"You're utterly pathetic," I told him, and had to suppress a sigh when Heero only responded by glowering at his tomatoes. "Stop that, Yuy, you're making your salad wilt."
"I am not pathetic, Barton," Heero growled.
It was a well-known fact - well-known to me, at least, though even Wufei had noticed by then - that Heero Yuy had it bad for Duo Maxwell. The problem was that the aforementioned Duo Maxwell was completely ignorant of the situation. And short of letting Quatre hire that skywriter, it didn't seem like things were going to change any time soon.
"Yes, you are," I assured Heero, in that reasonable tone of voice with which he'd never been able to argue.
It was one of my few defenses against his glare. He would narrow those gorgeous eyes until they were thin, cold slits, and I would give him my best impassive look. So far over the past four years, the score was seventeen to four, my favor. Quatre was keeping track for us.
Heero let the fork drop onto the plate. "Maybe, but it's useless. Just drop it." He reached for the mission folder, and flipped it open.
I stretched across the table, caught the edge of the folder, and shut it. Heero flinched when my hand slammed down on his fingers.
"Didn't move fast enough, Yuy," I told him, leaning back. I took another bite of my chicken. "Mellowing out is one thing. But your reaction times are as bad as your seduction attempts. You're going at a snail's pace."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"That's the problem." I arched an eyebrow, and twisted casually in my chair to see Duo enter the Preventers' cafeteria. Looked like his crew of friends was only in partial attendance; there were merely six coworkers with him, that day. "You should be heading over there and snagging Duo away---"
"Duo likes them," Heero said, and flipped the folder open again. "Now, Une says the preliminary reports from our three sources indicate the operatives..."
I let Heero's voice fade into the background; anything he planned, I'd end up redoing anyway. He was a great partner but he tended to change plans halfway through, after going in half-cocked in the first place. Instead, I watched Duo, laughing and joking with his coworkers in the tech group. He certainly seemed happy enough, but perhaps that was the problem for Heero. Duo liked his coworkers, and his easy acceptance of their OZ and Alliance backgrounds made him one of the only of us five that was truly accepted in return. It didn't hurt that Duo was intelligent, handsome, and charming, and seemed to cultivate that in his friends, which only attracted more to his circle.
In contrast, Heero was intelligent, handsome, and had all the charm of a small brick thrown through a living room window. That is to say, what charm he had you'd only notice after being slammed in the head with it. Then again, the dazed reaction of being exposed to Heero's charm might just have been the usual side effects of having your brains soundly rattled.
"Barton," Heero said, in a tone that indicated he'd said it three times and the fourth time would be accompanied by a gun barrel pressed to my forehead. "What about the scanning technology? If we..." Heero frowned. "Barton."
"This is a working lunch."
"Yuy, I bet you take working showers," I snapped, only half paying attention. I was still watching Duo, laughing with the woman putting out more salad.
"You're staring." Heero smirked, and tapped his finger on the stack of papers in front of him. "Keep it up, Winner might get jealous."
"Only if I refused to share," I parried, and had the pleasure of seeing Heero flush from his collar to the roots of his hair. Man, he could be stuffier than Wufei, sometimes. I resisted the temptation to gloat, and instead sighed, bending my attention to Heero's messy attempts at mission planning.
"Preventers' party, Friday night," I told Heero, when we met for coffee downstairs from the office. I stirred the cream in, and picked up my laptop case. "Why don't you---"
"He has a date," Heero snarled, leading the way to the elevators.
Ah. That would explain the tension in Heero's shoulders. Every time Duo started dating someone new, Heero was especially grouchy for a week or two, then he'd chill out and seem to reconcile. A number of times I'd even been impressed at the effort Heero had exerted to actually be happy for Duo, but it was a feeling tempered by the ache in my heart for one of my few close friends.
It wasn't like Heero and Duo didn't talk; they talked a great deal. We four were the only ones Heero would really talk to, although he'd been warming up to some of the longer-term Preventers on the various teams. It was just that Heero's version of warming-up took roughly the same amount of time it takes an ice age to end. Most people gave up by then, leaving him bewildered and a bit hurt. We four did our best to cull the hasty people from Heero's circle, and encourage the more steadfast officers to befriend him.
