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Beyond the Nexus

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There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be. ~ John Lennon

 

Did you send Miles the changes for this week?

Yes, Quatre.

I assume you included the details regarding the Zhang Collection? Oh, and what’s his name? That pompous ass from Cosmoparis who’s been trying to bring back Chinz for the last fifteen years? Thinks he’s Eleanor Roosevelt reincarnate? I want to make sure he’s not undermining my decisions for the featured trends.

Jacques. And yes, I included everything. I always do.

There was a long pause and Trowa knew what was coming next. Thirty seconds later, his phone predictably began to croon the timeless tune of Wayne Newton’s Summer Wind. He smiled and lifted his phone to his ear. “Hello, Quatre.”

The derision in the silence that followed was palpable, then, “Where are you?”

“In a cab. Heading to Sydney’s for a drink.”

“Alone?”

“I’m meeting friends there. It’s my birthday.”

“I see.” There was another pause, followed by an exasperated sigh on the other end of the line as though Quatre was dreadfully inconvenienced by this news. “Well, I trust you will drink responsibly,” he said, not bothering to hide his condescension, or what Duo often referred to as ‘snooty’. “You do have work tomorrow.”

He nodded and idly watched the bright, colorful lights of the New York City nightlife pass by his window. He’d been spared the rush hour traffic congestion thanks to his boss keeping him well past clock-out time so that they could go over the final preparations for their trip to London.

More accurately, he’d been tasked with the cumbersome duty of enduring Quatre’s nitpicking over every bloody detail, down to the most insignificant constituents of this season’s event. It was an assignment which required the patience of a saint, a talent that Trowa possessed in spades and was ultimately delegated to the role by his colleagues. 

“I will be there tomorrow as I always am,” he replied with the same unruffled calm that had prompted his coworkers to affectionately dub him ‘The Lion Tamer’. Trowa had an uncanny way of soothing their chronically labile boss, much the way a snake handler could subdue a nest of agitated pit vipers. For the staff at Éclat Magazine, his employment was nothing less than divine intervention.

Trowa took the praise in stride, but he’d been told more times than he could count that since he’d landed this job eight months ago, Éclat had witnessed something unprecedented: He was the only executive assistant in the company’s history who hadn’t bolted from the office in hysterics, never to return again.

The night before his first day on the job, he’d phoned his predecessor to get some pointers, only to receive an earful of slurred expletives and incoherent blubbering from the former assistant who seemed to be nursing his wounds with a bottle of wine, or five. He’d given Trowa a rather scathing correction on the pronunciation of his name. Louis, pronounced ‘Lew-ee’ had more than a few choice words to say about his ex boss. 

“Be thankful the benefits are good because you’re going to need them to pay your therapy bills,” Lew-ee sniveled into Trowa’s ear.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” he countered, convinced the man was exaggerating. 

His answer was a loud, abrasive cackle that reminded him of nails on a chalkboard and made him feel as though he was about to leap from a flying plane without being instructed on how to use the parachute. Unsettled, he rested his chin on his hand and waited with mild irritation until Lew-ee regained his composure. The suddenly ominous ‘First day of work’ that was scribbled on his calendar seemed to sear itself into the glossy paper like a phantom warning from the other side.

“Oh, ho ho! You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you? Yeah, that’s a good one. If only I was still as naive as you.” There was an odd sound, somewhere between a sigh and a wet belch. Lew-ee’s voice trembled a little as if he was about to cry when he added, “Look, buddy. I’ll be frank. If you’re not a God-fearing man, I’d suggest you become one really quick. Find Jesus, or something because Quatre Winner makes Satan look like a boy scout in comparison. Fuck cologne, spritz yourself with holy water before stepping through the gates of Hell because, if you’re lucky, you’ll just end up like me.”

Trowa couldn’t resist the temptation, “And if I’m not lucky?”

There was a chuckle on the other end of the line and then, “Ask Saint Mary’s how many of their mental ward patients are former Éclat employees. The Devil went down to Georgia, my ass. No, he’s right here in New York. He may look like an angel, but don’t be fooled by appearances. He is pure evil. A heartless, soulless demon intent on destroying the world one fashion editorial at a time.”

Trowa snorted and glanced up at his computer screen where a media image depicting his new boss was wowing the press with the same extraordinary charm that had paved the way for the former runway model to climb to the top of the fashion food chain. Quatre Winner was stunningly beautiful, charismatic, business savvy, and possessed an intimidating intellect that had shattered the world’s stereotype of airhead models who couldn’t find their own asses with a map and community college course.

Among those who had worked with, or beneath him, he was also known as a raptor, a carnivorous bird of prey with an insatiable appetite and a bite more venomous than a cobra.

“No offense,” he told Lew-ee, more than a little amused by this conversation. “But don’t you think you’re being a tiny bit melodramatic?”

Lew-ee was quiet for a long time. Long enough to make Trowa think he’d passed out cold. He jumped out of his skin a minute later, yanking the phone away from his ear as the man abruptly howled with laughter.

Lew-ee sucked in great gulps of air and wheezed, “Just - just you wait, man. You have no idea, but...I’ll pray for you.”

 

***

 

Hellooo! Earth to Trowa.”

“Huh? Oh, I’m so sorry, Quatre. I didn’t catch what you said.”

There was another long-suffering sigh. “Trowa, you know my time is valuable, don’t you?”

He winced. “Yes. Yes, I do and I’m sorry.”

“If I had wanted to be a parrot, I would have hired that dimwit, Bency Traville over at Vogue instead of you, but I do not want to be a parrot, Trowa. I hired you because you’re capable of rubbing more than two brain cells together so I’d thank you to act like it.”

“Yes, I know. My apologies.”

After a long pause, Quatre said, “Very well, but do not make a habit of this. You had time to daydream in college. There is no place for flights of fancy in this world.”

He swallowed down the rush of guilt that pushed up into his throat like a bad case of heartburn. If there was one thing he hated, it was disappointing Quatre. It stuck like resin against his skin, difficult to wash away.

But there was also an ache of pity for someone who saw no benefit in daydreaming. Dreams were sacred, they were what made the world go round. Dreams inspired the most beautiful works of art, music, and poetry. Dreams, aspirations, those were the things that humans held dear when it seemed all hope was lost.

What kind of world, what kind of environment did Quatre grow up in that had taught him there was no value in dreaming? What kind of harsh, unforgiving upbringing had crushed his hopes and dreams, convinced him that such things were a useless waste of time?

“I know. I really am sorry.”

“I suppose I can forgive you...this time,” Quatre told him, though now his voice was softer, with a trace of humor and Trowa’s belly flipped giddily.

“I appreciate that,” he said, glancing up as the cab slowed to a stop and fished for his wallet to pay the driver. He handed over the cash and opened the door, welcoming the cooler, refreshing breeze of early autumn against his face.

“Well, I’ll let you enjoy your friends. Don’t be late tomorrow. We still have much to do.”

“I know. I’ll be there, bright-eyed and bushy tailed.” He hesitated, unsure if he was crossing the line between business and personal when he added, “Have a good night, Quatre.”

There was a brief, tense silence and Trowa wished he could suck that last part back into his mouth. He was on the cusp of apologizing for the third time that night when Quatre spoke again. Just one word, even softer than before and in an almost plaintive tone that sounded like longing. He pictured Quatre sitting alone in his townhouse with no one for company aside from a stilted phone call with his assistant and his heart ached with sympathy.

It’s lonely and cold at the top...lonely and cold.

“Trowa?”

“Yes?”

Another long pause and then finally, a resigned, “Never mind. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

***

 

“Tro! Long time, no see, buddy!”

Trowa endured the hearty slap to his back as he slid onto the bar stool and gave his boisterous friend the side-eye. “You saw me this morning, Duo. We’re roommates, remember?”

“Eh,” Duo dismissed with a flippant wave of his hand. “That was what? Twelve hours ago?”

“Do you really miss me that much?”

“Of course!”

Though Duo seemed wounded by the question, Trowa knew him well enough by now. “Or do you just miss my cooking?”

Duo glanced to his right and chewed his lip. “Both? I mean, I do love ya, buddy, but fuck, I miss your chicken cacciatore.” He swiped his beer bottle off the counter and tapped Trowa’s shoulder with it. “Putting in all these hours with that slave driver has led to my nutritional decline. I hope you know that.”

“And my mental decline. Since you’re never home for supper anymore, he’s taken to begging on our doorstep like some destitute orphan.”

Trowa turned and smiled at the two men behind him, pulling Heero into a one-armed hug and then reaching around him to shake Wufei’s extended hand. “Hey! Glad you could make it. How are you?”

“Fine,” Heero answered, picking up what looked like a scotch and soda. He swirled the drink around with a red straw and nudged his chin over his shoulder at the black-haired man behind him. “Fei’s been promoted to head architect. Happy birthday, by the way.”

“Really? Wow, that’s great! Heero’s been telling me how hard you’ve been working for that promotion so congratulations. You deserve it.”

Wufei brushed off the praise as Trowa expected he would, not one to make a big to-do about things he considered to be the natural progression of diligence and tenacity, traits that he believed every human should be capable of.

Three years ago, he’d told Trowa, “Don’t congratulate me for doing what I’m supposed to do. If by some miracle I become impregnated, then you may shower me with exaltation, but since we both know that’s impossible, I don’t anticipate there will be a need for champagne and confetti any time soon.”

“I’m sorry, Wufei. I know you don’t like that kind of thing.”

“It’s fine, Barton, no need to flagellate yourself,” Wufei assured him as he flagged the bartender over. “The usual? Our treat.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to do that.”

“Now what kind of friends would we be if we didn’t at least buy you one drink on your birthday, hmm?” Duo asked him, draping his arm around Trowa’s shoulder.

“You present a compelling argument.”

“That’s the spirit,” Duo cheered, hooking his arm around Trowa’s neck and pulling him into a headlock. He planted a loud, slobbery kiss on his friend’s cheek and rubbed his knuckles against Trowa’s scalp, ruffling the meticulously-styled auburn hair. “God, I love this man. I just love him. Remind me again why we’re not fucking?”

Trowa snorted and shoved Duo’s hand away, nodding politely at the bartender when she placed a Tom Collins in front of him. “Because you’re straight and I have a strict policy about not getting sexually involved with friends.”

“Right,” Duo agreed solemnly. “Plus, you drink those froo-froo girly drinks, too.”

“Tom Collins are not girly,” he scoffed.

“Tro, it’s got an umbrella and a little pink, plastic sword with cherries speared on it.”

“So umbrellas and cherries are girly now?”

Duo shrugged and lifted his bottle of Guinness to his lips. “They are when they come with a drink. You need a manly drink. Something to put a little hair on your chest.”

“You have some strange opinions, you know that?”

Heero chuckled. “You’re just now figuring that out?”

Duo tipped his nose in the air and sniffed, “I’m not strange. I’m eccentric. I’m eclectic. I’m - I’m like an original work of art. Unique, idiosyncratic -”

“You got the ‘idio’ part right,” Wufei told him. “Just add a ‘t’ on the end.”

Trowa laughed and watched his friend slide his arm around Heero’s belly, fascinated by the way Heero’s hand automatically reached down to wrap his fingers around Wufei’s wrist without a moment’s hesitation. Damn, but where could he find a love like that?

He’d been there when the two men were merely friends. He’d been there to witness the budding romance between them, the nervousness and endearingly awkward first times. And now he was blessed to witness the way they’d settled into their relationship, watching shyness melt into familiar comfort and confidence.

The evolution of friends to lovers was, to Trowa, a beautiful and inspirational phenomenon, but as happy as he was for his friends, it pained him to think it was something he might never have.

He jumped when fingers snapped in front of his face, startling him from his depressing train of thought and he glanced over at Duo who was observing him with a concerned crease between his brows. “You still with us, Tro, or did we lose ya?”

“No. No, I’m still here,” he answered, wiping a hand across his nose.

Heero gave him a knowing look. “You’re still mooning over him, aren’t you?”

Trowa decided for the sake of brevity to play dumb. “Who?”

Duo scoffed right into his ear, his breath a puff of warmth and Irish beer. “You know who and so do we. Honestly, I don’t know why you even bother. He’s not only out of your league, but I’m pretty sure he’s the Devil’s spawn.”

“He’s not that bad,” Trowa argued for the billionth time since he’d begun working for Quatre. After rehashing this topic more times than he could count, it started to lose its luster and ended up sounding flat and dull to his own ears.

Duo tilted the mouth of his beer bottle at him. “I read this article about him...the guy who wrote it said, and I quote, ‘Quatre Winner is bitchier than a lioness in a dunk tank at the county fair. He’s so bitchy, Regina George cries herself to sleep at night. She worships the red carpet he walks on because it is stained with the blood of his victims.’”

“Duo, how many times do I have to tell you the media always blows things out of proportion? The more theatrical they are, the more gullible people like you believe it.”

“I may be gullible, but at least I’m not obsessing over a sociopath.”

“Duo…” Trowa dropped his face into his hands and silently counted to ten until his temper leveled out again. “He’s not a sociopath, for Christ’s sake. All you know is what the media tells you. You don’t know him. He’s not like that.”

Duo squinted one scrupulous eye at him. “Are you sure that’s not Stockholm Syndrome talking?”

“Duo, knock it off,” Heero scolded. “You’ve been saying this exact same thing for six months and it’s getting old. If Trowa says he’s not that bad, then he’s not that bad. I don’t know why you choose to believe those exploitative tabloids over a friend’s word anyway.”

“Thank you,” Trowa said, relieved that someone had his back on this.

“Okay, fine,” Duo conceded with a petulant pout. “But don’t say I didn’t warn ya when you wake up in a wooden box somewhere in Death Valley.”

“You’re such a drama queen.”

“What kind of actor would I be if I wasn’t?”

Wufei snorted. “If you were a method actor, that would make sense, but you’re not.”

Duo brushed him off with a dismissive wave. “It’s a technicality.”

“If you say so.”

“An unemployed actor,” Trowa reminded him pointedly.

“I’m working on it,” Duo assured him in a defensive tone. “Besides, it’s not like you can’t cover the rent until I get a gig. You are making bookoo bucks now, you know.”

“Not the point.”

“Though how you do is beyond me,” Duo continued. “How many secretaries make sixty grand a year anyway?”

“Executive assistant.”

“Whatever.”

“No, not ‘whatever’. I’ll have you know my role at Éclat is a very important one.”

“Oh, sure. Quatre Winner’s official ass-wiper, that is, when you’re not pining over him like Sandra Dee after a summer romance with Danny Zuko.”

Trowa slammed his empty glass down and shook a finger in Duo’s face. “You’re a dick, you know that?” More than a little fed up with the direction this conversation was going, he flagged the bartender with a wave of his hand and then pointed at his glass once he got her attention. Turning back to Duo, he added, “And I’m done discussing this with you. I swear to Christ, you pay more attention to my love life than you do your own.”

“Of course I do,” Duo agreed as if the idea of worrying about himself was preposterous. “Gotta make sure you’re taken care of first, big guy.” He grinned and pinched Trowa’s cheek like an overly-affectionate aunt at a family funeral. For a split second, Trowa could have sworn he smelled mothballs and White Diamonds.

“Looks to me like he’s taking care of himself just fine,” Heero cut in, winking at Trowa when he gave him a look of gratitude.

Duo shook his empty bottle of Guinness when the bartender approached with Trowa’s drink. She rolled her eyes at the lack of manners, but took the bottle without a word and bent to retrieve another from the cooler. Duo gave her a saucy wink and then turned his attention back to Heero. “It’s not over until I walk him down the aisle.”

Trowa balked and flipped him off. “What am I, your daughter now?”

“You’re my sweet and sensitive and very gay son.”

“You do know I’m older than you, right?”

“Who cares?” Duo swallowed down a belch and gave Trowa a stern, fatherly look. “Speaking of which, we need to find you a man.”

“Oh for - can we not do this on my birthday, please?”

“Fine, I won’t. I’ll just pencil it into my schedule the day after you get back from London.”

“I already told you I am not going on anymore dates that you set up for me. You are absolute shit at matchmaking.”

“You are,” Wufei agreed.

“How do you figure?”

Trowa let out a bark of laughter and started ticking off his fingers. “Owen, the last one, ended up being a junkie. Steve was fucking married -”

“Okay, so I made a couple of mistakes.”

“- Jeff cheated on me. Aaron slept with me once and never called me back. Joey had a cameo on America’s Most Wanted, for Christ’s sake. Carlos -”

“Alright, fine! I get it, jeez. No need to rub it in my face.”

“- Carlos was a whiny little bitch who snored like a wood chipper and ate his own boogers,” Trowa finished triumphantly.

“Okay, so I’m not that great at matchmaking -”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“- But it’s not all my fault,” Duo insisted.

“Oh? Enlighten me then on how much of that was my fault.”

Duo took a sip of his beer and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his denim jacket. “It’s your type, man.”

“My type,” Trowa deadpanned, not following this line of reasoning.

“Twinks,” Duo elaborated. “Twinks are notoriously flighty, selfish people who will do whatever they can to take advantage of sweet guys like you because they know they can wrap you around their finger with a mere shake of their skinny-jeaned butts. They use their Twinkie powers to seduce and betray you.”

“And you reached this hypothesis on twinks, how?”

“It’s science, man. They’re gold-diggers.”

“Right. Well, be sure to turn in your thesis to the research department at Columbia. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to receive this riveting information.”

Duo gave him a questioning look and then glanced at Heero and Wufei, finding nothing helpful in their blank expressions. He turned back to Trowa and cocked his head like a confused cocker spaniel. “You really think I should?”

 

***

 

Four hours later, Trowa assisted an inebriated - and for some reason, yodeling - Duo home where the latter promptly passed out cold the moment his head made contact with his pillow. Trowa patiently worked his friend’s boots and jeans off, no easy task when Duo was doing a remarkable impression of a dead cat, and then tossed the sheets and blanket over him before making his way to his own room.

He was exhausted. Mind, body, and soul. The long hours at work were already difficult and while he hadn’t consumed too much alcohol tonight, he was still up much later than he usually was and he knew he would be paying for it tomorrow.

He missed the days of his youth when he could stay up all night and then show up at work the following day feeling like a million bucks. Now, at twenty seven, he was beginning to feel more like the almost thirty-something he was.

“I’m too old for this shit,” he groaned as he crawled into his bed and flipped the navy top sheet and flannel blanket over himself. The day was warm, but being September, the temperature at night was much cooler than in the summer and he was not looking forward to the long months ahead. Waking up at five in the morning to pitch darkness and the frigid single digits of winter was a real bitch when your bed was warm and toasty. Especially if you’re a born and bred Southerner.

