Traditions (cont)

‘Landing gear deployed,’ Heero called and I grunted, realizing we’d passed that mark and I hadn’t even noticed. I’d been counting on him to remember it so much, that I’d completely put it out of my mind.

‘Shit,’ I hissed, after another minute of yoke-wrestling and feeling like I was losing. ‘It’s like flying a damn elephant!’

There was a sudden tension in the air and I decided that might not have been the best thing to say under the circumstances.

‘Do you need me to take it?’ he asked, and I was pleased that he hadn’t let his earlier false assumption throw him.

I made myself feel the edges of my endurance and was able to tell him, ‘I got it... but thanks.’

He grunted, and managed somehow to make it sound relieved.

We were low enough that the trajectory map was useless and I had Heero switch it for a nose camera view of the ground coming up to meet us. We were dead on target.

‘Getting hot on two,’ Heero told me tersely, but I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

‘Synch it,’ I ordered. ‘The breath of a hair, no more; the stabilizers are touchy as hell.’

It took him a second and then he called, ‘Got it.’

I got the ping from the control tower and the lights on my runway went from yellow to green, as I hit my alignment.

‘Come on, Jinx old boy,’ I muttered around the lip I had clamped in my teeth. ‘Let’s not embarrass ourselves.’

The strip seemed to be coming at us awfully damn fast. But then... it always does. I checked the speed and found it right where it ought to be. Checked altitude and found it right on the mark.

Bringing a ship in is a strange thing; there’s always this last minute up-swelling of supreme doubt, when you are just positive that you’re about to end up splattered all over the tarmac, followed by a moment of pure euphoria as you realize you’ve brought it all together.

I put that son of a bitch down light enough I would not have cracked eggs on the runway.

‘Braking thrusters,’ I called and let Heero handle that while I guided us down the center of the almost embarrassingly wide strip. He was as gentle with those as I’d been with the touch-down and I grinned. Between us, we brought that shuttle right down to the end of the tarmac, and even turned it at the last minute so we were facing the right direction for the tow-truck to haul the ship back to the main port. ‘Take that, Brunhilde,’ I gloated and set about shutting down.

When the ship was nothing more than a parked car, systems inert and quiet, I let myself slump back in the pilot’s seat with a weary groan. ‘Man, I wish that was the end of this,’ I told Heero, then rolled my head to finally really look across at him. ‘I relinquish command, partner. You’re the residing peace keeping official... your show now.’

He looked damn near as tired as I felt, and gave we a wan little grin. ‘I’d have traded you parts.’

‘No way in hell,’ I said fervently and then it was time to unbuckle and get back to work.

We went out into the main cabin, and Heero declared a small delay, asking people to keep their seats until the port authorities came out to meet the ship. Bobbi had already announced that due to the unusual circumstances, we had not come down next to the terminal and a bus would be brought out to ferry the passengers off the field.

People seemed curious, but not really afraid or overly upset. I looked around for Spencer, a little leery of the reception I would get from the kid, but didn’t see him. I frowned slightly, having to assume that he’d been allowed to ride out reentry in his cabin, which is slightly against the rules, but then I had to admit that’s pretty much where we’d let Captain Gray sit it out, so who was I to judge?

Then it was time to greet our adoring public, and we went to un-dog the main hatch. The grounds crew had moved in just that fast, and an exit ramp was being trundled up to the ship. We looked down at the array of cars and personnel and I felt a little daunted. They looked like they were just waiting to swarm all over the ship and I envisioned a long damn afternoon in front of me, answering questions and getting grilled six ways to Sunday. Joy.

Then Heero grunted in surprise and I followed his gaze to see a familiar figure. ‘Wufei?’ I asked, though I hardly had to.

‘I suppose it stands to reason,’ Heero mused. ‘He would have been notified when they ran my badge number.’

I had to chuckle softly, stepping back with Heero as the ramp mated to the side of the shuttle with a harsh clang of metal on metal. ‘You realize Sally is going to kill us for dragging him off on Christmas day?’

He quirked me an amused little grin, but then we both noticed the woman standing next to Wufei. I’d gotten the height, but Heero’d gotten the heels. We’d both missed the hair.

