Cinnamon, Mint, and Smoke: Part Two

     On Friday, two days later, someone asked me a question and I broke a glass. Nothing big, just one of the jam jars I'd found in the trash behind a restaurant, I think. And it was only water, but when it hit the tiles, it sounded like a car crash in my ears. All right, so maybe I was a little jumpy.

     Wufei was immediately out of his seat and telling me not to move. I had no shoes on, so I obediently froze while blathering on apologetically about being clumsy while half-asleep. Meanwhile, the handsome Chinese man was on his knees picking up the largest chunks of glass.

     "It's four in the afternoon," Mike observed.

     "I'm permanently half-asleep," I retorted. "I'm a college student. It's my natural state of affairs."

     "You never answered," Quatre said, from where he sat at the kitchen table. He was eating an orange, and his delicate fingers pried the skin back with deft movements. "Do you have a date for next Saturday?"

     "Uh..." I opened and closed my mouth, uncertain. "Uh..." I tried again, and nothing came out. I just couldn't see myself saying that I'd had this crazy dream of an unbelievably magnificent-looking man who appeared in my room, agreed to take me to the club, and then disappeared.

     Because I was afraid if I said it out loud, I'd realize it really was just a dream. Gorgeous men who bare their teeth in mimicry of a smile don't ask me out. Hell, I'm lucky if they notice me long enough to say hello. Boys don't make passes at other boys who are comic relief, to completely butcher the old saying.

     At the same time, I was instantly on my guard. No one had asked me before this if I had a date, and here were five people in the kitchen, all suddenly inquisitive. That set off my warning bells. I glanced from Ken, to Mike, to Trowa, to Quatre, to Wufei still at my feet, plucking the last pieces of glass from its watery grave.

     "Well, you do, or you don't," Trowa replied evenly, a hint of a smile. "Or are you not sure yet?"

     "Not sure yet," I said, laughing as I hopped out of the danger circle of glass. Not sure yet was close enough to the truth, I suppose. "Gotta run, got work in twenty," I said. "Thanks for cleaning that up, Wufei, sorry I'm such a klutz. But I've gotta, I mean, I didn't, I mean...I'm gonna be late." And with that babbling excrement pretending to be wit, I backed up the stairs, turning and fleeing as soon as the kitchen was out of sight around the corner of the stairs.

     Five minutes later I was back down again, bag over my shoulder, boots on, coat zipped. They were still congregated in the kitchen, but I simply waved and pushed the kitchen door open, running as fast as I could.

     Saturday I was roped into being the fifth wheel for Trowa, Zechs, Mike, and Vijay. I guess Trowa and Zechs noticed I was a little uncomfortable with Mike and Vijay being all lovey, or maybe they're just not big on the idea of public affection. Either way, we spent most of the time hanging out. It was almost possible to forget I was the third person, crowding their scene.


     We went out for lunch, followed by a movie. We sat in a booth, with me crowded in a corner, because tables are made for four people, not five. I didn't eat a lot, since it was more expensive than I'd expected, but Vijay didn't split the check five ways. He had us each pay for what we'd eaten, which was a huge relief. I didn't think I could afford my share if I had to pay one-fifth, given all the food everyone else ordered. That's okay. I've found coffee is a good way to kill an appetite.

     The movie was a stinker, of course, but that's supposed to be part of the fun.

     By the time we were out of the movie theater, I'd thought of ten different reasons to go home, even though they were talking about playing pool at the local hangout. They insisted on walking me back to the house, and spent the whole time trying to convince me to come with them. And I laughed, and shook my head, grinning like I really did have a huge set of plans due on Monday morning.

     Okay, so I did. But I could do them on Sunday after work. I just didn't want to sit there and get in the way, if Trowa and Zechs had hooked up, y'know? I'd done my bit of being social, and I just wanted to get back to my room and pretend like there was someone out there, waiting anxiously for Saturday to roll around.

     Someone who really would show up in a convertible, and sweep me off my feet. Not someone who'd show up and laugh at me for falling for some stupid joke based on an overheard comment through thin walls at midnight on a Wednesday. Someone who smelled like cinnamon and mint and wood smoke... I pushed the thoughts out of my head as we walked up the step to the house.

     "Hey, package came for Duo," Jake yelled as we stepped through the door. He was doing homework in the living room recliner.

     "What? Are there two Duos in this house?" I yelled back, and then reconsidered. Hilde's mom might have sent me another package of brownies. She did that once or twice, last year.

     "Here," Trowa said, handing me a box wrapped in brown paper.

     It was tied with string, and there was no postage on it. It simply said, 'Duo Maxwell.' There wasn't even an address. Just my name.

     I took it, hefting it in my hands. It felt light, and was about the size of a shirt box. I just stared at the bold script for a second, and then flipped it over. Nothing on the back, either. I chewed at my lower lip - an annoying habit when I'm nervous - and finally managed a laugh.

     "I bet it's a care package," I finally said, swinging the box in one hand as I prepared to flee. Past the living room was the dining room, then the kitchen, and up the back stairs to relative safety to open the box in peace. I could feel shivers running down my spine to rest in my stomach.

     "No, you don't," Quatre said, appearing before me with his arms crossed. His sky-blue eyes were curious, and he stared at the package intently. "You've not gotten any mail since you moved in. I want to see what it is."

     "Besides, if it's food, you have to share," Vijay added.

     "House rules," Jake hollered from the living room.

     Frowning at them, I shrugged and moved into the living room. Settling myself on the back of the sofa, I untied the string and pulled it off, trying to ignore the seven pairs of eyes now watching my hands undo the brown paper. I pulled it aside to reveal a burgundy box, and lifted off the top. Inside was a black shirt, and I froze for a heartbeat before dropping the box and lifting out the shirt.

     It was black silk, heavy and luxurious in my hands. I checked the size - perfect. It unfurled as I held it up, and I noticed my hands were shaking. Quatre stepped forward first, whistling under his breath as he felt the material.

     "Silk," he said, for everyone's benefit.

     I couldn't think of a response, so I just nodded. The shirt had a band collar, with silk-covered buttons running down the front. I barely restrained myself from rubbing my face against the silk.

     "Smells like..." Trowa leaned forward, sniffing hesitantly. "Mint," he said. His sharp green eyes rested on mine for a moment, his expression clearly puzzled.

