|On Track And Off Again
Author: kebzero PM
Shounen Ai, AU. A shared hour a day aboard a commute train can sometimes lead to other things than just your destination.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance - Heero Y. & Duo M. - Chapters: 7 - Words: 86,890 - Reviews: 48 - Favs: 62 - Follows: 12 - Updated: 01-12-06 - Published: 01-07-06 - Status: Complete - id: 2741000
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
On Track And Off Again
Contents/Warnings: Shounen Ai/Yaoi, Alternate Universe, fluff, mild angst, language
Pairings: 1+2+1, 3+4, 5+H
Disclaimer: See all the others; status unchanged.
AN: Written for the 2005 novella challenge. Did not place. My thanks to merith for the arduous beta work.
Finally within the safe confounds of his corner office, Heero closed the door behind him and checked his watch to confirm that it was in fact nine AM, give or take a few seconds. This was an acceptable margin of error. He gave himself a nod in satisfaction, put his coat away and sat down at his desk, ready for another day at Simmons & Simmons.
While he had mental schedules and checklists for the rest of the day too, his job as the general manager of the Worthstone Building required flexibility. Even so... He quickly went through his mail and messages, paper and electronic alike, sorting what could wait from the more urgent things - of which there were, as always, very few. Heero had been very firm on leading by a policy of prevention rather than damage control, and he took pride in the fair results.
After nearly five minutes, he put the last envelope away in its rightful pile, tugged at his sharply pressed shirt sleeve to check his watch as the thinnest hand smoothed forward across the dial. ...fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine...
The door opened, his rigidly composed chief of security entered, his style of dress nearly as meticulous as Heero's, if slightly less stiff. The white coat-tailed shirt had far greater flair than Heero's standard match did. The stern-looking man had shoulder-length black hair, bound in a tight ponytail.
The young man closed the door, walked briskly over to Heero's oak desk and stood as if at barely eased attention. "Good morning, Yuy."
Heero returned a ghost of a smile and a curt nod. "Good morning, Wufei. Please, sit down."
Wufei hastily did so. It was all part of a morning routine they had worked out in quiet unison. Wufei would hardly ever call Heero 'sir', as might be proper given their professional relationship, and nearly as often did he go on a friendly first name basis with Heero. Heero would never demand the courtesy of either. As a trade-off, Wufei reported quite promptly to Heero's office trice daily to give a brief and informal update - insofar as the two could act informal. "Thank you."
"So, how are things up in 'eyes' this morning?"
Wufei gave a slight shrug. "Quiet - as it should be this early. Nothing has been reported by the weekend shift, and no complaint requiring a check of the tapes has been filed so far. We're replacing old tapes and securing backups, monitoring the screens, preparing for a quick maintenance check of some of the cameras - the usual mess."
Heero accepted this with a nod. "Good."
Wufei nodded towards the neatly organized piles on Heero's desk - specifically, the pile that lay in the outbox marked 'Security'. "Anything interesting to start the day off with?"
Heero shrugged. "Nothing out of the ordinary, in your case. A few requisitions for key cards, a report on a broken lock at the seventh floor, one of the doormen requesting a day off next week, but..." He went to the far left pile - the one occupying the box labeled 'Miscellaneous' - where only a single envelope rested. Its solitude was not all that distinguished it. Nearly all the other letters, if not also the memos and forms, were machine-typed. The name and address on the envelope were written in very precise and elaborate style of handwriting. If Wufei didn't know better, he'd have thought the faint tint of pink was a trick of the lights. Heero picked up the envelope and tapped it twice in the air towards Wufei, a nearly straight smile on his lips. "She is back for another round of internship." He sighed softly.
Wufei smirked. "Want me to warn you when she arrives? I'm sure I or one of the guys upstairs-"
He snorted. "Don't be foolish. It's not like I can hide from her."
"You tried hard the last time."
Heero made a solitary chuckle. "I suppose that's true..." With another sigh, he put the envelope aside. "It's not like I dislike the girl - most of the time, she's as pleasant a company as anybody else I can think of - but sometimes... She drives me up the wall - more than most people."
The curve of Wufei's smirk increased. "You haven't even opened the envelope yet. You don't know-"
"Oh, I know. It's my job to know everything that happens in this building - even more so than yours."
"You mean you're guessing."
Heero shrugged. "Only until I can confirm it as fact. Have I ever been wrong?" Wufei opened his mouth to reply, but Heero cut him off, nearly grinning. "No, don't answer that. It is from her, though."
Wufei snatched the pink envelope, drew a quick whiff from the top edge of it and handed it back. "Rose fragrance. Faint, but definitely there. I agree - it's probably from her - but how would you know what it says?"
