How the Other Half Lives + Part 4I open the door to go out for the papers and he's there -- a tall, slender guy with big blue eyes and a surprised look. He has a hand raised, and a key tight in his fist.
"Hey!" His voice is quite loud, but at a pleasant pitch. He grins, very broadly. "Scared the shit out of me," he says, cheerfully. "You looking after the place this weekend?"
I wonder what he's talking about. "This is my apartment," I say, slowly. He'd been looking me up and down, which is disconcerting in the first place, but at this, his eyes snap back up to my face. A band of colour appears on his cheeks.
"Shit," he says, sounding flustered. "I mean, I never imagined you'd be ..." He stops talking, takes a deep breath, and before I can even begin to reply to the last comment, he's starting again. "Look, I'm sorry, I thought you were another guy like me, sitting this apartment, and that maybe I'd got fired or something and nobody bothered to tell me, or probably I didn't get the call, or missed it -- I'm away a lot -- and when I'm not away, I'm always doing something else, you see. Anyway, I thought you were away this weekend and I was on duty, but obviously the management got it mixed up, or maybe I did - that's not such a ridiculous premise, because as I may have said, I'm --"
"Please," I say, quite loudly. That seems necessary to get his attention. "Please tell me who you are and what you're doing here."
He's looking at me again, really closely. No one does that around me. It's ... odd. Then he sticks out his hand so assertively that I flinch back a little. "Your apartment sitter -- Duo Maxwell. Well, you know my name already, don't you? But we've never been formally introduced. Pleased to meet you."
I shake the hand, automatically. His palm is warm, the grip confident. My apartment sitter. "I'm Heero Yuy. You know that too, of course, having ... collected my mail for me over the last few months."
"Ah," he says. "Of course. Sorry about that problem with the telephone bill and the squashed spider. I hope the company sent you a fresh one. Document, that is -- not bug!" The skin at the side of his eyes crinkles when he smiles.
"It's fine," I say. It hadn't been at the time, but over a period of weeks, my indignation has faded. Though the memory of the big black stain on my mail -- a couple of legs still attached -- will be deeply ingrained forever.
"And you ..." he starts, a little tentatively. "Of course, you've been returning the favour for me all this time."
"With the spider-squashing?" I say, dryly. I'm not usually so ready to offer jokes to people I haven't met before.
He laughs, quite loudly and freely and I'm startled. "Hey, no way! You don't strike me as the kind of guy who's spooked by a spider and lashes out without thinking ..." His words dry up suddenly and the flush on his cheeks deepens.
For a moment, we just stand there, and then I remember Quatre's compassionately disappointed expressions and my promise to be more sociable. I'm pretty sure that extends to real life, not just through correspondence. "You're right: I was due to be away, but the antiques auction was cancelled at the last minute, so I'm still here. Obviously."
"Obviously," he repeats, grinning at me. This apartment-sitting arrangement has been in place for a few months now, and both of us have taken full advantage of it. But it's surprising that we've never met before -- I suppose that realisation accounts for my current disorientation. I think anyone watching us as we stand there at the door, both rather bemused, would wonder just what kind of connection we had.
"Would you like to come in anyway?" I ask, and when he nods back, I'm surprised to feel a smile on my own face. He saunters past into the apartment and I notice his hair is very long and braided down his back. It's ... very unusual. He's wearing a tee shirt with a provocative slogan that I assume is in some kind of street language, and jeans that seem to have been badly damaged around the knee area. The ensemble seems to suit him in some outlandishly stylish way. He certainly doesn't look like it bothers him. His legs are quite long and his stride is very ... assertive. That word keeps cropping up in my mind.
I can't remember when I last invited a stranger into my apartment, though I daresay Quatre has been keeping a diary, just to torment me with it.
But then, Duo Maxwell isn't exactly a stranger, is he?
I mean, I thought he'd be much older, didn't I? A guy who likes old furniture: one who couldn't manage to cook for himself, who didn't have much of a life. But he's not. I was way wrong. Heero Yuy -- cute name. And a cute guy as well. Bit of a shock, really, to find myself face to face, just like that.
