Author: Sunhawk
Warnings : Yaoi, angsty-fluff, OOC, Heero POV, butchering of holidays.
Yes, I know this has nothing to do with ‘Ascension Day’, but I was thinking about the holiday when the song '99 Luftballoons' came on the radio and this is what happened.
Feed-back is generally well received. You know; I like it.
I still don’t own them.

Ascension

It’s odd. I am only here today because Duo didn’t ask me to come. I don’t care for these strange holidays and ‘group’ events; they seem a terrible waste of time to me. When I do attend, it’s only because my colleague has cajoled me into going. Not that I’d ever let him know that. God forbid Duo Maxwell ever figure out that I can’t say no to him.

And this holiday, a mutant mixture of old Earth and new colony traditions seems to be one of the worst. I truly hate it, and usually manage to avoid the subject with Duo until it’s too late, just so I don’t have to come.

But... Duo had not asked me this year. Had not brought it up at all, and when I thought about it, I had to admit that it had been some weeks since Duo had asked me for much of anything.

I found I didn’t much care for the feeling that realization had given me, and had made a point of coming out today. Despite the ludicrousness of the holiday. Despite the uncomfortable heat. Despite the yammering of Wufei’s children.

‘Uncle Heero,’ the youngest one tugs on my shirt tail, looking up at me with wide eyes and I have to sigh. Damn Duo sometimes; I’d had them all cowed to the point that they left me alone, until he’d told this one that I was only so ‘grumpy’ because I didn’t get ‘hugged enough’.

‘What?’ I growl, glaring down at her, but Duo’s reassurances had made her immune to my looks.

‘Where’s your balloon?’ she asks, all innocence, her own stupid ‘dream balloon’ clutched in her grubby little hand.

I grunt and glare some more, trying to win back my distance, but apparently what Duo tells his ‘little ducklings’ is to be trusted more than the rebuffs they get from me.

‘Leave Uncle Heero alone, sweetie,’ Sally calls, but only with half her attention on the child hanging on my shirt. She has the twins to contend with, after all, and there has been more than one joke in our circle that those two act more like Duo’s children than Wufei’s.

‘Ok Mommy,’ Sally is told, but I can tell just from the way she says it that it’s only meant to gain herself a reprieve from ‘Mommy’s’ attention. She has no plans of leaving me alone.

‘So... where’s your balloon?’ she says again and I sigh, folding my arms across my chest before she thinks to grab at my hand. But then, suddenly she is swept up, giggling the way the little monsters do, and her interest finally leaves me.

‘Uncle Duo!’ she squeals, and I watch as he juggles the child, her balloon, and one of his own without even having to look. He seems to truly love all of Wufei’s children and is very good with them; they all adore him. But he tends to spoil them rotten.

‘Hey short-cake,’ he greets the squirming bundle of enthusiasm as she plants a kiss on his cheek. ‘Are you making mischief again?’

She giggles rather predictably, but I find it doesn’t bother me so much when she is laughing at Duo and not me. ‘Uncle Heero doesn’t have his balloon!’ she stage whispers to him and I see his eyes sweep my way, but I don’t get the wink I am expecting, his regard slips away again and he is laughing at the child in his arms.

‘Now you know Uncle Heero never brings a dream balloon,’ he tells her and pretends to pull her nose off, peeking into his hand and looking theatrically disgusted for a moment.

The child... God, what is her name? Laughs with delight but doesn’t relinquish the topic. ‘Why not?’ She scrabbles after his hand and pretends to find her nose, slapping it back on her face.

‘Maybe he has everything he wants,’ Duo tells her, smile firmly in place, but voice... oddly wistful. He reaches up and pretends to turn her nose right-side up with an exasperated sigh and roll of his eyes.

She giggles some more. I find that I am smiling faintly.

‘But you never had a balloon before either, Uncle Duo,’ she says then, and looking right at them, I see that it catches him by surprise. For a moment there is an odd little pain in his eyes, but it is quickly gone, pushed behind his smile.

‘Did you know, you little monster,’ he tells her, completely ignoring her observation. ‘That the original Ascension Day wasn’t about making dreams come true at all?’

She squirms until he sets her back on her feet, looking up at him as though he is crazy. ‘Everybody knows you put your dreams in the balloon and send it up to God to make them come true!’ she scoffs at him and he only smiles indulgently.

‘Ah,’ he grins and taps her nose. ‘That’s what the holiday is all about now, but a thousand million years ago, people on Earth used to put their childhood dreams in the balloon and send them away, asking God to keep them, since they’d outgrown them.’

She blinks up at him, looking skeptical. ‘You makin’ that up, Uncle Duo?’

