Author: Saro
see part 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Chasing Shadows + Part Two

The heat was back. It was heavy, stifling and black. I groaned, shifted against it instinctively. I could hear my own breath wheezing fast just behind my ear, barely audible over the pounding rush of my frenetic heartbeat. I blinked, trying to see, but couldn't focus.

I could hear water, lapping at its banks, laughing as it moved over rocks, pattering through leaves. Rain, and a stream, maybe. I couldn't tell. I couldn't think clearly enough to.

I was sticky. Sweat rolled down my face, or maybe it was the rain. I felt grit against my damp skin, felt damp hands travel over me. They groped across my stomach and chest, my shoulders and arms. I reached back, found a hard body over mine.

My partner shifted forward, and his hands landed hard on either side of my head.

The arms, pale shadows in the dark, were coiled with strange designs.

I looked for the snake swallowing its tail.

The body moved over mine. He was part of the heat, part of the dark and the water...

I could hardly make out the tattoos. The dim or my own blurry vision turned them into arcane patterns.

Skin rasped and stuck, stuttering against skin...

Vaguely, I thought I could make out a knot under his left elbow where the snake should be. I couldn't tell the colors, but it didn't matter. I knew them anyway.

Fingers curled--mine on his thighs or his in the dirt, it didn't matter.

My back bowed up, my mouth open around a noise that wouldn't come out, eyes squeezing shut on their own.

I tasted warm, stale water, sweat, smoke. Salt and bitter.

A shudder passed between us, starting in him and moving to me.

Was it the snake?

I woke all at once, sitting up. My stomach was thankfully steady, but my heart was racing in my ears and my whole body pulsed in time. Consciously, I slowed the rattled pace of my breathing. I don't know how long it took for my body to quiet, but it seemed like a very long time to me then. My hands shook when I lifted them to scrub at my eyes.

Duo was still asleep in the other bed. He lay on his back, braid trailing across the pillow. His breathing was soft and regular, not quite snoring. I couldn't really make out his face in the dark, I realized, just the lighter shape outlined against his hair and bedding. I groaned as the blood which had been pounding in my ears pooled somewhere lower, and let myself fall back to the mattress.

So, I wondered, why wasn't I screaming, "What the fuck?" That was probably my line right about now. One disjointed dream isn't hard to shrug off. Two should be less so. But I found myself inclined to do just that. It wasn't apathy. I did care about the dream and my reaction to it. But I wasn't sure how to respond, and I couldn't see how was worth getting upset over.

My brain worried at the problem while I lay there. Finally, it supplied me with a question I could see the importance of: was I attracted to him awake?

I studied the ceiling while I thought, my eyes tracking the blotched shadows that wheeled across it whenever a car drove by. The curtains didn't keep out all the light. In fact, they seemed to let in more than enough to get around by.

Was I attracted to Duo? Was that why I had these dreams?

I couldn't answer immediately. I hadn't actively thought of Duo as attractive, nor had I looked for anything compelling in him.

I couldn't think of having ever found another man attractive, but again, I couldn't think of ever looking at them either. Women were the standard, and there had been women. I remembered finding things in them interesting--the soft curves of their hips and thighs, the shape of a breast, their slim fingers and wrists.

My wandering mind went back to Duo's forearms, how different they were from a woman's, muscles and veins well defined beneath the skin and ink. They weren't soft or sleek. They were sinewy, and looked like they could do things, like my own. I swallowed as more details flashed through my mind's eye. The texture of hair over his tattoos, catching the light through the window at McDonalds. The way the muscle slid easily as he gestured. Speculations about what his upper arms and shoulders might look without a shirt appeared, followed by how his collarbone might arch over a hard chest. His neck wasn't thick, but it wasn't slender either. It was long, and the faint lump of his adam's apple moved when he talked or when he laughed.

I thought of his mutable smiles, shifting from friendly to abrasive as one corner of his mouth hitched up higher than the other. When his smile slid away, it left a strange, unreadable expression on his face, something almost a sneer, but not. His eyes changed, but the emotions behind them remained indecipherable, like the water of a very deep lake.

I thought of his hands moving along with his words, how they fidgeted with a cigarette, hiding one bad habit with another, when he'd fingered his first tattoo as he pointed it out to me, the way they'd touched me in my dream.

One of my hands went unconsciously to rub the erection pressing against my jeans. Yes, it was safe to say I was attracted to him.

Sighing heavily, I relented to the unpleasant reality what I wasn't going back to sleep. I was too warm, had too much energy thrumming through me, and my dick was begging for some attention. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, stood up, and went to take my own shower.

The water came out hot and strong, sluicing over my body. I bent into it and washed quickly, scrubbing until my skin was pink. It felt like washing away a lifetime's worth of grime, but I had only left four days ago. I had trouble believe it had only been that long. Thinking too much about what came before that made the bottom drop out of my stomach and the skin between my shoulders twitch, as though I thought someone was going to come and drag me back.

I kept the shower short. Lather my body, wash my hair, jerk off. It was disturbingly like being home again. I closed my eyes and shook my head, denying the similarity. A moment later, I turned off the water and stepped out of the shower.

