By: Sintari
see part 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Tangled Up in Blue + Part 3
I Guess This Is Growing Up

If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles.
­ Walt Whitman


Like Solomon itself, the Solomon City Zoo had the atmosphere of the day after a party ­ like a thousand people had just gone home, and you just missed them. The litter from the party was swept into the zoo's dark corners, the animals appeared tired, and if you wanted to carry the party metaphor father, as if they had all had one too many to drink the night before. Solomon was a city past its prime, and in the zoo, it showed.

Quatre, who had dressed for his first day on the job in a khaki pants and a polo shirt, was already feeling decidedly overdressed as he followed his new boss, Dr. Johansson (who was conveniently clad in jeans and an old t-shirt), around the premises. He had already been slapped in the face with a briar while slogging through the black bear habitat, and his loafers were covered in what would turn out to be a permanent layer of mud.

After viewing the zoo's operations, Quatre had come to one conclusion. They hadn't hired him because his knowledge and passion had outshined all the other candidates. The Solomon City Zoo had experienced massive budget cuts. They just couldn't afford anyone with more education and experience. That figured. Quatre Winner always got the short end of the stick.

Still, being up close and personal with the animals, measuring their food out, even getting to pet the docile ones, Quatre was in his personal heaven. And they haven't even gotten to the big cats yet.

The small Solomon City Zoo had four lions and a Bengal tiger, and though their habitats couldn't have been more different, the zoo's designers had decided to group them together in one corner of the zoo lot. When Dr. Johansson let Quatre into the outer courtyard of the tiger's rainforest habitat, the first thing he noticed was a delicious rear end bent over a bin in the corner. The gate creaked, and the owner of said rear end stood up, to reveal a face half covered by messy brown hair. Even in the dark though, Quatre could have told you that this guy was gorgeous.

"Trowa, this is Quatre, the new assistant. Quatre, this is Trowa, my right hand man and a big cat expert in his own right. In fact, he's working on his doctoral thesis on the Tsavo lions." Quatre was instantly intrigued. The Tsavo lions were the maneless man-eaters who had been the subject of the film The Ghost and the Darkness. Dr. Johansson continued in the lecturing tone Quatre was already becoming accustomed too. "He's got some interesting theories, Quatre, you ought to ask him about them." Turning to Trowa, he continued, "Quatre here is especially interested in the big cats as well, Trowa. I'm sure you two will have a lot to talk about.""I hope you're right," Quatre thought hopefully. Aloud, he said "The Tsavo lions, that was a fascinating story. You'll have to tell me what you're writing about." Trowa merely nodded and took off his baseball cap, smoothing his hair off of his sweaty forehead. He had green eyes. Quatre was trying not to ogle, but really, he couldn't help but notice. Trowa had opened his mouth to say something, but just then the radio on his belt crackled.

"Cathy's on Line 2, Trowa," came the operator's voice.

"I need to take that," he explained. "Nice to meet you, Quatre. If you guys will excuse me." And Trowa was gone, along with Quatre's fantasy about picking out china patterns. Cathy. Of course he was straight. All the hot ones were straight.

"A man of few words, that Trowa," Dr. Johansson explained. "But he sure knows his stuff. You'd do well to spend as much time with him as you can."

"Oh don't worry..." Quatre muttered.

+

When most people visit the hospital, they have something in their hands. Usually flowers, or a stuffed animal, maybe balloons or some forbidden sweet treat. When someone enters the hospital with nothing but his hands in his pockets, it usually indicates a frequent visitor. Someone who has endured too many nurse changes, too many midnight calls, too many bedside tears.

Quatre's hands were empty when he entered the Hope Gardens Perpetual Care Home. "Perpetual care" was a nice way of phrasing it. The fact was, the patient he was here to visit would never be coming out again outside of a body bag.

Quatre always felt shabby as soon as he passed through Hope Gardens' fence in his beat up '91 Honda. On the outskirts of Solomon, the combination nursing home and assisted living center had been built out of a converted Georgian mansion. From the outside, the enormous brick house looked as if it could hold all of Solomon's elderly and infirm and then some. A nine-foot brick fence with a wrought iron gate kept the idly curious out, and hid the splendid gardens within. One flower bed at Hope Gardens was the size of the backyard of the duplex where Quatre had grown up.