He grabbed the offering, and put it aside again. "Just a hunch. Flaherty's assistant quit last week. She must finally have gotten fed up with him, his grubby paws or the occasional suggestion of 'extra overtime' - if not all three."
Wufei nodded. "So are we. We've seen far more of Douglas Flaherty than we'd ever want to. Wouldn't have minded if the assistants stayed on, though. They're usually quite some sights to behold."
Heero broke into a soft scowl. "Wufei, that's below you - and certainly below 'eyes'."
He chuckled. "With Douglas Flaherty's office at the third floor, that's ever so right." Wufei shrugged his shoulders. "Regardless, I've only seen a few 'highlights' clips before they went to tape recycling. I wonder if Flaherty even remembers the request he put in for surveillance cameras in his office."
"If I recall correctly, it was because of looting of office supplies."
Wufei nodded. "Yeah. He kept losing paperclips and Xerox paper to unknown assailants."
"Did you ever catch anyone?"
"No - but Flaherty's office is a mess, judging from the camera scans. I'm not merely talking staff here. I wouldn't be surprised if he simply lost track of his own stationary usage. He loves paperwork, but evidently not orderly filing. I'm surprised Miss Peacecraft would want another tour of duty there - though she did manage to organize it somewhat the last time."
Heero shook his head. "Flaherty is a pig, but he's not a complete idiot. He wouldn't make a pass at the daughter of his most important client - and Relena can protect herself just fine. Remember the poor mail carrier?"
"Oh, you mean the guy that pinched her-" He snickered. "Yes, I recall his very red left cheek from the first time... and the broken fingers from the second."
Smirking, he nodded. "Like I said, she can take care of herself."
Wufei nodded in agreement. "The question is, can you?"
Heero frowned. "What do you mean?"
"She was quite interested in you the last time she was here. If she hadn't returned to her studies-" He paused, pondering for a second. "Come to think of it, wasn't it remarkable how she managed to get into that college she wanted to attend so badly? I thought she said her grades probably wouldn't be good enough..."
Heero cleared his throat into his fist and looked away, fighting the light color threatening to blossom on his cheeks.
Wufei made a dark chuckle. "I thought as much. Heero, espionage and infiltration is far beyond your job description. Beyond mine too, for that matter. It's not my job to tell you what hobbies to pursue, but hacking-"
"I know - and in order to maintain a shred of order in this building - which I can only do when I'm focused - I had to get Relena out of my way, even if that meant helping her grades a little. Like I said, she's pleasant company - in small doses. Just for the record - after that, I sent an anonymous message to the Rinsbury College faculty, pointing out the weak points in their security systems. They fixed it a bit later." Heero's weak smile slipped away as he sighed. "I almost got the feeling she was stalking me."
He gave a quick snort. "Hardly. You're just not used to someone being attentive of you, Heero. You like to stay in the background, be invisible, observe - and give orders only if necessary."
Heero shook his head. "Maybe so..." They fell silent for a while. Heero started tapping his fingers to the desk, another minute passed. Then he flattened his hands and slapped them against the oak. "Well - let's get started on our day, shall we?"
Wufei nodded. "First of all, Hewing Limited on the second floor wants a new security camera. We already have..."
Most of Heero's day was divvied up in routines. Granted, there were always minor deviations from any plans he set, so he made flexible plans to start out with. They were all futile should something truly unexpected happen, but that was rarely the case. There was rent to be collected, refurbishing plans to be negotiated and approved, and new potential tenants to investigate. Then there were meetings with the various staff groups. The janitors gave reports on the condition of the building itself, while security gave reports on the people within. He had to meet with both Accounting and Human Resources on the eighteenth floor to work out salaries and work schedules. The city liked to ship their building and fire inspectors in on surprise visits, so Heero always assumed 'today would be the day'. Again, prevention over damage control.
Of all the few department chiefs under him, he had the closest professional - and for what it was worth, personal - relationship with the chief of security. In part, it was because Heero depended quite a bit on the information Wufei could dig up on their tenants and employees through legal channels. Heero was not above adding to that through searches of his own, if a particular tenant or employee concerned him. Heero's discussions with the Janitorial, Custodial and Secretarial departments, which frequently took the form of arguments, were close to legendary within the Worthstone Building. Heero suspected Wufei kept a tape of a few of those sessions hidden somewhere up in 'eyes'. Out of respect, he'd not investigated.
Not openly, at least.
In short, his workload was varied - but fairly dull. Then again, not that many people earn their regular paycheck in the bullet-dodging industries, and such work rarely fits in the nine-to-five near-universal work hour frame. Heero had never considered a more hazardous career track - on either side of the law. The small reputation he'd built up online as a hacker was as far as he'd go to challenge life, limb and liberty.
