by the Black Rose
AN: There are lines from "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" mixed into some of the dialogue between Relena and the waiter. Other songs originally featured as background music have been removed to comply with FFN standards. Originally, they included "Honesty", "And So it Goes", and "She's Got A Way" by Billy Joel (hence the title - a medley of music). -Rose
Relena charged into the locker room around the corner from the nurse's station of the Metropolitan Emergency Hospital. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest; she was only a few minutes away from meeting 'him' at the restaurant. She'd always wanted to try the little Italian place down the road, but she wasn't sure about the other part of the equation – her blind date.
The young woman tried thinking positive thoughts as she quickly stripped off her nurse's uniform and pulled on a red, strappy dress. It was a dangerous choice - if she didn't like him. He's a friend of Duo and Hilde's, not some stranger.
Okay, not entirely a stranger. She chewed her lip and then sat down to pull on her heels.
Relena blinked at her reflection in the window and adjusted the receiver pinned between her head and shoulder. Her friend had just managed to catch her in between her morning workout and shower.
Hilde's voice coaxed her through the phone. "Relena, come on, please? Just meet this guy."
"He's Duo's friend and just got back from overseas. He's kinda lonely. No family, no girlfriend..."
"I can sympathize, but—"
"Great!" Her friend's voice chirped. "I'll call Duo and tell him it's a go."
"I already made reservations tonight for six thirty at that little Italian place around the corner. Our treat. Just have a nice time."
"I hate blind dates."
"I know. And I swear, I'll never ask you to do something like this again." Hilde's tone turned pleading once more.
"I…I guess it couldn't hurt…." She forced a chuckle. "It's just dinner, right?" "Thanks, Rel."
"You're welcome. I mean, if he's a friend of Duo's, he must be…" Hyperactive. Flirtatious. "…nice."
"Yeah, me too. Oh, but Hilde?"
"What's his name?"
"Heero. Heero Yuy. Have fun, and call me as soon as you get back! I wanna hear all the details, k?"
She peered at her likeness in the mirror as she pulled down her long, blond hair from the tight bun it had been in all day. The nine hours of being coiled on top of her head gave it a natural wave that was, for once, pleasing. She flipped a brush through her hair, touched up her makeup, and dashed out the door.
A restaurant I've always wanted to try, my new dress…. I actually have a good feeling about tonight.
Relena could practically taste the marinara just stepping into the entryway of Patrizio's Italian Restaurant. And she wondered maybe if she hadn't been transported to another place and time. An old phonograph in the corner brought to life a woman's high soprano accompanied by a piano forte. The melody filled the air with a bittersweet and almost tangible sense of longing. Though Relena didn't know the language, the woman's voice spoke to the heart, and before long, the young nurse had to blink back tears or risk ruining her makeup before her date even arrived.
The kitchen door opened in the back, admitting two waiters into the dining room and the pungent aroma of garlic and oregano. Starched tablecloths adorned the few, round tables, which were arranged around a white, marble, fireplace along the far wall. A small space had been cleared in front of the ornate centerpiece, where a middle-aged couple danced by holding each other in a loose embrace and swaying back and forth. Before Relena could catch it, a small sigh escaped her lips.
"Signorina?" A voice pulled her from her thoughts. She pivoted back to face the maitre'd of the cozy restaurant. He smiled down at her from his perch at the front desk.
A man she hadn't noticed rose from the small bench seat beside the maitre'd. He stood tall and straight and wore a soldier's uniform. It didn't make an impression on her as to which one he wore; they all looked the same: distinguished, rigid, cold
"Are…You must be…Heero?"
A slight inclination of his head was the only response. His eyes were a dark, inscrutable blue; his features appeared healthy and tan. Light from the waning sun tangled in the natural highlights of his dark brown hair that should have been shorter than it was. His mouth held no trace of…anything. It was set in a severe line. He was like his uniform: striking, but unfeeling - a hardened soldier with no remorse. And she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, he had killed. Her blood turned to ice, and her heart picked up its pace.
"Signorina, you have reservations?"
"Si. Yes, the reservation should be under the name Relena Darlian."
"Ah. Very good. Please come this way."
She glanced over her shoulder to make sure her 'date' was following. Relena's eyes accidentally met his, and her feet forgot, for a split second, how to move. She almost stumbled into the host when he came to an abrupt halt.
"Will this be all right for you?"
"Y-yes. Thank you."
The restaurant employee drew her chair out from under the table. Relena sat down and looked up to thank him, only to find he was already running back to the front desk. Heero stepped behind her and finished scooting the seat up to the table. He sat down facing her.
