torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
February-December 2001 (January 2002)

Disclaimer: Although they are both pretty and well-behaved, I didn't raise them myself. Thanks to elynross for the beta, and Kest for reminding me that stories need to be finished. Do not archive without permission.

Not so much the heat

The windows were too small, so he ghosted out of the bedroom and down through the silent house, careful not to let the sand grit too loudly under his boots. When he came out into the square, the night air hit him more coldly than he had expected. Duo tugged his sleeves down and pushed his hands into his pockets. He walked away from the shelter of the house, out into the square where spilled wine had already dried and fallen flowers been trampled into the sand. This small desert village was closed down for the night, its windows shuttered and its doors bolted.

He crouched down and put his hands on the ground. The sand held no lingering warmth. The ground was mute and unyielding. There was no vibration, no secret, barely-audible hum. Sand, soil, rock, and somewhere deep down there was magma, fluid and hot and unsettled, a dangerous burning heart. No one had built this world. It lived.

Duo straightened up and walked slowly around the square, breathing deeply of the cool air. He rolled his shoulders, feeling some lingering bruises from the Gundam harness. Surface damage, nothing serious. He looked down at his toes as he walked. Somewhere, overhead, the moon waited. The chill began to settle into him, heavy as black water. Muscles tensed along his back, and his neck started to ache.

The silence was bigger than any silence he had ever imagined.

When he came back to the door he'd left ajar, Quatre was there, leaning against the wall, hands in his pockets. The soft colors of his clothes bleached out into an indeterminate grey, blending with the off-white of the wall. Duo didn't break his stride; he walked past, and Quatre pushed away from the wall and followed him, catching up as Duo left the square for a narrow street. They walked side by side to the edge of the small desert village and stood there together, almost shoulder to shoulder, looking out over the sand.

"When I first got here," Quatre said softly, "I was up for four days straight because I didn't want to miss anything. I couldn't quite believe it was real, at first. Then I realized it was more real than anything else."

Duo hunched his shoulders against a breath of wind. Wisps of loose hair blew over his face and tickled the tip of his nose. "I landed in a thunderstorm. Rain pouring down, and there I was, stuck inside a big Gundam-shaped lightning rod. Got half my sensors fried, but it was worth it."

The desert stretched out ahead, endless miles of empty sand. No houses, no factories, no hydroponics, no storage facilities, just bare ground that had never known cultivation. Duo took two impulsive steps out, and sank into the sand to his ankles.

"You can't really run in it," Quatre said, sounding a little regretful. "But there are other places."

"Yeah." Other vast, empty plains, like the deep-frozen Siberian tundra, where even the blast from an exploding Gundam had barely scratched the earth. Duo wrapped his fingers around his elbows and hugged himself against the night chill. He felt bony and cold to his own touch. "I guess we'll get to see a lot of them."

"I want to see everything," Quatre said. "I just wish..."

"Yeah." Duo experimentally drew a line in the sand with the toe of his boot, and watched as the wind slowly wore it away. He kicked at the place where it had been. The night grew colder. "It kinda sucks. I bet he never even had sex."

Quatre gave him an odd sideways look. Duo shrugged. Sand had blown in over his boot tops, and he felt it grit between socks and skin when he shifted his weight. Quatre's hand on his shoulder was unexpected and warm. "Let's go back."

They turned together and stepped back into the village, where things were small again, human-sized. This time, Duo thought he saw a thin line of light show under a shutter for a fraction of a second. Then it was gone. Nothing moved anywhere except for them. Their feet ground the flower-petals more deeply into the dust. Duo looked over at the place where the girls had danced before, seeing a memory of their sweeping skirts and bright smiles. They'd been awfully pretty, even if they'd all thought he was too young.

Duo slipped back into the house and heard Quatre close the door carefully behind them. He trailed sand across the floor and up the narrow stairs. Going into the bedroom, he went to the window and fastened the shutters. When he turned around, Quatre was sitting on the edge of the bed. Duo dropped down on the floor at Quatre's feet, on a pile of thick, worn, soft rugs. He looped his braid around his wrist, holding the tied-off part in his hand.

