Filling in the Blanks
"Where are we going?"
It was our first weekend off since starting Preventers training. I was tired and my brain was overloaded with the unnecessary minutiae of by-the-book bureaucracy. I'd been looking forward to spending Saturday and Sunday in bed with my husband, not rolling out of it at the first hint of daylight and following him blindly around on a mysterious jaunt through the countryside.
Although, the way he looked now – energized and happy – made it very difficult for me to cling to my frustration.
Across from me, Duo leaned back in his seat, one knee pulled up and the corresponding elbow propped up along the top of the cushion. It was disconcerting to see him sprawled thusly in public even if the train was mostly empty of passengers at this hour. It made me think of how I'd come out of the shower earlier in the week and found him in bed, wearing nothing but his boxers as he'd looked through the day's homework reading. The spiral bound textbook had been laid open across his bent knee, his other leg stretched out as if in invitation. I smirked as I remembered how I'd accepted. In the end, we'd had to get up an hour early the next morning and consume copious amounts of coffee in order to finish the required reading before reporting for the next day of training.
"Hmm," he purred. "I wonder what you're thinking about…"
I gave him a look. "Ask me and I'll tell you." It was more than a promise. It was a threat. I didn't care that we were on a train bound for Marseilles. My self-control was non-existent when it came to answering any and every challenge Duo issued, be it intentional or not.
"How generous of you to offer," he replied cheekily.
I crossed my arms. Not because I was offended but because I was one of his sexy smirks away from yanking him onto my lap and kissing him until we pulled into the service station at the end of the line.
"Thank you. You might return the favor," I remarked as blandly as I could. Some days, it was almost impossible to get a solid grip on the emotionless mask I'd once worn so easily.
"How would you like me to do that?" he asked, giving me that wide-eyed, innocent look of his. How devious. He must know what that look does to me. I curled my fingers tighter around my biceps.
"You could perhaps tell me where we are headed."
Duo shrugged a shoulder. "You wouldn't believe me if I did. Here, have a sandwich. It's gonna be a while."
I caught the convenience store-bought, plastic-wrapped bundle in one hand. I tried to glare at him but my mouth kept twitching into a grin. His energy was infectious. I sighed and turned back to the window, telling myself that even if I wasn't content to watch the scenery roll by while I ate my pre-fabricated sandwich, it passed the time at least. And when Duo was determined to be mysterious, time slowed to a crawl. It was a scientifically proven fact.
Six hours, an assortment of sandwiches and numerous cups of stale coffee later, we were nowhere near Marseilles when Duo suddenly stood and collected his duffel bag. "Next stop is us," he announced and I just about tripped over my own feet unfolding myself from the seat and hurrying after him.
It was a good thing I'd kept him in my sights; the train stopped for all of one-point-five seconds before it was rolling on its way and this tiny, rural station had already been forgotten by the passengers still aboard.
"Where are we?" I asked, thoroughly befuddled.
Duo shouldered his duffel and headed for the station exit like he'd been here before. "C'mon, babe. Let's see if our ride's here."
"Our… ride…" I retorted, striding after him. I caught up as he handed his ticket over to the clerk on duty. This station was remarkably old fashioned; the cities and larger towns had all installed electronic ticketing systems at the gates. Only in quiet, little country towns like this was the position still held by an actual human being. I passed the uniformed officer my ticket, keeping an eye on my unusually enigmatic husband. He paused just on the other side of the turnstile barrier and waved to someone.
I looked up and blinked. An elderly couple was waiting by the station doors, waving back.
"Duo?" I objected. This was my limit. If he didn't tell me what the hell was going on, I was going to have to insist on a full and immediate disclosure.
He turned toward me, grinning. "Welcome to Farmville, babe. Also known as The Place Where JC Hid Out For Twelve Weeks Before He Grew A Pair And Decided To Beg His Husband To Take Him Back."
I laughed, giddy with relief. "I don't think that'll fit on the ‘Welcome to Farmville' sign."
