Stuck With You... + Part 1
I hate my life.
All right, so maybe thatís an exaggeration. Itís not like I spend every waking moment wallowing in despair and longing for death. Not recently, anyway. And I guess if you really put me on the spot, I wouldnít be able to pin down much of anything thatís really horrible about my current situation. So maybe "hate" is too strong a word. Maybe Iím just vaguely dissatisfied.
Hmm. Seems too mild, somehow. Well, letís see if I canít come up with a few items for that list after all.
Okay, first off, I work with my best friends. Why does that suck? My best friends are weird. Weird in what way? Various unique ways. Weíre all very different people, you see, which is the whole problem. If weíd all just met on the street last Tuesday, we wouldnít have become friends. We probably wouldnít really like one another too much. A couple of us might seriously consider shooting others of us. But of course, weíve been friends for a long time. A very long time. Since we were kids, I guess, if any of us ever were kids. Most people donít keep many of the friends they make at fifteen past their college years, but... well, we never had college years. We all tested out. We went right to work, like grown-ups, at the tender age of seventeen. That may have been a big mistake.
So, since we never separated, we never had the opportunity to meet new people and grow apart. Not that we havenít grown apart, but with things the way they are, thereís nothing we can do to break our little circle. As one of my friends once said, itís like this old song he knew: "We are bound by all the rest... Got the same phone numbers, all the same friends, and the same address... " Well, thatís not entirely accurate, thank God. If I couldnít go home at night to the blessed solitude of my two-room apartment, I think Iíd whip out a machine gun in the middle of Preventer Headquarters and start blasting. But we are all kind of stuck with each other by now. If only because no one outside our freakish little group could possibly understand us anymore.
Oh yeah, Preventer Headquarters... thatís where we work. Under the benign, if occasionally cranky, command of one of our worst former enemies. I like Une, though. And donít think that doesnít get me some funny looks around the water cooler.
Speaking of which, I can faintly hear Arabic cursing from that direction. Apparently Quatre has discovered that Wufei drained the tank just twelve minutes ago. Itís Sunday, so that means no water until Monday. Boo-hoo. The poor little gazillionaire will have to spring for a soda from the machine.
Hmm... not too bitter, am I?
Yeah, so I guess Quatre deserves his own special place on my list, since heís more than a friend. Or he was. Anyway, you recall how I was saying people donít generally hang onto the friends they make at fifteen? Well, the same is true for significant others. No matter how sincerely you pledge your eternal devotion to someone at that age, itís just not likely to last. Teenagers think they know everything, and yeah, we might have been quite mature for our ages, but still... You canít say youíve met the perfect mate at fifteen because you donít even know yourself well enough yet to know what you want. At fifteen, the perfect mate is anybody who likes the same band as you and shares your views on sex. By twenty-four, your criteria change a bit.
But anyway, Quatre... I would call our breakup messy, but in comparison to Heero and Duo, we were quite civilized. Yes, I was pissed off and hurt, and I could have done without the condescending pat on the head and pitying expression, but I managed to restrain myself to only one screaming fight in the middle of the office. Heero and Duo...
But I donít really want to think about Heero and Duo right now.
Hmm... so far I have being stuck with my weird friends as my only social circle, and the irritating end of my relationship with Quatre. Never get involved with a strategist. They will figure out itís over just a little bit faster than you, and beat you to the dumping. Bastards.
So what else sucks about my life?
Let me ponder that one a moment...
Trowa leaned back in his chair, glancing at the open file on his monitor screen, reviewing what heíd just written. He glanced around the rest of the office at his coworkers.
Sunday meant there was just a skeleton crew on here at the "Stationhouse", as they called it amongst themselves. The large main room with itís many desks and lack of walls did resemble the squad room of a police station. Most of the desks were empty at the moment, monitor screens black. Quatre was kicking the water cooler. Wufei was watching him with a smirk, sipping slowly at his coffee mug of water. Heero was meticulously cleaning his gun. Maggie Shapiro, a former Oz corporal, was updating data files in a far corner, and Ken Nasir, a young agent who was Quatreís personal assistant in all but name, was dutifully updating the blond agentís files for him.
Trowa watched in mixed amusement and annoyance as the Arabian strode back to his desk and sent the younger man off to buy him a soda. Ken hesitated a moment, apparently contemplating asking Quatre for the money, but one impatiently raised brow sent the younger man scurrying. Quatre slumped in his chair and scowled around the room.