In the light from the one dim lamp, he could see that the rugs were jewel-toned, green and blue and a lot of fading red, like rubies in shadow. He leaned his head against Quatre's knee. After a moment, he felt fingers in his hair, stroking gently at first, then digging in, scratching his scalp. It felt very good. He sighed. "Do you want..."

The easy movement of Quatre's fingers didn't stop or change. "What?"

"Never mind," Duo said, and closed his eyes.

* * *

Quatre picked a piece of fresh bread from the basket, dropped it quickly on his salad plate, and cooled his fingertips on the water carafe. Condensation slicked his skin. "Ow." Maybe he should have used a napkin. The wind blowing up around the cliff sent grains of sand skittering across the tiled floor, but did nothing to lower the temperature. Maybe lunch on the terrace wasn't the greatest idea he'd ever had.

"What is this stuff?" Duo asked from the other side of the table, fork clattering against his plate. He'd taken a little of everything, as if he still had no preference. "It tastes so different. Kind of... buttery."

"It's lamb." Quatre picked the carafe up and poured water in Duo's glass, looked up, and met Duo's wide, shocked eyes. A slice of lime made a small splash in the water. The glass began to slip under his wet fingers, and he put the carafe down again.

"Real lamb? Real, used-to-be-a-live animal, actual meat lamb?" Duo looked at the chunk on his fork and slowly put it down. "I — okay. Okay."

Quatre leaned forward. He reached out and put his hand on Duo's arm. A wedge of sunshine fell across Duo's elbow, and the black fabric was almost as scorching hot as the bread. "You don't have to eat it. I'm sorry, I just assumed — there was meat at all the other meals, too, and you didn't say anything, so I thought it was all right." He looked at what was on the table, assessing each dish in turn. "This is just cauliflower, and that's plain couscous, and you can eat the yoghurt sauce, and—"

Duo shook his head. His unruly bangs spiked down over his eyes, shading them from view. "I just thought I'd notice it more. Eating meat. It's not what I'm used to, is all." He looked at Quatre, blinking. "You ate real meat on L4? Like this, all the time?"

Quatre stopped pushing the hoummos dish towards Duo's plate and sat back. He'd dropped his napkin on the sandy floor. He bent to pick it up, and when he looked at Duo again, Duo gave him a quick, it's-all-right smile. Shaking out the napkin, Quatre settled into his chair and hooked his feet around the chair legs, a habit from childhood. "Not all the time, but quite a lot, yes. My father supports several satellite-based breeding programs, though some stuff has to be imported from Earth."

"Yeah, okay." Duo took a bite of cauliflower. He'd pushed the meat to one side. "Most of the L2 colonies don't have the economy or the space needed to go that high up on the food chain, and no one can afford the imported stuff. There's a market for soy meat, but most of the stuff is lab-grown."

"Lab-grown?" Quatre stared uneasily at his own lamb.

"Cultured protein. There's a big flavoring industry. But I gotta tell you, the stuff they sell as lamb? It doesn't taste like this." Duo took a small bite. He looked hesitant at first, but then chewed with relish. "It's pretty good."

Quatre looked down at his own plate again. He moved a piece of deep-fried cauliflower from one side to the other, soaking the fried batter in yoghurt sauce. One time his father had taken him on a business trip to V47089, in the L2 cluster, and they'd had salmon terrine. Though he supposed it hadn't been, really. "We could have fish tomorrow," he said.

"Yeah?" Duo scooped up some more yoghurt sauce and poured it over the skewer of grilled lamb. "Sounds good. Listen, is there a toolbox somewhere I could borrow?"

Quatre shifted his chair back, and sand grated between the chair legs and the tiles. He could hear the glaze scratching. "There are tools down in the hangar, if you're going to work on Deathscythe. Just ask one of the Maguanacs, there's always somebody down there."

Duo shook his head. "No. I mean, yeah, but I was thinking something smaller. Thought I'd do something about that generator. It's starting to bug me that the lights go out when I try to read in bed."

"Do you like the books?" Quatre had reread all of them a little while ago, trying to see them as someone else would.

About to pick up the bowl of couscous, Duo paused to shrug. "I like the autobiography, even if the guy's weird. The train schedule's not doing much for me, though." He scooped more couscous onto his plate. "I need to work with my hands for a bit to make up for this life of intellectual leisure. Wait, that didn't come out right."