     Vijay ran a finger across the cuff, and lifted it to sniff. "No," he replied. "Smells more like someone was wearing it near a fireplace, or a bonfire."

     I blinked, and took a second to let out the breath I'd been holding, before laughing at them. It sounded strange to my ears, and I tried to relax. "Come on, guys, that's ridiculous."

     "Sure is," Quatre said, leaning into me long enough to sniff at the shirt as well. "They're both wrong. That's cinnamon."

     Fleetingly I remembered the scents that had hung in my room for several days after that strange dream. Never enough to be obtrusive, just a faint whiff every now and then, until it had faded and I'd forgotten.

     "Duo, you okay?" Zechs sounded worried, and I laughed automatically.

     "Never been better," I said. Technically it was true, considering I'd never owned something made of silk before. I bent to grab the box, and shoved the shirt back into it.

     "You dropped this," Trowa said, handing me a piece of paper, folded over. "It fell out of the box," he explained.

     Once again I had all eyes on me as I tucked the box under my arm and flipped the letter open. It was the same writing as on the package, but just one line.

     ~ You deserve better than second-hand. Have you decided who will join us? ~

     I blinked, gulped, and cast a quick smile around the waiting eyes without really looking at anyone. "It's just a note," I mumbled, and shoved it into my back pocket.

     "A note from your admirer?" Quatre teased. "Let's see."

     "No," I said, and shrugged. "It's nothing."

     "This the same admirer who might or might not be going with you on Saturday?" Jake sounded smug, and I shot him a quick glance before covering it up with a laugh.

     "Yeah, that one," I said, inching sideways to get out from the press of curious fraternity housemates. "Got lots of homework, guys. I'll...catch you later."

     "No, you don't!"

     I barely made it three feet before Quatre latched onto my arm. He reeled me back, grinning widely as he stuck a hand in my back pocket.

     "Hey!" I yelped indignantly, trying to juggle the box and the shirt and get the note back at the same time. "That's mine!"

     "Not anymore," he cried, leaping over the back of the sofa to read the note before I could grab it back. "Hey! You're going separately?"

     "Yeah," I told him, the grin back in place as I shrugged casually. Inside my heart was hammering against my ribs, terrified that he'd say something out loud about the first line. I was freaked enough as it was. I didn't want the humiliation of everyone knowing where I did my shopping. I kept the grin securely in place. "Do I have to go in the van?"

     "Not really," Jake said, his eyes still on the book in his lap. "We won't be able to fit everyone in the two vans, anyway."

     "Oh," I replied. "So, can I have that back?"

     "Only when you tell us who this guy is," Quatre said. "And why didn't you tell us you were seeing someone? Have you been seeing him since you joined?"

     I froze, my hand still out and reaching for the letter. I bet my eyes were as big as saucer plates, and I barely managed a laugh. It died on my lips, as I looked around at the rest of the guys watching me.

     "Would explain a lot," Zechs said, and grinned slyly.

     I think I blushed to my roots, and jerked forward, snatching back the note before Quatre could react. Shoving it into the box along with the shirt, I clutched it to my chest and made my way from the room. Several of the guys laughed, and I made a point of laughing with them as I retreated. Right, it's all just part of the joke.

     Two minutes later I was shutting the door behind me. I held up the shirt, staring at it for a second before stripping off my worn black sweatshirt and pulling the new shirt over my head. It draped my body like a hundred sleek fingertips, and my heart lurched into my throat at the caress of silk across my nipples. Cautiously I made my way over to the window, which was reflecting the interior light and passed for a mirror once it got dark.

     I could barely breathe at the sight. The black was dramatic; nothing like the boring black I wore everyday. It glowed gray in the highlights and ate the light in the folds as it flowed down my arms. The cuffs were just the right length, and the shirt brushed my body with every move. I stared for a few seconds more, and then reluctantly removed the shirt. Gently I hung it up and put it away, and sat down on the bed to stare at the note.

     I wasn't sure whom I'd ask to join us. If I did, would this be dangerous for them, too? I didn't want to involve more people, if I could help it. I realized what I was thinking, and chided myself for being superstitious. I let out a deep sigh, staring at my shaking hands holding the note.

     Because, if it wasn't a joke, and wasn't a dream...then I was holding the first piece of evidence that my years as a half-hearted agnostic were about to end.

     No one mentioned my mystery date over the next few days, and I switched the topic whenever it looked like someone was heading in that direction. I noticed strange looks from some of the guys, but wrote it off to their astonishment that the comic relief might have someone interested in him.

     At first it was a little uncomfortable. Then I guess I started enjoying the idea that someone wanted me as his date. Even if that meant a really high price, I figured that was just the way it worked. I'm honorable. I'll hold up my end of the deal.

     Every now and then, working late at night on my projects, I'd extricate myself from my wobbly drawing table, sneak over to the closet, and throw the door open. I was always a little surprised to discover the silk shirt was hanging there. A few times I cautiously rubbed my face against it, reveling in the feel on my skin. And each time I did, I sniffed it carefully. It didn't smell like anything but silk.

     On Wednesday, when I got home from campus, there was someone in my room. I could hear the floorboard creaking by my bed, and then a light clatter as something was set down. As quietly as I could, I turned the doorknob and let the door swing open.

     The room was empty.

     Not completely, I realized as I walked in and dropped my bag on the bed. First, it smelled heavily of cinnamon, mint, and that faint tinge of bonfire smoke. Then I saw what was sitting on my chair.

     Thirty music CDs.

     I blinked, took a step back, glanced around the room again, and looked at the CDs. They were still sitting there, looking no more dangerous than any other CDs I'd ever seen, but I had no idea what they were doing in my room. I don't even have a CD player, let alone a stereo. I'd started saving money my freshman year, but I'd given up. What was the point of buying a stereo when you can't afford to buy CDs?

     I'm pragmatic like that.

     Which is why I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and opened one eye. The CDs were still sitting there, and cinnamon was curling in my nose, mingling with the mint and smoke. It was a heady scent, and I stopped counting when I realized there was a note under the stack.

