Duo Maxwell loped with easy grace along the littered sidewalk. Under one arm, he carried a bulky paper bag. Slight of build, he was shabbily dressed in a pair of black jeans, out at the knees, and a black t-shirt, both faded and threadbare. His hair, however, was eye-catching, brown with subtle glints of red, and plaited into a braid so long he could sit on it.
Skidding around the corner, he dodged a couple of surly drunks, then ducked up the alley, laughing as their shouts rang after him. He slowed, catching his breath and wondered what time it was. From the angle of the shadows, it was probably later than he liked. It had been stupid of him to spend so long at the hardware store, yammering away to Mrs. Jimson. If Charlie got home before him, he was gonna get his butt kicked all the way to Braddocksville.
Once upon a time, the Sink had been an elegant, upscale neighborhood. The opening fifty years earlier of the Braddocksville titanium mine had brought an upsurge in the population of both Braddocksville and its suburb of Farmington. Now most of the old mansions were gone, torn down and replaced by high-rise tenements or cheap, concrete apartment blocks, all hastily erected by the company to house the hordes of miners who had poured into the area. These days, every surface, it seemed, was coated with grime from the processors high in the hills. The once gracious streets were littered with papers, liquor bottles and rusting hulks of cars. In vacant lots, the ground glittered with broken glass. If you didn't look at it real hard, you could almost imagine the glass was diamonds, it sparkled so.
"Duo! Duo Maxwell!"
He paused, looking up. Annie Flagg leaned out of the window of the Forest Hills Apartment building -- notable for its lack of either forest or a discernible hill, and cried, "Duo! I need your help! Gotta minute?"
"Aw, geez..." He wavered, thinking again of the time. "What's the problem?"
"It's the AC! Me and Jerry are dyin' in here!"
Jerry was sick with miner's fever and Duo knew Annie had her hands full just keeping him comfortable. He thought again of the time. Oh, well, guess he was just gonna be late. "Okay! Be right there."
Pokey Joe and his gang were sprawled on the stoop, smoking cigarettes and tossing dice.
"Hey, Maxwell!" Joe grinned, looking up at Duo as he slid past, "Goin' for the goody-two-shoes award?"
"Fuck you, loser," retorted Duo, grinning, and with their cheerful derision echoing in his ears, let himself into the dark little foyer. The elevator hadn't worked for six years, so he took the creaking stairs up to the fourth floor.
The woman met him at the top of the stairs with a grateful smile and a cold soda. "Thanks! It costs a fortune to have the service people even look at it, let alone fix the damn thing. And that's if you can get someone to actually come into the Sink! Jerry's really in pain. It's been so awfully hot!"
Duo nodded. He left his package on the sofa and, slurping at the soda, followed her through the surprisingly large if run-down apartment. Forest Hills was like his place, an old mansion that had survived the wrecking ball by being broken down into apartments. The real wood trim was gone, of course, and the carved plaster ceiling pieces had been cannibalized a long time ago, but the high ceilings and French doors remained to give it an air of faded elegance.
The air-conditioner was in the bedroom window. Duo could hear Jerry, Annie's husband, coughing as he headed down the corridor.
"Hi, Jer!" he called cheerfully to the man in the bed. Emaciated, eyes sunken and dull, Jerry nevertheless managed a toothless grin. No stranger to sickrooms, Duo barely noticed that inescapable smell of disease.
"Hey," Jerry rasped. "I'm boilin', kid! Fix that bad boy, would ya?"
It was late September and unseasonably hot. The Sink was almost intolerable. Duo hunkered down in front of the air conditioner and fiddled with the knobs. Annie hovered anxiously at his shoulder.
"It makes a horrible sound," she explained anxiously, "and works really hard but there's only a trickle of cool air!"
Duo reached over and yanked off the front while she squeaked in alarm. Just as he'd figured -- the filter was so filthy nothing was getting through. With her trailing after him, he took it to the kitchen and washed it out. Back in the bedroom he asked for and got an old toothbrush, clearing away more clumps of dust in the wiring. Replacing the filter and cover, he turned the air conditioner on. It chugged to life at once. In a couple of minutes, cool air was blowing in his face.
Duo retrieved his bag amid their effusive thanks and made his escape. Joe and his buds were gone when he let himself out into the street. The sun had vanished behind the towering skyline of Braddocksville and in some of the Sink's narrower streets, street-lights were flickering on. Men and women crowded the sidewalks, miners heading home from the commuter station on 191st. Duo was really late. If he didn't get a move on, Charlie was going to get home before him.
Before he'd dropped out of school, Duo had been the star runner of Jackson High School. Now he turned it on, racing along the familiar streets, darting across busy intersections while drivers honked and swore at him. Veering right at Madison he was into the home stretch. On the left, the high brick wall of St. Jude appeared, running along with him for a quarter mile before he left it behind. Ahead was Madison House, home. It sat deep in the shadow of the Morrisey, the ten-story apartment building next door.
"HEY! LOOK OUT"
Duo heard the warning, spinning around in time to see a bicycle bearing down on him. "SHIT!"
He leapt frantically aside, lost his balance and went sprawling. The bag flew from his grasp to hit the curb and split open. Screws, rivets and an assortment of hardware spilled in every direction. In alarm, he saw the new doorknob roll into the street.
"Damn it!" The sucker had cost twenty dollars! It was real brass. If anything happened to it, his butt was in a sling! Frantically Duo leapt after it.
Hard fingers balled in his t-shirt, hauling Duo back from the curb even as a truck rushed by, horn blaring. The knob bounced off across the road to disappear under a passing car.
"Aw, fuck!" Duo's heart dropped into his stomach. He stared after it glumly, then turned to look at his unknown nemesis. For a second, he forgot to breathe.
Standing beside his bike, staring back at Duo, was quite possibly the most beautiful boy Duo had ever seen. The stranger had hair the color of dark chocolate, thick and unruly. Disordered spikes of it fell into eyes of a deep, sunset blue. He was Asian, slim and slightly taller than Duo. Duo immediately recognized the boy's uniform, the maroon, military-cut of St. Jude's College of the Arts and Sciences. Great. One of the fuckin' aristos. Probably figured he owned the fuckin' street and wasn't looking where he was going.
"What the hell's wrong with you? Just learn how to ride?" he demanded. Without waiting for an answer, he bent and began retrieving his scattered belongings.
"Sorry." The boy's voice was unexpectedly deep. "The gear failed to catch. Are you all right?" There was a trace of an accent.
"Fine," Duo muttered. "But that doorknob is a goner. Shit. I'm gonna get it." He had reclaimed most of the screws, dumping them in his pocket. To his surprise, the boy set aside his bike and began helping gather the rivets and hooks.
"You live around here?" he asked Duo.
Duo nodded toward Madison House. The street was clear. He dodged out, grabbed the knob and hopped back on the sidewalk. The knob was ruined. Fuck.
Duo blinked and looked harder at the boy. The dark-haired youth was digging into his pocket in a way that was guaranteed to attract unwanted attention.
"Be careful, Judie! You ain't protected by the wall here, ya know."
The boy gave him a sharp look. "How much for the doorknob? It's my fault it's ruined."
Duo eyed him speculatively and thought about adding five bucks to the price of the knob. Then he grinned and dug into his pocket, coming out with the receipt. "Nineteen twenty-five."
The boy handed him a crisp new twenty. "Keep the change."
"Gee, thanks." Duo couldn't quite keep the edge out of his voice. Still, the money and no knob was better than no money and no knob. Maybe Charlie wouldn't be too pissed.
"No problem," replied the boy, got on his bicycle and rode off -- no problem whatsoever with the gears.
Duo closed his eyes, thinking wistfully of chasing after the asshole and smashing his pretty face into the pavement. No time, though. He was in enough trouble as it was.
Through the rickety wooden gate of home and across the overgrown lawn he ran, through the hedge and around the back to the cellar door. He fumbled in his pocket for his key. Unlocking the door, he rattled down the steps. Too late he smelled cigarette smoke and his heart crashed into his scuffed athletic shoes. Charlie was home! His gut tightened, but there was no avoiding it now, so on down he went.
His stepfather was coming out of the back storeroom where a bunch of old furniture was kept. He looked coldly at Duo. The boy came to a complete stop, heart thumping. "Hey, Charlie."
"Where the hell have you been and what the fuck is that?" The big man looked down at the teenager. The bag being a goner, Duo had resorted to carrying all his bits and pieces in his shirt. He dumped them onto the nearby workbench.
"Where's the damn knob? Didn't I tell you to get that knob? The brass one with the matte finish?"
"It kinda got trashed."
Charlie's eyes narrowed.
Duo pressed his lips together and thrust the money at the man. "This jerk ran me down on his fuckin' bike. The knob rolled into the street and got crushed, but he paid for it. Here!"
