"Didn't you get a good look at my shack when you were here last?" I couldn't help asking as we walked up the steps of my porch.
Heero didn't rise to my bait. He said simply, as he stood aside and waited for me to open the door, "I didn't go inside last time."
There was a loud noise and the sound of machinery. I turned with narrowed eyes and watched my neighbor bulldoze a hunk of scrap metal into the breech he had made in my wall. I grunted, but it was better than nothing. I turned back around and opened the door. "Sorry about the mess," I said sarcastically and lead the way inside, hands going deep into my pockets as I hunched in on myself in embarrassment. Why I felt embarrassed I don't know. It was his fault that my place look the way it did.
Heero didn't give anything a critical eye, as I expected. Instead, he looked pained. "They took everything," he said.
"You're assuming that I had much to begin with," I grunted sourly.
I righted a chair, shoved it behind my desk, and sat down heavily. "I live
kind of spare."
Heero walked over to the peg board behind me on the wall and tried to make sense of my scrawls, my calendar, and a few pics I had tacked up for.... ascetic reasons.
"How do you...," he began, but I cut him off, so sure what he was about to say.
"Yeah, pictures of guys! I'm gay! You're bright, you've figured that out already, right? What's it to you? If it makes you squirm, then get the hell out!" I was surprised by how hot my face got and how I couldn't look at him.
Heero said softly, "I wasn't going to say anything about the pictures. I don't have a problem with your sexual orientation. I was going to ask about your schedule. I don't understand what you've written here."
You think my face was hot before, you could melt Gundanium on it now. I gritted my teeth and then said, trying to be apologetic, "Sorry. Guess I'm used to people having the opposite reaction."
"Hn." He managed to make that sound sympathetic. Amazing.
I tried to get myself back together, tried to push aside all the baggage from yesterday, and yeah, from this morning, dammit, and deal with Heero with a better attitude. I tapped my forehead. "I have it all up here," I told him, "But there's not much to go into my mental files. The business..." Here I had to admit to him my failure and it wasn't easy, not by a long shot. "The business hasn't been doing too good."
He didn't ask why not. I felt stupid for being grateful. Maybe he got how hard it had been for me to say that and was going to give me a breather before the third degree? He said, instead, "I haven't eaten. I'll buy breakfast if you show me where I can buy supplies for the shack I will be staying in."
That sounded less like charity. My stomach was making joyful noises already. "Deal," I said and stood up. "We have a bit of a walk, though. There aren't any shuttles that go between the lots."
"Acceptable," he said in a voice that reminded me of the war. It gave me a chill and I felt the need to get back out into the heat and sunshine. It was brutal, but there was a cleansing property to it. It had the power to make a lot of bad shit go away.
Heero followed me outside. I took a well worn track to the back of my yard and then we went through a rickety gate into the narrow lane between lots. Just then, there was a loud, groaning noise that filled the world. Heero started and glared up at the sky. He had to blink rapidly. The light was coming from the sun, reflected into the station by large collectors. It could be as painful as the actual sun. I didn't bother. I knew what he was seeing; Great slabs of metal extending out of the sides of the station, the whir of turbines, the rush as air was sucked up into them and then released again, the dust devils of yellow and red 'dirt' swirling up along with the oxygen. I counted to twenty and then it stopped and the slabs retracted. The dirt began a lazy, colorful, drift back to the 'ground'.
"Four times a day," I said offhandedly as I began to walk, tying my bandana around my head, the edges drooping down over my face to shade my eyes. "They didn't bother updating the system out here. If it works, don't replace it. L2 wisdom.
Heero, when I glanced at him, was looking disturbed as he followed me.
"You haven't been on L2 long, have you?" I asked.
"No," he replied, confirming my suspicions. "They, they don't have this system in the city."
I grinned. "Nope."
"It must be over fifty years old," he pointed out unnecessarily.
"Eighty-five, actually," I corrected. "Breaks down once in
awhile, but even L2 bureaucrats don't want scrap men lives on their hands. They
fix them. Not too many have died because of it."
"Not too many?" Heero was shocked. "That's-"
"Criminal, I know," I chuckled almost evilly. "Get used to it. That's L2."