     Taking a deep breath, I moved the stack to the bed and sat down, rifling through them while I worked up my nerve to read the note. There were five classical CDs: Mozart, Paganini, Saint-Saens, Handel, and some guy named Rimsky-Korsakov. Two CDs were club mixes, house and trance. There was Celtic traditional, American Cajun, Western folk, Japanese Kodo, Indian ragas, and Gypsy flamenco. There were twelve CDs of various popular artists, from heavy metal to country-western to top forty. There was modern Jazz, bluegrass, ambient, and a collection of Haitian drumming. There was even an opera collection of Maria Callas.

     It was the kind of collection you'd get if you started at one end of a music store and worked your way through, picking and choosing a selection from every category.

     I went through the CDs again, pausing at ones I recognized, and taking longer over the ones I didn't. The ones I didn't recognize far outnumbered the ones I knew, but that's no big shock. I know I'm not a big music person, but that was never my choice. And now it looked like someone had decided to educate me.

     Baffled, I finally opened the note. It was another sheet folded in two, and I flipped it open to see the same broad strokes, angling across the paper in precise marching lines. Re-reading, I could see some signs of individuality that told me it wasn't a computer-generated font. The Ls weren't all the same, and one Y was straight down while another looped a little.

     ~ I wasn't sure what you'd like. Pick your favorites and we'll listen to them on Saturday. ~

     I dropped the note on my lap and stared at the CDs again. This wasn't my idea of a helpful gift, y'know? Frustrated, I inhaled the fading scent of cinnamon and mint.

     "Not going to do me any good if I don't have a way to listen to them," I announced.

     Almost immediately I felt like a complete idiot. Really buying into this, I chastised myself. It's got to be part of the joke, I thought. But I'd heard someone in my room. And I could smell him, too, those strange scents that made up his peculiar cologne. He was here. Or maybe, I thought, I've been working too hard. That's always possible.

     I wasn't surprised in the least that I'd gotten to the point where it was easier to disregard the possibility that it was all a big prank that had gotten out of hand. The idea of being the object of such extensive ridicule was far more ugly, somehow, than the possibility that the devil existed and he had no problem taking my soul in exchange for one lousy date.

     "Better be a good date," I grumbled quietly. "I could at least get dinner for the effort."

     I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard the pounding footsteps coming up the back stairs. The CDs scattered at my movement, plastic clattering against plastic as the stack toppled over to spread across my bed. At the same time, someone was calling my name.

     "Hey, Duo!"

     It was Ken, and I took a second to laugh at myself before dropping the note on the bed as I stood.

     "What?" I leaned my head out my door, hoping my hair wasn't still standing on end. "The house on fire or something?"

     "Nope," he replied as he entered his own room. "Package just arrived for you. Quatre's holding it hostage."

     "Hostage?" I gave him a skeptical look. Two packages in a week - yeah, snowball's chance in hell. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I realized the silent crack I'd made. I suddenly knew how that snowball felt.

     "Yeah, I think Mark and Jake are flipping a coin on who opens it first," he said, grinning. "Better get there, fast."

     I tore down the hallway, down the stairs, across the first floor, and was at the front door in a flash. I think I smacked Wufei with my braid, I came around the corner so fast. The three men in question each had a hand on a small brown package, again wrapped with twine.

     "Mine," I said, holding out my hand. They froze, guilty grins on their faces, before handing it over. I studied it for a second, recognizing the same slanted cursive as before. No postage, no return address, just my name. Duo Maxwell.

     This time I didn't wait to rip it open, trying to force away a sudden cold feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tore the twine and the wrapping off the box. It came away, revealing a top-of-the-line portable CD player, with headphones. Batteries included, I noted absently.

     "Shit," Mark breathed, looking at the box.

     "So are you going to tell us who it is, now?" Jake leered at me, and I managed to put a smile on my face as I shrugged.

     "There's a letter," Quatre said, pointing to the wrapping I'd let fall to the floor.

     I bent down and grabbed it before anyone else could, and hoped my face wasn't pale. I felt nauseous, and my legs were shaky. Tucking the box under my arm, I flipped the note open, chewing on my lower lip as I read.

     ~ I'll pick you up at six, instead, so we'll have time for dinner first. We can bring your friends, or pick them up afterwards. ~

     I swallowed hard, blinked a few times, and read the note again.


     I looked up to see Quatre regarding me carefully. Letting out my breath in a controlled exhale, I gave him a tentative smile. "I have dinner plans, now," I told them.

     "Wow," Jake said. "This one's a keeper." He grinned and punched me on the shoulder, pausing one last time to whistle at the expensive toy under my arm.

     Mark followed him without comment, but grinned at me as well. I could hear him in the living room, giving Zachary the details, which left Quatre and me alone in the foyer. He was my first friend in the house, and he'd always made the effort to make me feel welcome. If there was anyone, I told myself...

     "Quatre," I said, hesitating a bit. "My...friend has room for two more people to ride up with us. And we're going to dinner, too...if you want to come. I wasn't sure, since you're the president, but..."

     "You're asking for a double-date?" He grinned, those sky-blue eyes seeming to shoot right through my smile. I could only nod, and he laughed softly. "I'm going with Zachary. We'd be glad to keep you company." His smile turned fierce, but only for a second, and it was a startling change, given his angelic features and generally sunny nature. "Besides, I don't get the feeling you know a lot about this guy. I wouldn't feel right, knowing you're driving an hour to the city, with a stranger."

     "Thanks," I said, and I really meant it. He was right, and I should've known. If anyone can see more than what's on the surface, it's Quatre. Clutching the CD player to my chest, I slowly made my way back upstairs. At my room, I hesitated, then pushed my door open, peering in for a minute before deciding the coast was clear.

     So now I had thirty CDs, a CD player, a date for dinner, and the sinking feeling that it was too late to back out. But at the same time, a part of me was screaming that I might finally get a kiss...a real kiss, y'know? Somehow, the thought of a kiss, placed against eternal torment, still seemed like I'd be getting the better end of the deal.

     Friday afternoon, I had to work until closing at the bookstore. When I got home, it had been dark for several hours, but the house was brightly lit. The kitchen door squeaked on its hinges, and I pushed the door open to find four of the guys seated around the table playing poker.

     "Hey," I called, getting myself a glass of water before going upstairs.

     "Look in the fridge," Trowa said.

     "Why?" I grinned. "The green stuff isn't mine. Honest."

     "Nope, no fungus this week," Jake said, dropping two cards on the table.

