping in small scoops of M&M's and walnuts, then mashing it all together. Disgusting, really. "As friends, sure."

"Oh, so you guys are pretty serious."

"Well – yeah."

Citan shrugged. "Oh, well, no harm in asking."

Some good, even. "No harm at all," Heero agreed, and handed the customer her honey vanilla.

 

That night – after the game – he and Duo ended up walking down to the Public Gardens to sit on a bench and look at the swan pond.

"You want a little nature lesson?" Duo asked.

Heero laughed. "No."

"I give a really nice talk on the life cycle of the moth."

"It sounds nice."

"It is." Duo picked up a stick, then took out his Swiss Army knife. "You want me to make you a little something?"

"Can you do a Ferrari?"

Duo looked at him, sighed deeply, and threw the stick into the water, several ducks paddling over to examine it.

"Maybe you had something else in mind," Heero said.

"Maybe," Duo said, and took out some hard candy, offering him a piece.

"That guy at work, Citan, asked me out."

"Oh." Duo's statement changed, but not enough to classify. Emptied, sort of. "Well, I hope you said yes."

"Why do you hope that?"

"Be good for you," Duo said. "Going out with some smart collage guy and all."

"He wanted to know if it was serious with that guy in the baseball hat and I said yeah, it is."

"Am I the guy in the baseball hat?"

Instead of answering, Heero took Duo's cap off, putting it on his own head.

"Seems like it's something we have to talk about," Duo said, his statement still blank. "What happens when you leave and all."

"What do you want to happen?"

"I don't know." Duo threw another rock. "When you leaving?"

"Orientation starts on the thirty-first."

Duo nodded.

"Duo – "

"Hey, it's good," Duo said. "You'll meet people more your type." He smiled slightly. "People who write poetry and all."

"You're my best friend."

"Well, maybe," Duo said. "But you're going to be like, totally different after you've been there for a while."

"No, I – "

"Nothing wrong with it," he said. "You should change when you go away."

"Just because I'm going away doesn't mean – "

"Oh, right," Duo said. "I'd fit in real well coming to visit and all. Me and all those guys with glasses and alligator shirts. Bet we'll all party down, hunh?"

"Duo, I've never seen you not fit in."

Duo shrugged. "Even if I did, that doesn't mean we would anymore. You're going to meet some guy who quotes Shakespeare, and gives a damn about – I don't know – OPEC, and – " Duo shrugged again.

"That's not going to happen," Heero said.

"Be realistic," Duo said. "You're going to be down there getting even smarter and stuff, and I'm going to be – "

Losing patience, Heero punched him in the arm.

"Ow," Duo said. "Why'd you do that?"

"I don't know." Heero smiled as Duo gripped the arm as though he were in pain. "I guess because I love you or something."

Duo stopped gripping. "What?"

"I know you heard me."

"I don't think I heard you right."

"I said I love you. Okay?"

To his amusement, Duo blushed. "For real? I mean, you're not just – "

"Duo, how likely is it that I would `just say' something like that?"

"Well – " Duo grinned. "Kind of not at all. But, is it just like, as friends and stuff, or – "

Now, Heero blushed. "Not just as friends and stuff."

"Does that mean" – Duo didn't quite look at him – "I can really kiss you? Like, whenever I want?"

"Yeah." Heero smiled. "I guess that's what it means."

Duo glanced around the park, which was pretty quiet. "Is now an okay time?"

"Yeah," Heero said. "Now's great."
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 25
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Going to his next-to-last appointment with Dr. Kurama, he felt almost nostalgic. Rasid was a nice man.

"I guess next week will be the last time you'll be seeing me for a while," Dr. Kurama said.

Heero nodded.

"Feel pretty good about that?"

"Well, I called your wife and gave her phone numbers where she can reach me twenty-four hours a day," Heero said.

Rasid smiled, breaking a bran muffin in half, and Heero watched him eating it.

"I guess I didn't do a very good job here," Heero said.

"Oh, I don't know. I thought it was pretty good," Dr. Kurama said.

