By : Sunhawk

Conversations (cont)

I ducked into my room, and slipped into the bathroom long enough to start the water running in the shower. Then I crept back to the bedroom door to listen, assuring myself that Heero was still in the kitchen, truly washing dishes. It wouldn't take him long, so I had to hurry.

I own more than one sketchpad. I own more than one picture that I really didn't want Heero to see. As silent as one of my damn hamsters, I went to my dresser and frantically dug out the tablet I'd had with me while Heero was in the hospital. I leafed through the damn thing, past pictures of Heero sleeping, past a quick study of one of the nurses, until I found the damn thing. Throwing a glance at the doorway, I quietly peeled the page out, and quickly shoving the pad back into the drawer, fairly ran to the bathroom.

I felt like a damn criminal, sneaking around in my own room like some sort of thief. But one glance at the damning self-portrait of my own emaciated body treading on a narrow path littered with broken glass, and my resolve hardened ten-fold. I felt a little safer once the bathroom door was shut behind me, but the damn thing didn't have a lock and I couldn't quite lose the 'Oh shit, hurry!' feeling in the pit of my stomach. My damn hands were shaking. I kept expecting Heero to burst in and demand to know what in the hell I was doing.

With one last glance at the thing in my hands, I went to stand over the toilet and bent to shredding it into confetti as fast, and quietly, as my fingers could manage. Then I flushed. I didn't breathe a sigh of relief until the toilet bowl had refilled and I reassured myself that every last scrap was gone. I thought my legs were going to give out when the adrenaline stopped pumping through my body. I almost started giggling insanely, but decided I better get on with that shower before Heero got suspicious. So I stripped and unbound my hair, stepping under the hot water with guilt-beast in tow. His mood was rather foul, he's not all that fond of water, and was kind of pissed off to be drug into the bathtub to do his job. He bit so hard I half expected to see blood running down the drain.

Please God, I remember thinking. If there is a God... don't ever let Heero find out I did that.

I know he'd promised, but I just didn't see the point in taking the chance. I do learn from my mistakes... sometimes.

We spent the rest of the morning doing the chores that we usually had all day for, and left for Trowa and Quatre's with at least enough clean clothes for the next few days. I ended up driving, something I seemed to be doing a lot lately. It's not that I minded, exactly, but sometimes it was difficult to hide my dislike for the car while I was actually in the thing.

"Hey," Heero said after we'd gotten out of the parking lot and were on our way. "If you get tired or just want to leave, I want you to tell me. I don't want you toughing it out if you're not enjoying yourself."

I gave him a sidelong glance. "I thought you said this was a cookout?"

"It is," he confirmed, frowning slightly.

"Then why does it sound like we're headed into a fire-fight?" I grinned at him and he snorted.

"I know how you... dislike large groups of people," he said, watching me carefully. "And knowing Quatre, there's probably going to be a good sized invitation list."

Great. I wished he'd mentioned that before I'd agreed to this trip. I couldn't help glancing down at my black jeans, plain white t-shirt and open denim shirt; I'd sure as hell have put more effort into dressing if I'd realized it wasn't just the guys. "Good sized?" I couldn't help but question.

"Not one of his typical, official dinners," Heero soothed. "Maybe a dozen or so, if I know Quatre." I saw him catch my glance and he sighed. "You look fine, Duo. It's nothing formal."

Somehow, I wasn't reassured. But, there was nothing to be done about it now. I thought about my music with longing and regretted, not for the first time, that the stupid car didn't have a decent stereo system. I doubted seriously if I would be able to tune anything into the radio that was going to help.

Suck it up, Maxwell, I thought to my cringing inner-child, the one who knew just how out of place we were going to feel if there were a bunch of people there we didn't know. This was part of Heero's life, and now that I was a part of his life, these were things I was just going to have to learn to deal with.

I was somewhat reassured to pull into the big, circle drive and not have to park a mile from the house. There were other cars, but not a million of them. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all.