     "Something white," Wufei added, dealing out another round.

     Curious, I set down the glass and pulled the fridge door open. There was a long white box on the top shelf, squeezed between Quatre's orange juice and Olsten's takeout leftovers. I glanced at the group around the table, uncertain.

     "The box," Zachary said, rolling his eyes. "I'll see your blue buttons and raise you three red," he muttered to Trowa. I ignored the rest, preoccupied removing the unwieldy box from the fridge.

     My heart was pounding as I pried the lid off the box, which was about two feet long, and no more than six inches high and wide. The lid pulled away with a whoosh and crinkle of tissue. I pulled the paper layers away, peeling them back to reveal a dozen red roses.

     Gasping, I lifted one out and smelled it. It was deep red, shading from burgundy into black, and the intoxicating scent was rapidly filling up the kitchen. I turned to see four pairs of eyes staring at me in astonishment. Their faces echoed the surprise I could see on my reflection when I glanced at the kitchen window. I could see my pale face, my wide eyes, and the thick-stemmed rose, its color as deep crimson as drying blood.

     "Do...guys give other guys flowers?" My voice sounded hoarse to my ears.

     "Sometimes," Wufei said. "If you're really lucky, and you're dating a romantic."

     "I like 'em," Zachary agreed. "Of course, I'm lucky to get a daisy chain from some people."

     Trowa chuckled.

     I was still staring at the rose in my hand. Finally I shook myself, and looked at Zachary, since he seemed like the most knowledgeable in the lot.

     "What do I do with them?" I felt like an idiot.

     Before anyone could answer, Quatre came flying into the kitchen. Jake and Mark were hot on his tail, along with Mike and Ken. Apparently they'd heard my voice; they'd been waiting to see what was in the box.

     "Flowers," I said, waving the rose as explanation. I gave them a goofy grin. Quatre's blue eyes were huge, and Ken's red hair seemed to be quivering in excitement. "But I don't know what to do with them," I added lamely.

     "Cut the bottoms off at an angle and stick them in water," Mike cried.

     The next thing I knew, twelve roses were scattered in various hands as the crowd in the kitchen took control of my bounty. Five minutes later there were twelve roses crammed into six water-filled beer bottles, two roses per bottle.

     Distantly bemused by the thrill everyone was getting from the roses, I sent Quatre with one bottle to leave roses in the living room, and gave Mike another bottle for the dining room. A third bottle stayed in the kitchen, with the fourth bottle for the small table in the foyer. The next two roses I donated to the winner of the poker game, and I picked up the last bottle to take it up to my room. The scent now filled the house, and Wufei was making choking noises while Zachary and Mark laughed.

     "Wait," Mike said, and I froze on the bottom step of the stairs.

     I just knew that was coming, and wondered why I hadn't checked. I turned to see Mike waving another note at me. Slowly I took it, flipping it open as I balanced the bottle in my other hand.

     ~ I searched, but even these can't compare to your beauty. ~

     This time, I didn't tell anyone what the card said, despite everyone's vociferous protestations. I just waved the note before tucking it away, and smiled, and headed upstairs. To hell with worrying about the consequences...fuck, I don't think my feet even touched the stairs the whole two flights.

     I don't remember what I dreamt that night. I'd like to say dancing and kisses, but I can't recall. I just know when I woke up, my little attic room smelled heavily of roses, with just the faintest whisper of cinnamon, mint, and wood smoke.

     I showered on Saturday afternoon, and took my time to wash and condition my hair thoroughly. If this was it, then it was going to be worth every second. I'd gotten up at eight, earlier than usual, just so I could listen to all the CDs while I did my homework. I knocked a lot off the list right away, but was stunned at the things I did like.

     I enjoyed the way Maria Callas could hit these notes that made the hair on my arms stand up, and then drop into a register than made my toes curl. The trance and house compilations seemed like something good to listen to on the way to the club, and the ambient was relaxing and melodic, with just the right amount of eerie atmosphere. The flamenco was haunting, and the Dixieland jazz made my toes tap as I finished the last of my revisions for Urban Architectural Design.

     I was humming one of the Johnny Cash tunes as I dried my hair and sat down to brush it out. It took about an hour to get every tangle out, since I hadn't even brushed or braided it before bed the night before. I had the leather pants and silk shirt laying on my bed. When I finished with my hair, I tried polishing my boots, but they were too old and battered. I gave up and decided that maybe no one would notice.

     By five o'clock I was in desperate straits.

     I wanted to do something different. I looked in the mirror in the bathroom, studying myself for a long time. My bangs are too long, falling into my eyes, but I wasn't sure how to cut them without looking like an idiot. And my braid...hell, I always wear a braid. But my hair's too long to let it just go. It gets into everything, gets in the way, and I end up braiding it out of sheer annoyance.

     My chin's still too pointy, I complained silently, and if I try to slick my bangs back, my face looks like a paper heart with two blue holes in it. I mean, really. Guys shouldn't have eyes that big, or that deep blue. I look abnormal, and my nose is too perky. I want a severe nose, something straight and stern, like Trowa's. Or like the stranger...

     I frowned. I still didn't know a name for him. He said I'd come up with something, and here I was, going to dinner and then dancing with someone who expected me to make up a name for him?

     Fuck, I thought. Why am I worrying? It's just like foster homes. Take it all in stride, and enjoy what happens now. What comes next is going to be worse. That's the way it works.

     Sighing, I headed back to my room and began braiding my hair. Maybe I could do a French braid, like Hilde did that time for our senior dance. I was so intent on trying to do it blind that I nearly jumped out of my skin when the floorboard outside my door creaked.

     There was a soft tap. I relaxed immediately. Whoever my strange date was, he wasn't one for knocking.

     "Yeah?" I called out, still a bit wary. The door swung open to reveal Ken leaning against the doorframe.

     "Getting ready?" He grinned at me.

     This was only the third time he'd ever knocked on my door. Maybe the first if it didn't involve telling me everyone was ordering pizza together.

     "Yeah," I told him, and lowered my hands. Man, keeping your hands over your head to do a braid is actually pretty hard. "I'm trying to do a French braid."

     "That's a girl thing," Ken said, chuckling. "Ask Quatre. He has a bunch of sisters. He'd know how to do it."