The Worthstone Building was owned by Simmons & Simmons, the broker company issuing aforementioned paycheck. The firm occupied the top three floors of the building and leased the rest. Not that long ago they were located in a small two-story brick building in Hartford, Heero's hometown. Then, fortune had struck with some lucky high-risk investments, and both the first and second Simmons found it prudent to expand and relocate - which they did.
Back then, Heero had been an intern. His contract suggested it was as a filing assistant, albeit his actual tasks had, as for many interns, gone quite a bit beyond that. Wherever they needed help he'd been sent, whether it was to help the janitors unclog toilets, aid the accountant going over figures, run the mail trolley, substitute for the doorman slash security guard, mop floors or actually sort documents at the archive. The one fate most common to interns, he had not so miraculously escaped. While nobody objected to his hard-working and focused nature on whatever task they gave him, his people skills left something to be desired. Frankly, both of the Simmonses and most other people technically Heero's seniors were afraid to ask him go fetch coffee. It was something about the eyes - or possibly the murderous frown they were stuck in.
Only one had ever dared give the order. He was the first, and the last - and had taken a short sabbatical immediately after to recuperate from scalding burns to his lap. It wasn't Heero's fault the man's hand had begun trembling so badly; all he'd done was stand there and wait for a dismissal.
When the company picked up and moved, some had declined the offer to relocate along with the firm and gone with the severance pay package instead. Heero decided to go with the company - that is, he chose a commute that was a tad longer than his short bus ride. The eccentric executives recognized his hard-working nature and talent for getting things done and offered him a far higher position, namely that of general manager. Peculiarly enough, his qualifications for the position had little to do with his outstanding grades over a short potpourri of college classes, centered around accounting. Rather, Simmons & Simmons wanted to offer him a new challenge. Coincidentally, the new job had a much greater salary.
Wufei had at one point suggested Heero knew that would happen. Heero declined to comment.
Regardless, it left Heero with a significantly lengthier commute - not that he minded much; it was possible to make use of said commute in a fairly efficient manner, thanks to his trusty laptop.
At precisely five thirty PM, after working his usual thirty minutes extra, Heero left the office to catch the next subway train, bringing him to the homeward-bound train departing at the hour with a decent margin - barring unforeseen events, that is. Delays always made the margin a valid precaution. Thankfully, such things didn't take place often.
He used the spare minutes to catch newspaper headlines as he passed a newsstand. Rarely did anything catch his interest; even less often did he actually buy a paper. The online versions that waited for him at home would suffice for any details he wondered about.
Once aboard the train, he took his laptop out of its carry bag and started tinkering with administrative paperwork - or, once in a blue moon, a game of solitaire or minesweeper. The reasonable tranquility of the train, barely interrupted beyond the occasional inquiry as to the occupation of the seat next to him, offered him a chance to get some work done before the following day. There was never a shortage of little trifles for his desk to deal with, and rather than delegate menial mental matters to others, he preferred handling them himself. Simmons & Simmons knew this, and had more than once offered full pay for these hours also, but Heero had flatly refused. The top floor hadn't insisted.
At any rate, it made the hour on the express pass quickly - as all things are relative. A preoccupied mind notices the passing of time and surroundings less than an idle one.
From the train station, it was the usual bus ride home to the large, empty Yuy household. The few hours left in the day were spent preparing for the morrow, and in very rare moments tending to Fluffy the Fourth, a cactus that was the sole resident of the large south-facing bay window of the main living room, perpetually at the verge of dying from thirst.
Another day ended.
Along the gravel path, a young man raced towards the train station on his rickety old bicycle. Wheezing, he pedaled the rust-red contraption up the last hill at great speed, grinned wide as the top was reached and gave a tempered whoop as the lengthy, hurried roll down towards the old wooden building and matching platform at the foot of the hill began. His bag hung precariously on his back, and above the bag - occasionally on it - a chestnut brown braid nearly three feet long flapped in the air rushing past him.
Even at this distance, Duo knew that down on the platform the old and overly perfumed lady with the big flowered hat and matching handbag would be shaking her head. The stressed man with the prim suit and the black leather briefcase would purposefully try to avoid looking in his direction. The kid with the backpack, about to travel from one parent to the other again, would be grinning as much as Duo did. Unlike the senior two, he was amused at the daily spectacle. Of course, he didn't see it every day, at least not from this angle. He was more used to seeing the red devil race past outside his window.
Duo had grown used to ignoring them all - except the kid. It was good to have at least one 'ally'. As usual, he barely avoided hitting the trashcans outside the Johnson's place, and swerved to miss their mailbox a split second later.