Charlie reached for the money, but his fist kept going. Duo was suddenly flat on his back on the cold cellar floor. Pain ran up his jaw to his ear and he saw stars. Dimly he was aware of Charlie picking up the fallen twenty dollar bill. He rolled, but was too slow to avoid a boot to the ribs.
"You're such a fuckin' useless piece of shit," his stepfather snarled. "Send you to do one fuckin' simple thing -- something an eight year old could do -- and you fuck it up."
Duo tried to catch his breath and couldn't. He prayed that Charlie was finished and it seemed, for a change, as if luck was with him. He heard Charlie move away.
"You get it first thing in the morning. I'm sick of having a door I can't use. YOU HEAR ME?"
"Yes, sir," Duo gasped, making it to his knees. It hurt to take a deep breath.
"Good. Now get dinner goin'. I've got places to go tonight."
Charlie left him then, stomping away down the low corridor toward the stairs leading to the kitchen. Duo swallowed his anger and humiliation, just as he always did. After a minute, when it stopped hurting so much, he got to his feet and limped after his stepfather.
"All right ladies, cut the chatter!" Captain Baldwin thumped his files down on the desk in front of him and glared at the three assembled detectives. Heero Yuy, the youngest and most recent member of the Farmington Police Department, sipped at his tea, waiting while the captain sifted through the stack for his notes. Mark Johnson and Jason Singh, Heero's seniors, were exchanging Evil Wife stories.
"So then the bitch says to me -- she says -- if I don't repaint the bathroom she's gonna invite her father over to help her do it!" Mark was grousing. "Shit! She knows damn well we hate each other! A cop ain't good enough for his little girl! The fucker will never let me hear the end of it."
The captain fell into his chair. It squeaked under his considerable weight. He mopped his brow and glared at the air conditioner. Too small for the room, it labored to keep the temperature at eighty. Heero thought about the new offices across town with their central air and offices that didn't smell like mildew, and resisted the urge to sigh.
"All right. Sorry, I'm late. The meeting ran over. Those stuffed shirts over at the college are squawking to high heaven on this and I don't blame 'em. All those rich moms and dads paying a fortune for an elite private school won't stand for the locals selling the little boys dope. We find these guys, we get somethin' on 'em and we bust 'em, okay?"
"You got it, chief," Jason said, saluting.
Baldwin rolled his eyes. "Waddya got, Singh?"
"Raskin lives at 924 Madison. It's a big old house -- there's a couple apartments in the front. Raskin runs his mail order business out of an office in the carriage house out back. The tenants are elderly and have been living there since the first owner died. I doubt if they have any idea what's going on. Raskin's got a couple of sons, though, and both of 'em are old enough to be in on it."
"Who owns the house?"
"As far as I know, Raskin's wife. She's a widow. She married him about three years ago. According to neighbors they met when she rented him the office space."
"What's the wife do?"
"Nothin'. She's sick. Bed-ridden or somethin'."
"Any sign of traffic in and out of the place."
"Not really. We're thinking he may just keep the stuff there and uses the kids to run the stuff around to his dealers. One of the boys is in high school -- the youngest. We're looking into his school record and general behavior. My money's on the older one -- a real troublemaker. Drop out, fights -- minor stuff, but a lot of it."
"Yeah," Baldwin nodded. "Juvies are your area, Yuy. Anything on him yet?"
"Michael James Maxwell, a.k.a. Duo," Heero recited. "Seventeen. He was an honor student and a varsity string runner before he dropped out of school last year. Now does maintenance work for the tenants at his mother's house."
"Seventeen, huh? A year younger than you," Johnson observed.
Heero shrugged. "I'm not your ordinary eighteen year old," he said.
Singh choked. Johnson rolled his eyes, grinning and even Baldwin chuckled. Heero stared back at them, failing to see the joke. It was true. A heir to an ancient lineage and born to privilege, he'd graduated high school at fifteen. He'd gone right into the police academy, blasted through their curriculum with top marks to graduate at the head of his class. Heero also held a second degree black belt in karate, was a kendo champion, crack marksman and had an extensive knowledge of explosives.
"Uh, yeah -- that's true," agreed Johnson, shaking his head. "Tell me somethin', Yuy. Were you ever a kid?"
"Cut it out, Johnson." Baldwin scowled at the round, balding detective. "You should have such a record."
"Yeah, yeah." But Johnson's grin was unfeigned, almost affectionate. Heero knew he was regarded as something of a freak by his colleagues. Singh clearly resented the young prodigy thrust upon them, but Johnson treated him with a good-natured acceptance that Heero truly appreciated.
"Well, you can't deny he's the perfect guy for this job," Singh allowed with a mock bow in Heero's direction. "He'll be the same age as those kids at St. Jude's. Who'll know he's Detective Heero Yuy, boy wonder of the FPD?"
"Yeah. How's that coming? You settled in, okay?"
Heero nodded. He had matriculated two days earlier. The Dean, Professor Martin Jaeger, had been open-mouthed when he'd received Heero's academic record.
"This is a cover, right?" he'd exclaimed, lifting his eyes from the file.
"No, sir. It's my actual preparatory school record."
"Well?" The professor had laughed shortly. "I wish you'd come here! This quite a transcript, detective. What made you go into police work? With these grades you could have done anything!"
"I know, sir, but law enforcement has always interested me. I'm hoping to eventually work for the Preventers."
That was his dream. Nothing less than Commander of that crack peace-keeping organization would do, either.
"Okay. Anything else?" Baldwin asked his youngest detective.
"Yes, sir. I made contact with Maxwell."
Singh whistled and Johnson grinned. "That's our gunner!"
"Why? I don't remember authorizing that."
"I'm sorry, sir, but it was a matter of opportunity. I spotted him heading home carrying a suspicious package. I ran into him with my bike to force him to drop it. There wasn't any contraband, but I did get a chance to look him over."
"What did you think?"
Heero shrugged. "Typical street punk. Hair down to his ass, scruffy clothes, foul mouth."
And damned good looking. The thought surfaced with its relentless persistence. Heero shoved it away almost angrily. He'd been seeing Maxwell's face in his imagination since their encounter the previous day. It was making him angry.
"What was in the package?"
"Just some hardware, screws and things."
"Good thinking, though. If he'd been carrying, we could have moved this whole operation along by a couple of months." Baldwin leaned back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully. "Okay, Singh -- I want you to start running down customers of Raskin's so-called mail order shoe business. Johnson, start setting up surveillance and see if you can get into the house somehow. Maybe they have an empty apartment. Yuy -- follow up at St. Jude. Find out who among the students is using and where they're getting it. And it wouldn't hurt to pursue this thing with Maxwell. You've made contact, maybe you can strike up some kind of acquaintance."
"Shall I pretend to be a user?"
"If you want -- or someone thinking of experimenting. I'll leave that up to you. Anyone got any questions?"
"Good. We'll meet again on Friday -- same time..."
"By Friday I'll be attending classes. Could we have the meeting after three?"
"Maybe you can get a permission slip," smirked Singh.
Heero gave him a look that made him lift his hands. "Hey! Joke, Yuy!"
Sometimes, Heero thought irritably, it would be nice to work with someone serious.
Duo shifted the tray to his other hand and turned the knob of his mother's bedroom. Opening the door carefully, he peered in. She was awake. He saw her smile and struggle to sit up.
"Hold on, Mom!" he admonished, hurrying across the big room. He put the tray down on the table by the bed and helped her sit up, arranging her pillows behind her. Marianna Maxwell Raskin was a frail, pretty woman in her early forties. Duo could never remember a time when she had been strong, not even during the barely-remembered days when his father had been alive and things had been good. Her heart attack a year ago had reduced her to an outright invalid. Now she was confined to her bed and had been strictly warned to avoid any excitement or anxiety.
Charlie had made it clear from the start that he'd no intention of taking time off of his business to care for his wife and with no money for an expensive, live-in nurse, that job had fallen to Duo. Duo didn't care. His mother was all he had and he loved her fiercely.
"How're ya feelin', mom?" He straightened her covers, then went to open the curtains in the big window beside her bed. The glass was dirty, he thought absently. He should probably get out the ladder and clean it. It was, after all, her only view of the outside world these days.
"Fine, darling. How about you? How's school?"
"Great. Hey -- did you see the cosmos? They're doin' really good."
She smiled, successfully distracted. Just below the window was what remained of the old garden. Before she'd fallen ill, she had loved to spend afternoons out there weeding and pruning. Duo kept it up as best he could, but he didn't have her green thumb.
"They're lovely, sweetie."
"I'll bring some up and put 'em in vase if you want. Who knows how much longer this weather will hold?"
"Thank you, Duo." She watched as he returned to the tray and uncovered the soup. "Oh, I'm not very hungry. Why don't you eat it?"
"Nah. I'll make somethin' later. You better eat. You know what the docs said about keepin' up your strength."