     "Good idea," I said, shoving down my discomfort at having my idea classified as a girl thing. Not that again, I thought. I'm not a shrimp anymore, and I do have some muscles...even if I have a damn perky nose. I stood up, nodding my thanks as I grabbed my brush and headed down to Quatre's room.

     Fifteen minutes later, I was seated on a wooden chair by Quatre's desk as he skillfully brushed and braided my hair into a tight, neat plait. Pulling it around to check the end after he tied it off, I was impressed, and told him so. He beamed, those sky-blue eyes dancing.

     "Too bad you don't have a black velvet tie," he said.

     "I don't need a tie," I told him. "The shirt doesn't have a collar for a tie."

     "Not that kind," he replied, laughing softly. "A hair-tie. This red band just doesn't work." He made a humming sound as he thought. "I know, Trowa might have one. I'll be right back."

     I sat there, puzzled as to why Trowa might have a black velvet hair-tie, but before I could come up with any theories, Quatre was back. He undid the red hair-tie and snapped a black velvet one around the end of my braid. Satisfied, he announced me acceptable and told me to go get dressed.

     Back in my bedroom, I slipped into the leather pants, quickly realizing that boxers wouldn't work. I undressed, removed the boxers, and pulled the leather pants back up. It was strange. They felt snugger than when I'd tried them on at the thrift store, and I angled around, trying to see how they looked from behind. I smoothed the leather down, and my skin felt like trickles of fire where my fingertips pressed the leather. I took a few steps, back and forth across my six feet of pacing area, and still wasn't sure. It was too late now to come up with something different, though.

     Then I pulled on the silk shirt, once again nearly shuddering with the sensual feeling of the silk brushing my bare skin. I pulled my braid out from under the shirt and buttoned the shirt, then unbuttoned the top two buttons, then buttoned them up again. I looked at my hands, noting the choppy fingernails where I'd chewed on them during an exam earlier in the week. I had calluses from holding a pencil for hours.

     This isn't working, I thought. I glanced out my little window. No one had pulled up in front, but it was still quarter to six. My heart started to beat rapidly, as the thought occurred that maybe I'd get stood up. What if my nameless stranger didn't show up? The whole house knew about the shirt, and the roses, and the CD player. Just being the house's 'extra person' on dates was bad enough. Being humiliated would pretty much end any chances, I thought nervously.

     I tugged at the bottom of the shirt, and unbuttoned the top two buttons again.

     I could see my reflection in the window, now, as the early winter sky grew dark. The shirt draped closely to my chest, and the leather pants clung tightly to my legs. I put on my boots, lacing them up, and stood up to see that the extra inch of heel was just right with the pants' length. I couldn't tell from the window-mirror, but looking down, it sure looked like my legs were long and lean.

     Imagine that, I thought, pleased. The pants were the perfect length after all.

     Car lights reflected off my window, and I shoved my student ID, house keys, and my allowance for the night into the front pocket of the pants. I figured I could spend twenty dollars, but if I drank water at the club, that meant I could splurge a little at dinner. We'd go dutch, I guessed, since that's all anyone did around me. And I'd heard water was always free at clubs.

     Squaring my shoulders, I went down to meet my destiny, six CDs clutched in my sweaty palms. This might be my last night to remember, but I could live with that. Or die with that, I thought bleakly. Just let this all be worth it.

     No one was in the kitchen, but I could hear voices in the living room. By the time I'd passed the dining room with its single table and eight chairs, I noticed I was walking differently. The leather was a little stiff, so I couldn't bend at the knees like I was used to. I had to swing my legs out, a little more, and move from my hips. It felt strange, but it made the leather caress my cock just right. Or just wrong, if I wanted to keep from embarrassing myself.

     Fuck, just what I need. More stuff to worry about. I slipped a smile on my face and strolled into the living room as though black leather and silk were everyday wear. I wondered if I looked like an utter moron.

     "Nice strut, Duo," Wufei said. Jake whistled, long and low.

     I blinked, and gave them both a shy smile before remembering my part. Bringing my chin up, I grinned and shrugged. Then I heard a voice, a tenor edged with a bit of harshness, followed by a soft laugh. If I'd been a dog, my ears would've perked up at the sound. I knew that voice.

     I made a beeline for the foyer, and stopped cold in the doorway. The stranger was lounging against the wall, facing me, but his eyes were on Quatre and Zachary as he chatted in a low voice with them.

     He was wearing a dark green tank top that seemed to ripple as his body moved with his soft laughter, and he had on black velvet pants that ate up the light but glistened at the seams. There was nothing left to the imagination with those pants, and I could see every ripple of muscle, the indents of strong calves, the curve of his knee, and the way his thighs went from slim to powerfully built. Not someone who worked out to the point of muscle-bound, I found myself assessing, but perfect.

     There were silver bands around his upper arms, and he had silver rings in his ears. His hair was the same chocolate brown tousled mess it'd been the only other time I'd seen him, and his jaw was smooth and strong. His fingers were wrapped around his upper arms, loose, but slender. I had a vision of those hands on my body and knew I wasn't blushing. At least there's one benefit of having all the blood in your body rush straight to your crotch, right?

     "Duo," Quatre said, turning and noticing me for the first time. His eyes went wide, and I could feel him looking me over. Not just once, but several times, and then his smile turned just a little predatory. I shivered, and glanced back at the stranger, who merely raised one eyebrow and then proceeded to undress me even more thoroughly than Quatre. He had blue eyes, almost as dark as my own, but ringed with silver. I don't know how I could tell that from across the entryway, but they were skewering me with delicious ease.

     Now I know what butterflies feel like, when that pin pokes through their chest.

     I swallowed hard and smiled at them, ignoring Zachary's raised eyebrows and appreciative glance. I liked it, don't get me wrong, but it was stimuli overload. I just filed it all away in my brain for enjoyment later, when the clock struck midnight and I was back to dealing with the consequences.

     Inside, I was suddenly laughing, though. This stranger had just given new meaning to the concept of fairy godmother for me.

     "Hey, everyone," I said, as nonchalantly as I could. "I see you've met Heero."

     The stranger gave me a quick glance, and I saw his lips curl up again in that little smile. Quatre looked startled, then laughed.

     "Oh, that's right, we didn't introduce ourselves. I'm Quatre, and this is Zachary." He smiled, looking sideways at me quickly. "So...where do you know each other from?"