Drying off, I realized that I didn't have anything to wear. Nothing that I wanted to wear. Everything with me had seen at least a day of action, if not more, and I was hesitant to put any of it on when I finally felt clean.

I was still pondering the dilemma of my dirty clothing when Duo woke up. He found me with a towel wrapped around my hips, blinked sleepily, and asked why the hell I was standing around naked. Not, he added, that he was complaining. Just curiosity.

I told him. He laughed. I scowled.

"Hold one just a minute," he said between snickers, then crossed the hotel room and turned on the lamp on the nightstand. In the light, he unzipped his duffel bag and picked through it. After studying and discarding a few items, he picked out a long sleeved black tee-shirt and a pair of camouflage pants. He wadded them up and tossed the bundle to me.

I caught it one handed.

"I must be a really nice guy," Duo said, smiling wryly, "letting a gym bunny like you stretch out my clothes."

Grunting, I studied the bundle of clothes skeptically. I could picture Duo wearing them and not exciting a reaction. He looked like the kind of person who would wear this sort of thing just because it was there, because he'd bought it cheap. On the other hand, I had the feeling I'd look like one of those kids who listen to deathmetal and wear jewelry with spikes on it. The fact that a shirt that fit Duo right would be too small in the shoulders and chest on me wouldn't help any. It was the difference in our builds, and our personalities.

"Thanks," I said after a minute, making a mental note to stop at a laundromat at some point, and a Good Will.

"No problem. Now get dressed and we can fuck this popsicle stand."

I snorted, not quite laughing, and got dressed. It didn't occur to me until after I changed that I'd done so in front of Duo. It wasn't something I worried about under normal circumstances, but with that dream still fresh in my mind, I caught myself throwing a glance his direction to see if he watched and trying to remember how he'd looked at me with just the towel on. He was watching me, but his blue eyes and crooked smile were inscrutable.

"Yeah," he said with mock sadness, "you are definitely gonna stretch out my shirt." Maybe he was jealous. I wondered if the fact the pants were too long would make him feel better about that, and decided not to bring it to his attention.

Duo dressed while I brushed my teeth and hair. I could hear him rummaging through his duffel bag and moving around. Getting ready to go, even though there really wasn't that much to do. Neither of us needed more preparation to leave than grabbing our things. If we wanted, we could probably be in the car and on the road again in less than fifteen minutes. That was a strangely comforting realization.

In reality, it took more like twenty five minutes.

+

It was dark still when we got back on the highway, but the sky was turning blue by the time we were away from cities again. Duo smoked his first cigarette in the car and talked to fill the silence. I listened to the steady rise and fall of his voice rather than the words. When I looked his direction, I noticed that he wasn't fiddling as much with his cigarette as he normally did. I looked more often than I should have.

I missed the punch line of the story he was telling about his friend who worked at the DMV while I watched his thumb playing idly over the butt of his cigarette. He looked at me expectantly, anticipating a response, and I pulled my attention back to the road.

"What was that?" I asked. I could feel his gaze on the side of my face like something tangible. Heat or wind or rain.

"Don't worry about it," he said after a moment. He was smiling. I heard it in his voice. "It's not worth repeating."

I tried to keep my eyes forward after that. Duo made no such effort. The weight of his gaze was firmly fixed on me, making me only too aware of the fact that I was pale, the circles under my eyes deeply scored despite a finally getting some sleep. I'd seen it in the mirror in the hotel room, and but it only affected me there. I knew my hair refused to do anything but stick out in a haphazard tangle. The long silence that followed was not comfortable for me.

+

Duo's clothes smelled like him. Cigarettes, exhaust and road dust, with something musky and unidentified behind it. I learned that when we stopped for food at a drive through and turned my head nearly into my shoulder while ordering. Afterward I couldn't help but be aware of it. A part of me wanted to smell it again and try to name that strange, lurking scent as aftershave or incense, but Duo would have seen it. The thought of him laughing kept me still.

It became more and more difficult not to look, too, and every time I looked, Duo saw it. With the fixed weight of Duo's gaze on me, I didn't for a moment pretend he hadn't noticed that time this morning when his hand had sidetracked me so completely. I couldn't pretend I hadn't been distracted by it. There was something about his hands--once I noticed them, I couldn't help but be fascinated. They made me think of the tattoos crawling up his arms. They reminded me of my dreams.

They were strong, capable hands, and suddenly I very much wanted to know what it would feel like to be touched by hands like that.

I took a scenic highway. It was an arbitrary choice that I tried to justify to myself with less traffic and the potential to try the BMW's handling on something tighter than broad freeway turns. Then I realized that if I wanted to go that way, I could.

For a long while there wasn't much to see: broken rocks, sage brush, and the occasional scrubby pine tree.

That changed at sunset. Red light spilled over the grey ground and stained the mountains an ashy purple. The boulders and bushes cast long, dark blue shadows. It was like because the land was harsh and empty, all the colors could rush in to fill it. The sun was a deep orange that didn't belong in an early winter sky. We pulled over at one of the many view points. I didn't remember deciding to; it just happened that way.