‘Nope,’ he tells her, his face getting that odd look for a second again. ‘And you only got to do it once, when you reached your sixteenth birthday and were all grown up.’ His voice grows a little wistful again, and his eyes leave the little girl in front of him for a second, his gaze and his fingers brushing across the balloon in his own hand. ‘When you grow up... and finally learn to stop dreaming.’

There is something in his voice that tears at my heart and I wish, not for the first time, that I understood these things better. That I knew how to reach out.

There is a quiet moment, while the child regards him with solemn eyes that could tell anyone who looked, that she was Chang Wufei’s daughter. Then she blows out a noisy breath and sticks out her tongue at him. ‘Yuck, Uncle Duo... that’s a creepy story!’

The look is gone from his face in a heartbeat and he laughs down at her, reaching for her nose again, but she darts away. She looses her grip on her balloon in her haste, and for a moment there is a look on her face of utter dismay, but Duo deftly catches the string and hands it back to her. Her smile is back so quickly, she might never have doubted him.

‘Where in the world did you manage to find a black balloon?’ a voice asks, sounding almost impressed. I turn to see Wufei making his way towards us, his eldest at his side.

‘It wasn’t easy, buddy,’ Duo tells him easily, reaching out to tweak the nose of the boy standing with his father. His move is neatly countered and the boy and Duo share a small grin.

‘Papa,’ the little girl is whining. ‘Uncle Duo says that the dream balloons aren’t real!’

Wufei looks to Duo, eyebrow raised, waiting for an explanation. Duo bops the kid on the head with his own balloon and gives her a mock glare. ‘What’cha doing, monster? Trying to get me in trouble? I never said it didn’t work, I just said that it used to be for something else!’

‘Oh,’ she says and seems to accept that explanation with ease, forgetting her near disappointment as quickly as she got over the near loss of her bright red balloon. ‘Is it time to let them go yet, Papa?’

‘Almost,’ Wufei smiles down at her, his eyes warm. ‘That’s why we came to get you, if you can tear yourself away from your favorite Uncle long enough to join the rest of the family.’

She giggles at him and takes his hand. ‘You coming, Uncle Duo... Uncle Heero?’ she calls over her shoulder as they start to walk away, but Duo gives her a little wave.

‘You go ahead,’ he says, and there is a quality to his voice that pulls at me, I walk over to stand next to him.

‘A dream balloon?’ I tease him and he looks a little sheepish, color rising to his cheeks.

‘Nah,’ he says softly. ‘More like... a letting go balloon.’

I glance at him, askance, finding that his fingers don’t want to stop caressing the surface of the black sphere in his hands.

I want to ask him just what he is letting go of, that makes his eyes look so haunted, but I don’t know how. ‘A historically accurate balloon?’ I ask lightly and it makes him smile for a moment.

‘Something like that,’ he says, but then is quiet.

He is acting so strangely today, I want to shake him and wake him up. I want him to smile at me and touch my shoulder. I want him to be... Duo, again. Not this sad, quiet person.

Before I can say anything more, the trumpet sounds that announces the count down to the balloon launch. I turn my eyes to Wufei’s family, clustered together, red and blue and yellow balloons clutched in their little hands, smiling and giggling at each other. I see Wufei and Sally exchange a look that I have to turn away from. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Duo watching them, and he turns away too, but not before I see that pain in his eyes again.

He steps away from me as the count reaches five and I see him bring the balloon to his face, nuzzling delicately against it, whispering softly.

‘Please God... take it away... it’s too heavy for me... just take it away.’

Then he opens his fingers and lets the thing slip away. He stands and watches it as it rises up with all the other hundreds of balloons, a dark black blot on the sky among all those bright, cheerful colors. He keeps his eyes tilted skyward for a very long time and I find that my heart is aching and I’m not at all sure just why.

When the cheering has faded a bit, and the balloons are high in the sky, I am taken by surprise when he turns to walk away.

He’s always loved the next part, the picnicking and the playing with the kids, I can’t help but call after him. ‘Duo... where are you going?’

‘I... can’t stay,’ he says, not elaborating, not telling me anything, really. Just... I can’t stay.

I watch him walk away, confused and disturbed, and suddenly I want to know just what message he sent to God. I want to know what dream he thinks he’s outgrown. Because the pain in his eyes tells me he hasn’t so much outgrown it, as given up on it.

I don’t like that look on his face. I won’t have that look on his face.

I turn away from the sight of his retreating back and my eyes seek the flock of balloons in the sky.

We’re on a colony. All airborne things end up in one place. I cast a last glance at Wufei and his family, they have not yet noticed Duo’s absence and I mean to leave before they notice mine.

It would take hours for those wayward dreams to come to rest... but I knew just where they would light, and it wasn’t in the hands of God.

I would know what message Duo had placed in his raven dark bubble. I would know what hope he has given up on. And if it was within my power, I would make things right.