"Yeah. Too bad, huh?"
"And the welcome committee?" I pressed, nodding toward the elderly couple without taking my eyes off of Duo's bright expression.
"The people who took me in." He reached out and grasped my arm. "And, to tell ya the truth, I've been wantin' you to meet ‘em for a while."
I felt my entire being soften in response to his confession. He was endearingly nervous, beautifully frank, and looked startlingly young. It was all I could do tonottuck him into my embrace and just hold on until the end of time, murmuring reassurances and endearments in his ear.
I reached out and gently tweaked his chin. "Then what's the hold up? Introduce us."
Duo very nearly bounced over to the elderly couple – a Guillaume and Pierra Juarez – and it was only as I shook their hands and murmured the socially-acceptable pleasantries that his enthusiasm suddenly failed to distract me from the nervous fluttering in my stomach. Watching Duo being exuberantly enfolded in Pierra's petite arms, I realized that these people were probably the closest thing to family Duo had. It would kill me if I disappointed Duo by disappointing them.
"Don't be so anxious, Tristan dear," Pierra told me as I held the car door open for her. Duo was loudly informing Guillaume of the unfortunately bald state of his car's tires, so our exchange went unnoticed.
"I'm not…" The denial was automatic, but I fought it down. Duo was his real self with these people. He'd expect no less from me. "You and your husband are very dear to him," I said instead. Although he hadn't mentioned them before today, just watching him with them was enough for me to discern that much.
"But you are more so," she argued, patting my arm. "In all the time he stayed with us, never did he look half this happy."
And then she left me standing there holding the door open as she slid into the passenger seat. The sound of the driver's side door closing snapped me out of my daze and I carefully shut Pierra's door before climbing into the backseat with Duo. I endeavored to keep my disquiet tightly restrained, but there was no denying that I was in unfamiliar territory. I flushed with sudden temper, wishing Duo had told me what to expect earlier. If he had, I would have been able to better prepare myself for this meeting and—
A touch on my knee drew my attention and I looked down at Duo's hand which rested there. His thumb brushed back and forth over the weave of my jeans even as he leaned forward to ask Pierra about her grown sons and their families. As she started giving the requested update, Duo glanced my way apologetically and mouthed two words at me: "Thank you."
I let out a breath and leaned back against the seat. I slid the hand closest to him under the edge of his jacket and pressed my palm against the small of his back. How could I be angry with him? He'd probably been as nervous on the train as I was now. Suddenly, I realized that he hadn't been all that sure of his reception, which was perhaps why he'd waited until he'd seen them at the station before telling me why we'd come here. He'd undoubtedly contacted Guillaume and Pierra in advance, but the unwanted child he'd once been wouldn't have trusted their welcome until he'd seen it with his own eyes.
It was a miracle that anyone with such deep and eternal emotional scars would trust me, a man who knew more about mobile suits and machine guns than how to care for another human being.
Thanks to the sandwiches we'd had on the train, we weren't especially hungry, but Pierra had prepared lunch for us and I was mesmerized by the look of ecstasy on Duo's face when he sampled his first spoonful of meat pie.
"Oh, Pierra," he enthused after chewing and swallowing. "How I have missed your magic!"
The pie was excellent, but it was difficult to enjoy at the moment as my stomach filled with envy. I wanted Duo to look like that when I did something for him. Part of me wanted to shoot someone, but the mercenary in me knew better. Fight fire with fire.
I resolved on a plan of action and, after that, I was much better able to relax and enjoy the meal. Over coffee, Guillaume and Pierra requested the story of how Duo and I had first met.
"Uh, well, I told you that I fought in the war," Duo began, fidgeting with his coffee spoon.
"I did as well," I readily admitted, sensing that he wouldn't willingly speak of our shared past without my consent.
"Comrades in arms?" Guillaume guessed.
"Eventually," I told him. "If I remember correctly, we initially considered each other enemies."