After a long, quiet moment of watching the sun inch down the sky, Duo shrugged into his leather jacket.

"I'm gonna get some air," he explained, opening the door. Then he stepped outside and the car door shut behind him.

Outside, he lit a cigarette and leaned against the hood of my car. Red and yellow caught in his hair and made oily reflections off his coat. I thought about getting out to join him, stretching my legs, but I liked being able to watch him watching the sunset. It was cold outside, but the late sun slanting through the windshield was comfortable. The smell of Duo's shirt seemed stronger, as though it had needed the warmth to bring it all the way out. I still couldn't place it. Musky or spicy or bittersweet--it wasn't something I could name.

The twilight made Duo look pale and travel worn, his eyes shadowed. He finished his cigarette and tossed the butt in the gravel. I thought maybe he'd come back, but he just folded his arms and waited. It was a long sunset, colors deepening from indigo to violet, and finally a clear, almost perfect blue. The brightest stars started to peek out. Before long the sky would be full of them.

Duo tilted his head back, baring the lean curve of his throat to the sun as it fell under the horizon. It would have been more dramatic if there were wind to stir his bangs, but the air was still.

I thought of my dream, of him over me, moving with me. My waking mind lent clarity to the nighttime fantasy, providing me with clearer images of what he would look like with sweat rolling down his body and how it might feel to be that close to a body that wasn't soft, that wasn't smooth or delicate. Vaguely, I remembered the smell in my dream, thick and unknown. I breathed in the scent around me and wondered, but my memory wasn't that good.

More stars had appeared and the light was a thin lavender band on the horizon before Duo came back inside. Cold and sage and smoke clung to him instead of humidity. He didn't say anything. I could hear the creak of the leather upholstery taking his weight, feel the car shift.

"You ready to head out?" he asked, eventually, stripping off his jacket again.

I didn't answer. I wasn't sure. Part of me was anxious to be moving again. That restlessness was always in the back of my mind. But I thought, perhaps, that I'd rather stay here awhile longer.

Duo was putting lotion on his new tattoo again. He rolled up his sleeve and found the same tube he had before. Without the dome light, the marks scrolling along his arm were like those in my dream: indecipherable as anything other than whorls of line against the lighter shade of his skin.

"May I see?" I heard myself ask.

Angling a guarded look through his hair, he offered me his left arm. His pupils were large in the dark. Swallowing hard, I reached out and grabbed it, turning it over so I could see the snake curled around itself and swallowing its tail. It was the first time I'd touched him; the contact jolted through my hand. His skin was hot and cold at the same time.

My eyes strained to trace the lines of his tattoo in the near darkness. I could see it when I focused, though the colors were all lost to grey. I could see the tendons in his arm and the veins that ran from wrist to elbow, disappearing beneath his shirt. In the light, they would have been bluish at points. Not like a woman's arm at all. Even his skin seemed harder. I licked my lips, but my tongue was suddenly dry. My thumb moved over one of the tattoos absently while I studied his arm.

He was speaking. I think he'd been speaking the whole while, but I only now heard it. The words were irrelevant, but I heard the rasp in his voice. The sound trickled down my spine.

I wanted to see more. I wanted to see all of his tattoos, wanted to see what was hidden under his shirt and his jeans. Touching him burnt my hand, but I couldn't let go. Suddenly my palms were sweaty, slick and sticky against the short hair on his forearm. The heat of my dream crawled into my gut, seeped into my limbs and clouded my mind.

"Heero," he said, my name lancing through the haze briefly. "Do you know what you're doing?"

For an answer, I leaned in slowly and kissed his wrist. His pulse danced under my lips and his breathe caught audibly in his chest. That seemed to be all the reply he needed.

He caught my chin between those fingers of his and pulled me up to kiss his mouth. I tasted his cigarettes, harsh and bitter, and salt from his upper lip. I cupped his cheek, surprised to feel rough stubble. Duo took the lead for the moment, his tongue darting past my lips to swipe at my teeth. Opening my mouth, I invited him in.

His acceptance was eager. He ran his tongue across mine and tasted the smooth flesh of my cheek, pulled my lower lip into his mouth and scrapped his teeth over it. Then his tongue dove in again, tangling with mine, drawing the kiss out. I groaned. Small, furtive sounds vibrated against my lips. Pushing me back into the seat, he half-climbed over the center console. His callused hands held my face, tilted my head back and to the side.

And his eyes were open the whole while, nearly lost in the dark. My own eyes felt weighted at the corners. I saw him through my eye lashes. I saw the intense look that came into his face when he kissed me, and knew he couldn't be young.

My hands went to his waist, rose again under his shirt. Strong muscles shifted under my palms. I could feel the ridges of his vertebrae, the sinuous line of his backbone. Shivering, I pulled away. I wanted the shirt off. Now.

I'm not sure whether or not I said something. Either way, he didn't protest when I pulled the shirt over his head. The sleeve caught on his watchband; he yanked it free, and then pulled his hair out. The braid fell against my shoulder, slithering between us before he tossed it behind him.