I don’t like this ache in my chest, and nothing would make it go away until the smile was back on Duo’s face.

I would know.

+

I am a little bit ashamed to admit that I break into his apartment when he doesn’t answer the bell. His car is there and under the... odd circumstances, I am concerned.

When I do not find him there, I realize that he must be out walking. I know this is something he does when he feels he needs to think. He walks and he watches people and, I suppose, he thinks. I’ve seen him do it many times. So I walk. Without much thought, I head toward the beach, he’s always been fond of the water and I think the proximity of the ocean is part of what made him choose his apartment.

The beach is not completely deserted, despite the chill weather and the late hour, but I quickly ascertain that he is not there. I turn my steps toward the business district, thinking that he might have come out for dinner, though it is getting fairly late for that.

It takes me almost two hours of wandering somewhat less than aimlessly, before I spot him. There are more people up here on Broad Street; going in and out of the clubs and restaurants, and it is his lack of motion as much as anything that draws my eye.

He is standing outside a tavern door, looking like he might be preparing to enter, but just standing. It is another patron, politely brushing past him that seems to jar him into motion again, but instead of going in... he retreats and moves off down the street.

The behavior is... strange. It gives me pause, and makes me follow in his wake, at a careful, descript distance.

After a few paces, he jams his hands into his jacket pockets. I tail him for almost an hour, and he never seems to notice. That alone is a thing I find disturbing. Even while I am making up my mind whether to approach him out here or wait until he returns home, I find I can’t leave him alone. Not so obviously off-balance that he doesn’t note a follower, no matter that that follower is me.

I watch him approach another establishment; a restaurant, but he merely stands in the shadows and watches the customers through the front window for a while before moving on. His steps do eventually lead him to the beach and for a moment I think I will need to fall even further back, but he doesn’t seem to be noticing much of anything and I dare close in a little.

It is almost full dark now, the hour very late. The beach is quite chill and we are completely alone on it. He, at the water’s edge and I at the sand’s. He has only to turn around to see me, but he doesn’t, simply standing and watching the wind drive the water to shore. After a moment, he leans over and sifts his fingers through the sand. When he straightens, there is the faint rattle of stone against stone. Another moment and one of the stones flies through the dark and there is the distant sound of a splash. His next toss is a little harder and the splash takes a bit longer to reach my ears.

I squat down and find my own rock, and when he lets fly with his third toss, I toss as well. Out on the water there is the sound of twin splashes. Duo stiffens and holds very still, as though listening. The fourth stone arcs out, almost in an experimental manner. This time, when the two stones plunk down together, he whirls around and finally sees me.

It is difficult in the dim light from the few street lights, too really see his expression. I think there is a moment of... happiness, when he first sees me, but then that clouded, wistful look is back.

I find I seriously do not like that look.

I expect him to speak; to walk up the beach toward me, but he just stands with his head cocked slightly to the side. As though making up his mind if I’m real or not.

So I walk down to join him. ‘You’re terribly distracted,’ I tell him, somewhat unnecessarily.

I think he blushes, but I’m not sure. ‘I thought I was hearing things,’ he mumbles, ducking his head.

‘Damn good thing I wasn’t an assassin,’ I say, trying to tease, but I quickly see it was a mistake.

He frowns; turning away to toss the rest of his handful of stones into the water, then dusts his hands off and jams them back in his pockets. ‘So assassinate me already,’ he growls and begins to walk away.

I hadn’t taken into consideration how upset he was, though I suppose I should have. It takes me a second of watching him climb to the sidewalk before I follow and fall into step beside him.

‘Want to tell me what’s bothering you?’ I ask softly and get a surprised little grunt.

He looks... chagrined. Pulling a hand out of his pocket, he rubs it absently over his face. ‘I’m sorry, Heero,’ he tells me wearily.

I grunt in reply and wait, but he doesn’t say any more.

I note that we seem to be heading back toward his apartment and wonder if I should wait until we get there to try and talk to him further. But there is the very real possibility that he won’t invite me up, so after a block of walking in silence I say, ‘you’ve been walking a long time. Something on your mind?’

He looks across at me rather sharply. ‘Just how long have you been following me?’

I decide to hedge the truth just a bit; he doesn’t seem to be in the mood to hear that I’d been tailing him for hours. ‘A little while,’ I say.

He snorts, looking away. ‘That’s... vague.’

I should have known he wouldn’t be so easily misled. ‘I was... concerned,’ I tell him.

‘Concerned?’ he repeats, making it a question.

‘You seemed... unhappy, this morning,’ I say, and in my own pocket, my hand closes around a small scrap of paper.

We pass a restaurant with tables on the sidewalk, that requires we walk single file, and he uses it as an excuse not to reply. When we are walking abreast again, it is as though I never spoke. I can’t help but sigh and he looks across at me, something almost pained seeming to come into his eyes for a moment. ‘I’m sorry Heero; it’s nothing. Just a bad day, I guess.’

