The Beginning's End + Part 2 (cont)

I shrug. "Some," I reply. "I had to learn to do it right."

"I bet," Duo replies wryly. "Who paid for all this practice?"

I chuckle. "Relena," I say. Funny, I never noticed it before, but that names sounds evil. Like a disease or something. I say it again, drawing it out, feeling a gloomy relish in mouthing the distasteful syllable. "Ree-leee-naah."

Duo raises an eyebrow at me. He’s always been able to do that. I never could - they both go up.

"It’s on a tab," I clarify. "To be sent to the Palace, care of the Queen."

"Does Relena know she’s paying for you to get ass-drunk?" Trowa asks over Duo’s chuckle.

I scowl at him again. What’s wrong with him tonight?

"What’s wrong with you tonight?" I demand belligerently.

Trowa scowls back at me and opens his mouth to reply. Duo lays a restraining hand on his arm. "Nothing, Hee-kun," he tells me calmly. "He was just…sleeping when we got the call. He didn’t get much sleep last night, so he’s a little cranky about being woken up."

"I’m not cranky," Trowa mutters - crankily.

‘The call?" I ask, ignoring Trowa.

Duo hesitates, looking away from me. I peer suspiciously at him I didn’t spend so much time with him during the war and at boarding schools and so on without learning to tell when Duo Maxwell is trying to avoid something.

"What call?" I press.

"Relena called us," Duo finally tells me, reluctantly. "She said you left mad and hadn’t come back and…"

"Bitch!" I shout again, this time at the top of my lungs. "I slip the leash for fifteen minutes and she’s calling my friends asking where I am? What am I, ten years old?" I jump up, intent on rushing out of the bar, running back to the palace and waking Relena up to tell her a thing or seven about herself. I’ll start with her bad attitude, and go from there.

My mission is foiled again, though, this time by the floor. It must be poorly maintained at this hole-in-the-wall bar, because something weird happens to it when I put my full weight onto it. Maybe the tiles or the boards beneath them are rotting; all I know is that as I stand up, it suddenly and inexplicably moves, knocking me off balance and sending me crashing to the ground.

"Damn you, Floor!" I bellow, struggling to sit up as I stare at the chipped and dirty tiles with all the intense hatred I now feel for them. "Mission Failure!"

"What are you talking about, man?" Duo asks as he bends over and pulls me up. He deposits me back in my chair and fusses over me, making disgusted noises as he dabs inefficiently at spots on my shirt that are the souvenirs of my battle with the demon floor.

Trowa sighs, shaking his head as he looks at me. After a moment, a reluctant smile crosses his face. "You’re starting to worry me, Hee-chan," he tells me in an amused tone, using Duo’s favorite nickname for me. "First you were babbling on about the ceiling, now the floor. Are you leaving the Preventers and becoming an architect?"

I’d started to smile at him, relieved that he seemed to be leaving his grumpy mood behind. When he mentions my earlier mission, though, I gasp in shocked remembrance. How could I have forgotten? The ceiling - it’s still there, waiting for justice!

It must be the floor. It’s using the ceiling for its own selfish purposes - it doesn’t want the ceiling to get its just due. Damn floor!

"My mission!" I shout, trying to jump to my feet again. This time I’m foiled by Duo, who unceremoniously shoves me back down as I try to rise. He’s not gentle about it either.

I glare at him. "You hurt my butt," I accuse, shifting in my chair.

Duo starts to laugh, and within seconds he’s howling. He drops into a chair himself and lowers his head into his hands, shoulders shaking. Even Trowa chuckles, the skin by his eyes crinkling as he grins at me.

I laugh too. Noone can resist Duo’s laugh, and I’m fascinated by Trowa’s. You don’t often hear Trowa laugh, even now. He looks really…nice. He looks…young. Trowa never looked young - he’s always been the oldest of us. That makes me sad. Trowa deserves a chance to be young. Trowa deserves a lot. He’s…well, he’s…

He’s noticed me staring at him, I guess, because his grin fades. "Well, Heero, are we done?" he asks, in a seeming reversion to his cranky mood. There’s no heat behind the words this time, though.

I shake my head firmly. "The mission," I remind them. "It must be accomplished."

Duo grunts in exasperation. "Forget missions, Heero," he advises, straightening up in his seat. "You don’t need them anymore."

