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

Tangled Up in Blue + Part 6
The Man Who Was Not There

As I was going up the stair,
I met a man who was not there,
He was not there again today,
I wish that man would go away.

- Hugh Mearns, from "The Psychoed"


Duo Maxwell's sixth grade teacher had high expectations for him. Well, at least the kind of high expectations first year teachers have for kids on Free Lunch who get off the bus with no coat in December.  She was an idealist, and she was prepared to treat the mountain kids from Black Cove the same way she treated the kids who lived on Main Street. On their first day in class she had her students arrange the desk into a circle. For equality, she said. Naturally, the first rule of her classroom was the ubiquitous "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." What she failed to understand just yet was that kids are like wild animals. They can divide the weak from the strong faster than you can say "tax bracket." 

When Duo began to get in fights, rather than punishment, young Miss Taylor would keep him after class and offer him her brand of sympathy and understanding.  Middle Grades Education 101. "Are you getting enough to eat?" "Are any of the other kids picking on you?" "How are your mom and dad getting along?"

She was filled with righteous indignation spiced with a hint of satisfaction the day she finally wrung out a confession.

She imagined herself an avenging angel as she called Duo's mother and the police. But his parents denied the accusations, shook hands with the deputy on the call (an old high school football buddy) and that was that. The accident occurred a month or two after that. Then the year ended and Duo was promoted to junior high despite falling grades and his teacher's misgivings.

In her second year of teaching, Miss Taylor didn't bother to move the desks into a circle.

+

Twelve-year-old Duo had been listening from the barn when the deputy asked. "Mrs. Maxwell, is it true?"

"The boy lies," Miriam had answered. Her voice calm, unwavering. "My husband would never... Never."

+

A month. Every time he looked at his green-eyed lover, Quatre still had a hard time believing that he and Trowa had been dating for a month. Mother Nature was obviously as flabbergasted as he was, because, while March had been uncommonly mild, Solomon was now recovering from a record-breaking mid-April snowstorm. Not that that mattered to Quatre. All the more reason to cuddle, as far as he was concerned.

And he wished that was what they were doing tonight, instead of popping into Tangle. But today was a Duo and Quatre holiday. Starting in January, their calendars may as well have read New Year's Day, Quatre's birthday, Valentine's Day, Saint Patrick's Day, Easter, Mitch Maxwell's Death Day, Memorial Day and so on. As far as Quatre was concerned, this morbid little tradition was just one more way that Mitch Maxwell had found of refusing to stay dead.   

Quatre had been a little nervous approaching Trowa. "We need to go hang out at Tangle with Duo tonight.  Is that ok?" It hadn't even occurred to him that he might go alone. He and Trowa had grown too attached at the hip to even contemplate it.

And, of course, Trowa had merely agreed without questioning. Quatre should have known better than to expect anything else. It wasn't that Trowa and Duo didn't get along - if you could call forced politeness getting along. It was just that Tangle didn't hold that much interest for Trowa. This had nothing to do with the fact that Duo stalked the bar like a territorial wolf. Or at least that's what Quatre told himself.

Trowa wore a dark brown field coat that made him look outdoorsy and sexy even in the middle of the city. When they got inside, Quatre checked his own coat, but then shrugged into Trowa's, wanting to feel his boyfriend's warmth around him, smell his scent.  Besides, if Duo was in a typical Mitch Maxwell Death Day mood, it would be just as cold inside as out.

But when Duo sauntered up to them, he was smiling, eyes bright.  "Hey Cat! Hey Trowa! We were just about to have a drink." He motioned to Wufei, Sally and Hilde who were sitting -- where else? -- at the bar. 

"I don't know how you can spend all your nights off at the place you work," Sally was telling Hilde.

"Trowa understands me, don't you, Trowa?" Hilde pouted.

"But Cat and Trowa do something worthwhile," Duo teased. Quatre stared at him. It was the closest to a compliment Duo had given his boyfriend.

Even more surprisingly, Duo squeezed between them, put his arms around both their shoulders and nodded to the current bartender. "Get them whatever they want, all night. I'm paying."

This close to Duo, Quatre could tell that his best friend had already been indulging in whatever he wanted. For quite a while, it seemed. He was surprised he hadn't noticed Duo's state when he first came in. But then, he had had Trowa to distract him.

Duo plopped down on a barstool, but Quatre, still standing, suddenly began squirming within Trowa's coat. "Oh, oh, oh my itchy spot!" The group watched amusedly as Quatre wriggled out of Trowa's coat and then tried to stretch his arm enough to reach that unscratchable place that everyone seems to have on their back.