The others were boarding the train as he came skidding to a halt near the bicycle rack. In a smooth motion, Duo stepped off the bike - or rather, let it slip out from under him. He grabbed the padlock and clicked it into place around the front wheel and the metal rack, and rushed to get aboard the train before the doors closed. The conductors had grown accustomed to ignoring Duo's perpetual tardiness, which left him with a close margin to board - but it was enough, this time. The kid stood in the doorway, grin short a tooth. Not for the first time he seemed to wonder if Duo wouldn't make it, breaking a perfect record. Duo had missed the train once, but the kid hadn't been here to witness that, and Duo saw no point in telling him.
Even so, Duo was breathing laboriously as he reached the kid. The child gave him an approving nod. "You made it..." He tapped his inherited Swatch wristwatch. "Barely."
Duo chuckled through his exhaustion, and ruffled the kid's dark hair. "Good morning to you to, Davey."
Davey Johnson ducked out from under the assault, flash-frowned his disapproval and adjusted his backpack. "One day you won't make it, you know."
He grinned. "Maybe so, Davey - but I'm doing okay so far, aren't I?"
The boy reached for a baggage rail, steadying himself as the train started moving. "Yeah..."
Duo nodded towards the backpack. "Going to the city?"
Davy nodded with vigour. "Yeah. Two whole weeks. Mom said I had to. Didn't want to. Isn't anything to do in the city during summer."
"Well, summer is almost over, and I'm sure your dad would enjoy your company for more than a brief visit before school starts again."
"Don't say that!"
Puzzlement crossed Duo's face. "Say what?"
"School! I'm trying to forget it's only a few weeks left... That's why I don't want to spend it with dad - I mean, all my friends are here, and you can't go swimming in the city - they don't have a lake."
"There's probably a swimming hall somewhere."
Davey shook his head, disgruntled. "Too crowded."
"Picky." Duo grinned, reached to mess the brown curls up again, but Davey dodged it.
"Stop that! Anyway - you going to work, Duo?"
Duo nodded, reached for his bag again. "Yeah. You have scho-" He stopped, noticing the oncoming frown. "-your worries, I have work."
"Yeah, but you get paid."
Duo chuckled. "I suppose - I would have liked to study more, though."
Davey cocked an eyebrow, huffed and grew a quirky smile. "You're weird."
The grin on Duo's face widened. "Thanks for noticing, pal."
The kid nodded and ran off to find himself a seat. Duo followed after a quick check to see if his bag was still with him - and more importantly, his transit pass within one of the inner compartments. He'd lost that once too. He'd had enough change in his wallet to get home - after being impromptu dropped off at Blue Ridge, the first stop after Stillwater. At least the trains came by in either direction once an hour. His gruff employer hadn't been impressed at the absence, but hadn't been too surprised - especially not at the cause.
The Inter-City Express train was not very crowded. The sleek silver trains seemed to swallow people, compared to the old brick red train sets. All in all, he was glad to avoid those. The red plush seats of the ICE were comfortable and could recline, and there were fold-down tables should he ever need one. The air was temperate, the windows large and the ride far smoother than what the older train sets offered. Duo sought out a free window seat in a four-seat couch group. For some reason, these were almost always empty during the inward bound trip. That suited Duo just fine, though. What was important was the window. Unlike most of his fellow morning commuters, he hardly ever felt like napping, and a view of the outside world was a boon for an awake passenger.
He put his bag away on the rack above the seats and sat down, immediately focusing his attention out through the pane of glass. The dawning sun spread rays of red and orange everywhere, softly shifting to yellows. The passing landscape came to life in the light as familiar homes, farms and forests gave way to those he knew only through his commute, and not through old acquaintance. Not that long ago, his rust-red bike had carried him on a very roundabout paper route that had left him with a fairly accurate mental map of the larger Stillwater area.
The train slowed down, and the blurred landscape gained contrast. They reached Blue Ridge Station, another platform surrounded by farms and fields. Unlike Stillwater, this one had been refurbished lately, sharp concrete edges and solid asphalt made to replace wood and gravel. New passengers boarded. An unkempt grandfather sat down across the table of the couch group and gave Duo a soft smile, missing a tooth almost at the same place as Davey. A quick nod later, Duo's focus was back out the window, and the outside world passed by once again, fields giving way to rock and forest, then suburbs and pavement. The descent into the small city of Vernon Falls was complete, and the train came to a halt. A pale gum-chewing young woman with purple spiked hair and a thrice-pierced brow plumped down in the seat next to Duo. He didn't mind. Neither did she.
Moving again, small houses blurred out and gave way to rock as the track followed a man-made chasm to finally plunge into the darkness of a tunnel. Once through bedrock, the track surfaced in near-wilderness, bits of forest and the occasional pasture all there was beyond the double-track rails and the narrow gravel service road next to it.