The huge double doors at the front entrance had been fitted with motion sensors in order to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. Quatre smiled and waited as a white-clad orderly wheeled an old woman with dyed red hair out the front door. He recognized the woman. One of the nurses had once confided that she was Vesta Solomon Worth, one of the Solomon's. The ones the city was named after.

"You forgot to bring my umbrella," he heard the old woman say imperiously.

"Mrs. Worth, you didn't ask for your umbrella," the orderly replied good-naturedly.

Quatre didn't wait to see how this minor drama played out. He stepped inside and wondered for the hundredth time whether the place was soundproofed. He was careful not to let the door bang shut behind him in the sepulchral silence. Crossing Hope Garden's threshold was like entering a mausoleum. Not a bad analogy really. No matter how tasteful the décor, Quatre could never manage to forget how many of the patients here hovered close to death. The personal care home's lobby was done up more like a sitting room than a waiting room. A window, complete with cushioned window seat dominated the right side of the room. Overstuffed armchairs and wooden-legged couches surrounded an antique table. A vase of flowers had been placed in the very center of the round table. Without fail, they were always fresh. The first few times Quatre had had to fill out paperwork here, he had checked. He had read the plaque on the table once, too. It was from two centuries ago and probably cost more than everything Quatre owned combined. He had never seen a spot of dust on the table. Apparently elves appeared magically out of the dark wood paneling and cleaned the place up after a dusty person such as himself entered the room. He bet he could come in at any time, day or night, and the place would be spotless and dust-free.

A woman in a lavender business suit sat behind a round counter in the center of the room. Quatre knew her name was Lillian. Lillian knew his name was Quatre Winner. But no matter how many times Quatre came to visit, she still asked who he was here to see and then requested identification. He had tried greeting her using her given name a few times, but she had merely looked at him like he had carrots stuck up his nose. Today, he dutifully presented his ID and signed in.

Quatre knocked lightly on the door to room 2-6. He didn't expect an answer and he didn't get one.

He opened the door and peeked in. Even in sleep his mother's muscles moved involuntarily. One of Catherine Mason's arms writhed against the pillows, and her face twitched in what might be a smile. The sight of a smile on that wasted face might have been beautiful to Quatre, if the disease that had betrayed her body and muddled her mind wasn't forcing her mouth muscles to create that eerie expression over, and over, and over again.

A chest of drawers in one corner of the room held over a dozen framed photographs ­ pictures of him and his three sisters, of his step-father Frank and of his grandparents and aunts and uncles. The nurses sat a different picture by his mother's bed every day. Today's picture showed Catherine and Frank on their honeymoon. They had stayed at a cabin on Lake Timberland. Quatre and his older sister Iria had stayed with their grandmother, in that last summer before she died.

Frank had been substantially older than his mother, but back then, hell, even now, there weren't that many men willing to take in a single twenty-three year old mother of two. Iria had been seven and Quatre had been five when they married. His younger sisters, Delilah, named after their grandmother, and Violet, whom everyone called Scout, had come along a few years later.

Frank had died in an accident the year Quatre was seventeen. He had been trying to put just a few more miles under the tires of the eighteen wheel truck he drove for a living. Time was money, and Quatre was approaching college age. It could have been much worse. Frank could have had the heart attack behind the wheel while driving in rush hour traffic instead of speeding through the foggy Ohio River Valley at 4am. He died just the same. And his mother's Huntington's Disease, which she had been managing to hide from her children, flared with a vengeance under the stress of her husband's death.

Their mother had deteriorated rapidly. Within the year, she was bedridden. Within three years, they could no longer take care of her at home. They had no choice but to put her in Solomon's public, income-assisted nursing home. The squat gray building in downtown Solomon smelled like urine, sweat and death and was about as inviting as tomb. That year had been hell on Quatre. They had endured substandard care for their mother until the summer he turned twenty-two. Then, miraculously, his mother qualified for some government program that allowed her to move to Hope Gardens. Quatre and Iria had worried at first that some mistake had been made and that, at any time, they would suddenly have to pay off Hope Gardens' enormous bill. But the bill never came and through the years they grew used to visiting their mother at the converted estate.

