'...like an angel, walk like an angel, talk like an angel... but I got wise...'
Trowa had called him crazy when he had first suggested it. In retrospect, Heero had to agree he probably was. Still, he had made the choice and he was not about to back out. The old sedan was not that old, and the air-conditioning still worked reasonably well - for Massachusetts. Not even an Ohio summer was going to ruin this trip. His vacation was going to be a good one - even though much of it would be spent on the road.
His plan was simple enough; follow the interstates all the way from Boston down to Arizona. That route ought to bring him there with the utmost efficiency - and preferably in the shortest time possible. His destination certainly took precedence over sightseeing along the way.
Heero glanced over at the passenger seat, took note of the artifacts lying there and snorted to himself, making a bitter smile. He recalled how he had frowned at Joan and Harvey when they gave him those things on his last day at the store. It was meant as a gag gift, but the roadmap Heero figured could prove useful. The compass he was less sure about. Even so, he had folded out the map before he left Boston and drawn a line with a thick, purple marker pen along the interstates leading him almost across the continent, winding steadily southwest.
'For when you get lost', they'd said. Heero had frowned at them. Like he could get lost, given how he planned to follow clearly marked highways at all times.
He should have known. As they say, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Nor did his sense of direction survive Ohio. Suddenly, all the jokes at the state's expense seemed less funny. Perhaps it was a cursed place.
He had left Boston a bit behind schedule, courtesy of a few last minute items he'd forgotten to pack. Trowa had told him to prepare for all eventualities. Knowing his friend, Heero consequently opted for an extra suitcase, keeping one set of clothes ready to face Alaska rather than Arizona. He'd tossed in two pairs of swimming trunks too, extra towels and even a thin grass-green plastic sheet. His budget depended on cheap lodging underway, and he wasn't about to trust those establishments to stick to strict codes of hygiene.
Westbound on I-90 he had made good time, barely taking a breather to stop for the occasional refill of fuel - be it for the dark blue sedan or himself. Evening had set in by the time he reached Ohio, and after more than ten hours on the road, weariness had seriously grown on him. He'd pulled off the interstate and found himself a nice bed and breakfast at the coast of Lake Erie.
The bed and the breakfast were pretty much in the same class.
At least it was cheap.
Not staying for seconds, Heero had left the B&B around nine and headed back to the highway. He reached Cleveland quickly enough, but that was also where his troubles started. His roadmap proudly proclaimed how he was to follow I-71 out of town and head southeast, aiming for Columbus.
Unfortunately, Heero had misinterpreted a roadsign and made a turn too early, leading him to head south down I-77 instead. While suspicious of his error, he didn't acknowledge it until he reached Canton an hour later. After a pit-stop and some growling, he had checked the map and decided to seek out the thin, grey line out of Canton that seemed to lead him back towards the thick, purple line of the interstate.
The plan to head west along that road might have worked - if he hadn't made a blunder once he reached the city of Wooster, soon enough bewildered out on a yet smaller road, heading southwest.
Again, it took a while for him to notice. He passed through some place the signs barely identified as Loudonville by poorly maintained roadsigns. Foolishly, he ignored the voice in the back of his mind urging him to stop and ask directions and opted to stay on the current road rather than tempt fate with another try at reaching the purple line.
After all, the compass said he was heading southwest, and it appeared to be the right direction for Columbus. It would just take him a while longer.
The way every community Heero passed seemed smaller than the last didn't encourage him. The road he was currently on didn't appear to be on his map at all. The landscape grew ever more rural, albeit farming fields at least suggested he was still close to civilization - or whatever you call rural Ohio. After overtaking his third Amish carriage in ten minutes, Heero started to wonder if he was even within ten miles of a lightbulb anymore, short of the headlights of his car.
The medieval condition of the road and the suppressing speed limit was getting to him - but he was not about to challenge either. The first could wreck havoc on the sedan, and he had no intention of spending the night in an Ohio jail cell after getting caught violating the latter.
Coming over the next hill he slowed down, taking note of a pedestrian along the road. She had apparently heard the car, since her thumb was already up - albeit, she kept on walking ahead without turning around. Heero glanced at the map in the passenger seat, sighed to himself. Perhaps it was time to swallow his pride and ask directions. Stopping to ask a hitchhiker felt less inconvenient than overtaking a horse buggy and ask for the fastest way back to the closest metropolis.
He slowed down. The shift in engine sound was enough to make the hitchhiker pause and look. It was about then it truly dawned on Heero the girl in cut-offs and T-shirt wasn't a girl at all. The long, brown braid that snaked down over his backpack had tricked Heero at the first distant glance. Judging from how the skinny guy's face appeared trapped between that of a boy and that of a man, he couldn't be out of his teens yet.
Heero shrugged. Not that any of that mattered. He shut down the stereo, cutting Elvis off, hit the switch for the power window to lower the glass on the passenger side and slowed the car to a complete stop.
The young man leaned down to peer inside, his expression mimicking the yellow smiley at his chest. He rested his hand on the window frame, and the brim of his cap butted against the roof.
"Where to?" Heero casually asked. He wasn't about to admit he was lost right away. Perhaps he could work his way around it, somehow.
The young man appeared to think it over for a second. "Where are you headed?"
Heero made a mild frown, not sure how to take that question. "Out of state," he answered truthfully enough. The details were of no importance to this stranger.
The baffled expression and the big grin suggested they did. "Seriously?"
So did the hitchhiker. "Then that's where I'm going."
Heero's frown shifted towards a scowl, and he could feel the hairs at the back of his neck bristle. He hit the switch for the power window and put the car in gear.
The man's grin vanished instantly, but he kept his hand on the window glass as it rose. "Hey, hey, hey-"
Heero gave the man his best glare. Joan had once berated him how that could scare away any troublesome customer - as well as any others at the store. He'd told her that was why she and Harvey dealt with the customers instead of him. At least inventory and accounting books weren't as easily intimidated by a scowl.
The hitchhiker sighed, pulled his hand back as the last half of the window went steadily up. "Fine, go," he stated sullenly and took a step back. "Just... Look, you're the third one today that has brushed me off and driven away. Could you at least tell me what I'm doing wrong here? It's the thumb I'm supposed to use, right?"
At but a finger's width gap left, Heero let go of the button, taking some pity on the guy. Still, he remained wary. He kept his eyes peeled and his foot on the gas, just in case. "You're too eager, that's why."
"You're too eager to get into the car. What you just said - it made you sound like a carjacker."
The way the man gaped suggested that thought had never occurred to him. Not an experienced hitchhiker, then. Heero would have thought differently; the way the fellow had fooled him had undoubtedly worked earlier that morning too. Perhaps the others had taken off once they realized he was a man, not a woman. Heero didn't know - and didn't care.
The guy cursed and clenched his fists before looking away, sighing. "Okay... Thanks, pal. Sorry to have bothered you." Keeping his eyes on the man, Heero nodded. He was about to push the button again when the hitchhiker looked over his shoulder. "I'm not, you know."
Heero cocked his head, studied the guy with curiosity. "Not what?"
"Not a thief." He turned around. "Do I look like a thief?"
Heero gave him a quick once-over. Indeed, the skinny guy did not. The Levis cut-offs and the black cotton T-shirt with the chipper yellow face didn't make him look particularly intimidating. The dark sunglasses tucked over his forehead, right under the brim of the black cap, made the hitchhiker look more like a goofball than a criminal. The small, dark green backpack wasn't exactly something Heero thought a felon would carry, either - but then again, how many thieves other than the occasional pickpocket or shoplifter had he ever encountered? "Well, you do wear black," he finally answered.
The man tilted his head, gave Heero a glance, then looked down at himself and chuckled. "Okay, I'll give you that much - but I'm not a thief, and I'm not a goth or a satanist, either." Brief pause, straightening up, arms akimbo. "Look, I'm not armed or anything. Hell, you can frisk me if you want, I'm clean. I'm not carrying." Flash of a grin. "Well, I've got a Swiss army knife in my backpack somewhere, but that's all."