Duo had seen it all many times before. Yet, he never grew tired of calmly staring out at the inert slideshow. Never mind how his mind occasionally wandered along the way, or how it preferred standing absolutely still. There was something remarkably soothing in idle thoughts, and it made the short hour on the train pass quickly. He barely registered how they passed though the city of Leigh, the last load of passengers boarding, leaving only a few seats free. This last stretch was always the most crowded; few cared to live a long commute - especially when it went beyond the hour on rails.
As the ICE train pulled up on one of the many platforms of the Grand Central Station of the mini-metropolis of Lexington, Duo was slowly brought out of his trance-like state, nearly oblivious an hour had passed. He waited to let the stressed crowd shuffle out of the train first. The young girl popped a bubble, and pushed her way out. After a while, grandfather stood up to take his patient place in the queue. Only when Duo was the sole passenger left save an elderly lady struggling with a wheeled suitcase, did he stand up. He helped the old lady get her suitcase off the train and took the steps down into the underground passageways, heading for the subway.
The subway didn't have anywhere near as exciting a scenery; dark brick tunnels and tube lights weren't particularly inspiring, nor were the subway cars especially aesthetically pleasing. The Lexington underground, particularly its trains, were at least a decade overdue for a replacement. But, the people, on the other hand... Oh, there were always 'characters' among them; some which stood out more than others. Duo appreciated the irony he was such a funny character to most of the other commuters, but he didn't care. He boarded the Yellow line and smiled at his fellow passengers, in a few select cases. A little girl with short red curls stared at him, and he thought he knew why. He reached around for the tip of his braid, subtly tapped it in the air, asking without words. The redhead grinned back, nodding, confirming her amazement at a young man having such remarkably long hair, before focusing her attention elsewhere.
Duo didn't mind; neither the attention nor the lack of it. He was used to either - people tended to stare, go out of their way not to - or not notice at all. It was much easier to be lost in the crowd of a city than in the small community of Stillwater.
There was more than enough of characters in the train car. At the back, a couple of kids were talking big. Their flippant attitude and fondness for vivid expressions did nothing to subtract from the consideration these guys - or guys like them - were the ones that had decorated the car with small insignias, be it with marker pens, spray cans or pocket knife carvings in the plastic.
Commuters on the way to work were fairly bland, and sat scattered about throughout the car. A student or two, obviously running late - and not playing hooky, like the guys in the back - were there, too. An elderly lady sat hugging her purse a seat down from Duo, glancing nervously at the potential hooligans.
Over in a corner sat a rather unkempt man, tidied up just beyond what you'd think a drug addict or wandering alcoholic might look like. It was much too clear the guy staring blankly out the window was in all likelihood unemployed. Perhaps he had given up finding more work; perhaps that was why he looked out the window with such a mix of dread, nonchalance and depression.
One by one, they left the train, headed for work, school, shopping or whichever leisure activity struck their fancy on a rare day off - or a much too common one. There were hardly any passengers left by the time it was Duo's turn to step up to the sliding doors. By then, the subway had emerged from the dark tunnels, weaving through the surface of a newer part of town, a mostly suburban area with the occasional touch of commerce and industry. He grabbed his bag and stepped off the train.
A few minutes of light jogging later, he was at the construction site. Months ago, there had been an old factory here. Now, there was not. The grounds had been re-zoned to residential areas, and the company Duo worked for had gotten the contract to tear down the big brick building of yore and extend bland suburbia in its place. Duo's task was primarily in the former; demolition was his forte, though he helped the building crews afterwards, as best he could - much like they did when he had bossed them about on where to bring the explosives. He had to rig them all himself though, and after much hassle about legalities, his employer had given him the detonator too. While Duo's claims on the legal issues had some validity, they both knew the main reason was that Duo wanted to push the button as much as the boss did - and with the boss being a kind-hearted old fool easily swayed by pleading eyes, Duo had won out.
The factory lost, obviously.
Regardless - by now the old monstrosity of red bricks was long gone, and in its place, several residences had emerged; quite similar prefabricated homes - but that was what their contract had stated, and so they delivered. Roof tiles for the last house, a slap or two of paint on three of them and some simple gardening throughout the neighborhood was pretty much all that was left to do here. Two weeks, three tops, and they'd be done - ahead of schedule and on budget.
Duo headed for the barracks to change. He was still rushing, and thus, after nearly flinging the door open, he ran straight into a firm chest. The impact was hardly softened by thick cotton of the other man's one-time white T-shirt. Duo lost his balance and started falling backwards. If the owner of said T-shirt hadn't made a grab for him, Duo would probably have landed flat on his butt. It wouldn't have been a first.
Duo regained his footing, scowled at Trowa's sly smile, then at the thick, gray gloves pinning both his arms. The hands let go - but the smile did not, despite further glares. "Careful, Duo."
Duo gave a soft snort. "Get out of my way, Trowa."
Sighing, but smiling, Trowa stood firm. "You could at least say 'thanks'. I didn't let you fall this time."