‘Looks like a Sonja, instead of a Brunhilde or a Natahsa,’ Heero teased. ‘Guess the bet’s off.’

The woman only lacked a broadsword and a shield. Well... and maybe a chain-mail bikini, but the severe, navy-blue Armani suit was more imposing.

I glanced down at myself and had to chuckle. ‘We’re going to look like crack-head alley-squatters next to them; you realize that, don’t you?’

‘Maybe it will inspire them to finish with us sooner,’ he suggested, though I could tell he didn’t believe it, was just making talk. Filling the silence.

I looked at him again, realizing he was probably maintaining the banter for my sake and had to tell him, ‘I’m ok, Heero.’

He gave me a critical once over and smiled softly. ‘You sure? Because you look like shit.’

I had to cut the laugh off when I realized Ms. Kasten was half-way up the ramp and was looking at us like she was considering which body-part to take home for dinner. I think we affronted her by daring to crack a grin in the middle of her ‘situation’.

‘Which of you is Yuy and which is Maxwell?’ she demanded before she’d even stopped climbing, and we did a quick round of introductions. I got a little grin as she shook my hand and she said, ‘Not looking for a job are you, Mr. Maxwell?’

Because I was damn near tired enough to fall asleep standing up, the woman got about two seconds of the pure unadulterated reaction to that question before I got it shoved behind a grin. It left her blinking at me in obvious confusion. ‘No thanks, Ma’am,’ I told her, and left it at that.

We were able to turn over the tedious chores to the security crew and fade into the background. Or, at least, I was able to. Heero was front and center, dealing with Ms. Scary-woman, but Wufei was at his side now, and I felt like I could relax my guard for the first time in... a long time.

It was decided that the passengers, who were still relatively oblivious to a large part of what they’d just gone through, would be gotten off the shuttle before Captain Gray was brought out of his cabin. No need to parade the man through a crowd of on-lookers. While they were still dealing with that, I managed to get Heero’s attention long enough to convey that I was going to get our bag out of the cabin while we waited. The ghost of a frown crossed his face, but he nodded after a second and let me go.

I cheated. I felt kind of bad about it, but while I was in the cabin, I took the time to change clothes, redo my braid, brush my teeth, and wash up. Hey; opportunity knocked... it wasn’t my fault, it didn’t knock for Heero as well. I wasn’t fool enough to let the chance pass, though I would not allow myself to sit down on the bed for even a minute; I knew it wouldn’t take that long for my body to take advantage of its own opportunity.

So I finished up, packed our things and headed back to where I’d last seen Heero, before he sent out a search party. And that was when I finally ran into Spencer.

I hate to admit this, but I will; had I seen him before I stepped out into the corridor, I would have stayed in the damn cabin and hidden from him. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it’s the God’s honest truth. I just didn’t know that I had the strength left to deal with him. But I didn’t see him, had in fact, already started walking before I glanced up from settling our over-night bag against my hip to find him standing there... obviously waiting for me.

If my hamsters made noise, one of them would have popped up and whistled that stupid theme from ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’.

I opted for hopeful innocence and smiled, though it was probably a little lame. ‘Hey Spencer,’ I greeted him. ‘Feeling better?’

He didn’t say anything for a long moment, just standing down the corridor and staring at me, face all twisted up; confused and hurting. I waited... I’d put the ball in his court, after all.

‘My father,’ he finally managed, voice all raspy and choked. ‘Wouldn’t do what you’re accusing him of.’

He fairly quivered with tension, and I knew I was probably not going to be able to avoid a blow up, but had to try none the less. ‘Spencer... your father made a serious error in judgment when he chose to ignore the law and...’

‘He was only trying to help me!’ he blurted, and the expression on his face made me think of kicked puppies.

‘I know that,’ I soothed. ‘But you can’t ignore the rules. Look what happened when that vane went down; that’s exactly why you don’t leave an inexperienced pilot alone at the helm. Your father knew that too.’

