Innocence Faded, Part 7
by Kea & Jenn


She studied me for another moment, as if she hadn't quite understood my question, and blinked some more. She resembled nothing so much as a befuddled, bespectacled, white-haired owl. "You have on a towel," she said at last.

Oh, thank you, Granny Obvious. "Yes..." I drawled out, shifting self-consciously--I'm not particularly shy, but I have issues with giving an old lady the full Duo, namely whether I could be held liable if she keeled over from the sight. Said towel defiantly edged down my hips, and I had to grab quick before Granny got an eyeful.

If she noticed I nearly flashed her, she was too polite to say so. "Are you Mr. Maxwell or Mr. Yuy?"

Warning sirens. For all I knew, Granny was a trained assassin or a bad prank from the Strip-o-Gram place, neither of which was a pleasant scenario. I casually maneuvered my free hand back inside the doorframe, palming at it for anything I could use as a weapon if need be. "Maxwell. Duo Maxwell." Not exactly James Bond, I know; if I was, Granny would be a Japanese guy wearing nothing more than a puff of well-placed Silly String...that is, in the reality where 007 likes other guys.

She squinted at me again. "How do you ever get all that hair up under one towel?" It was my turn to blink in confusion; okay, so I look like some sort of giant-headed space alien when I get out of the shower, but how did she know about my hair?

While I pondered that, she shook her head and fluttered one hand in an absent wave of dismissal. "I'm Mrs. McCormick," Granny declared. My answering look must have been closer to blank non-comprehension than epiphany, because she picked up a bucket from the porch and bustled past me, various plastic bottles and implements inside it clattering merrily as she walked. "I'm your new cleaning lady. Francis Eileen McCormick, but you can just call me Granny Fran. Mr. Barton said that you had very long hair and Mr. Yuy had short, but I couldn't be certain with you..." her hand traveled up and down in a vague gesture, indicating my state of relative undress.

Cleaning lady? Mr. Barton? Would the surprises never end? I thought I had seen everything three days ago when the vintage black convertible arrived. [1] It was the one thing that had heightened my mood when Heero started disappearing, punishing himself for a perceived unforgivable lack of control. I don't think he realized in doing so he was also punishing me, that this sudden, gaping distance after two days of blissful, beautiful closeness (closeness I had incessantly lusted after, dreamed of, and prayed for) hurt me a hell of a lot more than some unintentionally rough (but utterly mind-blowing) sex.

Granny gave me the owl-eyes again. I think she had said something that strangely got lost in between the mental images of Heero and me...well, you know. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" I grinned in what I hoped was a disarmingly cute fashion.

"Would you like me to start upstairs or downstairs? Probably down--you still look rather wet. Why don't you put on some clothes and then come back down to talk to me?" I nodded, and she flipped an electronic organizer my way, which I managed to catch and not drop the towel. Point for me. "I'll be here twice a month, more if you need me. The schedule is in the PDA, so pick what you want for your regular times. If you're going to be out of town, you can leave keys for me, or reschedule, whichever is easiest. Shoo, go get dressed." She motioned me towards the stairs and I dutifully obeyed.

About half an hour later I found myself seated at the bar in the kitchen, staring a hot bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich--perfectly browned and diagonally cut--in the face while Granny Fran combed and braided my hair. (Yeah, it was a little early for lunch fare, but I'm never one to turn down a home-cooked meal that I didn't cook.) I'd been reluctant to submit to it, but something about her was kind and soothing in a half-forgotten way.

Then again, it might have been the way she gently wrestled the comb out of my hand and intimidated me into the chair before I could do more than blink. You see, I so rarely let other people touch my hair; to me, it's an incredibly intimate experience, and I barely managed to swallow lunch around the sudden nostalgia-knot in my throat, struggling not to dwell on the last time a relative maternal figure had braided for me. I think I was doomed to stroll down memory lane, though, from the moment I shampooed up.

She kept up a steady stream of relatively one-sided chatter; it felt strange to be on the silent end of things for once, but not uncomfortable. I absently worried the tails of my unbuttoned shirt between my fingers as she spoke, watching a pair of dust motes dance in the late morning sunshine warming the kitchen from the overhead skylight. Whoever designed this place had a real gift for utilizing open spaces and light; the usage of glass made it appear fragile and delicate, but in truth it was sturdy and durable. Indeed, it seemed only the occupants bordered on breakable. Contentment and rumination had almost lulled me into a near-sleep when she asked me a pointed question that snapped my eyes open. "Is that him? Mr. Yuy, your roommate?"

I glanced around the room, wondering how the hell Heero came in without my noticing, until I looked where Granny Fran was pointing. The lone, homey decoration on our refrigerator, aside from the cloyingly cheerful collection of magnets that apparently came as standard Sanctuary equipment, was a creased, faded photograph taken during the war, one that more often than not had resided folded up inside my clothing. It was the only picture I had of Heero...more, he was actually smiling in it.