Heero hesitated, his finger on the button. He considered closing the window and driving away - except, there was another matter he'd almost forgotten - and this guy found just the right time to remind him.
"You're not lost, are you?"
Heero clenched his teeth, loathed to admit it outright. "Why do you ask?"
"You don't have Ohio license plates, that's all. I mean, Massachusetts, all the way out here?"
Heero's one-handed grip on the steering wheel tightened, and he stared down the road, expecting to see a buggy come over the hill any minute. "Where were you headed?"
"Where were you going? I can't imagine you'd start walking unless you had a destination in mind - something closer than out of state."
There was a soft chuckle. "Goes to show how little you know me..." the man mumbled. "Well, for starters, I was heading for a city a bit down the road. Place called Mount Vernon. Was told there'd be a bus depot there."
Heero nodded. "Fine. I can give you a lift to the bus depot, if you help me find the fastest way to Columbus."
He was met with a grin. "You got a deal."
Again, Heero gave a curt nod. Heero moved over to unlock the passenger door. The hitchhiker opened it and quickly took off his backpack. Heero folded the map together and put it and the compass on the dashboard, allowing his passenger to sit down. The bag went between his legs. Heero gave him another distrustful glance, but a deal was a deal. "Fasten your seatbelt," he cautioned.
The man did as ordered. "Okay - first things first. From what the bus driver told me, this road will take you first to Mount Vernon, and from there you should easily find your way to Columbus. I'm hoping to catch a bus heading that way, actually."
Heero had already begun driving, making reasonable progress amidst the wheat and corn fields, the occasional grazing cow or sheep disturbed sufficiently to look up from their patches of green. "The bus driver?" he asked, curious.
He nodded. "Yeah. I was on a bus heading south, but it broke down back there, outside some place called Jelloway. The bus driver called for a tow truck, but it could take all day before it showed up. Given that I was the only passenger left, the driver didn't really have much to offer me. I could have stayed around, but that wouldn't exactly have gotten me any further. He suggested I walk to the next town and catch another ride there. Got a refund on my ticket."
"Were you headed for Mount Vernon in the first place?"
The man shrugged. "Honestly, I didn't know where that bus was headed. Just got on the first, best bus this morning." Snicker. "Sure wasn't a Greyhound, though. Won't make that mistake again."
Heero frowned. "You're travelling without a destination?"
He made a saddened smile. "Kinda... Just... had to get away for a bit, that's all. Was thinking I'd see some more of this country." He turned to look at Heero. "Planned on getting to California, eventually." Sensing Heero was about to enquire further, the hitchhiker went on the offensive. "So, where are you coming from?"
Heero considered lying, but didn't see the point. "Boston," he answered truthfully.
The man grinned, gave Heero a once-over, took note of his beige slacks and crisp, white short-sleeved shirt. "Let me guess - MIT student, right?"
Soft frown, hard look down the road. "I didn't go to college."
"Really?" He shrugged. "Well, you still look like it." They passed another roadsign, fast approaching Mount Vernon. The man grinned as he read it. "Anyway - looks like you're heading for Academia now though, Boston."
Heero offered his passenger a glare after following his pointing, but he didn't comment beyond that.
Said passenger entwined his fingers, turned his hands around and cracked his knuckles. Heero winced. "So... Where are you headed after Columbus?"
"Flagstaff," Heero answered. "I'm going to visit some friends."
Disbelief came across the guy's face. "Flagstaff? Wait, you don't mean Flagstaff, Arizona, do you?"
Heero's jaw tensed up for a second. "Yeah."
That earned him a look of skepticism. "...and you decided to drive to Arizona?"
He quickly nodded. Heero did not want to go into details. Stubborn pride made sure of that.
Surprise shifted towards a grin. "I guess you must really like driving, huh?"
Heero flipped the stereo back on and focused on the road ahead. There were some things he'd rather not talk about - this being one. Having been called a fool by Trowa was bad enough. As for the passenger, he decided to deflect any further attempts at conversation. They would reach the bus depot soon enough - and then, he would be off to Columbus at best possible speed, alone. He had lost time to make up for.
Trowa was waiting for him - and Quatre probably even more so.
He would do well to avoid being labeled a missing person at this rate.
'We can't go on together...'
Mount Vernon turned out to be of a reassuring size, compared to the last few communities Heero had driven through. Grazing areas and wheat fields gave away to brick, concrete and pavement. It was good to see a city again - and other cars, for that matter. Even more comforting was the sign marking a road out of town headed for Columbus.
Heero had found the bus depot quickly enough and stopped at the gas station across the street, deciding this was as good a time as any to fill up. He had said goodbye to his passenger and watched him run off. Heero popped the gas cap, stepped out and fed the pump a couple of bills.
The car's hunger attended to, he decided to get something for himself. A quick trip into the station saw him return with a handful of candy bars, a couple of soda cans and four bottles of water. He wasn't all that hungry, but the sunshine was getting to him, despite the best efforts of the air-conditioning. He checked his watch. One thirty PM glared back at him in the LCD display. The cool nightfall was still a good distance away. Briefly, he considered the advantage of driving during the night rather than the day.
He had been a bit surprised to see the hitchhiker by his car again, leaning in against the hood, a shaky smile on his lips. "Uh - hi again."
Heero's brows furrowed slightly. "What, didn't you find a bus heading for Columbus?"
The young man scratched a spot at the back of his neck, stared into the asphalt. "Well... There'd be a bus heading there tonight, but..." He looked up. "Are you seriously driving all the way to Flagstaff?"
Heero gave a curt nod. He put the plastic bags containing his purchases down while he unlocked the car door.
"Uh - do you think - could I keep riding with you to Arizona?"
Heero had been about to pick up the bags, but the handles slipped out of his hand. He stared at the hitchhiker like he was crazy, then frowned. "Arizona isn't exactly a daytrip away," he stated.
The guy looked frustrated. "I know that - look, I wouldn't be a bother. I could sleep in the car, and-"
"I would not let you sleep in my car," Heero countered sternly.
"Fine, I'll pay for my own room at the stopovers." He paused briefly, looked at Heero with some concern. "You don't plan on spending nights at the Waldorf Astoria or something, do you?"
Heero shook his head. "I'm travelling on a budget, too. I was thinking of stopping at whatever motels I came across on the way."
The hitchhiker pushed away from the car, shifted his weight from one foot to the other and hesitantly looked at Heero again. "...so... can I go with you?"
This was certainly not in Heero's plans. He had no intention of being slowed down by some stray passenger. It was bad enough he'd lost several hours on the current detour. Still, he found the guy hard to refuse. The pleading, expectant expression on his face made him seem far more of a boy than a man, and Heero couldn't help but feel pity. He sighed in defeat. "I want to get to Flagstaff as quickly as possible," he started, giving the guy a hard look. "That means I'll be driving for as long as possible in a stretch. For instance, I'm still planning on reaching St. Louis today. I'm not going sightseeing or taking any unnecessary stops or detours, got that?"
Sensing he was winning, the hitchhiker grinned. "That suits me just fine. Can't wait to see California."
"And if you get on my nerves," Heero warned, "I withhold the right to toss you off at the nearest bus or train station - agreed?"
The chuckle was followed with palms momentarily raised in defense. "Hey, I'll be good - quiet as a mouse; you won't even know I'm sitting next to you." For emphasis, he made a jest of zipping his lips shut.
Somehow, Heero suspected that promise would be hard kept. Still, he felt sorry for the kid. There had to be a reason he wanted to travel across the whole continent - and Heero had to admit to himself that he was curious as to why. Plus, the guy didn't seem dangerous - but looks could be deceiving. He had already thought the guy a girl once, for instance.
The hitchhiker extended his hand. "So - we got a deal, then?"
Heero looked at the offered hand, at the man it belonged to. Hesitating for a minute, he met him in a handshake.
As soon as their hands parted, the guy was making his way around the car. "Great! Then, let's get a move on, Boston! Arizona is waiting for us!"
Heero unlocked the car, opened the door, gave a soft grunt. "My name is not Boston. My name is Heero Yuy."
