Preceded by: Best Laid Plans
Followed by: For Promis'd Joy
Summary: Heero. Duo. AU. College. Relationship. No grocery shopping this time.
Warnings: longer than the first part.
Art: : see plans paraphernalia.
Grumpy: see plans paraphernalia.
Gang Aft Agley
sequel to The Best Laid Plans
"Aw, man, why does school have to start already?"
"Because it's almost September?"
"And I was just getting rather fond of this summer, too!" He gave Heero a significant look.
Heero offered him a tentative smile in exchange. "Well, here's to summer blending smoothly into fall." He hefted his bag of books in toast.
Duo managed to get his own bag of books up to a decent height with a lopsided grin. "Here's to falling!" As if on cue, the raised books managed to throw him off balance and he nearly tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. He recovered without the assistance of the arm Heero had thrown in his path.
They finished the trip from the campus bookstore back to Howard's in companionable silence. They had agreed to leave well enough alone for now, and not saying anything that might tip the balance seemed the safest course of action, at least until they were comfortably settled into their new rhythm.
"I'll be with you in a sec, Helen," they heard as they entered the store. Howard was fussing with something in one of the aisles, his hands momentarily full, preventing him from getting to the register.
Duo's face lit up when he saw the woman approaching the front counter. "Miz Flanagan! Hey, long time no see. I'll ring you up, no problem." He was already heading for the register when, as an afterthought, he tossed a glance over his shoulder at his companion, asking with a glance if that was alright. Heero only shrugged slightly and drifted towards the shelves, leaving Duo to turn back with a genuine smile on his face for their customer. "So how're you doing?" he asked, parking himself at his station and unlocking the register.
"Not bad, Duo, not bad at all," she answered, unloading her basket. "But look at you! You look so grown-up now."
"Aww, come on. It hasn't been that long since you last saw me."
"Maybe not. But I still remember when you were just a little guy, helping out in your uncle's store for the first time. You were the cutest thing!"
"Yeah, Duo. What happened?" Howard called out.
If they had been alone, perhaps Duo would have called out something crass in return, but not with Mrs. Flanagan standing right in front of him, so he let it go. As they continued to make small talk, Howard found Heero suddenly by his side. "Anything I can help you with?" the young man asked quietly, prepared to set his bag aside and assist.
Howard only blinked at him for a moment or two. Yes, Heero was definitely better than anyone else Duo had ever brought home. Yup, Howard liked him so much, he'd let him help out at the store. "Yeah, actually, if you could just open that box over there..."
Once Ms. Flanagan had been sent on her way, the two of them headed on upstairs. "So," Heero started. "How old were you when Howard put you to work?"
"Gosh, when did I get here? When I was ten or so? Somewhere around then. Can I get you something to drink?"
Heero shook his head. "I probably shouldn't stay. I wanted to go over the stuff from CS131 since they let me waive it, and they expect you know it for CS132."
"Well, golly, you're so studious it's almost cute."
Not quite able to determine whether that had been a sarcastic joke or a compliment, he ignored it. "I don't know how long it'll take me since I'm not sure what was covered in the class, so I'd rather get it out of the way early, when I've got the time, than try to cram it all in when I need it."
"So maybe you'll be by tomorrow?"
"Maybe," Heero agreed amiably.
"Well, if you're not, I guess I'll see you at school. You'll be taking lunch at the dining hall?"
"Then if you're interested in hanging out with me and my friends, you can probably find us at a table on the north side. That's where you come out of the food area. Probably around the middle."
He nodded noncommittally, though he knew it was almost definitely a yes. If he didn't seek them out, then he'd probably choose to park himself in the back somewhere for a little peace, which surely wouldn't last long since Duo would drag him over the moment he was noticed. Hmm, well, upon consideration, Duo had phrased the information as an invitation rather than a demand, so maybe Duo would have simply joined him instead. The idea pleased him.
"Oh, come on, even I got a bigger squee than that."
As Duo slid into a seat at the round table, Hilde stuck her tongue out at Alex. "That's because I was a smart girl and visited him yesterday. Isn't that right?"
"Yup," Duo agreed, trying to put his burrito together. He gestured with a free hand at the young man sitting next to her. "Hey, Mueller, pat her on the head for me, would ya?" They all laughed as she growled rather audibly at Mueller before he had the chance to even raise his hand. "So, who're the newbies?" he asked the group after they'd settled down.
Alex and Mueller introduced him to the two freshman at the table. Perry and John were roommates and lived in the same suite as Alex and Mueller and Hilde. They were still going through the typical newbie question and answer period when Duo spotted someone else coming out of the food area. He had deliberately selected a seat on the side of the table that faced that side of the dining hall, and now he issued forth a faint head twitch of recognition as he scooted his seat a little to the side in obvious invitation.
Heero headed in their direction with only a little bit of hesitation. Perhaps he had been hoping against hope that there wouldn't be very many other people at the table, but there were five of them, and they looked rather lively. At least there was an empty chair next to Duo. Maybe he could find some protection there.
"Heya, Heero! Make yourself at home." On second thought, it was entirely conceivable that Duo could make things worse.
Hilde eyed the newcomer appraisingly. "You know this guy, Duo?"
"Yup. Met him earlier. Guys, Heero. Heero, Hilde, Alex, Mueller, Perry, and John."
"My name is Scott, actually," Mueller put in. "Scott Mueller. Only everyone calls me Mueller because... well, I don't really know why."
"Ah," Heero responded quietly, only belatedly realizing that he ought to acknowledge everyone. "Hi."
"So who do you belong to?" Alex asked.
"...I beg your pardon?"
"Perry and John are me and Mueller's frosh. So who do you belong to?"
Duo merrily raised his hand. "I'll claim responsibility for him."