He scoffed. "Fine. Thanks - now, let me pass."
Trowa stood aside and gestured the way in. Though tempted to add a full bow to the mockery, the construction worker settled for a nod to accompany the sweeping arm.
Duo glared as he walked past. He put his bag on a battered plastic chair with a rather satisfying thump and opened it. "Don't let the door hit you on the way out - I have to change."
Wiggling both brows suggestively, Trowa smirked. "Can't I watch?"
Duo grabbed a sock bundle from the bag and flung it at Trowa's face.
Trowa barely dodged it, using the door in his defense, snickering. "Fine, fine - but hurry up, Howard wants to see you." With that, he was gone, and the door finally closed.
Duo blew a stray lock of hair back in his bangs, counted to three, and went over to lock the door - just in case. He didn't quite trust Trowa - for good reason. Then he remembered the message given, opened his locker and hurried to change into a loose T-shirt and a pair of light blue jeans overalls. While not exactly his favorite outfit, it suited his current job description as 'jack of all trades' at the construction site, helping out with things like light carpentry, shinglework or stonemasonry. There was no way of telling what he'd help out with at any given day, short of the early phases of demolition, which was when he called the shots - figuratively as well as literally. He stuffed his bag into the locker and went to look for Howard.
Anyone watching the site would consider it a happy anarchy, most of the time. This was somewhat deceptive. While Howard's method of control might seem an utter chaos to others, it got the job done far smoother than rigorous sticklers could do, even with significant greasing of wheels. Grease doesn't help when the wheels are squared. Of course, this also meant all of the workers at the site had to adjust to Howard's easy-going policy. Most did, and focused on whatever task was at hand. All in all, it worked.
Except with clients obsessed with documentation of routines and the like. Those who hired Howard and his crew were usually focused on the result, not how they got there.
Unfortunately, they were the minority of potential customers.
Fortunately, Howard had just found another one.
At least, that's what Duo surmised when he saw the old man's big grin. Of course, the bottle in his hand was also a give-away. Howard didn't dig the good stuff out of his padlocked cabinet on any but the greatest occasions - getting new contracts was one such. His sunglasses, khakis and colorful shirt were part of his daily attire; if Duo hadn't known him, he might have considered it an outfit for a tourist beach party much closer to the tropics. Howard raised the bottle. "Duo! About time you showed up, son - guess what?"
Duo smiled, took the bottle as well as the bottom swig. "Another contract?"
Howard clapped his hands once, far more enthusiastic than usual - which spoke volumes. "You betcha! A whole industrial block is going to be wiped out, and they want cheap housing on most of it - with a few office blocks in between. Those get the high-ground."
A mild frown came across Duo's face. "Office blocks? Isn't that a bit much for us?"
The man tilted his sunglasses further down his nose. "You don't think we can handle it?" He gave Duo a few seconds to sweat on and come up with a reply before he continued. "Don't worry, we're only going to handle demolition and the new homes. They're hiring another company for the high-rises." Howard shrugged, grinned worries away. "Something about building regulations, I think they said - but that doesn't matter. Our crew wouldn't be able to put together something of that size anyway - and I like my feet planted on the ground. Three stories up is my limit."
"It's still a tall order - sounds like a lot of homes to build."
Howard waved him off. "Bah, we'll get it done, somehow." He took the empty bottle back and trotted over to his collapsible chair; his throne at the worksite; the place where he directed the hums and buzzes of all his drones. The last other than the boss to have deliberately sat in the chair was no longer on the payroll. There were some things you did not do in a dictatorship.
Duo rolled his eyes at Howard's carefree attitude. 'Things will work out' was a noble philosophy - albeit, it could be messy, and prolonged. Somehow, they always escaped both - in the end, that is. Even Howard respected the final deadline, no matter how much he frowned at all the milestones in between.
"Anyway, starting next week, you'll have to scope the place out - operation 'clean slate' is your business. Two or three weeks from now we'll probably be done here, and get started at the new place. This'll be bigger than anything we've dealt with before, Duo."
"Lots of mass?"
"We'll need extra diggers and trucks to remove the junk we can't peddle away or hand over to recycling. Now, we did get permission to-"
Again, Howard nodded. "That's why I need you to check it out first - find what we can salvage, and what's going to be landfill. Oh, and how to do the job neatly."
Duo cocked a brow. "Neatly?"
Show of yellow-tainted crooked teeth. "Well, with style, I mean - we'll be watched this time. This is a big urban renewal gig, and I'd hate to blow it. We have to show we're the best at what we do - tear something to pieces and put a whole new thing back together again."
He chuckled. "Okay. Fine, next week. You just give me the address and whatever credentials and keys I need to get in, and I'll get started."