His chest was pale, skin almost glowing in the light off the dashboard. Tattoos wound up his right arm nearly to the shoulder, where they became thinner and less finished. It made him look unbalanced, with one arm completely covered and the other only half done. The black ring through his right nipple added to the impression.

My eyes were drawn to the jewelry. Some comment he'd made before fluttered through my mind without finding a hold as I studied him. I touched his flat abdomen, watching as his skin twitched in response. I traced his body's contours, following them up, fascinated by the way his breathe made his ribs expand. One finger looped through his nipple ring, and I tugged it softly.

Duo hissed sharply. I started to let go, but he caught my hand. "Don't tease me, Heero."

I swallowed hard, panting, and wondered when the inside of my car got so hot. Sweat beaded on my skin. My borrowed shirt clung to the small of my back and stuck to the seat beneath me. I tugged again, harder, and he gritted his teeth.

Duo moved, awkward in the confined space, scrambling the rest of the way over the console and straddling my legs. I only had to lean forward a little way and bend my neck to catch the ring in my mouth. It tasted of metal, cold as I flicked it with my tongue. A shudder ran up through him.

Then his hands were in my hair, blunt fingernails raking across my scalp and tipping my head so he could kiss me again. His lips pressed against mine, demanding. I licked those lips, worried them gently between my teeth.

His hand dropped to the front of my pants, rubbing at the erection that pressed against the cloth. He flipped open the button, pulled the zipper down one tooth at a time. I pressed up, a frustrated noise in my throat. He shushed me, caressing my neck and running fingers through my hair. His thumb played over my ear and gave me a tingling shock. I swear I could feel the heat of his hand before he finally reached into my pants and pulled out my dick.

My dream flashed through my mind, contrasting with the interior of the BMW. There was no water. No strange sounds. Only the dark, and the noise of the car's shocks responding to our movements, and the stars coming to life in vivid, milky clusters outside.

Duo flat-palmed my erection, snapping me back to the moment. His mouth touched my neck, teeth an unyielding edge behind soft lips. His fingers wrapped around me, moving in slow, sure strokes. It only occurred to me to wonder how far he'd take us when the seat abruptly started to recline. Or maybe I knew from the beginning, the second I kissed his wrist, or touched his skin, or saw his tattoos. The first time I saw him walking down the side of the road. The first time I saw his arms in my dream. I didn't know, and I didn't care.

I held his hips while he kissed me and stroked me. They were as firm and angular as the rest of him, and somehow it was like this was what I'd wanted all along. I knew, in some corner of my brain, that I had enjoyed the feel of a woman's hips, the way they flared down from her waist, the soft give of a feminine body in my hands, but I couldn't imagine how. I reveled in the planes of his stomach, the play of bone and muscle visible above his jeans.

I hooked my fingers into the top of his pants, dragging them down as much as I could.

Duo took the hint. Stretching along one side of me and pressing close, he reached down to take off his boots, then squirmed out of his jeans. The stainless steel glint of his other piercing caught my attention, made me blink. Duo's grin shown similarly. "What do you think?" His breath ghosted against my cheek, carrying the words with it.

I wanted to answer, but I couldn't think at all. I turned toward that smile, met his mouth with mine. Lucky Strikes and salt, and something almost sweet. My eyes hooded, but I still watched him, tried to see our lips as they brushed over one another and our tongues. I could smell sage and pine still clinging to him, unable to hide the smell from my dream. I did recognize it. I still had no idea what it was.

He pulled himself on top of me again, balanced on his knees and toes, and I slid down in the seat, pressing my hips to his.

"What now?" I asked, and my voice was thick. My hands wandered over his calves and thighs, back toward his chest.

His grin changed, became something dark. He leaned in close to me, nuzzled the collar of his shirt. I heard him breathe me in. "What now?" he repeated, like it was a joke. "Let's see..."

He reached past me, opened his bag. I heard him search, saw his arm work, tattoos wavering as I looked at them. He braced himself with one hand on the seat next to my head; a warm rush went to my groin where it curled out into a full body flush.

It wasn't long before Duo found what he was looking for. He pulled back, leaving empty air next to me. I felt cold with out him there. A noise of protest fought its way up from my chest. I could see the bottle, though, and I knew what it was.

He didn't waste time, wetting one hand and stroking me again, then taking care of himself. He was quicker than I would have been if it was my ass, but I understood his rush. I shared it. Urgency charged the air like static electricity. When he was finished, he tossed the bottle to the passenger floor board.

I lay there very still, trembling while he moved over me. I think I was afraid that if I made a mistake, I'd wake up, even though I knew it wasn't a dream.

He lowered himself onto me, a pressure that dragged against me. I couldn't hear over the sound of my pulse in my ears and my own ragged breathing. My eyes squeezed shut. There was only that grip, the feel of his body over mine. Then his hands hit the leather by my head and I opened my eyes, turned my head to look.