Apocalyptic winters aside, he actually liked New York. The city, even while crowded and noisy, congested, rude, and polluted by burning fossil fuel, it was rife with culture and diversity the likes of which he’d never seen growing up in his tiny, one-church town in southern Georgia.

Where he came from, coming out was not an option. In a town where Jesus was Lord and apparently only spoke to middle-aged evangelists with bad comb-overs and a bully pulpit, being gay was worse than blasphemy, adultery, or even incest. It was the one unforgivable sin that guaranteed you a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. It was the single most surefire way to shame and dishonor your family.

He couldn’t remember how many times he’d sat between his parents on a wooden pew that turned his butt numb after twenty minutes without fail, listening to the reverend’s sermons about the filthy degeneracy of the ‘homoooo-sex-uals’. How many times had the ridiculous conspiracy theories about the ‘gay agenda’ been spat with such fervent disgust that Trowa could see the arch of spittle spray from the preacher’s mouth from eight rows back?

One day, it was a disease. The next, the Devil’s influence. Perversion, depravity, abomination, wicked, immoral was drilled into his head until he was so furious, he wanted to stand up and scream, “Make up your damned mind, you gluttonous, sex-repressed, bigoted sack of shit!”

But he stayed his tongue, swallowed his fury because even though the initial vindication of watching the old pig in a polyester suit blow a gasket would have been delightful, he knew that the consequences would far outweigh the short-lived taste of vengeance.

It was a choice between being true to oneself and getting bashed over the head with a wooden fence post, courtesy of the constable’s son and his friends. It wouldn’t have been the first time and it wasn’t as if any of the townsfolk would do anything aside from turning the other cheek. It was a painful reminder every time he had to see Russell Higgins shuffling around town with the assistance of his parents.

Two years before Trowa’s senior year, when Russell was only seventeen, he was beaten so badly by Constable Moore’s son and his little gang of minions that he’d suffered massive head injuries and internal bleeding that put him into coma for nearly four months. He did eventually regain consciousness, but he was never the same. He was so badly brain damaged that he’d lost the ability to speak, or walk properly. His fine motor skills were virtually non-existent and Trowa had heard the cruel rumors around town about how Russell had to wear adult diapers.

Russell never got the justice he deserved. The constable’s son fabricated a bogus story about being molested in the boys’ locker room and of course his father believed him. The attack was ruled as justified, the case was put to rest, and despite the severity of Russell’s brain injuries, he was sent to an institution on the outskirts of Atlanta for six months where the ‘treatments’ he received only served to worsen his condition.

He was virtually a vegetable on two spindly legs that could barely hold him up, forced under his parents’ care where he would spend the rest of his life being spoon-fed pureed food.

It was both heartbreaking and stomach-turning, but as bitter a pill it was to swallow, Trowa had to go with the lesser of the two evils and suck it up until he was old enough to escape that hellhole. He kept up appearances during his middle and high school years, pretended he was interested in tits and pussy, and eventually began to court the reverend’s daughter who’d been groomed for her future role as the meek and obedient wife of a preacher.

She was Trowa’s safest bet if he wanted to avoid being pressured into having sex. He was attractive, smart, and clean-edged enough to snag her attention and she didn’t disappoint. Other than having to endure a few make out sessions and one, or two occasions when she asked him to touch her breasts, he didn’t have to worry about giving himself away if he failed to perform to her standards during intercourse.

They became highschool sweethearts, voted cutest couple by their peers, and were crowned prom king and queen a month before graduation. She often spoke of them getting married after high school and encouraged him in her own subtle way to ask her father for her hand. He felt like a sleeze knowing that as soon as he left for college at the end of August, he would be breaking off the relationship. The guilt he carried over using her to protect his secret weighed heavily on his shoulders, but if he’d remained single, he would have been subject to suspicion and that was something he was not willing to risk.

Still, knowing that he’d dodged a bullet and the relief that came with it was never more powerful than when he’d first stepped foot onto the black tarmac of LaGuardia International Airport and breathed in the scent of freedom for the first time in his life. After a breathtaking view of Lady Liberty during his plane’s descent, the reality that he’d made it was the final nail in the coffin that was his former life and he’d wept openly inside the terminal, overwhelmed by the surge of emotions.

College was a little intimidating in the beginning, massive, unfamiliar, and crowded with strangers. It was unnerving to be surrounded by so many people he didn’t know and at first, he’d kept his head low and his nose clean, so self-conscious that it felt like he had a giant neon sign plastered to his forehead that read, “I’m a faggot and I’m ready for your judgement.”

It came as a surprise when he finally realized no one gave a shit who tickled his pickle and it was even more of a surprise when the office receptionist handed him a sheet of paper that listed over one hundred different clubs and campus organizations he could join. The word ‘gay’ seemed to jump right off the page and curl a seductive finger beneath the tip of his nose and before he was even aware of what he was doing, he’d outed himself by holding up the paper and pointing to the ‘LGBT’ section with an awkward, but bluntly stated, “This. I want this.”

The receptionist didn’t even bat a heavily glittered eye. Instead, she licked the pad of her thumb and forefinger and pulled another sheet of paper off the top of a stack from the organizer near her elbow. She slapped the sheet onto the narrow ledge above her desk and said, “This is the general club sign-up form. You need to fill this out and then,” she pointed behind him with a purple-tipped finger where a another, larger organizer was attached to the wall, each pocket containing a variety of different colored stacks of paper. “All the individual clubs have their own form you need to fill out, too. You give me this white form back after you fill it out and then you give the other one to the club’s president.”

It was those clubs that gave him the courage to emerge from his shell and over time, he bloomed, uncurling like the fragile petals of a flower in early spring. Even though he’d always known deep down that there was nothing wrong with him, there was a persistent, nagging doubt that remained in the back of his mind that tried to convince him he was deluding himself.

It was thanks to those welcoming communities that he began to feel comfortable inside his own skin and not like some alien visitor from a distant planet attempting to assimilate into a world he couldn’t understand, a world that couldn’t understand him. Here, they understood. They accepted him for who he was and reassured him that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. He wasn’t corrupted by the Devil, he was not living in sin, and falling in love with another man was not an abomination that doomed him to the fiery pits of Hell for all eternity.

The once shy and timid country boy finally began to evolve into an assertive, compassionate man with strong convictions and the confidence to speak them without reticence, or fear. Within five months, he became a prominent member of the community, a friend, a counselor, and an influential advocate for LGBT rights. All in all, a force to be reckoned with when the small, but vocally homophobic group on campus tried to stir the pot.

As such, the more attention and admiration he received for his sensible and successful approach, the more gay and bisexual men steered their interest in him towards a personal and intimate endeavor. He'd gotten dozens of propositions for dates and casual sex, found himself on the receiving end of countless flirtations, and even the occasional pinch on the ass and random marriage proposal.

His first lover was a young man named Alessandro Moretti who came from a similar background. Raised in an austere Catholic Italian-American family, Alessandro had also been forced to hide his sexuality from those around him. Though unlike Trowa who’d broken off his relationship with his hometown girlfriend, Alessandro maintained a long-distance one with his girl who was attending college at Penn State.

For Trowa, it was an affair doomed to failure. Alessandro was determined to marry the girl after graduation despite his gentle persuasion that it probably wasn’t the right thing to do. She was being lied to and with Trowa’s complicity, cheated on as well which made him feel lower than pond scum.

But Christ, he couldn’t help himself. Alessandro was the most beautiful man he’d ever seen, godlike with his olive skin, thick black hair, and athletic body, the latter of which was a direct result of training with his high school and college swim teams. HIs part-time job as a lifeguard, a long-held fantasy for Trowa, was the proverbial push of the envelope.

The sex was mind-blowing. Sinking into the hot embrace of Alessandro’s body and feeling those shaved, muscular legs wrap around his waist was like soaring high above the heavens, wild and free.

Alessandro was the heroin to his junkie and he couldn’t get enough. It was futile. He was hopelessly insatiable, so desperate for a taste of that rapture again and again that his days were measured by the hours, minutes, and seconds between one round of lovemaking and the next.

The affair continued on that way until six months later when he accidentally walked in on Alessandro facetiming with his girlfriend. The gravity of what he’d been a party to stole his breath away and crushed him beneath the weight of guilt and shame.

What followed was a vicious argument, words meant to cut deep were wielded on both sides, words that could never be taken back. Trowa declared the relationship over and stormed out of the room, slamming the door so hard, it bent and dislodged the hinges which required a maintenance worker to come out and replace them.

He felt more than a little silly about his dramatic exit once the adrenaline and raw emotions began to fade. His roommate cackled when he heard the story through the grapevine and entertained himself by retelling the tale to an embarrassed Trowa, complete with wild gestures and words he never actually said.

“You’re a flouncer, dude. That’s exactly what you did. You flounced like a disgraced prom queen whose jock boyfriend got wasted and puked on her dress. Classic shit, man. I’m gonna be telling this to my grandkids.”

Trowa occasionally saw Alessandro around campus, but they avoided each other like the plague and a year later, Alessandro transferred to another university to finish grad school. Whether he did end up marrying that girl, Trowa didn’t know, but he hoped at least for her sake that Alessandro had done the right thing.

Aside from a few casual flings here and there, he never really got serious with anyone again until after he graduated and moved to Jersey where he commuted into the city for work. He’d landed a job at the New York Post and though it wasn’t his proudest moment, at least it was something. His initial role was little more than a gopher, fetching coffee, bagels, doughnuts, and lunch orders. He didn’t make enough money to live in the city so he remained in Newark until his promotion to Librarian a year later.

Despite the paper’s bad rap, he found his duties quite enjoyable, locating archived information and helping the writers and editors with their research. The position bumped his salary up by eleven percent which provided him enough income to be able to move to New York if he could find someone to share the financial burden with. By June of that year, he was pouring through the classifieds for anyone seeking a roommate.

He responded to the first ad he saw, amused by the short caption beneath the ‘Roommate Wanted’ title. 

‘Seeking chill dude for a roomie. I have a two bedroom apartment near the corner of Mulberry and Hester St on the edge of Little Italy. I’m pretty easy to get along with so if you’re semi-tidy, don’t smoke, or do drugs, gimme a ring at 646-566-0121 and ask for Duo Maxwell. I may run and hide, but I cannot tell a lie.’

Trowa made the call and for some reason was not the least bit surprised that this ‘Duo Maxwell’ sounded more like a California surfer than a New Yorker. He had a distinct Valleyspeak accent that rivaled Trowa’s old college roommate with his penchant for peppering his sentences with ‘dude’ and ‘bro’.

Trowa originally thought the guy was a musician since he’d mentioned something over the phone about his ‘up and coming fame’, but when he arrived at the apartment to meet with him and see the place, Duo told him he was an aspiring actor who was waiting tables to get by until he got his big break. The apartment’s living room walls were lined with framed copies of his headshots in addition to a collection of group photos that Trowa guessed were from his high school, or college drama club.

“So, this is it,” Duo said, swinging the door of the second bedroom open. It was pretty small, smaller than his room in Jersey, but almost five hundred dollars more in rent. “I’ll have to move my shit out since I’ve kinda been using it for extra storage. The blue walls are hella dreary, but a new coat of paint should fix that right up unless you like it like this.”

“It’ll do, I think,” Trowa told him. “It’s small, but I don’t have all that much stuff.”

Duo walked across the room to the only window and fiddled with the lock. “I’m pretty sure these are the original windows and I’ve never even tried to open this one. I don’t hang out in here so there wasn’t any point. They’re pretty drafty in the wint - ah, there we go!” He pushed the bottom pane up which emitted a painful screech and pointed outside. “There’s a fire escape there should you ever need it and like I said, if the draft gets too bad, you can hang a blanket over the window. S’what I do and it works pretty good.”

“And you said the rent is two thousand a month, right?”

“Yep. That includes everything but your own food which you’ll have to buy yourself. The two grand covers the rent, heat, and electricity. You’ll have to pay an additional fifty for the phone, cable, and internet service.”

“I have a cell phone I can use, but yeah, that’s no problem.”

“I only have a couple rules, my guy. One, no smoking, or bringing drugs in here. You smoke?”

“No, and I don’t do drugs either.”

“Awesome. Two, you can bring a chick, or two, but no hookers. Nothing that will jeopardize my acting career so if it’s illegal, it’s out. You got a girlfriend?”

“I’m gay.”

“Boyfriend?”

“No, not at the moment.”

“Alright, well the same rules still apply. Hookups are cool, but no gigolos, rent boys, escorts, nothing like that, kapish?”

“That won’t be problem, I assure you. I’m not really a partier, or heavy drinker either.”

“Sounds good. Three, no pets. Pets are an extra three hundred a month and I’m -”

“I’m allergic.”

Duo laughed and plucked a piece of lint off his Yankee jersey. “Yeah, me too. Cats especially. So, the only other rule I have is, don’t eat my food, or drink my beer without asking first. Oh, and sometimes I like to play loud music, but if it ever bugs you, or you need to work, or something, just let me know and I’ll turn it down. What did you say you did again?”

“I work at the New York Post.”

“Oh, yeah. You like it there?”

“It’s not bad, but I don’t plan on being there forever.”

“You a journalist?”

“I have a bachelor’s in journalism, but I’m not there yet. I do research for the writers, though.”

“Nice. Well, unless there’s something else, I think we’re good to go. If you want the room, it’s yours.”

“Don’t you want to interview other people first?”

“Dude, I’ve interviewed like twenty people already and to be honest, you’re the best candidate outta the whole bunch. I know a good thing when I see it.”

That was three years ago and Duo had not only been an amazing roommate, but he quickly became Trowa’s best friend. They got along beautifully and even though Duo was still struggling as an actor and still tended to party a little too hard on the weekends, he was respectful of Trowa’s space and a lot of fun to be around.

Two weeks after he moved in, he met Heero and Wufei and although they weren’t as extroverted as Duo was, they warmed up to him rather quickly. They enjoyed his calm disposition, often joking that they were going to replace Duo by leaving a trail of his favorite beer from Manhattan to Philadelphia in the hopes he wouldn’t be able to find his way back.

Duo always had the best intentions and only wanted his friends to be happy. He just wasn’t the best judge of character when it came to finding a match for Trowa, or even himself for that matter. Duo had blown through eight different relationships since he and Trowa started living together, mainly girls that Trowa didn’t particularly like.

They were shallow, rude, and a few had proven how little they respected Duo by hitting on Trowa whenever they thought they could get away with it. One was openly abusive, expressing her displeasure by physically attacking Duo, withholding sex until she got her way, and invading his privacy on multiple occasions. Eventually Trowa was forced to put his foot down and tell his friend to end the relationship.

In the last two months, Duo had begun a somewhat casual romance with a pretty young woman named Hilde and unlike the others, Trowa took an instant liking to her. She was sweet, friendly, and funny, brightening up the apartment like a ray of sunshine with her radiant smile and easy laugh. He just prayed that Duo didn’t fuck it up somehow because they seemed to have a real good thing going for them.

For him, the idea of being set up again was not appealing because he’d gone through too many shit relationships already. There was also that pesky issue of being head-over-heels with the little blond Satan who possessed the face of an angel and would hang your balls from the rear view mirror of his Lexus if the mood suited him.

Trowa was screwed anyway he looked at it. Relationships in the workplace were never a good idea, especially between boss and employee. Any promotion Trowa might receive after a romance was established could very well lead to rumors, whispers, and then ultimately resentment and accusations of him sleeping his way to the top of the corporate ladder.

There was also the uncertainty that Quatre reciprocated, or even wanted to reciprocate Trowa’s feelings. It was nearly impossible to tell objectively if there was any interest on Quatre’s part since he tended to hold his cards very close to his chest. Quatre kept himself under tight control, his emotions hidden by a haughty mask of disdain.

The few hints Trowa received here and there could have simply been wishful thinking on his part. It was something he often brought up during conversations with Heero and Wufei since Duo was so gung-ho on believing everything the tabloids wrote about Quatre instead of actually listening to Trowa. Heero and Wufei were open-minded and empathetic enough about his feelings to not just brush them off as a schoolboy infatuation which was a refreshing change of pace.

There was no way for either of them to know for sure if the subtle glances and longer-than-necessary touches were evidence that something more was going on between Trowa and Quatre, but they were open to the possibility and supported Trowa’s choices. Since those intimate interactions only occurred in private while they worked into the late-night hours together, no one else was privy to them.

And he was terrified of addressing the subject with Quatre. Scared to death of unraveling the fragile threads that weaved them together to create this tenuous connection. Shattering the trust that he’d worked so hard to gain was unthinkable and he didn’t want to destroy all the months of progress that had gotten them to where they were now.

Quatre was a peculiar creature, finicky and unpredictable with the beauty and grace of a swan until you got too close and wound up on the receiving end of a wrecking ball. He never lost his temper, or even raised his voice, but a simple scathing look was enough to make you feel as if you’d dishonored his family, your family, and indeed the entire human population.

When Quatre walked into a room, there was an apprehensive hush as everyone hurried to sit up straighter. Their hands scrambled to adjust ties and smooth out hair and skirts before his razor-sharp gaze shifted their way and his withering judgement followed. For Trowa, it was fascinating how the blond’s presence alone commanded respect and he wished he’d been around to witness the evolution of it.

Trowa himself seemed to have his own gift of persuasion. While Quatre stimulated those around him, propelling them into action, Trowa had an almost sedative influence. Together they provided the perfect balance, optimizing the frenetic productivity of Éclat Magazine to a level of success the company had never seen before.

It amazed him how much of an effect his proximity had on Quatre. The changes in him were clearly visible. His tense, agitated state melted in Trowa’s presence like butter in the hot sun until he was relaxed and actually quite pleasant to be around. They blended together like a vibrating violin string to a tunefork in perfect pitch and now, Trowa could sense even the slightest shift in mood, anticipating what Quatre wanted before he even gave voice to it.

In private, working side by side in his boss’ office long after the rest of the staff had gone home, Quatre would shed some of his hauteur and surprisingly enough, give Trowa a glimpse of his dry, witty sense of humor. Trowa came to treasure those late nights at work where the two of them ate Cantonese out of white paper pails, snickered like children when Trowa struggled with the chopsticks, and made origami with some of Quatre’s paperwork.

