Getting Away (cont)

‘Here,’ I gestured, pointing out where he could step and where there was a place to sit. He stepped gingerly down into the water, taking the hand I raised for support as he found his way into the curve of the seat.

‘Shit,’ he muttered as he sank down into the water until it was damn near lapping at his chin. ‘Think we could talk the landlord into installing one of these?’

‘Somehow, I doubt it,’ I chuckled, inordinately pleased with his reaction.

‘Think this is what it feels like to be a lobster?’ he grinned, experimenting with positions until he suddenly let out with a deep-throated groan.

‘Feel good?’ I murmured, and was rather proud of the fact that there wasn’t a trace of smugness in it.

‘I’m sleeping in here tonight,’ he informed me, a rueful little grin on his face.

I snorted and shook my head at him, though he didn’t see it since his eyes were already closed. If I’d had any doubts about the decision to upgrade to the larger cabin... I lost them in that moment.

We soaked. We washed each others hair. We soaked some more. We looked like prunes, but I didn’t care. By the time we finally climbed out, Duo truly did look like he could have fallen asleep right there in the water. He was mellow and agreeable, taking a pain pill without protest and sitting contentedly as I combed and braided his hair.

It was a very companionable end to the day. When we climbed into bed together and he settled against me, all I got was a distracted ‘uh-huh’ when I told him I loved him. He was asleep almost before I had the blankets settled around us. I fell asleep with the scent of his sandalwood shampoo teasing at my senses, and wondering about the possibilities of finding a new apartment that actually did have a hot tub.

I should probably have paid more attention to the weather report; the storm might not have gotten to me quite so much if I’d realized it was coming. It blew in around midnight and we’d been in bed long enough that I was rather soundly asleep.

The noises got inside my head before they truly woke me, messing with my dreams, messing with my fears. We hadn’t been through any major bad weather since... that night. I suppose that somewhere inside I’d known that those sounds, when they finally came, were going to wreck havoc with my nightmares, but I’d never really wanted to think about it.

When I started awake to the sound of thunder, it was with a lightening strobed image of Duo beside me in the cockpit of a Leer jet, impaled by the pilot’s yoke, and Wufei’s voice echoing in my ears... ‘What the hell is going on here?

I managed not to cry out. I managed not to throw the covers off and run my hands all over Duo’s body to assure myself that he was whole and alive. I managed not to gather him to me and weep.

Outside, the rain poured down and the thunder grumbled. The eyes of the fish on the wall flared in the sporadic light and it made me shiver.

Beside me, Duo slept like a baby. He’d rolled away in his sleep, and was curled on his side of the bed, completely undisturbed by either my nightmare or the storm.

I thanked the Gods at the same time that I ached for him to roll over and wrap me in his arms. I contented myself with just sitting there, in the middle of the bed, and listening to him breathe.

While the rain sounded steady enough, the storm itself seemed to have passed over us. I could still hear the thunder, and see the occasional flash of lightening, but it was distant, and I marveled that Duo had slept through the damn thing.

I was glad.

By the time the undeniable reality of Duo’s safety finally made the nightmare images fade a little, it was obvious as hell that I wasn’t going back to sleep. I decided that there really wasn’t much point in trying. If I stayed in bed, I was only going to end up tossing and turning until I woke Duo up too. He was sleeping the deepest sleep I’d seen him manage in a long damn time, and I would not disturb him if I could keep from it. He needed that sleep.

So somewhere around one in the morning, I slipped from bed and padded down the wide stairway, guided by the glow of the tiny safety lights in the treads. I snagged one of the many afghans as I walked through the living room, wrapping myself in it, and went to the kitchen to fetch a bottle of water. Then I took myself back to the living room to settle on the couch to wait for morning.

The fire had long since died down, and while I would have more than welcomed its light and heat, I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t wake Duo while trying to get it going again, so I forgot it.

I would have wondered about the nightmare if I hadn’t been trying so hard not to think about it. It had been weeks since I’d had a really bad night. I did wonder, almost idly, if the storm had brought it on... or if it had been seeing Duo fall.

Over my head, the dead eyes of the deer glinted eerily in the dim light. Glass eyes, I had to remind myself. Not dead... glass. I shivered and wished Duo awake.

I sighed, and had to shake my head at my own damn neediness. I sipped at the water and reminded myself that Duo needed his rest. It had only been a stupid dream after all, and I had already shaken it off. As long as I didn’t sit with my eyes closed too long. As long as I didn’t... think about it.

Duo couldn’t do a damn thing about a nightmare that was already over. No sense both of us being up all night.

It had been a good day. Maybe not completely perfect, maybe not without its bad moments... but it had been a good day all the same. I thought back over it, making it a shield against the images that wouldn’t quite completely leave me alone. In the distance, thunder rumbled low and hollow sounding. I shivered and pulled the afghan higher on my shoulders, concentrating on the memory of Duo’s laughter... of the feel of his arms tight around my waist.

In the distance, there was a flash of lightening so bright that I saw it before my eyes for long minutes after it was gone. Its after-image glowing a dark purple against the blink of my eyelids. Within a heartbeat, the cabin was plunged into total darkness and I understood that somewhere out in those mountains, a transformer had been struck.