"You don't even live in a suite on campus. How can you have anybody?"
He shrugged. "Why not? I don't see anyone else claiming him."
"So what about you, Heero?" Hilde cut across their friendly jabs. "Liking LIT so far?"
It took Heero a moment to formulate more than a one word answer. "Uh, yeah. There's a nice atmosphere here."
"Atmosphere, huh?" She looked around the dining hall. "You see those pretty purple lights on the wall? I thought they brought nice atmosphere to this place, too, until I found out they were just bug zappers. I've been so disillusioned."
"Personality, then. More personality than I'm used to." His old school had been severely lacking in personality, unless one counted 'institutionalized' as a personality.
"Come from a big school?" she went on to ask. Duo had become completely sidetracked by a debate with Alex on the merits of living on-campus.
"Quiet type, aren't you?"
"Liking this place so far?"
"Yeah." He forced himself to come up with something more conversational to say. "...I've met a lot of interesting people."
She smirked, casting a glance at Duo and the others. "Yeah, I'll bet."
One of the freshmen jumped to his rescue, although it was really more like out of the frying pan and into the fire. "So, me and Perry were just talking, were you at the chem lecture this morning?"
Heero blinked at him. "Um, no. I skipped out of the chem requirement."
"Ugh, you're so lucky! It was so freakin' boring! I don't get it -- they go through all this trouble to make sure we've taken chem before coming here, and then they start the year off with the absolute basics! Maybe I should have tried a little harder to pass the waiver, too."
"Are you a chem major?" Perry asked him.
Relax, he told himself. They were just being friendly. He could handle this. "CS."
"Yeah? Me, too."
On the other side of the table, Mueller jumped into the conversation, willfully ignoring his roommate's pleas for help in the debate against Duo. "Ugh, you CS majors. You sure picked the right major. I've got senior CS friends, and I swear, not a single one of them has to get up before noon, but me? No, my day starts off with Fourier at eight. Who the hell puts a class at eight o'clock in the morning?"
Duo broke off from talking to Alex to smirk at Mueller, with a passing smirk at Heero while he was at it. "Told ya you should have taken Fourier last year with me, back when it was at ten."
"But Kramer was teaching it last year. He's hard!"
Duo snorted. "It'll be hard anyway if you keep falling asleep during lecture. Or were you just planning on skipping altogether?"
"Well, since you've already taken it, then you can help me."
"Hey, wait just a second there--"
Mueller turned back to Heero, who was trying to keep his head from spinning. The discussion wasn't just like ping pong -- it was like ping pong with three different balls. "You're lucky if Duo's adopted you. He can help you out when you get to your engineering class. That stuff's a breeze for him."
Ah, at last, something interesting being said at the table. So it seemed not only that Duo was a skilled engineer, which Heero had already suspected based on what he had seen at the market, but that he also did well in his classes. The one did not necessarily imply the other in all cases.
Hilde took over again. "Ack, so you two are CS majors, and John's a physics major? What is the world coming to? We need more engineering majors, dammit. We can't lose our majority in this school. We need to entice the frosh to the darkside. Get 'em early, while they're young and tasty."
"Oh, like that sort of vocabulary will entice them to our side."
"Frosh," she commanded, waving her fork at Perry, John, and Heero as well, to his surprise. "Keep in mind that there are a lot of people that come into this school thinking that they know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, only to find out they're sadly delusioned. So when that happens to you--"
Mueller elbowed her. "Okay, that's it. You call that an inspirational speech? Please."
Inevitably, Alex had to put in his two cents. "What you have before you are three men. So let us take care of this, man to man. Hilde here is the vice president of the Society of Women Engineers. Now, switch your major to engineering, and I'm sure she can hook you up with some of the hottest chicks on campus."
Hilde squawked in protest, but Mueller jumped to his defense. "Hey, when you go to a school with mostly guys, the competition can be kinda fierce. You need every edge you can get."
"Yeah, well, some of us don't have that problem," Duo smirked. "And isn't this usually the other way around? Don't people usually go fleeing from engineering to the other departments?"
This unfortunately turned Hilde's wrath upon him. "Hey, shut up!"
It went on, boggling Heero's mind as he quietly munched on his roll and generally tried to stay out of the fray. It was interesting, if nothing else. Somehow he wasn't too surprised that these were the kinds of people that Duo regularly hung out with, and if he hadn't seen Duo in a different environment, he would have doubted that he and Duo would ever have gotten along. Nevertheless, he wondered if this was their regular behavior, or if at least part of it was just a show they were putting on for the new faces at the table. He took a few moments to ponder whether or not he would actually enjoy sitting at this table in the days to come. He was pretty certain he'd be able to separate himself from Duo during meals with no hard feelings if he ever managed to find his own set of friends to sit with. In the end, he decided it wasn't so bad. At least they talked so much amongst themselves that they didn't require his participation.
He supposed John and Perry must have felt sorry for him or something when they tried to draw him into their corner of the conversation. "So, who's your roommate?"
"I don't have one." It was a pity he didn't have an answer that could really spark whole new lines of speech, or so he thought.
"No way. How'd you pull that?"
"Do you live in South dorm?" the other one asked. It took him a moment to remember that it was Perry. They didn't look all that similar, but names had not been mentioned so often that they would stick, and he hadn't spent enough time with them yet to get a feel for their distinct personalities. "I heard there were a few freshmen that managed to score some singles in South."
"Uh, no." Heero made a note to himself that he would probably want to familiarize himself with the dorms on campus. He had never explored that end of campus very thoroughly during the summer, having had no reason to, but it would probably look bad if he made it through half the year without being able to find them. "I live off-campus."
"Oh, down the street that way a bit." He gestured vaguely in the proper direction.
"So you mean, if you're local, you can get out of it?"