She didn't object after that. He got her bed-table and set it over her lap. Picking up the spoon, she made a show of sipping the soup, but it was clearly only for his benefit. His heart sank.
"Where's Charlie been?" she asked.
It was an inevitable question, but he always dreaded it. Charlie Raskin, once almost slavishly attentive to his pretty bride, now showed little interest in her. Although he continued to treat her with deference and careless affection, Duo suspected that, sometimes, days went by before he remembered the woman in the upstairs bedroom.
"Oh, you know Charlie. Work, work, work!"
"True," she sighed. "And it does take a lot of time and effort to maintain an old house like this."
As if Charlie Raskin lifted a fuckin' finger to do anything around Madison House! Duo swallowed his automatic resentment. "Do you need anything? Do you want help to the bathroom?"
She shook her head. "No, honey, I'm fine. I'll just eat this. If -- if you wouldn't mind, though, could you ask Charlie to come up tonight? I'd really like to see him."
"Sure, mom." Duo bent forward and dropped a kiss on the thin, translucent cheek. "I'll come back in a while to get the tray, okay?"
Outside her room, he leaned against the door and took several deep, angry breaths. For two cents he'd give her an earful about her precious Charlie -- about him taking the money meant for house upkeep and spending it on his fancy cars, the mysterious trips out of town. Duo thought about strangling the big ape, but his mom's health was fragile. The one time he'd tried to tell her Charlie wasn't the saint she'd painted in her mind, she'd become so upset, she'd had another small heart attack. Duo had never said a bad thing about his stepfather to her again.
He headed downstairs and found his step-brother, Rick, in the kitchen, pissed because dinner wasn't ready.
"I got football practice. I gotta eat early."
Rick Raskin was a junior Charlie, big for his age, with a barrel chest and thick neck. He was the star quarterback for Jackson High's varsity football team. Rick was his father's pride and joy, and like his father, enjoyed kicking around his long-haired shrimp of a stepbrother. Duo prudently moved to put the dining room table between them.
"You made soup. I can smell it. Where the hell is it?"
"It was for Mom," Duo retorted. "Make your own damn soup."
Duo ducked under him as Rick lunged around the table, and dashed out the screen door. Rick's enraged howl followed him. Much faster than his stepbrother, Duo was around the house and down the street before the shithead could get to the front gate. Belatedly, he recalled his promise to give Charlie his mom's message. Oh well. He'd wait until Rick left for practice and tell Charlie then.
Duo slowed to a walk, catching his breath. His feet took him aimlessly up Madison toward Larch. Maybe he'd look in at the Dog -- see if there were any strangers he could sucker into playing a game of pool.
Duo turned around. It was the guy from St. Jude's -- the same idiot who'd run him down in the street two days earlier. Duo's ribs still hurt from Charlie's boot and he wasn't in the mood. He turned back and kept walking.
The doofus rolled up on his bike and got off to walk beside Duo like they were buds or something.
"Everything work out okay -- about the other day?" the boy asked.
Fuck, the Judie was good-looking! Duo gritted his teeth and muttered something noncommittal
"I'm sorry about running you down. The gear shift has this habit of sliding in and out."
"It's okay," Duo said, a little louder.
"My name's Heero Yuy. What's yours?"
Duo stopped. "What the hell do you want to know for?" he asked. "You're a Judie. I'm a Sink rat. Didn't they give you a lecture about mixing with the locals?"
"Yes," said Heero. "But no one tells me who to talk to."
"You're that rich, huh?"
"What makes you think I'm rich?"
"Everyone who goes to St. Jude is rich."
"Not everyone. There are kids who come on the local scholarship program."
"Oh, yeah? You one of them?"
"No," admitted the dark-haired boy.
"That's what I thought. Everything about you screams 'rich boy', dude. And I'll warn you one more time -- keep hangin around on the streets and you're going to get your pricey little ass kicked by someone not as nice as me."
"What do you care?"
Duo opened his mouth, then shut it again. "I don't," he acknowledged roughly. "See ya."
The Judie kept walking with him. "Do you go to school around here?"
Duo heaved an exaggerated sigh, but Lightning Boy failed to get the message.
"Jackson High?" the Judie persisted.
"Nope. Don't go to school. Dropped out." The Hungry Dog Pool Hall was coming up -- just around the corner. He stopped at the light. Pokey Joe was in the doorway of the liquor store across the street.
Duo raised an unenthusiastic hand in greeting.
"Friend of yours?"
"Everyone's my friend," cracked Duo. "Don't you have homework or somethin', Judie?"
"Fine. Wanna play some pool?"
Yuy looked over at the pool hall. Casby and his bunch were hanging out, rough, dangerous and just the wrong kinda people to introduce Pretty Boy to the neighborhood.
"Sure. I like pool."
"'Course ya do. Daddy's got a prime table, I'll bet."
"Have you got a problem with me having money?"
Wham! Duo stumbled and for several seconds was uncharacteristically speechless. "Yeah," he replied finally, frankly.
"Are you a snob?"
Duo blinked, then laughed aloud. The light changed and he stepped into the street. Yuy kept pace. The other boy's face was completely deadpan, but Duo imagined he saw a wicked gleam of humor in those dark blue eyes.
"Nope," he said, deciding such nerve deserved a reward. "Most guys with lots of money like to look down their noses at people from the Sink. Gets kinda tiresome, ya know?"
Heero nodded. They had reached the pool hall.
"Hey, Maxwell -- who's your buddy?" Jake Casby, big, pot-bellied and fiftyish, tipped his beer and considered the slender, dark-haired youth next to Duo. Everyone knew what the uniform meant. His side-kick, as skinny as Jake was fat, leered.
Duo stepped neatly in front of Heero when Jake moved toward him. "Hands off, perv. I'm showin' him the places and people to avoid. Judie -- this here is Jake. He's a fuckin' asshole who screws little boys. Mack there is his protegee."
"You watch your mouth, Maxwell!"
"Or what? You'll breathe on me? Sheesh." Duo elbowed the cretin aside, hauling Heero past him and into the building. The boy from St. Jude's followed without resistance. Inside, the big room was filled with cigarette smoke and cheap liquor fumes. "Wanna beer?"
"I'm underage. So are you."
"Heh. Welcome to the Sink, Judie. Wanna beer?"
"Good call. It tastes like piss. There's a table. How much you want to play for?"
"Do you have any money?"
Duo grinned. "Fuck, no. That's why I'm here. You wanna make it worth my while, Judie?"
"What if you lose?"
"What if you do?"
Duo shrugged. "I dunno. Name somethin'."
"You stop calling me Judie."
He laughed. The guy was crazy. "Okay. If I win, you pay me fifty bucks."
"Deal." Dark blue eyes narrowed. Straight brows met over a slim, shapely nose. Yuy studied the table in a way that gave Duo his first niggling of unease. The other boy walked to the wall-racks and took down one cue stick after another until he found one that suited him. Duo, deciding the Judie had grown up with daddy's billiards table, grinned and went in search of his favorite stick. He found it hidden behind the juke-box where he always stashed it. When he returned, Yuy was racking up the balls.
"Be my guest," Duo said when Heero directed a questioning look in his direction.
Yuy was good and the game thoroughly enjoyable. Duo wasn't often challenged and soon their table was surrounded by onlookers making bets. From the increasingly dark frown on Yuy's face, it was obvious the Judie hadn't figured Duo for being that good. In the end, Duo got off the killer shot that had Yuy's mouth falling open. Everyone who had bet on him hooted and hollered. Someone shoved a beer at him. Yuy's mouth twisted, but he dug into his pocket. Duo handed the beer to a onlooker and went over to hold out his hand for his winnings.
"Thanks," he said, grinning. "Wanna go again? Double or nothin'?"
Heero called it quits after he'd lost a hundred and fifty dollars. Duo was elated. He rarely found anyone at Joe's willing to play him anymore and you didn't often get strangers coming in.
"That's it for me," Heero admitted ruefully as Duo pocketed the cash. "I've got to get back anyway. You're good."
"Yeah, I am. You're not bad either. I haven't had to work so hard for a while -- Yuy. Thanks."
Heero's eyes flashed to his face and, for the first time, Duo got the tiniest twitch of a smile.
"My pleasure," replied Yuy.
The teenagers walked out of the hall and stood on the sidewalk, breathing the fresh air gratefully. Heero unlocked his bike from a parking meter and they started back together. Rick was probably at practice by now, which meant it was safe to go home.
"Let's take a short cut," Duo said. Heero seemed okay with it, saying nothing, but following Duo into an alley. They zigzagged through several side streets.
"Hey," Yuy said suddenly. "I was wondering -- you couldn't get your hands on some dreampuff, could you?"