The one thing none of us had done was set Heero up with anyone. Relena had tried a few times, to magnificent failure, and the rest of us just weren't that stupid. We knew where Heero's eyes would wander, and there wasn't much point in putting someone else in the way - someone who'd only figure it out probably as quickly as we had - especially since all possible entrants were coworkers. That meant we'd have to keep working with the person after they'd realized we'd pegged them for a convenient replacement.
Okay, so it wasn't me who figured that one out. I'll give Wufei credit, this once. But it was Quatre and his incomparable diplomacy that got Relena to lay off; Heero was either too dense or too sensitive to her feelings to say anything. Quatre insisted it was the former. I said it was the latter. Heero might be thicker than the cement lining the Preventers' high-security basement, but he was remarkably perceptive around those he cared about. He'd lie through his teeth if that's what it took to keep Relena from crying, for instance.
Of course, it didn't help that Heero couldn't lie if his life depended on it.
He could have been a poster child for a collegiate psychology class on body language. Hell, if I had thought I'd live through the suggestion, I would've used him as an example when teaching infiltration classes in Preventers. I'd had my speech planned for years.
"And this is the classic avoidance - notice the fact that he's not making eye contact. Notice also the twitch in his fingers. Okay, Heero, repeat the statement again: 'I am happy being friends.' Ah, class, did you see that? The quick headshake, that's an unconscious denial of the statement, and the slight waver in the voice, with the emphasis---"
The lecture would be ended with my sudden and unforeseen demise - unforeseen only if you didn't know Heero Yuy. He could take a great many things, but there were some things he couldn't handle with any grace. One was being upstaged by someone he didn't respect. Fortunately for our health, he respected the rest of us pilots; we upstaged him on a regular basis, if in different areas for each of us. The second major issue was being ridiculed. Quatre once suggested a 'roast' for Heero's twenty-first unofficial birthday, a suggestion met with five people simultaneously envisioning a blood-bath as Heero took out - in crack-shot, instinctive lethal ability - each and every one of us. Relena shuddered, Duo got very quiet, Quatre paled, and even Wufei seemed to slink down in his chair.
We ended up taking Heero for pizza, and got him extremely drunk.
Quatre and I took him home that night, since he lives a few blocks from us, while Wufei and Duo live on the south side of the city. Wufei had given Duo a ride, and it was then, with Heero stretched out in the backseat with his head out the window, that we discovered just how far gone he really was.
"Wufei is driving Duo home," Heero announced, following by several gagging sounds.
Quatre looked green, and gripped the steering wheel tightly. He wasn't reassured when I found the coupon for the nearest car wash and waved it under his nose. Actually, I got smacked, but Heero didn't notice. He was too busy asserting his friendship, between comments on the quality of Quatre's upholstery.
"They look good together, and Wufei would make Duo happy. That's good. That's good. That's good. Damn it!"
He roused himself long enough to pound the back of my seat, and I was tipsy enough that it made me lurch forward and think I should be rolling down my window, too. Heero could get away with throwing up; I'd be sleeping on the sofa for the next week.
"They do!" Heero roared.
"They're friends," Quatre said, in his best soothing voice.
"We're friends, too," Heero mumbled.
"If he says he loves us, stop the car, 'cause I'm taking a cab," I muttered. Quatre didn't look amused. I took the hint and shut up.
"Duo would be happy, Duo would be happy..." Heero's drunken statements degraded into inaudible commentary, involving Duo, being loved, and something about lawn ornaments that I didn't quite catch and have never worked up the nerve to ask.
It doesn't matter, anyway, since that's also when we found out that Heero retains next to no memory when he's stinking drunk. Not that we encouraged such events; one evening of sitting in traffic while Heero expounded Duo's virtues was quite enough for me, thanks.
"Duo suggested I ask that guy on the second floor," Heero said, punching the elevator button four times. It didn't light up until the fifth punch.
I was startled out of my reverie, and gave him a surprised look. "You mean... " I searched my memory for the name. "Todd? The systems admin for Empl-ID?"