I make my way to the kitchen by habit, and he follows me in. "You've got some new pans!" I can't help the exclamation, though I imagine Wufei'd be wincing at the way I open a conversation with a new acquaintance.
Or perhaps ... not so new.
Heero Yuy nods slowly. He looks like a guy who takes his time over things -- who's careful, and probably always right. "I ... well, having tried out a couple of your recipes, I needed some more equipment. I appreciate you leaving the details on the notepad in the kitchen now, rather than pinning them to my door, using those unusual toothpicks. The ones with the States of the Union flags on them."
I can feel myself blushing. "Ah, yes ... my own special recipes. I don't know if I ever explained, but that's what I do, you see -- freelance chef. I travel around a lot, do some lecturing, do some contract work at restaurants. Cooking is what I love, to be honest." One of the few things I give my full attention to, according to Wufei. "But that was pretty rude of me when I first came around, cooking for you when I didn't know you; didn't know if you wanted me to. Made a bit of a mess, too, I'm afraid."
He moves his foot almost surreptitiously. Underneath it I can still see the tomato stain from my first batch of goulash, a clumsy red splash on the pale wood of his kitchen floor. But he's trying to cover it up, which surprises me. People don't usually care about embarrassing me. "It's fine," he says, like he did at the front door. Cute voice, too: quite deep and quiet, but every word carries well. "I've practised it a few times and I complete it quite successfully now. Also the risotto recipe -- and the Spanish omelette."
Now I'm flushed all over. "Shit," I say, and then wish I hadn't. "Sounds like I'm taking over your whole menu."
When I catch his eye, he's not smiling anymore. "I thought that too, at first," he says. "There's no doubt that you've been an intrusion in my apartment, Duo Maxwell. Firstly, there was all that activity in my kitchen, then there were Quatre's -- my friend's -- art prints that you put up on my walls without permission. And of course there's my bonsai collection that has been left to dehydrate on a regular basis."
"Those little trees? You're meant to water them?" I nearly groan out loud. My gut lurches with embarrassment; I want to sink into the floor and vanish.
"Several of them have sunk into dormancy, but I've been able to save a couple." His eyes are blue and bright, and he's watching my every movement. Seems like he's got a catalogue of complaints to bring to the party. Shit, I think. I wish I'd kept out of the way; I wish we were back to the polite, interesting little notes... I wish I weren't a blob of abject self-pity right now. I know the time has come to make myself scarce, which is a real shame. I'd got sort of used to this place and its cool, clean, peaceful atmosphere. And I would have liked the chance to get to know Heero Yuy better. Really liked it.
"Look ..." I start to apologise at having caused such trouble in what is, after all, his place, but his expression has changed and now he's smiling again. It's a cautious smile, but he looks much less stern, and so I bite back my inevitable babble. He's still watching me, but it's a curious look, not confrontational. He's tall and athletic, and I must say he's an attractive man when he relaxes -- I reckon he doesn't do it often enough to realise. There's a sensuous movement throughout the whole of his body, like he's letting out a deep breath.
"Duo Maxwell," he says, as if trying out my name again for size and shape on his tongue. "It's about time I met you in person."
He's been here for an hour or so now, sitting on the other end of my couch. Duo Maxwell ... it's a bold, strong name and it suits the man in person. He's drinking his second cup of tea -- tea that he's brought into the apartment himself on previous visits. He drinks an unusual blend of blackcurrant and herbs, and each time I come home I find new sachets scattered over my kitchen counter.
Actually, I find a lot of things scattered.
He's an example in himself: he's sprawling on the couch, one leg tucked under him, the other stretched out and nudging at the leg of the table. He exudes energy, even when he's presumably at rest. When he puts his cup down, he knocks the lamp off its base, and I instinctively reach out to stop it falling. He catches it himself, though, his face creased with an apologetic smile. He stands it back up, a few centimetres too far to the left, but the misalignment doesn't seem to worry me.
