"You never call, you never write..."
The playfully chiding voice doesn't come as a surprise. I've been expecting it. Expecting him.
Despite the fact that I'm the one who dropped out of contact with everyone, despite the fact that no one else has bothered to find me, he has. Right on schedule.
He slides into the seat opposite me, and I can feel his expectant gaze resting on me. Meeting that gaze is - difficult. Impossible?
Head still bent over my books, I stare intently at the page in front of me, struggling to bring suddenly-incomprehensible diagrams back into focus.
Yes, I've been expecting him to show up. And, frankly, I've been looking forward to it. But now that he's here, I'm not entirely certain that I'm ready to face him. To face the inevitable changes that time has made.
"Hey." A foot nudges mine under the table.
I hadn't really intended to stay out of touch indefinitely. I'd just needed some time to myself; time to find my place in a world changed by peace. Time to find myself without anyone else's expectations to influence me.
But weeks had turned to months, and months to years. The thought of contacting anyone who was part of my old life became more and more difficult. Even during the war, most of us hadn't really spent much time together. I'd probably spent more time - well, time during which I was conscious and lucid, that is - with Duo than anyone else. Most of them only knew me as a soldier.
I'm not a soldier anymore.
"Ro, c'mon. Look at me." The teasing note is gone from his voice, replaced by concern. Long, sturdy fingers curl around mine, pale against my skin. They squeeze gently, and I force myself to raise my eyes. I meet a slightly hesitant smile that's only faintly reminiscent of the broad grin I remember. "Hey. It's good to see you again, Ro."
There's nothing judgmental or accusatory in his tone or expression. Just true pleasure in our meeting. "It's good to see you, too, Duo," I admit, turning my hand over in his grasp so that the light grip becomes mutual.
His smile widens, becomes genuine. "Good," he says simply, giving my hand another squeeze before releasing it. "You look kind of busy." He gestures towards the sprawl of books on the table. "This a good time, or would you rather meet later?"
He's offering me an out but, tempting as it may be, I'm not going to take it. "Now's fine," I assure him. "I was just putting in time anyway." Gathering up the books and journals, I place them on a cart to be returned to the shelves.
"Coffee?" I suggest.
We stroll out of the library and across the green to the small café run by the student co-operative. There's not many students left on campus, so we have no problem claiming a quiet corner table. He still takes his coffee black and strong; I take mine sweet.
"So. Architect, huh?"
I shrug. "Not what anyone expected, I'm sure." It had been pretty clear what *had* been expected of me. Programmer, mechanical engineer, Preventer...
He grins. "All the better."
"You must have graduated by now, too. What did you end up doing? Chemistry?" That was the direction he'd been leaning before I left, and it was certainly what everyone seemed to expect him to do.
Grimacing, he shakes his head. "Uh, no. Tried that; didn't work out. Too many connections to the war."
He shrugs and admits, "Had a flashback in the lab and damn near blew the place up. Came out of it just in time; nobody else ever even knew what almost happened.
"I took the rest of the semester off. Did a little travelling and a lot of thinking. Almost came looking for you, but then I figured maybe you'd had the right idea when you'd gone off on your own. We all had to find our own place, and that was easier without a lot of other people's expectations tyin' us down."
I nod in acknowledgement. "So, what did you decide?"
He snorts and shakes his head. "That I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. So, I took a bunch of aptitude tests, then picked something that they recommended against."
I choke on my mouthful of coffee.
Snickering, he hands me a napkin. I snatch it from him and try to glare as I mop up the spilled liquid, but end up shaking my head and laughing along with him instead. "Only you..."
He just grins in response.
Checking my watch, I say regretfully, "Listen, I need to go." I pull the envelope that I've been carrying around for the past week from my pocket and offer it to him. Years ago, he'd promised to be at my graduation, and Duo Maxwell didn't lie - or break promises. I'd known he'd show up, so I'd ordered one ticket for the ceremony. His grin turns into a genuine smile as he takes it. "Stick around afterwards?" I ask.
I'm standing, capped and gowned, in the line of graduates waiting to be called forward before I realize that he never did tell me what he'd ended up taking. When my name is called and I stride forward, I look for him in the audience.
He's there, applauding and cheering. Our eyes meet and I raise an inquiring eyebrow. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes, but answers anyway, knowing that I can read his lips. "Interior design."
I laugh all the way back down the aisle.
One small note, since some readers have misunderstood: interior design is not the same thing as interior decorating. Interior designers are professionally trained, often licensed, and basically do for the interior of a building what an architect does for its shell. In addition to aesthetics, they also deal with efficient use of space, accomodation of special needs, ergonomics, safety codes, etc.