Quatre’s calm aura and easy smiles were a priceless gift, something Trowa felt honored to be allowed to see. He was compelled to hoard them for himself, protect them from this cold, cruel world and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Duo was right. He was smitten, hopelessly head-over-heels in love with his boss.

He just wished to God he knew what to do about it.

 

***

 

He made it to work exactly ten minutes before Quatre was due to arrive and only because he’d employed a few daredevil stunts along the way, piggybacking on the backs of trucks and launching himself over cars like Chuck Norris on a mission to save the world.

He’d accidentally turned off his alarm instead of hitting ‘snooze’ and woke up forty five minutes later with a wide-eyed Duo shaking him roughly, barking, “Dude. Dude! Get up, man! You’re late for work.”

Perhaps it was high time to start enforcing some bedtime rules.

Unfortunately he never got the memo that Quatre always arrived at work early the day before he left for Fashion Week. He stifled a heated curse as he slid to a stop in front of Quatre’s open door only to find the blond already there, going over the last minute details with his design editor.

Jesus, he looked good enough to eat in a pair of tight black trousers and a powder blue silk shirt. When he turned to see what the commotion was, Trowa spotted a pale yellow and fuchsia paisley scarf tied loosely around his neck. The yellow accents in the scarf blended perfectly with Quatre’s curly corn silk hair which was was combed away from his face and gave him a dapper, mature appearance.

Trowa remembered seeing that same style in the photos and video clips of Quatre’s runway days. It always reminded him of those sultry designer cologne commercials where the world’s most stunning men lay supine across a sandy beach while an omnipresent voice contemplated the mysterious inner workings of the human psyche.

He wondered why Quatre had never done one of those ads. He certainly fit the physical criteria and Trowa would be lying if he said he wouldn’t sell his soul to see Quatre lounging in the wet sand, clad in nothing but a pair of speedos while the ocean waves caressed the lean curves of his body.

He’d be lying if he said he wouldn’t sell his soul to feel the warmth of that body beneath him, combined with the exquisitely chilly contrast of the sea.

If he was being honest with himself, he would have bought stock of that cologne and bathed in it every night.

“Did you leave your brain at the bar last night, Trowa?”

The slow, lethargic-sounding drawl cut through the thick haze of his thoughts and he dropped back down to earth with a jarring thud. “I’m sorry?”

Quatre narrowed his eyes and Trowa flushed under the scrutiny, self-consciously smoothing out non-existent wrinkles in his dress shirt. His gaze flitted to the left for only a second, but it was long enough to catch the slightly amused quirk of the design editor’s lips.

Quatre inhaled deeply through his nose, an insidious omen that Trowa was in for one of his trademark inquisitions that had, on more than one occasion, driven its hapless recipients to scurry from the office and empty their tear ducts in a bathroom stall. Trowa squared his shoulders and braced for impact, determined to take his punishment like a man.

“Perhaps you should see a professional for this troubling lapse of focus lately.”

He blinked and met the blond’s apathetic stare, trying not to show how crushed he was by the indifference. He knew he had no excuse and he did not want to disappoint him further with flimsy attempts to justify his conduct. “I truly am sorry, Quatre. I promise I will do better from now on.”

Quatre studied him with shrewd eyes, watching with a predator’s patience for any sign of discomfort that would indicate weakness, or dishonesty. A slight waver of his gaze, a nervous twitch of his fingers, or the shifting of his weight from one foot to the other would give him away no matter how infinitesimal, or subconscious the gesture was. Trowa felt as though he was in the midst of a poker game at a dusty old saloon and he’d just been caught cheating by the fastest gun in the west.

“Very well,” Quatre finally said with a dismissive flick of his wrist and then turned back to his editor, leaving Trowa standing there looking like a three year old who’d just lost sight of his mother in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly.

Is that it? Is that all he’s going to say?

He was so certain that he was going to be subjected to Quatre’s unique brand of ruthlessly emasculating lectures that he was too stunned to do anything but loiter in the doorway with his jaw on the floor.

“And close your mouth, Trowa. You’re going to catch flies.”

He snapped his mouth shut with a loud click of his teeth and turned his body to the side, catching the quirk of the art director’s brow as she brushed past him. She teasingly pinched his elbow and mouthed ‘Lion Tamer’ on her way out the door. He watched her retreat down the hall and then jerked his head back around when Quatre spoke his name.

“Can you get the color palettes from Dorothy, or would that be asking too much?”

“No. No, I’ll - I’ll get them. I’ll be right back.”

He collected the remnants of his dignity and left the office, mindlessly walking the maze of plush-carpeted hallways until he reached Dorothy’s department. The door was ajar, but he knew better than to just barge in. He rapped his knuckles against the woodgrain laminate and watched a pale hand lift and hold up a finger.

He wasn’t looking forward to conversing with her and avoided it whenever possible. She didn’t like him, he knew that much even without her saying so. She seemed to have had it out for him since his first day on the job and he just wished he knew why.

Tapping his foot impatiently, he listened to her one-sided phone conversation, hoping he could somehow speed things up by bitching at her telepathically.

C’mon, come on! I’m pretty sure I’m already in the doghouse so could we please move this along? Wrap it up, lady!

He huffed in relief when he heard the click of the phone being placed into its cradle and pushed the door open at Dorothy’s crisp, “Yes?”

“Good morning, Dorothy.”

She gave him a blank-eyed stare and drummed her glossy red nails on her desk. “Is there something I can do for you, Barton, or are you just planning on gawking at me like an idiot all day?”

Don’t flatter yourself, bitch.

“Quatre sent me for the color palettes.”

“Mmm-hmm.” She pushed away from her desk and stood, retrieving the stack of sample portfolios from a smaller desk against the far wall and dropped them into his arms. “These are the autumn and winter palettes for this season. Quatre is going to need them both for the show this week.”

“Thank you,” he said, shifting the stack in his arms to make sure he wouldn’t drop them and then turned to leave.

“Have you ever been to London?”

He stopped at the door and looked back at her over his shoulder. “No, ma’am.”

She crossed one arm over her chest and rested the elbow of her other on top of it, tapping her teeth with a long fingernail. She gave him a thorough once-over and snarked, “Why am I not surprised? I’ll bet New York is the farthest you’ve ever wandered from your trailer trash brethren.”

His face heated with a rush of anger and he spun around, nostrils flaring and ready to hash out whatever grievances she had with him. “You got something you want to say to me?”

She took a single step forward and dropped her voice to prevent any eavesdropping from someone walking by. Office politics were a delicate, but inevitable and oftentimes vicious reality in the corporate world. A difficult, but necessary lesson learned since Trowa’s days at the New York Post where gossip was distributed with a rigid set of rules laid out by a firmly established hierarchy.

If you were an underling, gossiping would likely get you canned if you were caught talking to, or about the wrong people and thanks to the competitive nature of business, your colleagues were not above throwing you under the bus if it got them somewhere.

It was an eat, or be eaten world and for Trowa, the solution was simple: Keep your mouth shut and trust no one.

“I’ve known Quatre for twelve years. Ever since his novice days in the industry when he was just a pretty face, sashaying his way down his first catwalk draped in clothing that cost more green than his entire hometown of Ajloun could ever conceive of. I should know because I was the one who dressed him.”

“Okay?” And what exactly does this have to do with me?

“I was right by his side as he gained popularity and then fame, eventually becoming a household name in only seven months. I was here through all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into building this company. I was his friend and confidant when times got rough, when he struggled to get this company off the ground, and I was there for him through each milestone, every victory.”

He nodded and quirked a brow. “Does this history lesson have a point?”

She took another step closer and all but hissed in his face, “I see the way you look at him. Everyone does. It’s as plain as day so if you think you’re being subtle, you’re not.”

Denial was on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it down when her eyes hardened, daring him to do just that. Fuck it. He knew damned well he wasn’t fooling anyone. “Alright. So?”

“I see how close you two have gotten despite his efforts to hide it. It may not be obvious to the rest of the world, but it is to me because I know him better than I know the back of my hand. I don’t know if he’s told you this, but he’s been hurt before. Badly.”

His ears perked and a tiny flame ignited inside his gut as he envisioned himself beating this faceless stranger into street pizza. “What happened? Who hurt him?”

“That’s for him to say, not me. I’m only telling you this because...while he hasn’t told me how he feels about you, he’s different somehow when you’re around and that scares me.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know if he’s ready for such things yet and I don’t want to see him hurt like that again.”

The tension drained from his body as the puzzle pieces began to come together and make sense. Dorothy’s hostility towards him was not seeded in some inexplicable hatred, or jealousy. She was being protective of someone she deeply cared about and Trowa couldn’t fault her for that. “I understand and there’s no need to worry. I doubt he’s even interested in me, but even if he was, I would never harm him.”

She gave him a scrupulous look and shook her head as if he was hopeless. “You still have much to learn about Quatre then.”

“Meaning?”

“Quatre’s...well, he’s made an art out of building a wall around himself,” she told him with a shrug of her shoulders. “One has to in this business, or you’ll never survive it. Think of the industry as an ocean full of hungry sharks waiting for the first scent of blood in the water.” She wagged her finger at him. “Show an ounce of weakness, they will come for you and by the time they’re finished, you’ll be nothing but a shredded carcass picked apart by seagulls.”

His mouth twisted with revulsion. “Nice visual.”

“But an accurate one. Quatre’s had to learn the hard way how rough this business is. He had to grow up very quickly to be able to survive in such a predatory environment.”

“Makes you wonder why people even bother.”

“We bother because we love what we do. Because we have a passion for our work. I know you’re not all that interested in the world of fashion since your chosen profession is journalism, but there is a reason why we do this. There is a reason we put ourselves through it. It’s a jungle, Trowa. Some thrive in it, but only the strong will survive.”

“Passion for fashion,” he mused, scratching his chin. “I think I get it now.”

“I hope so,” she told him. “You’re one of the lucky ones. There are thousands of people in this city who would sell their souls to be where you are and would happily do it for far less compensation than what you’re getting. You’d do good to remember that.”

He nodded. “I do. I will.”

She studied him for a moment and then turned to go back to her desk. “I see the changes in him since you’ve been here. You’re starting to chip away at the wall that he’s carefully built to protect himself and the only possible way that would happen is if he’s experiencing feelings similar to yours.”

He forced himself to remain neutral on the outside and applauded his self-control despite the surge of giddiness that tickled his belly. If that was true, perhaps there was a chance after all. “Any advice?”

She glanced up sharply. “Yes. Don’t fuck it up.”

His mouth curled up in amusement. “Anything else?”

“If there’s anything crucial that you need to know about Quatre, it’s that he’s a tough nut to crack unless you have the rare privilege of gaining his trust. That frigid outer shell of his is fiercely guarding a very delicate and vulnerable heart. You seem to be among the few who have been allowed to get close so don’t you dare take advantage of that, or take it for granted.”

He nodded eagerly, dropping any semblance of pride so that Dorothy could see his candor. Hopefully it would help to ease her fears and doubts about his character. “I won’t. I promise you. He means a lot to me.”

He waited while she observed him with strident blue eyes, knowing she was examining him closely for any hint of dishonesty. Finally, she dipped her chin in a nod of acknowledgement and said, “Fine. I support whatever you two decide to do, but as God is my witness, if you hurt him, or break his heart, I will cut your dick off and shove it through my pencil sharpener. This is your only warning.”

He smiled. “Duly noted.”

The phone on her desk chirped and she snorted when she glanced down at it. “Speak of the Devil,” she said and pressed the button next to the flashing light. “What can I do for you, Quatre?”

Trowa winced and clutched the books against his chest as Quatre’s bored-sounding drawl drifted through the loudspeaker.

“I sent my assistant down to get the color palettes from you and I fear the poor man may have gotten lost.”

Dorothy chuckled and winked at Trowa who was flushing gratuitously. “He’s right here and I’m sending him back now. Don’t be too hard on him as it was I that held him up.”

“I see. And what was so earth-shattering that you needed to detain him for so long?”

“Don’t worry your pretty little head about that, sweetheart. Just making sure he knows the ropes before you two leave for London tomorrow.”

She flicked her hand at Trowa, his cue to leave so he turned on his heel and headed back down the hallway towards Quatre’s office, but not before he was too far away to hear Quatre’s exasperated, “God help me.”

 

***

 

The remainder of the day went by fairly smoothly, the only exception being a phone confrontation between Quatre and Jacques over the design trends that were scheduled to be featured in the show. Quatre was not impressed by Jacques’ underhanded attempts to push, in Trowa’s personal opinion, extremely gaudy floral patterns for the season that Quatre snidely referred to as ‘Geriatric Chic’.

After a rather barbarous monologue, punctuated with a healthy amount of colorful insults that forced Trowa to step out of the room so his laughter wouldn’t be heard, Quatre bid the man adieu, hissing a vehement, “Ya gazma, yibn ig-gazma,” before slamming the phone receiver into its cradle and dragging his fingers through his hair, a clear indication that he was agitated.

Trowa refrained from asking what 'ya gazma yibn ig-gazma' meant, even though he was morbidly curious. He wisely decided to wait until Quatre was calmer, or until he saw Dorothy again. If there was anyone else at Éclat besides Quatre who knew what it meant, it would be Dorothy.

Thankfully, Quatre’s sour mood didn’t last more than an hour and the rest of the afternoon went off without a hitch. Trowa’s belly twisted with excitement and nervousness. In the morning, he and Quatre would be headed for London to attend one of the biggest fashion shows in the world. As Quatre’s assistant, he would arrive as a VIP and as such, he already had his own reserved front row seat. He couldn’t help but preen a little at the idea of getting a bird’s eye view of the glitz and glamour, to mingle with the top names in the fashion industry.

Admittedly, he was feeling a little starry-eyed. He just hoped he didn’t do something stupid that would embarrass Quatre like trip over his own feet, or spill caviar all over his lapel.

Around five o’clock when most of the staff was getting ready to leave for the day, a delivery man arrived with a giant bouquet of flowers and placed it on Quatre’s desk. Trowa leaned over and peeked inside the paper while Quatre plucked the card out of the clear plastic pick. Trowa’s eyes widened as he counted three dozen red roses mixed with a few sprays of Baby’s Breath.

He glanced up at the blond, his surprise turning to concern when Quatre’s brows knitted together. “Who’re they from?”

“No one,” Quatre snapped, tearing the card in half and dropping the two pieces into the waste basket beside the desk. He picked up the bouquet and handed it to Trowa. “Go catch Connie before she leaves and give these to her.”

Trowa clutched the flowers close and gave him a questioning look. “You don’t want them?”

“Does it look like I want them, Trowa?”

He blanched at the sharp tone. “No.”

“Good. Glad we’re clear. Get those things out of here, please.”

Confused, but not willing to piss Quatre off by pushing the issue, he nodded and turned to leave, hoping Connie was still in the building. It was obvious that Quatre was upset with whoever had sent them and Trowa was desperate to find out who it was and what they’d done to make the blond react that way.

He finally caught up to Connie who was waiting at the elevator. She was a stately woman in her mid-fifties who worked the front desk. She reminded Trowa of his old kindergarten teacher back in Georgia. She had a fondness for cat sweaters and was often seen around the holidays with flashing pumpkins, or Christmas trees dangling from her earlobes.

He slid to a stop, panting after sprinting down several hallways. “Quatre, he - ah, sorry...he wanted me to bring you these.”

Connie pressed her lips together and nodded grimly as she took the bouquet from him. “Thank you.”

Trowa had the sneaking suspicion that she was familiar with this scenario and decided to try and glean some insight into the situation. “Does he always give you his flowers?”

She hesitated and chewed on her lip, her brown eyes flitting around to make sure coast was clear. “Just the ones from Clive Abel,” she whispered in a hushed voice.

“Clive...Abel…” He tested the name on his tongue, trying to remember where he’d heard it before. It rang a bell, but his mind could not conjure up a face to match.

“Famous British film director,” she elaborated.

“Oh. Ohhhhhh! Yeah, I’ve heard of him. Didn’t he do those historical spoofs with a supernatural twist?”

“That’s the one. The Third Zombie Reich, Hercules vs Cthulhu, that sort of thing.”

Technically Hercules was a Greek mythology figure and not an actual person, but Trowa didn’t think it was pressing enough to correct her. “Yeah, I saw those at the theater when I was in high school. They were actually pretty good. Campy, but good.”

“Clive’s moved onto more serious projects now,” Connie told him as she stepped aside to let a few people board the elevator. “I’ll take the next one, thanks.” Once the doors closed, she turned back to Trowa. “When Quatre first started to emerge in the industry, he was invited to be part of Fashion Week. Clive was a guest at the show and took a particular interest in him.”

Trowa’s hackles rose, but he reigned in his jealousy and held onto it until his metaphorical knuckles turned white. “Did he?”

“Oh, you know the story. Happens all the time. Big time celebrity taking a liking to a young, naive tenderfoot as we like to say back home in Colorado. Clive was already famous. Older, wealthy, influential...not to mention he had that sexy, brooding way about him as many independent filmmakers do. The tortured artist type, so to speak.”

“Uh-huh,” he grunted, fully aware of the direction this story was going and it sunk like a cement block in his gut.

“Anyway,” she continued. “He pursued Quatre. Wined and dined him, wooed him with gifts and poetry. He’s a real schmoozer, that man. And of course, that led to seduction.”

“Isn’t this guy in his forties?”

“Yes, he is now. I think he was thirty four, thirty five at the time. Quatre was only seventeen.”

His stomach twisted with revulsion and he gripped the bench beside the elevator to steady himself from a wave nausea that almost forced him to lose his lunch. “Christ. That son of a bitch took advantage of him.”

“Quatre was smitten… for a while, but several months into their relationship, Clive became controlling. He isolated Quatre from his friends. He kept close tabs on his whereabouts and constantly invaded his privacy.”

“So what happened?”

“Quatre confronted him about it and Clive got angry. People say he accused Quatre of being a spoiled, ungrateful brat and that he should have been thanking Clive for the exposure he’d given him due to their relationship. That was around the same time that Quatre really started to gain attention, while they were together, but if you ask me personally, I think Quatre was the reason why he became famous. Clive had nothing to do with it, as far as I’m concerned.”

Trowa impatiently flapped his hand in a ‘continue’ gesture, eager to find out what happened next. “Go on.”

Connie shrugged. “Quatre broke it off. Said he didn’t want to be with him anymore, but I guess when he tried to leave their townhouse, Clive physically restrained him. Rumor has it that Clive tried to...y’know…”

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing down the bile that rose up in his throat. He understood and he really didn’t want to hear it.