Without thinking, I counted as I waited for the thunder that would follow, and wasn’t too surprised when I made it all the way to eight. It was one of those great waves of thunder, not one of the sudden claps. It seemed to build as it rolled over the cabin, and it rattled the windows before it faded away.

It seemed the last gasp of the storm, a final act of defiance, and then it grew quiet.

I blinked for several long moments, seeing that fork of light before my eyes and not much else. It was... unbelievably dark. It was rather disconcerting just how pitch black it was. I guess I’d grown rather used to city life, where you were never truly without light at any time of the day or night. I could not see my own hand in front of my face. I had to smile to myself, thinking that I wished I’d not foregone the fire after all.

There was a sound in the darkness, faint and distant. So slight a sound that I held my breath trying to hear it. I thought of wounded animals. I thought of something lost in that total darkness. It came again, a quavering, hesitant sound that sent a chill up my spine. I tilted my head, trying to catch where it was coming from, and it grew a bit bolder. A bit more panicked.

‘H... Heero?’ Duo’s voice was such a thin sounding thing that I’m afraid I was up and moving before I even thought to call out to him. Ages old training took me unerringly across the room and up the stairs, memory guiding my feet, and instinct making me run.

‘Here!’ I called finally, from half-way up the stairs. ‘I’m coming.’ I could hear him almost gasping for breath before I even made it to the loft.

‘Heero!’ he called again, his voice stronger, but his panic escalating and I cursed myself for leaving him alone. If the sound of thunder brought nightmares for me... what in the hell would it have brought for him?

‘I’m here,’ I called to him, finding my way across the bedroom to his side. ‘It’s ok, love... I’m here.’

I almost didn’t have to reach out for him; he found the sound of my voice when I drew near enough, and had hold of me instantly.

‘Oh Gods, Heero...’ he panted, and I dropped to the bed beside him, taking him into my arms as best I could.

‘It’s ok,’ I soothed. ‘Just a nightmare...’

‘No!’ he choked out. ‘I... shit, Heero... I...’

He was shaking and obviously disorientated as hell, probably having trouble pulling himself out of the nightmare, and I tried again, bringing his head to rest against my shoulder and stoking my hand over his hair. ‘You’re ok, baby, the storm...’

He wasn’t even listening to me, and I wondered idly if there would be bruises on my arms from where he was holding on to me so tightly. ‘Damn it,’ he said, cutting across my reassurances in a voice that was nothing more than a croaked whisper. ‘It’s not that... Heero... I can’t... I can’t see!’

Sometimes I amaze myself with how damn dense I can be.

‘No, love,’ I blurted. ‘It’s not you; it’s all right. There’s been a power failure, that’s all. It’s not you.’

He went very still then, except for the ragged sound of his breathing. ‘Power failure?’ he finally managed to ask.

‘Yes,’ I told him gently. ‘You’re all right. I can’t see either. There was a storm and it knocked out the power.’

‘Storm?’ he ventured, and it was this strange thready sound of hope in his voice that made me turn to sit cross-legged beside him, and pull him completely into my lap.

‘Storm,’ I said firmly, making sure his leg was straight. ‘And it’s over and gone now and I’m here and everything is just fine.’

Slowly, he began to relax, though he didn’t argue his position, only resting his head on my shoulder. It was enough to tell me how disconcerted he still felt. I reached out and found the blanket when I felt the goose-flesh on his arms, and wrapped it around us. After a long few minutes, he made a sound that was aiming for self-deprecating mirth... and not really making it.

‘Sorry,’ he muttered sheepishly after another few moments, and it made me turn until I could find him in the darkness, and I kissed his forehead.

‘My fault,’ I reassured. ‘I shouldn’t have left you alone.’

There was this moment then, when I saw the mistake of my words, but it was too late to take them back.

I wanted to fight him, when he sat up. Wanted to keep him wrapped up in my arms, wanted to continue to feel him seeking my warmth and taking comfort in my presence, but I could already feel the loss of the moment.

‘Why didn’t you wake me?’ he asked softly, tone tinged with accusation, understanding too damn much.

‘You were sleeping so well,’ I said, and felt for his hand. He squeezed my fingers when I found it and sighed softly.

‘Heero...’ he admonished, and I wished I could see him.

‘It was nothing,’ I hedged. ‘It was mostly the noise that woke me. You sleep so restlessly lately... I didn’t want to bother you.’

I heard him draw breath to speak, but then he simply let it out in a long sigh and gave my hand another little squeeze. If I could have seen him, I would have known if he truly believed me, or if he had merely decided to drop the subject. ‘How about we go down and see if we can get a fire going,’ he finally suggested. ‘It’s going to get cold if the power stays off long.’

‘All right,’ I agreed, though I knew we were doing it for the light, and not so much the heat. Not that I would have said that out loud for anything. He was still suffering the pangs of memory; I could hear it in his voice, but my inadvertent slip of the tongue had made him feel awkward about it.

I didn’t try to guide him as we made our way down, he’s much better at finding his way in the dark than I am, for the obvious reason. But it surprised me how much it took me back. Surprised me the chill it sent down my spine.