Naturally, Mueller chose that moment to butt back in. "No, you're not supposed to be able to. Even Duo lived on campus freshman year, and he lives down the street. Said he appreciated it, too. So what's up with you?"
Heero blinked, then shrugged. "I enrolled after they did the room draw?"
"No, they automatically put the freshmen into their own draw. Doesn't happen until the middle of the summer, when they get all their personality test stuff together and start trying to match people."
Heero looked to Duo for some help, but all he received was a smirk in return. That was the second one. Just what was it he was finding so amusing about this situation? "I guess they do things differently for transfers."
Talk halted at the table, and Heero suddenly found himself the recipient of at least two stares and one widening smirk. It lasted all of a second before sound erupted once more.
"Duo!" Hilde scolded, looking for something to throw at him. "Why didn't you tell us he wasn't a frosh?"
He grinned innocently at her. "You didn't ask? Come on, you haven't been inducted into this school until you've been on the receiving end of all the frosh talk. We wouldn't want Heero to miss out on that, would we?"
He turned the force of his innocuous grin on Heero, who calmly countered it with an accusing glare. So that would be why Duo had left him to fend for himself, and continued to do so as he was forced to deal with the obligatory transfer questions. Heero didn't quite see why Duo couldn't have just spared him the trouble of the freshman interrogation when he had to suffer through the transfer interrogation anyway. He answered the questions in general and vague terms. Why he had chosen to transfer was his own business, and he especially wanted to avoid getting trapped in a discussion of which school was better and why. He had nothing against his other school. He was sure it was a fine place for thousands of students, only he wasn't one of those thousands.
Lunch ended with a silent sigh of relief. Hopefully, the subject had been exhausted. Naturally, Duo had not. After lunch, everyone parted ways, but Duo stuck to Heero's side, knowing that they had some time before their next classes.
"So, whaddya think?"
He took a moment to come up with some diplomatic phrasings. "Your friends are very animated."
"That your way of saying they talked a lot?"
Duo shrugged. "Maybe. But it's better than just sitting there staring at each other while we eat."
"You don't have to stare at each other. You could try... sticking to only one conversational thread at a time."
"If you can't multitask, you won't be able to cut it here, babe," he dismissed. "Hope the Q and A didn't get too much on your nerves. I know you don't much like talking and all, but I figure, now they know some stuff about you. They probably won't bug you for much more info. They must have noticed you're the quiet type. Of course, now they'll just bug you about class stuff. But at least it won't be frosh stuff. I mean, there's always lots of reasons to pick on frosh, but you're just a newbie, so there goes half the fun. I thought maybe I'd give you just a taste of it today, though. Do you mind?" That last bit was asked somewhat hesitantly. Since he hadn't really done anything, Duo didn't feel very guilty for subjecting Heero to that, but he had knowingly led the unwitting transfer into the situation.
Heero shrugged. "It was okay. It wasn't anything important, after all." Questions on his class load were easy to answer. If they'd been prying deeply into his personal information, on the other hand, he would have had a problem. "But, um, thanks for caring, I guess?"
Duo sort of ducked his head, like he was shy that he'd been found out. Granted, Heero didn't seem as awkward in his new environment as he might have been had he not been here all summer, but Duo still felt motivated to try and help him belong. It was hard to find one's way into a clique when they were already firmly established by two years' worth of experiences, but being a freshman, or at least running the freshman gauntlet, was one way in. The students at LIT weren't too picky about class distinction, except as the butt of a joke. "Any time."
"Hey, where is everyone?" Hilde plopped her lunch tray down next to his and sat down.
"Hmm?" He set down the reading he was doing for his next class. Since he'd been the only one at the table, he hadn't had to worry about ignoring anyone. "I dunno. Alex and Mueller were already here. I got here when they were leaving. They said they had class now. And, let's see, what day is it? Thursday? So Heero's gonna be over at the international dining hall doing his Japanese table thing."
"What Japanese table thing?"
"Well, he said he wanted to brush up on his Japanese, so he signed up for this conversation class, which isn't really much of a class since it's only worth one credit. It's more like they just get together once a week in a lounge somewhere and talk to each other in Japanese. Sometimes they're given topics and stuff. Anyway, so I guess once a week they're expected to eat lunch down there at the Japanese tables, and you're only allowed to speak Japanese there. He said they've got tables for all the languages, and most of the classes require lunch there some number of times a semester."
"Hmm. Guess I should be glad I decided to drop German. So, he won't be joining us?"
"Why? Gimme the dirt!" She scootched her chair over closer to his.
"You know. You and Heero?"
"What about me and Heero?" He had a terrible feeling he knew where this was going, just as he felt that resisting it would be depressingly futile. He tried anyway.
"Oh, come on. You can't seriously expect me to believe that there's nothing at all going on between the two of you. I mean, look at you! You've already got his class schedule memorized, and it's only the second week of school! I bet you won't know my schedule by the end of the semester."
"Ugh, you make that sound so sordid, Hil."
"Well? Is there or is there not something between you two?"
"It's not like he's my boyfriend or something." And he wasn't. Not yet, anyway.
"Oh, so, what? Like a one-night stand or something?"
"If you're not going to tell me, I'm going to have to make stuff up. Oh, I know! Hot summer fling, right? You met across the register one sizzling summer day, and it was lust at first sight? He asked you for something that wasn't on the shelf, and you invited him into the storeroom with you while you fetched it, and while you were there, you bent him over the boxes and--"
"HILDE!! For God's sake, Hil!" He was turning suspiciously red. "It's nothing like that! As a matter of fact, he hated me at first sight!"
"Ooooh," she cooed impressively. "I can see it now. Two rivals, eyes meeting over the register with an unspoken spark of heated challenge and instinctive dislike, only to be blindsided when it turned into a spark of passion!"