His face got all scrunched up and he came a couple of steps closer, remembering Avery, I imagined. ‘I told you about that in confidence! I can’t believe you’re doing this to us!’ he said and it was almost a wail.

‘Spencer, please,’ I tried again. ‘This isn’t about your father letting you pilot a damn shuttle. This is about what he tried to do to cover that fact up.’

He came the rest of the way to meet me; his face flushed a blotchy red. I automatically took a step back, turning so that my back was to the wall and not to open corridor. ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ he exclaimed. ‘I trusted you!’

‘Spencer,’ I sighed, resisting the urge to bury my hands in my hair and beat my own head against the wall. ‘First off, you don’t even know me! Second, my partner is a damn Preventors agent; you think he could ignore something like this? And third, we might very well have taken your father aside and just given him a warning... right up until the part where he tried to space us to cover his ass!’ I was a little surprised that I was getting a bit angry myself. I knew better; he was just a damn kid, but I was just so stinking tired.

Then Spencer grabbed hold of the front of my shirt, yelling, ‘My father is not a murderer!’ in my face. I swayed back, losing our bag off my shoulder, but was reluctant to just shove the poor kid off.

‘No,’ I snapped. ‘He is not. By the grace of Heero’s strength and nothing more... he is not.’

Standing there like that, with my shirt fisted in his hands, the falling bag, my apparent loss of balance... from the other end of the corridor, these things probably looked pretty much like Spencer was attacking me.

At least that seemed to be what Heero was thinking as he came charging down the hall, intent on turning my ex-biggest fan into guacamole dip. I had to bodily put myself between them to even slow Heero down. ‘Stand-down!’ I barked, shoving Spencer behind me, and it was a very strange thing to watch my partner go from almost berserk to totally confused in the space of a heartbeat. ‘It’s all right, Heero,’ I told him quickly. ‘He wasn’t attacking me.’

He had to take me by the arm and pull me a couple of steps into the clear anyway. I was kind of surprised that the glare he was giving Spencer didn’t make the kid burst into flame where he stood. Over Heero’s shoulder, I saw Wufei and Ms. Scary coming down the corridor with matching frowns. The sound of the woman’s heels on the deck-plates was grating.

‘He didn’t hurt you?’ Heero demanded, still holding my arm and giving me a quick once over.

‘No,’ I soothed. ‘It’s all right. I...’

Then behind me Spencer sort of went to pieces, bursting into tears and collapsing to the deck in a heap. I contained a heavy sigh by biting my tongue. ‘I think somebody should go get Leslie,’ I told Heero and pulled away to squat down beside the... God, I had to stop thinking of him as ‘the poor kid’. I found myself awkwardly patting his back. ‘Come on, man,’ I said softly. ‘It’ll be all right...’

‘This is all my fault!’ he sobbed. ‘I never should have told anybody that I wasn’t licensed!’

‘Look, Spencer,’ I told him reasonably. ‘If you hadn’t told me, I would not have realized you were in trouble when that alarm went off. If we hadn’t gotten there when we did, the van array would have been blown and we’d all be halfway to Venus by now and no looking back.’

He looked up at me, blinking furiously, and you would have thought there was no one else in the corridor but me. ‘But Dad’s going to go to jail all because of me.’ For a second it actually crossed my mind to wonder just how old he was; in that moment he didn’t look any older than about sixteen.

‘If your father goes to jail,’ I said firmly. ‘It’s because of what he did, not because of what you did.’

I suddenly had a lap full of sobbing Spencer and would have cheerfully traded places with just about anybody else on that damn ship. Was this day never going to be over?

‘He’s going to hate me!’ he wailed and I really wished he’d quit that.

I couldn’t stop one of my hands from scrubbing over my face, and I looked up to see if anybody had gotten Leslie’s ass in gear yet. I really didn’t know how in the hell to deal with this. Wufei was missing, so I assume he was the one who went after her, but there was no sign of their return. So I bulled forward. ‘Your father loves you, buddy,’ I blurted. ‘He wouldn’t have risked his damn career if he didn’t.’

He lifted his head from my lap and looked up at me. ‘But if I hadn’t screwed up when that vane went down...’