Perhaps his attitude is contagious. I'm not sure how I feel about that. The confusion makes me feel a little dizzy.
"So tell me what you do," he asks. "We've been in touch all this time but never really found out these kinds of things." I'm usually reluctant to talk about myself, and I can feel the muscles tensing across the back of my neck. Perhaps he sees my hesitation, because he leans forward and touches my arm. "Sorry. Sometimes I'm too blunt -- I'm not polite enough for other people. You don't have to tell me a thing."
"I source antiques for clients," I say, in a bit of a rush. My voice sounds a little uneven. I can't stop staring at his hand on my arm. "You've seen my catalogues and my own collection -- but I work in the field as well. I'm hired by a corporation or a particular individual, and asked to find something special for them at a price they specify. I travel a lot to regional antique auctions and shows. Well, you know I'm often away, that's why you're here ..." My throat is a little dry, so I swallow, and continue. "I've always been good at determining the value of a piece, and I can evaluate the bidding accordingly. I get great satisfaction out of knowing a client can display the right item in the right place for them."
He draws back his hand, biting his lip, and suddenly I'm worried for no apparent reason. Did I say something wrong? Wasn't that what he wanted to know?
"The right thing in the right place," he says, slowly. His face is a bit flushed, and I don't think it can be from the tea. "So is that what you've been doing at my place, Heero Yuy?"
I stare. My stomach feels nauseous. I don't understand what kind of person he can be, who can create this disorder inside me. "I think that you've found me an intrusion as well."
"You think damned right," he answers. His voice is very soft, but there's wariness in his eyes. I often see that look when I meet people, but I thought that was because of business, not ... whatever this is. "At first, I couldn't find the things I wanted -- and some of the things I didn't want to find kept appearing in front of me at every damned turn. Then I started to look at things differently, all over. Perhaps you'll have noticed the changes I've made; the reorganisation that's gone on in my apartment. Since I don't have a whole lot of through traffic there, I can only conclude that the upheaval in my life is due to you."
For some strange reason, I find myself staring at one of Quatre's pictures, one of the selections that Duo Maxwell put up on my wall on his first visit here. It's marked the pale paintwork quite badly; it's very bright and very obtrusive, and it's constantly in my line of sight when I come into the lounge to rest. Quatre still comments on it, teasing me about my initial intention to remove it. I wonder to myself why it's still there ... and why I'm rather used to it now.
"You threw out my gin," Duo Maxwell's voice says, quietly. "You cleared up things that I didn't need -- nor want -- cleared up. We don't all live the same way as you, Heero Yuy."
"I'm sorry." That's my voice speaking -- it sounds miserable. It's the first time for a long while that I've felt so wrong about something.
When he jumps up in a burst of long limbs and noise and movement, I know he's going back to his own place. I feel very disappointed. But of course I understand that I have overstepped a mark, even if I wasn't entirely sure where it was. For maybe the first time ever, I curse my preference for my own company.
"Hey, forget it," he says. "It's fine, OK?" I think he may be mimicking me, though it doesn't sound malicious. "So will you come back to my apartment now?" He has to repeat the invitation, and that makes him smile. He's still smiling. He doesn't seem angry anymore. I'm aware that I'm staring quite rudely, but he doesn't seem to mind. "My turn to welcome you, Heero Yuy, now that we've met properly. Hell, any guy who can find my remote control when it's been missing for weeks can't be all bad!"
And when I keep staring, totally confused, he laughs aloud again. The noise fills my apartment, louder than an auctioneer's call, and more warmly, too. I think I can recognise some good-natured teasing when it's shining in Duo Maxwell's wide, vivid blue eyes.
Heero is really an astonishing guy. I mean, I've learned some things about him just from his notes and being around his apartment, but there's no substitute for meeting someone face to face, is there? We've had a browse through some of the albums of my demonstration shows and my lecture appearances. He's put me straight on a few things about design around the apartment -- oh, and he helped me fix that cupboard door in the kitchen at last.