She was…ill prepared for this. It had, of course, occurred to her that he was an Army buddy of Duo's - the obvious explanation for Hilde's statement about having just returned from overseas - but she had imagined this night being fun, flirty, nothing serious. But the man in front of her…
"So." She studied the white linen in front of her, darting glances up at him from time to time – but doing her best not to get caught in his stare again. Silence settled over them and she found herself fidgeting with her silverware. Just what could she, should she say to him? Not the weather, anything but the weather.
"Would you care to start with a bottle of wine? We have some excellent vintages." A waiter interrupted her deliberations.
"Ummmmm, I--" She looked up at Heero to see what he thought, but his face revealed nothing. And his eyes… They burned through her like twin, blue, lasers. She felt naked, exposed, and like he… Like he didn't want to be here. "I--"
"Yeah." Heero's voice, which she just realized she hadn't heard until now, rumbled from deep inside his chest. It was a soothing, masculine sound, and it would have made her feel more at ease with him, except he continued to stare straight through her. "The house wine."
"Ahhh, would you prefer…a bottle of white or a bottle of red, signor?"
The waiter turned to look at her, too. Her eyes found the tablecloth. "I-I would prefer… Perhaps a bottle of rose instead?"
"Certainly." The waiter nodded and rushed off to fetch their beverage.
Relena picked up the fan-folded napkin and draped it across her lap. She clasped her hands on the table. He was still staring. She forced a laugh. "May as well. After all, how often does Duo offer to buy dinner?"
Heero didn't answer.
She looked down at her hands. "So. Ummm, Hilde told me you just got back from overseas?"
This was positive. She had no idea what to say next, but at least he had answered verbally. "Why were you there?" Dumb question. Really dumb, Relena. "And, uh, where were you?"
Single word answers. She shook her head and smiled. "I'm not interrogating you."
One corner of his mouth turned up in recognition of her joke. "Hn."
There was a sense of humor in there. Has to be, if he's friends with Duo. "Are you home for good, or just on leave?"
"That's…" His brow creased into a frown. "…undecided."
An opening. Finally. "What's undecided about it?"
He glanced away. She waited a moment, thinking maybe he'd speak, but Heero remained silent.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
His mouth opened like he was going to reply, then shut without a sound. His eyes stayed on the floor. Relena found herself missing his intent look.
"Here we are. Our house wine." The waiter arrived back at the table and plopped the bottle and two wine glasses on the table. He spoke as he worked to remove the cork. "We have a variety of specials on the menu today…."
He's so…closed. Relena felt her heart deflate. Why won't he open up? Does he have something to hide?
Or is he just that used to being alone?
Relena shifted in her chair and scrutinized the man across the table. The uniform looked good on him, if a bit stiff and uncomfortable. Heero had an attractive profile, with strong cheekbones and a sharp nose. He had a small scar near his left ear. He seems like a strong person. Like he conceals himself, what he's feeling, and what he's suffered from the rest of the world. And he has suffered…
Since her earlier faux pas, he had stopped staring. In fact, he had ceased looking at her at all. She took a sip of her wine, and tested a bite of the bruschetta the waiter brought them as an appetizer. Relena swallowed. "Have you ever been here, before?"
He brought his hands up on top of the table and studied them. "No."
"Oh." It didn't look like he was going to give her another opening. "I was hoping you could recommend something."
"Ask the waiter."
"They're usually too afraid of suggesting something you might not like."
Heero glared at her. "Then make up your own mind."
Relena's eyebrows shot up at his harsh tone. She wasn't sure if she was glad he was looking at her again or not. She just couldn't say anything right, apparently. Maybe it was time to quit trying.
I can make up my mind. She frowned at her menu. I don't need some--
Relena glanced up; he was back to staring at her again. The attention made her cheeks warm and some of her irritation dissipate. But what was going through that mind of his? Does he really hate me?
"Are you ready to order?" The waiter was back. Relena quickly drew her focus back to the menu in front of her.
Heero motioned him away. "We need more time."
"No, I can order. Unless you're not ready." She glanced up as she said it, and met his eyes.
He cocked an eyebrow up as if she was somehow challenging him. That hadn't been her intention. "I know what I want."
He stared at her when he said it, and for a second she felt the world tilt beneath her.
"Signorina? You first."
"I'll have the lasagna, thank you." She folded the menu closed and handed it to the waiter.
"Il fornaio or il pesce?"
Relena blinked. She didn't remember seeing more than one listed on the menu. "Ummmm, which would you recommend?"