I resisted the urge to reach out for Heero's hand as we walked up the driveway. I would not allow the squirming kid in my head to turn tail and run. Really, I wouldn't. I stuffed my hands in my coat pockets and it got me a frown.

"Damn it, Heero," I hissed. "It's freakin' cold out here, ok? My hands have been sensitive to the cold ever since they got burned. It isn't always about... hiding them."

"But..." he began, looking confused, and I had to sigh.

"I know it sounds... weird. I can't feel it at... at skin level, but it makes them ache, down in the bone." It took some effort to keep it from sounding defensive.

He looked rather taken aback, and murmured a contrite little, "I'm sorry... I didn't know."

I smirked at him. "Guess you don't know everything after all," I teased lightly and his _expression cleared. We walked several more yards in silence. I couldn't help but scan the grounds, scan the windows of the house, looking for some clue who and how many and all that shit. I think I sighed. I must have sighed.

Heero came closer and suddenly bumped his shoulder into mine, making me stagger a step sideways. I looked at him sharply and found him grinning at me.

"You look fine," he told me. "These people are all your friends. You will do just fine."

I blushed, looking at the ground, but gave him an equal nudge. I was rather pleased that his step faltered as well; guess I was getting some of my muscle back after all.

Then we were on the porch and the front door was flung wide. Quatre's beaming face was the first one I saw and he ushered us into the house with the delight of a child greeting Santa Claus. "You made it!" he exclaimed, reaching for our coats before Heero even had the door closed behind us. "I'm so glad! Give those to me and I'll hang them up. Trowa and the others are either in the kitchen or the rec room, go on in."

He was a bundle of energy, as usual, practically pulling our coats from our arms and pointing the way to the aforementioned rec room at the same time. I pitied Trowa sometimes, trying to keep up with the guy. I had often thought, after the war, that Quatre had become a little bit addicted to the adrenaline, to the constant action. I think when he didn't have something keeping him occupied; he caused things to happen just to give himself something to do. Thus the constant parties and get-togethers. He was definitely at his best under pressure.

There was a touch in the small of my back and I turned from contemplating Quatre's retreating form to meet Heero's bemused gaze. "Come on," he said gently, and steered me in the direction of the kitchen.

We found Trowa there, arguing with Sally over the proper way to eat chips and salsa. Rashid was at the stove, alternating stirring a pot of something and tossing interjections into the conversation. I blinked at the unlikely picture of the big man in a white apron.

"... where I come from, that is referred to as 'double dipping'," Sally was saying. "And it's just not done."

Trowa grinned at her fake, offended little tone and deliberately stuck his half eaten chip back into the bowl for more dip. "It is not double dipping if you are good enough to break the chip when you bite it without it actually touching your lips."

"Are you saying you are a... a better chip eater than I am?" she responded in mock indignation.

"Oh God," Heero sighed, moving over to glance into the pot that Rashid seemed to be guarding. "Not this argument again."

Rashid gave him a commiserating roll of the eyes, "I'm afraid so, I'm already sorry Master Quatre put the left-over chips out."

Sally chuckled and winked at Trowa. "You two are just jealous because you're not even in the running as chip connoisseurs." Then she was giving me an appraising up and down glance that made me want to take a step back. "Now, Duo here... he just looks like a chip person. I'll bet he could give us a run for our money, Trowa."

"Actually," I had to tell her; eyeing the concoction they were dipping the aforementioned chips into. "That stuff tears my stomach up... can't touch it."

She huffed a little grump and raised an eyebrow. "Wouldn't have pictured you as the type with a glass stomach."

"I'm... not much of a cook," I explained with an uncomfortable shrug. "I'm afraid my diet, pre-Heero, was rather bland."

Trowa snorted. "Bland is one word to describe nothing but military rations... not the one I'd use, but apt, I suppose."