Duo felt an unexpected twinge of disappointment. "I'm not into that shit," he said shortly. "If that's what you wanted, you shoulda said something back at the Dog. There's plenty of people there who could get it for you."
Yuy was silent and, finally, Duo looked over at him. Yuy was frowning, but it was a thoughtful frown. Duo opened his mouth to give him some shit, then stopped. Behind them came a rattling crash. The other boy's dark head lifted sharply.
"Ahead of us, too," he said shortly.
"Great." Duo's heart thumped. Maybe the short cut wasn't such a great idea. They were effectively trapped on the narrow, deserted side-street. Further on, an all-too familiar shape stepped out of an alley ahead.
"Jake," muttered Duo. Bad news.
Jake was not alone. He'd recruited Squick Martin! Duo gave Yuy a dark look. "Yeah. The perv. Guess you were just too tempting."
The Judie's scowl deepened. "What the hell does that mean?"
Duo was spared the necessity of a reply. Behind them, Mack appeared. Without surprise, Duo saw the twins, Bill and Bart, Squick's fuck-boys. Bangers. Wonderful -- and him with a wide-eyed Judie in tow.
"Can you fight?" he asked without much hope of it.
Yuy sneered. Fine. Maybe now was the time for Pretty Boy to get a good dose of reality. Duo worked the kinks of an hour's worth of pool from his shoulders, eyes on the advancing men.
"Which of them is the best fighter?" asked Yuy.
"Squick -- the charming dickhead with the green hair."
With a move so quick and adroit it left Duo staring, Yuy sent his bicycle rolling toward Mack and, at the same time, somehow switched places with Duo. Now it was the dark-haired boy facing Squick and Jake.
"Hey!" Duo began, alarmed.
"Watch yourself!" said Yuy shortly.
The gang was on them then. Mack tried to jump over the falling bike and failed, crashing to the pavement with it and cursing. The Psycho Twins cleared the obstacle easily. White-blond, in black-leather bondage gear, they were a formidable pair. One wielded a whip, the other a staff. Unarmed, Duo launched himself at them, desperately reckoning it was all or nothing. He narrowly missed a savage swing of the staff, but the whip wrapped itself around his waist. The pain was sharp and hot, making him gasp. Even so, he got a grip on the leather thong and yanked hard on it, pulling the man forward. Some sixth sense made him suddenly duck.
With a whoosh, the other twin's staff swung over Duo's head. There was a crunch and the whip-wielder took it hard in the chin. He was down, the leather going slack around Duo. The twin with the staff cursed.
From the corner of his eye, Duo saw Jake and Squick converge on Yuy. Then Mack was there and Duo had his hands full for the next few minutes dodging the creep's fists and the blonde's damned staff. He took Mack out of the fight with a lucky upper cut and threw himself on the remaining twin. They fell to the pavement, wrestling for possession of the staff.
Bigger, heavier, the blond got Duo under him. Cherry-red lips stretched into a lustful grin and the man ground his hips into Duo's. The staff was at Duo's throat, cutting off his breath.
Suddenly the man made a gargling sound and rolled off. Duo, seeing stars, was vaguely aware of a shadow falling over him. He tried to focus. Yuy?
The dark-haired youth's hand was extended. Duo took it and was hauled effortlessly to his feet. Still gasping, he reeled. A strong arm caught and held him securely. Unfortunately, the arm wrapped around the same place the whip had and Duo yelped, jerking away.
"Nah. Just a scratch," he croaked and grinned. Yuy, however, was scowling, eyes on Duo's waist. Duo looked down. He was bleeding. Shit. Come to think of it, the cut hurt like the devil.
"Let's have a look."
"Say what? Here?"
"You're right. How far are we from your place?"
Madison House. Charlie.
"Uh -- it's no problem, Yuy. Ain't they gonna miss you at the school?"
Yuy shrugged. Duo straightened, pretending it didn't hurt. They weren't far from either destination.
"I'll be okay," he said airily. "Thanks, by the way."
There was a sudden, wholly unexpected smile from Yuy, an expression of such charm that, for the second time, Duo was flattened.
"That was fun."
"Right," Duo replied, with a shake of his head. "Uh - exactly what are you studyin' at St. Jude's?"
Heero's room in the college dorm was a single and barely larger than a closet. The doubles and triples were much larger and more spacious, but for obvious reasons, roommates would have been inconvenient.
It was logical that Heero be part of criminal investigations involving young people, but he didn't relish being back in a school setting, even college. He'd never had much luck with the social aspect of it. Most of his fellow students had been intimidated by him. Nor was he naturally outgoing. Not like Maxwell.
Heero, seated on the edge of his bed, thought about the enigmatic youth. Bright, attractive and gregarious, it was a mystery to Heero why someone like Duo would get himself involved in the drug trade.
There was a knock on his door. "Come in."
It opened. He recognized one of the other freshmen, Jay Michaelson. Jay was a tall, well-built boy and, Heero suspected, knew a few things about the dreampuff trade.
"Yuy," Michaelson drawled, "the Prof wants to see ya."
"I hear you're a puffie."
Heero's heart took a modest leap. He forced himself to grin. "So?"
"A bunch of us are heading into town tomorrow looking to score. Wanna some?"
"Sure. Can I come along?"
"Sorry. The man don't like meeting strangers. You in or out?"
"In. Thanks." Heero peeled a couple hundreds from his wallet and handed them over.
Michaelson grinned and pocketed the money. "I'll be in touch."
The door closed. Heero stared thoughtfully at after the other youth. He thought again about Duo and Duo's reaction to his question about dreampuff. His phone rang and he pulled it from his pocket.
Irritation was his immediate reaction to the high, light voice. "Relena," he replied flatly. "How did you get this number?"
"Where do you think I got it, silly?"
"What does my father want?"
"We want to remind you of the reception on Colony Alpha Gale. You said you would come, remember?"
"That was three months ago," he reminded her, "and I said it depended on my schedule."
"Heero, you have to come! The governor has a son just your age who's involved in the colony's main manufacturing program. Your father wants you to cultivate his acquaintance. Alpha Gail is strategically located to L2, and you know there's been trouble there. We need their cooperation."
"Relena. I can't come. My father can handle this perfectly well without me. Himura can stand in."
Politics was bread-and-butter to Relena Peacecraft, a princess of the blood and a rising star in the UESN's diplomatic circles. Under other circumstances, Heero might have found her admirable, except for the fact that the Peacecrafts were old family friends and he knew her too well. It had been a fond dream of their fathers that Heero and Relena should marry when they came of age. In that, too, Heero had proved a sad disappointment to his father. He could vividly remember their last discussion on the subject.
"Heero, this is ridiculous! How much longer do you intend to carry on with this rebellious adolescent nonsense? You have a duty to your name and your position. You are a Higurashi!"
"Relena," he said now, keeping his voice calm and even, "I'm sorry. I have to work next Saturday and won't be able to come to the reception. Please convey my regrets to Father." He hung up on her sputtering.
Damn it! Now she knew where he was. Even if he had liked women in that way, Relena Peacecraft annoyed the hell out of him. She had a Machiavellian streak a mile wide and there wasn't much she would not do to get her way. Most of the time, those lady-like wiles were exercised for a noble cause; occasionally, they were not. More than once growing up, he'd discovered this to his regret. He would have to keep an eye open for her tricks between now and Saturday.
Duo arrived to find the house empty. He poked his head into his mom's room. She was asleep, a book in her lap. Her tray sat on the side table. Tiptoeing into the room, he picked it up and saw the soup only half-eaten. Heart sinking, he carried it down to the kitchen.
There was no sign of Charlie. Duo peered out the kitchen window, but the carriage house was dark and Charlie's Mercedes was nowhere to be seen. Hungry, he opened the cupboard, but the cereal he'd hoped to have was gone. He found the empty box in the trash and a bowl with traces of milk sitting in the sink. Rick, probably.
Duo had the money he'd won from Yuy. He could go out and get something, but his back and belly hurt like a sonufabitch where the whip had caught him. So he nuked his mom's leftover soup instead and slurped it down. He wrote a note for Charlie and stuck it to the refrigerator door. Then, washing up the dishes, he headed to his room.
Madison House had once been a nine-bedroom mansion. When his father and mother had bought it, they had remodeled it, making three apartments at the front of the house that they rented out to elderly tenants. The family had kept the back of the house for themselves and, for a long time, Duo's room had been on the second floor next to the room his mother had now. But after Marianne's heart attack, Charlie had kicked him out of it, claiming that his mom needed her own room now and that he needed to be near his wife. The only other bedroom was occupied by Rick and he'd had no interest in sharing. Therefore, Duo got the tower.
The tower stood on the east side of the house. Used mostly for storage, it was unheated and there was no air conditioning. Still, the stairs were steep, which discouraged visits from Charlie. So Duo had cleared out the top floor and found odds and ends in the rooms beneath to furnish it. In a pinch, and there had been a few pinches over the years, one could climb out the window and run across the roof for a fast getaway.