"It all depends upon your appetite," was the waiter's cryptic reply. She shot Heero a "see what I mean" look, only to receive a smug smirk in response.
"Il fornaio, please," Relena said.
The server turned to her date. "And for you, signor?"
"Spaghetti with meatballs."
"Grazie." The waiter nodded to both patrons. "I will bring the dishes very soon." He spun around and headed quickly towards the kitchen. Relena's eyes followed him for a few steps before catching on the single couple dancing near the fireplace. The last few strains of a husky jazz piece drew to a close, but the pair didn't show any sign of wanting to separate.
A new song began to play: something slow and gentle, and featuring the melodic chime of a piano. A second man and woman got up from the table two rows back and headed towards the dance floor. Another couple joined them a moment later. Relena smiled.
She glanced back over at her date and felt her smile disappear. She could only wish he would ask her to dance. Heero didn't seem the type. He was, truth be told, completely unlike what she pictured, briefly, in the back of her mind, in the very few moments she had time to think about her date throughout the day at work.
Duo had been something like the class clown in high school. Then he grew up, joined the military, and met his wife, Hilde. Hilde had signed up for a shorter tour of active duty, so she was already out. Duo was finally being placed on inactive status sometime within the next three months.
She had expected… What had she expected? Someone more like her gregarious friend, no doubt - with his sense of humor and easy-going nature. But she and Duo had tried dating long ago and things just didn't work out. They were better off as friends.
But she just couldn't, for the life of her, picture her friend and this man in front of her getting along at all – much less being best pals.
"Ah, here you go. All piping hot and ready for you." The waiter arrived and placed two steaming plates of marinara and pasta on the table. He refilled their wine glasses, asked if they needed anything else, then quickly went away. Heero's glare of death probably had something to do with the man's hasty retreat.
Relena cut into her lasagna and watched the steam rise from the still-boiling ingredients. She looked up to find herself pinned beneath a set of piercing blue eyes.
She cleared her throat and tried again to start a conversation. "So, how do you know Duo?"
"Ah. And how long ago was that?" Relena picked at her plate of food, hoping it would cool faster. Is "boot camp" one word or two? And how long are we just going to play question and answer?
"That's a long time. Are you very close?"
"Duo said you were one of his best friends."
Another non-committal gesture. The man was made of stone! She banged her silverware down on the table and leaned forward over her plate. "Do you let anyone in?"
He dropped his fork and glared. "No."
"Then why am I here?"
He dropped his eyes to his plate; she could only see the top of his head. "You tell me." Heero picked up his fork and knife to cut his spaghetti. "I didn't ask you to come."
"If you don't want me to be here—"
His head jerked up. Heero's forehead formed a deep scowl, his face had turned pale, and his lips formed a razor sharp line. "Don't put words in my mouth."
"Why are you so stubborn?"
"Because when you're on a battlefield, the weak-willed are the ones who die. You can't even decide if you want a red wine or a white one, so you compromised. But all I see is black and white."
She bowed her head. She couldn't look at those eyes anymore. They were..angry, hurt. But at least it was something more than blank. "That's the most you've said all evening."
"I don't have much worth saying."
"I don't think that's true. The quiet ones are the people that have the most worthwhile things to say."
Did he sound amused? She risked a glance up at him. Heero was eating again. Rhythmic, slow. She couldn't believe anyone in the armed forces could eat that slowly. Milliard gulped down dinner like every meal was a race. She picked up her own fork and poked at her lasagna. "For your information, I happen to like blush wines. It wasn't a compromise."
"And since we're on the subject, and you don't want to talk about yourself..."
He shot her a black look.
"I'm twenty-three. I work as a nurse in the Metropolitan hospital down the road. I have an older brother who's in the Marine Corps., and he's my only family. I work, I read – mostly classical literature. I'm not what you'd call a social animal, either. But at least I'm trying to make conversation."
She turned her attention away from the impossible man in front of her, to the couples still enjoying the small dance floor. A third set had joined the first two. They looked cozy and sweet together, and she couldn't help but envy them. Had she really expected…Had she even hoped that she and her 'blind date' could have ended up like them?
Yes. She let out a sigh. Yes, I did.
"Do you live with him?Your brother. At…home?"
"No. He lives on base. He has a wife and child to take care of."
"You live alone?"
"I'm sure that must get lonely. Especially when they transfer… Well, at least my brother gets transferred something like every six months."
Heero nodded. He took another bite of his spaghetti, and kept his eyes cast downwards. She went back to watching the couples dance.