"What kind of a cheap operation runs out of water?" the blond demanded irritably. Heero glanced briefly at Quatre, not turning his head, then immediately returned his attention to his gun. Trowa snorted softly at Quatre accusing anyone else of being cheap. Ever since heíd signed Winner Enterprises over to his sisters in a youthful burst of idealism about earning his own way in the world, the blond had become notoriously tight. Trowa wondered in a moment of whimsy if heíd have been happier in their relationship if Quatre had still been rich.
Wufei smirked at Quatre and ostentatiously slurped his water. Quatre stuck his tongue out at the Chinese man.
"Donít stick it out if youíre not intending to use it," Heero warned the blond flatly.
"Thatís the rule for drawing a weapon, Yuy," Wufei argued.
Heero shrugged. "Same difference," he declared. Wufei rolled his eyes. Quatre stuck his tongue out at Heero, earning a glare of warning. Trowa shook his head and sighed.
After that little interlude, Ken returned with Quatreís soda, and they all went back to pretending to be productive for a while. Trowa scrolled up and down the brief segment of whining heíd typed out earlier, wondering if he should continue. It was sort of cathartic, in much the same way probing at a wound was. Sure, it hurt, and you ran the risk of causing a lingering, painful infection, but there was a kind of satisfaction in bringing the pain back. At least you knew you were in control of it.
Trowa leaned back again and glanced over at the desk three down and one row to the right of his own. The desk was empty, the monitor blank, like most in the office. Unlike most, this desk had no files or sticky notes strewn across it. It was clear of all work, neat and tidy, and that was the last thing it should have been. Trowa sighed, green eyes flicking over the miniature army of cheap action figures arrayed in neat ranks. They should have been scattered all over the desktop, in random obscene poses, but of course Heero had been the one to straighten the desk, and Heero didnít approve of such things. All the other assorted knick-knacks that lived on the abandoned desk were crammed into the deep bottom drawer, taking the place of the vodka bottle that had once constantly resided there.
Trowa wished Heero hadnít cleaned the desk up. It just didnít look right. Heíd liked it all cluttered and messy. Sure, it had been distracting and unprofessional, but sometimes they all needed to be distracted.
Now, the desk was still distracting,
but only because of the unsettling memories itís spotless, orderly surface
brought to mind. Trowa sighed and turned back to his screen, and began
Duo and Heeroís breakup. I didnít want to talk about this before, but now itís on my mind, and the alternative is updating my files.
I guess I should have realized sooner that something was wrong. We all should have, really. I mean, we were supposed to be his friends, right? And youíre supposed to notice that sort of thing about your friends. Maybe we werenít very good friends. See earlier exposition.
Anyway, by the time any of us noticed there was a problem, he was already up to half a bottle of vodka a day, and that was just what we could see at work. Heero refused to speak about their private life, but we all got the impression that Duo didnít stop drinking when he got home at night.
We should have tried to talk to him about it, I guess. But Heero can be so... himself. I donít know, heís just so possessive. He didnít want any of us talking to Duo about his problems, he said heíd take care of it. After all, Duo was HIS lover.
We should definitely have known better than to let that stand.
But I guess none of us really wanted the responsibility. Duo is a great guy for hanging out with, laughing, having fun, but heís not so much fun when heís serious. Duo was our good time guy, the one who organized the parties and the weekly outings. He was the only one of us who socialized with our coworkers at all, and the only one of us that any of our coworkers liked, probably for that reason. I asked one of his other friends, after the whole mess was over, why none of them had approached Duo about his problem. The guy just looked at me funny, kind of pitying and angry at the same time, and said that they didnít think they needed to talk to him. That surely, with the five of us being so very close, we must have been doing everything possible to help him...
He was nice about it, that guy. He didnít make me admit that we didnít do a damn thing, he just walked away while I hung my head in shame.
Well, okay, so we did do one thing.
I did one thing.
Only it was probably the wrong thing. Probably the worst thing I could have done.
I told Une.
God, the look in his eyes when he came out of her office. I couldnít tell if he wanted to cry or kill me. I donít think he knew himself. I broke the cardinal rule of our little group. Never rat out one of our own to outsiders. But what else could I do?
Heero was pissed at me because I took the situation out of his control. Quatre was pissed at me because I took action without consulting him. Wufei, I think, was pissed because he wanted to see a big dramatic confrontation.