The hitchhiker nodded. "In that case, glad to meet you, Heero. I'm Duo - Duo Maxwell." He made a mock salute, opened the passenger side door and ducked in as Heero gave a brief nod of acknowledgement.
Heero put his purchases away in the back, got seated and put the car in drive. Beside him, Duo was already unfolding the map. As the compass threatened to slide off the dashboard for the third time since it had been put there, Duo grabbed it and tossed it in the glove compartment, flashing another big smile at Heero. "Don't worry, Heero - I'll guide you safely all the way to Flagstaff. First, like the sign says, take the next road on the right. Looks like that's the fastest way back to the interstate. We'll leave Ohio behind in no time, you'll see."
Heero didn't quite share Duo's enthusiasm, but he made the turn as advised.
Columbus was calling.
'...you can burn my house, steal my car...'
"Okay, take the next exit on the right, towards Dayton. That ought to get us to Indianapolis, right along this purple line of yours."
Heero nodded and prepared to do as ordered. This way, they would skid the outskirts of Columbus and follow interstate 70 right into St. Louis, barring another refuelling stop. It was nice to be back on the right road. While there was the occasional Sunday driver to overtake, at least there were no horse-drawn carriages in sight. He stepped on the gas, bringing them to the brink of legality, if not a notch above.
"Duo?" he stared.
"Could you hand me one of the cans of Coke from out back? They're in one of the plastic bags behind my seat."
He grinned. "Sure." Duo hastily folded the map away and tugged on the safety belt to allow himself to lean over. The next turn caught Duo unaware, and he grabbed for Heero's seat for support, ending up with a shaky hold of his shoulder instead. "Sorry about that..." Duo made another attempt.
"Get one for yourself while you're at it," Heero offered.
Duo didn't have to be asked twice, sitting back up with two cans in his hands. He popped one and offered it to Heero. "Sure you can handle one-handed driving?"
He sounded off a snort. Glancing at the can, he took aim and grabbed it. "As long as the road is this straight, I think I can manage..." He downed a swig, glad at the sooth it provided his throat.
Duo snickered, popped his own can and raised it in salute. "And thanks."
Half a can later, Duo nodded towards a roadsign. "Looks like our exit is coming up."
Heero nodded in acknowledgement. "Roger that..."
Silence fell for a moment again.
"Just where do you come from? Cleveland?"
Duo shook his head and took another chug of his Coke. "Nope - Started out of Pittsburgh yesterday. Slept on the bus, switched when I got to Cleveland." He stopped after a single chuckle. "Looks like I wasn't quite awake when I did that, though. Sure didn't get aboard the bus to Columbus."
Giving Heero a quick glance, Duo's grin remained. "What, you got a problem with Pittsburgh, Boston?"
Heero return an equally brief frown. "What made you take off to see the US of A by bus?"
Duo stiffened momentarily, looked ahead on the highway and shrugged. "Woke up and wanted to see the world, I guess..." Before Heero could ask another question, he yawned loudly and elaborately, making a sheepish grin right after. "I'm still a bit tired - mind if I take a nap?"
Heero shook his head. He wasn't dumb, he could recognize avoidance when he saw it. Even Duo had to realize Heero pegged him for a runaway. At least he didn't seem like a thief - not that Heero was ready to trust this stranger. "No," he answered.
"Okay," Duo replied, reaching for the wheel to recline the seat. "Wake me if you need me, or when we reach Indianapolis."
Until the outskirts of Indianapolis, Duo's soft breathing made for a distraction. Heero gave him the occasional look, wondering just who he had picked up - and if he'd get rid of the extra passenger before Arizona.
At least, Duo hadn't been a big bother so far.
But the day was still young.
'...that's when those blue memories start calling...'
Half an hour of silence out of Indianapolis, Duo was getting progressively bored. He'd picked up a magazine from his backpack, but reading while riding in a car didn't sit quite right with his stomach, in the end. He put the magazine away and stared out at the traffic. He skimmed the signs as they passed while he picked at the edge of the map, rifling the pages.
That at least proved mildly entertaining, because he could see the faint twitch the annoying sound produced around Heero's eye. Even so, he didn't want to push it. Duo trusted his ride would make good on the promise of eviction if he became too much of a nuisance.
"So..." he began. "What's your friends like? The ones you're going to visit, I mean? Old friends of yours?"
Heero gave him a puzzled glance, unsure what Duo would possibly want to know that for. Idle conversation was not his forte. "I've known Trowa for as long as I can remember. He always seemed half a head taller than the rest of us, but that was because he had an early growth spurt. A real athlete, too - nearly all the sports teams at school wanted him, but he never took those offers. He shocked us all by taking music classes instead." He grinned. "He's a good guy - a bit reserved, but very determined when he knows what he wants."
"You went to school together?"
He nodded. "Right through high school. He went to college for two years, and after that, he moved to Flagstaff with his boyfriend."
Duo looked taken aback by that. "Wait - Boyfriend? You've got fag friends?"
Heero's grip on the steering wheel tightened, and he softly pushed his foot on the brake, slowing down. Thinking back to any number of fistfights he'd had at Trowa's side in senior year, he gave Duo a fierce glare. If Duo was of the same mettle as those guys... "Do you have a problem with that?"
Duo shirked back, put both palms up in surrender and formed a deflective grin. "Nope, no problem at all. I've got nothing against gay people, Boston." He chuckled softly as Heero's face mellowed down again. "I'm just not very PC, is all. Sorry, meant no offense."
After some consideration, Heero nodded at that.
Half a minute of eerie silence followed. "So... the boyfriend, what's he like?"
He started a quirky smirk. "Quatre... Quatre is... deceptive, you could say." He glanced at Duo, then at the road. "Well, he's devious, and he has this whole 'innocent' look about him - but he sure as hell isn't. He goes after what he wants too. Turned out he wanted Trowa. I'm not really sure which of them wanted the other first. I'm pretty sure Trowa chose the school band over the sports teams precisely because Quatre played the violin in the band."
Duo nodded sagely. "Or perhaps he wanted to avoid being chummy with a bunch of sweaty, naked guys on a regular basis."
Heero flagged a brow at Duo.
"Showers," Duo hastily explained. "Well, I figure that'd be hell for a horny gay boy, right? Watching a lot of naked straight boys and getting turned on, but not be allowed to show the hard-on that results in?"
Heero didn't speak, merely kept a curious eye at Duo. Was the guy fidgeting?
"Anyway - what instrument does Trowa play?"
"The flute," Heero casually mentioned.
Duo snorted a laugh.
He flashed a glare. "What's so funny?"
A broad grin met him. "Uh, nothing, nothing at all. Flute, huh? I'm sure he's pretty good at it."
Heero nodded. "From what I've heard, yeah. Quatre says he's got excellent finger control and just the right, soft blow."
At that, Duo couldn't help himself anymore, laughing out aloud, earning another glare. "Look, I'm sorry," he said as soon as he regained control of himself, "But did you hear what you just said? Think about it, Heero!"
He did. And flushed a bit as he tugged on a smirk again.
"I suppose you were Trowa's confidante too, huh? Sounds like you're his best friend."
Pausing for a moment, Heero followed up with a weak sigh. "I probably was - until he hooked up with Quatre, at any rate. A friend can't quite compete with a lover." He shook his head. "He never told me he was gay, though. I had my suspicions, but that's not the sort of thing you ask a friend about."
"...then how did you find out?"
He made a lopsided grin. "I walked in on them. Him and Quatre. I was over at his house to ask if he wanted to go see a movie. His parents' car was gone and the door was unlocked, so I let myself in. I figured he was in his room, deep in some book or another, like he usually was. Instead, I found him in the living room, on top of Quatre, engaged in a serious make-out session." Heero let go a singular chuckle. "They didn't even notice me until I made a fake cough. Then they sure did. Everything crashed down after that, since they both decided to go public."
"Were they tossed out by their folks?"
Heero shook his head. "No. They both have fairly understanding parents. I know Quatre's father is uneasy about the whole thing, but Quatre is his only son, and he's still proud of the man he's become." Pause. "Quatre's father runs a fairly sizable enterprise - that's why he and Trowa moved to Arizona. Quatre is showing off his skills at that branch of the family business in order to take over the whole thing someday. Trowa had to be at his side, of course."