Duo held out a hand, poised to reach over and take care of the problem, but Trowa beat him to it, deftly soothing his boyfriend with a couple of quick scratches.

"Ahhhhhh!" Quatre sighed in audible relief.

The two brunette's eyes met. "He has a tiny little scar there," Duo said. His voice sounded rather hollow to Quatre's ears.

"I know," Trowa countered.

The two brunette's eyes met and Duo broke the standoff first by shrugging and then turning away to pound on the bar again.

Quatre thought he saw Duo and Wufei share a none-too-friendly look but he couldn't be sure. And he didn't get to ask. Their drinks had arrived and Duo called for silence among their little group. He waited until all eyes were upon him before he held up his glass.

"On this day fourteen years ago my bastard father got himself shot. Oh, don't look at me like that, he deserved it. So anyway, I want to propose a toast."

Duo's sparkling eyes met Quatre's. Duo was smiling, his pupils suddenly dilated. "To my father." He bit the last word off bitterly. "Who hated me almost as much as I hated him."

With a flourish, he tipped his glass up and drank the contents. The rest of them darted glances at one another and then followed suit.

Duo wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. "And now I go dance!"

Ignoring Trowa, who was asking him a question, Quatre watched Duo make his way purposefully through the crowd like a general inspecting his troops. Without much surprise, he noticed his friend take a tube from his pocket and quickly hold it up to his nose. After that, he easily found a dance partner, a man with a shaved head who grabbed Duo's waist rather too roughly for Quatre's liking. Quatre put his own arms around Trowa, resting his head on his boyfriend's shoulder. From this angle, he saw Duo begin to plant feathery kisses on his dance partner's neck. Then, from under the spill of bangs, a triangular pink tongue began to trace a path from neck to jaw line to earlobe.  Soon, from all the way across the room, large violet eyes met his with the old unspoken invitation.

This could be you.

The DJ's beat was suddenly overpoweringly loud, the room too stiflingly small. Quatre swallowed audibly as the heat rushed to his groin. Duo was still staring at him and one hand had now breached the waistband of his dance partner's shredded blue jeans. Quatre pressed his lips together as Duo's eyes half-closed and he threw his head back, causing his braid to whip around behind him and expose a graceful line of pale neck.

This happened every year. Every year Duo got high out of his mind, Quatre took him home and then Duo attempted to get him into bed. Every year Quatre managed to hold out until Duo passed out. It wasn't always easy, but damned if Quatre's first time having sex with Duo would be on the anniversary of Mitch Maxwell's last day on earth. No fucking way.  

Trowa's voice finally penetrated. "I asked what happened to Duo's father." The voice was in his ear and he realized that he was still hugging the other man.

Quatre pulled away slightly so they could look at one another. "It's a long story," he said carefully.

"Meaning you can't tell me?" Trowa's expression was blank.

Quatre sighed. "No, I can tell you." The short version at least. "Mitch Maxwell was a bastard. He molested Duo's little cousin Nonnie.  Duo's mom found out, told Nonnie's dad and Nonnie's dad shot him."  He had managed to get the point across without lying.

Trowa was shaking his head. "Damn, that's messed up. Were Duo and his dad... close?"

"No, they weren't close. Look, let's not talk about it, okay? Why don't we dance instead?" He rubbed his knuckles against Trowa's cheek, a soft gesture to offset his clipped words. Holding hands, they found a clear spot on the dance floor and soon, thanks to his boyfriend, Quatre's forced smile became real.

Their bodies moving together in time to the music, Quatre felt more than heard the ragged whisper in his ear. "You look amazing tonight. You are amazing." He wrapped his arms around Trowa and nestled his face into the crook of the taller man's neck. Damn. What had he been thinking falling for Duo's games when he had Trowa right here? Dependable, smart, sexy Trowa who was guaranteed to stay by his side all night long.

+

The seductive expression fled Duo's face as soon as Trowa and Quatre went off to dance together. He shrugged minimally and then studied his dance partner enough to realize that he really wasn't all that great looking. He continued grinding against him anyway. Why the hell not? 

Duo didn't realize that he had been maneuvering closer to Quatre and Trowa until the other two were only a few feet away. Or at least that's what he told himself. He pulled his dancer partner close so he could look over his shoulder. Quatre and Trowa were smiling at one another and there was no room in that look for anyone else. Quatre looked happy, Duo noted. He looked healthy; there was no anxious mask that he often wore where his best friend was concerned. In his back pocket Duo could see the outline of the tiny cell phone Trowa had bought him. That's right, Trowa was ambitious, he told himself. He invited Quatre over, cooked him dinner. Took him on dates. They had long conversations, walks in the moonlight. The two were planning to go away to a bed and breakfast next weekend. Trowa was everything that was right and good for Quatre. When they were 80 they'd sit on the back porch in safari hats and reminisce about lions they had known. Yup, Quatre's life was on the right track.