I stare at him, unable to find words. Forget missions? Has even Duo forgotten - forgotten the importance of the mission? Without one, you are nothing. There is no focus, no direction…no need for a soldier who has no mission.

After a moment during which I stare into Duo’s eyes, willing him to remember, he groans and breaks the stare. "Hee-kun, you’re making me tired," he groans. "Why don’t we just have our drink and go home."

Our drink! Instantly, my dismay at Duo’s seeming lack of remembrance vanishes. Here is another mission - teach Duo and Trowa the proper tequila ritual!

"Ok," I say, draping my elbows on the table. "First, you fill the shot glasses with the tequila."

"Got that part," Duo says, firmly taking the bottle out of my hand and filling the glasses with the pale yellow liquid.

"Then, you lick the back of your non-dominant hand, here," I continue, suiting the action to the word, wetting the back of my hand between my thumb and my wrist with my tongue.

"I’m not licking my hand," Trowa states flatly.

I scowl at him, again. It doesn’t have any effect. Duo nudges him with an elbow. "Just do it," he says softly. "Make him happy."

"Yeah!" I growl. "Make me happy."

Duo looks slightly startled. Apparently, he’s forgotten a lot lately. He’s forgotten the importance of missions - I push this thought away before it can dim my mood again - and he’s also forgotten how good my hearing is.

Trowa rolls his green eyes but acquiesces, licking his hand in the proper place.

"Now you sprinkle salt on the wet spot," I go on, beginning to feel the excitement of a plan falling into place.

I hand them the salt shaker and they do so, Trowa very pointedly not saying anything in the very loud way that only Trowa can.

"You take the shot glass in the opposite hand from the one you licked," I instruct, lifting my glass, "And hold the lemon slice between your thumb and index finger of the salted hand."

Rather tentatively they comply, looking at me expectantly, just waiting to be informed of the rest of the ritual. I beam at them, pleased that they will be performing this ceremonial act with me.

"Quit smirking, and move it," Trowa orders tersely.

He’s eager to experience the rest of the ritual. I nod quickly in understanding. "Ok, now. The process is lick, slam, suck."

"Well, isn’t that special," Duo drawls. "Right here in the bar, Hee-chan? What will the waitress think?"

I snort impatiently at him. "No, baka. Lick, you lick up the salt on your hand; slam, you swallow the drink; suck, you suck on the lemon. Got it?"

They nod, and Trowa begins to move his head toward his hand. "Wait!" I shout, stopping him mid-motion.

"What?" he barks.

"There needs to be a toast," I remind him.

His loud sigh is partially drowned out by Duo’s question. "What do you want to drink to, Hee-chan?"

I stop for a moment, to think. This is an important part of the ritual, I have been assured. The men at the bar - those who taught me this ceremony - drank to women, to the desired disappearance of jobs and bosses, to money, to me for buying drinks, to each other…But this needs to be better. This can not be a wasted toast.

I have it. I raise my head. "Ok, I toast, then we perform the ritual together. Got it?" They nod, and I lift my glass.

"To endings!" I cry loudly. I perform the ritual, relishing the different sensations - the saltiness, the shock of the liquid fire that is the alcohol, followed by the cold sourness of the lemon. I like this ritual because it is like battle - you fight the enemy one way, then confound them with something completely different and unexpected, then completely demolish them by concluding with yet another unforeseen attack. Predictability is the greatest enemy of the attacker, complacency the strongest foe of the attacked.

I slam my shot glass down on the table, blinking as the liquid burns a path to my belly. Duo’s glass follows mine, then Trowa’s.

"That’s rank!" Trowa sputters, wiping his mouth in disgust.

"You paid money for that?" Duo demands, continuing to suck on his lemon.

I grin at them. "You’re both making tequila faces," I say sagely. "That’s a sign of weakness."

"Oh, really?" Duo bristles, responding to unspoken challenge. "Well, let’s just try this again, Mr. Tequila Stud, and we’ll see who’s weak." He lifts the bottle, and begins to refill each glass.

"Hold on," Trowa demands, leaning forward to stop Duo. "We agreed, one drink and then…"

"We need to do another one anyway," Duo interrupts. "We’re not ending the night with a toast like that. ‘To endings?’ What kind of crap is that, Heero?"