I remembered where the lighter for the fireplace had been left, and Duo remembered that he’d seen a candle sitting on a side table. It took just a bit of effort to get the thing lit, then I laid the fire in the fireplace by the light of the candle as Duo held it for me. The relief in him was a palpable thing, though he wouldn’t have spoken of it for anything. I think there was some part of him that couldn’t believe his sight was intact until he actually regained the light. I think it was only that disconcertion... that fear, that kept him from pushing me about what had really woken me. I wasn’t going to question it.

We started to settle in the place where I’d been sitting when the power went out, until we discovered that I’d spilled my bottle of water there when I’d leaped up to run to answer Duo’s call. He teased me about it unmercifully as we shifted to the other end to a dry spot and made ourselves comfortable. There was really no reason we couldn’t have returned to the bed, but it was another one of those times when I followed Duo’s lead, and he seemed to want to stay close by the fire, so I indulged him. The couch was deep enough, and plush enough, that it wasn’t much of a trial. And the cheerful firelight helped chase away some of my own demons. Or maybe it was just having Duo in my arms again.

It took him a long time to fall asleep, and me even longer. I was actually rather surprised that I managed it at all, though it was more dozing than actual sleeping. Being on the couch, mostly pillowed on me, Duo wasn’t moving as much as he needed to, and I woke more than once to make him shift so that he wouldn’t wake up stiff in the morning. Each time, he rolled at my prodding, but didn’t really wake, his brow wrinkling with a faint frown of irritation. Oddly enough, it was that look on his face, annoyed but not enough to do anything about it, that lifted my own mood and allowed me to rest as much as I did.

Morning broke some hours later, clear and bright, seeming washed clean by the storm. The power had returned at some point in the night, though we hadn’t noticed it.

I woke first, and just lay with Duo pillowed on my stomach, watching the sky lighten and listening to the birds sing. That’s always such an odd sound after a storm; the birds act just like any other morning, as though they’ve already forgotten what they just came through. It wasn’t long before Duo woke as well, and I just lay stroking my fingers over his arm and waiting while he figured it out. Remembered where we were and how we’d come to be there.

‘Well this has been an interesting vacation so far,’ he quipped and I chuckled softly because he wanted me to.

‘Interesting?’ I replied. ‘Not romantic? Not fun? The best we’ve managed is interesting?’

‘At least I didn’t say it was a disaster,’ he returned, rather gamely, I thought.

Daring to risk the mood, I ventured, ‘I enjoyed yesterday very much.’

He looked at me, a little startled, I think, but then told me earnestly, ‘I did too, Heero. I’m sorry I...’

I cut him off with the brush of my fingers over his lips. ‘Hush. No apologies. It was a good day... let’s leave it at that.’

He smiled but there was a touch of melancholy about it. ‘Why do you put up with my crap?’ he asked bluntly.

‘Ask me why I put up with my own right arm,’ I told him without having to think about it. ‘Now what do you want for breakfast?’

He grinned, the line making some of that sadness leave his eyes. Sometimes I do manage to get it right.

‘Nothing special,’ he told me. ‘Did you pack anything as mundane as cereal?’

I sighed rather theatrically and gave him my disdainful look. ‘Cereal? We’re on vacation... we are not eating cereal.

He sighed in his turn, just as theatrically. ‘Oh no... we’re on vacation, so of course you only brought stuff that requires slaving over a hot stove for hours. That makes perfect sense.’

Almost, I told him that I hadn’t planned on cooking, that I’d planned on eating out more, but somehow that didn’t seem the best line to deliver. He’d only start feeling guilty again about what we’d spent at the stable. ‘Maybe I was planning on making you forage for your breakfast?’ I said instead.

He laughed out right, and rolled his eyes. ‘Sure, Mama Yuy... like I’m buying that. Somehow I don’t think roots and pine cone seeds are going to live up to your nutritional standards.’

‘I was hoping for some fish or maybe a quail... but if that’s the best you can do, I guess I’d better go cook us something,’ I shifted and he rolled up to let me slide off the couch. I gave him a light smack on the ass, as I rose. ‘Some great white hunter you turned out to be.’

He laughed, making a half hearted grab for my hand. ‘Watch it, Yuy!’ he called, and I went up the stairs with that image of him in my mind. Smiling. Teasing. Laughing.

Maybe we could manage another good day.

I dressed quickly and went back down to start breakfast. I heard Duo going up the stairs only after I was in the kitchen, and knew he was still feeling a bit self-conscious. I sighed as I pulled out the ingredients for omelets, but I wouldn’t speak of it. It would take time... I knew that. Time would fade the scars, would heal the wounds, and I hoped that time would ease this strange awkwardness between us as well. He was still my Duo, would always be my Duo, and I just needed to wait while he figured that out. Figured out that nothing was changed between us.

He came into the kitchen, face freshly scrubbed, hair done, and dressed, just as I was putting our breakfast on the table, he poured our juice while I dished it up. I covertly watched him move around the kitchen and was pleased that his limp was barely visible. I’d been afraid the night on the couch was going to leave him stiff and sore.