"Yeah." Heero frowned, and shrugged. "Duo says the guy likes me."
An evil thought occurred to me, one that I will calmly and clearly blame upon Quatre's influence. With my years of infiltration, however, Heero was a goner. There was little chance he'd suspect anything.
"Why not ask him, and then ask Duo to double-date to the party?"
Heero halted in mid-sip of his coffee, and gave me a puzzled look.
I smiled, just a little bit, and raised one eyebrow.
"You mean... go with Duo and the other guys?" Heero blinked a few times. "What would that achieve?"
"You'd get to spend time with Duo, get to know this guy outside of work---"
"I have no inclination to get to know anyone outside of work," Heero said, flatly.
"You never know---"
"I do." Heero almost sniffed, and I had to bite back a laugh. God, he'd been working with Wufei for too long. "If I wanted to spend time with Duo---"
"But you'd be in a social situation, and usually when the five of us go out, it's very casual. Didn't you go shopping with Relena and Quatre last week?"
Heero's expression went sour immediately. He nodded, his shoulders slumped.
"Wear what they got you. When else would you get the chance?"
The elevator doors opened, and Heero stepped out ahead of me. He was silent, but I knew enough to let it lie. It would take an hour or two for the idea to percolate through his skull, and by the time it settled down somewhere around his ear canal, he'd be convinced he'd come up with the idea, and that it was one more piece of evidence that he was thoroughly, completely, totally fine with being friends, damn it - and more importantly, that his trip down to see Todd over our lunch break was proof as well.
Heero's satisfied report that Todd had accepted was supposed to reinforce appearances. Curiously, his announcement was made right when Duo stopped by our office.
"That's great, Heero, wanna go with us? Mike and I are going for the midnight showing at the Odeon - I'll tell Mike to get two more tickets." Duo beamed, and he seemed to be the only one of the three of us who missed Heero deflating with every mention of Duo's latest. Duo chattered on, checking his watch a few times - he was on his way to a meeting, and had to make sure he was at least five minutes late. He had a reputation, after all. Duo patted me on the back, and slung his arm around Heero's shoulders in a quick hug. "Mike's driving, so we'll come get you at... six o'clock?"
Heero nodded, and Duo grinned before dashing out again. He probably had at least six or seven more people to gossip with, between our office and the sixteenth floor conference room.
"Don't forget, wear that silk shirt," I told Heero. He glared at me, and I gave him my best reasonable shrug. "Quatre told me it's---"
Heero growled, his hand tensing into a fist. I smiled, grabbed the most recent mission reports, and made a quick exit. Besides, I had to get down the hallway to Strategic Development to tell Quatre and Wufei the latest.
"Didn't last long," Wufei commented, between sips of his drink.
He shrugged, watching Duo converse with the team whose mission we were celebrating. They were a younger crowd, and three of the women were making definite plays for Duo's attention. Mike, meanwhile, seemed to already be on the outs.
"I'm surprised," Quatre said. "He sure seemed to be smooth enough at it."
I raised my eyebrows at Quatre, and skewered another shrimp. "Smooth. Define smooth."
"All the right things, of course," Quatre said, and elbowed me. I put on my best patient face, and Wufei snorted into his drink. He managed to give Quatre an innocently startled expression, but Quatre's eyes narrowed, which meant I'd better pay attention. I'd be quizzed later. "He brought wine or dessert when he'd pick Duo up. Cooked him dinner. Took him to the theater."
"Maxwell, at the theater," Wufei commented. "No wonder the guy's history."
"No, not opera," Quatre said. "Some comedy. Duo said he had a great time."
Wine. Check. I'd done that. Seemed rather silly, since we lived together, but I could pick up a dessert from the bakery on the way home from work the following week. Quatre's blue-green eyes were sharp, and I amended my plans to 'pick up breakfast in the morning.' Cooked dinner - well, that was out. Unless I wanted to kill Quatre and live off his savings, no one would be eating my food.
"Comedy," I said, about to ask in case it'd be on the exam, too.