"Reza can help you." Quatre sipped at his water. "Find tools, I mean. But Duo, you don't have to—"

"I know I don't have to. I want to." Duo got a stubborn look about the mouth.

"I was going to say, you don't have to stick with reading just those books." Quatre turned his hands palm up. "There are others in the house. The third room to the left down the hallway from yours has a few book shelves. You might find something you like there."

He'd gotten a volume on horse breeding there a few nights ago, looking for something that would cure his insomnia. He wondered if he could add a stable somewhere.

"Okay. Cool. I'm starting to get into your choice of literature, though," Duo said. "Never knew there were so many different things you could do with a French verb. It's downright kinky, in an educational, grammar-obsessive kind of way. Any soft drinks left?"

"Some of the grape ones." Quatre made a small face. The collection of soda cans in varying shades of purple at the back left of the fridge was, if anything, growing.

"Why do you keep buying the grape stuff when you don't even like the grape stuff?"

Quatre stared out into the sunshine. In simple daylight, the sand dunes and the high sky were either overwhelming, if you took the time to fall into them, or boring, if you didn't. He thought about a beach at night, waves breaking with heavy grace. "I liked one once. I just can't remember what kind it was."

"Should've written it down," Duo said, unconcerned, and dropped his fork with a clatter. "'Scuse me, I just saw Reza go by, I'm going to go ask him about those tools."

Duo was off the terrace and vanishing into the shade of the house before Quatre could answer. Looking at the table, he saw that Duo had finished everything on his plate, including the meat, so thoroughly that barely a grain of couscous remained. He poured himself some more water from what was left in the carafe, but it tasted too much of lime peel now. Setting the glass aside, Quatre got to his feet and went inside, walking towards the kitchen, where he heard Duo talking to Reza in rapid-fire, crude, but idiomatic French.

Quatre went to the fridge and looked inside. There were nine brands of grape soda, and he picked one at random, not even remembering if he'd tried it before or not. Popping the tab, he leaned back against the fridge door and watched as Duo waved his hands in order to illustrate... No, he actually did know the French for a large number of hand tools. Quatre was fairly certain he hadn't picked that up out of André Gide.

When Duo and Reza went to find the toolbox, Quatre followed. He trailed after them to the utility closet, down the stairs, and into the generator room. "Good luck with it," Reza said, and left them there.

"Wow." Duo walked up to the generator and ran a hand over its side. "A jury-rigged Grensom 387. No wonder it keeps glitching."

Quatre sipped the grape soda. It was the wrong kind. "You've seen this before?"

"Oh, yeah. Waste processing on V08744 runs completely on 387 engines. Or used to, anyway. They got fucked up every two days and the whole system crashed and people's toilets flooded and someone would have to crawl down the...." Duo glanced over his shoulder. "This is not a story for right after we've eaten. I'll tell you some other time."

There was an overturned bucket in one corner, and Quatre went over and sat on it, drinking some more soda, even though it was the wrong kind. He watched as Duo opened up a couple of panels and began to pick tools out of the toolbox. "Shouldn't you shut the generator down before you do anything?"

Duo gave him a surprised look. "Everything in the house runs on this generator. Like the light in the ceiling that lets me see what I'm doing? Don't worry, we could never take anything offline in the processing plant, either, and I'm still alive."

When Reza had last attempted to fix the generator, eleven pounds of chicken had gone bad and seventeen Maguanacs had been up all night with diarrhea. Quatre nodded. "What were you doing in the waste processing plant?"

"Working." Duo thumped his fist against something, and the lights blinked. "Oops. Sorry. The smell put a lot of people off, so they weren't too particular about the age of whoever showed up to do the dirty work."

Quatre wrinkled his nose. "I spent a month on a beet-growing satellite," he offered hesitantly. "Where they composted locally instead of shipping to crude waste management, I guess it was a tax loophole. The air was so full of flies, they handed out breath filters at the port lock."

"Yeah? Icky." The generator hummed, lurched, and hummed more loudly. "What were you doing there, anyway? I'm guessing you didn't peel beets."