"But – I mean, I didn't cry, or have sex dreams, or anything like that."

"We still have a week to go," Rasid said.

Heero laughed. "Yeah, well, you just keep hoping." He sat back, looking around the office. Flowers, as always, on the coffee table, and in the little vase on Rasid's desk. "Nothing personal," Heero said, "but I'm still a little worried about you having all these flowers around."

"I like flowers," Dr. Kurama said.

"Duo does too. He said that usually city workers move around, but they keep him in the Public Gardens because of his `like, aesthetics.'" Heero looked away from the daisies. "Doesn't it get expensive, buying new ones all the time?"

"We have a garden," Rasid said.

"Oh."

"So, um, did I like, move into the rewarding category?"

"Just about bull's-eye," Rasid said.

Heero thought about that. "Duo says you have to have had polio or something to make things really good."

Dr. Kurama laughed.

"Do I come back here at Christmas and all?"

"Only if you want to for any reason," Rasid said.

"Does that mean you think I'll need to?"

"No. But I wouldn't mind hearing how you're doing."

Heero nodded.

"Are you looking forward to school?"

"I don't know. I mean, I'm scared, but it's probably normal scared." Heero stretched a little, his muscles cramping from sitting still. "Did I tell you I got a letter from my roommate?"

Rasid shook his head.

"My father says he `sounds like a polite young man.'"

Rasid grinned.

"He – well, he has hobbies."

"Oh, boy," Dr. Kurama said.

"Yeah," Heero agreed. "But, I don't know. I'm not exactly a door prize myself."

"You're not so bad."

"Well, it's not like I have to tell everyone my whole damned life story, right?" Heero said.

"As long as it doesn't fester."

Heero nodded, and it was quiet.

"I don't want to leave Duo, either," Heero said.

"That sounds normal too."

Heero nodded.

"Do you feel you've accomplished anything by coming here?"

"I don't know," Heero said. "Did I tell you I can run three-and-a-half miles now?"

"That's pretty good," Rasid said, in the voice of a man who did a push-up every six months.

"I'm going to stop at four. After that – I don't know – it seems like they turn into zealots."

Rasid nodded.

"When I wake up in the morning now, I don't think about killing myself."

"What do you think about?"

"I don't know," Heero said. "Duo. If I'm late for work. If we're out of Cap'n Crunch."

Rasid nodded.

"Duo."

Rasid nodded again.

"I don't know."

It was quiet.

"So," Heero said, but in a friendly voice. "Is it time for me to leave yet, or what?"

Rasid grinned. "Almost."

 

Duo was pretty tired that night, so they just talked on the phone, and then Heero watched television with Quatre. When it was over, Sally was putting Quatre to bed, Heero went up to his room, sitting down at his desk. He looked down at his bottom desk drawer, deciding that he might as well open it. See if it was still Pandora's Box.

It was still mostly pictures. He spread a batch out across his desk, studying them. A picture of him, maybe four years old, in the shallow end of some motel pool, wearing tiny red sunglasses. A picture of him, maybe a year older, looking less than excited by a playground swing. A picture of him and his mother, opening a window on the advent calendar. Oh, hell.

Heero sat back, looking at the ceiling. Christmas. He really ought to yank out all the stupid Christmas pictures. He lifted a picture at random, looking at it. Him sitting at the kitchen table, with his friend Yohji Kudou, his tongue caught between his teeth as they worked intently on a batch of cookies. That's right, his mother was always having them bake cookies. Oh, hell.

"Heero, I – " Sally stopped in the doorway. "I'm sorry, I thought because the door was open – "

Heero put the picture down. "It's okay."

"Well, I just – you don't have that much time, and I thought you might want to make a list of things you're going to need for school."

"Okay."

"I mean, things like hangers, and extension cords, and – " Sally stopped. "But you said okay, didn't you."

Heero nodded.

"I'm sorry. I hope I didn't disturb you." Sally said, leaving.

"Do you want to look at some pictures?"

His stepmother stopped.

"I was just – well, looking at some."