Duo switched on the battery-powered lamp on the stool that served him as a night-table. Settling cross-legged on his mattress, he gingerly peeled off his t-shirt. A raised welt, livid and bleeding sluggishly, circled his waist. He winced, touching it tentatively. The bastards!
Man. Yuy could fight! Shaking his head at the memory, Duo crawled to the foot of the mattress and opened the old sea-trunk. Inside was his emergency first-aid kit -- a necessity of life with Charlie Raskin. He took out the disinfectant wipes and some gauze and, matter-of-fact, set about dressing the wound.
It was hotter than hell in the tower, even with all three windows open wide. He got up and went to one, leaning out, careful not to lean on the welt. From here, he could see across the yard, over the fence and down the street to St. Jude's. Only the peaked dormers and high roofs of the school were visible behind its high wall. A light glimmered here and there on those upper floors. He could see the topmost branches of trees, their leaves thinning rapidly as autumn matured.
Once upon a time, he'd had dreams of going to St. Jude. That was before things had gotten too crazy and he'd left school. He'd had the grades, damn it, and the list of extracurricular activities. Writing had been one of his best subjects, too. Duo knew he'd have won St. Jude's scholarship essay contest. He imagined himself suddenly in the maroon uniform, walking down graveled paths with Yuy, books under their arms, heading for -- for fencing practice. Yeah -- fencing. Maybe they'd be roommates. Maybe they would...
"JEEZUS!" Duo turned away from the window and headed downstairs to sit with his mom. "Idiot."
Heero Yuy wheeled his bike to the gate of the big house and looked up the drive. The wide front porch was sagging a little, but otherwise the place looked in pretty good shape. There were three old women sitting on the porch, rocking and staring across the lawn at him. He pushed open the gate and came in.
"Hello," he called, stopping in front of the porch. "Is Duo around?"
"Oh, you're one of those charming young men from St. Judes!" cried one little blue-haired lady. "Are you a friend of Duo's?"
"How nice!" agreed another. "I think he's in the back, working on his mother's garden!"
"He's such a dear boy," agreed the third. Heero noted a martial glint in her eye, as if daring him to disagree.
"Thank you," he said and continued along the drive.
It curved around the house toward the carriage house at the back of the lot. A big Mercedes was parked in front of the latter and next to the Mercedes, a cherry-red pick-up truck. He remembered Jason's report. The pickup belonged to the son, the high school kid. No car for Duo?
On the outside of the drive was the wall; on the inside a low hedge closed off the back yard. Heero found a path through it. Most of the yard was a garden and in the middle of it, his back to Heero, was Duo.
The other boy's hair was in a ponytail today, looped up through the back of a baseball cap. God, he had a lot of hair! Duo's shirt was thrown over a nearby concrete bench and he was bent over a bed of tall, brightly colored flowers with feathery stems.
Some sixth sense made Duo straighten suddenly and turn. He stared across the garden at Heero, his arms full of flowers. His lips parted in a soundless O of surprise. The wind caught his ponytail, fanning his hair out behind him in a long, bright cloud. It was the most unexpected sight and Heero could only stand there and gape. Then: "Yuy?"
Duo set the flowers down carefully on the bench. He grabbed his shirt and, shrugging into it, walked through the flower beds toward Heero. He didn't look very happy. Heero saw him throw an anxious look toward the carriage house. The yard was backed by a row of ornamental trees, but the top windows of the carriage house were visible above them.
"I don't remember invitin' you over," Duo said, scowling.
"Sorry. I don't have your phone number."
Duo clenched his jaw and looked again at the carriage house. "Why'd you come?"
Heero shrugged. "To say hi. To see if you wanted to hang out, but forget it." He started away.
Turning around, Heero saw Duo's crooked smile.
"Sorry. It's just that -- my stepfather doesn't like . . . Ah, shit. Come with me."
Grabbing the flowers, and with another over-the-shoulder glance at the carriage house, Duo ran through the yard and through the back door into the house. Heero followed him to a small, shabby kitchen.
Duo said, "See that door? That leads upstairs to my room. Why don't you go on up? I'm gonna take these to my mom. I'll be there in a sec."
The steps led to the tower and the tower was stifling hot. Looking around, Heero saw no electrical outlets, no heating vents. He pulled off his uniform jacket and unbuttoned the collar of his short-sleeved white shirt. He was tempted to go back downstairs and wait in the relative cool at the bottom of the steps, but this was a perfect opportunity to snoop.
There wasn't much to see, as it turned out. Duo's bed was a single mattress on the floor and no place underneath to store anything. At the foot of it was a trunk. Inside he found a first-aid kit and several old scrapbooks with pictures of Duo as a small boy. Heero leafed through the pages, careful not to disturb the photos glued to the thick paper. Duo's mother looked a lot like Duo, small and delicate, with soft, bright hair and wide eyes. She looked extremely young. With her was a tall, handsome young man . They looked happy.
The trunk also contained several textbooks, some paper and notebooks. A casual glance through them made Heero's eyebrows lift. Duo was taking a correspondence course. He recognized the name of a well-known diploma-by-mail company.
There was nothing else of note in the room. Boxes against the curve of the opposite wall held a few articles of clothing, a couple of old children's books, a battered plastic truck and more photos, these loose on the bottom of the box. Most were also family pictures -- a few even older than the ones in the scrapbook. Grandparents, maybe?
One thing was notable in its absence -- any sign of drug use.
Footsteps on the stairs made him straighten and move quickly to the window, leaning out as if to catch a breeze. The door opened and Duo came in. He had a couple of soft drinks in his hand. "Here," he said gruffly, shoving one at Heero.
"No problem. You paid for it." That crooked, wicked grin flashed at him. "Fuck, it's hot. You want to get your ass kicked at pool again?"
Heero smiled wryly. "I can't afford it. I just wanted to get out."
"Kinda stifling inside the wall? C'mon."
Duo jumped onto the windowsill and out onto the roof. Heero followed quickly and, cold, wet cans in hand, they made their way across the slates. In the shade of the apartment building next door it was noticeably cooler. Duo sat down and had another swallow of his soda. From here, Heero saw Madison street, crowded with afternoon traffic. In the distance were the walls and towers of St. Jude.
"What's your major?" Duo asked, staring at it, too.
"Forensics," Heero said before thinking.
"You wanna be a cop?"
"Yeah." Kuso! Whatever possessed him to say that? Why hadn't he said pre-med or something? "What about you? What do you want to be?"
"Me? Heh." Duo's mouth twisted and his eyes seemed to turn inward. "Alive, I guess."
Heero stared at the downbent head, the long fingers that loosely clasped the drink can. For the first time, he noticed the shadow of a bruise on the corner of that long, expressive mouth. He thought about the half-finished schoolwork carefully tucked away in the trunk.
"Ever think about going back to school?"
"Yeah. Someday. When my mom gets better." Duo crumpled the can and turned a sunny grin on Heero. "But hell -- who knows what's in store, right? Maybe a rich relative will die and leave me a million bucks!"
Heero shook his head. "Got any?"
"Rich relatives? I wish. Nah -- my folks eloped and got disowned or something." Duo shrugged and lay back on the warm roof, arms behind his head. "Anyway, a guy can dream, right?"
"It makes more sense to dream about something practical."
"Then it's not a dream, it's a plan! Doncha know the difference?"
Heero opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked down at Duo who winked. "Loosen up, Yuy. Life is short."
"It's not that short." Heero should be trying to get information about Raskin. Instead, he was drinking soda on the roof with a suspect in a drug case, trying not to stare at the suspect's long, slim body or the rich gleam of silky hair spread across the dark slates.
Heero suddenly realized what else he hadn't seen in the seventeen-year-old's room -- girlie pin-ups. Don't go there, Yuy. This is work.
But Heero Yuy was only a year older than Duo and in spite of his meditation and breathing exercises and good sense, had as many rambunctious hormones as any eighteen year old male. Now, for reasons that completely escaped him, he found himself powerfully drawn to this attractive, sensual -- and probably criminal -- boy.
"This is a great house," he said finally, because what he really wanted to say was out of the question.
"I know. I love it." Duo sat up, pulling off his baseball cap. Hair went everywhere. Heero had to clench his fist to keep from reaching for it. "Didja know a computer pioneer used to own it? He used to own all this land around here. Later on he built the Dean's house in St. Jude's."
"Randall Madison," agreed Heero.
"Yup. When my folks were remodeling this place -- turning it into apartments -- they found an old journal of his."
"Really? Where is it?"
The smile vanished. Heero watched Duo withdraw. "Raskin sold it to some collector."
"You don't get along with your stepfather, do you?" Heero guessed.
Duo flung the can away. It hit one of the many chimneys and rattled down the slope of the roof to end in the gutter. "We get along okay," he said neutrally.