"No." Quatre stretched his legs out. "I was there to learn about tax loopholes. But I ate beets for the whole month. Every time I went to the bathroom, I...." He looked at his can of purple grape soda. "Um, do you want the rest of this?"

Duo threw a greasy rag at him. "Jeez. No. Really, really no. Get off your lazy butt and come over here and give me a hand, okay?"

"Okay."

* * *

Duo turned over, and turned over again, and sat up in bed. The sheets were wrinkly and clung to his skin. He swung his legs over the edge and sighed with pleasure when his soles found the cool stone floor. He felt sandy and salty and itchy all over, even though he'd showered in the morning and again before dinner. If he took a shower, the sound of the pipes would wake not only Quatre, but every single Maguanac.

The room he slept in was dark blue with night shadows, the moon outside the window nothing but a fuzzy sliver. He got up and pulled on boxers and a T-shirt. There was a stoppered water bottle on the bedside table, and he poured a glass and drank, and still felt parched.

He took two steps towards the window, paused, and went to the door instead. It opened soundlessly under his hand. Duo padded out into the hallway and went towards the kitchen. A faint smell of sage and mint lingered from dinner. He opened the fridge and stared at the contents for a while, until it started to hum loudly at him for wasting its chill on the warm night air. There were dinner leftovers, and ten heads of lettuce, and a lot of grape soda.

Closing the fridge door again, he wiggled his toes, now pleasantly cool. Duo put a hand on the back of his neck, lifting the weight of his braid away from the skin. The air coming in through the kitchen window wasn't enough. He walked towards the terrace. The door was closed, but easy enough to open. When he stepped outside, it felt like going to meet someone. Sand made the tiles slippery.

Duo went to the edge of the terrace and sat down on the steps, breathing deep of night air. Air wasn't just air here on earth, it moved invisibly in huge patterns beyond anyone's control. He loved the wind. He wondered if the people who had first built space colonies had been happy to have control over the weather, or sad. The night breathed, and he breathed with it.

Looking up, he saw a sky full of stars. He kept expecting the shape of a colony to block out the starlight. They ought to be sailing through the sky like crazy airplanes.

Duo shivered. It was too cool here, as his room, soaking up sunlight for most of the day, had been too hot. No climate control. Weather just happened.

He leaned forward with his arms on his knees, rested his forehead against the crook of one arm, and closed his eyes. He wondered if there was a real way of doing this, a common way, a way that everyone else knew. He wondered if there was a way of thinking about Heero without wanting to beat him up for every single stupid thing he'd ever done, from stealing parts from Deathscythe to blowing himself up.

There wasn't a whole lot to look at out here. The sky. The sand. The rocks. With his eyes closed, he could see Heero setting his own leg, and felt a lurch in his stomach. Duo blinked against the inside of his elbow, concentrating on the sensation of eyelashes against skin.

Right in the middle of the big silence, he heard music. It was soft, but it sounded close, and it sounded real. Duo listened for a while. Yes, it was definitely someone playing for real, not a recording. The music broke off and started over, the same bit repeating again and again, four or five times, before whoever was playing moved on to the next part.

Duo drummed his fingers against his leg. It was Quatre. Had to be. There wasn't anyone else in the house who'd start to play music in the middle of the night without worrying about waking somebody up. And the music was kind of pretty and kind of thoughtful and kind of unexpected. He rose and stretched, and looked along the house for a lighted window, but didn't see one.

When he went back inside, the music fell away almost to nothing. Duo followed the whisper of it down hallways where he hadn't ventured before, until he came to a closed door. He stood for a long time with his hand against the wood, listening, and then he went inside.

Quatre was leaning slouchily against a hip-high table, one leg propped higher than the other, violin under his chin. The music stopped when he looked up and saw Duo. "Did I wake you? I'm sorry."

"Nah. I was up. Couldn't sleep." Duo looked around the room. There were instruments everywhere, and he wondered if all the other guys played, too, if they had a Maguanac orchestra, maybe. The room looked planned, a place someone had made for a purpose, but he didn't think it was Quatre, and there was sand in the corners, dust on top of the cabinets. All the instruments looked expensive, and he wasn't sure if the neglect was deliberate, or if this was a place usually forgotten. The glass doors were open. "Doesn't this stuff get ruined from the dry air and the sand?"

