|By : Sunhawk
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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
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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