Duo snickered a bit, but there was something fake about his mirth. Eerie silence returned for a few minutes. "Heero...?"
"Are you gay?"
At that, Heero's foot slipped off the accellerator. He gave Duo half a frown, put the hammer back down. "What are you getting at?"
He made a defensive grin. "Nothin' - I was just wondering, that's all. I'm not dumb, I know having gay friends doesn't mean that you're gay yourself, but..."
Three times during Duo's chatter, Heero had given him hard glances, finding it difficult to focus on traffic. "No," Heero finally answered. "No, I'm not gay."
"Ah," Duo tersely replied, considering his follow-up. "Got a girlfriend, then?"
Heero thought the question over, smirked to himself and shook his head.
"Really?" Duo answered, sounding surprised. "I mean, I would have thought the girls would have been all over you, 'cause you're pretty good looking..." His grin turned decidedly mischievous. "Or did your personality chase them away?"
Heero didn't dignify that with an answer beyond a weak grunt. He'd heard from several people that he came off as a bit cold; that you had to get to know him to see his softer side. Trowa had said it, Relena had said it, Quatre, Joan and Harvey had said it, all of them in different ways and magnitudes.
"Have you ever even had a girlfriend, Boston?"
Heero gave Duo a long glare, then focused his eyes back on the road where they belonged. "I'll have you know that I've had several girlfriends - and stop calling me Boston already."
Duo's smile suggested he wouldn't. "But not many, right?"
It dawned on Heero he was beginning to loathe his passenger. Quiet as a mouse, indeed. Worse, this mouse was good at picking him apart. "What's it to you, anyway?"
He shrugged. "I'm just curious, that's all. I mean, we still got a long road ahead together, so we might as well talk a bit, maybe get to know each other. It'll pass time. Talking is what people do, right?"
"So, tell me about them. Your girlfriends - I mean, your ex girlfriends."
Heero frowned and gave Duo another harsh look.
Undeterred, Duo pushed on. "If you'd like to, that is..."
Heero sighed and shook his head.
"Please?" Duo added in a quieter tone of voice. "I'm curious - and bored," he amended. "I'm sure there are some things you'd want to ask me too. You scratch my back, I scratch yours?"
There certainly were questions for Duo in the back of his mind, but pride intervened, not allowing him to disclose that information. Still, what harm could it do? "Fine," he gave in. "I'll tell you a little about my first girlfriend - Relena."
"Great!" Duo perked up instantly. For a second, Heero could have sworn the young man jumped in his seat. "What does she look like?"
"Long blonde hair, blue eyes, thin nose - an impeccable dresser, too. Unwavering determination, a real talent with words and people. She was the star of the school debate team - got them to the state finals twice. Her parents are well off, but like Quatre, she was sent to public school. I don't know why. I never dared ask."
"Rich, stylish and a good looker... Sounds like quite the catch."
Heero shifted his hands along the steering wheel, going for a lower, firmer grip. "I suppose you could say that - except, she was always the one going after me, not the other way around."
He nodded softly. "She had a crush on me since we were six years old. Being a fairly normal boy, I found that sort of attention incredibly embarrassing - I mean, she was a girl."
Snicker to his right.
"I never approved of her feelings back then - I kept rebuffing her advances, told her to get lost way more than once. A few times, I even threatened to kill her." He caught the look of surprise on Duo's face in the corner of his eye. "That usually happened after she'd caused me some real embarrassment because of her fawning. It just wasn't cool to be with girls when you were ten."
Duo smiled secretively. "Yeah, I know what you mean..."
"Anyway... We inevitably hit puberty, and she started evolving..." The word stuck in his throat. "...certain things," he compromised, "And I started having an interest in- in-"
"Certain things," Duo finished for him, chuckling all the while. "Sheesh, pal - you can say boobs." Grin closing on a leer. "Or are you more of a cunt man?"
Heero's face was warming up nicely, and without looking in the rearview mirror, he was pretty sure it showed, too. Trowa always pointed out that the funniest part about teasing Heero was the look on his face during and right after. "Now, that is none of your business," he answered irritably, cheeks turning ever more reddish.
"Oh, come on... Big tits, long legs - what's your favorite pleasure of the female body?"
Heero didn't dignify the question with an answer, but sensed Duo was still waiting for one. "What about you?" he asked in an effort to buy time - and to avoid answering.
Duo started to answer, but the words got caught in his throat. Instead he looked ahead into the dashboard, a sad smile forming on his face. "Well... I guess I'm more of an ass man, myself..." He made a quick glance to Heero at the impending silence and opted not to let Heero dwell on that for long. "So, what happened with you and the princess? I take it you got together?"
"Yeah, we did..." He sighed. "And then I suppose we grew up. She realized I wasn't the knight in shining armor she'd dreamt me to be, and given how we'd grown up together, I realized she felt almost like my sister, not someone I'd want to- to-"
"Fuck," Duo helped.
"Kiss," Heero substituted, the color of his cheeks not subsiding. Never mind how Duo's choice of words was closer to the truth - they had never gotten quite that far, though. "Relena and I broke up right before high school. Trowa keeps saying it was the biggest scandal of junior high, the one thing nobody thought could happen." He shook his head and gave Duo a quick look. "He's joking, of course. It wasn't a big deal, not even to Relena and me. We've remained friends since then. She moved to Washington for an internship last year. Haven't seen her too often after that."
Duo's whistle pitched steadily down. "Going up in the world, huh?"
Heero made a faint smile. "You could say that... I'm not sure if she's aiming for speechwriter or front-row politician yet. She could easily do either of those things - or both."
"Suppose I should remember her name, huh?"
He snorted softly. "If you ever read the name 'Relena Peacecraft' on a ballot, vote for her. She's good, hard-working and truthful. She's what all politicians should be like." He grinned. "I keep telling her that's why she won't become one. I've teased her about lacking the backbone for the dirtier plays in politics." Glancing at Duo, he kept the grin. "That's usually when she kicks me in the shin and tells me to shut up."
Duo started laughing. "Yeah, she sounds good alright..."
Looking down the road, Heero breathed out a mellow sigh. "She is..."
Duo gave him a moment of respite, but he was not quite done. "And the next?"
"Your next ex?"
"Oh... That'd be Evelyn. She was a bombshell. Brunette, dark green eyes, a bit on the short side with a compact but soft body... We didn't last more than two weeks, but she taught me a lot of things."
Duo made a big grin. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
He smirked. "I'll leave that to your imagination."
There was a flicker of brows. "Sure you dare to?"
"Can't be worse than reality." His leer almost matched Duo's. "After that, there was Rachel in junior year. She was Evelyn's opposite, in most ways. Curly brown hair, bright blue eyes, at least an inch taller than me. Really shy, awfully cute. Trowa set us up. We dated a while, but it never really got serious. Broke up sometime during spring." Heero shifted his hands along the wheel. "There were a few more, both during high school and after, but none of those relationships lasted." He shook his head, looked at Duo. "Enough about my past flings - what about you?"
Duo shrugged. "Not much to tell, really. Went on a few dates, got rejected a couple of times, got lucky on occasion... Kinda mean to say this, but there's only one girl I've been with that strikes me as worth mentioning."
"Hilde Schbeiker." Duo laughed a bit at Heero's expression. "Yeah, the name's a mouthful, I know. She's a great girl, though. Got a lot of spunk in her. My height, filled out in all the right places. Her eyes are almost a shade of purple - which is fine, since that's her absolute favorite color. She looks good in purple. Her hair is dark, almost black - looks kinda like yours, only a bit less messy."
Suddenly self-conscious, Heero ran a hand through his bangs and backwards. It was not his fault his hair didn't always cooperate with his intentions.
"We split up in junior year." Duo's grin saddened over before he raised the barricades again. "Guess you could say we found out we weren't meant for each other, after all. We stayed friends. Became a bit harder after I moved last summer, but we talk on the phone and online fairly often."