He wasn't too sure about my couch at first -- hell, he was civil about it, which I think is pretty much the way he is, but I could see it didn't meet his professional expectations. But when he sat down in it, his eyes did that dark widening thing that shows his emotions. He was pleasantly surprised with its comfort, and after all, that's what I want it for.
We're sitting here now, and have been for an hour or so. Time flies and all that. He's really easy to talk to, but every now and then I catch him staring at me with that confused look. When I know him better, we can talk about it. Or maybe not. Doesn't matter to me, so long as we're cool with each other.
"You want some supper?" I ask, ready to dash about for us both. "There's a combination of chicken and tarragon that I'm working on ..."
"No," he says, sharply, and then grimaces. Guess we're both a bit blunt sometimes. "I meant, not yet. I'm comfortable here, Duo."
I'm happy with that. I sort of like staring back at him, to tell you the truth. We must look like a couple of idiots, grinning at each other and sinking gradually down into the couch. I can see what Wufei meant about its uses; it's damned good value for money if you want somewhere to sit comfortably with ... a friend. At one point, I worry that Heero might be getting a back ache, and I lend him a hand to settle himself more comfortably. He makes some protest, but he doesn't let go of my arm afterwards for quite a while.
I realise I'd quite like to develop that particular kind of cool with each other. The feeling catches me by surprise.
"You have to get back? I mean, you've probably got stuff to prepare for work next week, or calls to make --"
"Me neither," I say. "I've got a couple of days leave, actually. I'm between contracts."
"I ... might be off work, too." His face looks kind of flushed. "I don't have any appointments confirmed for the next nine days." His knee is brushing against mine, touching the skin where the fabric is split.
I want to ask if he's dating -- or going steady, or whatever. It's a long time since I felt that interested. It's rare that I'd actually welcome Wufei's advice, but I'm not so confident in this area. I kind of want to know if Heero likes boys, rather than girls. The look in his eyes encourages me, but I don't think we're quite ready yet to exchange past sexual resumes.
"We could get together again, then," I say, slowly. "Soon. We could take a look at that Ideal Apartment exhibition in the city."
"We could visit the new Spanish food market on the harbour," he replies, just as slowly.
"Or just ... apartment sit," I say, even more cautiously. "But together." I grin, so that he can take it as one of my jokes, if he wants to.
We stare at each other. The air feels suddenly warmer; my breathing is shallow. He isn't smiling back at me, and I'm not entirely sure what the expression on his face means -- he's not the easiest guy to read. I think of his cool, tidy apartment, and then I think of my place that's still pretty chaotic, despite all my attempts. I can only see the differences, not the similarities between us. "Look, Heero, sorry about that. Obviously it's not --"
He interrupts me, words all in a rush. "Are you scared of stepping on my toes, Duo?"
I draw a sharp breath. "Are you scared of falling over mine, Heero?"
We do that staring thing again, and then we both smile. Broadly. It feels pretty good.
He stands up to leave, but he's still gazing at me. "Come around tomorrow," he says, rather shyly. "When I'm in, I mean. I can arrange things for us."
"Good," I reply, scrambling to my feet as well. "As arranging's not my particular strength."
I see him to the door, where he pauses. He picks up a pad of sticky notes abandoned on the hall table and the purple marker beside it, and he prints a number on the top sheet. "My private cell number," he says. "For ... future reference." Then as I watch with surprise, he peels the sheet off and attaches it very deliberately to the wall at the side of the door. It's now a bright fluorescent square framed by a random strip of crimson wallpaper that I keep meaning to remove. He grimaces at the shocking contrast, and he spends a long time carefully lining up the paper with the doorframe, but it's the way I'd leave a message, and so I appreciate the gesture from him.
I stand at the door and watch Heero Yuy walk back up the corridor. I'm in no rush to go back into my apartment, and things feel very -- very -- good. If this is what it means to enjoy life to the full, I'm not gonna bitch to Wufei about his brotherly mission ever again.
[part 3] [part 5] [back to FancyFigures' fic]