"Hil!" He smacked his face with his reading, leaving it there to hide behind until he could get his mortification under control. "What the hell were you doing this summer?"
"Hatching evil plots to get you to tell me your every secret, obviously," she smirked. "You know you wouldn't be this embarrassed if you didn't have a thing for him."
He slapped his reading back onto the table, a scowl on his face even though he could still feel the heat. "It's not that funny."
The amusement slipped off of her face. "Did the bastard reject you or something? Or have you not told him, or what? If he's straight, can I have him?"
"Some friend you are."
She shrugged nonchalantly. "Hey, he may not be my type, but he is pretty hot. You've got good taste. So 'fess up. What's up between you two?"
Duo resigned himself to the conversation with a sigh. She'd had a tiny little thing for him during freshman year, but when she'd learnt he wasn't going to be interested in her, she decided she'd be a part of his love life, one way or another. "Look. It's... it's hard to explain."
"What could possibly be so hard to explain about it?"
Good question. It just was. "Like I said. It's not like he's my boyfriend or something. We... just have an understanding."
"Yeah. An understanding."
She eyed him skeptically. "Do you even understand this understanding?"
"...I'm working on it." It was like... simple agreement that there was something in the air between them, and that was it. Since the day they had spoken of it, they had done nothing, not even gone so far as to hold hands again. The only proof that it had happened lay in the occasional shy smiles and significant glances. It was unsettling that it was so ephemeral, like it could be his imagination and nothing more, dissolved with a single puff of air, and yet, that was what he had wanted, wasn't it? Something that didn't exist as some burdensome, concrete bond, locked into a single form before any thought had been put into it. Words had power, and they had shaped this thing only vaguely, which gave them a reassuring commitment without specification. Neither of them knew what they wanted yet, or where they wanted to take it. All Duo knew was that he didn't want what he had had before with others.
Hilde rolled her eyes. "Fine. Whatever. I'll ask you again later, though, and you better have a better idea of what's going on the next time I do."
"Hey, do you know when your first exam is, Heero?"
Heero paused in his coding, trying to remember. It was still a little too early in the semester to be scheduling exams. The most he could think of was a mini-quiz he had next week. "No. Why?"
Duo shrugged, even though he knew Heero wouldn't be able to see the gesture behind his back. "Well, I was just thinking."
An appropriate length of silence passed before Heero finally gave in and prompted him further. He might have let it pass if Duo hadn't flipped a couple of pages in his notes in a clear indication that his attention had returned to his homework. "Thinking about what?"
"Hm? Oh. Well... I don't really know if I want to bring it up."
Heero rolled his eyes, and it was another action that went unseen since he was currently facing the monitor of his laptop. "You've already brought it up, so why not just finish bringing it up?"
"Well, normally it's a surprise," Duo tried to explain, putting his pencil down. Of course, now that he had already mentioned it, it wasn't quite a surprise anymore. "But it's normally a freshman surprise."
Heero saved his work and finally turned around in his chair to face his friend. "Why are you so intent on treating me as a freshman?"
"I am not. Not really. It's just that there's so many interesting things that happen to frosh, and I think it's kinda no fun that you're going to miss out on them all, that's all."
"I'm not sure I like your use of the word 'interesting' in that sentence. Besides, I was a freshman at one point, just not here."
"Aw, come on. It's not like there's crazy hazing or anything." He paused to consider the veracity of that statement. "Well, okay, there's like mild hazing, but it's totally harmless, and some of the more annoying stuff I totally wouldn't think about doing to you. Like the showering on your birthday. Of course, you'd probably kick my ass if I tried to do that to you."
"Showering?" Heero repeated, a faint look of consternation creasing his brow. He liked to shower every day, thank you very much, not just for special occasions.
"Yeah, that's what it's called when you get thrown in a shower with your clothes on and the water running."
The disturbed look got a little deeper. "...That happens?"
"Yup," Duo answered cheerfully. "Sometimes it's great fun. Depends on how hard the showeree fights back. We've gotten some great chases, and I think I led a rather good one, if I do say so myself. I even managed to stay drier than the poor guys that had to drag me into the stall."
"...And this is a tradition?"
"Mm-hm. But like I said, I don't think you'd enjoy that very much, so I wouldn't try it. Although I suppose you can consider this your warning, if anyone tries to innocently ask you when your birthday is. Hey, when is your birthday, anyway?"
Heero blinked at him incredulously. "You think that, after you just said all that, I'm going to tell you when my birthday is?"
He held up his hands defensively. "And didn't I also just say that I wouldn't shower you? Incidentally, you can also get showered for scoring very well on your freshman exams."
"You're not going to pretend that my exams are freshman exams, are you?"
"Nah, doesn't count at all. The whole point is that freshmen should be lazy during their freshman classes, but since you're not in freshman classes, you have no reason to be lazy."
"Being a freshman is a reason?"
He shrugged. "Hey, I don't make up the rules. Which brings me back to the point. I guess I'll let you in on it, if nothing else so we don't have to fill you in later, because whether or not you're a part of it, the rest of the school will be, so you should know, especially so you don't spill the secret to the frosh. See, while the frosh are all off at their first exam of the year, usually chem, things... have a way of 'happening' to their rooms."
Heero raised an eloquent eyebrow at him.
He obligingly elaborated. "Like doorknobs go missing. Or chairs are 'borrowed' to make a big sculpture in the courtyard. Some of them are rather quite impressive, actually."
"...And this is sanctioned by the school?"
Duo shrugged again. "Hey, it's harmless. And it's tradition. Can't mess with tradition. And the upperclassmen all help to put things back together again. I'm not sure why you're surprised. You chose to go to an odd school, Heero."