Well, he got his wish eventually.
Une was discreet, but thorough, as always. No big, office-wide stink was made about the problem, but Duo was told in confidence that if he showed up to work drunk, or was drunk at the end of his shift, he would be suspended from duty indefinitely. And she came up with a wonderful plan to ensure his sobriety. Breathalyzer tests, when he came in, and before he left.
And guess who the lucky guy that got to administer them was.
On the positive side, I learned a lot of new cuss words.
I guess, looking back, I set myself up for that. Since I was the one to bring up the problem, I might as well have volunteered myself for teetotaler duty. Obviously I could be trusted to be honest about Duoís condition, since Iíd ratted him out in the first place.
I fudged a little at first, feeling guilty for getting him in trouble, but after a week I told him that blood alcohol below the legal limit was not going to cut it. Iíd turned him in once, and Iíd do it again. Oh, did that get me a glare of hatred. He must have picked that up from Heero. It looked so out of place on his normally smiling face. But the next day he showed up completely sober, and every day after. He really has amazing willpower when he chooses to apply it.
But even though he wasnít drunk on the job anymore, he was still falling apart right in front of our eyes. Or maybe behind our backs, because we just... didnít see it, somehow.
It was about this time that we all started to notice the tension between Duo and Heero. I donít know how long it had been building, but suddenly people were unconsciously skirting around the area of the room that held their desks. The unfortunate souls whose desks were located near or between the two spent a lot of time in the bathroom and at the water cooler. Iím not sure which was worse, when they were utterly silent and focused on their work, shooting each other occasional angry glares, or when that simmering fury erupted into shouting matches where they would flay one another with the most vicious personal insults they could think of. It got really nasty sometimes, especially since theyíd been together for so long. Heero knew way more about Duo than any of the rest of us, and he dredged up every painful confession and used it for ammunition. Duo was doomed to lose in that competition from the beginning, because Heero just didnít care that much about having his secrets aired. He didnít have that many to begin with.
But then one day, it was just too much, I guess. I donít even remember what it was that Heero said, but I remember the look in Duoís eyes as he said it. That brave, flickering flame of spirit that a childhood on the streets and an adolescence as a murdering terrorist had not managed to extinguish, Heero finally crushed out with his coldness and scorn. And I remember thinking in horror that I had done nothing. I had sat and watched, for weeks, as that flame grew weaker and weaker. I never tried to rebuild it. Never tried to fan it back to life.
I was his friend. But I did nothing.
He went to Uneís office, and he was only in there about five minutes before she called me in over the intercom. I tried to be casual about it, but nobody was really even making a pretense of paying attention to their work at that point.
I stepped into her office, and he was standing with his back to the door, leaning against the windows. Une was seated at her desk, fingers laced beneath her chin, giving me the sort of look that probably used to make Oz recruits pee their pants. She said only, "Please escort Agent Maxwell to his car."
She has a way of saying several things with just a few words. Duo was Agent Maxwell, so he hadnít up and quit. I was only to escort him to his car, so she didnít think he needed babysitting. But sheíd picked me for the job. Not Quatre, the sensitive one. Me, the quiet, repressed, follow orders guy. So maybe she wasnít thrilled with him.
We took the other exit from her office, to avoid the main office. The halls were mostly empty, except for a few clerks scuttling around. We stopped at payroll, and he picked up a three-month advance on his salary. I raised an eyebrow at that.
He didnít look at me, but somehow he knew. "Une authorized it. Iím taking a leave of absence. I need... I just need to get away for a while, I guess," he explained quietly.
It embarrasses me to admit that when I looked at him then, it was the first time Iíd really noticed how pale heíd gotten, the dark circles under his eyes. Heíd lost weight, and he never had any to lose. His clothes hung off him, the sleeve cuffs gapping around fragile-looking wrists.
He has big hands. He should have been taller, but childhood malnutrition and the life heís led cut him off at five foot eight. Not too short, but not impressive for a guy. Especially since he has this delicate bone structure.
Um, yeah. So where was I? Oh yes, fragile wrists. I could see the veins on the back of his hands. And his hair had gone limp and lost its shine... That looks silly typed out, but itís true. He looked bad. He looked tired and worn, and I felt really guilty that I hadnít noticed him changing from the vibrant, happy person he had been into this shriveled, beat-up shell.