     "A mutual friend," I said, and chuckled at my private joke. I was dragged to Catholic churches by one foster family, and that was my sole introduction to the concept of God. And God and the Devil go way back, right?

     Heero nodded at my comment, and I couldn't help but quiver at the way he seemed to be completely unflappable. Quatre was chattering on about something, and I quickly joined in, unwilling to let the topic move back around to my history with the mysterious stranger.

     Speaking of which, I paused to think, just where did I come up with that name, anyway? I rolled it around in my head, and decided it fit him, anyway. Maybe I read it in a book somewhere, but when I'd said it, it had a longer sound in the 'e' than just the English word 'hero.' Odd. I filed that away, too. I figured at the rate I was going, I'd have plenty to ponder during an eternity of brimstone.

     "Where did you have in mind for dinner?"

     Heero's voice cut into my thoughts, and I gave him a lazy smile. Inside, though, I floundered for a bit. Someplace nice, but not too expensive...I tried to think fast, and realized I hadn't even considered what to suggest. I had to say something, though, because if---

     "How about Tuscarora's?" Quatre was asking.

     Oh, shit. I'd been past that restaurant, and saw the menu. The entrees looked divine, but the prices were hellacious. I chewed on my lower lip, and was startled to realize Heero was behind me. I had no recollection of him moving away from the wall to come up behind me. His hand rested gently on my hip as he whispered into my ear.

     "This is your night," he said, soothing despite the edge of danger lurking inside the tone. "And it's my treat. Don't hold back. Enjoy it."

     "That sounds great," I said, my voice loud in my ears as I grinned at Quatre and Zachary. My heart fluttered as Heero put his hand at the small of my back, guiding me out the door while Quatre and Zachary gave their goodbye's to the guys collected in the living room. We'd see them at the club, I thought, and took a deep breath.

     Outside, the night air was chilly against my cheeks, but I didn't have a nice coat to wear. I'd looked at some at the thrift store, and decided I'd just hope we didn't go for any long walks on in the city. As long as it didn't snow unexpectedly, I could get by. But when Heero put his arm around my waist, I could feel the heat from his arm, his hip against mine, and warmth flooded my body.

     I had just registered the black convertible parked at the curb when Heero stopped me. My eyes were still on the four-door BMW, and the fact that the top was down, but somehow I managed to drag my astonished eyes back to the dangerous man at my side. He was smiling again, in that strange little twist of the lips.

     "There's one thing missing," he said, and ran his finger across my jaw line to my chin, and then down my neck. He rested his fingertip against the base of my neck for a second, and when he pulled it away, his eyes flicked up to meet mine.

     Yeah, his eyes were definitely dark blue pools. I know it sounds corny, but I was in deep and perfectly ready to drown. Idly I wondered if a kiss was part of the deal, and hoped suddenly that it would be. I swallowed hard as he produced a small velvet bag from somewhere. He pulled the cord, opening it up and something silver slid into his hand. It was a thick chain, with a dark blue stone pendant that caught the light like a star burst.

     "Unrelenting black needs something," he whispered. Before I knew it, he was behind me, and placing something around my neck. I could barely breathe as it settled into place. It felt warm, like it had been against someone's skin a second before. I automatically reached up to center the pendant in the hollow of my throat.

     Before I could say anything, he was unlocking the door for me and I slid into the passenger's seat. Quatre and Zachary climbed into the back, and I could hear Zachary asking about the car. I was stunned to hear my stranger reply, with what sounded like fluent knowledge about the car, its mechanics, and its performance. I had no idea the devil knew anything about the combustion engine, but I guess crooked mechanics would be in his purview.

     I started to wonder if I was going to spend the evening with a goofy smile on my face. The whole thing was actually pretty funny, in a bizarre way.

     When that conversation lulled, Heero asked me how my presentation had gone for Colloquial Architecture, and I chattered comfortably for several minutes before pausing to wonder how he even knew what classes I was taking. Oh, well, I thought, anyone who designed those horrendous pancake buildings in the sixties and seventies deserved to go straight to hell. So naturally the devil would know a thing or two about the kinds of schooling an architect has to have. For that matter, the devil probably had a special curriculum in hell consisting solely of building codes for suburban subdivisions and beginner's drafting classes.

     This meant, of course, that when Heero and Quatre started discussing international politics - Quatre's major - I could only laugh and join in. Politics would be the devil's first love, don't you think?

     Somehow I made it through dinner. I could feel Heero's leg against mine, under the table. He wasn't playing footsie or anything like that, don't get me wrong. It was just that it seemed like he radiated heat and warmth, and even his eyes warmed me to the core, every time he looked my way.

     I can't even remember what I ate, but I do know it was probably both the best meal of my life and yet the most forgettable. It simply dulled in comparison to the lively conversation, jokes flying fast and thick at points, then slipping into intellectual moments where everything we said just sparkled.

     Heero spoke what I think was Japanese to the young hostess, and French to the waiter. Quatre joined in, and Zachary retaliated with a few words of German. I don't know what they were saying, but Zachary laughed when Heero parried with something in German as well.

     I bet the devil has a whole stockpile of mini-dictators who spent their lives as high school language teachers.

     We got to the club just as the rest of the fraternity was arriving, but I don't remember much of the walk from the parking lot to the club. I only remember that I was blissfully warm, with Heero's hand clasped in mine.

     The line was short, surprising Zechs, who was chatting with Heero about the rest of the city's clubs, and the business ventures the club owners used to attract new clientele. I won't bore you with what I was thinking in the back of my head, 'cause I can bet you can guess by now.

     Who cares, I told myself. Like my stranger said, enjoy it. 'Cause, y'know, it never lasts. But that's okay. This one time it'll be worth it.

     The devil can also dance. I'm not that great myself, but I've never had much chance to practice. However, my stranger was also the perfect teacher, and the bass beat pounding through my body fit perfectly with his hips against mine, his hands on my waist as we danced, back-to-front. I leaned back into him, laughing at a funny face Quatre made as the deejay skipped a beat.

     I danced with Heero for two songs, until Zechs came over and interrupted, requesting a dance. Heero moved away to dance with Trowa, and I braced myself for the inevitable dimming of any glory. It took a few minutes for me to register that nothing had changed. Zechs had moved in close, and we danced against each other perfectly, his arms tight around me as I leaned back to let my hands swirl freely in the air over my head.