Okay, so in truth 'smiling' meant he wasn't glaring and his mouth didn't entirely pull up at the corners, but for him, it was a smile, a single, genuine expression forever frozen in time. And, God, I was touching him in it, one arm enthusiastically flung around his shoulders and my other hand flashing a cocky V for victory sign. The backdrop of some crumbly old building rose behind us, the main hall of one of the schools we attended together, and we both wore tanktops and shorts, slightly sweaty from a fiercely competitive game of basketball. "Yeah," I said tonelessly, my voice sounding thick as molasses, "that's Heero." I had every line and curve and angle of that Kodak face memorized, even where the crease ran down its left side like a scar. 

"Handsome boy," Granny mused, nimble fingers securing the black elastic band over the end of my braid and patting my head gently. "Both of you. Mr. Barton didn't mention my new clients would be such attractive young men." She hummed tunelessly under her breath, and I took advantage of the conversational lull to inhale half my sandwich and a good measure of soup. "You know, I have two single granddaughters I would love to introduce you to..."

Somewhere in that sentence, my brain forgot the first rule of successful eating: don't breathe while swallowing. I exploded into a violent coughing fit as my body decided it wasn't designed to respirate tomato soup. "Me?" I wheezed in between coughs.

Granny whacked me on the back until I stopped choking long enough to take a drink of whatever she shoved in my hand; tea, I think, but polluted with so much sugar I nearly gagged. Nevertheless, at least I could breathe again, even if it felt like my teeth had grown fur. "Both of you. They're such sweet girls, I'm so proud of them both, and I know they'd be thrilled to get to know such good-looking boys as you two..." she gushed, with the effusive sincerity only possible by immediate family.

Why was I suddenly remembering that saying about 'no such thing as a free lunch?' Apparently it held true even in my own kitchen. Swallowing another drink, grimacing sharply and clearing my throat, I excused myself to the office, ostensibly so she could clean upstairs, and made my exit with all due haste. I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to introduce my forehead to the wall...


I emerged some time later, stalking down the hall to the white living room once I heard the front door close. Glancing around, I had to hand it to Granny; the place looked like the Clean Fairy had zapped it. Before, it was spic, but now bore 'span' after it with about thirty exclamation points. I'm not a complete slob, but of all the valuable skills I learned as a Gundam pilot, operating a vacuum didn't quite make the cut. I checked the bottoms of my feet for dirt before sitting cross-legged on the pristine sofa and tapping a code on the vidphone. A conversation with "Mr. Barton" was definitely in order.

Trowa looked disgustingly neat when he answered the vidphone, in this celluloid college-professor sort of way. He'd obviously been working on the computer, because he wore his reading glasses, these small, sideways-rectangular shaped ones perched just on the end of that straight, perfect nose. Trowa was the first one of us I noticed had gained height and breadth during that separate year; he'd shot up to close to six feet already, long hands and feet hinting at more to come. "Duo," he greeted calmly, taking the glasses off and placing them on his desk.

"Explain." Two could play at one-word conversation.


Ouch, he got me there. "All of it. There's a strobe light in my bathroom, an old lady hell-bent on matchmaking me to at least one of her granddaughters, and a black convertible parked outside of a house snatched straight from my most intimate and private dreams." I crossed my arms over my chest and frowned; I have nothing on Heero's glare, but I've been told I pout well. "I have a few questions."

"Already with the granddaughters? She must like you a lot," Trowa mused, so softly I think I wasn't intended to hear him. He glanced up at me, that lone visible eye serious and...vaguely amused? My frown deepened; six feet tall or not, I could probably still take him in a knock-down-drag-out. Probably. I eyed those shoulders again and grudgingly revised that to a 'maybe.'

"I'll start with the easy ones, then. The light is a device adapted from those for the hearing-impaired; even in peacetime it's not a good idea to be caught unawares, even by the cleaning lady or pizza delivery," he said, calmly holding up one finger as he imparted his wisdom, almost like a university lecturer. Wouldn't surprise me to learn he was teaching history to legions of adoring freshman fangirls. "The car all but screamed your name the first time we saw it," he continued, thoughtfully tapping his chin with his professor-finger. "We picked it out months ago but couldn't figure out exactly how and when to surprise you with it. Granny Fran...she cleans for us and four of Quatre's sisters...the ones that live in the States...and since she's been unsuccessful in pairing us up with her granddaughters, I thought she might have better luck with you."

I glared at him, and even though the aura of maddening calm never left his face, I somehow knew he was laughing his ass off at me. "You could have warned me, you know. I was all but naked when she came to the door."

"Then it's good that she got to inspect the merchandise early." He chuckled softly, leaning in closer to the vidscreen and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial tone. "I'll warn you, she doesn't exactly comprehend male-male relationships. She walked in once on Quatre and me having sex, and without batting an eye calmly asked if we were done with the clothes on the floor, and then left the granddaughters' new school pictures on the nightstand."

I slapped a hand over my eyes to keep them in my head. "You're kidding."