Quatre and Trowa were so goddamn perfect together it made him want to claw his eyes out.

Instead, he rested his head on his dancer partner's shoulder as that last bump began to take effect and all at once the music was too loud in his ears.   

"Take it like a man, son."

On this night, when the dead whispered in his ear, he listened. The veil between the past and present was thinner tonight than on any other night of the year. Duo swayed and the dance floor under his feet had been replaced by vastness and stars. He gripped his unknown partner's shoulders tightly to prevent himself from falling in.

Nonnie. A blonde replica of himself with only one difference. Until that spring she had been absolutely fearless.

Quatre was just a few feet away, but there was no room for him in that dreamy expression on his best friend's face.

"The boy lies. My husband would never... Never."

"Are you all right, man?"

"Like a man, son."

The song changed and Duo came to. Pushing past whomever he'd been dancing with, he made his way to a booth and lay down on the cold foam cushion of the seat. After a few minutes of lying there with his eyes closed he took the tube from his pocket ­ realizing all the while that he'd lost his shirt somewhere ­ and held it up to this nose once again. That was when he noticed the heads turning.

Solomon being a mid-sized city, the Tangle was generally patronized by a large crowd of regulars. So when Duo noticed that everyone's attention seemed to be focusing on the door, his first thought was something along the lines of "Perfect. Fresh meat."

The stranger was wearing a dark blue satin shirt and black leather pants. The shirt was the same color as the eyes, which peered out at the world from underneath messy chocolate bangs. He was alone and totally unaffected by it. Something set him apart from all the other hot guys coming in here to get laid. Something dangerous.

Duo found himself unconsciously moving closer until they were both standing in the center of the room. The men circled one another like two celestial bodies and by some unspoken agreement they both knew that, before the night was out, one would become the planet with the other falling into his orbit.

Duo made the first move. His territory, his chessboard. He would be the white knight. This time. "Welcome to Tangle."

The dangerous looking man merely nodded and took a few more circling steps.

Finally Duo couldn't take it any longer. "So are we going to box or are we going to dance?"

The words had no sooner left his mouth when two strong hands gripped his hips.

"What's your name?" In his ear, the stranger's voice was low, husky and just a bit nasal.

"Duo." When the strong hands refused to budge from his hips, Duo made do with throwing his arms around the stranger's neck, his bare arms gaining slippery purchase on the satin shirt. This was not the way he danced, arms around another guy's neck like some nelly bottom, and he intended to show the guy who was boss around here soon enough.

"I'm Heero." A steel grip slammed their hips together and one leg snaked between his. Duo squirmed backward, unwilling to be led down that road.  This was the mating dance, and he played to win.

"I don't care," he answered, and his teeth clamped down on Heero's ear, one hand gripping the back of his dance partner's neck. 

Somehow, Heero managed to break the hold. Grabbing one of Duo's shoulders, he easily spun the braided man around so that they now danced back to front. Before he could open his mouth to protest, Duo felt the other man's hardness grinding against him.

"Hey!" Duo shouted, in order to be heard over the music. He tried to twist out of the hold, but one arm was around his arms and chest, the other around his hips, holding him in place.

For a few stunned seconds, Duo merely went with the flow, letting their two bodies move together. Somehow, when he hadn't been paying attention, one of the big hands had loosely entwined his braid and was now tugging on it gently in order to gain better access to his neck.  Heero's teeth scored the skin over the pulse there, then the line of his bare shoulder, his collarbone.  The trail down his neck made a line of fire that Duo felt rush all the way to his groin. But nonetheless...

"Nobody grinds against me like that," Duo insisted loudly, very aware that the vulnerability of his current position made it into a ridiculous statement. "I do the grinding," he added.

The arm around his waist retreated and a hand flattened against his stomach, then trailed down until it was palming his crotch. The pressure against his ass was almost unbearable now. But in a good way.  

Until the words in his ear. "I think you would take it like a man."

Duo froze. The music stopped. The lights dimmed. All he could hear was the blood pounding in his ears. Was that his heart beating?

"Yes..." Duo heard himself answer softly.

The scowl his face crumbled into a vacant expression while inside his head he screamed and screamed.

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