"Dude! You'd just shot a half a dozen rounds from your suit's Machine Cannon at me!"
It would have taken considerably more than that to put so much as a dent in Deathscythe. "You and Yukitani were all bunched up. The enemy was moving in to flank you."
"Ever hear of something called a comm. unit?"
"That would be the thing you were using to whoop and holler at the enemy lines?"
His lips twitched into a smirk and his eyes sparkled with fire. "Yup."
"I'll keep it in mind for next time," I promised and took a sip of coffee.
Pierra reached for her husband's arm and patted his sleeve. She was beaming at us with pure delight, as if we'd just told her a story about two strangers, their chance meeting on a rainy day, and their impulsive decision to share an umbrella or a taxi.
"Guillaume, what was JC saying about the tires on the car?" she asked when it became clear that Duo had told as much of our story as he was comfortable sharing.
Duo answered before Guillaume could. "You really, really need a new set. Hell, I'll even put ‘em on for you."
"And how much is that going to cost me, son?" Guillaume bantered back.
Duo chuckled and lifted his plate as if the remains of the pie were made of gold and he was taking a weight measurement. "Well, let's say half now and half at dinner?"
"Oh, JC! We don't expect—!" Pierra protested.
Duo cut her off. "No, really. I'd be happy to do it."
And I knew he would be, too. Besides, it would give me the opportunity I needed to implement my plan. "Let him," I advised the Juarezes, "or else he'll just worry that it wasn't done right."
At the conclusion of coffee, Pierra offered to show me to the room I'd be spending the night in with Duo. As he was busy educating Guillaume on the difference between traditional rubber, neo-resin, and eco-wear tires, I took both our mostly-empty duffel bags down the hall.
"Pierra," I said before she could give me a few minutes to get settled, "thank you for opening your home to him then. And thank you for doing the same for both of us now."
"You are most welcome, Tristan."
"And, I have a favor to ask."
I named it.
She smiled. She patted my arm, a satisfied twinkle in her eye. "Come and see me in a few hours."
I nodded and tried not to look too triumphant when I returned to the kitchen. I was quickly pulled into a discussion involving various kinds of tire tread. Colorful sales flyers had been dug out of the newspaper recycling bin and spread out over the kitchen table like a buffet for cars.
"Back me up, here, babe," Duo ordered, gesturing to the ads.
I didn't even have to look. "If it freezes here for more than a night at a time in winter, you don't want neo-resin. Get eco-wear only if you drive on asphalt or concrete – it's useless on dirt and gravel."
"See?" Duo concluded with a satisfied nod.
Guillaume sighed, picking up an ad for traditional rubber tires and making a moue of disgust at the price. "This is extortion," he grumbled.
"It would be if you were paying for it," Duo told him.
Guillaume objected by removing his reading glasses and pointing the earpiece at him accusingly. "Now, see here, son, you're our guest and—"
"And I've got full-time employment now so there's no reason why I can't make some contribution to the household I spent twelve weeks in." Standing beside Duo as I was, I added my support to this claim by laying my hand on his waist. I could tell he felt strongly about this, and although it was going to make things tight for us until we received our first salary checks from the Preventers, I was proud of him for offering, and even prouder of him for insisting.
"Well," Guillaume eventually responded, "since Tristan's not going to back me up, I suppose a graceful acceptance is probably for the best."
I smiled. Clearly, Guillaume had extensive experience with Duo's stubborn streak.
Promising Pierra that we'd be back within the hour, the three of us climbed into the car. Duo narrated the town's highlights to me as we cruised down what appeared to be the main street and pulled into the circular drive of a junk yard and maintenance garage about ten minutes later.
"Did you tell ‘em we were coming?" Duo asked Guillaume cryptically.
The elderly man shook his head. A sly smile in place, he admitted, "I didn't breathe a word."