"And where does she live?"
Duo shrugged. "Well, her family moved too - I think she's somewhere in Oregon now, but she's applied for college. Bet she's gonna make it, too. Anyway, I-" He stopped short, looking ahead, grinning. "Look at that, Heero - it's a river! A big one! We've reached St. Louis!"
"So soon?" Heero checked his watch, seven thirty-three PM glaring at him. "This can't be right..." He looked ahead, swept across the horizon as they approached the bridge. "This is the Mississippi...?"
"Must be," Duo stated. "I mean, we headed right out from Indianapolis, and kept on going after that last pit-stop just outside town, and-"
Whatever he had to say next got caught in his throat, as he'd just caught sight of the sign welcoming them to Kentucky. Swallowing hard, he slowly ventured a glance to his left.
As they crossed the Ohio river, it was clear Heero had noticed, too.
Grinning sheepishly, Duo wondered if Louisville had any west-bound bus routes.
'I hitch-hiked all the way down to Memphis...'
"Again, I apologize," Duo began, his fifth attempt by now, the first four having gone unanswered short of Heero's sour face. "I don't know what happened - I mean, except for that brief stop after Indianapolis, we never drove off I-70. I don't know how we ended up on I-65."
They'd gone through a large cloverleaf and entered Louisville, upon which Heero had taken the first possible off-ramp and scouted for a place to park. They'd ended up near the riverfront before stopping. All the while, Heero hadn't said a word. His face spoke aplenty, though.
Heero had taken the map and studied it intently while Duo kept talking, very much worried of losing his ride westward. Using the magnifying glass attached in the square compass, he focused intently on Indianapolis. His expression shifted from discontent to indifference. He sighed, folded the map away, wishing he'd paid attention to the compass earlier. There was no way he would ever tell Joan or Harvey about this. "It's not your fault. You're right, we never left I-70 back there."
"I-70 became I-65 in Indianapolis. The roads merge when they pass through the city. We were supposed to have made a right turn somewhere in there to get back on I-70." After tossing the map and compass in Duo's lap, Heero leaned forward to tap his forehead to the top of the steering wheel repeatedly. "Fuck..."
"Uh..." Duo wisely began, unsure of what to say without risking his ride. Tentatively, he reached out for Heero's shoulder. "There, there... It's only a bit out of the way - there's an interstate heading west from here, right?"
Heero gave him a short-lived glare out of the corner of his eye before he slowly straightened back up. When he glanced at Duo's hand, it was hastily removed.
"Look, I'm sorry I missed the sign. I promised I'd be the navigator, but-"
Heero tentatively shook his head. "You were still groggy after your nap. Should have seen it myself."
Silence. "Well... Done is done, right?"
He let go a soft snort, started half a smile. "Unfortunately, you're right." He took a slow breath. "Well, I could use a break from the wheel. Hungry?"
Duo flashed a lopsided smile. "Gotta admit I'm tired of chocolate bars. We've been driving for... how long?"
Heero checked his watch. "It's been more than five hours since we left Mount Vernon. Did you have lunch?"
He held up a carefully folded piece of candy wrapper.
Smirking, Heero nodded. "Same as me, then. Definitely time for a good meal." He made a quick look around. "So, where should we go? There's a Subway over there, and I'm pretty sure we passed a McDonald's a block back."
Duo put the map and compass away in the glove compartment. "Well, given where we are, I suppose we should scout for a KFC joint - but I'm not really in the mood for chicken."
Despite his mood, Heero snickered.
"There's a diner over there," Duo said, pointing across the parking lot.
Heero squinted, a frown in close pursuit. The building looked like an oversized trailer, all the sharp edges smoothed away. More than anything, the shabby diner looked like a lost relic from the seventies. Apparently, the redevelopment project along the river hadn't quite reached here yet, judging from the ramshackle dark cluster of riverfront warehouses and storage tanks the place overlooked. "Sure that's even safe?"
He chuckled. "Hey, don't judge a book by it's cover, Boston."
Duo sent his seatbelt whirling up. "Yeah, I know. Come on - let's go, Heero."
Heero grabbed his arm when he was halfway out the door. "Fine, I'll come along - but I'm going to park the car where I can see it from a window, okay?"
He shrugged. "Just fine by me."
'...then one night in desperation the young man breaks away, he buys a gun, steals a car, tries to run...'
The window was crystal clear, easing some of Heero's concerns. Moreover, the sheer number of them along with the liberal lighting of the place made sure even the car out on the lot remained well-lit. Theft seemed unlikely.
Heero had half-expected the interior to be a smelly, stained grease-pit, with the wallpaper coming off the walls and clean air a rarity amidst the haze of cigarette residues. He'd been wrong. If anything, the tables, seats, bright green and white floor tiles and matching wallpaper were so scrubbed down it looked more like an operating theater - all the light and the waitress' anything but revealing uniform only added to that impression.
The place was also nearly devoid of people. After a look at the short menu suggesting a dependency on quick reheating, Heero surmised whomever owned the place kept open for business out of sheer tenacity rather than a wish for profit.
The radio on the shelf behind the counter was playing at a low volume, but the station was fond of easy listening music, and it echoed rather well in the open structure. It was distracting enough that Heero didn't catch Duo's order, but the strange look the waitress gave him made Heero wonder if Duo had asked for things far off the menu - fresh lobster perhaps, or Dom Perignon, or a can of instant noodles.
He quickly placed his own order and hoped the plate of ham, eggs and potatoes would look as appetizing in reality as the illustration photo. At least he could see a sample of the apple pie desert standing under a clear plastic tin on the counter, and that looked appealing enough.
Their drinks arrived first. Heero nodded contently as the waitress handed him his root beer, but caught himself staring at Duo's bland glass of water after his first sip. Still, he let it slide. Water is good for the body, there was no questioning that - albeit, he preferred something with more flavor himself. He had wanted tea, but doubted this place carried any of the sorts he preferred. It was better to play it safe.
They joked a bit about the interior, conversation soon enough drifting to the road ahead.
"I still want to reach St. Louis today."
Duo glanced up at the round clock on the far wall, shook his head with exasperation. "It's almost eight. There's no way we can reach St. Louis before midnight - not without some major speeding."
Heero shrugged. "We won't know until we try."
He grunted softly.
Further arguments were prevented by the arrival of their food. The waitress brought Heero's plate first - and at that point, his stomach took control of the rest of him. He wolfed down of the dish until the hollow sensation started to fade.
Pausing for a swig of root beer, he was about to tell Duo how great the ham tasted - only to feel his satisfaction fade at the sight of Duo's plate. He'd barely noticed the small salad, thinking it was an appetizer and not a main course - but judging from the tiny helping of fries and sausages Duo was currently picking at, he had to wonder. It looked straight out of the kiddie menu. The way Duo had all but drowned the dish in ketchup didn't help. For a moment, Heero wondered if Duo was a believer in the theory that anything is edible with enough mashed tomato covering the taste. Then he remembered the ketchup was free.
Done with his main meal, Heero shuffled his plates and brought up the apple pie. His fork made contact with the crust, but didn't cut in. Instead, he suddenly realized it had no counterpart at the other end of the table. "Aren't you having desert?"
Duo mopped up the last of the ketchup with a small chunk of sausage. "Nah."
His brows furrowed. "You mean, that's all you're going to have? A bit of greens and a helping of junk food?"
He scratched the side of his jaw. "Well... I'm just not that hungry," he excused himself, washing down the meat with water.
"We still got a long drive ahead of us. You really should eat-"
The mask of a grin disappeared in an instant, irritation fast replacing it. Duo sighed and dropped the fork to his clean plate. "Fine - want the truth? I'm trying to save money, that's all. I don't have all that much to start with, and if I'm going to afford those motel rooms, I figured I have to save my money where I could."
Heero cocked his head a notch, studied Duo's face for a moment. "Can't you call home for more money, or something?"
At that, Duo visibly cringed, hiding himself behind another helping of water.
Heero was not deterred. "Tell me the whole truth, Duo. You really are a runaway, aren't you?"