"I opened the cabinets," Quatre said. He'd lowered the violin, and held the bow in his hand like he didn't know how it came to be there. "I thought I'd let them breathe."

"Okay. I mean, I don't know anything about this shit." Duo walked over to the far wall, where small blue tiles formed a flower mosaic from a distance, blurred apart when he came closer, and finally resolved into just tiny squares, one next to the other, seemingly purposeless. He looked over his shoulder. "Didn't mean to make you stop playing."

There was a pause, and then Quatre began to play again. The sound was almost too close now, embarrassingly close, like being in the same room with someone singing at the top of their voice. But something about the music itself sounded like the night outside and the way the stars seemed to reach down, like hands of light.

Duo stared at the mosaic and tried to imagine one note for each little tile, tried to think how it could be put together, if people could hold it in their heads and just work one tile and one note at a time, or if they stepped back, played back, tried to see what the hell it was they were doing. One of the tiles right next to the window had a crack running through it, and he thought if he poked at it, it would break apart and fall away.

He couldn't break the music, though. Or the stars.

* * *

The screen blanked out. Quatre narrowed his eyes, then shut down the comm console and got to his feet. He took a deep breath, turned, and ran for the stairs. The rock-cut steps were worn down to a glassy smoothness in places, and dipped in the middle. He wore rubber-soled shoes.

Quatre ran up and up, without bothering to turn on the lights. He kept one arm out, anchoring himself by brushing his fingertips against the wall. The light from the room below faded as he got higher, but he knew these steps well enough by now and just kept running, relishing the way his heart beat in his chest, the way his muscles pushed him up and on. He wanted to laugh.

Soon enough, the darkness faded to grey, and then light trickled down to meet him. At the top of the stairs, the door to the house stood ajar. Quatre burst out and ran down the corridor, dodging quickly around Reza, who was carrying a crate of onions and a sack of flour towards the kitchen. He smiled at Reza's expression of surprise as he sprinted toward the open terrace door. Desert heat embraced him as he went through the door and skidded to a stop on the slick ceramic tiles. "Duo!"

"What?" Duo, stretched out in the hammock, looked more than half asleep, but he pulled his sunglasses down to blink at Quatre. Then his face grew taut and his eyes woke up. "What's happened?"

Quatre couldn't stop smiling. "Heero's alive."

Duo sat straight up, and the hammock swung abruptly and nearly tipped him out. His braid wrapped around his arm like a pet snake. "You're kidding. You're not kidding. Who was the call from?"

"Trowa." Quatre walked over to the edge of the terrace, down onto the first step, and let the sun beat down on him. Even its relentless heat felt friendly. He tipped his face up and closed his eyes. "Heero's with him. He's all right."

Filtered through his eyelids, the sunlight was a rich, warm orange. Quatre braced himself with one hand against the nearest supporting pillar, so he didn't go tumbling down the steps when Duo crashed into him and slapped his back hard enough for a Heimlich maneuver before plopping down on the steps, sitting partly on Quatre's toes.

"This is great," Duo said. "I mean, this is really great. I didn't think there was enough of him left to fill a gum wrapper. We have to celebrate!"

"Mm," Quatre agreed.

"We could have sex."

Quatre chuckled. "We could have ice cream."

"Ice cream is ordinary." Duo whacked reprovingly at Quatre's knee. "We had ice cream for dessert last night. There has to be a better way to celebrate someone coming back from the dead."

Quatre pretended to think for a moment. "Easter?" He opened his eyes and leaped backwards out of reach of Duo's much harder whack, smiling, holding up his hands in a peacemaking gesture. "It was just a suggestion."

"You're a heathen infidel unbeliever," Duo said, tugging at his collar and flopping back into the shade. He looked upside down at Quatre. "Anything fun coming up on the satellites?"

"I don't know, I could check. Or we could just take out one of the planes and see if we can find something."

"Or," Duo said, and his grin widened dangerously, "you could let me fly the chopper." He jumped to his feet, lithe as an acrobat. "C'mon, it'll be fun."

Quatre hesitated for a moment, remembering Rashid's comments the last time Duo had taken the chopper out. Then he smiled. Duo was a very good pilot. Rashid would just have to learn to live with it. "I'll meet you down there in two minutes."