“I don’t know if that’s true, or not,” Connie assured him. “You know how it is with celebrities and gossip. The tabloids were all over it after a supposedly ‘anonymous’ source came forward with the story. Clive denied doing any such thing in interviews and Quatre refuses to address any of it when he’s asked.”

Trowa hoped for Clive’s sake that he hadn’t because if he ever met the man face to face, he was certain he would have difficulty controlling his fury. “So what happened?”

“Quatre left for the United States after he ended the relationship, but Clive is not a man who takes rejection well. He was disgraced, humiliated, and enraged that this nameless kid had the nerve to dump him. Of course, the media did nothing but make it worse. He tried to salvage his pride by convincing Quatre to get back together with him, but Quatre refused.”

“I guess Clive was relentless in his pursuit and it got so bad that Quatre had to take out a personal protection order against him. When Quatre’s in London, or when Clive’s in the states, he’s not allowed to get any closer than five thousand feet, or he’ll get arrested.”

“But he still sends Quatre flowers, I see.”

“It’s about the only thing he can do anymore, at least not without violating the PPO. I volunteer at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx on the weekends so I take the flowers there to help cheer up the patients.”

“That’s awfully nice of you. And him.”

“Yeah, well.” She shrugged again and lifted her purse strap back onto her shoulder. “It’s nice to turn something negative into a positive, y’know? And the patients really do enjoy the flowers.”

He nodded and smiled at her despite feeling deeply troubled. It was tumultuous, this feeling, a sense of foreboding like a heavy pressure building behind his eyes. Perhaps it was a prediction though it was too vague to make any sense of it. It was something both Duo and Wufei would consider an omen, or warning of some kind, though Trowa was more a natural skeptic. “And we’re leaving for London tomorrow.”

Connie reached over and squeezed his arm. “Oh, there’s no need to worry, sweetie. Quatre’s been to London many times since they broke up and he’s never had any problems. Clive knows well enough to stay away when he’s there.”

Her assurance eased the apprehension only a little. It still lingered on the edges of his mind and manifested itself as a jittery sensation. He hoped he was just antsy about traveling overseas for the first time, but this new information about Quatre’s ex didn’t help matters.

Relax, Trowa. You’ve just got a bad case of the pre-show jitters. Nothing is going to happen so chill out.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for holding you up for so long.”

“It’s not a problem. I don’t have anywhere important I need to be,” she told him with a laugh. “Just a date with my couch, a cup of tea, and a Downton Abbey marathon.”

He chuckled and pressed the down arrow button on the elevator wall panel. “Well, don’t let me keep you from that. I appreciate you informing me of what’s going on and I promise I won’t say anything.”

“Most of what I’ve told you is public knowledge anyway. All you need to corroborate what I said is an internet connection and Google.” She hesitated for a moment, her expression turning uncharacteristically serious. “I can see how concerned you are. You’ve taken quite a liking to our beloved editor-in-chief, haven’t you?”

What Dorothy said earlier came back and he flushed when he remembered that the staff already knew about his not-so-subtle pining over Quatre. “Am I really that obvious?”

She grinned. “About as obvious as a clown at a funeral.” When Trowa ducked his head in embarrassment, she patted him on the shoulder and added, “Don’t fret, sweetheart. Most of us who suspected it approve and the ladies up front have been gushing over it for the last few weeks.”

“They have?” For some reason, that didn’t make him feel much better.

“They think it’s the sweetest thing they’ve ever seen and they’re rooting for you,” she told him with a grin. “So am I.”

He laughed as his face flamed with heat. “Well, that’s good I guess. I could use some cheerleaders.”

“You have no shortage of those. I consider myself a pretty good judge of character and I know you’re a good man, Trowa. You have a light inside you that I haven’t seen in any New Yorker for quite some time. Don’t let this place make you jaded. It would be a shame to see your light go out. And I think you’re just what Quatre needs to bring back the light he once had. Every so often I get a glimpse of it and that gives me hope.”

A lump formed in the back of his throat and despite his doubts about the faith she had in him, he was touched by her words nonetheless. “Thank you. I will do my best.”

“I know you will. This industry took a lot from him, including his innocence, but it’s my hope that you will be able to remind him of who he used to be.”

Don’t cry, you absolute wuss.

“I think you give me too much credit.”

Connie shook her head as the elevator dinged and the doors slid open. She stepped inside, turned around, and gave him a confident smile. “I don’t. Have faith in yourself, Trowa. You’re the best thing that’s happened to this company and I think you’ll be the best thing that happens to Quatre, too.” She winked as the doors slid shut and quickly added, “Have fun in London, gorgeous!”

 

***

 

It was nine o’clock in the evening by the time Trowa and Quatre finished up the last minute details before their trip and Quatre was looking as tired as Trowa felt. The blond dropped the last stack of portfolios into his pilot case, zipped it closed, and dragged his fingers through his hair which had become tousled over the last few hours. It hung in shiny, golden ringlets around his face, tempting Trowa to touch.

He wanted to card his fingers through it, and grip it tightly while in the throes of passion. He jumped as Quatre glanced up at him and clasped his hands behind his back like a kid playing innocent after trying to sneak a pre-supper treat out of the cookie jar.

“Well, I suppose that’s it. Have you finished packing?”

“Yeah, mostly. Just need to pack toiletries.”

Quatre pulled a drawer open and fished two small black books out of it. After peeking inside, he tossed one to Trowa. “Your passport. Put it in your carry-on as soon as you get home so you don’t forget it.”

“Alright,” he said, sticking his passport into his own matching pilot case. He felt a little ridiculous about being so excited over his first trip abroad, but what the hell. When he considered the fact that Chester Moore and his friends were still stuck back in Cedar Hills, Georgia where they would likely live out the rest of their lives, he couldn’t stop the thrill of vindictive glee that coated his belly like warmed molasses.

“So, go home and sleep after you get your packing done. We have a long flight ahead of us tomorrow. My car will be there to pick you up at five am sharp so do not make me wait. Our flight leaves at six thirty. Think you can manage that?”

“Yes,” he assured him. “I can do that.”

Quatre nodded curtly and stepped around him on his way out the door. “Good.”

He was not his usual self, at least not the Quatre that Trowa had come to know after five months of working alone with him until after dark. He seemed closed off, preoccupied, and Trowa wondered if it had anything to do with the bouquet of roses he’d received from Clive. “Is everything alright, Quatre?”

He stopped mid-step and stood with his back to Trowa. “Fine. Why do you ask?”

Trowa knew he was treading on thin ice, but his impulse and need to know the truth commandeered his logic. “Who were the flowers from?”

He swallowed down his trepidation and shakily stood his ground as Quatre slowly turned and narrowed his eyes. “I told you. No one.”

Trowa dropped his gaze to the floor, feeling guilty for asking such a personal question. It really wasn’t any of his business no matter how much he wanted it to be. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Quatre was silent for a moment and then spun on his heel with a crisp, “Let’s go.”

Tail between his legs, Trowa followed him out until they reached the elevators, but stopped short with a curse. “Damn. I forgot my keys. Sorry, I’ll be right back.”

Quatre’s long-winded sigh reached his ears as he scurried back to the office where he’d left his keys on the desk. “Aren’t you a little young to be going senile?”

He pushed the door open and flicked on the Tiffany lamp to locate his keys. He found them at the far end of the L-shaped desk where he’d dropped them while helping Quatre pack the portfolios they needed for the show. He picked them up and turned to leave, but paused and glanced down when his knee bumped the waste basket.

Sticking up through the crumpled pile of discarded paper, he spotted the glossy edge of a small greeting card. Without thinking, he leaned down with his hand hovering over it and then stopped again, questioning the ethics of what he was about to do.

You know what a bad idea is, man? It’s this. This right here. You have no right to be snooping into Quatre’s personal life so take your hand out of that basket, stand up, turn the light off, and leave. Don’t do something you’re likely to regret later.

He turned his head and glared balefully at his right shoulder just as another voice piped up in the vicinity of his left shoulder.

Do it. You care about this guy and you’re only looking out for him. You can’t do that if you don’t know what’s going on.

Don’t be stupid, Trowa! You’re invading Quatre’s privacy. It’s wrong any way you slice it!

Do you want to be with him, or not?

If Trowa wants to be with him, not invading his privacy would be a good place to start, you buffoon.

Oh, honey. I know you’re not talking to me, you pious little goody-two-shoes.

I am here to make sure Trowa does not make bad decisions and you are not helping, you - you enabler!

And I am here to make sure he enjoys life to the fullest extent even if it means taking a few risks here and there.

Don’t listen to him, Trowa. He just wants to get you into trouble. Please, do the right thing and don’t look!

Look, Trowa. You know you want to. Do it.

Trowa glanced over at his left shoulder and then back to his right. “You’re not the boss of me,” he snarked and bent down to fish the two halves of the card out of the trash.

‘Atta boy!

You’re going to regret this.

“Shut up, both of you.” He picked the two pieces out and held them beneath the lamplight, adrenaline making his heart thump like a bass drum against his ribs.

‘Looking forward to seeing you in town, beautiful. London is not the same without you here.

All my love,

Clive XOXO’

“Son of a bitch.” The man was a stalker, no doubt about it and Trowa couldn’t even imagine how Quatre must have felt when he’d opened that card. It was no wonder he didn’t want to talk about it .

Now that he’d done it, the regret finally came and Trowa felt lower than a dog for resorting to digging through Quatre’s trash.

Told you so.

He straightened up and shoved the two card halves back into the waste basket, completely burying one and making sure the other stuck up the way it had before. Quatre had an eye for tiny, insignificant details and Trowa wouldn’t put it past him to notice that the contents of his waste basket were disturbed. Grabbing his keys, he flicked the light off and left, closing the door behind him.

Quatre was leaning against the wall with his arms folded across his chest by the time he reached the elevator. “Am I going to have to draw you a map of this place?”

“No,” he panted and lifted his hand to show the blond the key ring dangling from his finger. He jangled them and added, “Sorry. Took me a minute to find them.”

“Is there anything else you’ve forgotten? Your brain, perhaps?”

“Nope.” He tapped his finger against his temple. “Still in here, I think.”

“Let’s hope so.” Quatre pushed away from the wall and turned to press the button. When the doors opened, Trowa waited for him to step inside first and then followed him in, pushing the button for the ground floor.

There was an awkward silence on the way down and Trowa’s attempts to make small talk died on his tongue before he could voice them. Quatre didn’t appear to be in the mood anyway, staring intensely at the panel of buttons in front of him, though he seemed to be lost in his own thoughts instead of actually seeing them.

Trowa remembered Sarah’s attempts to coax him out of his shell when they were in high school. She would brush the long curtain of auburn hair away from his face, smile up at him, and whisper, “Penny for your thoughts.”

More often than not, Trowa was thinking about things that he knew Sarah would not appreciate. Things that would no doubt earn him a severe beating and he was not keen on winding up like poor Russell Higgins. Like any other guy forced that deeply into the closet, he’d learned to bullshit his way through just about any uncomfortable situation, lying through his teeth about how he was thinking of her and how lovely she looked with daisies in her hair.

The temptation to do the same ‘penny for your thoughts’ reenactment with Quatre was overpowering until he reminded himself that such a gesture would likely lead to the blond popping him in the jaw and flouncing his way out of the elevator while spitting an impressive string of insults from his razor-sharp tongue.

It probably wasn’t the best idea to start their trip off on the wrong foot so he pressed his lips together and said nothing during their descent.

They walked side-by-side through the lobby and when Trowa held the door for him, Quatre breezed right through as though he expected nothing less. Trowa didn’t take it personally. He’d learned over the last several months that this was just how Quatre was. He was accustomed to people kissing his ass and likely didn’t think too much about it.

As they stepped outside, Trowa was greeted by a chilly breeze, the sting of drizzle on his face, and the sound of traffic moving along Fifth Avenue. He quickly reached for the plaid umbrella hooked over the handle of his pilot cast and flipped it open, holding it over both his and Quatre’s heads to shield them from the rain.

He walked with Quatre to the shiny black Lexus that waited curbside for him and held the umbrella over him until he was safely inside the car. Bending down over the gap of the open door, he smiled and said, “I’ll see you in the morning,” and then shut the door and stepped away from the curb, heading the other way down the sidewalk towards the subway station.

“Trowa.”

He stopped instantly and turned to see the door open again with Quatre standing next to it. His blond curls were beginning to droop beneath the onslaught of rain. His eyes gleamed from the lights lining the street and storefronts, but Trowa dared to hope that maybe they were shining for another reason. “Yes?”

“Would you like a ride home?”

I would be most honored.

“I don’t want to inconvenience you, or take you out of your way.”

Quatre rolled his eyes. “Shut up and get your ass in this car. You’re getting soaked.”

He grinned and broke into a light jog, his shoes splashing through shallow puddles as he made his way back to him. “So are you.”

To his surprise, Quatre laughed, showing off two rows of brilliant white teeth. It was the first and likely only laugh Trowa would hear from him today, but it was enough. For now. “I’ll live. Hop in,” he said  and then ducked down, disappearing inside the dark interior.

Trowa rounded the car and waited for nearby traffic to pass before opening the door and sliding inside. It was toasty warm and best of all, dry. The inside of the Lexus smelled of cinnamon air freshener and Quatre’s expensive cologne and he inhaled deeply through his nose, stupidly drunk on the intoxicating scent.

The driver met his gaze in the rearview mirror and Trowa saw his gloved hand lift and tip the bill of his hat the way he’d seen in countless old movies. Who said chivalry was dead? “Where to, sir?”

He blinked, a little taken aback by the honorific. “Uh, Little Italy. Corner of Mulberry and Hester, please.”

“Little Italy,” Quatre mused. “I haven’t been down that way in quite some time. Nice little area. Quaint.”

“I like it,” Trowa agreed, not offended in the slightest by the ‘quaint’ remark. Quatre meant nothing by it. “My building’s pretty old, but I have a fondness for old buildings and antiques.”

“Well, that makes two of us, then. I remember my old studio apartment in Harlem when I first moved here. It was tiny, so tiny that it didn’t even have a bathroom. I had to share the one bathroom down the hall with the other tenants on my floor,” Quatre said with laugh. “But I loved it. It had the original wooden floors, restored by the landlord before the place opened for residents. I loved hearing the creak of the floorboards beneath my feet when I walked around. Strange, I know.”

Charmed by the confession, Trowa’s heart warmed like a fresh loaf of bread straight from the oven. “I know exactly what you mean.”

“They just don’t make buildings like that anymore,” Quatre said, his voice wistful and nostalgic. “It’s a shame. The craftsmanship that went into the architecture, the attention to detail was just incredible. At my old place, there was crown molding everywhere the eye could see. Made by hand and practically took up half the wall space. Now everyone is into this post-modernistic, industrial chic crap.”

Trowa chuckled. “Well, everything makes a comeback, it seems, so maybe one day it will be in style again.”

Quatre sighed and leaned his head back against the seat. “Just so long as Chintz stays in the past where it belongs.”

“What do you have against Chintz anyway?”

He groaned and rolled his head back and forth as if he was reliving some kind of traumatic event. “My mother was fond of it. When I was a kid, every wall in our house had that gaudy Chintz wallpaper plastered to it and it was such a nightmare because my mother did not have an eye for design. She couldn’t coordinate colors, or patterns to save her life. Even when I begged her to at least let me get rid of it in my own room, the answer was always a firm ‘no’. Needless to say, by the time I moved out, I swore I would never use, or promote Chintz for as long as I lived.”

Trowa snickered into his fist and to his delight, it spread to Quatre. Within a few seconds, both of them were howling with laughter. He wiped the tears from his eyes and grinned at the blond beside him. “I’m very sorry you had to experience that.”

Quatre snorted and ran his fingers through his damp hair, ruffling the loose curls before dropping it back into his lap. “I should probably devote a chapter to that in my memoirs.”

“I’m sure you have a lot of interesting stories.”

“You could say that,” Quatre said, brushing away invisible lint from his pant leg. Trowa watched, mesmerized by the delicate structure of his hands, wrapped in baby-soft, porcelain skin. He clenched his own into fists, resisting the urge to reach over and hold one in his palm, to stroke his thumb over the bird-like bones and fragile web of veins.

“You’ve come so far in such a short span of time,” Trowa mused. “I admire you very much.”

Quatre’s face tightened as he glanced out the window. “You shouldn’t.”

He bit down hard on his tongue in reprimand for speaking out of turn. Quatre was quite the tetchy creature, but Trowa was at a loss for why he shouldn’t admire someone who’d worked his ass off to get where he was. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend.”

Quatre’s arms wrapped around himself. To Trowa, his body language spoke volumes. Everything he ever needed to know was right there in that subconscious gesture. Quatre’s frosty exterior was his shield against a world that had been cruel to him. That shield protected the true essence of Quatre, a means of self-preservation in an environment that would tear him to pieces if given the chance.

Trowa thought about the card he’d found in the trash can, the short but chillingly intimate message written by a man who had harmed Quatre in ways that Trowa had yet to learn about. It gnawed at his gut like a flesh-eating virus and he wanted nothing more than for Quatre to talk to him about it. What he thought, how he really felt, what had happened between them.

He wanted to ask him what he could do to make Quatre feel safe. He wanted to know when was the last time Quatre had ever felt truly safe and most of all, he wanted Quatre to know that he would always be safe with Trowa.

Quatre eventually turned away from the window and smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He looked exhausted and Trowa wondered if he had trouble sleeping. His heart broke from the idea of Quatre spending his nights alone in a cold and empty bed, tossing and turning as he was plagued by terrible dreams. Having no one there to comfort him in the darkness when the tears came was unthinkable.

I would gladly spend the rest of my life crawling on my belly across the filthy ground for just one night to hold you while you sleep. For the chance to be your shelter, to be the one to dry your tears. Just say the word and I’ll be everything you ever need and more.

“You didn’t.”

He shook away the fog in his mind, trying to remember the context of what Quatre was responding to. “I’m sorry?”

The blond shook his head, but he didn’t seem annoyed. “Why do you drift off so much?”

“What do you mean?”

“The way you seem to escape inside your mind. Your face - it’s hard to describe, but it - you look so far away, but also...I don’t know. Dreamy, maybe?” Quatre paused and then leaned towards him. Trowa’s throat closed up, too stunned by how close he was to remember to breathe. “Where do you go? What do you see?”

He hesitated, not sure how to answer at first. “Well...lots of things, I suppose. I don’t really -”

“How do you do it?”