It was so familiar, but so different. The heat that pressed against me and fogged the windows was only us. It was all only us. I arched into him, feet looking for purchase on the floor-mat.

Duo didn't wait. When he's taken my dick as far in as he would, his legs flexed, thighs cording as he lifted himself. Down again, taking me further. The feeling of his muscles under my hands was new, but not strange. I went for his nipple ring again, flicked it, tugged on it. I couldn't help myself. I liked the noises that he made when I did that, and the way he grimaced. Duo set the pace, insinuating his body closer to mine with every roll of his hips.

Dreams and reality blurred. He was wearing a watch, which had never been there before, but I'd never seen him take it off, and the impression it was wrong confused me. Sensations spun through me, damp cloth and sticky leather, skin. The teasing glint of metal at the head of his cock, drawing my hand to it. I felt like a magpie, attracted to the shine, but Duo didn't protest when I took hold of his erection. Unlike the nipple ring, I had no idea what to do with this. I stroked up his length, played with the ring as I circled the head with my fingers.

He grunted. Not a loud noise, but it reached me. Had he gasped like that in my dream? Had he moaned? I couldn't remember, but I wanted to hear it now.

He was steady over me, dipping in, rising up on arms and legs.

I thrust into him, matching his rhythm as well as I could.

It was fucking. It was fucking in the front seat of my car, no less. There was no extra room, and in some corner of my mind I hoped that no one drove by, and that neither of us hit the clutch or the parking break. I'd be lying if I made it sound more romantic than that, but it was what we both wanted.

Duo's head lolled, chin to chest while his face screwed up in an expression that would have been funny under any other circumstance--like he was baring his teeth, and at the same time fighting to swallow. His eyes were slits, brows drawn down and puckered. I touched his face, scraped his bangs away from his forehead. His hair was damp with sweat. It clung to my hand.

He pressed a clumsy kiss to my palm. That one point was like a brand pressed to my hot body.

I choked, forgetting how to breath.

He came first. His rhythm broke. Tense one moment, relaxed and swaying above me the next. I saw his mouth hanging open, his eyes finally shut. There was a mess on his shirt, warm against my stomach.

I followed a moment later. Steadying his hips, I pushed up into him. I remember my temples pounding, whole body thrumming like an engine. I remember opening my mouth and saying something. If it was his name, I'd be amazed. I'm not sure I knew my own.

...dripping, sated heat. Red sky, partially hidden by a canopy of leaves. Arms held me close. We coiled together like snakes in winter. And like reptiles, neither of us really had any warmth to share...

The flash of dream leaked out of my mind and I lay wrung out, trembling beneath Duo. Shaking, he sat back. I slipped out of him with a wince. After a little scrambling and clumsy maneuvering, he flopped down in the passenger seat. His panting was an uneven counterpoint to my own.

That strange, almost sweet smell was thick around me, mingling with the atmosphere of our sex. Hardly thinking, I popped my door open and a shock of cold air rolled over me. A few deep, controlled breaths brought me down slowly from the high.

Duo choked in surprise, and I remembered he was still naked. I muttered an apology. He waved it off, though. Shaking himself, Duo pulled on his jacket and his jeans. I noticed he left the button on his jeans undone before he leaned back in his seat.

I lay back, closed my eyes, and let my head clear.

+

I think I dozed off. It was later than it should have been when I opened my eyes again, and I was cold. My clothes had dried to me, and I realized with a sort of belated embarrassment that I hadn't even zipped up my fly. Running hands through my hair, I found it clumped and sticking out at haphazard angles--nothing I could fix without a comb.

"I think," I said, then stopped to work some moisture back into my mouth. I tried again. "I think we should get cleaned up, and find some place to do laundry."

His lighter snicked; cigarette smoke wafted my direction.

"Sounds like a plan." His voice was rougher than usual, huskier. It brushed at the back of my neck.

I nodded, straightening myself out cursorily, and brought my seat back upright. Duo still wasn't really dressed. His bangs matched my hair, dried into dark spikes and sticking to his face here and there. His nipple ring peeked out from under his coat as he shifted lazily to bring the cigarette to his mouth.

Closing my door, I started the car. Reverse, glance at the mirrors as though there was something to see, pull back. The actions were familiar, and they helped ground me. I needed something to concentrate on other than the man next to me; the smell and the feel, and the taste that lingered in my mouth.

I found myself thinking about my family, and how they'd react if they knew about this. Any of this. Picturing how I would tell them, I started to script the scene in my head. I would couch the words in the code I'd grown up with, the one that's supposed to sound polite. In reality, it always sounds minced and condescending.

I could see my brother's jaw--the one he'd inherited from his father--tighten. His wife would get that look of hers, turning up the edges of her eyes while she bared her teeth and pretended it was a tolerant smile. She wasn't as good at that as Duo. Mother, she would just blink twice rapidly. She might draw back just a little, depending on how she felt about homosexuality, and if she believed that I was gay. That was the only way she ever showed surprise.