Sally gave me a funny little look, kind of sympathetic, kind of sad. I felt my hackles rise just a bit. "I happen to like them," I informed her.

Trowa just laughed. "That's because you are a sick individual, Duo," he told me, in this totally benign tone that made it all right. I was able to laugh with him and Sally finally joined us.

I glanced towards the stove and found Heero watching me with an odd look on his face. Kind of happy, but more than that, I couldn't place it.

"Hey," Sally suddenly said. "Do you know how to play pool?"

I blinked at her. "Yeah... doesn't everybody?"

Her smile became feral. "No, they do not," she informed me in a haughty, almost imperial voice. "None of these cretins can manage to learn."

I returned her grin. "How completely awful for you, M'lady!"

"Oh, M'lord," she fairly beamed at me. "Would you please do me the honor?"

I glanced at Heero again, getting an almost imperceptible nod and a bright smile of approval. It dawned on me then that he was happy to see me bantering with his friends... our friends, and it gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. Kind of a weird lurch between pleased and humiliated. Pleased that I was making Heero happy, that I wasn't embarrassing him. And humiliated that my performance around other people was even an issue. How pathetic was that? And had I, subconsciously or not, just asked Heero's permission to go play a game of pool?

I offered Sally my arm, in the outstretched, Renaissance style. She rested her fingertips on the back of my wrist in the same manner, making a sweeping gesture with her free hand. "This way, M'lord."

She led me through the house to the big rec room in the back. I could see Abdul through the sliding patio doors, bundled in a heavy coat and gloves, hovering over a covered grill.

"My God!" I muttered to Sally. "Can you get any more devoted than that? Is there anything they won't do for Quatre?"

She stifled a laugh with the hand that had been resting on my arm, effectively cutting me loose. "Oh, Abdul is addicted to barbecue. He'd stand out there in a blizzard if Quatre let him!" She walked further into the room, giving the chilled looking Magacnac a little wave. "The upside is he's had enough practice that he's a damn good cook!"

I snorted and followed her toward the pool table, waving at Abdul as well.

And that was when I saw Wufei sitting in the corner of the room, huddled over a chessboard, sitting across from Lucrezia Noin.

Well, fuck.

I thought my brain was going to short-circuit trying to decide which point of irritation to get annoyed about first.

Wufei. Things were a little strained between us yet. We'd not really had a chance to sit down and talk since that disaster of an impromptu lunch-date. And this wasn't the time or place to be having that heart-to-heart. Which meant we were going to still be dancing around each other like a couple of skittish yearlings. Wonderful.

Sally. Had she not learned her lesson at the diner? She had freely admitted what a bad idea it had been, trying to shove Wufei and I into each other's faces. You couldn't tell me she hadn't realized he was in this room. That whole pool thing had been a simple ruse to get me in here. I won't even tell you what popped into my head over that.

Noin. Damn. Noin meant Zechs. Zechs... Millardo... whatever the hell the son of a bitch wanted to call himself now a days. I could not tolerate the man. Hadn't really met him face to face until after the end of the war, but I had disliked him from the first moment I'd ever heard that... arrogant voice of his. The bastard had tried to drop Armageddon onto the Earth. Had effectively attempted to start a second ice age. But worse than that... he'd almost killed Heero. No, he was far from my favorite person. I couldn't for the life of me understand what Noin saw in him. And I could not deal with the way everybody acted as though those final months of the war had never happened. As though the guy hadn't done a thing wrong. Guess that's what comes with having a high and mighty family name. I wouldn't know much about that.

The only thing on the plus side of the ledger was the fact that the massive black eye I had given Wufei was mostly faded.

"Hey!" Noin greeted me with a wide grin. "Sally finally found somebody to play against her? Careful, Duo... she's a pool shark!"

On total autopilot, I accepted the cue from Sally's hand and grinned back at Noin. "Hey there yourself, Mizz Noin, Ma'am."