“What? Oh, well I’m not really sure. It just...kind of happens.” He blushed and ducked his head, feeling sheepish. “I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer.”

“Sir, we’re here.”

Quatre stared at him for moment and then leaned back against the seat, breaking the bewitching spell he seemed to be holding over Trowa. “You’ll have to teach me how to do that sometime.”

He blinked and finally released the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding for so long. His head spun dizzily as he glanced at the back of the driver’s head. “Huh?”

“You’re home, idiot,” Quatre told him, though without his usual venom.

“Oh. Right, sorry.” He fumbled for the handle of his pilot case that sat on the floor between his feet before turning back to Quatre. “Thanks for the ride. See you in the morning?”

“Bright and early.”

He smiled and opened his door. “Okay, see you then.”

“Trowa?”

He stopped halfway out and looked back over his shoulder. “Yes?”

“Sleep well.”

Fuck, I’m so hopelessly in love with you. Will you marry me? I want to grow old with you. I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy.

“You, too.”

 

***

 

Trowa’s flight from Atlanta to New York was a cramped, uncomfortable, and downright unpleasant experience. From the middle aged man beside him who stunk of Old Spice and body odor to the toddler four rows behind him that screeched like a banshee for more than half the trip, it was a miserable two and a half hours of his life he could never get back. He was just thankful for the pair of Sony noise-cancelling headphones his father had given him as graduation gift.

If only he’d thought to bring along a clothespin to protect his poor olfactory system from the nauseating stench of cloves and the peppery smell of old sweat.

This trip was something else altogether and a testament to his vow never to fly coach again. He sighed in bliss as he sunk down into the plush, roomy seat in first class and marveled at the way the memory foam material hugged his backside as if it was made just for him.

“Hot towel?”

He jerked his head away from the view of the tarmac outside his window and stared blankly up at the flight attendant who held out a silver platter piled high with carefully-rolled, white terry cloths. He watched the delicate curls of steam rise up into the air and decided he might as well take advantage while he could. “Sure,” he said, picking one up off the top. “Thank you.”

The towel scalded the tips of his fingers at first and he juggled it from one hand to the next until the burn subsided before unrolling it. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes as he placed the delightfully warm fabric against this face. “Ahhhhh! Now this is nice.”

Quatre’s soft laughter was like a lover’s caress around his ear. “It doesn’t take much to please you, does it?”

“Nope,” he replied, his voice slightly muffled by the towel. “I like to appreciate the little things. As someone I used to know said, sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses.”

Quatre was quiet for a long time, long enough that Trowa thought he’d drifted off to sleep. “Who said that?”

“Hm?” Pleasantly drowsy himself, he lifted his head, causing the towel to slide off his face and into his lap. He picked it up and placed it on his tray table. “Oh, just...an old friend.”

“I see.”

“Old girlfriend, actually.”

“Ah,” Quatre murmured as if it all made sense now. “And does the great Trowa Barton have a new lovely lady he’s set his sights upon?”

Only you, but you’re not a lady.

“Uh…well, I - I mean, I’m -”

“You don’t have to answer that, Trowa. It’s none of my business.”

“No! No, it’s - it’s fine. I don’t have anything to hide anymore. I’m - well, I’m gay, actually. I dated this one girl, Sarah, all throughout high school and then I broke it off once I got to college. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but -”

“But you had to protect yourself.”

It wasn’t a question, but Trowa nodded anyway. “I didn’t really have much choice. I come from a very conservative area. The majority of the people in my hometown were southern Baptists, real fundie types, you know?”

“I understand completely.”

Trowa shook his head and looked down at his lap. “There was this kid. Well, he’s a little older than us now, but not by much. I’m not sure how it started, but word got around that he was gay. It didn’t end well for him.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was beaten so badly, he suffered permanent severe brain damage.”

Quatre blew out a harsh breath and rubbed his fingers across his forehead. “Jesus.”

“One of the guys who did it was the son of our town constable so of course he and his friends got away with it. They made up some bullshit story that everyone happily accepted because they were all brought up to believe gay men were degenerates, rapists, and child molesters. In their eyes, the faggot got what he deserved.”

Quatre’s lip curled in disgust. “It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, there are still people in this world who believe all that garbage.”

Trowa shifted in his seat, turning his body to face the blond. “I still have this sense of...guilt, I guess. Russell was like me and I - I feel like I let him down somehow by not seeking justice, or avenging him in some way. I feel like I should have done something to help him, but I was too scared of being exposed myself.”

“You did what you had to do, Trowa. If you hadn’t, you likely would have wound up just like him. You can’t fault yourself for that. The only ones who are to blame are the people responsible for what happened.”

He sniffed hard and blinked back the tears that burned the backs of his eyes. “It’s not right. When I left for college, I felt like I had abandoned him, or something. He’s still stuck there, in that town because he can’t even take care of himself anymore.”

“There’s nothing you could have done, Trowa. You know that, right? What could you have done? Kidnap him and take him to college with you?”

“Yeah, I know,” he conceded, thumping his head against the seat rest. “That was the main reason why I went for journalism. I wanted to be an advocate for people like Russell. Tell the world their stories. Raise awareness, promote education and tolerance so these hate crimes committed against people like us will stop once and for all.”

“That’s very admirable of you,” Quatre told him approvingly.

“You know I was working at the Post before you hired me. At first, I just did it because of the pay increase, but...I’m happy to say that I’ve learned so much since being here.”

Quatre seemed pleased by the revelation. “What’s your dream job?”

“I’m actually quite happy where I am.”

“Don’t try to flatter my ego, Trowa. You and I both know it’s already too big to fit in this cabin. I had to store it in the cargo bay.” He grinned when Trowa burst into laughter. “I know well enough that this is not what you want to do for the rest of your life. Come on. What’s your dream?”

“The New York Times,” Trowa confessed. “Maybe have my own editorial column, or even better, start my own newspaper company.”

“Those are some impressive aspirations,” Quatre agreed.

“I...kind of low-key want to be an author, too. I’ve always dreamed about having a cozy log cabin in the mountains somewhere, or maybe on the coast of Nova Scotia. I’d have one of those rustic home offices with a huge, arched window and a view of the sea, or mountains. It would have one of those stone fireplaces, a leather sofa, bear rug maybe…”

Quatre’s mouth quirked up at the corner. “And a giant moose, or elk head mounted on the wall?”

“Possibly,” Trowa chuckled. “And then I could just write to my heart’s content.”

“Mmm...sounds nice. Peaceful.”

And then you would come in with a tray of fresh coffee and a snack, dressed in nothing but one of my oversized flannels and a pair of fuzzy slippers. You’d coyly slide your hand across my shoulders and ask if you could read what I’d written so far. Instead I would tell you I had a better idea and lift you up onto the desk for our third round of lovemaking since that morning. The soothing sounds of nature outside would be broken only by your soft moans of pleasure as I -

“So do you have any men in your life then?”

He jumped, startled from his fantasy by Quatre’s gentle inquiry. “Uh...no. No one romantic anyway, but I have good friends and my roommate who’s my best friend.”

“Are those the ones you went out with the other night?”

“Yeah. Heero and Wufei are a couple, both men. Duo is straight, but he’s a wonderful guy. Very supportive if not a little too invested in my love life,” Trowa admitted with a laugh. “He’s always trying to set me up on dates, but most of the time it ends in disaster. He means well. He’s just not very good at finding quality candidates.”

“Sounds like Dorothy,” Quatre mused, accepting a flute of champagne from the flight attendant.

Trowa also took one when the tray was offered to him and nodded his thanks before taking a sip. “Oh, wow. This is really good. The only other time I had champagne was at my older sister’s wedding, but it was the cheap stuff and I was fifteen so I probably hadn’t developed a taste for it yet. I have a thing for Tom Collins, but Duo likes to rip on me because he thinks it’s a girly drink.”

“Duo...is that your roommate?”

“Yeah. He wants to be an actor, but he’s figured out that it’s not an easy profession to get into. He’s gotten a few gigs. He did an athlete’s foot commercial last year along with a few others.”

“Does he have really long brown hair?”

“Yep. That’s Duo.”

“No kidding. We’ve featured that ad in our magazine before.”

Trowa smiled. “Small world.”

Quatre bent down to retrieve his laptop case. “Well, I look forward to seeing his projects in the future.”

“He’s adamant. Highly motivated and really good at acting. I don’t doubt he’ll succeed once he gets his foot further inside the door.”

“I’m sure he will.”

Trowa stifled a yawn, a little sleepy from the champagne. “Working?”

“As always,” Quatre said, placing the laptop on his tray table and pulling the top up. “You should take a nap. We’ve still got about about five and half hours until we land.”

He nodded drowsily, wanting to encourage the blond to do the same, but he knew better than to suggest it. Quatre took orders from no one. Trowa got the sense that if God Himself came down from Heaven and gave Quatre an order, he would simply turn his nose up and snark, "Do you know who I am?"

Trowa chuckled to himself as he pulled a pillow down from the compartment above his head and tipped his seat back. “Don’t let me sleep too long, okay?”

If Quatre answered, he never heard him. Sleep came swiftly and in less than ten minutes, he was dead to the world.

 

***

 

“Trowa...Trowa, wake up! We’re here.”

He jerked awake with a snort as his head was jarred. Blinking his eyes open, he realized his face was pressed against Quatre’s arm and there was a damp spot beneath his open mouth. He snapped to full awareness and sat upright, wiping the drool from the side of his mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to slobber all over you.”

Story of my life.

“I think I’ll survive,” Quatre told him, dabbing a paper napkin over the wet stain on his shirt. “Believe it, or not, this isn’t the first time I’ve been slobbered on.”

Trowa wanted to ask him to elaborate, but on second thought, he probably didn’t want to know. He stood up after Quatre did and only then discovered how numb his ass was. He stretched, groaning with pleasure as his muscles thanked him for rescuing them after hours of being in the same position. He stretched his long body as far as it would go until his fingertips pressed against the ceiling of the cabin. “Oh, yeah. I’m so here for this.”

Quatre wasn’t quite as dramatic, simply bending his spine backwards with his hands braced against his tailbone. He gave Trowa a wry look over his shoulder. “Grab the bags, you big lug.”

He grinned and fished the carry on baggage from the overhead compartment, falling into step behind Quatre as they shuffled with the rest of the passengers like a herd of cattle towards the exit. “Never underestimate a good stretch.”

Once their feet touched the tarmac, he breathed in deeply, curious to find out if Europe smelled different than the states. There was a hint of something different beneath the odor of burning jet fuel, but it wasn’t anything he could put his finger on.

A voice whispered inside his head, sounding strangely like his father. Take a whiff, son. That’s old-world smell.

“It’s the smell of pretension,” Quatre grumbled beside him and Trowa glanced over at him in shock. Had he said that out loud?

“Do you have some love-hate relationship with Europe I should know about?”

Quatre spun around to face him and pointed a finger in his face. “One thing you need to know about these people is that they have an instinctive resentment and disdain for Americans. They think we’re all a bunch of bible-thumping, gun-slinging, beer-swilling idiots.”

Trowa smiled. “Are you saying we’re not?”

The blond narrowed his eyes before twirling on his heel with a muttered, “Never mind.”

Trying to contain his laughter, Trowa followed him into the terminal, turning his body to one side and then the other to avoid bumping into the people who brushed past him on their way to board the plane. He noticed Quatre did not and was amazed to watch the crowd part like the Red Sea as he led them towards the exit. “Wait! Don’t we have to stop by the baggage claim to get the rest of our things?”

“Already taken care of,” Quatre informed him, strolling out the door without a second glance at the kind man who held it open for him.

Trowa thanked him instead on his way out, nearly walking straight into Quatre who’d stopped on the sidewalk. Trowa gaped as he stared at the long procession of luxury cars and limousines parked along the curb. Standing in front of them, drivers in uniform held up signs, each one with a different name scribbled across it in black marker.

“Come on,” Quatre urged, reaching back to tug at his sleeve as he walked towards the third car to the right where a man held a sign with ‘Winner’ written on it. He cordially tipped his hat at the blond with a respectful, “Welcome, Mr. Winner,” before leaning down to open the door for him.

Trowa was too busy boggling at the car when the driver politely addressed him. He glanced at the man, then at the car, and then back at the man again, his hand lifting to point at the sweetly humming vehicle. “Is - is that a Royce?”

The driver smiled. “Yes, sir. It is.”

“Holy...I’ve never actually seen one up close and personal.” He approached it with reverent awe, bending down to get a better look. Oh, but it was a beauty and he absently wondered what he’d done in a past life to deserve a ride in this baby. “Exquisite,” he murmured. “Listen to that. Purrs like a kitten.”

Trowa! Get your ass in this car right now, or you’ll be walking to the hotel.”

He quickly straightened and jogged around to the other side, waving the driver off when he moved to open the door. “I got it, thanks. Sorry, Quatre. I’ve - this is my favorite car and I’ve never had a chance to -”

“I’m glad you’re pleased with our mode of transportation, but we need to check in at the hotel by three o’clock and it’s,” the blond glanced at his watch, “sixteen minutes to three.”

“Oh, my apologies. I didn’t realize it was so late.”

Quatre gave him a crooked grin as the car pulled away from the curb. “Like I said. Easy to please.”

By the time they reached Hotel 41, Trowa was as starry-eyed as a rock star roadie who’d been given backstage passes to see her idols. When the Royce slowed to a stop in front of the doors, Quatre was forced to yank on the back of Trowa’s shirt to get him to peel his face off the window.

“I can’t believe I’m actually looking at Buckingham Palace,” he whispered in amazement.

“Jesus, you’re like a little kid, I swear,” Quatre muttered, sliding out of the backseat when the driver opened his door.

Trowa quickly wiped the smudge his face left behind on the glass with his shirt sleeve and blushed when the door opened. “Sorry. Guess I got carried away.”

“Not at all, sir,” the driver reassured him. “I’ve become quite accustomed to such reactions.”

The trek to their rooms was a harrowing experience for Quatre as Trowa kept getting distracted by a piece of furniture, or a knick knack that no doubt cost more money than he could ever hope to make in his entire life.

After the fifth time he'd wandered off, Quatre tracked him down and ordered him to walk in front of him. “I’m going to have to put you on a leash,” he griped.

When they reached their rooms, their baggage was already sitting in front of their respective doors. Quatre pointed at the door beside his own. “That’s your room. It’s connected to mine by a door so if you need anything, just knock on it.”

“Okay.” He slid the electronic key card into the slot and pulled down on the handle once the little red light turned green. He waited until Quatre had disappeared into his room before stepping into his own and froze mid-step, his jaw dropping to the floor.

This was no hotel room. Absent were the standard double beds with the cheesy generic bedspreads. No dresser with a TV on top, or a small round table and chairs situated in front of an equally small window. The Holiday Inn this was not. It was a goddamned luxury suite.

Boy howdy. So this is how the other half lives.

He explored every nook and cranny of the room, increasingly delighted by every new thing he found. The living area featured a large leather sofa, a mahogany coffee table, two upholstered wing back chairs, and matching mahogany end tables in a slightly sunken lower level with three steps leading down on two sides. Mounted on the wall opposite the sofa, there was a sixty inch flat screen television and in the corner to his right, a full bar made of mahogany wood and a dining table for six brought the whole suite together.

Duo is going to die of jealousy when I show him pictures of this place.

Behind the living area, there was a small kitchenette with a miniature refrigerator, microwave, and what looked like an espresso maker. He opened the tiny fridge and whooped with joy when he saw that it was filled to the brim with soft drinks, bottles of mineral water, and tiny red and white bottles of wine. In the door, snacks took up the shelf space. There were packages of almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, trail mix, and wedges of Swiss chocolate wrapped in gold foil.

Across from the kitchenette, on the other side of a set of double doors, there was a small half bath. When he swung the double doors open, he sucked in a deep breath as he was treated to the sight of a king-sized, four poster bed draped with luxurious goose-down bedding in rich shades of red and cream.

“You have got to be shitting me.”

He quickly toe’d his sneakers off and then broke into a sprint before launching himself into the air and landing face-first in the middle of the bed. God, but it was like laying on a cloud and he groaned in bliss, nuzzling the plush comforter beneath him. “I’m never getting up again,” he mumbled into the bed. “Nope. You can’t make me. Call my mother and tell her I love her because I’m moving in.”

After a few minutes, he turned his head to get some air and spotted an armoire in the corner, mahogany just like the rest of the wood furnishings. Reluctantly, he crawled off the bed and went over to it, pulling open one door and then the other. 

“Jesus Christ, Quatre.”

Dangling from a dozen, or so hangers, a row of outfits were wrapped in vinyl and plastic wardrobe bags, each one a different style and undoubtedly expensive. At the very back was a neatly pressed black tuxedo with a crisp white shirt and a red cummerbund. Lined along the bottom of the armoire were two rows of shoes to go with each look.

“I take it you approve?”

He yelped and spun around, startled by the voice. “Christ, you scared me! How did you get in here?”

“I told you, our rooms are connected by a door. Your side was unlocked so I decided to check up on you and see if you’re okay with your arrangements.”

“Are you kidding? This is incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Quatre’s expression remained neutral, but Trowa thought he saw a spark of something resembling pleasure in his eyes. It was instantaneous, one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moments before they returned to their default indifference. “Well, as long as you’re pleased with it,” he said, turning to leave.

“Quatre...I don’t - I don’t know what to say. This is too much.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and threw his hands up in a helpless gesture. “You shouldn’t be spending all this money on me.”

Quatre gave him a stunned, almost offended look. “This is how it works, Trowa,” he said sharply. “This is how it’s always worked. We have a reputation to uphold and we must look and act the part. This?” He waved his hand around the room. “Is part of the job. Nothing more, nothing less. You represent me and it is among your duties to show these people that you are one of them because you are. The sooner you realize that, the easier it will be to accept. Understood?”

He flushed, a little embarrassed that he hadn’t thought of it that way. “Yes, understood. I promise I won’t let you down.”

Quatre dipped his head slightly. “I’m holding you to that,” he told him and pointed at a door over Trowa’s shoulder. “There’s a full bath in there. Take a shower and get dressed. Anything but the tuxedo. That’s reserved for the gala at the end of the week. Just put on something comfortable and then come to my room and join me for supper. Do you like steak?”

Does a bear shit in the woods?

“Yes, very much.”

“Supper will be served at five o’clock sharp. That should give you plenty of time.”

“Alright.”

Quatre nodded and turned to leave, but Trowa stopped him one last time. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. This is your job.”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll see you at five.”