She would recover first. She'd ask me about Duo. What does he do? I mean, does he have a career or a plan...oh. What do you know about his family? Do you know anything about him at all? The whole while, she'd be choking on her own propriety. She'd have that light her dark eyes. The one that said that she wanted to yell, she wanted to cry and worry, but wouldn't crack her face to do so.

I might tell her I didn't know. I hadn't been looking for a relationship, and I still wasn't. It just happened.

My brother, who would have been trying to stay reasonable, would lose his temper then. He didn't have our mother's control. Or maybe he's barely more than two years younger than I am, and he still remembered fighting as kids.

He'd demand to know why I didn't tell them if I was gay. He would assume that was the case, and that I had hidden it from them. It would explain why I didn't want to get married and have a brood of children. He never could understand that having a life like that just didn't appeal to me. So why did I let them know this way? Why didn't I tell them before? I could hear him saying that they were my family.

I could hear them talking about responsibility and sympathy.

But first, he would demand what the hell I was thinking.

Would you believe I wasn't?

Gritting my teeth, I was suddenly glad to be on a deserted side track in the middle of nowhere, alone with a man I hardly knew and had just had sex with. I didn't think I could be the person who sat through my family right now. It just took too much energy to shrug off their good intentions.

Duo didn't talk while we drove, which was fine with me. He smoked another cigarette, then put on his boots without socks. His smile was more a smirk. It was a lazy, humorless expression, neither young nor old.

I almost chuckled. My family would have hated him, and he wouldn't give a good goddamn.

Around five in the morning or so, we hit a town just big enough to consider itself a city. After stopping and checking the listings at a payphone, then wandering through what passed for downtown for the better part of half and hour, we managed to find a laundomat. It was all white appliances and harvest gold linoleum under stuttering florescent lights. Other than one woman sorting her clothes at the end of a row of washing machines, the place was deserted.

The woman cast a look over her shoulder at us when we entered. Her eyes flicked from Duo to me and back again before she turned away. I think we frightened her a little; I could feel the tension from her. I shouldn't have been surprised. Knowing what we looked like, I can't say I blamed her.

Duo picked a washing machine and started pulling clothes out of his duffel bag, making a pile on the floor. In my hands was a plastic sack with my entire small wardrobe inside. It wasn't even two complete changes of clothes. I frowned, thinking about it. I couldn't remember a time I'd been so unprepared. I took more with me on a day trip to the beach.

Catching my attitude, Duo interrupted my thoughts. "I'm clean, if that's what you're worried about."

"It wasn't," I told him, meeting his gaze. It occurred to me that it probably should have been, all things considered. I hadn't even thought about it until he mentioned something. Our encounter flashed through my head again, and I saw the notable lack of a condom. I didn't have one, though. I also remembered the lube in Duo's bag. He seemed to have planned ahead.

I commented on as much.

"I believe in always being prepared," he said and snickered.

"You don't strike me as much of a boy scout."

"Oh, I wasn't." He paused to smell a shirt, winced and threw it in the pile. "But I did end up with Crisco up my ass once, and after that I decided it was better to be prepared."

"Crisco?" I asked, before I could stop myself. I'm not sure I would have held it back if I could.

Shrugging, Duo elaborated. "You use what's around. Crisco, butter, suntan oil, beer--I'm happy to say I wasn't bottoming on the beer experiment." I wondered if my face was as blank as it felt. I guess it was, because he changed the subject. "So what were you scowling about?"

"I need to go clothes shopping," I said aloud, though more to myself than Duo.

Duo smiled wryly. "You think?"

"Probably not as often as I should."

The comment took Duo off guard. His eyes widened a little and his smile took on an incredulous edge. His mouth opened a little, as though he was about to say something, then closed again, and he gave a shake of his head. I don't think he made that face often, but I liked it. It was open in a way that highlighted just how reserved most of his expressions were.

He recovered quickly. My bag was snatched out of my hands, and its meager contents dumped on top of his pile of clothes. An indulgent smile firmly glued itself to his face. "You go shop. I'll take care of these."

"It's not even six in the morning," I said.

"So?" Duo asked, looking me over. He arched one eyebrow, then went back to sifting through clothes. "What time does Wal-Mart open?"

I had no idea. The smile took on an edge. Something cold and bitter, like day old coffee.

"Ever been to a Wal-Mart, Heero? Could be sort of educational. Fat women in stretch pants. Townies with nothing better to do than get high and wander around the aisles." He chose a shirt seemly at random and threw it at me. I caught it, unfolded it, and looked at the front skeptically. It was white, with colored bubbles and the words "Wonder Bread" written across the chest.

"Staying true to my roots," Duo explained. "But you'll probably want to change out of that shirt before you go." Sensing that I was being dismissed, I obeyed.

+

For the record, Wal-Mart opened at seven. The coffee kiosk across the street, on the other hand, opened at five am, and I had an hour to kill. I was thirsty for something warm. It was a chilly morning, just above freezing, and the wind soaked through my clothes like cold water. Duo's Wonder Bread tee shirt wasn't up to the challenge of holding it out, even under my coat.