"I'm leaving," Heero's voice interrupted. I closed my mouth with a snap, and looked over at him. His head was down, and I could see that thick line between his brows that meant he was upset about something and gritting his teeth. It boiled down to 'I am really bothered and hurt, but if I look like I'm glaring, you'll just think I'm concentrating and leave me alone.'
What Heero didn't realize was that he really only looked like he was constipated and about to burst into tears at the same time.
"Did you want," Quatre managed to get out.
Heero hesitated, then spun on his heel and strode from the restaurant.
"A ride home," Quatre finished, to empty air. He blinked, and looked at Wufei.
Wufei sighed. "Is it my turn?"
"I covered last time," I murmured.
"Oh, well," Quatre said. "That didn't go well, at all."
"I'll be back," Wufei replied. He set his drink down and trailed after Heero, while Quatre and I angled to make sure Mike didn't do something suicidal, like leave in the next twenty minutes. It'd take Wufei that long to talk Heero into meeting to spar rather than practicing bone fracture placement on Mike's face.
"I still think that skywriter," Quatre started, but I shook my head. Quatre made a face, and finished off his drink. When he looked up to see Todd heading our way, he picked up Wufei's drink and downed it as well.
"Have you seen Heero?" Todd was good-looking, if a bit on the geeky side for my taste - I like 'em a bit more bloodthirsty, at least in bed - but he was a decent guy. "I just talked to Mike---"
I had expected Quatre to do the honors, but apparently his stunt of drinking fast was solely to produce a massive coughing fit. That left me to perform the lying that Heero couldn't do, and Quatre obviously wouldn't.
"Heero wasn't feeling well," I said, and shrugged. "He's been a bit under the weather recently."
"Oh." Todd frowned. "Well, Duo had to cancel on the movie, so the tickets... " He dug into his pocket, producing four tickets for the midnight showing of some new blockbuster.
"Tickets," Quatre said, and plucked them from Todd's hands. "I've been wanting to see this. How about we grab Wufei and the four of us can go?"
That's when I finished off my drink, and ordered another two for rapid consumption. Quatre doesn't like things going to waste, including people's evenings. I was sure Todd would have a good time, and even Wufei would enjoy himself - once he was done shoving Heero into a cab and promising to meet him later at the gym. But even in the movie's dramatic highpoint, explosions and all, the only thing I could see was the way Heero's mouth had turned down at the edges, quivering with a feeling he couldn't express and couldn't contain.
Maybe the skywriter might not be such a bad idea.
"He seemed like he did everything right," Heero said, thoughtfully.
He was chewing on the end of a pencil - a habit he seemed to have picked up from Quatre. In this case, however, I was not about to replace the pencil with my finger. Heero would have to find his own way to break the habit. I stared at the offending pencil and waited.
"Quatre said all the things Mike did are all the things that are supposed to be done," Heero continued.
We were sitting outside, enjoying the fine weather while eating lunch. Technically, I was eating lunch, and Heero was ignoring his sandwich and eating his pencil instead. The latest reports were in his lap, ostensibly so we could have another working lunch. I stretched out my legs, crossed them at the ankles, and took another bite of sandwich. I worked sixty-hour weeks, not counting missions. Lunch was not for working, but Heero had yet to get that through his head. I figured after all this time of partnering the idea was only around his eyeballs. It probably needed another year to sink down to his ears, where it might take root and show some results.
I sighed, and took the bait. "Like what?"
"He brought gifts," Heero listed. "He complimented Duo, and took him out to nice places. He paid attention to him... " He paused, and I could hear the pencil crunching as Heero's fine white teeth went straight through the wood. Heero spat out the eraser, and turned worried eyes on me. "I pay attention to Duo."
"No argument there," I assured him.
"Maybe Mike paid the wrong kind of attention. Duo needs attention," Heero said. He took another bite out of the pencil.
"Eat your lunch, Yuy," I ordered, and set the second sandwich in his lap. Heero frowned at it, and I took that chance to remove the pencil from his grip, tossing it over my shoulder into the grass. "Unless you're going to finally get up the nerve, perhaps you should just relax and let Duo decide for himself what he wants."