Heero was silent. We rounded a corner and went in another direction, the yellowish red path seemingly endless as a heat haze obscured the distance. "You've changed," Heero finally said as if he had been chewing hard on that.
I shrugged. "Not really. I've always been this way. I just put on a good show when I was in the war."
"Why?" Heero wondered. "Why bother with a 'show'?"
"Who likes a smart assed, manic depressive, bad tempered, street punk, terrorist?" I laughed, though I wasn't finding much funny about it. It was better to pass it off that way. It hurt a bit less, made the memory of those dark days, that loneliness, that need to be accepted and taken in as a friend by the people around me, less sharp.
"I wanted people to leave me alone," Heero admitted. "I wanted to focus entirely on winning the war."
"You mean, your 'stone cold killer' attitude was just an act too?" I gaped at him and his lips quirked in a smile as he gave one nod. I laughed outright then, imagining it. I sobered when I saw the hint of pain in his blue eyes. It hadn't been easy for him either. Our 'acts' hadn't been bullet proof.
"I guess we're starting over then, getting to know each other," I said as I wiped sweat from my forehead. "No more acts, okay?"
"Agreed," Heero replied and it was as if we were making a pact right then and there.
As we made our way into Market Rowe, Heero trudging and sweating beside me, it was really hard to remember that he was an undercover Preventer agent. When I examined that a little closer, I snorted to myself and called myself an idiot. Sure, it would have been nice to have Heero really work for me, share my space... share my life? I had entertained thoughts like that during the war and a bit afterwards, but it had been clear to me that Relena was the one who had all his attention. I wonder what happened there? Maybe a nobody Gundam pilot hadn't been good enough for her in the end, especially now that she was Queen of everything. Made me feel bad for Heero.
I rubbed at my stomach, remembering him growling at me, angry with me, confused by me, and punching me. Yeah, we'd been close buddies once. Maybe I had a chance to scoop up what Relena had kicked out?... You know, it really isn't worth the effort to be sarcastic to yourself.
"Duo!" A woman drawled and waved energetically from a stall on the side of the dirt road. It was lined with them, filled with everything imaginable being sold by people of all backgrounds.
There was a game to it, at least for me, and haggling was only part of it. I waved back, grinned my widest grin, and sauntered up to the stall. She was a pretty thing in a skirt and top that was made out of heavy duty denim. Her hair was a riot of gold curls under the wide brim of a scrap man's hat and her face was almost angelic with it's big blue eyes. Theresa was a long way from being angelic, though. She winked at me as she turned griddle cakes on a burner with expert ease.
"I'm starving, Theresa," I said as I rubbed my stomach and then let my hand trail down to my crotch. She could wonder what 'hungry' I was talking about.
"Poor thing!" Theresa cooed. She grinned back at me. "I could take care of that hunger, pretty boy." She suddenly turned and gave her skirt a flirtatious flip, revealing, for a bare instant a pink g-string. She turned back around, everything proper again and said huskily as she motioned to her little shack with her spatula, "I've got some privacy back-"
I gave her the patented Duo hang dog eyes. "I want to, really I do, but I have this new guy I have to show around. " I jerked a thumb at the frowning Heero and rolled my eyes. "He needs supplies and I need breakfast, but then we have to do some work. Maybe... later... Because, God, you look absolutely gorgeous today!"
She smirked and flipped a stack of hot cakes onto a piece of sheet paper. She sprinkled sugar on them and tossed them to me. "You can give me a bit and pay me the rest later."
So went the game. When I looked at Heero, he grudgingly came forward and paid the woman a few credits. I gingerly juggled the hot cakes back and forth in my hands, to keep them from getting burned, and said aside to Heero as we moved down the road, "Loosen up, Heero, it's not serious. They just want some attention and I give it to them. If I really turned it up and actually tried getting past that G-string, that pretty little girl would probably get her big ugly husband to knife me."
Heero's eyes went wide. "She's married?"
"Guys work hard here, Heero," I explained with a shrug. "A lot of times they don't have much energy left over for romancing their wives or girl friends. That's why they like flirting with me. I say something nice, they get to dream a raunchy dream of us getting it together, and I go on my way with some stuff with reduced prices and a smile."