‘So,’ I asked, as we sat down to eat. ‘What do you want to do today?’

He didn’t answer immediately, taking a bite of his eggs and chewing thoughtfully. He didn’t look right at me when he finally replied. ‘Do you think we could try walking up to the ridge? It didn’t seem like it was all that far.’

The question was asked in a hesitant tone and I knew he was half expecting me to shoot him down. I glanced toward the window, it seemed like the day was going to be pleasant enough despite the night’s storm, and I smiled. ‘We can try. We can always come back if it turns out to be too much.’

He nodded, smiling in return and we finished breakfast. He insisted on helping me clean up and I let him. Then we got our jackets and the camera and set out.

It was mid-morning by then and the warmth of the day took us by surprise. The bad weather had apparently blown in some warmer temperatures and it wasn’t long before I had to take my jacket off, tying it around my waist so I didn’t have to carry it. Duo left his on, still a bit more sensitive to chill than I was.

I could see him, as we walked; looking around with an intensity to his gaze that I understood was a product of his scare the night before. He’d had that look on his face for weeks after he’d regained his sight from that accident during the war. An... appreciation, a look, almost, of awe in things. It comes back to him sometimes, when something makes him think about it. When something reminds him of those long days of living in the dark. The last time I remembered seeing it was after we’d passed a blind man on the street. Duo had shivered convulsively and for some reason turned to look right at me, his eyes so intent on me that for a moment I’d been afraid he meant to kiss me right there in the middle of the sidewalk. Of all the things he’s endured throughout his life, nothing has shaken him in quite the way losing his sight had.

It had been one of the hardest things I’d ever dealt with myself... until the night of the tornado.

The walk wasn’t bad at all, the rise of the land was steady but not overly steep, and there was actually a path that the local kids obviously used to go precisely where we wanted to. We stopped once to rest, and it was even at Duo’s call, I didn’t have to use the camera as an excuse to stop and take pictures. His mistake of the day before was making him more cautious. While I was pleased that he was taking more care, I wished it could have been for a different reason.

When we got to the top of the hill, Duo took the camera from me and took several pictures of the big old oak tree, seeming fascinated with the thing. I went and settled on the rock we’d sat on the day before, looking out over the lake while Duo finished what he was doing. I wanted to make sure that we sat and rested for a bit before we started back down the hill. The air moving off the water was pleasantly cool, drawing to my attention again just how warm the day was. I wouldn’t have believed it possible after the chill of the past few days.

I heard the click of the camera, suddenly much closer than it had been, and turned to find Duo grinning at me unrepentantly. I hadn’t heard him move up on me. ‘Hey,’ he shrugged. ‘You’ve been taking pictures of me all week. Don’t want it to look like I came up here by myself.’

I just shook my head and held my hand out for him to come and join me. ‘So,’ I said, when he was sitting beside me. ‘What is this sudden interest you have in trees?’

He looked a little sheepish and ducked his head. ‘I dunno,’ he hedged. ‘There’s just something about the age of the things.’

‘Age?’ I prompted, looking past him at the tree that had lured us up the ridge.

He shrugged, seeming to pick at his words, like he wasn’t even sure what he was trying to say. ‘I guess it’s not just trees... there’s something about the Earth. It makes the colonies seem so... new.’

‘Well, relatively speaking...’ I began, but he snorted at me.

‘Screw relatively,’ he laughed, poking at my arm. ‘It’s about feeling, not thinking!’ He looked out over the lake, somehow seeming to see the whole planet with the brush of his gaze. ‘Don’t you feel the age of this place? If our great-great-great grandfathers ever walked the Earth, and happened to come up here, it probably looked pretty much just like this.’

I grunted, feeling something in the air that I didn’t want to disturb, and just let him talk.

‘There was no place in the colonies that ever felt like this,’ he told me, eyes a little unfocused, and I wondered what he was remembering. ‘That tree over there has probably seen a hundred generations. It was probably growing there when the first crews launched to build those first space stations. There were a few parks on L2 and we used to sneak into them sometimes after dark; it was like an alien landscape to us. But there was nothing like this. The weather... the elements... shape things. Time shapes things.’

I leaned back a bit and put my hand down on the rock behind him, and he leaned into me without even seeming to realize he was doing it.

‘Solo would have loved it here,’ he said then, so softly that the slight wind almost pulled the words away before I heard them. I held absolutely still, afraid of breaking a moment that had let that name slip past his lips. ‘He was always the one who wanted to sneak into the parks. Most of the other kids wouldn’t go with him, but I knew he would go even if he had to do it alone. It was... never a good idea to go out alone.’

That line, one I’d heard before, a very long time ago, seemed to slip out despite him. He sat and blinked for a minute, almost as though the sound of it had crept up on him unawares. As though he hadn’t realized what he was saying until the words were there in front of us. I couldn’t help letting my arm slid on around him while we both sat and thought about just why it had never been a good idea. He shivered, and pretended it was because his jacket needed zipped up a little more. I held him in the curve of my arm and let him pretend. I wasn’t surprised when his fingers automatically sought out the scar on the palm of his hand.