"What's he do?"
"Sells fancy imported shoes. It's a mail order business."
"What, the shoes? I suppose, if you like that shiny, pointy-toed crap."
Heero grinned at the derision. "I'm surprised you don't work for him."
"Charlie thinks I'm a fuck-up," replied Duo lightly. "Although sometimes he has me make deliveries when he's out of town or can't do it Anyway -- there's enough to do just keepin' up this place. It's two hundred years old, for Christ's sake."
Heero heard that with a sinking spirit. Did Duo know what he was delivering? Instinct told Heero no, the hapless young man hadn't the faintest idea.
Duo stood up. The sun had begun its dip behind Braddock's skyline. A breeze had sprung up, welcome after the unrelenting heat of the afternoon.
"Wanna get somethin' to eat?" he asked. "I'm gonna pick somethin' up for mom."
"What did you have in mind?"
"San Fu's. She likes Almond Chicken."
"Sure." Heero stood up, brushing off his slacks. He followed Duo back into the tower. "What's wrong with your mom?"
"Heart condition. She's not supposed to have any excitement, so she stays in her room mostly." Duo hesitated and Heero saw sudden shyness in those dark, violet eyes. "You wanna meet her sometime?"
The smile was quick and radiant. "Cool. San Fu okay with you?"
"Sweet! Hang on! I'm gonna go tell her what we're doin'. I'll be right back!"
San Fu's was a tiny storefront with a single table and two chairs by the window. It was crowded and noisy, with lots of cheerful shouting back and forth in Chinese. Heero let Duo plow a path through the jostling customers to the counter.
"Duo!" cried the elderly man at the register. "How are you?"
"I'm too fuckin' hot, Yong. How about you?
"Too fuckin' hot," agreed the man cheerfully. "What you boys want?"
Twenty minutes later, burdened with numerous fragrant bags, the two boys escaped back out onto the street.
"Is there anyone around here who doesn't know you?" Heero asked, amused.
"So I have a big mouth," Duo retorted airily. "C'mon. Let's get back before this stuff gets cold."
Thankfully, neither Charlie nor Rick were around when Duo and Heero returned from San Fu's. The van was gone, which meant one or both were probably making deliveries. Relieved, Duo unpacked their food, ordering Heero around the kitchen to get plates, silverware and a tray for his mom.
"I'll carry it," Yuy offered when everything was arranged. There was an expression on his face that made Duo want to know what was so funny. "Nothing," Heero replied. "I think it's nice that you're so thoughtful of your mom."
With the glow from that to lift his steps, Duo muttered something derogatory and let Heero take the tray. The college student followed him up the stairs to the second floor. Duo knocked and heard his mother's soft response. He opened the door.
She was sitting up, smiling. While they'd been gone, she'd put on a frilly blue robe and brushed her hair, tying it back with a blue ribbon. Her eyes rested on him, warmly smiling, before moving to Heero.
"Mom, this is Heero. Heero, this my mom, Marianne."
Heero set the tray down on the table beside her and bowed in traditional Japanese courtesy. "I'm honored to meet you, ma'am," he said in his soft, deep voice.
"Duo says you go to St. Jude's."
"Yes ma'am. I'm a freshman."
"Please, do sit down."
Duo's heart was thumping anxiously, wondering what Heero thought of her. Did he see the same gentle, kind woman that Duo did?
"Thank you." Heero sat. Duo went to the window and drew the curtains closed against the dusk. He was momentarily transfixed by the reflection in the glass of his mother, like some fragile fairy queen and Heero, dark elf prince, before her.
They talked of inconsequential things, the weather, the garden, and to his embarrassment, Duo. Duo finally had enough of that. Under the pretext of scolding his mother about eating, he shoed Heero out.
"You quit school to take care of her, didn't you?" Heero said when they'd returned to the roof. "She doesn't know, does she?"
"No. And I ain't tellin' her. She'd feel guilty and get all upset and have another damned attack! Don't you ever tell her, okay?"
"Okay then." Duo frowned.
They ate in silence as the streetlights went on and, overhead, lights came on in the windows of the apartment high-rise. The breeze was stronger and cooler. It carried the smell of rain to mingle with the stink of exhaust and hot asphalt. Duo lay back, stuffed. Too bad the money was almost gone. It had been great to eat whenever he wanted.
"What are you thinking?" Heero asked suddenly.
Startled, Duo glanced up. Yuy was sitting, his shirt unbuttoned, long legs stretched out before him. He was staring off across the yard and out into the street. A gang of shouting, laughing kids walked past on the sidewalk. Someone kicked a bottle and added the tinkling of broken glass to the rough music of the slum.
"I'm thinkin' that I had fun this afternoon," Duo replied.
"Yeah. Me, too." Heero was silent a moment. "You know a lot of people," he observed, "but you don't have many friends, do you?"
"You're a weird guy, Yuy. Anyone ever tell you that?"
Duo laughed and sat up. "I'll bet, but you're right. Charlie never liked me to have people over. He said my friends were too noisy and upset mom. After I left school, well..." He shrugged, feeling the ache of that loss. "It's okay. I've got too much to do anyway. There are all kinds of things I shoulda done today instead of fuckin' around with you."
"Sorry. I don't want to get you in trouble."
He grinned. "Don't worry. I can take care of myself, dude."
Down on the street, Charlie's van appeared, turning into the drive. Another car followed. Looked like Charlie was gonna make some money tonight.
"Hn." Yuy stood up.
"Yeah." Heero looked down at him. The streetlights reflected off his eyes, making them silver mirrors. "What are you doing Saturday night?"
"Heh? Askin' me out?"
Duo's mouth dropped.
The tiny smile was back. "I'm giving a kendo demonstration at the school. Trying to raise interest in a kendo club. Want to come?"
Duo grinned. "Sure. What time?"
"Seven thirty. I'll leave your name with the gate guard."
"Cool! Kendo, huh. That's wooden swords, right?"
"Uh - right."
Duo got up then and walked Heero to his bike. The lights were on in the carriage house.
"Dedicated guy," said Heero, looking in the same direction.
Duo gave him a sharp look, but the handsome youth's face was as unreadable as always. "Yeah," he said shortly.
Yuy picked up his bike, nodded, and was gone, riding off into the darkness. Duo stared after him, then went back into the house. He stood a moment, undecided. There was the drawer of Mrs. Allen's sitting on the workbench in the basement, waiting for him to put on a new handle. Instead, smiling suddenly, he ran upstairs and knocked gently on his mom's door.
He slipped inside and shut the door. If she was disappointed to see him and not Charlie, it didn't show. Her smile wrapped Duo in warmth and acceptance.
"So," he said, bouncing to the side of her bed, eyes shining. "What did you think of him?"
Heero stood at the diamond-paned window of his small dorm room and looked out over the sculpted, manicured laws of St. Jude's. From here, he could just make out the top of the high wall through the trees and, beyond, the upper floors of the Morrisey.
He had come so close to grabbing the long-haired boy tonight and kissing the hell out of him. Even now, he could see the elfin creature sitting on the slates, knees hugged to chest, laughing, big eyes sparkling in the lurid sunset. How did such a creature survive in the ugly squalor of the Sink? Duo had a freshness that was wholly appealing, an innocence.
Even as he thought that, Heero laughed shortly. Duo wasn't innocent. He swore like a sailor, fought like a tiger, and, if Heero's partners were to be believed, colluded in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs.
And yet -- in a way, he was innocent, Heero thought reluctantly. There was a freshness, a joy of life and an unfeigned fascination with the people around him that gave the slum boy an inner light. During the course of their day together he had endlessly entertained the Japanese youth with his observations and opinions. And always, with a very few exceptions, it seemed Duo found something of value in everyone he met.
Heero went back over their conversations, ostensibly to see if there had been a hint at criminal activity. He could not recall any and, in fact, suspected that somehow, he'd actually revealed more information about himself than he'd intended. Outgoing people always disconcerted Heero, even as he secretly envied the self-confidence that allowed them to so easily attempt to breach others' defenses.
"So you don't like your step-dad either?" Duo had asked during a discussion of relatives. "I liked my stepdad fine," Heero had replied. "It's my dad I can't stand."
"My dad was great." Duo's eyes had gone soft and sad. "Greatest guy in the fuckin' world."
Lucky you, thought Heero, turning away from the window. Even today, five years after the fact, he could see his father standing behind the great, shining desk in the study of the Monaco penthouse, interrupted from his work and furious.
"You're going to what? Be a what? Don't be stupid, boy! You've been groomed to take your place in politics and that is exactly what you will be doing!"
Wrong, Father. I will do what I wish. You may have bred me to be you, but I am not!
The phone rang. Jerking himself from his reverie, Heero answered it. Johnson's voice was cheerful. "Hey, hotshot! How's school?"