"So you want me to?" his stepmother asked.

"Sure. I mean, as long as you want to."

Sally came in, sitting down on the edge of the bad. She was wearing jeans – big surprise – and an old New England Patriots shirt, sleeves pushed way up. It looked kind of stylish.

Heero handed her a picture. "This is me, going to kindergarten."

Sally smiled. "Powerpuff Girls lunchbox."

"I was pretty hip." Heero smiled at the picture himself. "After that, I had a Simpsons one." Heero picked up another photograph, one of him – quite small – in front of the Wolfwood Park box seats, wearing a little cap and holding a Red Sox pennant. His father had a cap on, too. "This was one time when we flew down for a game. I think it might have been the year they went to the World Series."

"You and Quatre have the same smile," Sally said.

Heero nodded. "Kind of." He looked at the picture. "I have a damned pointy chin."

Sally grinned. "Kind of."

Heero picked up another – his mother on her birthday, while Heero stood next to her, peering up at the cake his grandmother was holding. There were a few others with it – his mother opening various presents, trying on her new skirt, standing with Odin. Heero hesitated, but handed them to Sally. "I guess my grandmother was first getting sick right around then," he said.

Sally nodded, looking at the pictures, her hair falling forward across part of her face.

There were more pictures, but Heero only lifted a few out of the drawer. "Funny," he said, looking at one of him standing in front of a Science building with his father. "She almost always took them, instead of being in them. I wish – well." He gave that one to Sally, coming across a few of the various sights of a carnival. He was usually in them – wearing a bulky blue ski jacket and his matching red plaid hat and scarf set, standing in front of snow and ice sculptures.

Heero pulled out another one – of him, smiling happily after his first-grade play, still wearing his Pilgrim costume, his mother behind him with her arms around him, looking so proud – so damn – Heero let out his breath. "Oh, God." He looked at the picture, feeling a deep pain in his stomach that wasn't anything like the ulcer. Remembering Sally next to him, he let out another shaky breath. "I – do you feel like looking at any more of these?"

Sally shook her head.

"Good." Heero gathered the pictures up, very neatly, replacing them in the drawer. "I – I guess you can overdose on them." He started to close the drawer, lifted out his mother's watch, then closed it completely. "Kurama said I ought to wear one of these, instead of bugging people about what time it is all the time."

Sally nodded.

"I probably will," he said, putting the watch in his pocket. He looked up. "Glad you came in here?"

Sally reached over to touch his shoulder and for once, Heero didn't jerk away. He looked around the room, touching the watch in his pocket.

"You know," he said finally. "I hate what happened to my family, but – " He sighed. "If I didn't know you and Quatre, I'd be sad."

His stepmother almost seemed to hold her breath. "You don't have to say that."

Heero grinned. "You're right. I don't."
 
 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 26
~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was Monday, and – not surprisingly – Duo showed up near the end of Heero's shift at Zell's.

"Can I kiss you," Duo asked, his voice extra-loud so Heero's manager could hear, "or will your buddy Fred get upset?"

"Fred will get upset," his manager said, checking stock below the counter.

"Well, then, guess I'd better just have a milkshake." Duo pointed at the carob. "Make it quick, sir."

Heero grinned wryly and started scooping. "Shouldn't you be at work?"

"Quit my job," Duo said, looking cheerful.

Heero stopped scooping. "What?"

"Gave my notice a couple weeks ago, actually."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Wanted to see what happened after," Duo said. "I mean, before I told you."

"You're not – " Heero lowered his voice. "I mean, before you said you might join the army."

"Yeah." Now, Duo grinned. "Got another job today, actually."

Heero put the metal cup on the milkshake mixer without really looking at it. "Doing what?"

"Well – you're about to make an ugly mess."

Heero saw that he'd put the cup on crooked, and that it was about to spray ice cream all over the place. He straightened it. "Doing what?"

"Saw an ad for a carpenter's apprentice and" – Duo's grin widened – "son of a bitch if they didn't hire me."

"Hey, that's great," Heero said. "I mean, you love wood."