"All right!" Duo pumped his fist in the air and took off, braid streaking behind him like a vapor trail. Quatre smiled at the sun. He stretched, pushing his arms out and rolling his neck, then went back into motion, detouring past the kitchen before going down to look for Duo in the hangar.

The sound of rotor blades cutting the air grew louder and louder, and Quatre came out onto the hangar floor to see that Duo had already been cleared for takeoff; the exit ramp was down, and he could see the sky waiting for them. Lengthening his stride, he ducked in low and shielded his face against the wave of air as he slung the bag he was carrying at Duo's feet and jumped in beside him. "Let's go!"

"Shut the door, you moron," Duo yelled back with a huge smile.

Just as they took off, Quatre caught sight of Rashid coming out of a door at the back of the hangar. He waved cheerfully.

Duo liked to fly low, almost skimming the sand dunes, but he pulled them up higher as he picked up speed. It was a beautiful day. Quatre pulled on a headset and started scanning radio frequencies. He picked up news broadcasts and talk shows, sporting goods commercials, pop music and gardening tips. Switching frequencies, he heard camel herders yell at each other about oases and a commercial pilot reminding her husband to buy groceries. "No one's talking about the weather."

Duo shrugged. "I just want to go to the sea. I like it there." He jerked an elbow at Quatre's bag. "Don't tell me you brought grape soda, okay?"

They went on in silence for a while. Duo held off on the wilder flying acrobatics. The sky was so clear, it looked polished, like thin blue glass. Quatre saw that one of Duo's black sleeves was starting to fray. A loose thread hung forward over the back of Duo's hand. Quatre tugged absently at his own sleeves. He looked down at the sand and rock and emptiness. This land hid its people well, and was slow to show its beauty.

Gradually, they left the sand behind for salt flats, and the salt flats behind for land that knew the touch of water. When Quatre saw a strip of green and blue ahead, he touched Duo's arm and nodded to the left. There was a flat expanse of thinly sanded rock, and Duo put the chopper down, sending the sand whirling before the rotor blades slowly powered down.

Quatre jumped out, and swung the bag out after himself. It hit him on the shin. His ears popped, and in the new silence, he could hear the sea. It sounded different here. He walked towards the water, and Duo trailed after him. Quatre lifted the bag high enough to unzip it, plunged his hand in, and pulled out a can. He tossed it to Duo. "Catch!"

Duo caught it overhand and looked as though he were thinking about tossing it right back. Then he looked. "Lemon raspberry! I think I love you."

"If I give you chocolate ice cream, will you know for sure?" Quatre scrambled down the short, steep slope to the beach and leaned against a scraggly olive tree. The water crinkled like fine silk under a slow warm wind, and the waves that made it to shore were long and low.

Jumping down next to him, Duo plopped down in the sand and shaded his eyes with one hand, looking out at the sea. "Doesn't look like there's a storm coming."

"We'd get sand in the ice cream." Quatre sat down, too, and dug the ice cream carton out of the bag, testing it with one hand. Still cold and not too squishy. "I've only got one spoon." Duo just grinned at him. "You do know that ice cream is made from real milk from real cows? Ow!"

They took turns with the spoon, elbowing each other now and then for possession. Chocolate ice cream with chocolate chunks, without sand, went well with a beach and the sound of waves, too. Quatre fished out his own soda can from the bag and popped it open. Grape. Still the wrong kind, the one with the little purple bug logo. He was starting to like it.

"We should get off our asses," Duo said, scraping up the last ice cream.

"We just got here." Quatre leaned back against the tree and drank with his eyes closed. A little grape soda ran down his chin.

"No. Yeah. I mean, with the missions and stuff. We've been taking it way too easy." Dropping the spoon, Duo licked his fingers. "Sitting around, doing too little, not having sex, all that stuff. Seriously. We should get to work."

"I think you may be right." Quatre shifted. Despite all the ice cream and the cold soda, he felt a warm glow deep inside. "It's time."

"We'll kick their asses all the way to the moon."

"If you say so." Quatre chuckled. "If you say so."

* * *

art || gundam wing || e‑mail