He found his topic again, with an almost palpable feel of reaching for it past something else. ‘We weren’t supposed to be in the parks. Those were for the rich... the kind of people who didn’t want their day spoiled by having to see the orphans playing next to their own kids. But Solo loved the stupid places. Loved to swing. He’d swing so high I was afraid he’d fall and break his damn neck, but he just laughed and said it made him feel like he could fly. Could fly away.’

He got very quiet then. For a long time. Lost in memory, and I felt a pang of something odd, deep down in my gut. Something that wanted to be jealousy, but couldn’t quite coalesce. Something that wanted to be hatred for that person who had failed to protect my Duo all those years ago... but that wouldn’t quite come clear either.

I didn’t know much about this Solo... but I knew enough to know that he’d been no more than a boy himself. Struggling to do the best he could in a world that sneered at the word ‘harsh’.

How could I be jealous of a boy Duo thought of as a brother? How could I hate someone who had done nothing more than I’d done myself?

Suddenly, Duo turned his face to mine, and I was shocked to find his eyes shimmering brightly. ‘Solo... would have liked you,’ he blurted, and his voice wobbled a bit on the line. He was up and away before I could even think what to say. He stopped a dozen paces away and I saw his hand rise almost angrily to his face but then his shoulders seemed to square, and when he turned around to me, he was grinning widely.

‘Hey!’ he said. ‘You know what? It’s warm enough to go swimming!’

I did not want to let the moment go so easily, but knew I had to. So I let his other remark pass, and grinned for him because that was what he needed me to do.

He’ll give me emotional whiplash one of these days.

‘The air may be warm,’ I teased him. ‘But I’ll bet that water isn’t.’

‘Oh come on,’ he grumbled, planting his hands on his hips and glaring at me. ‘You promised if it warmed up we could go swimming.’

I cocked my head and gave him the sardonic smirk. ‘That was when I thought there was no way in hell it would ever warm up.’

The laugh I got was almost enough to drive away the last of his ghosts. ‘I knew it!’ he crowed. ‘You are such a conniving bastard sometimes!’

‘Me?’ I deadpanned. ‘Who was it that kept using his broken leg to get Quatre to fetch bottles of soda he wasn’t supposed to be drinking?’

‘Is it my fault the guy’s a soft touch?’ Duo grinned, and there was no repentance in it at all.

I stood, since he was obviously done resting, and we started the walk back down. ‘Well don’t blame me when our balls retract and never come back down,’ I quipped, but didn’t get the laugh I was aiming for. Perhaps he was having second thoughts.

The trip back went a little quicker, since it was downhill, though I held our pace to something Duo would have called ‘sedate’. He seemed to be doing fine, so when we passed the spot where we’d rested on the way up without stopping, I didn’t speak of it, letting him make the decision. He’d been doing better at pacing himself since the fall, and I wanted to reward that in the only way I knew how.

I had packed our swim trunks only at Duo’s insistence in the first place, and I was surprised as hell that it looked like we were actually going to get to use them. The day had gotten progressively warmer as the sun climbed in the sky, and by the time we reached the cabin, Duo’d had to shuck his own jacket.

I debated insisting on a break before we went down to the docks, but the sun was at its height by the time we finished our walk, and I didn’t want to lose that heat. The day would only chill the closer it got to afternoon, and I was sure the water was not exactly bathwater temperature as it was. And he truly didn’t seem as though he’d taxed himself, so we changed right away and made the short walk down to the lake.

I had thought I might have to hold him back from just leaping in, but he sat on the edge of the pier first, dangling his feet in the water and grinning up at me. ‘Shit, that’s cold!’ he laughed but didn’t seem to be the least bit deterred, because he began pulling off his t-shirt even as he spoke.

I sat down beside him and tested the water myself, turning a somewhat disbelieving look his way. While it wasn’t ice water, it wasn’t what I would have called ideal either. ‘Are you sure about this?’ I had to ask.

He chuckled and nudged me with an elbow. ‘You getting soft, Yuy?’

There was an awkward moment while I discarded the first few things that sprang to mind, before I just told him, ‘I’ve come to appreciate the little things in life is all... like hot tubs.’

I could tell from his expression that he understood that I’d edited my thoughts, but I didn’t know how to apologize without making things worse. Six months ago, I’d have probably shoved him off the dock for a line like that, but that was out of the question right now. As was the brand of teasing that would have challenged him until he jumped in.

He chose to ignore the slip, and dug his elbow into my ribs again. ‘Yep; soft and lazy,’ he quipped, then stood to walk down the dock to the ladder. I watched warily as he climbed down one rung at a time, pausing at each rise of the water until he got used to it, before stepping down again. I didn’t remember to breathe until he was floating free in the water; afraid that the cold would bring on a spasm. He grinned up at me, and there was a touch of triumph in it.

I grinned back and went to join him, climbing down the same way he had, and bitching theatrically about the cold. He mocked me with delight.

I had barely left the ladder, when he took his first tentative stroke and moved slowly out into the lake a bit. I moved beside him, keeping pace as he almost drifted along, He rolled gently in the water as he went, testing the pull of different strokes, I think. He seemed to like being on his back, but the back-stroke required too much stretch and he would inevitably turn over again.