"Right. We've given up on gettin' into the House -- they ain't takin' new tenants -- so we'll be in the ratty old van behind it, right next to Ling's Noodle Shop. Stop by sometime when you get sick of dorm food and I'll treat ya."
"I hate noodles," said Heero.
Duo picked up twenty bucks helping Mike fix the beer tap behind the bar at the Dog. He used it to buy a real button-down shirt for Saturday's kendo match. Too bad he didn't have a suit coat.
It seemed as if Saturday would never come. Duo worked frantically to get all of his chores done so Charlie would have no excuse to prevent him from going. Not that Duo would listen to the bastard if he did! The boy was determined to go to the kendo demonstration.
He told his mom about it, of course, and she was appropriately excited. Now he ran to her room in his new finery. She was sitting up, reading. Her eyes brightened at the sight of him. "Oh, sweetie! You look so handsome!"
He grinned, spinning for her.
"You really need a suit coat."
"Yeah, well! Heaven 't got one." Duo shrugged, gesturing to himself. "I was thinkin' -- the casual academic look, right?"
"It's too bad your brother is so big. He's got some lovely jackets."
She straightened. "Have Charlie give you some money for one," she ordered. "I'm sure there's enough left in the household mad money. Mrs. Allen told me you'd fixed her cupboards. That saved a bundle!"
"Okay," Duo said, forcing his smile. "I'll ask him."
He did nothing so stupid, of course.
Saturday rolled around and with it, finally a break in the weather. A strong wind blew in out of the southwest, sending litter flying. By evening, it had changed directions, coming from the north and bringing with it a damp, chill bite.
At seven, Duo dressed, excitement rising -- and apprehension. Would people talk about him behind his back? Would Yuy remember to tell the gate guard he was coming?
The boy looked critically at his reflection in the tower room's speckled old mirror. It stared back at him, unwontedly solemn. Nervously, he adjusted his collar, wishing he at least had a tie. Oh, well.
Clattering down the stairs, he burst into the kitchen, only to find Charlie and Rick there, standing by the counter, going through a carton of ice cream. Charlie looked around and scowled while Rick whistled mockingly
"Where the hell do you think you're going?"
"Out," said Duo. They were standing between himself and the kitchen door.
"No, you're not," Charlie replied shortly. "Rick and I are going to the football game in Braddocksville. You stay here with your mom."
"I already talked to mom about this," Duo retorted. "I've asked Mrs. Allen to look in on her and she said it was okay."
"You don't be bothering our tenants with that kind of responsibility," snapped Charlie. "Your duty is to watch your mom."
"Hey! I watch my mom all the time." Duo saw his much-anticipated evening evaporating like steam in a cold room. Anger and dismay beat in the pulse at his throat. "She's your wife! When was the last time you spent time with her, asshole? Or are we done playin' games and you're ready to admit you just stick around for the free rent and food!"
It was stupid. But he was so angry and so disappointed that Duo lost all common sense. "She sits up there day after day wishin' you'd just stop by and spend a few minutes with her, you cock-sucking scum, but you can't be bothered. Well, fuck you! You ain't my dad! You aren't even my boss, so kiss my ass!"
"You little punk..."
Duo ducked under the angry right hook and ran for the door, but Rick was there to block it -- a solid wall of bull-necked muscle. Even so, Duo managed to get a good solid punch to the ape's solar plexus, knocking the wind from him. A hand on the collar of his new shirt, dragged him back into the kitchen and Duo heard fabric rip. He was in for it now.
Duo became a ranting, flailing whirlwind of fists and feet, but was hopeless. Against both of them, he had no chance. Rick finally got him down, pinning him to the floor. Swearing, crying, Duo still fought and finally, the bigger boy slammed his head into the vinyl tiles several time, stunning him.
They got him up. Duo felt his new shirt ripped away, hearing buttons bounce across the floor. His head spun and his jaw ached, fear coiling in his belly. Rick hauled him over the kitchen table and held him down.
Reason returned, too late. Duo caught his breath, hearing the all-too familiar sound of Charlie unbuckling his belt. Then a cruel hand in his hair dragged his head back.
"Open your mouth."
Fingers gripped his jaw. He tried to pull away but Rick's hands on his wrists were like vises. In the end, he had to open his mouth. Charlie shoved a dishrag into it. Shit! Shit! It was gonna be bad.
The first blow left a ribbon of fire across his back. He clenched his jaw on the dishrag. Rick laughed. The next lash drove the breath from Duo's lungs. Heavy-handed, Duo's stepfather brought the belt down across his back again and again. Duo tried to be brave and not make a sound, but as always, he didn't have the strength. At the fifth blow, he screamed behind the gag and by the tenth, he was barely conscious.
They left him alone then to slid from the table and lie in a heap of shivering agony on the floor. He listened to them laughing, their footsteps receding. Finally he had enough strength to get to his knees. There he huddled, stomach churning from the pain, tears spilling helplessly down his cheeks. His new shirt lay on the floor a short distance away, in ribbons.
Sorry, Yuy. Guess I won't be makin' it tonight.
That hurt almost more than the beating. After all, he'd been beaten before, but he'd never been asked out by someone as gorgeous, smart or respectable as Heero Yuy.
He was such a loser.
Duo didn't come to the tournament. Heero watched for him eagerly between matches, but by the end of the evening there had been no sign of the other boy. Disappointed and a little angry, he decided it was for the best. Duo had been engaging his emotions in a way absolutely inappropriate to the efficient performance of his duty. Duo was a suspect, end of story.
He resolved to stay away from Duo, to do paperwork and help out the guys in surveillance. Subsequently, he presented himself at the van late Sunday morning. Ignoring his partners' inevitable, good-natured ribbing, he positioned himself in front of the array of video monitors.
Most of the cameras were aimed at the carriage house, but there was one fixed on the house. Heero found himself watching that one more than the others. He saw Charlie Raskin and his son coming and going. He watched a cab come and pick up one of the old lady tenants. He could even see Mrs. Raskin's bedroom window and the shadowy silhouette that was the invalid. There was, however, no sign of Duo.
Monday, his annoyance had faded and he talked himself into going to Madison House after all -- just to see what was up with Duo. It finally occurred to him that there might be a perfectly good explanation for Duo's absence. He arrived to find only one of the old women on the porch -- Mrs. Allen.
"I think he's here," she said. "Mrs. Raskin says he's feeling a bit under the weather, poor boy."
Heero almost left. Instead, he took his bike around back and, after some hesitation, telling himself he was concerned for Duo, picked the lock on the back door and let himself into the house.
Duo was not in the kitchen. In fact, it looked like no one was home. However much he wanted an explanation for Duo's failure to come to the tournament, Heero knew he might not have such a good chance again to look around. He spent the next half hour going through the house. He heard small movements in Mrs. Raskin's room, so he avoided that. Charlie's room was next door to hers, but Heero found nothing suspicious. There was a bag of pot in the kid's room. Heero left it. They were after bigger things.
He went to the tower finally. At the top of the stairs, he heard nothing, so he pushed open the door carefully.
Duo lay face down on his mattress, apparently asleep, but it was his back that made Heero freeze in the doorway, throat closing in horror. It was covered with swollen, angry cuts. Shocked to immobility, he stared. On the floor beside the mattress was a bottle of spray anesthetic, some aspirin and disinfectant. It looked as if the injured boy had tried to treat the wounds himself and given up.
As he stood, paralyzed, Duo stirred and lifted his head. Dull violet eyes met Heero's and held, uncomprehending. Then: "Yuy?"
That broke Heero from his bemusement. He shut the door behind him and crossed the room to the mattress even as Duo struggled to rise. "What the fuck?"
Dropping to his knees beside the bed, Heero gathered up the pitiful scattering of palliatives. All of it was over-the-counter medication and couldn't have been much help against the pain of that torn back.
"Who did this to you? Was it Charlie?"
Duo looked as if he was trying to work up a good rant, but in the end, hadn't the energy or will. He lay down again, lowering his head back to the mattress. "None of your business," he whispered. "Just go away."
"God! If he does shit like this to you, why do you stay?"
"Some -- someone's gotta take care of mom." A tear leaked from one shadowed eye. "And it's never been this bad... Jus' go away, Yuy! He's -- if he finds you here, I'll be in more trouble."
"His car is gone," replied Heero shortly. "And you can't take care of your mom like this, can you?"
He probably did, too. Heero could just imagine Duo struggling to get up, putting a shirt on over that mess on his back and forcing himself to show his mother a cheerful face.
"At least let me help you bandage the worst of these."
The boy pressed his lips firmly together and he blinked several times rapidly. "Why?"
There was nothing defensive or belligerent in Duo's voice; he sounded honestly bewildered.