"Good, good - this is on the other side of town, by the way."
"Somewhere near Dogson's Street, I think."
"Dogs- that's close to the old banking district, isn't it?"
Howard nodded. "Exactly - we'll be window-dressing for who knows how many bigwigs for a while. Fairly sure some of those need contractors - that's why the demolition must be a show, not just precision work. I need your flair on this one, Duo."
The demolitions expert flashed a grin. "You'll have it. Dogson's Street - I'll have to take the Green line then, right?"
The foreman shrugged. "Probably - and it's a lot closer to Grand Central, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Figure I'll be able to take a later train - that'd be great."
Howard gave a chuckle. "Commuting... I don't think I'll ever understand how anyone could-"
"Not everybody lives at work, Howard," Duo retorted.
Grining, Howard took a fake swing at him. "Hey, don't mock my home. Some of the finest people I know live in trailers."
Duo rolled with the punch, made a grab for Howard's sunglasses, but didn't make it. Howard knew how to protect his more precious belongings - especially after repeatedly attempted thefts.
"I'll move one of the barracks over there this weekend so you'll have a place to leave your bag and grab lunch. We'll move the rest - including my trailer - when the job's done here."
Duo nodded, and took the lack of further words as a dismissal.
Therefore, it stung a little when Howard's next sentence hit his neck. "Oh, and I'm sending Trowa to help you out."
After a moment resembling a block of ice, Duo spun around, a deep frown on his face. He saw Trowa next to Howard, the boss' hand on the tall man's shoulder, Howard's harmless grin no match for Trowa's subdued smirk. "Please tell me you're kidding..."
Howard mocked offense. "What, you don't agree? You don't think Trowa can help out?"
Duo shook his head, and refrained from voicing the first answer that came to mind at that question, settling for the slightly more thought-through second. "It's not that, it's just-" He glanced from one to the other, threw his hands up in frustration. "Oh, forget it..."
"Good!" Howard patted Trowa's shoulder. "Now, you take good care of him and keep him out of trouble, okay?"
The smirk grew to a serene smile. Duo would have found it reassuring, if he didn't know better. Nevertheless, he couldn't deny the fact Trowa was an honest and arduous laborer.
It was his personal life that could be devious.
None of that mattered, of course. "Sure thing, Howard. Want me to meet up with you at Grand Central next Monday, Duo? I know all the subway lines, and-"
"I'll manage," Duo cut in, and started walking away. "I'll find you near the barracks at the new site. Right now, I have to help Matthews with the pavers - he's probably still struggling with getting them in a straight line."
Again, the smirk. "Don't they call it a curb?"
Duo rolled his eyes at the tremendously bad pun, and beyond that slight pause, he gave no other reaction as he walked off to lend Matthews a hand.
As usual, he clearly needed one.
The homeward bound was the regular crowded mess; trying to go through and then out of a big city even during the rush hour aftermath was never a solitary experience. Then again, at a certain critical mass of people, all turn invisible within each other - especially if your thoughts are elsewhere.
Duo's certainly were. While he was riding the Yellow line home, his thoughts were somewhere up Green; at an old factory complex due for demolition and rebirth in a different form entirely. It was the former that preoccupied him the most. Even without scouting the place, he knew it'd be a big blast - literally and figuratively. There was a wealthy audience to account for as well. Provided they got the permits Duo's artistic license demanded, they would get far more than they paid for - that is, far more than nothing. Of course, making such a show without shattering windows for blocks in all directions wouldn't be easy.
He grinned. Oh, this would be a fun job; those few seconds that took weeks, if not months to prepare, were so very much worth it - all the more so if he could make others enjoy it as much. That reminded him; he would have to trick Howard into giving up the trigger well in advance - he didn't want to bicker over it minutes prior to detonation again. Howard had pushed the switch on the Haynes Building last spring, hadn't he? Duo figured it was worth mentioning - and barring that, maybe slip Howard a copy of city regulations regarding demolitions. Those were somewhat strict when it came to who could okay a blast. Something about licenses, and such. Paperwork had never been Howard's forte.
Nor Duo's, but they got by.
He'd moved nearly on automatic to the train and found himself a seat. Even a few hours after the true rush for the line, the seats filled up. There were the young and elderly going for cheaper fare with the evening train, a few stressed office rats and a couple of easygoing, non-workaholic afternoon executives all making their way home to prepare for the next day, and the next, and the next, going along with an established daily routine. One of the traveling grannies asked if she could sit next to him, and Duo responded favorably - if somewhat absentminded.
In truth, he barely registered these things. Other than keeping his bag out of gram's way, he stared blankly out the window at the passing scenery, focused solely on the thought of how his daily routine was about to change. A later train in, an earlier home too, probably. It would leave him with a precious few more hours at home - and he was sure he wouldn't be the only one to appreciate that. There was always enough to do back home, and lately he hadn't had time to do much more than sleep.