Swimming was something neither of us had known how to do until pilot training. Not a lot of opportunity for it in either of our upbringing. While it wasn’t something I would go out of my way to do on my own, Duo seemed to love the water and I certainly didn’t mind going with him. I loved to watch him swim; when he’s at his peak, he’s damn fast. He has the lithe build for it; I can’t keep up with him. He swims like a damn seal, something I’ve told him many times.

Beside me, Duo slowed, treading water and grinning. Somehow he seemed to be reading my mind. ‘I think I’m more like a manatee than a seal today.’

I snorted and reached for his good hand, swimming backward and pulling him with me. ‘My beautiful sea cow,’ I proclaimed.

‘Hey!’ he objected, though he didn’t let go of me, letting me move us through the water at a faster pace than he’d been managing. ‘I think I resent that!’

‘Well,’ I informed him. ‘They say that manatees are what spawned the original mermaid legends.’

‘So now I’m a mermaid?’ he asked with a raised eyebrow, his free hand playing through the water as we went. I had a sudden vision of him with his hair loose and floating around us like a cloud. He would very much look the part of some fey sea creature. I stopped swimming and let his momentum bring him into my arms.

‘Merman,’ I corrected. ‘And a damn sexy one.’ I kissed him then, quite taking myself by surprise, but it was like I couldn’t help myself. He was just so... Duo, in that moment. Teasing with me. Smiling at me. Eyes watching me. Hand in mine.

It seemed such a small daring, out there in the middle of nowhere.

Gods above but I wanted him.

Things might have gotten... a bit more than we should have been doing, if Duo hadn’t suddenly jerked away, eyes wide as saucers, and making a tiny little gasping sound.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, afraid I’d hurt him. Alarmed by the look on his face. ‘What is it?’

‘I...’ he began, then flinched again, wide-eyed gaze dropping to the water. ‘Something just...’

Then I felt it too and damned if I didn’t jerk despite the vague warning I’d had from Duo. I grinned at him and watched his trepidation change to simple confusion. ‘What...?’ he asked, blinking at me owlishly.

‘It’s a fish,’ I told him, and watched his bewilderment vanish in a wide grin.

‘No shit?’ he blurted, and just like that, ducked under water, I didn’t have time to object. He popped back to the surface a few seconds later, snorting and wiping water from his eyes, grin still intact. ‘There’s a bunch of them!’ he crowed, holding his hands a good foot apart. ‘This damn big!’

There was the brush of another inquisitive snout on my calf and I wondered that the things weren’t afraid of us. Surely the lake saw fishermen in the right season.

‘What kind do you think they are?’ Duo asked, watching the surface of the water intently, though the fish were deeper, and the light on the surface made it fairly impossible to see them.

I chuckled. ‘Aquatic ones?’ I suggested and he was so distracted that it took him a heartbeat to blink and look up at me. Then I got the grin I’d been looking for.

‘That’s good, Yuy,’ he snickered, but then kicked lightly and began moving again. I felt a bit of regret at the loss of the moment, but understood that things had gotten a bit too intense for him. That he was looking for a little distance. I followed after, pacing his languid journey but letting him have his space. I think we lost the fish.

We didn’t venture far from the pier, and I noticed that Duo stayed out of the shadows of the trees, keeping us in the sun. It did make a little difference, but not much. It would take days of temperatures that warm, to take the chill out of the lake. We were headed into fall, and weren’t likely to get more than a day or two of this ‘Indian summer’. This was as good as it was going to get, and I suppose I should have been grateful we’d gotten even the day; it was more than I had expected.

‘You know,’ Duo suddenly blurted. ‘With the way my luck has been running lately, we’re liable to run into the world’s only lake shark out here.’

I was supposed to laugh, though I had to work at it; somehow... it wasn’t all that damn funny. ‘Don’t even joke,’ I grumbled at him, and that made him laugh.

‘Come on, Heero,’ he chuckled, rolling in the water again to look at me. ‘I’m kidding; there’s nothing out here but trout... or catfish, or whatever those things are.’

‘Piranha,’ I deadpanned. ‘You’re challenging the power of worse again.’

He grinned and sluiced water at me, making me flinch. ‘Piranha? I think I saw that movie!’

I tried to roll my eyes, but was too busy wiping the water from them. ‘Why is there a movie for everything?’ I sighed. ‘And why have you always seen it?’

He laughed that laugh he has that there’re no fetters on. The one that makes the bridge of his nose wrinkle up and his eyes crinkle. I hadn’t heard that laugh in a long time. ‘Because there isn’t an original idea left in the universe. Because somebody, somewhere, has thought of everything. It’s all been written. There have been piranha in the lake movies, and giant crocodiles, and mutant bears,’ he stopped swimming, treading water while he ticking predators off on his fingers. ‘Giant pythons, killer beavers...’

‘Ok,’ I cut him off with his own face full of water. ‘You’re just making shit up now!’

‘Am not!’ he shot back, flailing blindly to splash me in his turn, even as he was wiping his eyes. I ducked beneath the surface while he was disoriented and swam quickly under him, grabbing the ankle on his good leg and giving it a firm tug. His bright laughter sounded distorted through the water. I bobbed to the surface behind him and gave his braid a yank just for good measure.