I guess I stared too long, because he gave me this exasperated, nervous look and said, "Jeez, donít look at me like that, man. Is it really that bad?"
I tried to answer, I really did. I tried to tell acomforting lie. I ended up doing a goldfish impersonation. Open mouth, close mouth, open mouth, close mouth. He just gave me this kind of tired smile and shook his head. "Ask a stupid question," he muttered.
He collected his pay and we walked on to the garage. His car was this ancient clunker that he spent most of his days off tinkering with just to keep it running. It was sort of his hobby. Heero hated it. He had his own sensible little compact car.
Duo jiggled the key in the lock, trying to get it to open without benefit of the lockpicks he still carried. It didnít always work. I stood there feeling ineffectual and nervous, and wondering if I should leave now that he was at his car. But I stayed. And I finally managed to speak.
"Iím sorry," was my fascinating remark. He looked up from the door, raising a brow at me.
"For what?" he asked. I just shrugged and looked at my feet. He sighed and the key finally turned in the lock. He got in the car and after a few tries the engine roared to life. I stepped back to give him room to pull out of the space, which he did. I was just about to turn and leave the garage when he rolled the window down andstuck his head out, looking up at me. I couldnít read his eyes. I never could, really. You never really know what Duoís thinking. If youíre Heero, you think you know, but youíre usually wrong.
So he just looked at me a minute, and I looked back. Then he kind of half grinned and asked me, "Weíre cool, right?"
For a moment I tried to figure out what he was asking, but then I realized that whatever he meant, the answer was, "Yes," I said, and attempted a grin of my own.
That seemed to please him. Anyway, he relaxed a little, and nodded at me. Then he pulled his head into the car and drove off.
I, like an idiot, stood there for about half an hour, still trying to figure out in exactly what way Duo and I were "cool."
That was almost seven months ago.
Trowa sat back with a sigh, staring at the words on his screen. How could the whole miserable story fit into so few words?
It didnít, of course. Heíd only typed up a brief overview of the events, just grazed the surface. He didnít like to dwell on that time. It hadnít been pleasant for anyone.
Trowa glanced around the office, and noticed that Maggie was gone from the corner and Quatre, Wufei and Ken were pulling their coats on. Heero was busily separating files into piles, his normal ritual before knocking off for the day. Trowa glanced at the clock and was surprised to see it was a quarter to six. The next shift would be coming on soon.
He checked his coworkersí desks. Ken had made a small dent in Quatreís files, but had probably spent most of the day running errands for the blond. Wufeiís piles had been moved and shuffled. Heíd been "reprioritizing." Heero now had a sizable stack of files to take home and work on, but Trowa could tell from the number that the Japanese man hadnít accomplished anything today either.
"Your tax dollars at work," Trowa murmured to himself, smirking slightly. The day had needed only Duo playing desk basketball with memos from the personnel department.
His smirk faded at the thought of the absent American. Duo had been much on his mind lately, which was odd after so long with no contact. But Christmas was approaching, and he always associated the holiday with Duo.
Maybe heíll be back before... Trowa shook his head slightly, dislodging the thought before it could take root. Nobody knew where Duo was or what he was doing. Une still had him on the payroll, but she refused to give any information on his location or when, or if, he would be returning.
Trowa shrugged into his coat and strolled over to Duoís empty desk to perform his own little ritual. He picked up the little quote-a-day calendar, now growing quite thin, and ripped off Sunday, December 5th. He read the little sheet.
"Everyday itís the same old thing... breathe, breathe, breathe."
Duo would like that one, he decided. He slid the top drawer open and added it to the pile of quotes heíd saved. He set the calendar back on the desk, deliberately placing it to the side and at a different angle from its original position.
Heero stepped up beside him and muttered, "Why do you bother? If he comes back, he can pull them off himself. If he doesnít, who cares?" The Japanese man reached out as he spoke and repositioned the calendar exactly where it had been before Trowa picked it up.
Trowa looked down into Heeroís pretty, frowning face, the expression of half confusion, half irritation a familiar one. He tried to phrase an answer, then just shrugged. He couldnít quite explain why he did it. He just thought Duo would like to know, if he came back, that he hadnít been completely forgotten.
Heero snorted in irritation and turned away, leaving Trowa alone. Trowa watched the Japanese man leave the room. When the door shut behind Heero, he moved the calendar again.