Caught Between the Banister

Part One: Mike

Disclaimer: don't own them.  Don't want them.  Don't need them.  So there.  Thanks go out to Endymion, Blue Dragon, and Crimson Knight for reading and telling me what they thought.  I'd also like to thank Hobson for the banister idea, Leilla for being such a great sport and for the constant inspiration she provided, and TKMaxwell777, who didn't like Duo referring to Christ so much but did a beta which was both wonderful and quick.  Thanks, everyone.

Warnings/Rating: yaoi/shonen ai, though not in this part.  Psychological references.  My usual insanity.  Fun stuff like that.  This part is rated PG for a few four-letter words.  That's all.

Archived: um… nowhere as of yet.  Any offers?  Archiving is free, of course, but I do like to be asked.  Gratuitous mentions and linkage will go to they who offer archiving!

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You know how little kids always stick their heads between the rails of a banister?  It happens to almost every kid at some point or another, no matter what sort of stories their parents or guardians tell them about bad little kids who put their head between the banister rails and got stuck there forever.  It happens no matter how many times they see or hear about it happening.  It's a fact of life.  It happens without fail, to every kid, on a regular basis.  Kind of like Haley's Comet or something.  Why is that?

I've got a theory about it, actually.  I think it's a chemical thing.  Around the time the kid turns four or five or six or so something just goes off in their brain--an alarm of sorts.  That little alarm tells them to do something stupid and it won't go off until they do it.  So, since the alarm is really loud and annoying, they force their head through a banister.  Key word there is force--if you know your facts about little kids, you know that it's rare that they can get out of a situation like that by themselves.  They always get stuck.  Always.  It never fails.

I'm still not quite sure why that happens.  You'd think it would be just as hard to get their heads in as it is to get them out, but no, it doesn't work that way.  So what happens?  Do their heads swell up?  Do the bars shrink?  Is it magic dust?  Pixies?  Some sort of weird molecular reconfiguration?  There's just no explanation--unless you believe that thing about their ears getting in the way.  That, in my opinion, is bullshit.

I did it too, don't get me wrong!  So did Quatre, I think, if I remember right.  He mentioned something about pulling the infamous banister trick and taking almost an hour to get out--with a lot of help from his nursemaid.  Lucky bastard.

Hey, don't look at me like that!  I've got a right to say that--I didn't have a house when I pulled the banister trick and I sure as hell didn't have a nurse to get me out.  I just had Solo and he wasn't all that much help.

You know how some houses have banister things leading up to their front doors--the black metal railing lodged in cement that goes up to the front stoop?  Well, I somehow managed to get my head stuck in one of those, right on the street where everyone could kick me as they went by.  Solo used to tell that story to people in great detail, even describing the way my ass was sticking up in the air and how I kept on waving my arms around, trying to get out.  He probably even kept track of how many people pinched or kicked me.  I don't remember him ever telling anybody what he was doing that entire time.

I don't think he ever said anything about how I got out, either.  It was a very creative method, if I do say so myself.

But I'm rambling.  Sorry, I do that a lot.  I started talking about banisters for a reason, believe it or not.  I'm going to tell a story about something that happened to me a few days back.  That's right, kiddies, pull up a chair and listen to Uncle Duo tell boring stories about his life.  Hell, it could be worse.  It could be Grandpa Wu-Bear.  He'd bore you to death with justice rants and then wonder why no one was listening to him.  It's either him or me--take your pick.

That's what I thought.

Okay, so get this.  I was walking out of my apartment a couple of days ago on my way to work--why the company is letting a twenty year-old without even a high school diploma or anything work for them is beyond me, especially given my status, but whatever--when something caught my eye.  Let me rephrase that--someone caught my eye.

My apartment complex looks like a really fancy hotel from the inside, with great big circular staircases and lots and lots of banisters.  Don't ask me how I managed to afford it on my salary--I'm not quite sure how I did it myself.

Anyway, I had just locked my door when I saw someone--a little boy, about five years old, I guessed--on his hands and knees on the floor.  At first glance it looked as though there was a decapitated child kneeling on the floor and it took me a minute to realize just what was going on there.  As soon as I figured it out, though, I wondered how the kid had managed to get his head through those things.  It couldn't have been very easy.  I went over, fighting an urge to kick the kid.  Kind of like revenge for my own bad staircase experience, I guess, or living my own childhood again through him.  Whatever.

"Hi.  You stuck?" I asked, smiling as I squatted down.

"Ahuh."

"How long have you been out here?"

"Forever."

"Oh."  I had to consider that for a minute before I remembered that little kids have a tendency to exaggerate.  It probably just felt like he'd been stuck there for an eternity and beyond.  "How'd you get stuck?"

"I don't know."

That amused me, really, but I decided not to comment on it.  "You want a hand getting out?"

"Ahuh."

"Okay.  I'll go get some stuff to help, so you just hang out right here, okay?  Don't go anywhere."

"Ahuh."