‘Careful,’ I growled. ‘I might be a lake shark.’

He was grinning and sputtering and turned to find me, reaching to shove me down, ducking me in the water again. I went down rather than fight him, swimming around to come up behind him again. I reached out just as I broke the surface of the water and pinched his ass.

‘Hey!’ he yelped, spinning in the water to follow me.

‘Piranha,’ I intoned and got that laugh again. Gods, it felt so good to hear it, so completely free and open. It had been so damn long.

It was to be short lived.

It was horse-play, and I should have known better. But I was so damn blinded with seeing him happy that I forgot. For the first time in months... I forgot.

He lunged after me, reaching to return the favor, slicing through the water as I retreated from him. We were laughing; later I would feel guilty about that.

I saw it in his eyes, a split second too late to do anything about it, and a split second later, his face twisted in pain and he just vanished. It was so damn much like something really had grabbed him and pulled him under, that I actually remember wondering what it was.

I was after him in no less time than it took me to draw breath, but I couldn’t believe how far under he was, just that fast. He was sinking like a stone, the muscle spasm making it impossible for him to remain afloat.

I reached for him, some part of my mind counting off the seconds, some part of myself on total autopilot. When I caught his arm, he did not grab for me, didn’t even react, and I felt a thrill of fear even as I was kicking us to the surface.

It was all less than a minute. My internal clock told me so, but it felt like he’d been under forever. I was sobbingly relieved to hear him coughing and gasping the minute we found the air.

But that wasn’t the end of it. He was in full ‘seizure’; helpless to do any of the things that might have eased it, out in the middle of the damn water. It was taking everything I had just to keep us afloat; I couldn’t do a thing to help him except keep us from drowning. We were probably a good ten yards from the pier, which doesn’t sound like much, until you’re trying to swim with a writhing ball of muscle spasm in your arms.

‘I’ve got you,’ I told him, trying to reassure as best I could. I didn’t get anything back from him; he might not have known I was there. I tried to move us, but needed an arm free. I was already kicking as hard as I could, just keeping us on the surface. ‘Duo,’ I prodded. ‘I need you to hang on to me.’

There was an almost guttural groan, and he managed, in a voice twisted up with pain, ‘Won’t... drag you down...’

It... angered me somehow, though I suppose I should have been expecting it from him. I can’t tell you how in the hell the phrase pissed me off so much, at the same time that it filled me with warmth. ‘Well I’m sure as hell not letting you go under alone again,’ I snapped. ‘So I guess you better start working with me here!’

I swear to the Gods, I think he laughed. I’ll never be sure, but he did finally, reach out and wrap an arm around my shoulder, and I was able to get us moving.

I thought we would never get to the damn dock. I did my best to keep him up, but I think he took a couple of mouth’s full of water despite my best efforts. He felt like nothing but a bundle of twitching, shaking muscles pressed against me. I think I was murmuring things to him, but later I would not be able to tell what I said. I’m not sure he was hearing me anyway. All his concentration seemed to be on the arm he had grudgingly wrapped around me; I could feel him not letting himself hang on too tight. Knew that if I lost my grip on him, he’d let himself go under before he would grab at me.

Do you know what a basic human instinct he was fighting? Do you have any idea what it takes to let go? Drowning victims have been known to drown their own rescuers trying to save themselves.

It’s a damn strange feeling sometimes, when my irritation with him gets so tangled up with my pride in him.

At last, I got us to where I could get a hand on the ladder. ‘Ok,’ I told him. ‘I’m anchored now. We can’t go down... you hear me?’

There was a tight nod against my chest; words seemed to be beyond him. Or, at the very least, too difficult to waste on unnecessary ones. I took a second to just hang there, looking the situation over and trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to get us out of the water. We were not, thank the Gods, terribly far from the deck, but those bare few feet seemed like a mile when I thought about trying to get Duo up that ladder. He tried to unwind and reach for a rung, and I could see that he meant to try climbing out on his own, but I honestly didn’t think it was going to happen; I had never seen him in the throes of an attack this bad.

‘Hang on,’ I soothed when he faltered; afraid he would try too hard and make things worse. ‘Let me help.’

We ended up with him between me and the ladder, climbing in tandem. I had an arm locked around his waist, as low as I could manage, trying not to hurt him while still bearing most of his weight. He was gasping for breath and his face, when I caught glimpses of it, was a mask of pain and dark determination. I had to bodily haul him the last bit, up and over the edge, and I think I hurt him, but there was no help for it. I could have crowed with victory when I finally got him laid down on the dock.

But then the air hit us, clear of the water as we were, and it seemed an artic blast. He began to shiver uncontrollably. It took the last of whatever he’d been hanging onto, away, and he just balled up there on the planks and gave in to it.

I scrambled down the dock to where we’d left our t-shirts and the towels we’d brought out with us, returning with them as fast as I could move. I had thought to dry him and get one of the shirts on him, but the glassy look in his eyes when I knelt at his side again washed away all plans I’d been making. I just wrapped him as best I could, and caught him up in my arms; he needed to be inside out of the chill air and he didn’t need to wait when I was perfectly capable of getting him there.