The close to empty glass hit the table a bit harder than intended and Duo immediately took to playing with it, balancing it off to one side, spinning it in circles, putting it upright only to tilt it again. It took a good five minutes before he finally met Heero's look, sighing as Heero's questioning mien remained. "It... depends. I'm over eighteen, so I'm an adult now. Plus, it's not like he'll even notice I'm gone - not until he realizes the trash isn't taken out, or something like that."
Heero leaned back, his face relaxing again. Perhaps he should just have gone on driving back in Ohio. Perhaps he should turn around now, with Duo - but that would be futile. Duo would in all likelihood not come willingly if he changed course for Pittsburgh now.
"I have an aunt in California," Duo pushed on. "That's where I was thinking of going. She'd probably take me in for a while. With some luck, I'll find a job, too."
Heero looked at his hand, his fingers still locked around the fork, albeit the utensil had broken crust and gone halfway down by now. He let it go, flexed his digits to work out the spasm. "...if you want, I can buy you a-"
"No," Duo quickly cut in, tone of voice not opening for negotiations on the topic. "I pay my own way. I insist - it was part of our deal, and I'm a man of honor." He flashed a grin. "Even if you aren't convinced just yet."
"It's no big deal, Duo. I-"
"Look," Duo started, exasperated. "I don't want charity, okay? So, can we drop this?" He paused. Worried Heero was about to argue, he added "Please?"
Heero looked at him for a bit, then caved. "Fine," he said, suddenly weary. He grabbed his fork, cut off a chunk of pie and shoved it in his mouth and chewed carefully.
Bliss. Courtesy of hovering above the grease pit, it was still warm. Soft texture, but not so dry it crumpled. It was almost as if this had actually been made at the diner, not bought from a bakery. Heero couldn't tell for sure.
He was halfway through before he thought he knew.
And then, he looked at Duo playing with his glass again.
With some effort, he swallowed down the piece in his mouth, glanced down at his plate - and put his fork down. "Well, I'm full," he announced, pushing the last bit of pie to the middle of the table. "Want the rest?"
Duo glanced at the pie, at Heero. "You sure? You seemed to enjoy that..."
He dared a smile. "I did - but I can't take another bite."
Scepticism gave way to a slight smirk. "Well, it'd be dumb to let it go to waste..." Duo reached for his discarded knife and fork. With precision, he cut off the sliver separating what Heero had already eaten from the section of pie that vanished down his own mouth in a matter of minutes.
It was with some sympathy Heero watched Duo carefully calculate a precise tip to leave, adding just the percentage courtesy demanded - even knowing it was probably more than he could afford, long-term. Duo's original travel budget had probably included both meals and bus tickets, but Heero suspected it had not included spending nights anywhere other than on a bus, or stretched out on a bench under newspaper blankets waiting for a bus.
Still, as long as Duo was determined to follow through with his independence, Heero did not feel committed to push the matter.
It was with quite some relief he drove across the next bridge, abandoning Kentucky in favor of returning to Indiana. From across two states, St. Louis was beckoning. From the speakers, the third companion to their travel party showed off his singing.
"Don't you listen to anything but Elvis?"
Heero's brows tightened, and he looked away from the road long enough to give Duo hard look. "Do you have a problem with the king?"
Duo shirked back a bit at Heero's glare, for a moment fearful he'd jeopardized his ride even more than before. "Well, no - I'm all for royalty and all, but... Don't you feel it's a bit monotonous?"
Heero gave Duo another glance, less touchy this time. He fought the craving to argue of how versatile Elvis' style was - the man made records for more than two decades, after all. Not too many contemporary artists could claim the same.
Instead, he decided to give Duo a slight reprieve. He reached for the controls and switched the radio on.
Half an hour and a very brief argument later, Elvis was back.
'...why am I so doubtful whenever you're out of sight?'
Since they left Louisville, Heero judged they had made decent progress. While their current goal was still far ahead, there wasn't much traffic, and with the sun having set, the air-condition system could even relax somewhat.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed how Duo kept a sharp lookout for every large roadsign they passed, determined not to lead them astray again. In a compromise, Heero had pulled out the empty ashtray and stuck the compass there, making sure they were still headed westward.
Then, he noticed Duo's head followed the large sign as they passed the exit it was there to inform about.
Duo quickly turned around towards Heero. "You missed it!"
Another quick glance after ensuring the eighteen-wheeler ahead of them kept a greater pace. "Missed what?"
"The turn-off," Duo explained. "There was a gas station there."
Heero shrugged, nodded towards the dashboard - in particular, the gas indicator. "We still have more than a quarter tank left. We'll get by. It'll last until the next gas station. Can't be that far off."
Duo's hands shifted somewhat in his lap, and he leaned forward, a grimace on his face. "The car might last, but I probably won't..."
Looking at his posture and taking in the sheepish grin, Heero realized what was going on, foot soon enough on the brake, slowing them down, the eighteen-wheeler disappearing in the distance. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Immediately on the defensive, Duo snapped back. "What, was I supposed to ask for permission to go pee, like I was some damn kid?!" At the slight pause and Heero's consequent look of disapproval, Duo stared into the dashboard and shook his head. "Sorry, it's just - sorry. The complimentary water got to me." His hands pressed even tighter against his crotch as he fought man's oldest battle against the forces of nature.
At a soft whimper, Heero groaned and swiftly slowed the car down to pull up on the shoulder. They came to a full stop near some underbrush. He nodded to Duo. "Go. I'll wait."
Duo eyed him suspiciously. "And just what's to stop you from driving away without me and taking my stuff with you?"
He snorted. "I'm not that much in need of a Swiss army knife," Heero started. "Want me to come with you, then?"
Duo didn't answer, but made a grimace.
"Want me to-" Heero started to repeat.
A desperate groan, clenched teeth and warm cheeks followed. "I can't go while someone's watching, okay?!"
Rolling his eyes, Heero quickly turned the engine off and handed Duo the keys, promptly depositing them in his crotch.
Duo looked down, then at Heero, disbelievingly.
"Go," Heero admonished. "I'll wait right here."
Thinking it over for half a second was more than enough. Duo pocketed the keys, unbuckled his belt, threw open the door and stormed out in the night, heading for the nearest patch of large bushes. Nightfall was a mixed blessing; while there was hardly a car passing by at this hour, the lack of lighting along the road made sure it was also a hazard to stumble about in the dark undergrowth.
It was with quite a bit of relief Duo shuffled his way back to the car.
Soft laughter ensued as Duo turned around to grab the seatbelt. "Yeah, lots. Thanks." He handed the keys back.
Accepting them tentatively, eyes lingering on Duo's hand, Heero voiced a concern. "You don't trust people much, do you?"
"And this from the guy who thought I was going to rob him blind if he let me get into his car."
Heero made a lopsided smirk. "Potentially, you still could."
"What, with my deadly Swiss army knife?"
"I still only have your word that you're not carrying something more dangerous."
Duo rolled his eyes. "Well, I offered-"
Quickly and curtly, Heero cut him off. "I know." Keys in the ignition, he went for a fast start. "If you're all done, can we go on now?" Not waiting for an answer, he pushed on. "Or should we plan for number two in the next few hours?"
Duo gave a slight grunt, looked away, face growing a faint flush. "...I suppose I could probably go for a soda or something in an hour or two."
Smirking, Heero met Duo's embarrassed look, then nodded. An hour or two from now would probably be a good time to fill up on gas too.
'If you lend me a dollar, I can buy some gas and we can go for a little ride...'
The release in the pump handle's grip clinked, signaling the tank was full. Heero gave the handle a couple of quick shakes as he pulled it out, then turned around to put it back on the pump. He read the display again, and shook his head at the gas price. He was not looking forward to the next bill on his gas card; it was not going to be pretty.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, he looked over the pump. "Finished?"
Duo met him with a line of a smile. "Yeah."
Heero nodded, glanced over at the service section of the gas station. "I think I'll get some snacks or something for the last leg today. You want anything?"
Duo shook his head, and as if on cue, his stomach chose to complain loudly. Grinning sheepishly under Heero's firm look, Duo hurried around the car, opened the door and sat down at the passenger side.