Before I could ask, Guillaume was braking to a stop and Duo was leaping out of the car. I was a little surprised that he merely rounded the vehicle and waited for me to exit instead of dashing into the building to holler, "Surprise!"
Although, if I took any longer getting out of the car, he might be tempted to just leave me here.
"I worked here for something like two months," he told me as I shut the car door behind me. An instant later, I felt his fingers tangle with mine. "C'mon. The grease monkeys are over yonder."
"Are they caged?" I muttered.
"If only," he replied with a manic grin.
When we ducked into the garage, our shadows fell upon a guy who was bent over an engine. He glanced up reflexively to see who was blocking his light and his scruffy, oil-smudged face stretched into a wide grin. "JC! Man, you're back!"
"Yo, Bernie," Duo replied. "I think you've gained another thirty-second of an inch on that duck fuzz."
The two other guys in the mechanic's bay looked up and crowed greetings of their own. "Raymond," Duo said gesturing, "and Jonas." That was all he had time to say before they descended on us.
"Guys," Duo said as the opening round of good-natured ribbing subsided into blatantly curious looks in my direction, "this is Tristan."
"Ah," Raymond said, stepping forward. "So you're the reason JC lit outta here like his ass was on fire."
"Actually, that'd be because you forgot to bathe for, like, a week and a half," Jonas joshed him. He turned to me and explained, "The only thing the guy ever washes is his bling."
"Good bling requires regular maintenance," I responded, earning a guffaw from Bernie and a look of camaraderie from the owner of the aforementioned accessories.
Raymond gestured to Duo's left hand. "Nice choice, by the way."
"Er, thanks," he replied awkwardly, and if he'd lived a life less tragic and unforgiving, he might have blushed.
"JC?" Guillaume called, poking his head into the bay. "I'm sorry to interrupt."
"Naw, it's cool. You need a hand picking out those tires?"
"If you wouldn't mind."
Bernie raised a hand. "Hold up, man. How long are we gonna have to go before we see you around these parts again?"
Duo grinned. "These parts," he replied, glancing pointedly to the machinery scattered around the garage, "will be damn lucky to see the inside of a functioning engine again."
Bernie rolled his eyes.
Jonas muttered fondly, "Again with the bad puns. Is there no end to your cheese?"
"Nope." Duo was unrepentant. "We'll see you at church tomorrow morning."
"Count on it!"
I gestured Duo through the doorway first and Guillaume waved him over to the display of tires in the dusty showroom. I lingered behind, trying to think of something to say to the three men who had offered my husband some measure of friendship during his sojourn here.
Raymond spoke before I could assemble a sentence that didn't sound trite and hackneyed.
"Hey, maybe he didn't tell you, but he turned down the prettiest, nicest girl in town while he was here."
I blinked at him. Bernie and Jonas nodded earnestly, confirming the news. I wasn't quite sure what they expected me to say in response to that, so I just nodded.
"Thanks for bringing him back for a visit," Jonas said. He grinned. "It was nice meeting the real JC."
"Yeah, no kidding," Bernie concurred.
Raymond told me, "You be good to him. Or else."
I was a little surprised when the other two backed up Raymond's threat with a hard look in their eyes. Surprised, amused, and a little in awe of Duo's ability to inspire such loyalty in his friends, no matter how briefly they'd known him, I vowed, "You have my word." With a wry grin, I offered my hand. We shook and I didn't flinch at the feel of Raymond's grime-smeared fingers. Nor did I shy away from Jonas' or Bernie's.
They chuckled ruefully when they noticed how dirty I'd gotten just from that brief contact, but I merely said, "It's an occupational hazard I'm familiar with." And then, with a glance in Duo's direction, I added, "Thanks." It was only one word, and it didn't seem sufficient to the task of expressing my appreciation for how these three must have helped Duo through the months he'd been here, but it was all I could come up with.
"None needed," Jonas said and, with a nod, I left the garage.
Duo gave me an inquisitive glance when I rejoined him. "The hell, babe. Don't tell me you've taken up gossip as a hobby?"