“Don’t be late.”

 

***

 

He arrived at Quatre’s suite feeling refreshed, relaxed, and ravenous. He found Quatre at the bar, identical to the one in his own room, dropping cubes of ice into crystal tumblers with a pair of tongs. His blond hair was damp and neatly combed after his shower, though as the curls began to dry, they gradually sprung up from his scalp like baby soft feathers. He was wearing what looked like a pink silk button down, opened just below the wings of his collarbone.

“Do you like vodka?”

Trowa jolted out of an impromptu fantasy which involved the attachment of his lips to said collarbone, his left hand clutching a fistful of that golden hair while his right made itself at home wrapped around one of Quatre’s deliciously pert asscheeks. “Uh, yeah. Sure.” Not really, but he didn’t want to be rude to his host.

Quatre grabbed a bottle of Stolichnaya Elit off the shelf behind him and filled the glasses just enough to cover the ice. He stepped around the bar and Trowa nearly choked on his tongue as he noticed that Quatre wasn’t wearing any pants. Now that he could see all of him, he realized the shirt was actually a long nightshirt and it was effectively tormenting Trowa’s imagination - and libido - with the hem that just barely reached the middle of his thighs.

Christ, don’t look, you idiot! Well...okay, look, but do not, I repeat, do not salute the general. For the love of God - oh, shit! Abort mission! He’s going AWOL. Abort, abort abort!

His body clenched with terror, not sure where to look, or what to do. If he refused to look at Quatre, the blond would probably be clued into the situation pretty quickly. He wasn’t stupid. If Trowa did look at Quatre, it would be impossible to hide his inevitable boner so he stood, ramrod straight like a private at an army boot camp and prayed for strength.

Quatre’s legs were supple and shapely, devoid of hair, and tapered all the way down to his dainty ankles. His bare feet sunk into the plush cream carpeting as he stepped towards Trowa and handed him a glass. “Are you hungry?”

Literally, or figuratively?

Flustered, he cleared his throat and hoped the heat burning his face wasn’t obvious in the dim lighting. “Ye - yes. I am. Hungry, I mean...yeah...”

Can you at least try not to sound like your brain is seeping into your spinal cord? And relax, for Christ’s sake. You look like you’re constipated.

Quatre gave him an odd look before turning away and walking over to the dining table where platters topped with silver domes sat in the center. At each end of the table, a set of fine china and silver utensils were carefully arranged and crowned with folded linen napkins. To the right of each place setting were crystal goblets filled with ice water and to the right of those, smaller crystal wine glasses waited for the sweet and savory bouquets of a fine merlot, or perhaps the rich, cherry notes of a zinfandel. Room temperature, of course.

On each end of the platters, silver candlesticks held a pair of tall, tapered white candles, topped with a gently flickering flame.

“Wow, this is amazing,” Trowa said with hushed awe as he approached the table.

Quatre pulled his own chair out and sat down, setting his vodka on the rocks next to his plate. “I suppose we could have gone down to the dining room, but after that long flight, I just didn’t want to deal with people,” he said, picking up his napkin and unfolding it over his lap.

“Understandable,” Trowa agreed, sitting himself down at the other end of the table. “Oh, the food smells delicious! I didn’t realize how hungry I was until now. I haven’t eaten since I scarfed down a bowl of cereal this morning.”

Quatre lifted the domes off the platters and set them on the long sideboard that stood beneath the large window. Beyond it, the lights of London twinkled like stars against the velvety black of night. “Well, dig in before it gets cold. I tried to wake you up on the plane for lunch, but you refused to cooperate. You must have really needed the sleep. Would you like some wine? I opened it a half hour ago so it should be ready now.”

“Yeah, I’ll take some, but I can get it myself. Please, sit and enjoy your supper.”

“As you wish.”

Trowa fetched the bottle of red off the sideboard and offered to pour some for Quatre, but he placed his hand over his wine glass. “No, thank you. I’ll stick with my vodka. I’m not very fond of red. I put it out in case you wanted it. It’s supposed be served with red meat.”

“Okay.” He filled his own glass halfway and then set the bottle to the side. “Boy, that looks good. Is that filet?”

“Best of the best,” Quatre said cheerily, lifting his tumbler to his lips. “There’s also roasted baby potatoes with parmesan and rosemary and almond-glazed green beans.”

“Now you’re speaking my language.”

The food was perfection, exactly the way Trowa would expect from some of the best chefs in the world. He’d never eaten steak before that was so tender, it melted in his mouth. He cleaned his plate and looked across the table where Quatre seemed more interested in nursing his vodka. “You going to finish that?”

The blond glanced down at his half-eaten steak and shook his head. “No, you can have it.”

He grinned and grabbed the plate when Quatre pushed it across the table. “Not hungry?”

“Oh, no. No, I was.”

“You eat like a bird.”

Quatre laughed and leaned back in his chair, swirling the vodka and melting ice around in his glass. “So I’ve been told. Dorothy tells me I’m too thin. I said there’s no such thing in this business.”

Trowa swallowed down the last bite of filet and picked up his wine. “Not even with the men?”

Quatre gave him a crooked smile. “How many male runway models do you see who aren’t just as lean as the women?”

He tried to remember if he’d seen anything like that and realized he hadn’t. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. The men are just as thin.”

“Catwalk models function under different body standards than other models. It’s not about us, it’s about the names we wear. We’re little more than glorified hangers, walking mannequins. Barbie and Ken dolls pulled off an assembly line, the whole lot of us.”

“Is that why you left?”

Quatre pressed his lips together and Trowa got the sense he was shutting down again. “Among other things,” he said before draining his glass. He held it up and shook it. “You want another vodka?”

“No, thank you. I’m still working on my wine.”

Quatre nodded, looking distracted as he got up and made his way over to the bar. Trowa remembered the bouquet of roses that he’d gotten the day before and knew without a doubt that Clive was the deciding factor for Quatre’s departure from the modeling profession.

Maybe it was the wine, or the candlelight dinner, or perhaps it was the idyllic romance of one of the world’s oldest cities, but Trowa was struck by an overwhelming need to bridge the gap between them. The fermented grapes mingling with his bloodstream gave him the courage to finally take the next step, to gently coax the blond into raising the portcullis that secured his fortress and with a little luck, maybe even invite Trowa into his world.

He dropped his napkin onto his plate and grabbed his wine, following Quatre over to the bar. “Tell me who sent the flowers yesterday.”

Quatre jerked his head up and glared at him. “I told you. No one.”

Trowa traced his finger around the rim of his glass and decided to go for broke. If he failed, if he was fired, so be it. Quatre could rail at him all night long if he wanted. Scream and shout, or even slap him across the face, but at least Trowa could say that he’d tried. “It doesn’t seem like no one.”

Quatre slammed the bottle of vodka onto the counter and snapped, “I’m pretty sure my personal life is none of your business.”

“So it is personal,” he pressed, fully aware that he was pissing Quatre off. He could feel the flow of anger radiating off his body in feverish waves and wiped a few beads of sweat off his brow.

You’ve gone this far, man. No turning back now.

“Need I remind you that you are my assistant, not my therapist?”

“I’m not trying to be your therapist, Quatre and I’m not trying to upset you either. I just want you to talk me, confide in me. I want you to trust me. Haven’t I earned that privilege yet?”

Quatre stared at him for a long time, trying to gauge Trowa’s intentions for wanting to know such a deeply personal aspect of his life. He seemed to want to tell him, as if it was right on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he shook his head, swiped his drink off the counter, and walked over to the living area where he perched his backside on the arm of the sofa. “It’s nothing.”

Trowa approached slowly, carefully, not wanting him to get skittish, or feel as though he was being coerced into sharing something he wasn’t ready to share. When it came right down to it, Trowa would never force him to disclose anything he didn’t want to. “Tell me about Clive Abel.”

Quatre shot up from the couch and was in Trowa’s face so quickly, it almost seemed as if he’d teleported himself there. The blond was seething, snarling through clenched teeth. “Don’t you ever, ever say that name in my presence again, do you understand me?”

But this time, Trowa would not back down. “Talk to me, Quatre. What did he do to you?”

“Why are you so goddamned nosy?”

“Because I care about you!”

Quatre was stunned into silence by Trowa’s shouted admission. The storm in this eyes churned like a cat five hurricane before he turned around and headed towards the double doors leading to the bedroom. When he got there, he glanced at Trowa over his shoulder with a broken expression. It was one Trowa had yet to see and as heartbreaking as it was to look at, he was convinced he was making some progress.

Demolition was a dirty job, but necessary to build something even greater.

“You shouldn’t,” Quatre told him and then flung the doors open, disappearing inside without another word.

Trowa waited just a minute, or two before following him and he spotted him curled up in the corner of the window seat with his knees drawn up to his chest. Trowa lingered in the doorway, not wanting him to feel threatened. “Whether I should, or shouldn’t is irrelevant,” he said. “I do. And there’s nothing you can do, or say to change that.”

Quatre’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because I care. Because you’re very important to me. Because I feel...things...when I’m with you. Because everyone at work can see how different you are since I got here. That has to mean something, doesn’t it?”

“Trowa,” Quatre moaned, rubbing his forehead. “You don’t know what you’re asking of me.”

“Quatre, I’m not going to force you, or anything. If you truly do not want to tell me, I’ll respect that. I just hope that one day, you’ll trust me enough to let me in.”

Quatre crossed his arms over his knees and rested his chin on top, gazing beyond the window as if he could find the answers out there. At a loss for what to do, Trowa turned to leave, intent on going back to his own suite. “It’s alright. I’m sorry if I intruded where I wasn’t welcome. Thank you for dinner. It was wonderful.”

“Trowa.”

He ducked his head back inside, heart thumping as he watched Quatre climb out of the window seat and approach him. He stopped three feet away and to Trowa’s surprise, he didn’t seem angry. “You want some more wine?”

 

***

 

“Clive was a guest at my first show during Fashion Week. I was only seventeen at the time and a nervous wreck. I was so scared that I was going to do something stupid like slip on the catwalk and fall on my ass.”

Trowa sat in one of the wing back chairs with his elbows resting on his knees and his hands folded in front of his mouth as he listened with rapt attention to Quatre’s story. The blond was on the sofa with his legs tucked beneath him and his eyes focused on the glass of vodka in his hand.

“He found me at the after party and made polite conversation. He was really easy to talk to. He had an interesting outlook on life, and best of all, he treated me like I was an equal. At the end of the night, he asked me for my number and I gave it to him, desperately hoping he would actually call me.”

“And he did. Two days later and asked if I wanted to go get some coffee.” Quatre paused to take a drink and gather his bearings. “We had a blast. I’d never had so much fun with anyone before and when he asked to see me again, I was elated. One of the things that intrigued me about him was how confident and sure of himself he was. It was something that I aspired to be and in a lot of ways, I guess I idolized him.”

He snorted and took another drink, pausing in thought as his fingers drummed against the side of his glass. “I was like a schoolgirl with a mad crush, infatuated with him and the world he lived in. Full of glitz and glamour, endless parties, getting to hang out with the rich and famous. I was so enamored by the concept of fame that I didn’t pick up the red flags from him until I was in over my head.”

He finally lifted his gaze and gave Trowa an imploring look, as if he was begging him not to judge him too harshly. “He asked - actually, he convinced me to move in with him and how could I say no? I was in love with him, or at least thought I was. I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. Maybe retire in the Swiss Alps, or something. Jesus...I was so stupid.”

“You weren’t stupid, Quatre,” Trowa gently assured him. “You were young and you loved him. It wasn’t your fault.”

Quatre’s eyes sparkled with tears before he blinked them away and cleared his throat. “Anyway, after I moved in, that’s when things got worse. He gave me a curfew, told me I wasn’t allowed to see my friends, or family anymore. I had to give him my phone twice a day so he could see who I was talking to. He became insanely jealous if I so much as spoke to another man. I was expected to have sex with him whenever he wanted it, no matter how tired, or not in the mood I was, but he would withhold it from me if he was angry with me which became more and more frequent as time went on.”

“Everything came to a head ten months later when a neighbor came by to drop off some of our mail that he’d gotten by mistake. He was standing on the porch telling me about his daughter’s soccer championship when Clive came home. Of course, he jumped to the instant conclusion that I was having an affair with the neighbor and all but physically went after the poor guy.”

“He wouldn’t listen to me no matter how many times I tried to explain to him what had happened and once he chased our neighbor off, he came after me.” Quatre paused and rubbed a hand over his face. “This is where it really gets difficult.”

“Take your time, Quatre. I’m not here to judge, just listen.”

“He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me back inside the house where he screamed at me so loudly that I thought the windows were going to shatter. He called me a whore. He told me I was worthless. That no one would even know, or care who I was if it hadn’t been for him. He made me feel like I was a charity case and all I could think was, ‘Is this what love is supposed to feel like?’”

“After an hour of fighting with him, I finally had enough and told him I was going to stay with friends until he got his act together. He was so furious with me, he punched me in the side of my head and knocked me out cold.”

Quatre got up and moved around the couch, leaning against it with his back to Trowa. “When I woke up, I was face-down on the floor, naked below the waist, and he was inside me. Thankfully I lost consciousness after only a few minutes and by the time I woke up again, he was gone, off to God knows where. Probably hooking up with one of his dozen flings he had on the side.”

Trowa swallowed around the lump in his throat, torn between an aching need to comfort and protect, and an overwhelming thirst for Clive’s blood. “Quatre...I’m so sorry.”

Quatre sniffed and turned around, smiling at him through his tears. “I got dressed and left. Dorothy took me in. She was my rock, has been this whole time. I’m not sure I could have survived it without her.”

“You didn’t press charges?”

“I don’t think you realize how big this really is, Trowa. This kind of thing is like a plague. A pandemic in the fashion and entertainment industries and if you’re a nobody like I was at the time, there’s literally nothing you can do if you fall victim to it. People like Clive...they have so much power and influence, I wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in Hell in a court case against him. He would have ruined me.”

“So what did you do?”

“I licked my wounds and got on with my life, though he constantly tried to get back together with me, harassing me to the point where I realized he was actively stalking me. Dorothy encouraged me to issue a restraining order against him which I did and then after we moved to the states, I took out another one there. I told her I didn’t want to model anymore, that I wanted to start a publishing company based in New York. She supported my decision and helped me build it from the ground up.”

Trowa smiled, grateful that Quatre had had someone to lean on when times were rough. “She sounds like a wonderful friend.”

“She is. The best.”

“Thank you for sharing that with me, Quatre. I know that took a lot of courage and I won’t say a word about it to a single soul, I promise you.”

Quatre gazed at him for a long time before he nodded and walked back around to sit on the couch. “I know. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. I trust you for reasons I can’t explain yet. You’re the only one I’ve ever trusted aside from Dorothy.” He picked his glass up off the coffee table and leaned back against the cushions. “You’re the most genuine, guileless person I’ve ever met and I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

“I’ll take it as a complement then.”

“You should,” Quatre told him as he finished off his drink and then glanced at his watch. “Damn. It’s late. We should get some sleep. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” He stood up, ready to head back to his own room though he really didn’t want to. He felt like he and Quatre had reached a milestone together and it didn’t seem right for either of them to be sleeping alone in separate beds with this heavy sense of conjecture that hung in the air between them.

And it seemed that Quatre was on the same page, as if he’d read Trowa’s mind. “Trowa? Would you stay with me tonight?”

He turned, slowly, almost afraid this was an illusion that would burst like a needle in a soap bubble. “Are you sure?”

“I’m always sure.”

He smiled and gestured towards the bedroom. “After you then.”

Quatre lead the way with Trowa taking the opportunity to admire his smooth bare legs. There was still a trace of runway in his gait and Trowa surmised that all the training he went through prior to his first catwalk to ensure the proper steps, pace, and posture, were now a permanent part of him, as natural as breathing. Every movement was poised and graceful from the way he used his hands to the way he walked. He was a prince surrounded by wart-covered toads and he knew it. It showed in every gesture, glance, and spoken word.

Trowa watched him peel back the covers and crawl between the sheets before flipping the comforter over his legs. He turned onto his side and propped his head on his hand as Trowa stripped down to his boxers and undershirt. “Nice shorts.”

He glanced down at the white underwear covered in pink and red hearts and blushed to the tips of his ears. “Joke gift from Duo,” he said with an embarrassed laugh. “He gave them to me in the hopes that they would, as he put it, attract a mate.”

Quatre snorted and dropped his head onto the pillow. “And have they worked?”

He grinned. “Not yet, but there’s still hope.”

“Are you superstitious?” Quatre asked him as he climbed into the bed and burrowed down beneath the covers.

He reached for the lamp and clicked it off, engulfing the room in darkness. “Not really. Duo and Wufei are big time, but Heero and I don’t usually buy that stuff.”

“I don’t either. It’s funny because the fashion industry is overrun by superstition, if you can believe that. You should see the models backstage before the show starts. People are praying, chanting, asking each other if they wore their lucky underwear that day...it’s ridiculous. I never saw the point of it.”

“When I worked at the Post, we ran a story about how Ambrogio Stefani secretly sacrifices chickens to the goddess, Fortuna the night before a show and then bathes in their blood.”

Quatre snickered into his pillow. “Knowing what I know about Ambrogio, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. He’s always been an oddball.”

Trowa’s shoulders shook with laughter. “Investigative journalism at its finest.”

Quatre broke into hysterics until he was wheezing for breath and it took several minutes for him to get himself under control. “Oh, god. My sides hurt,” he said as a stray giggle bubbled up. “I can’t remember the last time I had a good laugh like that.”

“Glad I could help.”

Quatre scooted closer and the mood turned quiet, contemplative. “I don’t know what it is about you.”

He turned onto his side to face him, mesmerized by the smooth curve of Quatre’s cheek and slope of his jaw that were highlighted by the moon outside the window. “What do you mean?”

“I feel like you’ve cast a spell over me. That’s the only way I can describe it even though I don’t believe in such things. I feel like I’ve always known you, as if we knew each other in a past life, or alternate universe.” He laughed and slapped a hand over his forehead. “Jesus, listen to me. That sounds insane.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Trowa assured him. “I feel the same way. Ever since you hired me, I’ve felt a strange connection with you that I can’t explain. It was like, even though I’d never met you before, I knew you. You were more familiar to me than my own family back in Georgia. People I’ve known all my life.”

Quatre shifted until Trowa felt the slight brush of his body. “It scares me.”

His skin broke out in goosebumps from the contact and his arms ached to reach out and hold him. “Why?”