"...I don't believe that oddity was sufficiently conveyed in the brochures." Well, this was the 'personality' he'd been looking for, he supposed.
"Wouldn't want to scare anyone off, now would we? Anyway, I think their exam is coming up, so be prepared. I mean, for the pranking of others, not you. You'll probably see some of the results on campus, is all. I guess nothing will happen to you, especially since you don't live on campus."
"Most of the frosh take the same classes, right?" Otherwise there couldn't be a single day for all of them.
"Yeah. They have a pretty standardized exam schedule for finals, too. Hey, look up the finals schedule for this year, will you?"
And he wouldn't have minded doing so, only, "Um, where exactly do you want me to look?"
"Online." Duo set aside his homework and pushed himself off of Heero's futon sofa. "I think it's listed under the registrar's office. I just want to know when my finals are. For the last three semesters, I've been consistently stuck with nasty times. Either I get stuck with a couple of them at the end of the week, on Saturdays no less, or I get them all at once."
As Heero accessed the registrar's homepage and located the final exam schedule, Duo wandered up behind him, laying a hand upon Heero's shoulder as he focused on the screen and only realizing after the fact that he had done so. He felt the body beneath his hand still for a moment before it registered and accepted the presence of the intrusion, and then the natural sway of a resting position recommenced. He let his hand move with the shoulder, and when he leaned forward a little to get a better look at the screen, first his wrist, and then the rest of his forearm down to his elbow, eventually made contact with Heero's solid back, and soon enough, they were moving together.
Heero frowned at the chair in front of his desk. He'd already spent so many hours in it today, it was daunting to think he had at least another hour or two to spend in it if he wanted to finish his assignment tonight. He'd just used the excuse of a shower to free himself from the seat, and now that he was clean and refreshed, he was finding it difficult to motivate himself to glue his butt to the cushion again.
He stalled with a lazy stretch, then seated himself on his bed to re-analyze the situation, scooting back until he could lean against the wall. Could he do the work on his bed? Technically, yes, but unfortunately, despite the term 'laptop', he found it fairly uncomfortable to work with his laptop in his lap for any significant period of time. Besides, he'd still be sitting, so that solution really didn't solve the problem.
When he realized that his elbow was resting on top of Grumpy's head, he absently adjusted his arm off the plushy's head, and soon found himself with a choker hold on the poor bear. Once that fact had made it through to his consciousness as well, he released the bear and sighed, his mind bombarded with images of similarly uncomfortable positions as Duo tried in vain to cuddle with him. They hadn't established full body contact yet, but Heero had a feeling it was only a matter of time. The idea did not excite him. When they had agreed that there was some unexpected and unmeasured level of intimacy between the two of them, Heero assumed they had also agreed they would eventually develop some physical aspect to go along with things. It had yet to manifest, and while he was glad for that fact, it wasn't necessarily because he didn't want it. It made his chest tighten just thinking about it, and not in a good way, with things just going downhill when those awkward images joined the party.
He had to seriously ask himself if he did want it, or if he was just willing to accept it. The latter didn't quite seem fair to Duo, so he thought about it and Duo and what Duo meant to him. Mostly, it could be simplified to him feeling close to Duo, and facing the prospect of being even closer to him with a good deal of equanimity. The other day, when he'd been lying on the sofa doing some reading for class, he'd felt something tickling his bare arm. Figuring it to be some loose hair, he'd reached over without looking to remove it, but it had been less than cooperative. He tugged at it, and freed an inch of it, then tugged some more and freed another inch of it, and it soon struck him that he should have run out of inches if it had been his hair, so he sat up and looked, and lo and behold, the hair wasn't short and dark, but long and golden-brown, ground deep enough into the fabric of the sofa that it took a little bit of effort to get it out. He supposed Duo was somewhat like that. With anyone else's hair, Heero might have been a little annoyed or a little creeped out by finding it, so he had been a little surprised to find himself idly playing with the hair at the time, stroking it with his fingers and studying its color when he should have been sensible and thrown it out.
There were no definite conclusions to be had from this recollection, but thinking of Duo warmed him from the inside out. He imagined it was probably how it would feel if Duo's arms were wrapped around him, and the idea sent another wave of warmth through him, but the idea of wrapping his arms around Duo and embarrassing himself by doing something wrong chilled him rather quickly.
Well, he thought, practice makes perfect. He picked up Grumpy, making sure he wasn't doing it in a rude manner this time, and brought the bear with him to his desk. When he sat down in his chair, he arranged Grumpy to sit in his lap, determined to keep him nearby whenever he was sitting around his apartment -- and Duo wasn't present -- until he finally acquired at least some degree of familiarity with this whole cuddling idea.
"...and finally, whatever it was just seemed to be getting out of hand, so I just asked him what was bothering him, and-- Duo?"
Heero ducked his head a little in an effort to catch Duo's eyes. "Hello?"
Duo blinked up at him with a bit of surprise. "What? Oh. Umm, sorry. Go on."
"Oookay." And here Duo had been the one to ask for the story in the first place. He adjusted his seat on the sofa and picked up the thread of his tale. "So I asked him, and he got this look on his face. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it on him. It's hard to describe..."
Heero proceeded with the narration of how Trowa and Quatre ended up together, but noticed Duo's attention had drifted away from him again, and after Heero continued to study the strange phenomenon, it suddenly occurred to him that Duo's attention was fixed on his mouth. He stumbled over a word, a sudden feeling of self-consciousness creeping over him, but kept on going for a while, up until he noticed his own eyes drifting towards Duo's slightly parted lips. He stopped, blinked hard to try to refocus, and started again, but it couldn't last long. Duo's power of suggestion was too strong. His words became slow and halting between his quickened breaths, and finally they stopped altogether when his concentration was totally shattered by the vision of Duo's lips. He tried, he really did, but things just couldn't work out that way.