"Well, yeah, that's what I was telling them."

"Wow." Heero nodded. "That's really great."

"Yeah," Duo said. "They're pretty cool guys. I mean," Duo winked at him, "a couple of them went to Harvard, so I don't know, but – "

"My father will be pleased," Heero said.

"Yeah, I figured," Duo said. "It's out like, near Somerville, so I'll probably end up getting an apartment out there." Duo glanced at him.

"Sounds good," Heero said, making sure that no one else overheard him.

"Did to me too."

When the milkshake was ready, Duo took it over to a table, sitting down to wait for him. There were only a few customers, and Heero checked his mother's watch to see how much time he had left.

Heero was making a hot fudge sundae when he saw Catherine Bloom coming in, and froze. Should he go into the back room, or just stall until someone else waited on her, or – Catherine had recognized Duo and nodded at him before coming up to the front.

"Hi," she said.

"Uh, hi," Heero said, spraying whipped cream so he wouldn't have to look all the way up.

"Your friend seems to be making his move to Canada Dry," she said, indicating Duo, and Heero almost smiled, knowing without looking that he was sitting there singing to himself. "Your, uh, your stepmother said you got off pretty soon."

Heero nodded, handing the sundae to the woman who'd ordered it.

"Do you have plans with him?"

"Not really."

"Is it okay if I wait around?"

"Uh, sure. Um" – Heero indicated the order board – "do you want anything?"

Catherine shook her head. "No, thanks." She sat down at a table by the window and Heero rang up the sale, seeing Duo pick up his milkshake, go over and sit across from her.

"You've got friends waiting," Fred said from behind him. "Why don't you take off a little early?"

Friends? "Oh, no, I don't have to – "

"I think we'll survive," he said. "Just fill up the Heath Bars and the raisins, and you can leave."

"Okay," Heero said. "I mean, thank you." He glanced out front, seeing Duo and Catherine deep in conversation. He filled the containers, then slowly untied his apron, going to the back room to wash his hands and punch out. When he came out, Duo stood up, tipped his baseball cap at him, and left. Even more uneasy, Heero walked over to the table.

"He said he'd `catch you later,'" Catherine said.

Heero nodded, folding his arms.

"He's very nice."

Heero nodded.

"I, uh – " Catherine's smile was weak. "I'm not sure why I'm here."

"When do you leave for school?"

"Friday."

Heero nodded. He was leaving on Saturday.

"Hey, Heero," Citan said, coming in for his shift, and Heero nodded at him, too nervous to say anything back.

"You look different," Catherine said. "Healthier."

Heero grinned sheepishly. "I started running."

"How far do you go?"

"Not very."

Catherine nodded.

"Uh, what kind of summer did you have?"

"Quiet." Catherine smiled a little. "Therapeutic."

Heero nodded, knowing what that meant.

"Does it, um, seem noisy in here?" Catherine asked, indicating the tables.

"Maybe we should walk around?"

Catherine nodded, and they went outside. As the walked, Heero noticed that he was both taller and a lot more relaxed than she was. And this was the person he was afraid of? Someone who looked like a nice, nervous kid his age? It seemed strange now.

They ended up sitting on a bench on Commonwealth Avenue.

"I was really a jerk at the movies that time," Catherine said. "I guess I panicked, I don't know."

Heero nodded. "I didn't expect you to be there that night," he said, after a pause. "At his house, I mean. I mean, when I saw you, I – " Heero shook his head. "I guess I thought you'd be at the hospital. Because of Wufei and all."

"I was," Catherine said. "I just… I thought I had to get proof. That he might – confess or something."

Heero nodded.

"I spent a lot of time thinking terrible things about you," Catherine said. "All kinds of `what if's.'"

"Like," Heero said, "what if Treize had killed me instead of just beating me up, and been put away almost a year earlier."

Catherine flushed guiltily.

"Why not me – especially since I didn't seem to want to be around – instead of Noin."

Her nod was embarrassed. "I'm sorry."