Wufei ventured a quiet, "Hello, Duo." Managing somehow to achieve a look half way between dignified and whipped dog.

I thought I heard the breath of a sigh from Sally.

"Hi, Wufei," I said, trying not to sound too stiff, and not able to think of a thing else to say. I'm sure the moment would have quickly grown miserably uncomfortable if Noin hadn't been sitting there.

"Go easy on him, Po," she drawled. "You don't want to scare off the first potential opponent you've had since Zechs started refusing to play." Sally only offered up a rather fierce grin and Noin laughed.

Sally was racking all fifteen balls and I used it as an excuse to turn away from the chess players. "Straight pool?" I asked, pleased that I kept my voice light, not letting my irritation with her show through.

"Unless you'd rather play 8-ball?" she inquired, hesitating, but obviously not bothered by the idea.

"This is fine," I told her and stepped away.

"Don't you want to break?" she asked me sweetly, but with a feral gleam in her eye.

"Ladies first," I said with a certain noble air, and bowed slightly.

She snickered, but moved around the table to make the break.

At the chessboard, I heard Noin exclaim over capturing one of Wufei's rooks and he muttered a curse. I wondered about it; Wufei is the best chess player I know. I think my presence was distracting him.

Sally sank the first freakin' nine shots without breaking stride. I don't think she would have missed the tenth one if Noin hadn't suddenly called, "Wufei! Get your hand off my knee!"

Even I had to chuckle at the incredible shade of indignant red Wufei managed to achieve. Sally turned, as her shot went wild, and glowered at Noin, standing with her hands on her hips. "That was evil, oh partner of mine. Truly evil."

Noin managed to stop cackling long enough to choke out, "Come on, Sugah... give the poor guy a chance to play!"

I took my turn, all's fair in love, war, and pool, after all, and finished clearing the table. When I straightened, Sally was grinning at me in appreciation. "Oh... finally," she chortled gleefully. "A worthy opponent!" She did everything but rub her hands together in anticipation. I had a bad feeling I was going to be there for a while.

We started another game and I took the break. I meant to clear the table without letting her get a shot in edgewise. After the eighth ball dropped, Noin chuckled throatily and told Sally, "I think you've met your match, m'dear."

"We'll see," Sally rejoined while I sank balls nine and ten. Whenever I managed to turn myself that way, I caught Wufei covertly glancing toward me. He looked like he was desperate to think of something to say, but never seemed able to come up with anything. It was quiet for a minute while I lined up the next ball, a slightly more complicated bank shot. Just as I made my move, Noin suddenly yelped, "Yuy! Where's your pants?!"

I never hesitated, onto her tricks already, and she sighed in irritation as the ball went unerringly into the corner pocket. "Nice try, Mizz Noin," I ragged her.

"Just trying to be fair," she said in a voice that fairly dripped innocence.

"Thanks for the effort partner," Sally acknowledged.

"I think you're in trouble here, oh Mistress of the Pool table," Noin taunted while I bent back to work. "He's unflappable."

"You should have seen him during the war," Wufei interjected, almost timidly. "He used to have nerves of steel."

Ouch. Used to have. Well, didn't that just say it all? Has been. Lost my nerve. Nerves of what, now? Glass? Eggshells? He had meant it as a compliment... I know that, but my heart heard the harsh truth behind his words and quailed in my chest.

I heard a teeny, tiny little grunt and figured that Noin had just kicked his shin under the table. Women always seemed quicker on the uptake than men, if you asked me. I figured I'd better leap into the breach before Wufei started sputtering and apologizing. Didn't need that, things were uncomfortable enough. I didn't think I could handle it.

Not taking my eyes off my next shot, I threw on a grin and said, "Gundanium. Nerves of Gundanium. It's Heero who's got steel composition... but it's not his nerves." Inwardly, I cringed. God... I couldn't believe I'd just said that. But it got the desired effect, Noin and Sally were giggling insanely, helping me to cover Wufei's little uncomfortable moment. When the laughter started to fade, I didn't let an opening appear, turning to Sally with a grin. "Sorry about not letting you play, M'lady."