The first one finally broke apart and returned to their seats. Relena watched the woman smile at her date as he covered her hand with his palm. Relena felt her heart sigh, and turned her attention back to her lasagna. Silence had settled over their table again, but she didn't feel awkward about it anymore. It just felt…nice to sit here with Heero.
He glanced up as if he felt her gaze. She probably blushed. Her cheeks warmed when their eyes met, and she dropped hers back to the table. His plate was mostly empty, but hers looked all but untouched. Relena could feel the weight of his stare and set down her silverware to grab her napkin; she dabbed lightly at the corner of her mouth then placed it back in her lap.
She heard his chair scrape against the floor. Relena's head snapped up. He stepped around the table and offered her his hand. "Will…you dance with me?"
She felt her jaw drop, and her heart fell with it. She placed her hand in his. His palm was warm, a bit rough, and just a tad bit damp. But his touch was comfortable and satisfying at the same time – like the sensation of slipping into a hot bath at the end of a weary day. He led her to the dance floor.
A soft melody swept her into its arms, or maybe it was her partner. Either way, as soon as the music began to play, she was lost.
He smelled of crisp, clean aftershave, and his embrace felt like it was meant just for her. She rested her cheek against his chest and listened to the quick pitter-patter of his heart. His hands brushed the naked flesh of her back before settling at her waist. He held her like she was a dream – with a delicate but desperate touch. He danced with a light step, as if it was something he did all the time. She wanted to melt; the man was full of surprises.
Now if only she could find a way to convince him not to let her go….
They had danced the one song, then returned to their lukewarm pasta, and companionable silence. Relena couldn't shake the tender feelings still lingering from his embrace. She wished Heero had felt it, too, but… His face appeared just as blank as it was when they arrived.
Her heart sank to the floor. She picked at the rest of her meal, but didn't eat more than a couple of bites. The waiter came and took their plates away. Heero frowned at her when she told the man she was finished.
"You hardly ate."
She pulled the napkin from her lap and placed it on top of the table.
"Are you feeling all right?"
She nodded. "I guess I'm just tired from work today." She kept her eyes on the tablecloth. For some reason, Relena knew that if she looked at him, he'd be able to tell she was lying.
"I'll take you home."
"It's okay. I can catch a cab. I'd hate to make you go out of your way…"
"I'll take you home," he repeated.
She glanced up and saw him staring at his hands. His mouth was turned down, and he appeared…was he disappointed?
Relena nodded and stood from her seat. "Okay, then. If you're ready…"
He rose from his own chair and led the way out the door.
She barely noticed the ride home; the night was beautiful, just a tad bit chilly for her sleeveless dress, but not quite cold. The sea of stars passed overhead, and lightened her mood. In the background, his car radio played an old song that sounded vaguely familiar. Relena was about to ask him to turn it up, when his hand reached over and twisted the knob. She smiled up at him, then leaned back into the passenger's seat and let the music soothe the air.
The melody was light and pleasing; a man's voice crooned soft lyrics about love, and the woman he loved. The song sounded as gentle as the breeze that kissed her cheeks while they drove with her window down. She closed her eyes...
Before she knew it, the car had stopped, and Heero was opening her door to help her out.
Always the gentleman.
The thought made her smile.
He walked her up the stairs to her flat on the second floor. Relena fished around in her purse a moment before pulling out a small keychain with only a couple of keys. She plugged one into the deadbolt, but didn't unlock it. Instead, she dropped her hand and turned to face her date – only she couldn't look at him. All she could do was gaze at his shoes while she spoke.
"Thank you for tonight. I…I know we kinda got off on the wrong foot, originally…. I didn't mean to say something that upset you." The shoes moved forward. She looked up. He towered over her, gazing down, those dark blue eyes still unreadable close up. Her heart hammered in her chest.
"I-I'm so—" His mouth caught the rest of the apology before she could utter it. Heero's lips pressed hard against her own, demanding a response even as his kiss robbed her lungs of breathable air and turned her knees to jelly. Her fingers clutched the fabric of his sleeves. His hands trembled when they gripped her waist. He wasn't made of stone after all….
He broke the kiss but still held her tight against him. Relena peered up at his face: Heero's eyes were clamped shut and his embrace bordered on crushing with every gasping breath. A warm feeling broke out all over, and she snuggled into his chest. His arms tightened and pressed her closer.
"I was afraid you didn't like me," she confessed.
"Is that why you wanted to leave?"
She peeked up at him again. The veins in his neck stood out against the muscles there. "Yes."
"The only reason?"
She kissed his jaw and then spoke in a low voice next to his ear. "Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?"
He nodded and after a moment, released her from his embrace. Relena smiled, took his hand, and led the way inside.