‘Bullshit,’ I snapped, wishing I could just smack some sense into his head. ‘The array was damaged all on its own. The repairs would still have been needed. Avery would still have made his own mistake. Heero and I would still have had to go finish the job. Spencer... it would all have played out just the same.’ He just sat and stared at me and I couldn’t repress the sigh again. ‘Spencer, you aren’t innocent in this anymore than anyone else. You knew what you were doing was against the law, but Avery Hill is dead by his own hand, and your father is guilty by his. If you’re going to feel guilty... at least feel guilty over the right thing.’

‘I’m just so sorry for everything...’ he told me, looking at me searchingly, hunting for signs of my disgust, I think. Nothing like having someone you look up to, view you with disdain.

‘I know, kid,’ I told him. The best I could do.

Then Leslie was there, and she came to put an arm around his shoulders, urging him up. ‘Spencer,’ she hissed. ‘I think you should shut up now.’ No one got in their way as she led him away.

I did not have the strength to get myself off the damn deck.

I looked up to find Ms. Kasten with a calculated look on her face, watching the retreating shuttle crew members, and I suddenly realized that Spencer had somewhat inadvertently just confessed. It wasn’t anything that could be used against him, of course, but it had put the woman on the right scent and I had no doubt she’d pursue the facts until there was no blood left to squeeze from the turnip.

Heero came and offered me a hand up and I took it without argument, careful of his bruises. ‘I’m done, Heero,’ I told him, trying to let the apology lie in my tone. But it was the truth; I’d passed the end of my patience hours ago. Passed the end of my endurance and was closing fast on the end of my willingness to repress and contain.

‘Ms. Kasten,’ Heero said, doing his best to sound intimidating. ‘I will have a full report to you by tomorrow afternoon, but we’re...’

‘I want that report today, Mr. Yuy,’ she informed him with just a touch of arrogance in her voice. ‘I am the final authority on this port and no one is leaving until...’

‘It’ll take you until tomorrow to edit out all the damn ‘F’ words if you try and take my statement right now, anyway,’ I snarled. ‘Shoot me or charge me with something, because I am going the hell home to sleep until New Years, other wise.’

I’m really not sure what possessed me, but somehow I’d taken the right tact, and after a long damn minute, the woman threw back her head and laughed out loud. ‘Fair enough, Mr. Maxwell,’ she told me with a twinkle in her eye. ‘Consider it my Christmas present to you, since you didn’t plow my shuttle into the ground.’

‘Thank you,’ Heero interjected before I could open my mouth again, because God only knows what would have come out of it. Wufei grabbed our bag off the floor while Heero nudged me past the woman and we were finally headed out of there.

‘I do expect a full report by tomorrow afternoon, gentlemen,’ she called after us, but nobody responded.

‘Damn, Duo,’ Wufei chuckled at me, when we were finally down the ramp and on the ground. ‘That woman has a reputation a mile high as a gold-plated... tyrant. She must like you.’

‘I doesn’t matter one way or the other,’ I told him. ‘I was serious... they’d have to shoot my ass to keep me here any longer. I have had all I can take and I’m going the hell home.’

He gave me a rather surprised glance and then quirked a little grin. ‘Trip go well?’

He got the laugh he was looking for, but it took a great deal of effort for me to get it wrestled to a stop again. ‘Fucking ducky,’ I told him ruthlessly when I could, and beside me Heero muttered,

‘Later, Wufei.’

Much later, I wanted to tell them. Way later. Days later, in fact. But I suspected I was drifting toward rude and just shut up.

Wufei’s car was there on the field with the rest of the security vehicles and he led us to it. I didn’t wait for anybody to try to put me anywhere, but opened the back door and threw myself down on the seat; I don’t even remember anyone shutting the damn door.

Wufei ended up just driving us home. I think he was afraid of letting Heero drive as tired as he looked, and not having to try prodding me out of one car and into another was just an added bonus. If they’d had much more trouble getting me to wake up when we got to the house, I’d probably have ended up being carried inside over someone’s shoulder. As it was, Heero had to stop me from heading straight for the couch as soon as he opened the front door. I think I snarled at him when he thwarted my exhausted body from seeking that first flat surface, but I let him herd me upstairs with the lure of our bed. I can’t tell you when we lost Wufei.