Instead of college, Iria worked two jobs to care for Quatre, Delilah and Scout. Quatre managed a few semesters of community college before falling into the same rut. Delilah was married now, at nineteen. Sixteen year old Scout still lived with Iria. She was still in high school and she had a baby due in the fall. Iria herself had the eyes of an old woman at age twenty-eight. No, maybe they hadn't done that great without a parent's guidance. But they'd survived.

There was one consolation. In 1993, scientists had come up with a genetic test to determine whether relatives of Huntington's patients had the gene. Though there had been a 50/50 chance, Quatre and his three sisters had been spared. The disease would die with their mother. And the disease would die soon.

Quatre watched as his mother's face seemed to smooth and her eyes opened. Somehow, she managed to become more beautiful as she wasted away. Her skin grew paler, her blue eyes more luminous. When she looked at him, he barely noticed the twitching and writhing muscles that had become one of the hallmarks of her disease.

"Frank?" she said feebly.

Quatre held one of her slim hands in his. "It's Quatre, mama."

She was beginning to forget him now. On his last two visits she had mistaken her only son for her dead husband. He knew he couldn't blame her for the havoc the disease had wreaked on her mind, but it still hurt. Nonetheless, she squeezed his hand and he squeezed back. Catherine dropped off to sleep again soon after. According to the nurses, she barely awoke at all anymore. The resident doctor gave her months, maybe a year. When the eerie twitching smiles began again, Quatre slipped his hand out of his mother's and crept silently out the door.

+

Duo sidled up to Wufei, who was in his usual position at the bar at Tangle. The braided man's eyes were dilated wide as saucers, and the implications weren't lost on the Chinese man.

"What you up to, Wu?" Duo took a seat beside his friend, and then spun around once on the barstool, ending up with his head provocatively thrown back and cocked to one side, looking up at Wufei. The Chinese man couldn't deny that the come-hither look in those violet bedroom eyes was a tempting sight. Very tempting. But unlike nearly everyone else in the room, Wufei had developed immunity to Duo's charms.

"Waiting for Quatre. Not that you'd care," he couldn't stop himself from adding.

Duo put a hand to his heart and replied mockingly, "Now 'Fei, that hurts me very deeply. You know Quatre has been my bestest friend since we were twelve years old. Why would you say such mean things?" A sly grin crept over Duo's face, his dilated eyes widened. "Could it be that you're jealous because Quatre loves me best?"

Wufei would have knocked that smug look off of Duo's face, if it weren't for the fact that Duo had about five inches and five hundred trips to the gym over him. Besides, Duo was high. He probably wouldn't even remember what he had said in the morning. The Chinese man contented himself with glaring at his adversary. And over his shoulder, there was Quatre. Before he could help himself, Wufei blushed. Maybe Duo's words had been a little more on the mark than he was willing to admit. Quatre's attention, though, was fixed firmly on Duo. He was taking the drink out of Duo's hand.

The blonde man sighed. "You don't need any more of that, it looks like you've had enough already. He straightened the crooked collar on Duo's shirt before noticing his other friend. "Oh hi, Wufei. Duo, do you want me to drive you home?" Wufei managed a belated wave after Quatre had already turned his attention back to his best friend.

Duo had been uncommonly docile during Quatre's fussing. "Oh no, I think the party's just getting started. Me and Wufei here were just talking about you."

Quatre shot a glance at Wufei. "Oh really?"

"I was telling him how we've been friends for fourteen years. Isn't that right?"

"Well yeah," Quatre said, a bit perplexed. "Wufei knows that. Everybody knows we've been best friends since junior high."

"I wanted to tell him how we became such good friends."

Quatre sat down on a bar stool beside Duo and said patiently, "Wufei, Duo and I became friends during Senora Noventa's Spanish class. She kept partnering us up to do these awful skits about colors, and pets and crap like that. We both hated it." Quatre flashed a smile at Wufei. "And that's the spectacular history behind the Duo and Quatre Show. Happy, Duo?" His friend's color didn't look all that great and he was ready to give him a ride home. But Duo, dilated eyes sparkling mischievously now, had other ideas. He threw one arm around Quatre, pulling him close.