"Truth is stranger than fiction, Duo." I peeked through my fingers at him as he shot me an incorrigible, 'I know a secret' grin. "Fiction has to make sense." Then, he laughed...not the amused, near-condescending chuckles one could coax from him, but a real, full-bodied laugh that shook his shoulders and jiggled his bangs.

Seeing him laugh was so damned funny I couldn't help it; I laughed with him until tears leaked out of my eyes and my ribs ached. "Y'know, Trowa," I gasped out at last, swiping the heel of my hand under my eyelashes, "if this was some sort of 'glad you're my friends' gesture, you could have just sent a card. Hallmark is much simpler than all this."

He gave me a swift, fierce shake of his head, something almost...untamed staring out from those verdant eyes as the laughter died in them. More than enough to shut me up; self-preservation does that for you. "That wouldn't have been enough, Duo. If I've learned one thing in the past year, it's how the people who are important to us need to be shown that we care. Life is far too short to do otherwise."

That lanky body slouched tightly down in the chair with a sigh, a sudden, bitter reminder that none of us were more than seventeen...boys that shouldn't even be out of high school, much less bearing the weight of two wars on our shoulders. Boys who collectively knew little more about the world than fighting to save or destroy it. Tragedy, miracle, or both that any of us survived.

"I've never been exceptional in expressing my own feelings out loud with words," he began, gaze shifting to someplace I couldn't quite see, someplace far inside himself. "For all that we have some similarities in our backgrounds, you and I couldn't be more different that way. Quatre has been infinitely patient with me as I stumble through it, and I've...failed, more times than I can count, but I'm learning that I don't have to be that closed-off person anymore." There was a slight hint of defiance as he said it, though whether he was trying to prove it to me or to him I wasn't sure.

Trowa shook his head, an ironic, self-deprecating twist of a smile curling one corner of his mouth. "You're right, you know; Hallmark is a lot simpler." One finger tapped impatiently, nervously on the edge of his desk, the light from a candle out of my view dancing through the long strands of his bangs. "But a card takes the words of someone else and uses them as your own. To me, that's almost like stealing. Words still fail me sometimes, but they need to be mine before I can use them." Strangely, that made sense, and I gave him what I hoped was a 'go on' nod.

His posture unfurled a bit, as though my implied understanding blunted some of his tension. "In lieu of the right thing to say, I find I can use tangible things to make myself clear. When I performed, I enjoyed making strangers smile with my act, but it's so much more meaningful when what I do pleases my friends." His eyes met mine, eloquence themselves in that jeweled gaze. "With you, it was easy." Some of the usual confidence returned to his face, shadowed by a gentle understanding. "I know what it's like not to have a home...or a name."

"You planned all of this..." Not an accusation, but more of an incredulous whisper tumbled from my lips.

His smile--once almost as rare as Heero's, but no longer--turned shy, self-conscious. "I bought the beachfront land about six months ago. The architect I met at a WEI party and he managed to put exactly what was in my head down on paper. The crew was Sanctuary's, of course--I wouldn't have been able to pull any of this off without Becky." His face warmed, like when he talked about Cathrine; apparently, this sister had definitely welcomed and adopted Trowa.

I supposed, in that part of my mind that still had functional firing neurons, it was like my relationship with Hilde, though somehow I doubted that Trowa had ever tried to, albeit unsuccessfully, sleep with either of those sisters like I had with mine. She'd understood, of course, when I couldn't go through with it, but I still didn't know if I could ever completely grovel my way out of that one.

He'd paused in speaking, calmly waiting and watching me with that somewhat-puzzled look I recognized from another recent vidphone call. The eyes were green, the hair was brown, but the expression was all Quatre. Was this what people meant about couples starting to resemble one another? Fortunately, my mental process was dutiful enough to spit back the past several seconds of conversation and an appropriate response. Go me. "I notice no mention of a certain blonde...?"

If I didn't know better, I'd swear Strong and Silent blushed. He rolled those thin lips over his teeth until they practically disappeared, palms extended in front of him in guilty surrender. "I...didn't tell Quatre exactly what I had in mind until construction was well under way. It's not that we need permission to do things on our own, but no matter my intentions it was a secret I had kept from him, and thus he was furious...for about two hours. Then, as punishment, he made me go shopping for all of the interior pieces. That's why so much of it is white..." Again, he gave me that helpless, hands-spread gesture of male confusion. "I knew it would go together."

The impossible had happened; I was struck speechless. Vague things resembling words all tried to crawl out of my mouth, but emerged as nothing more than stammered breaths. Out of all the other guys, Trowa had been the one from whom I'd always felt most distant. Yes, he was aloof, yes, he was reserved, but so was Heero and that sure the hell hadn't stopped me with him, ne? So why had I never gotten close to Trowa?

Because he hadn't told me Heero was alive. And I had hated him for it.


[1] Seen the car in 'Angel'? That's the one. Suffice it to say it's well-suited to a black-wearing bishounen. ^^;

Part 8
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