Heero slowly shook his head, screwed the tank lid back into place and closed the metal cover. On his way over to the service section, he made up his mind.
'...send to the store and let's buy some more...'
Duo was browsing a compact comic book when he got back, quick to put it away when Heero opened the door. "Help me out here, would you?" Heero began, handing him a half-full, sagging grocery bag. Duo took it and made to put it in the back. From the intermediate storage on the roof, Heero proceeded to hand him a six-pack of Coke cans, gaining a suspicious look in the process. Heero grinned and stood back up. Grabbing the last of his purchases, he carefully slinked down in the seat, then turned to face Duo.
Still holding the six-pack, Duo stared at him like he was nuts.
Then again, perhaps he was. After all, he was holding out four hot dogs with assorted levels of condiments. "You want one?"
Duo closed his eyes and exhaled out his nose. "Heero..."
He glared at Heero. "I told you, I can take care of-"
"Well, I'm only offering," Heero cut him off. "Besides, I can't eat all this myself."
"Then why the hell did you buy it?"
It was Heero's turn to look away and take a deep breath. "Look, Duo - I know all about pride, believe me. I know you're hating me right now for putting you in this situation, but would you think about mine for a minute?"
Duo's face made the epitome of a question mark.
"Your stomach," Heero indicated with a nod, "Do you have any idea how nerve-grating that tummy rumble of yours is? For the last hour, your intestines have driven me crazy!"
Duo's baffled expression quickly gave way to mirth and laughter.
Heero's lips curled into a satisfied smile.
Grabbing one of the hot dogs, Duo nodded. "Fine, then. Thanks, I accept your offer - but only because I don't want my body distracting you."
Smile faded, Heero opened his mouth as if to speak, but as Duo pushed a good portion of the hot dog complete with bun and condiments into his mouth and bit down slowly, his eyes closing as he savored the taste, Heero's words were lost. Finally, Heero closed his jaw, swallowed and shook his head, putting the smile back on. He put the remaining hot dogs down on the dashboard, careful not to let them tip over. Bad enough with the few stray pieces of candy wrappers, if he weren't to dirty the car with bits of shrimp salad or spiced mustard stains as well. He closed the door and started up the engine, eased the car forward enough to park at the rest area further down from the pumps. Only then did he join Duo for supper.
Heero finished his part of the meal quickly, eager to get back on the road. Indiana was starting to get to him, and even high on sugar and caffeine, courtesy of the soda, weariness had started to set in.
'...I feel I'm heaven bound...'
Heero was starting to hate headlights - particularly those of tall large trucks and semitrailers fond of flashing every bulb on the carriage, making them look like something out of a Coca Cola Christmas commercial or a Las Vegas tourist promotion.
It didn't help his mood any, either. For the last half hour it had deteriorated rapidly, and at Duo's every attempt at starting small talk, he'd resorted to single syllable answers or other avoidances, trying to focus on the road. St. Louis was still so far away, and it was getting very late.
"So, I was thinking..." Duo said beside him, the rest of the words lost on Heero. A few seconds later, not getting an answer, Duo frowned his way, watched him yawn and blink his eyes slowly. "Heero, I- Look out!"
Heero's eyes went wide, his body tense, his grip on the steering wheel tightened as he instinctively hit the brakes and made the car swerve, looking desperately for the threat Duo had noticed as a car horn behind them blared. "Huh - what-" He caught a glimpse of Duo's grin.
As the car slowed down further and Heero signaled his way to the shoulder under the thunder of a furious, passing honk, Duo took a deep breath. "Okay, that was a dumb thing to do, and I apologize." At full stop, he got a fierce glare. "Heero, would you just look yourself in the mirror? You're not fit to drive much further than this. If you don't get some rest, we'll have an accident."
"What makes you think there's a 'we' from this point on?"
He rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on - I already said I'm sorry. Look, I know how badly you want to reach Missouri tonight - but you're more likely to end up in a ditch here in Illinois. Why don't you let me drive for a while? I've had catnaps."
While the glare softened minutely to mere suspicion, Heero was not about to agree to something like that. "Are you even old enough to apply for a license?"
It was Duo's turn to frown. "Hey, I'm eighteen, damn it! I'm my own man!"
Half expecting Duo to thump his own chest to boot, Heero snorted, a wry smirk growing on his face. "By how many days?"
The answer was caught in Duo's throat, and he deflated just a bit before giving a lopsided smile. "...about three - but I'm still over eighteen, and yes, I do have a license. It's in my backpack."
"What about driving experience?"
The smile shifted to a sheepish grin. "Well, in that I'm a bit lacking, I admit that - but I know how to drive, Heero. Even a stickshift like this one."
Heero studied Duo's face intently, looking for any sign of deceit. He found none, but after considering Duo's suggestion, he still decided against it. "Thanks for the offer, Duo - but I think I'm good for now."
"...if you say so," Duo mumbled, highly dubious to that fact.
Heero opted to ignore that. "You concentrate on reading the map. That was our deal, right?"
This mildly surprised him. "You mean you still trust me after that last screw-up?"
Heero smirked as he turned the ignition, signaling back to the road. "I don't trust you at all - but I figure you'll try a bit harder not to make another mistake, as a direct result of our Kentucky detour."
Frowning, Duo snorted, but unfolded the relevant part of the map - and just in case, he glanced down at the compass, relieved to find they were still westbound.
'Well, I'm tired and so weary... but I must go along...'
Duo glanced at the digital clock display in the dash board for the sixth time in the last half hour. Eleven thirty-four PM glared back at him. "Heero..." he began.
Heero gritted his teeth. Once more he forced his eyelids up and strengthened his stranglehold of the steering wheel.
"Heero, it's almost midnight," Duo pushed on. "You've got to face it, pal - we're not gonna reach St. Louis tonight." He leaned forward to get a better look at Heero's face, his look not met. Sighing, he sat back, the seat belt at ease. "Look, you need to get some rest."
Heero blinked, slowly. Duo was right. He had been right for the past hour - and more. Heero's stubborn streak had prevented any form of reasoning on the matter, however - until now.
"Looks like there's a city up ahead," Duo stated as they passed another highway information board. "Going to pull off the road for a bit?" he cautiously asked.
Heero made a sigh of defeat for show. "Fine..."
With a lopsided grin, Duo faced straight ahead. "Glad to hear that, Boston. I was this close to giving you a Tea Party."
A swift glare was the only answer Heero afforded him as they left the interstate.
And his eyes widened a tad again at the roadsign welcoming them to Mount Vernon.
Duo snickered. "Well, what do you know. Think we're back where we started?"
Heero nodded to the sign. "Says Mount Vernon, Illinois - so, I sure as hell hope not. Okay, I'll drive around a bit to look - tell me if you see a motel."
"Sure we can't sleep in the car? I'm sure there's a rest area-"
"I already told you, I'm not sleeping in the car."
He smirked softly. "Well, I'm sure we could find a nice park bench for you, and I could sleep-"
"Not in the car, Duo - and that's final."
Duo chuckled. "Sheesh - fine, Boston. Whatever you say."
Heero frowned. "Quit calling be Boston."
"I think it suits you."
"Tough," Duo countered, quick to follow it up. "Hey, over there - isn't that a motel?"
Heero followed the direction of Duo's nod and quietly agreed, turning down that road. "Looks like it's still open, too. Well done, Duo."
Duo grinned, scrambling to tidy up the worst mess of candy wrappers, empty soda cans, paper napkins and the other assorted junk that had piled up since Columbus. "Hey, any time."
Heero pulled up before the low building at the side he presumed held the reception. At least, the neon arrow going on and off, intermittently welcoming them to Bellevue Roadside Inn, suggested this was the case. "Doesn't look like too much..." Heero mumbled.
"Hey, don't jinx it, Heero. Might be like Hilton on the inside."
He snorted. "I very much doubt that. Are you coming with, or should I book a room for you too?"
Barely perceptible, Duo winced, glanced at the chalkboard the arrow was flashing at. At seeing the going nightly rate for a single room, he grimaced again. "Uh - you go ahead, and I'll clean up the car."