All right, so the kid was rather monotonous.  What was I expecting, anyway?  For him to start treating me like his best friend because I went up to talk to him?  He was stuck in a banister, for Christ's sake!  At least he was cute, in one of those midget boy kind of ways.  Anyway, I went back to my apartment and dug around under my bed for an old box, the one I'd been storing old stuff in since time began.  Useless little things, most of which I filched from all the places where I used to work.  Keepsakes or something.  Or maybe I just liked to take things.  Old habits die hard, I guess.

Having located the box, I removed a choice object and went back the hallway, kneeling next to the boy.  I displayed the tube of stuff I'd taken from my box and unscrewed the top, squeezing a generous amount of it into my palm.  The kid made a face when I started rubbing the stuff on one side of his head, around his ears and neck, and I grinned.

"Don't like this?"

"It's cold.  And it feels icky."

"But it'll work.  It'll come off, too, after you take a bath or two."  I smiled.  "What's your name?"

"Michael."

"Nice name.  Can I call you Mike?"

"Ahuh."

I grinned again.  That's the beauty of little kids, especially now that the war's over.  They trust everybody.  For all Mike knew, I was a homicidal maniac and pedophiliac who liked to have my way with little children before I baked them in the microwave.  Not that I would, really.  Even I know better than that--I'd bake him in the oven with the heat up around three-fifty or three-seventy five and baste him with a kind of golden honey sauce.  It would make the apartment smell really cheerful--just in time for Christmas, too.  After he'd been nicely browned, he wouldn't even be recognizable to his own family and I'd have dinner for the next couple days.

Stop looking at me like that.  Jeez, some people just can't take a joke.

"So where do you live, Mike?"

"Downstairs.  With my father."  He squirmed uncomfortably.  "He's going to be mad at me.  I'm not supposed to leave the room without him."

"Do you know why not?"

"Nope."

I knew why.  The apartment complex had three big rules: no pets, no noise over twenty decibels between the hours of eight o'clock and seven-thirty, and no kids.  The little midgets were contraband at this place; no one under the age of seventeen was supposed to be in there for over four hours.  I guess that's why I'd been so surprised to see this kid with his head in the banister--I hadn't talked to or seen any little kids in something resembling their natural setting in a long while.  It made me wonder what kind of person his father was and how long they'd lived here without being caught.  It was admirable, I thought, but I was willing to bet that the other tenants would be super-pissed if they saw Mike running around.  Most of them were crabby old women with the same sense of humor as a rock.

I take that back.  I've known some very funny rocks, at least when compared to those old bats.

I wondered why I'd never seen Mike before now or why I'd never met his father.  I knew almost everyone in the whole building, with thanks to the complexes annual holiday party.  Attendance was mandatory (or so I'd always been told) and they were the most soporific things I'd ever attended.  A real sleeping draught; anyone with insomnia could go there for an hour and be cured in an instant.

Mike gave me a funny look after a minute of silence and I realized that it was my turn to play the conversationalist.  I squeezed more of the tube's contents into my hand and started lathering up the other side of his head.

"So what about your mom?  Where's she?"

"Somewhere else.  I see her on weekends sometimes."  He squirmed again.  "What's your name?"

"Depends on who's asking me.  Most people know me as Duo Maxwell."

"Okay.  Am I almost out, Mister McHell?"

I cringed at the awful mispronunciation of my last name but decided not to say anything about it.  Hey, if people on TV can live with names like Arnold Rimmer their entire life, I can be Mister McHell for a few hours.  Did you catch that old public television reference?  So sue me--I like to watch the really old shows that no one these days has ever even heard of.  I swear that it's not humanly possible to hate old television shows.

All right, anyway, back to the story.  Instead of correcting Mike's bad pronunciation, I checked the viscosity of his head.  "Almost," I told him with a smile.  "Should only be five minutes or so now.  Maybe even less than that."

"Good.  My father will be mad if he wakes up and I'm not in the apartment."

"What time does he usually wake up?"

"I don't know," Mike said carefully.  "I can't tell time yet."

"Oh.  Okay.  Well, keep quiet a second or two while I figure out if you're slippery enough to get out of here.  Don't talk."  I pressed Mike's ears flat against his head and started to ease him out.  It was easier than I thought it would be.  "This may hurt a little," I warned him, "but it'll stop in a little bit.  I promise."

He whimpered as I pulled him out from between the bars of the banister and I frowned when I got to the point where his ears had to go through.  The moment of truth had arrived!

Well, to my surprise, Mike's head popped out rather easily once I got past the ears, which took a bit of work but was quite doable.  He looked rather surprised himself.  Sitting up, he rubbed his head, probably trying to get some of the slippery stuff off, and blinked at me.  He had very wide blue eyes and blonde hair.  Cute kid.

"Thank you."

"No problem," I said, grinning and getting to my feet.  "If you ever get stuck here again, you know who to yell for.  I'll be around eventually."

"I don't think I'm gonna do that again, though.  You want to come down and meet my dad?  He might let me give you a cookie.  As a thank-you."