Well, obviously his mind was trying to tell him something, and so was Duo, for that matter, so what could he do besides give in? He could pretend that he hadn't been thinking about it off and on for the last few days, but there was little point in lying to himself. There was only one way to purge his mind of all that useless wondering, and here was the perfect opportunity. Best to just do it before the moment passed. He reflexively licked his lips at the thought before letting himself lean slowly towards Duo, head tilting until it reached the proper angle of approach. He slid to a halt about a centimeter away from contact.
They stayed perfectly still for quite a few long moments before Duo's lips turned upwards in a smile Heero couldn't quite see, but could somehow feel. "You gonna leave me hanging here or what, Yuy?"
Without shifting his position, he answered softly. "I was sort of hoping you'd take over from here."
The smile widened fractionally. "Well, I was planning on totally letting you make the first move whenever you were comfortable with it." Although Duo was obviously not above a little prodding, as this incident showed. It was good to know he wasn't not moving because he was unwilling, anyway.
"Then we've got a problem here."
"If you're not comfortable--"
"I am. I just..." Well, maybe he wasn't entirely comfortable, but only because this was a new and strange thing to him. He was sure he wanted it, though, even if he wasn't sure how, and that was enough. "Just consider the first move made and kiss me already." Before I lose my nerve, he added silently.
"You got it." Their lips finally made each other's acquaintance.
Whoa. Why did Duo feel as giddy as if this was his first kiss? Well, it wasn't his first kiss, but it was their first kiss. Maybe that was it? Maybe, but not quite. He realized he had never initiated one before. He'd never personally overcome that obstacle before. He'd never liked anyone enough to do so before. Alright, so technically Heero initiated the process, so maybe they first-kissed each other. But still.
It was a little more intoxicating that he'd expected it to be. The gentle movement of their lips against each other was so sweet that it was only several long moments later that he realized the hands that were pressed flat against his chest were in fact pushing a little too firmly to qualify as just wanting to be closer to him. He dragged his head out of the clouds and pulled back, slightly confused. The hands may have been pushing him away, but the lips had been quite willing to let him to stay.
Heero didn't let him stray far, his hands shifting to twist Duo's shirt lightly into his grasp and keep him near even as he turned away and let his forehead come to a rest against Duo's shoulder. Duo let him have a moment, one they both needed to let their breathing slow back down to resting levels, before he placed a tentative hand on Heero's back. "Heero?"
Beneath his hand, he felt Heero take a deep, steadying breath before he pushed himself off of Duo's shoulder and raised his head to meet him eye to eye in a single swift stroke of confidence. "Sorry," Heero said, his face stained a faint red. "That was awfully blushing virgin of me, wasn't it?"
"No. No, sorry, that was totally my bad." Visions of unresponsive guys he'd dated danced distastefully through Duo's head. It was definitely not on his to-do list to become one of those guys that didn't like to take no for an answer. "I... I should have been paying more attention... or something..."
"No. I started this. This is totally my fault." Heero averted his eyes, head lowered slightly as he silently gathered his thoughts. "I... may have lied when I said I was comfortable." The hands still tangled in Duo's shirt stopped the other young man from putting more distance between them. "But that doesn't mean that... I don't know what it means." He met the indigo eyes again squarely. "I started this, and I was sure when I started this. I was sure that... that I wanted this, even if I wasn't entirely comfortable with that, or even if I'm still not entirely comfortable with that." With a sigh, he dropped his gaze once more, only as a surprised afterthought realizing that he was still gripping Duo's shirt. He let it go and smoothed out the wrinkles absently. "I guess I'm just not used to this."
Well, yes, that was sort of blushing virgin, but it was rather cute, too. Duo moved his hands demurely into his lap and studied them for a second or two. "So... does that mean ya... wanna get used to it?"
A little lopsided smile snuck onto Heero's face as he shook his head. "No, I want to get comfortable with it. There's a difference."
Duo cocked his head to the side, and he scratched jokingly at it. "Hmm, seems kinda like a sappy difference to me." Heero's face started to crinkle up into an annoyed pout, but Duo swooped in, gave him a swift peck on the nose that was there and gone again before Heero had any time to react, let alone get uncomfortable, and then settled back down again with an easy smile. "So, what were you saying before I got distracted?"
It had only been a few weeks, but they'd worked out a system. When Heero entered the store looking for Duo, he nodded cordially to Howard without verbal greeting since the man was currently engaged with a customer at the register, then lifted an eyebrow in silent request. In response, Howard tilted his head towards the backroom in acknowledgment and invitation, and Heero went on back with only another slight nod in thanks. On days when Howard was not otherwise occupied, some words might be included in the exchange, but always Heero asked permission before going on up, even if he had to go out of his way to hunt the storeowner down first.
"Why, there he is again." Ms. Flanagan's words passed beyond the threshold of Heero's hearing as he disappeared into the back. She'd spied him or signs of him at least two thirds of the times she'd shopped here.
"Heero? Yeah. Good kid." Howard's wide grin was a little suspect.
"Hmm? Has our little Duo found someone?" She was a longtime customer of Howard's, and had somehow during the years managed to bear witness to some of Duo's initial turmoil as he struggled with his sexual identity, and since Duo's lack of a mother figure had spoken to her maternal instincts long ago, she had also been one of the first to embrace him without regard for his orientation.
"Officially? Not yet. At least, the kid hasn't said anything yet. But if not yet, then soon. Duo's so sweet on him it's funny." He ended with another big smile, if one on the conspiratorial side, which she gleefully shared.
Blissfully ignorant of the conversation at the counter, Heero climbed the stairs and called out as he entered the open doorway at the top. "Duo, you in?"