When he'd first been hired by Howard, they had done remodeling and renewal projects in his vicinity - mostly refurbishing or complete sanitation and new construction along the shoreline of Stillwater, the nearby lake. Most clients were the wealthy owners of various cabins along the lakeside. These were valued plots, most zoned for recreational purposes - although many a 'cabin' there seemed more like a small mansion or outright palace.
When Howard's pasture had changed, Duo had decided to follow the company rather than apply elsewhere. His education was somewhat lacking in proper documentation. Sure, he had all the right licenses, and a rushed education in various fields to show for - if not with the best of grades. However, few companies were likely to consider him for employment. Even Howard had had misgivings about hiring someone in their early twenties to lead a team that was only a demolition crew part-time, and carpenters, bricklayers, masons or painters the rest of the time. Duo hadn't made Howard regret it, and it showed on the pay check, especially during good times - in which bonuses often flourished.
This had given him a lengthy commute, though. Howard had offered both Duo and the rest of his crew a small section of the barracks complex to live in, at least outside weekends. A few on the team had taken up that offer, others had moved - but not Duo. There were several reasons for this, one of which was the desire not to be completely separated from what he'd come to consider his family. Even though he was barely home more than to sleep and often came home too late to see the younger kids off to bed, it still felt more right than to shack up with his colleagues.
There was also the fact he didn't feel like being Trowa's roommate - again for various reasons.
Also, he'd miss overhearing Sister Helen's lullabies - a fact he was hard pressed to admit.
There were simply too many feelings tied to Saint William's - the orphanage he still lived at. Even though he was of age and then some, he'd stuck around. Eventually, he planned to find a place of his own, but for now it felt right to stay back and chip in at maintenance tasks. Even with the nominal sum he paid as 'rent and board', staying at the orphanage was by far the more economical choice.
The latter had been his own idea, really. Sister Helen and Father Maxwell would probably have let him stay on for free, but government funding and private sponsorship only covered so many expenses - and their rundown building was perpetually in need of patching somewhere.
Scholarships, part-time jobs and the unwavering support of Sister and Father had been the foundation of Duo's decent education. By routing some of his cash back to Saint William's, he hoped to give the other kids that remained unadopted the same opportunities.
Then again, so far he'd been the only one to achieve that dubious pleasure, though most of the children that spent more than a year or two at Saint William's Orphanage visited regularly, often lending a hand or even money, if they could spare either.
Even with the commute factored in, the cost of remaining at home was smaller than what the costs of living on his own or even in Howard's barracks would have been, and the saved money would come to use when he finally did leave. The thought of that off-set much of the annoyance of the long, daily trips.
So did Sister Helen's cooking. Duo smiled to himself, thinking of the plate he knew was waiting for him in the fridge at home, probably with the regular note stating 'remember to reheat, dear' in delicate, curly penmanship. It was a highlight of the day, despite how he usually ate in solitude. Sister Helen would be busy with getting the kids to bed by now, and Father Maxwell would sweat over either the account books or short sermon drafts, if he wasn't indulging himself in other books, be it The Good One, or merely a good one.
It didn't matter.
The train came to a halt again, rustling Duo from his thoughts. It took a second before he realized it was his stop and he scrambled for the exit. He barely made it off the train before it moved on down the tracks towards Hartford. A quick check verified he'd avoided forgetting something aboard. It had happened before, albeit on only a few occasions - and in those three cases, he'd gotten his bag back with little problems - and nothing missing.
He unlocked his bike, and made his way home. The hill was a killer on the homeward bound, as always. At the Johnson's place, Davey's window was dark, of course. Duo grinned to the empty glass. Usually, the grin came from the other side. The kid found great amusement in watching Duo strive up the hill. Duo was glad Davey couldn't hear him too, and realize it wasn't just exhausted breath that left his mouth as he challenged the hill. Neither of Davey's parents would have been happy to find their son had absorbed a few words unfit a drunken sailor, much less a child.
At long last, he saw the lights of Saint William's ahead of him. They were dimmed in the top dormitory floor already; the younger kids were already lulled to sleep, most likely. Duo thought he saw the candlestick Sister Helen was fond of using move through the far side of the dark room, heading for the other upstairs wing, and the slightly older kids. A lamp was on in Father Maxwell's study too. Although the local Catholic church had closed down years ago, Father Maxwell still tended the small flock left behind, and offered solace to many others as well - as his taking up the challenge of running Saint William's proved. With a grin, sigh and a headshake, Duo parked his bike in their garage and made sure to put the padlock back in place. He went inside and headed for the kitchen.
Dinner awaited him - and then his bed, and another day.
There was always tomorrow.