"Only when it gives me leverage."
"Should I be worried?"
"Would you be even if I said you should?"
He grinned. "Hah! You know me so well."
I liked to think so, which was why I was so eager to get back to the house and get Duo started on changing Guillaume's tires. It wasn't really a job for two guys, not with only one hand-operated jack to work with. Guillaume happily volunteered to assist him so I melted into the background before retreating into the house where Pierra was waiting to make good on her promise.
She told me to roll up my shirt sleeves and wash my hands, and then we got started.
We had broiled steaks, a warm spinach salad, and paella for dinner. The look on Duo's face as he delicately tasted each for the first time was priceless.
"Oh… my… God…" he groaned. "Pierra, this is ambrosia."
"Yes, it did turn out rather well," she agreed and then, looking directly at me, volunteered, "Tristan has a natural talent for cooking."
Duo was in the middle or relishing another slice of steak when he paused, fork still in his mouth, and coughed. "Whu—?" he gurgled, looking at me with wide eyes.
I smiled. "Pierra is an excellent teacher."
He blinked at me. I don't think it was my imagination that he consumed his dinner more slowly than usual, taking care to enjoy every bite. It wasn't until we'd washed up, brushed our teeth, and bid out host and hostess goodnight that he remarked on it.
As soon as the bedroom door shut behind us, he put a hand on my arm and turned me toward him. The next thing I knew, his arms were around my waist and his face was buried in my shoulder.
"Tonight… Dinner… You didn't have to—" he began.
I lifted my hands and rubbed his back. "I wanted to. I want to make you happy." It really was that simple. If a well-cooked meal could put that expression of joy on his face, then I'd learn how to cook.
"You do. I'd be happy to eat cold stew outta-the-can and stale saltine crackers every day for the rest of my life as long as I've got you."
That was nice to know, but— "You don't have to."
"Christ, baby. You make me the luckiest man in the whole damn universe."
I chuckled, rubbing my cheek against his soft hair. "If you feel like mentioning that to the grease monkeys at church tomorrow, I wouldn't object."
"They seem to be under the impression that I broke your heart."
"Nosey, gossiping bunch of grungy girls," he muttered and I realized that there was yet another reason for why I'd handed over my heart to Duo Maxwell on a silver platter: he made me laugh.
I was not laughing the following morning when, moments after Guillaume's sermon concluded, a very elegant young woman called out, "JC!"
"Hey! Alminda!" he replied, looking genuinely pleased to see her. Pleased and nothing more.
She, on the other hand, did not appear all that pleased to see me. From the veil of disappointment which muted her smile, I discerned that this was Farmville's prettiest girl. She was certainly striking and it left me a little dazed and breathless imagining – knowing? – that Duo had turned her down for me.
"How's your grandmother?"
"No incidents with white rhinos recently," she reported.
"Maybe they've already gone south for the winter," he replied and then included me in the conversation. "Alminda, this is my husband, Tristan."
We shook hands. "A pleasure," I forced myself to say.
She gave me a stiff smile and I wondered if it was because she really had set her sights on my Duo or if she was picking up on my hostility. Duo certainly did.
"Tris, babe," he said quietly as we walked across the drive and around to the backyard of Guillaume and Pierra's house. "What was that?"
"What was what?" I retorted, irritated that I was being called out for being territorial. I had that right. The ring on my finger and the ring on his finger gave it to me. So did our shared bed, the necklace that would only ever be removed from my neck over my dead body, and fact that Duo never stood as close to anyone else as he did to me. He'd chosen me. I had a right to defend that if I saw fit.
He sat down on the porch swing and speared me with a look. "Alminda."
"Raymond mentioned you turned her down," I said as I sat next to him.
He sighed. "Those guys. Must be nice to have selective amnesia."
That did not sound promising at all. I tensed.