Without thinking, Heero reached over and gently smoothed tangled chestnut hair from the high, pale forehead. "Shut up," he advised gruffly. With a fingertip, he wiped away the stray tear. The thin face crumpled and Duo turned it away.
"Okay," Heero heard, muffled. "Thanks."
The wounds were clean at least. Checking Duo's supplies, Heero shook his head. Leaning forward, he put his mouth against Duo's ear.
"I've got some stuff back at the college that's better than this stuff. I'll be back."
There was no answer. Heero left the house, jumping on his bike and racing back to St. Jude's. One of his dreampuff "buddies" hailed him. Reluctantly, he slowed and stopped.
"We're headin' into town in a little bit to score. Wanna come?"
Heero wavered. This was what he'd been waiting for -- a chance to meet their connection. Heero thought about Duo, alone and hurting in the tower.
"Shit," he said, "I can't right now. Next time, okay. Here." He dug into his pocket and dragged out a wad of bills. "Get me a couple grams."
"Sure thing!" The boy saluted with a grin and ran off. Heero kept going. Twenty minutes later, backpack over his shoulder, he sailed back through the gate to Madison House, waving at Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Green, circling the west wing. He'd left the back door unlocked. Running through the house, he took the tower steps two at a time.
Duo hadn't moved. He turned his head when Heero hurried in. His smile appeared, a shadow of its usual radiant self. Settling to the floor beside the mattress, Heero began to unload the backpack. There was more in it than first aid supplies. He hauled out bottled water, some fruit, some candy, a couple sandwiches from the vending machine. It had not escaped Heero's notice that he could count every one of Duo's ribs.
"What the hell?" Duo stared, wide-eyed, at this largesse.
"The food's a reward for your being a good boy while I fix your back," Heero told him.
"No kiddin'?" Duo laughed, then gasped.
Heero found the bottle of codeine pills left over from a bad sprain two months earlier. He shook out a couple of them and unscrewed the top of the water bottle. He poured water into the empty paper cup on the floor nearby.
"That won't make me go to sleep, will it?"
"Can't. Gotta take Mom her dinner soon."
"I'll do it."
"The hell you will!" Duo tried to sit up then. "What if Charlie sees you? And besides -- she's not expectin' strangers..."
"I'm not a stranger," said Heero shortly. "We were introduced, remember?"
Duo's lips trembled.
"I'll tell her we were out screwing around and you sprained your ankle. I'll do what I can to avoid your stepfather."
Heero helped him take the pills. "I'll wait for them to take hold," he said.
"This is real nice of you," Duo mumbled, closing his eyes. "I wish..."
There was a slow, sad curve of that long mouth. "Nothin'."
After awhile, Duo seemed to drift off. Heero went down to the kitchen to collect hot water and a couple of face cloths. Duo woke again when Heero returned. He mumbled something when Heero gathered up that mass of hair, pulling it out of the way. Then the young cop started in on the boy's raw back. He was as gentle as he could be, but he knew that it hurt. Still, as the codeine deepened its hold and the cool, antibiotic ointment Heero smoothed over the cuts eased some of the burning, Duo's slim, taut form began to loosen. Soon Heero was rewarded by a genuine smile.
"There," Heero said, rocking back on his heels. "Now we have to sit you up and I'll bandage you."
"Ugh. We gotta? I'm so comfort'le..."
Duo gasped when Heero lifted him to his knees. "Damn," he said, and grinned. "Those pills work."
"That they do," agreed Heero. "Can you hold your hair out of the way?"
The other boy grimaced but raised his hands and somehow kept his mane out of Heero's way. Heero picked up the roll of gauze and began to wind it around Duo's torso. It required him to move in close and he was acutely aware of the other boy. When he was finished, he fixed the tape firmly against Duo's breastbone and looked up. Their faces were inches apart. Duo's eyes seemed very large.
It was absolutely, unequivocally impossible not to kiss him.
There was a moment's still surprise, then Duo's lips parted under his. Belatedly, Heero came to his senses and drew away. His heart was pounding. From the expression on the other boy's face, Duo was equally affected.
"To feel better," Heero said lamely. "I - I'll go see if your mom needs anything."
"Okay," whispered Duo, touching his lips. He looked dazed, whether from the drugs or the kiss was hard to say.
Heero walked unsteadily down the tower steps, mind in a whirl. What the hell was he doing? He'd kissed a suspect! Baldwin would have him raked over the coals!
But -- Duo was almost certainly not involved in Raskin's dirty little business!
Fool! It doesn't matter! Duo is part of the investigation and lusting after him was extremely unprofessional.
Maybe he was losing his mind. Carefully keeping a lookout for Raskin, Heero ran through the house and up the stairs to Mrs. Raskin's room. He knocked and, at her call, poked his head around.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said when her eyes grew wide at the unexpected sight of him. "Sorry to disturb you, but Duo wanted me to check on you."
"No, it's all right." She pulled her robe together and absently smoothed her hair. "Come in, Heero. Where is Duo?"
"He twisted his ankle. I told him I'd bring you your lunch if that was okay."
"Is he all right? I haven't seen much of him these past couple of days. He rushes in and rushes out."
No doubt, thought Heero, letting himself into the room. Duo had probably been afraid that if he stayed too long, she might suspect something was wrong.
"He's fine. Just busy. What can I get you?"
She smiled. "I'm not very hungry, Heero, thank you, but if you have a moment, I wouldn't mind a little company."
"I'd be happy to." He sat down in the chair beside her bed and found himself pinned under a pair of unexpectedly sharp eyes.
"I'm glad you're Duo's friend," she said. "I've really been worried about him lately."
He frowned. "Why?"
"Because he's so lonely." She sighed, looking down at her hands. They were slender, almost translucent. "I don't really understand it -- he used to have so many friends. Some of them were not, maybe, as nice as I would have hoped, but at least he had someone his own age to talk to and to do things with. When he introduced me to you, I was so encouraged. You could be a good influence on the scapegrace." Her smile warmed him. No wonder Duo adored her, he thought.
She sighed then. "This is rough neighborhood. I've tried to bring him up the right way, but I got sick at the worst possible time, it seems. Young teenage boys are so impressionable. Much as I love this old house, sometimes I wish David and I had never come here."
"Why did you come here?"
"We were young and in love and a little bit rebellious." Her eyes sparkled briefly, remembering. "David thought it would be good for the area to buy a place here and fix it up, provide decent housing for some of the elderly residents. Then David died and there wasn't money to leave."
"What about relatives? Didn't you have family you could go to?"
A shadow crossed her face. "No," she said and, for a moment, he was reminded of Duo at his most obstinate. Heero remembered the pictures he'd found in Duo's room.
"But what about you?" she asked. "Duo says you're studying forensics. You're going to be a policeman?"
He grinned at her. "I'll make a deal with you, Mrs. Raskin. I'll answer your questions if you'll eat lunch."
Her dark-violet eyes, so much like Duo's, widened. A smile of reluctant admiration lit her face. "You're a scamp," she observed. "All right. It's a deal, Mr. Yuy."
According to Duo, the right cupboard by the sink had Mrs. Raskin's food. She was on a special low-sodium diet. He warmed a can of soup and buttered a piece of bread. Taking an orange from the supply he'd brought from St. Jude's, he returned to the bedroom.
She ate and asked questions, some of them good ones. Heero was hard put to hold to his cover. A half hour later, when she was finished, she smiled at him again. "You're a good man, Heero Yuy," she said. "Please take care of my Duo."
He stared at her, chilled by something in her soft voice. "Ma'am?"
But she only shook her head wearily. "He needs a friend so desperately," she said. "I know he and Charlie don't get along. If it weren't for me, Duo would probably have left here a long time ago. It's horribly selfish of me to hold on to him the way I do, I know, but -- he's so dear to me. Thank you for bringing me lunch, but I'm tired now."
"Of course." Heero rose with alacrity and took the tray. "There's nothing else you need?"
Mrs. Raskin shook her head, leaning back into her pillows.
What will happen to her, he wondered suddenly, when we arrest her husband?
Duo was asleep when Heero returned to the tower. The Japanese youth sank cross-legged to the floor beside the bed and stared at him. Long hair spread like a veil across his bandaged back, spilled in silken profusion over the threadbare sheet. If Heero and his fellow cops had their way, Duo's world, too, would be shattered. It left a foul taste in Heero's mouth.
Wind rattled the tower window. Heero looked up and stared, unseeing, through the dirty glass. Outside, the sky was gray, lowering clouds racing across the autumn sky. Baldwin was already beginning to ask impatient questions, wondering what was taking Heero so long to get into Raskin's sphere.
What if he took Duo into his confidence? What if he told Duo who he really was and what he was doing? Surely the other boy would leap at the chance to be rid of his stepfather. Yet even as he thought it, Heero knew it would never fly with the brass. He looked down at the sleeping youth. He thought about Mrs. Raskin.
Damn it! Why do I have to care?