"You know Howard wouldn't have told you to come on up if I wasn't," came the blithe response from the young man at the kitchen table, books spread out before him in a half-hearted attempt to get some work done.
Heero shrugged as he pulled up a chair, glancing at Duo's arrangement and mentally calculating the workload. "Sorry. Maybe it's a Japanese thing. I can think of at least, hmm, four ways of announcing yourself before you enter a room, off the top of my head."
"Do you have a very Japanese household at home?" Duo was more than happy for a little distraction from his studies.
"Not to the point where we announce ourselves before we enter a room. Then again, that's not a very casual thing to do, even in Japan. But I guess it shows in the little things. We take off our shoes. I have a tendency to cook with chopsticks. And of course, I remember the firm instructions about not standing my chopsticks upright in my rice."
"They do that at funerals, so it's highly inappropriate to do that at dinner. But other than that... we run a pretty relaxed household. And Mom... hasn't been around for a long time. And living with my father, a fairly American American, she probably wouldn't have been able to be very Japanese anyway. But she tried. In the little things."
Duo gave Heero's dad a mental kick in the shins. Stupid close-minded Americans. He was starting to get a feel for why Heero didn't seem to like the man very much, and it wasn't just because his so-called father left them. A smile was called for at this point, and he plied it on Heero, reaching out to lay his hand on the one already sitting innocently on the table. "But I guess it's the little things that count, right?"
Heero offered him a tentative smile in return, his mind cheerfully pointing out to him how warm and dry Duo's palm was. Somewhere along the way, Heero had picked up quite the aversion to sweaty palms, which was funny, considering how infrequently he came into contact with the palms of others. Maybe it was some odd and forgotten childhood trauma. "Yeah, I guess."
"You were born in the States, right?"
"Hmm." Their hands continued their quiet companionship on the table top. "You ever been to Japan?"
"No. Maybe one day. But I don't know. It seems like it'd be... weird. On the one hand, it'd be like honoring my mother and my heritage, which is fine, but on the other..." He shrugged lopsidedly. "I wonder if I should look up her family or something."
"Not your family?"
"Not my family," he echoed softly, with only a dash of regret to color the tone. "Like I said, never been to Japan, never met them. I think they sort of wrote her off after she got married to an American soldier and moved out here. I don't think she talked to them much, and I know no one came to her funeral, even though I remember Odin going out of his way to try and track someone down. I'm sure he found someone to inform."
"That's harsh, man," Duo asked, offended on his friend's behalf.
Heero shrugged yet again. "We did well enough without them," he opined, running the possibilities through his mind. "I mean, what would have happened if they'd decided to take me back to Japan or something? I don't think that would have been good." He would have been young enough to adapt, but if his mother's family hadn't approved of her marriage, they probably wouldn't have approved of her half-breed offspring, either.
A short silence fell, during which they each realized that Duo's thumb had taken up a gentle rubbing motion against Heero's knuckles. Neither of them did anything to change the situation.
Eventually, Duo left his hand to its own devices and started up with a random thought again. "You know, I always thought it was a pretty funny thing, you of all people taking a conversation class. Or maybe it's the most appropriate thing for you of all people. Whatever. But... I guess that's kinda important to you, isn't it?" When Heero didn't answer immediately, he rushed to rescind his question. "Sorry, I guess that's--"
"It's fine," Heero cut him off quietly. "It's just... you know, sometimes you don't see something until someone points it out to you? I've never really thought about it. It was just... a given, I guess. Even when I actually picked up a textbook in middle school to review and straighten out my grammar and things, I didn't think about why. And when I signed up for the class, I think I just saw it in the catalog, thought, 'oh, that's nice', and put it down in my schedule."
A corner of Duo's lips quirked upwards. It seemed out of character for Heero to do anything so thoughtlessly, but when he did, sometimes the best things happened. He had a good heart when his mind didn't get in the way.
"But now that you mention it...," he continued. "My mom went through a lot of trouble to teach her language to me. I mean, it's not like she had to; her English was pretty fluent. I guess she wanted to share, and it was like our private little thing. Not so much a little secret after it was just the two of us, but still, just ours. I guess I just don't want to lose that."
"You're lucky you have that." Duo's hand halted in its rubbing to deliver a squeeze, and the subsequent warmth that had finally reached critical mass tingled its merry way up his arm and nudged him into leaning over and giving Heero a kiss that landed on the corner of his mouth from the angle. After pulling back and meeting the bright blue eyes Heero had inherited from his father, Duo realized how fleetingly wistful he'd sounded, and he quickly changed the subject. "So, how much do you have to do today?"
Thursday. Duo wasn't too fond of Thursday, in particular, lunch time on Thursday. Thursday meant a Heeroless lunch, which he would probably be able to tolerate well enough, if Thursday didn't also mean he was left to the mercy of his Thursday lunching companion.
"Well?" he finally asked. Hilde had been looking avidly at him since the moment she plopped her tray on the table, and he was getting a little tired of waiting for her to pounce.
She let a few seconds pass in silence, coincidentally finishing her mouthful of food while heightening the anticipation and lending her a thin air of dignity. "So."
"Is he still not your boyfriend?"
Damn. He'd been hoping against hope that perhaps she would have something else to attack him with. "Yes."
"Even though when I stopped by the market yesterday, I caught a glimpse of you in the mirrors?"
Duo's eyes narrowed as he ran over yesterday's events, trying to find something incriminating. A part of his mind was ready to whack him if he'd been careless enough to have done something within sight of the mirrors. He prided himself on knowing just what was visible where, but even the safe spots could be compromised by a viewer standing at just the right angle. But to his recollection, all they'd been doing was some innocent shelving. "And what do you think you glimpsed?"
"The two of you kissing in aisle four."