"But... " Heero unwrapped the sandwich, his fingers moving although his mind was clearly a thousand miles away. Or more precisely, two hundred yards and nine floors up, over to the left and down the hallway and around the corner to where a certain tech leader was either on a conference call or answering any of a hundred daily emails.
"Look," I said, and set my sandwich down. "Why don't you ask Duo out? On a date? None of those sparring matches, or playing basketball."
"But I like doing those things," Heero replied, frowning slightly. "And he always says yes to those."
Ah, I thought. That was part of the problem, wasn't it - Duo saw Heero as a good friend, and Heero was too scared to ask for something that would risk rejection. Maybe that was the reason Heero had been stalling. He'd been watching to see what Duo liked, so he could duplicate it, and not make any mistakes. After all, that would be Heero's major issue, number three: fucking up. He had never handled that well, but at least he hadn't demanded anyone kill him in several years. Sometimes I thought I was doomed to be the easy-going guy of the five of us: Duo and his mournful self-isolation, Heero and his intense self-flagellation, Quatre and his caustic regret, Wufei and his passionate self-deprecation.
I had plenty reason to feel guilty, or want to be alone, or to mourn, or to beat myself up. But I'd found I didn't need to. I felt bad just watching the four of them go at it. No need to go overboard and join them, when I got the effects in the end just from being around them. I considered it self-punishment by osmosis.
"Yuy, you say Mike did everything right," I said, pulling my wandering mind away from the issue of whether Heero would ever willingly try something that had a chance of failure. Well, that didn't involve high explosives or risk of certain death, I amended.
"Quatre says the same thing," Heero replied, a bit defensively.
"And right, my lover is just Miss Emily Post when it comes to seducing people," I snapped, getting annoyed. "Did you ever see Quatre doing any of that crap when he and I were dating?"
Heero gave me a disgusted look. "I didn't chaperone your dates," he reminded me, as though this were obvious. "How should I know?"
I considered hitting him on the top of his head. Maybe then the last few reasonable notions I'd worked so hard to implant in his mind would finally get thrown free of where they'd been trapped around his forehead. I also considered how much money Quatre would probably spend on my funeral, and the fact that Cathy would start a blood feud with Heero. Well, start a second one. She'd been waiting for an excuse for several years. I couldn't see any of it ending well.
I kept my hands to myself, but I'm afraid I squeezed the last bit of my sandwich rather harshly.
"Quatre didn't bring me wine, or roses, or take me to the theater," I said, very slowly. I kept my tone low, like talking to one of the big cats, or a small child. Then again, this was Heero. Calling him an intelligent but naïve and too-lethal wild cat might not be too far off the mark. "All I'm saying is that perhaps the reason Duo doesn't go out on more than three or four dates with people is because all those right things they're doing are wrong for Duo."
I gripped my sandwich until mustard oozed out onto my lap, and didn't breathe. I could see the damn idea working its way through his gray matter. It was an amazing process.
Heero blinked again, and stood up. The sandwich on his lap hit the ground with a soft plop. Reacting immediately, I yanked him back down again.
"Snap out of work mode, Yuy," I barked. "If you go in there treating Duo like a mission, you'll end up blowing something up and being lucky to get out with your spandex intact."
"I wear a uniform." Heero gave me a puzzled look.
"Figure of speech," I said, rolling my eyes. "Just think it through---"
"No, Barton," Heero told me, standing up again. "That's what you do. I act." And with that, he stormed off.
I twisted on the park bench to watch him go, somewhere between amazed and amused. Then I dug into my jacket, pulled out my cell phone, and hit auto-dial.
"Quatre," I said, and grinned when Quatre's greeting cut off to complete silence. He knew that tone: either I was calling because my partner was dead, I was, or we both were - or I needed a lot of ammunition to keep such from happening. I heard him take a breath, and figured I had two seconds to explain. "No emergency. Just that...I think we've had a breakthrough on the Yuy-Maxwell front."
"Hold on, I'm getting Wufei on speaker phone," Quatre replied.
"All right, Barton," Wufei said, coming on the line. "Spill!"