“I’m afraid I’m going to get hurt again. Dorothy’s been encouraging me to get out there and start dating, but I just - there was never anyone I felt comfortable letting into my life. Then you came along and I don’t know how to handle it.”

Feeling bold and more than ready to tear Quatre’s walls down for good, he lifted his hand and grasped the blond’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, elated when Quatre neither protested, nor pulled away. “There’s no right way to handle it, Quatre. Just do what feels right. There’s no need to rush things. We’ll just play it by ear and see what happens.”

Quatre’s hand closed over his wrist, holding it gently while his thumb stroked Trowa’s palm. “That sounds like a plan.”

“I would never hurt you. You know that, right?”

“I like to think I’ve learned my lesson about being naive, but with you it’s different. I know you wouldn’t. There is no doubt in my mind. I know it deep down inside me just as I know the sun will rise in the morning.”

Trowa leaned forward until his forehead rested against Quatre’s. “Thank you for letting me in.”

Quatre’s breath was warm and moist with a hint of vodka as it ghosted over his face. “Will you kiss me?”

There was no hesitation, no second thoughts. The time was now and Trowa wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip through his fingers. He lifted Quatre’s chin and inched closer until his lips hovered over the blond’s trembling mouth. There was a single, breathless moment. A sort of ‘back out while you can’ pause before he pressed down and took Quatre’s mouth in a reverent kiss.

His eyes rolled dizzily beneath his lids as the reality of their first kiss far surpassed even his most vivid fantasies. When Quatre opened in surrender, he plundered his way inside, exploring the texture of Quatre’s tongue, the rigid row of teeth, and the plump sweetness of his lips. Quatre moaned softly and echoed his ardor, his slender fingers curling tightly around Trowa’s bicep.

Trowa’s hand slid across the smooth surface of the blond’s cheek and carded through the thick, curly hair until he cupped the back of Quatre’s head to keep him in place. For several mindless minutes, the world faded to black until only the two of them were floating outside the confines of time and space, untouchable...immortal.

I want to write my name across your heart. Fuse with you until you bleed me from every pore. Until we don’t know where one begins and the other ends. Burning hotter than the sun until we meld into one.

He pulled back just slightly, savoring Quatre’s trembling breath against his face and tenderly brushed his thumb over a porcelain cheekbone. “Was that okay?”

Quatre’s lashes fluttered like butterfly wings against his own and there was a clear note of fascination when he whispered, “Where did you learn to kiss like that?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Dunno. It’s just the way I do it, though I confess that I don’t believe I’ve ever kissed anyone the way I just kissed you.”

“So what makes me so special?”

He traced his thumb over the blond’s swollen lips and smiled. “You.”

Quatre snorted, but scooted even closer until they were touching from head to toe. A heady thrill of desire thrummed deliciously through Trowa’s body as Quatre’s leg slid up his own and then hooked over his hip. “You’re quite the schmoozer, aren’t you?”

“What, you don’t like it?”

“I think with anyone else, it would annoy the hell out of me, but it fits you somehow.”

“Should I be insulted by that?”

“No. You’re a gentle soul with the heart of a poet. There aren’t enough men like you in the world.”

He smiled. “I think there are. They just don’t get the spotlight like aggressive, douchey men do.”

“I suppose it’s a case of the chicken, or the egg.”

“How so?”

“Were these aggressive, douchey men gentle and kind before they reached the top, or have they always been that way?”

“Well, as the saying goes, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“Does that mean I’m corrupt?”

He cupped the blond’s face and gently nipped his bottom lip. “Not a chance.”

“Mmm...maybe you should kiss me again. Just to be sure.”

He grinned. “I’ll do it for America.”

“A true patriot.”

Their second kiss was even longer, more passionate than the first if that was possible and before Trowa was even aware of what he was doing, he’d rolled Quatre beneath him and plundered his mouth as if the fate of the world depended on this kiss. He groaned, painfully aroused as he mouthed his way down to his soft neck where he suckled on the supple flesh and ground his erection against the hot, inviting place between Quatre’s thighs.

Through the roar in his ears, he heard Quatre say his name though he initially mistook it for a declaration of pleasure and was on the brink of begging the blond to let him make love to him. Quatre’s fingers scratched across his back, over his t-shirt, followed by a light tap, then a firmer one, and then finally a slap strong enough to sting.

“Trowa. Trowa!

“Huh? Wha - what is it? What’s wrong?”

“There’s someone knocking at the door.”

He lifted his head up and stared down at the shadow-casted face. “There is? Who would be knocking on the door at this late hour?”

Quatre huffed and pushed at his chest until he rolled over and then climbed off the bed, flipping the light switch to turn on the lamps that were mounted on the wall at each side of the bed. He reached for a pair of slacks that were draped over the back of a Bergère chair and slipped them on, waving an impatient hand at Trowa. “Only one way to find out. Get dressed.”

Trowa groaned and flopped backwards on the bed. “Don’t wanna.”

“Are you whining?”

“Hmph...no.”

He heard Quatre laugh and a moment later he was staring up into the blond’s upside-down face. “Get up, stud. Get dressed and answer the door and maybe I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Deal,” he agreed, rolling over and sliding out of the bed. He heard the knock the second time as he struggled to get dressed and bitched when his shirt got tangled around his arms. “Stupid - who knocks on doors at two thirty in the morning, good god. The building better be on fire, or something because if it’s not, I’m punching this asshole’s lights out.”

“You’re a feisty one when you’ve been cock-blocked, aren’t you?”

He spun around, shocked to hear such vulgar language coming from the blond.

“What? Did you think I was a prude?”

He laughed and shook his head as he walked out of the bedroom and into the living area. “I’m still holding you to your promise,” he announced flippantly over his shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah. If I’d known you were so demanding, I might have had second thoughts.”

He chuckled as he reached the door. “You said you were going to make it worth my while, but I think you got that backwards.”

“Just open the door, Romeo,” Quatre told him, disappearing into the bathroom.

Trowa peered through peephole only to find it dark as if the person on the other side was covering it. “The hell? Who is it?”

“Hotel security, sir.”

“Is there a problem?”

“There was an incident earlier in the lobby and we’re just checking in on our guests to make sure everyone is accounted for and to brief you on the status of the situation.”

“Oh. Alright.” He slid the chain lock over and turned the deadbolt, greeting the security officer with a friendly smile as he pulled the door open. “Come on in.”

“Thank you, sir. My apologies for disturbing you so late, but it’s protocol.”

“No need to apologize. We understand,” Trowa assured him, closing the door. “What was the incident about?”

The security officer peered around the room as if he was expecting someone else to be there. “We received word of a man who was not a guest here skulking around in the hallways and trying to break into the guest rooms. He’s still unaccounted for.”

Trowa cocked his head in confusion. “But you said there was an incident in the lobby?”

The security officer turned to him and this time, he got a better look at the man’s face. Deeply hooded brown eyes were set within a handsome, chiseled face that now seemed vaguely familiar though Trowa couldn’t place it. His beard was thick and threaded with wiry gray strands, giving it a distinct salt and pepper appearance.

Trowa’s attention was persistently drawn back to the eyes and the more he stared, the more things began to click into place. He’d seen those eyes many times, but he was certain now that he’d never seen them in person, but rather on television and in magazines. And now that he thought about it, it was the beard that was out of place.

He knew that face, minus the beard, and those same eyes which always struck him as cunning, calculating. Eyes that seemed to look right through you as if you were nothing but a wisp of smoke, or an obstacle in the way of what he wanted.

And now those very eyes were looking at him the exact same way. Trowa’s heart stopped cold when the man suddenly winked at him, just as the bathroom door swung open.

“Hello. Can I help you…with...some...thing?”

Quatre froze in place, stunned as the man turned to look at him and sucked in a sharp breath the same moment Trowa realized who was in the room with them.

Quatre’s voice was shrill, distorting Trowa’s ears with a piercing, “Clive!

A heartbeat later, Clive Abel was charging at Trowa head-on like a bull towards a picador. Trowa had only a split second to brace for the collision. Even though time seemed slow down and almost cease to exist, he had no chance to process what was happening, or even register the flash of steel in the man’s hand before the area just above his right nipple exploded in a sea of excruciating pain.

He landed hard on his back, winded after Clive dropped down on top of him. This time, he saw the knife, gripped hard in both of Clive’s hands as he raised the blade above his head and aimed it directly over Trowa’s heart.

The right side of Trowa's body lost all feeling and he barely had enough strength to stave off the next attack with his left hand squeezed tightly around the man’s wrist. He was losing blood rapidly which began to affect his brain. The edges of his consciousness curled up like paper thrown into a fire. The strength drained from his one good arm and his eyelids fluttered in a desperate attempt to stay awake, terrified of what would become of Quatre once he was disposed of.

He blinked, dizzy and confused by the sound of glass shattering and watched the transparent shards fly outward in every direction and then rain down to the floor. A chilly wetness spread across his abdomen just before the smell of brandy reached his nostrils. Clive swayed from his perch atop Trowa’s hips and his head, wet and bleeding, twitched this way and that as he tried to look behind him.

“You - you -”

There was another loud pop of shattering glass and then Clive dropped like a lead weight on top of Trowa’s chest. Trowa struggled to stay awake, but his consciousness was fading with horrifying quickness. Hands curled around Clive’s shoulders and after a few yanks, the inert man rolled off of him and onto the floor where the blood from his head wound began to seep into the carpet.

That makes two of us, thanks to you, you fucking prick.

“Trowa! Oh - oh, god!” Quatre’s pale face appeared above him and to Trowa’s darkening mind, he nearly mistook him for an angel.

Am I dying? Have you come to take me to Heaven?

“I’m - I’m calling for help. Just hold on. Stay with me, okay?”

His mouth no longer wanted to cooperate so he blinked instead, hoping Quatre would interpret that as an affirmative. His eyelids felt as though they were made of concrete, dry and too heavy to keep open any longer. They drifted closed, but his ears still picked up the panicked tone in Quatre’s voice as he phoned for an ambulance.

“Q - Quat -”

His mind was jarred back to partial clarity as his head was moved, lifted onto something higher and much softer than the floor. Hands, bloody and trembling, but so tender caressed his face. He cracked his eyes open just enough to see that angelic face staring down at him, blurry, but undoubtedly Quatre’s.

“Qua - I -”

“Don’t try to talk, okay? Help is on the way. You’re going to be just fine, I promise you.”

Tears dripped onto Trowa’s face, but he didn’t have the strength to reach up and brush them away. He was freezing, as if he’d been immersed in a tub full of ice water.

Christ, I’m dying! I’m dying and I never got to tell him that I love him!

“Don’t you leave me, Trowa,” Quatre sobbed, pressing his lips against Trowa’s forehead. “Don’t you dare leave me. Please, please stay with me. I need you, please don’t leave me.”

“Quat - Quat - re...I lo -I lo - lo...”

The last thing he was aware was the distant echo of Quatre weeping, but even that began to dissipate, unraveling like tendrils of yarn in the wind and then dissolving into smaller and smaller particles until there was nothing left but darkness and silence.

 

***

 

Noises, too muffled and distorted to recognize drifted past his ears, garbled as if he was listening to people talking while he was submerged underwater. It was dark, blacker than night. A void it seemed, or what he imagined the inside of a black hole would be like, but he felt weightless, floating in the zero gravity of space without the stars to guide him.

There was no pain, but he could feel. The paralyzing numbness that had spread over the right side of his body was gone and so was the weakness and lack of mental clarity.

He moved his arm and was met with no tug of resistance the way air, or water slowed a person’s movements and he yelped as it collided with his face. He lifted his other arm, more carefully this time, and touched his nose to make sure it wasn’t bleeding. Not that he could even see the blood if it was, but at least his sense of touch was still working because he felt no wetness.

Where the hell am I? Is this death?

He had no way of knowing if he was up, or down, left, or right, but wherever this was, he was pretty sure it didn’t matter either way. He stretched his right arm out, feeling for something, anything that he could grab onto in order to gain a sense of equilibrium. His fingers were met with more empty space. He swiped harder, desperate to make contact with something, and shouted in panic when the movement sent him reeling forward and into an upside down spin.

He flailed, his arms and legs swinging wildly in the empty space until he finally figured out that it was only spiraling him further out of control. He forced his body to stop moving and focused on his breathing as he flipped and spun through the void, hoping it wouldn’t take too long to come to a stop.

Relax, Trowa. Breathe. Slowly, in...and...out. You’re sucking in too much oxygen, man, and you’re starting to hyperventilate. Easy does it now...there you go.

The spin began to lose its momentum and after an imperceptible amount of time, he slowed down to to a stop though he couldn’t tell if he was facing the same direction he’d been in when he first came to.

I don’t think it’s possible to even have a direction here. There is nothing here. No north, east, south, or west. No up, or down. No side to side. No latitude, or longitude, landmarks, or points of measure. Is this even a place, or am I outside the furthest reaches of existence? But then how can I even exist if that’s the case?

Do I exist? Am I stuck here forever?

Terror allowed him to find his voice and he opened his mouth wide, screaming as loud as he could until it shorted out. He broke into a coughing spasm and then into harsh, wracking sobs as he realized his voice didn’t carry across this vast expanse of nothingness. He may as well have been screaming into a pillow for all the good it did.

“Oh, God. Help me, please! Don’t leave me here like this! What have I done to deserve this?”

Only deafening silence followed. Defeated, he tucked his chin into his chest and curled his limbs against his body in a paltry attempt for comfort. It wasn’t enough, but it would have to do.

 

***

 

Some time later, though he didn’t know how long, he startled awake and carefully looked around for any changes in his environment. Considering the series of events since waking up here, he surmised that time must exist wherever he was, otherwise he would have had no sense of it. No linear progression from one moment to the next.

And if time existed here, he was certain other things did, too.

I’m breathing. That’s something. And time is progressing in a way that seems pretty normal to what I’m used to. I just have no way to catalogue it, no clock to measure one minute to the next, but it’s here. I’m experiencing it so maybe there’s hope. Maybe there is something here and I just have to find it. If I can, I might be able to find my way home.

Above all else, just remember that cooler heads prevail. Don’t panic. Stay calm and maybe we can find a way out of here.

Another indiscernible stretch of time passed before something in the distance caught his eye. At first, he thought it was just his mind playing tricks on him, but soon the faint point of light began to look brighter and then even brighter. He squinted into the darkness, straining his eyes to see what it was. A few seconds later, another tiny point of light appeared beside it, then another, and another.

What the hell is that?

Now the lights were appearing in rapid sequence and Trowa finally got a sense of depth and dimension as he realized some points of light seemed closer than others.

Stars. They’re fucking stars!

Behind him, a glow appeared. He turned as slowly as he could so that he wouldn’t send himself into another tailspin. His hands flew up to cover his mouth, stunned when the reality of what he was staring at clocked him upside the head. Before and slightly below him was the celestial magnificence of a galactic center, blindingly brilliant with a stellar nursery of gas and young stars rotating around it.

Holy shit. Holy shit! Am I really seeing this?

Though he couldn't actually see the black hole in the middle of the swirling concentration of stars, he knew it was there.

Did I just come from there? Is that what that void was? But how is that even possible? The laws of physics are pretty solid about humans not surviving a trip through a black hole.

And from what he knew, nothing escaped a black hole. Not even light.

In the blink of an eye, it was gone, but the pinpoints of light in the distance were not. He turned his head and spotted a planetary body off to his right, marbled with breathtaking shades of blue and white.

It’s the earth. It has to be. But how do I get back on it?

Movement in his peripheral vision jerked his attention away from the beauty of his home and he nearly jumped out of his skin as a body, clad in what looked like a spacesuit, floated serenely past him. Moving his limbs gingerly, he used his arms and legs to propel himself over to the person who he assumed was dead.

Have there been any recent accidents with the space mission? I don’t remember seeing anything about it in the news.

He maneuvered himself over to the body and gently wrapped his arms around it, peering down at the face through the clear protective shield. To his relief, the visor wasn’t cracked, or broken and the face inside was not skeletonized, frozen, or even damaged in anyway. In fact, he appeared to simply be sleeping and from the looks of it, he didn’t seem to be any older than sixteen, or seventeen.

Are they sending kids into space now? Well then, I’m withdrawing my support for NASA as soon as I get home because that is so wrong.

He sucked in a sharp breath as the boy’s eyes suddenly opened and stared up at him, horrified by the instant realization that he was looking at his own face, younger, but still his. It was enough to make him shout and let go of the boy, propelling himself backwards in a panic. As they drifted apart, he watched the boy’s head turn towards him. Their eyes met across the growing distance and Trowa was struck by how calm and placid he seemed to be.

“Who are you? What are you doing out here? What happened to you?”

The boy didn’t answer and before Trowa could repeat the question, he felt a strange tickling sensation in his belly, a slight tug as if someone was gently pulling on his intestines. There was a split second of anticipation, an, “Oh, shit,” moment like the calm before a storm and then he was being yanked backwards so fast that the lights from the stars began to blur into a hazy series of white lines on all sides of him.

It reminded him of one of his favorite childhood memories when he used to ride the train with his father. His dad would lean over and tell him when a tunnel was approaching and Trowa would leap out of his seat, making a mad dash down the center of the conjoining cars until he reached the caboose. On the caboose’s balcony, he would grip the railing and squeal as the train sped into the tunnel. He loved the giddy pull in his belly, the way the lights inside the tunnel would blur together into bright, streaking lines and imagined he was coasting through a wormhole to another time and place.

To his surprise, he wasn't scared. Even though he was flying through space at a velocity that he was pretty sure would have liquified his bones under normal circumstances, he felt no fear. There was a rushing sound, like a whoosh that zoomed past his ears and gradually, the same garbled voices he’d heard when he first woke up in the void returned, followed by an odd beeping sound. The voices increased in volume, eventually drowning out the rushing sound and then, finally, started to make sense.

Human voices, alarmed, but calm and professional and beneath that, perhaps the sound of a machine. A prolonged beep that never changed in tone, or intensity until a man’s voice bellowed a loud, “Clear!” It was immediately followed by a strange thumping sound and then a series of shorter beeps in rapid sequence. Trowa’s body convulsed as it barreled through space faster than a bullet, picking up speed until the voices became jumbled again and the streaks of light flashed brighter and then began to dim.

His consciousness followed suit and the light around him shot away into the distance until he had the sinking feeling that he was falling into a hole. The last thing he remembered before everything faded away was a voice. It sounded like Heero’s voice, though with a different accent and cadence. To Trowa, it seemed younger, but more mature, heavy with something he couldn't understand. He imagined it was what Heero would sound like after a lifetime of trauma. It was so close that he seemed to be right there, whispering into his ear.