Duo explained before I could do more than dread asking him for details. "Raymond tried to set us up. Busybody matchmaker mechanic." He met my gaze. "I was never interested in anyone except you. Hell," he continued, looking away in embarrassment, "when I was here, I freakin' dreamed about you."
"You did?" The words came out flat, squished under the weight of disbelief. Had I meant that much to him even then? In the midst of his search for his true self, he'd still kept a part of me with him as a guest in his dreams?
He nodded, his shoulders slumping in defeat. "It hurt to wake up."
Aching, I reached for my voice to tell him of my own solitary trials but, when no sound emerged, I reached for his hand instead and he gripped my fingers hard. We'd never talked about those weeks we'd been apart. I'd been determined to forget they'd ever happened, but perhaps he needed to know. I would tell him, I decided. When our hearts were not so raw, I would lay down my meager memories for him as he was now doing for me.
But I had never asked him about his time away, which made me wonder what had prompted this confession in the first place. "Why are you telling me this?" I asked out of curiosity rather than out of disappointment or defeat.
His lips, always so mobile and expressive, pursed thoughtfully. He looked off in the distance and sighed. "We've shared just about every day of our lives for the past four years one way or another," he told me in a soft tone. "It felt… wrong that you wouldn't know about all this."
"Thank you," I replied just as quietly, "for sharing it with me."
He nodded, and when I slouched down and leaned my head against his, he leaned back.
We stayed for lunch. Pierra taught me how to make beef stew and biscuits while Duo looked on, fascinated by my solemn attention to her instructions and advice. When I glanced up from browning the cubes of meat, his gaze drifted up my bare forearms until we were locked in a staring contest. "Looks good," he told me, his eyes sparkling, and I could not wait to get him home tonight.
We left after Duo finished gorging himself. I wasn't sure how often I'd take the time to stock and utilize the kitchen in our house in Clifden and cooking was strictly prohibited in our housing unit at HQ, but seeing his appreciation of what I'd made soothed over some raw place inside me that I'd had for so long I couldn't remember when it had yawned into existence.
Guillaume and Pierra both made us promise to consider spending Christmas with them. "I haven't shown you how to roast a ham!" she told me, giving me a preview of the winter holiday menu. Before I could reply to that, she threw her arms around me and gave me a brisk hug, complete with a kiss on each cheek.
"We'll be back," I impulsively promised.
"Admit it," Duo dared me softly as we shared a bench seat on the train. "You liked them. A lot."
"I admit it." It was an easy confession to make, especially with Duo leaning against my shoulder and clasping my hand on top of his thigh.
"And you're seriously thinking about spending Christmas with them," he pressed.
I was, but I didn't think we actually would. Guillaume and Pierra's children and their families would undoubtedly be there as well. I had no desire whatsoever to intrude on that.
"And," he continued with charming persistence, "you feel better now that you know where I was after I left."
He was right. I did. I blinked once, frowning slightly, before wondering aloud, "How did you know?" I hadn't even known it myself.
"You're a hoarder," he answered, as if that explained everything.
Hm. Maybe it did. "Thanks for filling in the blanks, darling," I whispered as the train rocked along and we watched the sun set through the window.
"Anytime, babe. Anytime."
That really is how Duo and Trowa met. Duo and Heero went to the Alliance's New Edwards Base and started kicking ass, then Trowa and Quatre showed up and Trowa fired at Duo and Heero to get them to take up better positions because they "were all bunched up". Mercs, yummmm. Then, once the battle settled down, Duo went at Trowa and they started duking it out. Yeow-cha-wowa. Grrrrrowl. Boy oh boy do I love seeing Trowa fight with that retractable Army Knife deal he's got up his Gundam's "sleeve" during the series.
This story was prompted (in part) thanks to a comment by tb_ll57, who remarked (off-handedly) that it was too bad Trowa couldn't see Duo in "Farmville" (which is featured in Chapter 15 of "Two out of Three").The last line of the story is used brilliantly in Calic0cat's 1+2+1 story, "Anytime".
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