"Sure."  I grinned.  "Just don't ruin my breakfast, okay?"

"All right."  He took my slimy hand in his and led me towards the elevator, obviously avoiding the stairs.  He obviously knew his way around this place--the elevator on this floor was kind of hidden in a corner and it took some doing to find, but he led me straight to it.  That made me wonder just how long his father had been hiding him here.  The idea of the guy actually hiding his son in a place like this interested me.  I wanted to meet this guy.  Okay, so I admit that the cookie was another reason for my cooperation, but I never turn down an offer of free food.  Besides, what exactly was Mike going to tell his dad about the stuff I'd lathered his head with?  I can't think of many parents who wouldn't wonder what their son had spread all over his head when he wasn't even supposed to be outside the apartment.  I had every intention of explaining it all to Mike's father first chance I got, before the midget could blurt something out as kids tend to do.  I was saving him from a lecture, or at least prolonging it, and it would alleviate my insatiable curiosity a little.

That's what I planned, anyway.  Blame it all on intrigue if you want, since that was definitely one of several ulterior motives, but it was half to help the kid out.  Really, it was.  Trust me once in a while, will you?

The door wasn't locked, which didn't exactly surprise me, and Mike turned the knob carefully, pushing the door open slowly as if that was going keep it from making any noise.  There wasn't any real reason for that caution, though, as a man, probably my age or a little older, was sitting at a table with his back to us.  I heard the rustling of a newspaper as the man set it down, acknowledging our presence.

"Michael's back," the man said, directing his comment to someone I couldn't see who was still in the bedroom.  "I told you that he wasn't hiding in the closet."  There was no answer, which obviously didn't phase the man, and he started talking to Mike in a soft voice.  "Where have you been, Michael?  And who's your friend?"  His voice grated on me for some reason.  I was more than a little brain dead at the time, which probably didn't help matters much, but I had the weird feeling that I really should have known this guy right off the bat.  I just couldn't place him.

"I got stuck in the stairs.  Mister McHell helped me get out.  He's very nice and funny; can I give him a cookie?"

"May you give him a cookie.  Not can."

"Okay.  May I give Mister McHell a cookie?"

"If you want."  The man turned around to face me as Mike went over to the counter and reached up for an ornate cookie jar.  I gasped when I saw his face.  He looked just as surprised to see me and his coffee mug fell to the floor, spilling the brown sludge all over the carpet.  I cringed; that was going to stain and he was going to get it from the landlord if that old bastard saw the spot.

"Christ!  Heero, is that you?"

"Duo?" he asked with a startled look on his face.  His voice was practically emotionless, void of the disbelief I must have projected so freely.  I'd half-expected that.  "What are you doing here?"

I pointed at Mike.  "Free food.  What are you doing here?"

"I live here."  Heero crossed his arms over his chest and frowned at me before his attention was averted to Michael, who dropped the jar on the floor.  It must have been plastic or something, since it didn't break, but it did make a loud noise when it hit the ground.  He blinked at the boy.  "What's that all over your head?"

"Mister McHell--"

Heero interrupted him.  "Mister Maxwell."

"Mister Mackell used it to get me unstuck.  It was cold and icky and came out of a tube.  And it smells really funny."  He made a face, picking the jar up and prying open the lid.  "It smells a little bit like cherries."  He fished a cookie out of the jar and handed it to me.  I took it carefully; this kid was in the same house as Heero Yuy, mister "I-despise-sugar" himself.  Who was to say the things weren't laced with arsenic or something?

Heero reached over and wiped a little of the stuff off Mike's head with his finger and inspected it for a moment before looking up at me.  "What is it?"

"Uh," I informed him, dumbly.  God, I don't think I've blushed that much in my life.  I just knew what he thought it was and I had a dank feeling in my stomach that he wasn't going to like it when I told him that he was probably right.  It took me a second to get my voice back and correct my quietly grunted statement.  "It's just something I had lying around.  Nothing dangerous or anything, really.  You might want to give him a bath or something, though.  Maybe two or three.  He's all slimy."

"I noticed," Heero remarked dryly.  "What is it?"  He had that look in his eyes, the one I hadn't seen in years.  The one that said 'this had better not be what I think it is or you're really going to get it, Maxwell.'  You know, the scary look.  The one that threatened me with a slow, violent, and probably painful death.  Seeing Mike sneak a cookie of his own and stuff it in his mouth with a cautious glance in Heero direction, I took a bite out of my own cookie, suddenly and privately wishing that it was laced with arsenic.

It was oatmeal.  That's almost as bad.

"Like I said, it doesn't matter," I said with a shrug, swallowing the cookie.  "See you, Heero.  Bye Mike, thanks for the cookie.  Give my regards to your mom, okay?"

Mike nodded.  "'Kay."

That said and done, I retreated to the door and let myself out, heading back up to my apartment at the speed of light so I could wash my hands, finish eating my cookie, and ride the bus to work in mortified, stupefied, and horrified silence.

--to be continued--