I was ditching clothes the minute I hit the top of the stairs, aiming for that glorious expanse of softness like a salmon on its single-minded trip upstream. Heero was right behind me. I barely let him pull back the covers before I was prone, burrowing into pillows and preparing to leave the mortal plane behind for as long as I could manage it. ‘Never leavin’ home again, Yuy. Never.’

He chuckled as he crawled in next to me, pulling me into his arms. ‘Amen to that,’ was the last thing I heard before I crashed and burned.

I think I’d just finally gotten to the emotional collapse part of the week’s schedule.

I have no idea how long I slept, because I have no idea what time it was when I got started. Through the rest of whatever remained of Christmas and into the next day.

I woke alone and wasn’t all that surprised. The clock told me it was mid-morning. My body told me it didn’t care. I might well have rolled over and gone back to sleep if I hadn’t needed to pee, bathe and eat, in that order.

‘Bout time ya got yer lazy ass up,’ Solo chuckled, not bothering to come out in the open.

‘Shut up, asshole,’ I muttered and rolled my ‘lazy ass’ out of bed. When I gained the hall, I heard the faint sound of Heero typing on his computer in the bedroom we had turned into a study. I knew he was working on Ms. Scary-woman’s damn report and just took myself off to the bathroom to begin the job of turning myself into a human being again.

The towels were still damp and I knew that Heero had been up for awhile and had already showered. So I didn’t feel bad about allowing myself some extra time. It felt wonderful to be clean again, though I remembered the whirlpool tub at the hotel with a faint pang of longing.

Clean, bladder-relieved and feeling a little more civilized, I left the bathroom intent on finding Heero. But when I opened the door, it was the smell of food that greeted me instead of the sound of typing. I went to get dressed, then headed down to the kitchen.

‘Hey,’ Heero greeted me as I came into the room. ‘You’re still alive.’

‘Barely,’ I grumbled and went unerringly towards him, where he stood by the stove, until I could nudge my way into the curl of his arm like an insistent puppy. He chuckled, but wrapped an arm around me, keeping the other one free to stir at what he had cooking.

‘You’re all right?’ I asked, settling my head against his shoulder.

‘Fine,’ he reported, sounding amused.

‘I’m all right?’ I asked and it took him a second longer but he answered with a chuckle.

‘Fine.’

‘That’s food and we get to eat it?’ I continued, taken with the urge to kiss his collar bone, and reached up to pull his t-shirt aside to do just that.

He hummed an affirmative and gave me a little squeeze.

‘Then tell me all the rest of that was just a nightmare,’ I requested, and he kissed the top of my head before replying.

‘Just a nightmare,’ he agreed companionably.

‘Good,’ I sighed. ‘That means we don’t have to go visit Amazon woman today.’

He snorted and left off stirring what looked to be some sort of chowder when I peeked, to put both arms around me. ‘I said it was a nightmare... I didn’t say it was over.’

‘Damn,’ I muttered dejectedly. ‘You’re not working with me here.’

‘Sorry,’ he murmured, managing to mix amusement and regret in his voice until it came out just sounding affectionate. ‘Come on... this is ready whenever you are.’

‘I was ready about this time yesterday,’ I quipped and made myself let go of his warmth to go pour our drinks while he dished it up.

It proved to be some sort of chicken chowder and it came with these lovely little cheese biscuits that I had to force myself to stop eating before I exploded. My bottle of iron tablets was sitting in the middle of the table and I had to chuckle at the image of Heero making sure he kept those with him at all costs through the whole week, over and above anything else. I took one without him having to nudge the bottle and he smiled at me.

Half way through doing the dishes, I suddenly felt a shiver run up my spine and found myself staring down into dirty dish water, head trying to make an adjustment that just seemed too difficult.

‘Duo?’ Heero asked gently, touching my shoulder and I looked up at him.