     A song later, Trowa tapped me on the shoulder and made shooing motions at Zechs, who glared but obediently danced off. I looked around for Heero, then, wondering if dancing with other people on our date would make him contemplate a worse fate for me. Then I saw him dancing with Jake, and halted for a moment.

     My night just went from bizarre, to completely incomprehensible.

     Y'see, it was like any glamour was gone. Heero just looked like any other young college student, dancing with a friend. His hair was messy, and his shirt clung to his body with sweat, but the mystical spotlight that had been on him when we'd was gone. He just looked...normal.

     I puzzled over this for a second, until Trowa pulled me closer. I decided the latest mystery would be one more thing to ponder, afterwards. Right now, though, there was a tall skater with his arms around me, and the beat was heavy and hard, and I could feel hips against mine, and a deliciously hard erection pressing against my ass as Trowa ground himself against me in time with the music. And believe me, I pushed right back.

     The silk brushed across my body with every move, lighting my nerves on fire as thoroughly as the feel of Trowa's long fingers gripping my hip and waist. Then the next song came on, and Heero was back again, his leg between mine as Trowa danced away.

     Once again the spotlight was on him, and I could barely breathe for his stunning, treacherous beauty. My heart was in my chest, dying for lack of blood as everything I had stayed right in my groin. My body was on strike, my cock rising up in protest at twenty years of neglect, and I didn't give a damn. Every touch had me on fire.

     Then Quatre cut in, and then Zachary. I danced with Zechs again, and laughed at his comments about some of the worse dancers we could see, twitching like road kill out of time with the music. I was startled when he leaned in close, asking if I was in a steady relationship with Heero. I told him I wasn't taken permanently, even as I squashed the thought that this was technically only true until the end of the night. Zechs replied by asking me if I'd save next Friday night for him. He knew of this great restaurant I might like, and there was a new exhibit at a downtown gallery...

     Then Trowa insisted on another turn, and told me he thought he'd never be able to get me alone again. I think my stomach had gone past cartwheels and moved into aerial dynamics when Trowa murmured in my ear that he wanted to know if I was busy next Saturday. Zechs is a good friend, he told me, but he was tired of having to share my attention with his friend every time we went out.

     I was still mulling that unexpected piece of news when the song changed, and Mark shoved Trowa out of the way and demanded a chance. Then he followed it up by asking me out for the following weekend. I said I was busy on Friday and Saturday. He insisted I save Sunday for him, since he could get tickets for the game. A friend of his works for the school's booking department, he promised. I said yes.

     There's only one way to describe it: it fuckin' rocked.

     I danced with Heero plenty of times, and I don't think I left the floor for hours. Every time I started to beg off and pull away, someone else was there, sidling up close, asking sweetly or hopefully for a little attention. Hell, I had no problem giving it. I know what it's like to feel ignored. Besides, this was my night. I don't know what Heero did, but I'd finally decided he'd put the glamour on me, not him. I was the irresistible one. When he danced with others, he was just one more guy, and he left the spotlight on me.

     And I wasn't complaining. Not one damn bit.

     We didn't leave the club until they closed at four, and I wasn't sure whether I was going to fall over from exhaustion. Then again, I don't know if my feet were touching the ground. They might've been numb from dancing for so many hours, or I might've been floating. It sure felt like I was floating.

     The designated drivers followed us to an all-night diner Heero had recommended. The top was down, and my hair whipped around and I couldn't care less. I pushed away any thought of what would happen when the night was over, and basked in the fact that I had social bookings for the next two weeks and the telephone numbers of seven more men hoping for the waiting list.

     It was a large crowd at the diner, and I have to admit, I think I was the star attraction. Heero simply smiled at me, that strange curl of his lips, and my heart fluttered each time. The only thing lacking was a kiss.

     When we got home, Quatre complimented me on the ambient music I'd brought for the hour's drive back. Zachary waved as he stumbled to the door, assisted by the fraternity president, who was still laughing at whatever joke I'd cracked as we pulled up. I don't know what it was, but it was witty.

     The two rental vans were back already, having taken a more direct route, and many of the house's rooms were lit up. The golden light beamed from the windows, a welcoming sight, and I sighed as I stared up at the house.

     "It was a perfect night," I said, turning to Heero. He was watching me again with that little twitch of the eyebrow that told me he was paying careful attention. I smiled, a little shy suddenly, and glanced down at my boots. Still battered, I saw, and grinned, abashed. "Well, mostly perfect. Never did get a good polish on these."

     "Did you enjoy it?" The edge was disappearing from his voice, it seemed, and the sound was silk in my ears. There was a rustle as he moved closer, his fingers drifting down my arms to clasp my hands.

     "Yes," I said, brightening, then remembered. "And I'm ready."

     He stopped, and I saw that little line appear between his brows. "Ready for..." He let the question hang, as one eyebrow went up, just a bit.

     I swallowed hard and looked him straight in the eyes. "Whatever I'm supposed to sign. I guess in blood, right? Or do you carry around a box that you'll put me in?"

     There was a long pause, and he just studied me. I was starting to get really uncomfortable by the time he spoke again, and his voice was lower, and careful, as though he were picking his words carefully.

     "Why would I want to put you in a box?"

     I gaped at him, then shrugged, ducking my head. "Some of the keep souls in boxes."

     "I do?" He sounded baffled, and I risked a glance at him. His head was cocked to the side, and he was frowning, faintly. "I have no interest in putting your soul in a box."

     "Well, then, you'd put it in something else, I guess," I said, trying to sound cheerful despite the fear building in my gut. This was it. Time to deal with the consequences, and he'd held up his end of the deal beautifully. I had no complaints, not really. I wasn't going to shirk my half. "But there's a contract, right?"

     He pulled away from me then, and brought my hands up, staring at them for a second before giving me a sad look. His voice was barely a whisper.

     "You think I'm going to take your soul?"

     I couldn't do anything but stare at him, then slowly I nodded.

     Heero sighed and kissed a knuckle on my right hand, then on my left. I shivered at the heat of his lips, unable to do anything but watch. After a pause, he raised his head again, looking me straight in the eyes.