"I meant we should tell him about the first time I kissed you."

It didn't escape Wufei's notice that Quatre seemed to freeze in place.

"I... Why should we tell him about that? There isn't much to tell really, Wufei. It was in the boy's locker room at school. Pretty stupid place for a first kiss if you ask me."

"I didn't think it was stupid." Duo's voice had taken on a husky timbre. Wufei watched as Quatre, still nestled in the crook of Duo's arm, unnecessarily smoothed a strand of hair behind his ear.

"It wasn't long after I transferred to McKinley Junior High. We had gym class together and for some reason this guy, Jerry Barnes, had it out for Cat. Actually, Jerry Barnes wanted you Cat."

"Oh, he did not." But there was no vehemence behind the denial. Apparently they had been over this a thousand times.

Duo ignored him, attention fixed on Wufei. "Well, that day, to prove his love for Quatre, Jerry Barnes shoved him into a locker. I was in the shower, I didn't see it happen. Sorry, Cat," he said softly, turning and resting his forehead against his friend's. For a moment, the old Duo was there behind those wide, dilated pupils.

"It's ok," Quatre said rather hoarsely. Hilde had come up to them behind the bar and was listening now, too. Wufei watched as Quatre attempted to sink into the floor. The Chinese man wanted to leave, get up and say "to hell with it." But Duo's voice was like a snake charmer's, and he couldn't seem to tear himself away.

"I came out of the shower and everybody else had left. The last bell had rang, you know? Outside the doors you could hear everybody going to their buses. Quatre was sitting there on one of those red mesh benches holding his mouth. I made him take his hand away and..." Duo looked sideways, into memory. "There was a line of blood down his chin. It was so red against his pale skin..."

Quatre interrupted. "Duo, you're not looking so good. Drink your water. Better yet, let's get you home."

Duo ignored him, dilated eyes still firmly fixed on Wufei's, as if daring him to look away. "I licked my finger and wiped the blood off his chin. Then I couldn't help myself, I wanted to touch his lips and the curve of his cheek and his eyebrows. He was so... young, sitting there with a few drops of blood still on his mouth. I just wanted to..." Duo stopped. Whether he realized what he was saying or just could not articulate his feelings they would never know. "So I kissed him. And he loved it." A saucy leer took the place of Duo's formerly dreamy expression.

Wufei and Hilde both glanced at Quatre, who was now intently focused on something on the other end of the barroom.

"We were making out like two wild animals. He loved it so much he ended up pushing me into a locker. I swear I saw stars for a minute. But that was when our gym coach came in and told us to break it up. And I almost got in trouble for the blood on Quatre's lip!" Duo laughed, more like an Ecstasy-induced giggle. Wufei managed to tear his gaze away from Duo now long enough to watch Quatre as the blonde looked hard at the floor. The Chinese man felt a small twinge of satisfaction when Quatre twisted so that Duo's arm was no longer around his shoulder.

But Duo didn't even appear to notice. "There he is!" He pointed to a boy who looked about eighteen and had artfully placed glitter body paint where his shirt should have been. "I thought he'd left." He planted a quick kiss on Quatre's cheek. "Don't wait up."

Quatre put a finger to his lips. Tonight Duo had put one of his most treasured memories, one of the most intimate moments of his life on display in a bar. He couldn't count how many times he had dreamed about that day, about that kiss. About Duo's hand slipping inside the waist band of his sweatpants. About the faint taste of salt and blood. Quatre could taste it even now... He felt a hand on his shoulder.

"He's an asshole," Wufei said.

"He was high, he didn't know what he was saying," Hilde said at the same time.

"Why do you always cover for him?" Wufei snapped. "I don't know why you put up with his shit, Cat."

"It's Quatre."

Wufei looked like he had been stung. "Fine, Quatre," he said tightly. "I'm... I'm through for tonight. Good night, Hilde. Good night, Quatre," he said with stiff formality.

"Wait! I'm going too," Quatre decided. "I'll walk out with you, ok, Wu?" He was very proud of himself when he managed to cross Tangle's threshold without once looking back at Duo.

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