We are very nearly to his apartment and there is something in the air, something in his mood, that tells me this conversation needs to be finished tonight. I won’t have the nerve, or he’ll manage to put it aside, the way he wants to. Things... just won’t come together again, like they are tonight. Like they almost are tonight.

Maybe God will answer his prayer and grant him the forgetfulness he craves. Thinks he craves.

‘You know,’ I tell him, my voice soft so the words shouldn’t sting overly much. ‘I’m kind of mad at you.’

He turns sharply to look at me, his expression almost stricken. That helps, somehow, to see how strongly it affects him. To see how much he doesn’t want to lose my regard.

‘What?’ he stammers out, and completely stops walking, standing in the middle of the sidewalk to stare at me. ‘But... why?’

I stop walking too, and turn to look back at him. ‘I thought we were partners?’ I say, cocking my head and studying him closely

‘We... we are,’ he affirms, and it hurts a little, to see him so off-balance and unsure of himself. He’s so... raw tonight.

I take a step back toward him, until we’re standing nose to nose, and then I reach out to turn him around. Out of my pocket, I pull the bright blue ribbon that had adorned a certain black balloon, and I carefully wrap it around the end of his braid, tying it off while I tell him, ‘The next time you have a message for God that involves me... how about asking me first. I might not be able to intercept it in time.’ And I toss his braid over his shoulder.

His hand reaches to clutch at it and I hear his breath catch on a gasp, but he just stands there still as a stone, staring at his braid. I wait a moment more before reaching to turn him around again. It’s like moving a rag doll.

His eyes are very wide, almost luminous in the moonlight. He looks terrified. I’ve seen him in a lot of situations; I’ve seen him face down everything from rats to mobile suits. Seen him under fire and seen him go under the knife. Seen him handle everything from hysterical hostages to OZ interrogation. But I’ve never seen him look like he does now.

I don’t like it.

He closes his eyes when I reach out to touch his cheek. ‘Heero...’ is all he can manage, and it is shaky and strained, no more than a whisper.

‘What are your emotions telling you?’ I ask him, harking back to a piece of advice I’d been given once, a long time ago.

‘More... more things than I can understand,’ he whispers, but he is unconsciously pressing into my hand and I know he isn’t listening to the right thing.

‘Those are your thoughts, Duo,’ I tell him. ‘I asked about your emotions; your feelings. What are they telling you?’

‘I... I...’ is all he manages, but I can see from the tension around his eyes that he is hearing that part of himself, but is still fighting it.

‘Follow your emotions,’ I whisper, and his eyes snap open when he hears how close my voice is. When he realizes how close I am.

‘Heero... please,’ he pleads, but can’t tell me any more than that.

I hadn’t anticipated the depth of his fears. Hadn’t anticipated how much it would cut at me to see him standing on the edge of a thing he was so afraid to reach for. I had thought to force him to take what he wanted. I had thought... that this would be a simple thing; a misunderstanding set to rights. I had not understood that he was wounded... wounded and hurting.

What I do understand, quite suddenly, is that somewhere inside I am a little afraid too... or I wouldn’t be trying so hard to make him reach first. Wouldn’t be trying so hard to make him say to me what the scrap of paper in my pocket has already told me.

I embrace that understanding... and I embrace him. ‘This is what my feelings are telling me,’ I whisper into his hair and suddenly find that I’m all but holding him up. His arms are around me, his hands fisted in my shirt and he is trembling like a new born foal in my arms.

‘Oh God, Heero...’ he sighs, and I wonder how one heals this kind of wound. I have no idea how to soothe this kind of hurt. But he feels good in my arms, and he’s not pulling away, and I think that perhaps the healing has started already.

‘May I come up with you?’ I ask, unsure of what should come next, but knowing that talking has to happen in here somewhere.

‘Yeah,’ he stammers, and draws away. There is something in his eyes that speaks to me of doubt and I reach out to take his hand as we walk the last half block, it wins me a tentative little smile from him, the tiniest sign of hope in his eyes.

We reach his apartment and must climb the outside stairs, he leads me as I guide him, and it very much seems to me to define our relationship; I can’t help smiling at the notion. The first thing I do when we get inside is pull him into the kitchen, where I light the burner on the stove and destroy that little scrap of paper I’ve been carrying all afternoon.

‘Don’t want it to fall into the hands of God,’ I tell him with the quirk of a smile and I see in his eyes when the voice of his feelings finally overpowers the voice of his doubts.

He still trembles when he comes into my arms, but it doesn’t seem to be from fear. Not from fear at all.

And I was right; the ache in my heart fades away to a memory when the smile comes back to his face.

End

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