Heero grunted, whether in understanding or disapproval, I couldn't tell. Well, fuck him, I thought. If he was going to judge, he was in the wrong damned place.
I leaned into another booth and a frowning woman, with a severe bun, waggled a finger at me. "I'm not Theresa, Maxwell, and I know the score, remember? I deliver your mail."
I blushed uncomfortably. "Yeah, yeah!" I backtracked and motioned to Heero. "She sells good quality stuff. You can't go wrong buying from Kylee."
I watched Heero pick through her supplies. He bought some more clothing, a duster, and some household items. Kylee watched him as if she was puzzled and then I remembered, she was ex military. I felt trepidation tighten my gut, but then she reduced her price for Heero and gave him a serious nod. He nodded back as if they perfectly understood one another and paid her. Taking his bundle, we walked further down the way.
"So, what was that?" I asked, curious.
"Something that isn't a game," Heero replied. "It's respect."
"Isn't that risky?" I wondered, not liking his bit of condescending tone.
"No," Heero replied. "There are so many people who were in the war. It's not suspicious."
"Oh." I mulled that over a minute and then said, "That wouldn't
have worked for Theresa."
He smiled. "No, it wouldn't have."
It was, once again, a meeting of the minds, and it was hard to keep myself from looking like a stunned moron. I remembered how we had worked together during the war. He had been closed off and abrasive, but we still had managed to work together smoothly, knowing, almost instinctively, each other's moves. It had weirded me out then and this 'understanding' wasn't any different now. Me and Heero were getting along. We were... I cut that off, clamped down on it like a sudden wound. He was a cop, I was a scrap man he had suspected of being a thief. He needed me. Street sense kicked in. Like I said before, I haven't lived this long by being stupid, and that goes for being gullible too. Maybe we were becoming friendly, but that didn't warrant me dropping my guard on the off chance that it was true.
"Does it ever rain?" Heero wondered, wincing at the pounding light all around us. Heat like that you could put up with when it was an act of nature. A man didn't have any say in it and just had to endure. When you knew someone's actual finger was on the control, then it got a hell of a lot more personal.
"Not often, rusts the junk and the scrubbers anyway," I told him and then sneered, "And the higher ups like to keep most of the water for their parks and play pools. There's only so much water, after all."
"And that's why we have coolies, ice packs, and personal tundra jackets!" A voice shouted from a stall. A tall, burly man grinned at me and waved to his wares. "If the big guys don't want to give us water and decent temperature, we have to make due ourselves."
"Ignore him," I grumbled and began eating some of my hotcakes now that they had cooled enough. I offered one to Heero and he took it as he looked almost longingly at the gear in the stall. "Don't," I told him. "Get used to the weather, don't fight it with that crap."
Heero walked to the stall anyway and I sighed. He pointed out a hat like his own but made out of straw and cloth strips. The straw made it that much more expensive. The man handed it to him and looked at me appraisingly. I pointedly looked away.
"How ya doin, Maxwell?" the man asked in a suggestive manner. "You get tired of being alone yet? It may be hot, but a man gets a cold bed when he's the only one in it."
I kept looking down the long line of stalls. "Cold can be good, considering the alternative," I said under my breath.
"How much?" Heero asked abruptly. The shopkeeper answered. I winced at the cost. Heero dickered convincingly, and then walked away paying only a little less than outrageous. He surprised me by putting the hat on my head as we walked. "That scarf isn't good enough," he told me.
I couldn't sort out how I felt about that, one part mad about the charity, one part even madder that he thought he could mother me, and another part... almost overwhelmed with... When you see a rich juicy steak, or the sweetest piece of pie you have ever seen, but know that you can't have it because it isn't yours to take... yeah, that was the feeling.
"Why didn't you flirt with him?" Heero asked and there was an edge to his voice I couldn't read.
"He wasn't playing a game," I replied shortly.
Heero finished his shopping and then bought us both bottles of ice cold soda.
We drank them as we walked the long, dusty road back to my scrap yard. Going
through the gate... You know, you don't realize how alone you are until you
leave a crowd of people. It ate at me a little, but then I looked aside at Heero.
Guess I really wasn't alone anymore. It was a very good feeling, up until I
saw the tax man, standing in his three piece suit, on my porch.
on to Chapter 5
Back to chapter 3