"You're sorry?" Heero pressed his fist down on his knee, noticing how tanned his hand was. He did look healthy. "I wished the same thing – probably harder than you did. I mean, Christ, you wouldn't be normal if you didn't – " He hesitated, but went on. "Treize killed your best friend."

Catherine looked at him. "People usually don't put it that bluntly."

"I'm sorry."

"No. It is that blunt." Catherine swallowed. "He killed my best friend." Her eyes brightened and she looked away, her hand coming up to cover them. "I keep thinking it's going to get easier," she said shakily.

"It does."

Catherine glanced over at him, her eyes so full of tears that blinking wouldn't be enough to knock them out.

"It does," Heero said, more quietly. "Before, I cried when I heard anything about mothers. Or families, or – it seemed like everything set me off."

"How long did it take?"

Heero sighed. "Pretty long. And it comes back." He hesitated. "Does Wufei help?"

"He tries," Catherine said, "but – well, he's having a pretty hard time too." She wiped her hand across her eyes, then looked over. "Could you have prevented it?"

Heero didn't answer right away. "I don't think so," he said. "I mean, I could tell he was getting scared, but I never thought – I mean, I guess I just thought the worst he could do was scare her. Because she was a girl, and he thought girls – Jesus, I don't know. I was just too scared."

Catherine nodded. "Were you friends with her?" she asked.

"No. But I liked her."

Catherine slouched forward, her hands covering most of her face. "She'd hate this – me being so upset and everything. Probably say, `The Queen is dead, long live the Queen' and all of that."

Heero had to smile. "She would say that."

Catherine smiled too. "Yeah." The smile left. "You know, that was supposed to be my first day of school here. Why she couldn't wait two hours for me to be – " The smile came back, feebly. "Stupid to be mad at her, on top of everything else."

"Treize is the son of a bitch who deserves it."

"Yeah." Catherine closed her eyes, taking in and releasing a deep breath. "You have to be at the trial, right?"

Heero nodded.

"Could we try to be friends? So it would be easier?"

Heero nodded.

"Good." Catherine looked at him for a minute. "You know, you're the only other one who's ever really going to understand it. Understand him, especially."

Heero nodded.

"It still seems so – I mean, I think about it, and I can't believe – " Catherine laughed, sounding very close to tears. "I miss her so much."

"I'm sorry," Heero said. "I mean, I'm really sorry."

Catherine nodded. "I know you are. Thank you." Abruptly, she stood up. "I'd better go – I told my parents I was just going for a little walk."

Heero nodded, also standing.

They looked at each other for a minute.

"Good luck at school," Heero said.

"Yeah, you too," Catherine said, then sighed. "You too."

Heero was only a couple of blocks away from home, but he found walking them very tiring. As he turned onto Marlborough Street, he saw Duo sitting on his front steps.

"Hi," Duo said.

"Hi." Heero stopped at the bottom of the steps, not having enough energy to go up them. "A hug might be sort of swell."

Duo grinned, coming down to hug him, Heero hugging back.

"Thank you," Heero said, his face against Duo's chest.

"No, see, you don't get it," Duo said. "I enjoy this too."

"I meant, just in general. For – I don't know – existing, I guess."

"Pretty intense," Duo said.

"Yeah." Heero kissed him, hard, then stepped back. "Will you stay for dinner maybe?"

Duo grinned. "Your father already asked me."

"Figures," Heero said.

"And can we maybe watch the game after?"

"I don't know," Heero said. "Can I wear your hat?"

"Seems to me like you ought to get your own hat."

"I want to wear yours."

"Well, I don't know." Duo sighed deeply. "Would it make you happy?"

Heero grinned, putting it on. "Yeah," he said. "I would make me happy."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The End.

*Sniffling* Maybe I should have put a WAFF warning in there somewhere, cuz the ending just gives me this warm and fuzzy feeling inside! *Silence* Oh... uh... my fic's done... um... *Looks around* Now what do I do..? o.o *Looks at other, unfinished fics* Damn... they're all so... ick. ;.; Whaaa!!!