It was his total lack of protest that lent me the strength I needed to carry him off the pier and up the hill to the cabin. His muscles were corded so tight, it felt like I was carrying a stone. A shuddering, spasming stone.

I don’t remember getting the front door open, and later I would have to look to verify for myself that I’d closed it. I barely remember the climb up the stairs to the bedroom. I have only a vague recollection of the burn in my legs as I pushed past my own limits. If Duo had not lost so much weight after the accident... I’m not sure I’d have made it.

‘Hang on, baby,’ I can recall telling him, and left him balled up on the end of the bed for the few minutes it took me to get the hot water running in the tub.

I took us in, trunks and towels, t-shirts and all. Not unwrapping him until the water was high enough to replace whatever protection they might have been giving him.

There was nothing else to do after that, but hold him against me until it passed. It took... a while. The longest we’d ever been through.

‘Ooops,’ he tried, after the tremors had eased enough that he could get enough breath to speak.

I thought I would cry, and couldn’t do anything more than kiss him on the temple. I opened my mouth to reply, couldn’t manage it, and so just kissed him again instead. He sighed softly and we were quiet some more.

‘Love you,’ I told him, when the attack had faded to the point that he was starting to relax.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered, his face almost hidden against my neck.

‘Don’t,’ I said gently. ‘Not your fault.’

He didn’t answer, relaxing further, and I realized that he was absolutely so exhausted that if I left things alone, he would fall asleep right there in the tub. I thought about that, and decided that there was nothing wrong with that happening. The water was warming him more than any blanket could. The jets of the spa would help strained muscles loosen up. He seemed... content to stay where he was, and I was more than content to have him there. I smoothed my hand over his hair, dropping a kiss on the top of his head where he nestled against me.

‘Rest, love,’ I told him softly and he seemed to let go that last little bit.

‘So tired,’ he murmured and I almost held my breath, hearing the utter openness in his tone of voice.

‘I know,’ I told him, feeling guilt well up inside me. ‘It was my fault... I shouldn’t have...’

‘It was nice,’ he said, effectively cutting me off while I blinked at the far wall and tried to make sense of what he was saying. ‘That was you, for the first time in so long.’

‘What?’ I blurted, completely confused. ‘Duo?’

But all he said was, ‘I’ve missed you so much,’ and then he was gone; faded into sleep.

And just what in the hell was that supposed to mean?

I cradled him in my arms, careful enough that I wasn’t pressuring his ribs, but tight enough that he wouldn’t wake to the feeling of buoyancy. I didn’t think that would be a good idea right then. I just held him... and thought.

He slept there like that for a good hour; I think it was the constraint of my arms that finally roused him, as he tried to move and found he couldn’t.

He blinked his eyes open, looking vaguely confused at first. I took advantage, tilting his head back and kissing him gently. ‘What...?’ he mumbled, the hint of a frown creasing his forehead.

‘Lake shark got you,’ I informed him, and I was pleased to see the frown fade.

‘Damn nasty beasts apparently,’ he said with a rueful grin, eager enough to take the lighter tone. ‘What’d he do, take us back to his place to boil for dinner?’

I snorted, tenderly brushing his bangs away from his forehead. ‘Yeah, he just left to get the onions and potatoes... if we hurry; I think we can escape his clutches.’

Duo chuckled, as much for me as for the joke, and eased himself carefully upright. He moved so slowly, so cautiously, that I found my lip caught in my teeth, almost holding my breath. I feared we’d truly done some damage, but after a bit of experimental shifting, he gave me a reassuring smile. He seemed as surprised as I was.

‘All right?’ I couldn’t help asking.

‘Kinda sore,’ he admitted. ‘But not as bad as I thought it would be.’

‘Thank the Gods,’ I murmured, quite before I knew I was going to, and he leaned forward to rest his forehead against mine.

‘I’m ok, love,’ he told me firmly.

I sighed, knowing that he didn’t want to see me worrying so much. ‘I know... I just hate feeling that helpless.’

He drew away and snorted derisively. ‘You? You’re not the one who...’ he stopped then, and looked at me hard. I could see him puzzling something through. ‘Heero; did you... how the hell did I get back to the cabin? You didn’t fucking carry me all the way up from the damn lake, did you?’

I went for the flippant answer, because there really wasn’t much denying the truth. Though his focus had been turned inward, he hadn’t exactly been unconscious. ‘Damned if I know,’ I quipped. ‘I think we teleported.’

Heero...’ he began in that warning tone, but I cut him off with a finger to the lips.

‘Hush,’ I told him, dropping the teasing because it wasn’t working anyway. ‘I’d have carried you twice as far if I’d needed to... you know that.’

Something strange passed across his face then, I couldn’t quite place it... it twisted his lips in something that wanted to be a grin even while his eyes welled with a deep sadness. ‘I know,’ was all he said. He leaned in to kiss me softly, then stood to climb out of the hot tub.

We dried and dressed, and it didn’t escape my notice that he took his pain pills all on his own. I bumped ‘kinda sore’ up a notch in my estimation, but didn’t comment.

[back] [cont]