"It’s not crap," I mutter, staring at the table. The lighting in this bar is so strange. They must have one of those old strobe light things, that makes objects appear to move of their own volition. The table seems to be moving up and down, closer and further away from me. I smack it with my hand in irritation, trying to get it to stop.

"Heero!" I jump, startled, and look up. Yup, definitely the light. Duo’s doing the same thing.

"The last thing he needs is another drink." Trowa’s voice seems to be coming from farther away than it should be. I frown at him, confused. Maybe it’s a trick he learned in the circus, throwing his voice. An odd time to be practicing his act, though.

"One more," Duo says firmly, pressing the glass into my hand. "We need to do another toast."

I ready myself for the ritual, and stare expectantly at Duo, waiting for his toast. "Here we go, Hee-chan," he says, staring at me intently. "This one is for new beginnings - what always follows endings."

I sneer at his chintzy toast, but perform the ritual anyway. I slam my glass down on the table and stare intently at the rings of wetness on the grimy surface of the wood. Damn lighting - the table looks like it’s moving again, coming closer and closer and….

Ouch! What is it, a damn earthquake?! How did this happen?! I feel the wood under my cheek, the hard surface, wet from beer and tequila and lemon, pressing against my face. I brace myself, waiting for more tremors.

"Heero? What are you doing? Are you awake?" Duo’s voice. Why isn’t he heading for safety?

"It’s an earthquake, baka," I mutter into the table. "Go to a doorway. Safest place."

I hear a low rumbling sound. Must be a pretty bad one. A moment later, Duo has grabbed my arm and pulled me up. That’s Duo for you - always thinking of his friends before himself.

"Don’t worry about me!" I insist, pushing at him. "Save yourself!"

"There’s no earthquake, Heero," he assures me, pulling me to my feet and sliding my arm over his shoulders. "You are just stinking-ass drunk, my friend."

"I am not!" I protest, trying to pull away. I don’t succeed, and my efforts are further hampered when Trowa moves to my other side, pulling my free arm over his shoulders.

"Yes you are," Duo disagrees, as he and Trowa shepherd me outside and into their car. "It’s ok, it happens to everyone once in a while. We’re going to take you home, and you’ll sleep it off, and be fine in the morning."

"Where are you taking me?" I demand, clutching Trowa’s shirt as they deposit me in the backseat.

"Home," he says quietly. "To the palace, to your bed, so you can sle-"

"Forget it!" I shout, shoving at him. "Lemme outta this car! I refuse to go back to that place…"

"Heero!" Duo bellows. He’s come in the other door and is sitting next to me, on the seat. He reaches out and takes my chin in his hand and stares intently into my eyes. Their car is parked right under a street light, so I can see him pretty clearly. "What’s wrong?"

I can see the concern in his violet eyes. I feel a strange pain in mine, like I’ve gone too long without blinking. "I don’t want to go to the palace," I say lamely.

"This isn’t like you," Trowa says softly from my other side. I turn to look at him. He’s crouching in the open door, and his head is actually lower than mine. The same expression that was in Duo’s violet eyes are in his intense green ones. "What’s happened, Heero? What’s got you so upset?"

I stare back at him, trying to formulate an answer. "Relena," I finally reply succinctly.

He makes a sound that might have been a laugh, but that is distinctly lacking in humor. "I see," he says slowly. He looks past me, and I know he’s looking at Duo. They’re doing it again, I know they are, the talking without words thing. I feel a pang of jealousy so sharp that it actually physically hurts. I wish I knew which of them I was jealous of.

"Ok, Heero," Trowa says, unaware of my inner turmoil. "Why don’t you come sleep on our couch tonight? It’s a fold-out and they’re always amazingly uncomfortable, but it’s better than the table in the bar."

I turn my head, looking back and forth between them. "You don’t mind?" I ask uncertainly.

"Of course not!" Duo says cheerfully. "Now," he continues, drawing away and pulling me down into a reclining position, "just lay back and relax. It’s a bit of a drive, so we’ll wake you when we get there."

They move to the front and I feel the rocking motion of the car as Trowa pulls it out into the street. They’re talking, and I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the low murmur of their voices is so soothing, that I soon feel myself drifting off to sleep, feeling, for once, safe and protected.

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