‘This is... so fucking surreal it isn’t even funny,’ I had to tell him. ‘From plotting reentry to... to thinking about putting dish soap on the grocery list... do you think we’ll ever reach an age where we stop being able to switch mental gears in hyper-drive like this?’

He snorted and shook his head. ‘No... it’ll just be arthritis medicine instead of dish soap.’

That struck me as supremely funny, but when I started to laugh I had a really hard time getting it stopped and ended up getting Heero’s shirt all wet when he had to hold on to me. Or I had to hold on to him, I’m not sure just which it was.

I heard the rush of air again, hissing as that air lock door first started to open, and I wondered that I hadn’t had screaming nightmares all night.

‘Love you,’ I had to tell him and it made him squeeze me tight.

‘Forever,’ he soothed and then we finished the dishes.

Cooking, dishes, unpacking; it may all have seemed surreal as hell, but it was stuff that needed to be done, and no one else to do it.

I went to the basement to fetch a laundry basket while Heero drug the suitcase into the kitchen to empty it. Everything that was left in it was dirty and there was no sense in hauling it upstairs only to have to bring the dirty clothes back down again.

When I came back up from the laundry room, I found Heero with a little grin on his face and a roll of paper in his hand. ‘You forgot your Christmas present from Allison.’

I broke into a grin of my own and sat the basket down to take it from him. He began dumping the dirty clothes in said basket, watching as I slid the ribbon off and unrolled the picture. I suppose I had been expecting the usual fare of unicorns and flying horses. Maybe a picture of the house. Maybe a picture of Mrs. Octavia. Elves. Rainbows. I don’t really know.

I hadn’t been expected what I got, and I felt like I’d been kicked squarely in the nuts when it was opened up and revealed. Kids have a way of seeing things sometimes, that just sort of twists it all up into a neat little package and dumps crap right in your face.

It was a portrait of me. Allison, recognizable because of her long blond hair the way it had been before it had been cut, was perched on my shoulder, safely out of reach of the humongous dog that I was vanquishing with almost superhuman ease.

The dog was an ugly, slavering thing. Black and brown and as vicious looking as any starving junk yard dog you’d ever want to meet. But the me in the picture didn’t seem to be noticing. It lay on its back with my foot squarely in its stomach, pinning it to the ground without even looking. I was smiling at Allison-on-my-shoulder. Allison-on-my-shoulder, unmarked and unchanged, was smiling back.

It wasn’t a Rembrandt. It was a picture done by a child, albeit a talented one. There were flaws; my braid was a bit too long. I couldn’t have held her up on one shoulder like that. Left and right hands were difficult to tell apart. But the thought was as clear as a bell. The idea behind the art was unmistakable.

I guess I lost my grin.

‘Duo?’ Heero asked gently. ‘What’s wrong?’

I gave him a wan little smile and turned the picture around where he could see it too. It took him a moment longer to decipher it, not being familiar with grade school art, and then he looked kind of pained. ‘Oh,’ he said and couldn’t seem to come up with anything else. I saw his hand twitch and knew he’d be reaching for me in a moment, but I was kind of afraid of where that would lead, so I turned away and put my picture on the refrigerator, since that’s what I’d told her I was going to do with it. Then I just kind of left the room, because I felt sort of lousy and didn’t really feel like making Heero feel like crap too.

I took myself off to my studio and threw my butt down to sit on the old sofa there, finding Heero’s afghan still draped over the back of the thing and pulling it around me. I wondered if that room would be cool in the summer or not. It was sure cold enough at mid-winter.

Heero’s Christmas portrait on the wall took me a little bit by surprise; I’d almost forgotten the thing was there. It was still new and had not yet become part of the background. I wondered idly why the kids weren’t among the things I’d tried to render out that window; I’d certainly thought about them often enough during those days. I wondered if it would be wrong to add them now.

Such faith she had in me. Such belief. The meaning was as obvious as a message in sky-writing. She honestly believed that, had I been there that day, I would have kept that dog from hurting her. Mr. Duo makes everything all better. Mr. Duo can fix anything.

Well, at least she hadn’t drawn me wearing a damn red cape.