     "I didn't do this for your soul," he said. His expression was patient, but there was hurt in his eyes. "I'm not who you think I am," he added quietly.

     "You're..." I frowned, and shook my head. "No, I said I'd sell my soul..."

     "I heard that part," he said, and gave me a wry smile, just a quirk of his lips, tugging at the corners. "That's why I showed up. I needed me, if you were that unhappy." He sighed again, and pressed his forehead against mine, an intimate, apologetic touch. "I am truly sorry. I never meant to give you the impression that I'd be so base. I'm...not the best at this, sometimes, but I try."

     "No," I protested. "You were the absolute best! You gave me this shirt, and music, and a CD player, and jewelry, and roses, and no one's ever given me roses," I babbled, upset to hear the regret in his voice, to see it in his face. "Well, no one's ever given me much of anything, and you were was a wonderful night," I said, words completely failing me. "It was divine."

     "Good," he answered, that small smile playing across his lips again. "That's what I was aiming for."

     I pulled back, involuntarily. "You' angel?"

     There was a pause, a heartbeat's wait, and he threw his head back and laughed. I could only stare at him, our hands still locked together between us. When he quieted down, he grinned at me, an open, amused expression that contained none of the danger I'd seen in him at our first meeting. It was a gentle expression.

     "Oh, Duo," he said, his voice soft. "There's so much more to this world than just those simple labels. But if you like, I suppose you can call me that."

     "I will, then," I whispered, watching his lips as he spoke. "My own angel."

     And then he kissed me.

     I'd say there were angels descending to the trees and singing hosannas, but I guess that'd be redundant. I remember he put a hand on my cheek as his lips touched mine, and I moved forward, instinctively putting my hands around his waist. His other hand slipped down to clench at my hip, right as he tilted his head a little and dragged his tongue across my lips.

     I am now full of more information, but this kind isn't useless. First, my stranger tasted different than a girl. I guess no lipstick helped. His lips weren't chapped, just rougher than silk yet strong and pliant at the same time. And his mouth...oh, my knees nearly gave way when his tongue touched mine. Girls' mouths are cool, but his was like fire.  

     We kissed for what seemed like ages, just lips moving together as tongues twirled and scooped and searched and tangled. If my nerves had been tingling before, they were positively doing the jitterbug in ecstasy by that point. I'm sorry I can't give more details than that. I only remembering thinking, this is bliss.

     When he pulled away, the streetlight caught his eyes, and I stared into them for the longest time. He was smiling at me, and kissed me a few more times on the lips, a gentle, slow movement that made me smile shyly in return.

     "I think someone's waiting for you," he said, and I turned my head to see Quatre slowly closing the door.

     I laughed nervously and ducked my head. "Yeah, I'm getting the feeling he's a little protective."

     "That's good," Heero whispered, and kissed me again. This time, I didn't wait, and opened my mouth immediately, wanting more of that divine touch. The smell of cinnamon, mint and distant wood smoke soaked into every pore, as my fingers caressed his velvet-sheathed hips. Finally he pulled away again with a sigh. "I should be..."

     "Oh," I said. His eyebrow twitched again, and his lips curled up, just a little at the edges, but I couldn't smile back. I guess these are the real consequences, I thought. "This is it, then..." I tried to look hopeful, and then realized I couldn't ask the question out loud. I could only look at him, memorizing every detail and hoping my face asked the question for me.

     Heero shook his head, just slightly, and smiled.

     "Close your eyes," my stranger whispered.

     There was a pressure on my lips, a final fleeting kiss.

     I opened my eyes.

     I was alone on the sidewalk.

     It's been almost two months. I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I'll never see Heero again, but that's okay. Magnificent beings that aren't just simple angels or devils don't really belong in the everyday world, but it's good to know they're out there.

     In the days and weeks after we went clubbing, I was surprised to discover that everyone's memories of Heero were slowly fading. The most anyone seemed to remember, if I pushed gently, was that I'd been seeing some guy from the town. Quatre, I think, might be the only one who remembers as much as I, but he doesn't say anything. It's just the way he catches me sometimes, with those sky-blue eyes, which seem to say he knows the deal and honors my secrets.

     I had a great time with Zechs, but a better time with Trowa, who cooked dinner for me. I didn't get any goodnight kisses right away, but I figured I could take my time. Mark and I had a great time at the game, but we've ended up just friends. And even though I wore just blue jeans and an old sweater when I went out, I could still feel that 'something else' I'd had that night with Heero. I've spent days trying to figure it out. I have theories, but I'm not worrying about it.

     I've had a full social calendar every night of the week and weekends, but plenty of times it's just hanging with friends. I don't count the number of people anymore, and don't feel like I'm the odd man out either way. I don't know why, but I guess I've just gotten used to being part of the fraternity. I guess I belong now, or something corny like that.

     I keep the necklace draped over my picture of Hilde, and sometimes I wear it for special occasions. The cool thing is that I've had a bunch, though the past month or so it's been mostly occasions with Trowa. Turns out he's an orphan, too, but has an older sister that he stays with over holidays, and she lives in the same city as Hilde's family. So Trowa offered me a ride home for winter break. Eight hours of uninterrupted Zechs made a face when he heard I'd accepted, but he bowed gracefully out of the running when we got back from winter break and were obviously an item. Plus, Hilde's parents like Trowa. When Hilde judged him acceptable, I knew I'd found a real keeper.

     Trowa's an amazing kisser, and has an unbelievable body. I'm taking my time, though, and he doesn't seem to mind. I'm still a virgin, y'see. But that's fine with me, because now I'm a virgin with options. And it's not like all we do is make out, though I don't complain in the least when we do. Lots of times we just hang out, laughing and talking. He's trying to teach me to cook. He's not made much progress.

     And sometimes, when we kiss, I can smell the faintest hint of cinnamon, mint, and smoke.

~ fini ~



Many thanks to those who reviewed, even those who threatened to duct-tape me to the computer until I finished the story. Believe me, people, I am not a lazy writer! Well, mostly. There's still that sequel to Creek that I haven't finished... But anyway, thanks to Hakumei, Perlentaucher, Seito no Senshi, Morgan, Maldoror, DeeEzBee, Firefaery, Suppis Tenshi, Zaz, Mikkeneko, RurouniTriv, Asuka Kureru, Arithkenshin, and to Casey Valhalla for beta'ing.