Epilogue – You're My Home
"When you touch my weary head
And you tell me ev'rything will be alright
You say use my body for your bed
And my love will keep you warm throughout the night
Well, I'll never be a stranger
And I'll never be alone
Where ever we're together that's my home" --Billy Joel's "You're My Home"
Heero clamped his eyes shut but couldn't sleep. He wanted to watch her, to make sure she wouldn't disappear, to stay here and protect her. It wasn't good for her to live in this place alone. And he would be certain to tell her that as soon as she woke up in the morning.
He propped the top half of his body up against the headboard of her bed and stared into the darkened quiet of the room. The peaceful rhythm of her breathing reached his ears and soothed him like a lullaby, but still his mind wouldn't rest. He glanced down at the young woman lying next to him and smoothed gold strands of hair out of her face; he tucked them gently behind her ear and smiled.
"What do you MEAN, you're not sure you're gettin' out? We're done. It's two years in the reserves and then we're through. Didn't you get that memo?" Duo stopped pacing back and forth long enough to yell at his friend.
"Yeah. I got it." Heero flipped the page in his book: The Secret Case Files of J. Edgar Hoover.
"Then what's your problem? Do you really want to die that bad?"
Heero shrugged. All he wanted right now was for Duo to go away so he could comprehend what he was reading.
The braid-wearing idiot (though it was much shorter than pictures from before they joined the Army six years ago, the hair on that man's head grew like weeds) snatched the book from Heero's hands and threw it across the room. "Man, shit. I can't tell ya what to do." Duo threw up his hands and turned around.
"Lord knows I've learned that much in the six years we've known each other. But re-enlisting?" He grabbed a chair from against the wall, spun it around, and sat down with one leg on each side. "We just got back from the fuckin' Middle East, where, I don't know about you, but it wasn't exactly a bed of roses over there." He cradled his head on his forearms.
"It was hell. Hot. I have sand in my shorts, and somehow, it keeps croppin' up in my bed sheets at home no matter how many times Hilde washes them."
That fell into the category of things Heero didn't need to know.
Duo shot up from his chair, pointing at something his friend couldn't see. "People fuckin' died over there. Good people. Both sides. I don't want to do this anymore! I served my time and I'm out. You should get out, too."
Heero closed his eyes. "And do what?"
"Assuming I take my discharge and get out. What, in your infinite wisdom, do you suggest I do then?" He opened his eyes and glared at his friend.
"You don't have someplace you call home?"
Heero didn't answer.
He looked away.
Heero crossed his arms.
"Not a single person that you love and loves you in return? Man. That's rough. You need a home."
"I have one." Heero didn't want anyone's pity.
"Not a dwelling, a home. Home is anywhere you have someone you care about." The braid-wearing idiot let out a sigh. "All right, well, you can stay with me and Hil for a while until you get things figured out."
Heero growled. "Duo…"
"Listen. Stay the month. If you hate it, the good ol' Army ain't goin' anywhere. You can come back, re-enlist, and go off to shoot down the bad guys, ok? But give normal life a chance before you sign it all away. Deal?"
Duo was…irrepressible when he had his mind set on something. There had been no moment of peace since that. Heero sighed, it was…sufficient knowing he had a friend that cared. Even if that friend was someone he couldn't—
Heero glanced over at the phone on the nightstand. Relena stirred in her sleep.
He didn't want her to wake up. She still had to work early in the morning. Heero scowled and picked up the phone. "Hello."
"He—Uhhh, ummm, Heero?"
He let out the breath he had been holding. "Hilde."
"Wh-wh-wh-well! I, uhhh, guess that answers my question about how the date went."
Heero cleared his throat and glanced down at Relena. Her breathing had evened out again; his fingers slipped lightly through her hair. "Hn."
"Is she awake?" Hilde's tone sobered and she no longer sounded like a fish trying to breathe air.
"Okay, well, tell her I called?"
"Yeah." He swallowed. He knew she had something else to say.
There was a short pause. "Heero, I've known Relena a long time…"
He closed his eyes. "You don't have to be concerned."
"Good. Well, then. Goodnight."
"Hey. Give Duo a message for me."
"Tell him he can stop worrying."
Heero glanced down at the sleeping woman with the long, golden hair. Her face was serene; a light smile perched on her lips. He didn't have to imagine the look she had when he told her he was thinking of re-enlisting.
"I've decided to stay home. He'll know what it means."
Heero hung up the phone and sank back into the covers. He wrapped one arm around Relena's waist, drew her close, and drifted off to sleep.
Home is just another word for you.