"You'll slip up," she informed me condescendingly, deliberately tilting her nose in the air. "They all slip up sooner or later."

I changed my position and bent again to the task at hand. I called the shot and lined it up.

"What's all the laughing about?" a voice said. A deep, cultured voice.

I missed the shot by a mile. Sally grinned in triumph.

"Just talking about... metal properties," Noin informed Zechs, trying to sound serious and failing.

"Metal?" the man questioned in amused disbelief, moving into the room. Damn, he hardly looked like the same bastard... I mean, person, out of uniform. He wore a pair of dress pants and a soft looking blue sweater that accented his eyes. I wondered if he'd done that on purpose, if Noin had done that on purpose, or if it had just been an accident. It was all I could do not to snarl at him. He looked so... elegant. So relaxed and at ease. I wanted to reach up and smooth my hair. I wanted to punch his lights out. I wanted to slip my hands in my pockets. I wanted to punch his... ok, ok... I'd probably do better to punch him in the gut. The man was just freakishly tall.

Between him and Wufei, I wanted to go the hell home.

He had moved to stand next to Noin and she was looking up at him with that damn adoration in her eyes. Not for the first time, I had to wonder what she saw when she looked at him. They were bantering easily, it had turned quickly from steel to chess, and Zechs was teasing Wufei about losing to his wife. Wufei was laughing.

I think that ate at me as much as anything. Wufei hadn't been laughing before; I'd made him too uncomfortable. I glanced at Sally and found her attention on the other conversation, realized suddenly that they had forgotten me for the moment. I was struck with this horrid urge to be... elsewhere. I carefully laid my cue-stick down on the table and took a step away. No one noticed, so I slipped silently out the side door that Zechs had come in, all but running down the hall when I was finally out of sight.

I was going to find Heero, tell him I had a headache and make him take me home. Or let me go home and he could stay if he wanted. One of the guys would bring him home later, I had no doubt. I didn't care... whatever it took to get me the hell out of this place.

Francis suddenly materialized in my path; eyes squeezed shut in terror, and repress banner held before him like a shield. I stopped in my tracks, managing not to step on him again.

Damn it; he was right... I couldn't do this to Heero. I stood there for a second, right in the middle of the hall and tried to think what to do. I... needed a couple of minutes to myself, that's all. I just needed to get my bearings and calm down. Where? Well hell; I'd stayed in this house before, I knew my way around. About the only place I was going to get any privacy was going to be a bathroom... and I was well aware of where those were. That would be good. It would give me my moment of privacy at the same time that it would explain my sudden disappearance. Fuck me sideways if I couldn't damn well pull a mask of some sort out of my ass! It was a stupid, damn dinner with friends; hell if I couldn't do this. So I took off moving again, down the hall, through the foyer and up the stairs, taking them two at a time... and almost knocked Relena on her ass at the top of the stairs.

"Oh!" she gasped. "Excuse..." she began, but then just stopped, blinking at me.

"Hi Relena," I grinned at her. "Sorry about that, I didn't see you!"

She took a step away from me and her jaw did this weird tensing thing. I had reached out automatically to steady her, but pulled my hands quickly back at that reaction, stuffing them in my pockets. "Oh," she said, managing to pack a whole bucket full of gloppy bitterness into that single syllable. "Excuse me, Mr. Maxwell."

I did my dear-in-headlights routine and managed a completely coherent, "Huh?" She took another step backward, before attempting to navigate her way around me. "Relena?" I blurted, totally confused. What the hell?

She paused, managing to make me feel like some sort of slug on a glass slide. "Yes?" she responded in that icy tone.

"What..." I sputtered, completely baffled about her attitude. The last time I had seen her, about a week after the trip to L2, she had been downright pleasant. "What's the matter?"

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