"We were not kissing." The denial came swiftly and easily, without his even having to review the accusation. He knew it to be false. Howard's reputation was never going to be tarnished by him making out with another guy in the store for all the world to see. One wrong person and enough nasty words, and the market could suffer. He would never do that to his uncle. And then, of course, there was Heero. The rest of it was just general principle, but there was this little set of reasons associated solely with Heero, who was still in the process of 'getting used to' the whole idea of kissing, let alone the actual act of kissing. Duo would not choose to deliberately compound Heero's unease by kissing him in public. And then there were the slightly less altruistic feelings that were making Duo want to keep their intimacy all to himself, but as usual, he didn't think too hard about it. Duck and cover was still the best policy when it came to those kinds of thoughts.
"Okay, fine," Hilde conceded with a small roll of her eyes. She hadn't actually seen any such thing, but she'd hoped she might bluff her way into getting a confession out of him. "But you were definitely in his personal space."
"The aisles aren't that big, Hil."
"No, you were definitely in his personal space."
"Okay, fine, so I was. Big deal." He may not have been kissing anybody in the store, but oh, he'd wanted to for a moment there. Heero had just turned around, and Duo had been standing conveniently close behind him at the time. He'd grinned into Heero's startled face and leaned forward just a bit, pleased to find Heero holding his ground. Then he'd reached out, casually straightened an item that Heero had accidentally nudged with his elbow, and moved on with only a wink. Now that he was thinking about it, though, Hilde had managed to make her presence known shortly thereafter.
"So he's still not your boyfriend."
"No, he's not." One of these days, he was going to say that and then find out that Heero had been standing right behind him, and if Heero threw some sort of hissy fit over it, Duo swore he would cut half his braid off. He didn't think such extreme measures would be necessary, though.
"So he's still, what was it, a friend with benefits?"
"Sure, whatever." He shrugged and shoveled some food into his mouth to avoid any immediate inquiries.
Unfortunately, Hilde was willing to wait for her answers. "And that's better than a boyfriend, how exactly?"
He made sure he chewed quite thoroughly before swallowing. "Because it's no big deal, Hilde." The simple statement was both an answer and an unsuccessful attempt to get her to stop questioning him about it.
"Uh-huh. Yeah. Say, you wanna help me out on my stat homework, or do you have plans with Heero?" She lingered over his name in a mocking, sing-songy fashion.
"I never have plans with Heero." Well, once upon a time, he had had a plan involving Heero, but it didn't quite work out the way he'd expected.
"Uh-huh," Hilde said skeptically once more. "Then how do you two manage to spend so much time together, hmmm?"
Duo shrugged. "We see each other when we see each other." Like he'd said, no big deal. Although they managed to see each other a lot every day, it was still a load off his mind to not have to commit to a timetable. It was like working their relationship into their regular schedules, not having to alter their regular schedules to work around their relationship. Their relationship was important to him, but it couldn't be a priority right now, and if it couldn't handle that, then oh well, must not have been meant to be, and Heero understood that. Yay for Heero. He quickly moved on before the warm fuzzies could attack him. "It's not like we date or anything. Usually we just do our homework. Woohoo. Or eat."
"Yeah, and being that you're a student with lots of homework, and you're a growing boy, eating and doing homework adds up to a lot of time."
"Funny how that works, isn't it?" Duo answered blandly. "So when were you planning on doing your stat?"
When Heero got back to his laptop, he noticed a little icon flashing in the taskbar telling him that someone had instant-messaged him. Maneuvering the pointer to the corner of the screen, he double-clicked and read the message from Trowa. "Quatre wants to know if you're still alive."
Heero snorted, taking the seat Grumpy had been keeping warm for him and settling the perennially disgruntled bear into his lap before he IM'ed his friend back. "I'm online, aren't I?"
Trowa was still online, so his reply was swift. "Someone could have broken into your apartment, murdered you in an appropriately gruesome fashion, and then stolen your wallet, keys, and laptop."
"Then how do you know I'm not the murderer just pretending to be me? Maybe my bloodied corpse is lying at my feet right now."
He had to wait for a little while to get the response. "Quatre doesn't think that's very funny."
Heero did, especially when he soon got a message from Quatre stating that very same thing, only with an exclamation point. He sent off an evil laugh to Quatre before continuing his conversation with Trowa. "I thought Quatre was counting on Duo to babysit me."
"And speaking of Duo...."
"..." Heero could keep this up as long as Trowa could.
"..." Or not. "*sigh* Fine. What about him?" At least he knew Trowa would keep his inquiries discreet.
"Did you make the right decision?"
"I like it when I give good advice."
Heero rolled his eyes. "Got any more?"
"No..." Trowa waited patiently for him to decide to spit it out. It took Heero a few long seconds to find a good phrasing, during which he played with Grumpy's ears. He was getting better with the bear, and consequently was finding it a little easier to accept Duo's presence inside his space. "Just slow-going. On my part."
"I've only ever heard of people ruining relationships because they were going too fast, never because they were going too slow."
"True... But I'm slower than he is."
"If he's going faster than you want to go, either tell him, or kick him in the balls and get the hell out of there."
Heero choked on a laugh. "I told him. He's slowed down. But that doesn't mean I like the idea of someone having to slow down and wait for me to catch up."
The word 'overachiever' rang through both of their heads. "Don't rush. If you mess this up, I'm going to tell Quatre."
"Gee, no pressure." He hugged Grumpy to his chest in thought. He really didn't want to know the details of his friend's love life, but he did wonder how well Trowa had adjusted to having a boyfriend. He could admit to himself, however, that at least some of that was the result of some obscure competitive streak. Inadequacy was, generally speaking, an unknown for him, and it sat uneasily upon his shoulders.