When I looked at the menu, nothing was what I wanted. There wasn't a line behind me so I didn't feel any pressure to hurry. On the other side of the counter, an Asian girl with blonde streaks bleached in her dark hair eyed me up and down. Tucking her shaggy bangs behind her ear, she said, "If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them. I've tried just about everything."

She smiled a wide, waxy pink smile that showed off straight white teeth. I nodded and went back to looking at the list.

The coffees had cute names. A white chocolate mocha with an extra shot of vanilla was called White-on-White. A triple shot mocha with chocolate sprinkles on top was a Black Hole. The Morning Buzz had honey in it. I winced inwardly as I read them. Whoever named some of these had a warped sense of humor. "The Virgin was served with a cherry. Get it?" That sort of sense of humor. I got it, but it still wasn't funny

There was a Duo Espresso, with or without cream. My mouth twitched involuntarily at that one; already had it. I nearly laughed. It was stupid, but a wave of relief hit me hard, breaking through the post-coital depression and introspection.

The girl's face told me that I was taking too long. The smile was thinner, less inviting. Her nails clicked audibly against the countertop. I abandoned the menu and just ordered the house blend. She didn't roll her eyes until she thought I couldn't see it. Pulling my coat tighter against a gust, I waited for my coffee.

"Dollar-fifty," the girl said when she came back. I paid and took the cup. Even through the insulation, it was warm enough to burn my cold fingers. I stood there for a moment, letting the heat work into my hands.

"Thanks." I took a sip of the coffee. It wasn't really that good, but it wasn't awful either. The warmth crept down my throat and hit my empty stomach, spreading out from there. I sighed and savored the feeling.

The girl's smile came back full force and she nodded. Her bangs fell forward from behind her ear. She shook her head to clear the hair in front of her eyes. "Come again," she said. "You can try something else next time."

"I'm only in town for the day," I told her and took another drink.

"Oh," she said, looking a little disappointed. Then she asked, doubtfully, "Business?"

I shook my head. "Just passing through."

She leaned forward, elbows on the counter, arms crossed beneath her breasts. "Where are you coming from?"

I tried to remember the name of the last town and couldn't. Most of the little towns struck me as about the same. Gas station and convenience store, sometimes in one, a bar, and more churches than they had restaurants. I looked over my shoulder, and up at the blank, early morning blue sky, then gestured the direction I thought was northwest. When I turned back, there was a line between the girl's brows.

"So, that's like Tri-Cities?" she asked after a moment.

I shrugged. "I think so, yeah. I was there a couple days back."

"Wow. So, have you heard about the murder then?"

I looked up. Her eyes had a sparkle in them. "No. Should I have?"

"It's in this morning's paper," the girl told me. "That makes three." She was excited to tell me about it. I could almost feel it, the vitality prickling in the air like static electricity. Her smile turned into a grin.

"Three?" I could guess, but the word was out before I could stop it.

"Bodies," she explained obligingly. "They were saying the first two might be unrelated, but with a third... it's like a serial killer or something. They're not releasing all the details, but I guess it's pretty weird. No pattern yet, except that all the bodies have neck trauma."

I took another sip of my coffee and glanced at my watch. Forty more minutes. I made a noise and let her decide if it sounded interested or not.

Apparently, she thought it did. "Yeah. They just found the last one yesterday. Some guy in the Tri-Cities." She made a paper appear from under the counter and held it out so I could see the picture on the front page. It showed man around thirty or so, I guessed, with rings through his nose and eyebrow, and dangling from his ears. A tattoo crept up his neck. The tag line under the photo said that the missing tattoo artist had been found dead in a drainage ditch near his parlor yesterday afternoon.

Duo's tattoo flashed through my mind unbidden, the possibility unfolding as a pressure in my chest, a tightness in my throat. I pushed the half-formed idea aside forcibly. Just because a tattoo artist had been killed in the area didn't incriminate Duo. It wasn't that big a coincidence. My attention moved to the headline, but it was more or less the same information. From what I could see of the article, it dealt more with the dead man and his family than the murder.

"This is today's paper?" I asked.

The girl nodded. "Yeah, it's today's. Are you alright?"

"Fine," I answered without thinking. "Were the other murders in the same area?" If they were, it would have to be a coincidence.

It was probably a coincidence anyway, I told myself sternly, but the image of Duo's freshly colored arm and opaque blue eyes was fixed in my mind.

"No," she said, pulling the paper back and opening to the second page. Her dark eyes skimmed down the lines. "The first showed up about a month ago on the other side of the Stateline. The other turned up at a rest stop off the Interstate. The police think it's a transient." I got the feeling she was paraphrasing from the article.

"It's crazy," the girl commented, setting aside the newspaper. "But I suppose if it happened in New York or L.A or somewhere like that, no one would even blink. People expect murders in places like that."

I nodded absently as she spoke. Remembering my coffee, I took another slow drink. People got killed. It happened.

"I guess that's why I stick around here. I always wanted to go somewhere bigger, but I don't think I'd feel safe."