"Okay..." Heero started as Duo resumed tidying. He waited for a few more seconds.
And Duo caught on. "Oh!" He adopted a decidedly sheepish grin. "Sorry, Heero. One sec." He unfastened his seatbelt and leaned in between the seats, going for his backpack. He unzipped a side pocket and groped around inside for his wallet. He glanced at the chalkboard again, studied the contents of the slim wallet and hesitantly counted up a few bills, handing them to Heero. "That should do, I think..."
Heero's fist closed around the money. He reached around the steering wheel for the car keys. "I'll be right back."
He closed the door and walked towards the reception. Halfway there, he glanced over his shoulder to notice Duo already at work stuffing the trash they'd made into an empty plastic bag. Shaking his head, he went on.
'...although it's always crowded... you still can find some room...'
Duo was tying up the bag by the time he returned. Heero gave him a slight start when he opened the door, all signs of that gone by the time he'd been seated. He grabbed Duo's wrist, turned his palm upright and slapped cash in it. "Here's your change." With that, he popped the trunk and stepped out of the car.
Duo stared first at the money, then at Heero's back, then at the chalkboard with the rates. "But I thought I gave you the exact change for the cheapest single-"
"I booked us a double," Heero hastily explained, his back taut.
Heero's shoulders slouched just a bit, and he turned and leaned forward, looking into the car again. "A double was cheaper. I thought you'd appreciate that."
Duo frowned. Sure, being economical had an appeal, but-
With half a grin, Heero thought he'd figured the reason for that face. "Separate beds," he added. He certainly didn't want Duo to think he'd have to 'offer up' for his ride in any way - not that guys interested him like that in the first place. The part of his mind proudly hosting absurdities flashed him an image of a Duo in drag, short of make-up. He fought to suppress the consequent smirk.
Duo was not entirely convinced of Heero's good intentions, but if sleeping in the car was out, this wasn't a half-bad alternative - Especially if the beds were single. "Well, I suppose that's okay..." He gave the back of his neck a scratch. There were other matters that got complicated in sharing a room, though. "It's just..."
Duo looked away, into the dashboard, making a quirky smile as his face warmed up. "Look, I like to sleep naked, alright? I can't sleep well if I'm not..." He groped for the right word. "Free," he finally decided, glancing at Heero again. "Know what I'm saying?"
Heero fought back a laughter, but settled for a smile. He nodded. If that was all...
"Is that gonna be a problem?"
Heero scratched his chin, pretended to think it over. After what he'd been put through over the course of the day, he took some small delight in keeping Duo on edge, nervous. As they say, revenge is sweet dish, best served cold. Even simply cool sufficed. "Do you sleep without covers, too?"
Duo shook his head. "Well - not unless it's really hot, I suppose."
Again, Heero nodded. "Then I don't see a problem - as long as you keep to your own bed and don't go out of your way to flash me, that is." He smirked.
Duo didn't, first snorting, then frowning. "Why the hell would I do that?"
Why indeed, absurdity offered, part of the package deal that had offered the term in the first place. Heero chalked it up to his lack of sleep. He straightened up and went to get one of his bags out of the trunk. The suitcase would remain there until Flagstaff - he'd planned this carefully during packing.
As Duo stepped out of the car and took out his backpack, the soft blush lingered on his face. Heero smirked to himself and shook his head. Perhaps he'd tormented the boy enough for one day. Duo was clearly embarrassed for explaining his little problem, but Heero wasn't exactly unfamiliar with weird hang-ups. One such was the very reason he was driving across most of the country and back, after all.
"Oh, and one more thing," he said, slamming the trunk shut. "The Swiss army knife stays locked up in the car."
Duo checked the lock and closed the car door, grinning. "Still don't trust me, huh?" He put the backpack on the roof and opened it. "Well, it's not like I was planning of assaulting you during the night, anyway..."
The faint glimmer at the corner of Duo's eye as he tossed him the knife made Heero wonder if that was entirely true. He took a long blink, wondering if he'd imagined it.
It was a good thing he was a light sleeper.
'...can it be that you're too shy... to give yourself a little old push...'
It turned out Duo was right; the room they'd gotten wasn't half bad. Sure, the interior had seen better days, but compared to the facade it was still spectacular.
Heero couldn't care less about most of the frills and fixtures. After taking dibs on the bathroom and taking a load-off, the bed was all that interested him. After he passed Duo in the bathroom doorway, he made his way straight there, going for a full frontal crash-landing. He told himself that he really ought to take off his shoes and slacks, but he could not be bothered enough to listen.
He'd almost fallen asleep as Duo cautiously touched his shoulder. "You okay, Heero?"
"Hmm..." Heero muttered, grabbing harder at the pillow.
Half grinning, Duo walked over to his own bed. "Are you really going to sleep like that? Don't you think that'll be a bit uncomfortable?"
Heero wasn't sure he cared. He was about to retort as Duo crossed his arms and removed his black T-shirt in one swift go, his braid trailing through the neck hole. A faint metallic clink caught his fleeting attention. Duo put the T-shirt aside and shook his head, making his braid dance into place before going for his zipper. Heero's gaze lingered at the tip of Duo's braid as cut-offs and underwear came off in one fell swoop.
How had he mistaken Duo for a girl in the first place? Maybe it had been the clothes. Looking at Duo's naked backside, there was simply no way he could still be deceived by the long hair alone. For a girl, the hips were wrong, and the waist was wrong, and Duo's long legs were simply too hairy for most proper young women - and of course, there was Duo's subtle pose. Guys tend to have a need to place their feet a tad further apart.
Duo had put his last garments aside and stretched his arms to the ceiling, then engaged in a brief series of exercises to soften the muscles. He bent his arms backward until they popped and followed that up by cracking his knuckles and rubbing his shoulders in succession as he rolled them about a bit. His neck was the last to be loosened up. Straightening up again, he flipped the cover of his bed aside, and turned around.
Heero's eyes drifted up in a hurry, meeting Duo's eyes. Heero started to focus intently on Duo neck and up, not wanting to let his gaze fall again. Staring blatantly at another guy - a naked guy, to boot - just didn't sit right with him. A queasy feeling he couldn't quite peg brewed in his guts.
He couldn't help glance down at the dogtags adorning Duo's neck, though.
Duo caught his look, grabbed the two chained metal plates and flashed him a grin. "What, this? It's a memento from my stepdad. The only thing he ever gave me that I really liked. Got my name on it and everything. Wanna see?"
Duo had already taken two steps closer before Heero shook his head furiously. He did not want a naked young man he'd just met that close. His stomach couldn't take it.
Duo merely shrugged it off and returned to his own bed, swiftly scooting in under the covers. He yanked the chain of the lamp above his bed. "Well - night, Heero. Don't run out on me tomorrow, okay?"
A soft snort was all the answer Heero mustered before rolling over on his side. A good five minutes later he realized Duo had spoken the truth; sleeping with his clothes on would not be pleasant. He sat up and removed his shirt, shoes and socks, unbuttoned his slacks and, with his last bit of strength, stood up long enough to strip himself of them.
He made a point of retrieving his wallet and car keys, hiding both under his pillow before going under the covers. Lazily, he yanked his own chain, and let his arm fall to the mattress.
He was well on his way to doze off when soft snores grated his ears. He blinked, listened. Again, the sound. He looked over his shoulder and glared into the dark, in Duo's general direction. In the intermittent light provided by the flashing neon outside, he saw Duo toss and turn, obviously asleep, if not at rest. One of his legs momentarily fell outside the covers, leaving most of his hip exposed. Heero felt his mouth dry, a bit relieved when Duo rolled over again, covering himself up - and even better, cutting his snore off.
Heero shook his head and settled down, once more focusing on his own sleep. Before dreamlessness took him, he managed to check for his wallet and car keys again, feeling safe knowing they were securely tucked under his pillow. He was not about to get robbed. Duo seemed like a nice guy, but he was pretty much still a stranger. Sympathy was admirable - but precaution was the way of the wise.