There’s only one way to get back home, Trowa. Follow your heart.

 

***

 

He jerked awake once again, sucking in great lungfuls of air as his heart raced like a terrified jackrabbit. This time, he was met with bright daylight, a sterile white ceiling, and a bed beneath him. To his right, a steady staccato of beeps was the only sound aside from his frantic respirations. The inside of his mouth was bone dry and tasted like something had withered and died on his tongue.

There was a dull, but bearable ache on the right side of his chest a few inches above and to the right of his nipple. When he tried to move his arm, he discovered it was cradled snugly inside a sling against his chest. The paralyzing numbness was gone, but he felt loopy and made an educated guess that it was due to a myriad of painkillers being pumped into his bloodstream through a narrow plastic tube that was connected to a bag of clear fluid above his head. Next to that, another bag provided life-giving blood through a different tube.

He blew out a sigh and leaned back against the pillows, so damned relieved to be back. He still wasn’t sure what had happened, or if he would ever find out what had happened. A dream? Near death experience? Who knew? But whatever it was, he’d survived it. He was here, alive and back where he belonged and that was all that mattered.

Jesus, what a ride.

He rubbed at his eyes with his good hand and then dropped it down to his side, startled when it made contact with warm flesh. He looked down and saw an unruly mop of blond curls pillowed by the man’s arms that were folded beneath his head. Quatre was there with him and from the looks of it, he had been for quite a while. Trowa’s heart swelled with warmth as he watched him sleep, wondering if it was even possible to love someone so much.

He lifted his hand and brushed back the tousled corkscrews that dangled over Quatre’s face. “Now I know why I came back.”

Quatre’s lashes fluttered and then parted, groggily registering the fingers that tenderly brushed his hair away from his face. His head shot up and he blinked at Trowa with wide eyes, his mouth dropping open in shock. “Trowa?”

He cupped the blond’s cheek and smiled. “That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”

“Oh my god! Oh my - Jesus, you’re awake!” Tears crested Quatre’s blue eyes and then slipped down his cheeks. “You had me scared to death, you bastard!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t - will you stop apologizing? Good lord.” He lifted Trowa’s hand and brought it to his mouth, pressing kisses to each of his knuckles. “I’m just so happy you’re okay. I thought I’d lost you. You’ve been unconscious for eight days and I was starting to lose hope that you would ever wake up.”

Trowa used his thumb to brush Quatre’s tears away. Eight days. That was how long he’d been gone and he tried to match it with his perception of time inside that void. Unfortunately, he couldn't. It was impossible to tell if his experience lasted eight days.

He remembered the boy he’d seen, floating still and silent through space, yet miraculously alive despite the odds. The one who looked exactly like he did when he was in high school, though he seemed older and wiser in ways that Trowa couldn’t understand. “I’m starting to think I’m not that easy to kill.”

“Lucky for you,” Quatre told him, kissing his hand again. “And for me.”

“There are so many things I want to tell you.”

“Like what?”

“I - it’s difficult to put into words. I went...somewhere…”

Quatre’s fingers squeezed around his hand. “Where?”

“I don’t really know. But it was the strangest thing. First I was nowhere. Just...floating in this black void. I’ve never been so terrified in all my life, Quatre. I couldn’t see anything. There was no direction, no light, just disorientation and...confusion.”

“Oh, Trowa. You poor thing.”

“I feel like I took a trip through the universe, through time. I feel like I’ve traveled from one universe to the next, hopscotched across dimensions that no human can access, and lived a million lifetimes. I can’t even describe what it was like and I wish so much that I could show you.”

Quatre rose from his chair and climbed onto the narrow hospital bed, squeezing himself into the limited space between Trowa and the bedrail. He wrapped his arm around him and rested his head on his clavicle. “Maybe someday you will.”

Trowa’s arm curled around his back and he pressed his face into the disheveled blond hair. “I don’t plan on going anywhere any time soon.”

“You’d better not.”

He laughed. “No. I’m right where I want to be and there’s nothing in this world that could make me leave again.” He pressed a kiss to Quatre’s forehead. “Before I lost consciousness, there was something I was trying to tell you.”

“I know. And I love you, too.”

He stared down at Quatre in surprise. “You do?”

“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said it since you’ve been out. I think your friend Duo started keeping score though.”

“Duo? Is he here?”

“Duo, Heero, Wufei...they’re all here. After you were admitted, I called them to tell them what happened. I paid for their plane tickets so they could come be with you and booked them a few rooms at a nearby hotel so they have an actual bed to sleep in. They should be back soon. They just went to grab some lunch.”

Trowa bent down and took the blond’s mouth in a searing kiss. “Fuck, I love you,” he whispered with reverence. “I love you so damned much, you don’t even know.”

Quatre grinned up at him. “I think I have a pretty good idea.”

He tapped the tip of Quatre’s button nose in gentle reprimand. “Don’t be smug.”

“I will if I want to.”

"Ah, man. It's good to be back." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I feel like I've slept for a thousand - oh, shit! The fashion show!”

“Postponed until next month, relax.”

“Oh, God. Because of me? They shouldn’t have done that.”

Quatre kissed a patch of skin that was exposed above the collar of Trowa’s gown. “If it makes you feel any better, it was only partly because of you.”

“Oh?”

“They knew how bad it would look to the public if they’d gone on with the show after what happened to you. It was a preemptive measure to protect their own asses.”

“Nice to know the world hasn’t changed since I’ve been gone.”

“I’m afraid it’s never that easy, Trowa.”

He nodded and looked the blond over thoroughly, brows knitting together with concern from the rumpled state of his clothing. “When was the last time you actually slept in a bed, or ate a full meal?”

Quatre nuzzled against his chest. “I’ve been here the whole time. I haven’t been back to the hotel since the attack. I couldn’t. Not after what happened there.”

“Oh, Quat,” Trowa scolded, kissing the warm crown of his head. “You could have gotten a room somewhere else. I hate that you’ve been sleeping in these hard chairs for eight days.”

“I couldn’t leave you. I was so afraid you would slip away while I was gone.”

“Was it really that bad?”

“You flatlined twice during surgery, Trowa. You lost so much blood that your organs started shutting down.”

He remembered the strange beeping noises, a man’s authoritative voice shouting, “Clear,” and a shiver traveled up the length of his spine. “I remember that...or, at least little bits and pieces of it, though I didn’t know what it was at the time.” His gaze dropped down towards his belly and he caught sight of a thick wad of gauze held tight against the crook of Quatre’s elbow with a long piece of medical tape. “You?”

Quatre smiled and lifted his arm proudly. “AB negative. We were a match.”

Trowa swooped in and kissed him roughly, so far gone for this man he couldn’t even stand it. “Have I said how much I love you?”

“Yes, but you can say it again.”

“God, I fucking love you, you know that? You’re incredible and I’m so damned lucky to have you.”

Quatre laughed and nipped at his chin. “Luck has nothing to do with it. It was fate.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. I got to talking with your friends while we’ve been here. They all have different, but very interesting views about life and death, destiny and all that stuff. To be honest, they’ve been amazing, helping me through all this. They made me feel much better about things. They’ve been supportive, they’ve been looking after my health and wellbeing, and they gave me their shoulders to cry on when I couldn’t hold it in anymore.”

Trowa jotted down a mental note to buy them all a round of drinks once he was out of the hospital. Despite their misgivings about Quatre’s character, they’d seen a distraught man in need of comfort and they came through like Trowa always knew they would. “I’m glad they were there for you. I’m so grateful to them and to you. You saved my life.”

“Of course I did. I love you, Trowa. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Trowa kissed him again and then pressed their foreheads together. “I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy.”

“You don’t have to do anything. Just stay with me. You’re all I need. Just you.”

“I’m all yours. Forever and always,” he promised, shifting slightly to stretch his stiff legs and ease the soreness in his backside. “As much as I hate to bring this up right now, I’m morbidly curious. What happened to Clive?”

Quatre settled against his side again and snorted. “He was here for about four days. In another room on the other side of the building, handcuffed to a bed, and under police supervision while they stitched his head back up. He had a mild concussion, too. He’s been transferred to Pentonville and he’s awaiting trial for attempted murder.” He snickered into Trowa’s chest and added, “Without bond. His defense team practically prostrated themselves to get him remand during his indictment, but the judge refused.”

“So there’s no plea agreement?”

“No. His lawyers tried to convince him to agree to plead guilty to aggravated assault with intent to cause great bodily harm which carries a lighter sentence. He was adamant about not serving any time in prison so he’s going to trial.”

Trowa groaned. “Wonderful. Does that mean we’ll have to testify?”

“Possibly, but his DNA is all over that hotel room since he bled on the carpet and his prints are on the weapon. I’ve already spoken to the prosecutor over the phone and he says it should be an open and shut case without our testimony. If they only want one of us as a witness, I’ll take the stand, but at this point, he doesn’t seem to think we’ll need to testify.”

“Well, that’s a relief, but if it is necessary, I will testify, too.”

“I guess Clive’s lawyers are still trying to get him to change his plea for a lesser sentence. They know he doesn’t stand a chance, but he’s still standing his ground about going to trial. Which means, he’s going to be old and gray before he sees the light of day again.”

“Let’s not jinx it,” Trowa told him.

“I thought you weren’t superstitious.”

He smiled and kissed the tip of Quatre’s nose. “There’s always room for personal growth. Besides, I think you jinxed us both when you smashed a bottle of five hundred dollar whiskey over that prick’s head. Isn’t that seven years bad luck?”

“That’s for breaking mirrors. And it was two bottles. Including my favorite vodka.”

“I know how difficult that must have been for you,” Trowa chuckled. “I am truly humbled by your sacrifice.”

"Damn right, you are."

“Heero? Doth mine eyes deceive me?”

They both jerked their attention towards the door and Trowa beamed when he saw his friends. “Goddamn, it’s good to see you guys.”

Quatre slid down off the bed as Duo stepped in with a tray of food and handed it to the blond before he turned to Trowa. “Since wild horses couldn’t drag him more than two feet away from you, I’ve been his designated room service.”

Quatre winked and picked up one half of his turkey sandwich. “He’s my food bitch.”

Heero choked on his coffee as Trowa threw his head back and cackled. Duo gave the blond a mock glare. “I’ll accept that title under one condition. You don’t ever call me that when your magazine publishes an article about me.”

“No promises,” Quatre cautioned, popping a potato chip into his mouth.

Duo stepped forward and embraced Trowa as best he could given the awkward position and then stepped back so Heero could hug him. “How you feeling?”

He shrugged. “Great, actually. Little sore, but other than that, I feel really good.”

“Man, you had us worried sick,” Duo told him, perching himself on the edge of the bed. “Thought you were a goner. Thought I was gonna have to sing my rendition of Amazing Grace at your funeral.”

Trowa paled and glanced at Heero. “For the record, he is never allowed to sing at my funeral.”

“I’ll make a note of that.”

“I’ll have you both know that I am an amazing singer.”

“I’ve heard you in the shower,” Trowa told him. “You sound like a cat that’s been dunked in the toilet.”

“Fuck me, what kind of sorry excuse for a hospital doesn’t have herbal tea? This is England, for Christ’s sake! The tea capital of the world!”

Wufei strode into the room, his tirade dissolving on his lips. He stared at Trowa like a deer caught in the high beams of an SUV at night. “You’re awake.”

Duo snorted. ”Your observation skills are as impeccable as always.”

Trowa swatted his arm and smiled at the black-haired man. “Hey, Fei.”

“You look like shit.”

“I appreciate that.”

Heero walked over to his boyfriend and tucked a few loose strands of ebony hair behind Wufei’s ear. “Like you would look any better after going through something like this.”

The expression on Wufei’s face was hilariously wounded, as if Heero had just confessed that he’d been faking his orgasms since the beginning of their relationship. It worked like a charm and Heero immediately retracted his statement. “I’m sorry, babe. You know you’re always beautiful to me.”

Wufei preened and tugged his lover into his arms while Duo flicked his wrist and made a ‘wh-tsh!’ sound.

“And that is why you’re still single,” Trowa informed him.

“Relationships are overrated,” Duo declared. “Speaking of which.” He crossed his arms and glanced back and forth between Trowa and Quatre like a stern father about to ask his daughter’s prom date what his intentions were. “When are you kids gonna get hitched?”

Diet Coke sprayed out of Quatre’s mouth like a high-pressure spigot as Trowa slapped his hand over his face. “Jesus, Duo. Not now.”

“Hey, I’m just asking for a little heads up,” Duo said defensively and rubbed his hand over his belly. “Gotta make sure I can fit into my bridesmaid dress.”

“I think we’re going to try dating first,” Trowa told him cautiously with a sideways glance at Quatre. “But if and when there are any wedding plans, you’ll be the first to know, okay?”

“Alright, cool.” Duo nodded and swiped a chip off of Quatre’s plate. “Just remember that blue is not my color and I’m not a big fan of chiffon either.”

Heero leaned forward and grinned. “Wufei and I both love blue chiffon. It’s our favorite.”

“Hey,” Duo snapped, turning around to glare at them. “No comments from the peanut gallery.”

“I would think if there’s going to be a wedding anytime soon, it would be for you two,” Trowa said with a saucy wink.

Wufei’s eyes lit up with a sinister fire as he looked at Duo. “Mmm-hmm. There’s going to be so much blue chiffon, it’ll make your head spin.”

“I’ll stage a mutiny.”

“It’s a wedding, Duo, not a pirate expedition.”

“There’s no rule that says mutinies can only happen among pirates.”

Quatre set his tray aside and crossed one leg over the other. “It’s in the official wedding planner guide.”

Trowa snickered as Duo gave the blond a questioning look. “How do you know?”

“I run a fashion magazine. Weddings are among our many areas of expertise.”

Duo glanced at Trowa who tried his best to maintain a straight face. “As an employee of said magazine, one of my requirements was to read that handbook and I can confirm its validity.”

“You guys are fucking with me, aren’t you?”

A gray haired man in a white coat appeared at the door, looking pleasantly surprised. “Ah, Mr Barton! Glad to see you up and awake. How do you feel?”

Trowa nudged Duo off the bed as the doctor stepped in. “Fine. Feel like a million bucks.”

“That’s good to hear. I’m sorry to interrupt your visit, but we need to check your vitals and redress your wound.”

Heero waved his hand to get Trowa’s attention. “We’ll let you get some rest and come back after dinner. Is that okay?”

He nodded as he held his arm out for the nurse to wrap a blood pressure cuff around it. “Yeah, that sounds great.”

“Okay, we’ll see you later. Come on, Duo.”

Duo yelped and tripped over his feet when Wufei grabbed his long rope of braided hair and started pulling him out the door. “Ow! Let go, damn it! I can walk by myself, you cretin!”

“Say bye, Duo.”

Duo twisted his head around grinned at Trowa. “Bye, Duo.”

Trowa laughed as his friend was yanked out of sight and then turned to Quatre, his heart sinking when the blond seemed to be preparing to leave. “Don’t go, please. Not you. I want you to stay.”

Quatre leaned down and kissed him. “I won’t be far and I’ll come right back after they’re done. I’m just giving them some room to check you over and make sure you’re alright.”

He sagged in relief and pressed a kiss to the back of Quatre’s hand. “Okay.”

“I’ll see you in a little bit. I have no doubt that you’ll be back on your feet in no time.”

“I hope so,” he said with sly grin. “Don’t think I forgot about our deal. I opened the door. Now it’s your move. I believe you said you would make it worth my while?”

Quatre gave the doctor a wry look when he laughed. “Well, at least we know his libido is functioning normally.”

“That’s always a good sign,” the doctor agreed.

After Quatre left the room, Trowa helped the nurse maneuver his hospital gown down far enough to check his wound and apply clean bandages to it. “Looks good,” the doctor told him. “Healing nicely, no sign of infection. You were lucky. The knife missed your lung by only four centimeters. A little further to the right and you’d be dealing with a much bigger problem than you are now.”

“Thank God for small favors.”

“I’ll admit, I had my doubts,” the doctor said as he pressed fresh gauze against the wound and held it there while the nurse taped it into place. “We lost you on the operating table twice. You had barely enough blood to sustain your brain function, but not much else. Thankfully Mr. Winner shares your blood type.”

Trowa nodded absently, thinking back to his experience in that void. With the clarity of hindsight, he remembered what he’d seen in that boy’s eyes, in his own eyes. A silent communication between two souls that were forever linked together. In that moment, both had instinctively known that they were simply two out of an infinite number of Trowas, dispersed across an infinite number of universes, experiencing an infinite number of lives.

Perhaps it was simply a fluke that they’d encountered each other. Maybe it was some glitch in the space-time continuum, an anomaly that could never be explained.

Or, another possibility that Trowa had begun to favor, maybe it was fate. Maybe it had happened for a reason, some significant meaning that he hadn’t figured out yet.

Inexplicable as it was, he’d known with a certainty that he felt all the way down to his bone marrow, as if it was written across his very mitochondria. He’d known, from just a brief glance in that boy’s eyes, that there was a Quatre in that universe, too.

And he’d known that the Trowa in that universe was just as deeply in love with his Quatre as he was with his. Why he’d been shown these things, he didn’t know. Why the knowledge even mattered, he didn’t know either. But what he did know was that the mystery of life, of existence was unfathomably larger and incomprehensible than most humans could even imagine. What he did know was that life did have meaning and most of all, he knew that his love for Quatre was something that transcended time and space, stretching across infinite planes of existence, reaching beyond the nexus to something more divine.

And that meant everything.

“Hey, doc? Do you believe in infinite universes?”

The doctor gave him a strange look and pulled the tips of his stethoscope out of his ears. “I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. After seeing you pull through this the way you have makes me think just about anything is possible.”

Trowa turned his head towards the window and watched fluffy white clouds drift across the sky, remembering how similarly he’d drifted, too. “I was...wandering.”

“Were you?”

He nodded. “I thought I was lost somewhere, but now I know I wasn’t. I just had to figure out how to find my way back.”

“And how did you do that?”

He turned back to the doctor and smiled. “A friend that I’ve known for a very long time, maybe even forever, spoke to me across a million lifetimes, a million identical worlds. He told me how to find my way home.”

The doctor’s bushy brows drew together as he leaned forward, unnerved, but fascinated. “And how was that?”

“I followed my heart.”

 

 

 

Fini?