I grunted a reply to that. "I know what you mean." A lot of people seemed to do or not do things because they wanted to feel safe. It was like that line of commuters going to work the morning I left, doing the same thing day after day because it was familiar, and it felt safe. I'd done that. It seemed like another life.

"But you're traveling," she observed inanely.

"Yeah, I am," I told her. A smile tugged my lips, and I turned away. "Have a nice day."

"Take it easy," she replied as I left.

I told myself that Duo hadn't done it while I walked back across the street, but my brain seemed bent on turning over that possibility. Not because it was frightening, or it worried me, but because it was there. I wasn't afraid of Duo. Or maybe I wasn't afraid to die. I remembered his touch, his taste, the way he looked above me awake and the way it felt dreaming. I wondered if he'd killed three people. Would he kill more?

A serial killer doesn't stop killing. I know that. My stomach turned, roiling with coffee and acid, and I took another sip. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Morbidly, I guessed I would know the next time a corpse surfaced whether or not it was Duo. Again I tried to push the thought out of my head, and again I failed. I still had more than a half an hour before Wal-Mart opened, and there was nothing else to do but watch for glimpses of blue smocked employees and watch the sky slowly lighten with false dawn.

It could have been him, I ceded to myself finally. But that didn't mean it was. If I had heard that a gas station had been robbed, and knew someone had gotten gas that day, I wouldn't assume that they had done it. There was no reason for this to be different. But it was different. Because it was Duo, it was different. I sighed, drank my coffee, and fought aside the temptation to add a pack of cigarettes to my shopping list.

How had the tattoo artist died? The girl has said neck trauma. I guessed that she was quoting straight from the paper when she said that. She hadn't said that was the cause of death, either, just that they all had neck trauma.

In the end, I bought a paper from one of the racks in front of the store. The article wasn't much help. The tattoo artist's name was Jacob Rueben, he was thirty-two, and his murder was similar to those of Christina Mathieu and Aaron Rosario. There was a short interview with his wife inside and a picture of their four-year-old son, Brock. I skimmed over it, looking for more details about the murder itself. The police were promising to release more information as it became available. It looked so mundane in print.

I flipped back to the front page to look at the picture again. Jacob Rueben looked back, smiling at me from his photo. He was dead, I thought, and it felt unreal. I didn't know him in the first place. How could he be dead when to me, it was as though he'd never existed at all? I wasn't sorry he was dead, though I suppose I felt a pang for his family. I knew it hurt to lose someone. The emotion was subdued.

I scanned the headlines. Sports scores, local politics, a spread on an author who was doing a book signing; nothing that attracted my attention. I threw the paper into a trash can near the door, followed by my empty coffee cup, and checked my watch again. I only had a couple more minutes until the store was open and I could get my shopping over with.

Duo had teased me because he could tell I had never been to a Wal-Mart before. In retrospect, it seemed ironic to tease someone because Wal-Mart was below their economic level of consumption. It made sense in terms of Duo, though. Just another facet of the perverse streak that seemed to be at the core of him. Walking into the vast, pale interior of the mega store, I didn't see how it was enviable compared to mall shopping. The lighting was high and harsh, and it did nothing to disguise the quality of the products that filled the shelves and racks. The floors were white in a freshly bleached way. Recycled air pressed in on me, stale and immediate.

I chose a direction that might lead to men's clothes and went that way.

I kept my Wal-Mart experience as short as I could. Nothing about the store inspired me to linger. Ignoring the few other shoppers, I looked for what I needed, picking up jeans and tee shirts and sweaters without doing much more than checking the size and making sure that there were no large images or logos on them. I almost forgot socks, and buying them made me realize I was still wearing my Hush Puppies. I bought a pair of ugly yellow work boots to replace them.

I hurried, but even so, the place was busy by the time I was ready to leave. There seemed to be people everywhere, worse than in a mall. I couldn't walk down the aisles without having to navigate through the bodies, and most of them were heedless about who they brushed up against or bumped into. When a child scrunched up his face, looked at me curiously, and asked his mother what that smell was, I gladly pushed my cart to a check out line and called the effort a success. I had clothes.

I returned to the laundromat. Duo waited for me on the curb, smoking a cigarette and hiding from the morning glare behind his dark aviators. He smiled when I rolled to a stop, then tossed the end of his cigarette into the street. Sliding the glasses down his nose, he looked at me over the dark wire rims and said, "I knew you wouldn't leave me."

I snorted. There was humor in his voice, but the blue eyes were still as cold and unfathomable as a deep water lake. I recognized why I was no longer concerned that he'd killed that artist or those others before him, when I looked into his eyes. I had almost understood it when the girl told me about the murders, but I had been too distracted by the murder itself to realize it. It didn't matter, one way or the other, because either way he could have killed them. If it suited him, he would. I didn't know why he'd do it, but I understood it in the same way that I've occasionally met someone and pinged on them as coming from a broken home or having a rigid upbringing. He was a killer.

I saw his smile turn into a smirk. "So, we ready to go?"

"Yeah," I said, popping the lock on his door. "We're ready."

He laughed and climbed in. The car door slammed shut behind him, made my heart lurch.

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