Was there nothing in my life that I could keep safe? Was there no aspect that wasn’t touched with my failure to be in the right places at the right times? Would I always prove to be too weak? Too late? Too... whatever in the hell it was?

How in the hell did you make something like this right? How did you give a kid back something as precious as the face that the world judged them by?

I hadn’t lied to her or Heero about that. I didn’t feel that the scar on Allison’s face made her anything less than what she had been before. She was still my beautiful little sprite. Was still gifted and bright and talented.

But don’t tell me that scar stopped on her skin. Scars like that go all the way to the bone. She could not forget it. She would see it every day when she looked in the mirror and it would make her shy. It would make her hesitant. It would make her doubt and fear and wonder at every glance she got. Are they looking at my scars? Do they think I’m ugly? Are they talking about it? Are they going to stare?

I knew those feelings all too well, but I’d been on the threshold of becoming a man and had come through it mostly intact. Had managed not to let the damning things define me. At least... mostly not.

But what about Allison? She wasn’t almost grown; she was only seven. It couldn’t help but change her; I’d seen signs already. How do you fix that? Without benefit of a time machine?

Heero let me sit and brood for awhile before he came to hunt me up, not saying anything, just sitting down beside me and offering himself for whatever I was in the mood for. Talking. Weeping. Whatever came up. I settled on leaning against his shoulder.

‘You know I’ve got to try and figure out a way to arrange that surgery, don’t you?’ I told him, half expecting him to argue with me; we were talking about a good chunk of change, after all.

But he only snorted, reaching out to take my hand. ‘I knew that the minute Octavia mentioned it,’ he informed me in a smug little, tender tone.

I sighed heavily, letting my hand lie limp in his, careful not to put pressure on his bruises. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

‘Don’t be,’ he said softly. ‘That... need of yours to protect the world is part of what makes you the man I love.’

I found myself blushing hotly. ‘You don’t get sick of all the... excess baggage?’

He chuckled and brought our hands up so that he could kiss my knuckles. ‘Never,’ he said simply, sounding amused by the very notion.

‘I am sorry, Heero,’ I suddenly felt compelled to tell him. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately. I don’t know why I keep feeling so... down.’

There was a stillness in the air then, that made me look at him. Had I not known for a fact that he hadn’t been eating anything, I’d have sworn that something was caught in his throat. I waited and it took him a few minutes to work the words out.

‘Duo-love,’ he finally began. ‘You’ve... forgotten what the season means.’

I frowned, trying to make sense of what he was saying. ‘I don’t understand,’ I told him.

He sighed, and I think he’d hoped I’d get whatever he was saying without him having to elaborate, but I was just baffled. I could tell he didn’t really want to say what he did next. ‘We’re coming up on the anniversary of the day you launched... on that job,’ he said gently.

I’m afraid I just sat and blinked at him.

Well now. An anniversary of sorts. A year. A whole damn year. No wonder I was so stinking depressed.

I wondered how I could not have known that.

I wondered why it was something of a relief to have it pointed out to me. To know what it was that had been subconsciously eating at me for the last few weeks. The mind is a seriously screwed up thing, when you get right down to it; it’s all done with smoke and mirrors, I think. And sometimes my smoke seemed to get a little thick. Or maybe my mirrors were all the funhouse kind.

I lifted my head from his shoulder and quirked him a little grin. ‘Happy anniversary?’

His smile was a lovely anniversary gift. ‘I suppose it will be,’ he agreed, seeming pleased that I could see it that way. I settled my head back on his shoulder, having to think about it a little bit. Having to let myself remember. Had to poke at the what ifs and the might have beens.

‘Did I ever say thank you,’ I blurted. ‘For coming after me?’

He laughed and let go of my hand to slip his arm around me, tilting my head back to kiss me. ‘I believe you did... somewhere in there.’

I snorted, just leaning against him. Feeling his warmth.

A year. Sometimes it seemed like a million years ago... and sometimes it seemed like just yesterday.

We sat like that for a while, in companionable silence, until he finally sighed and told me with some regret, ‘We have to be in Ms. Kasten’s office in two hours and I have got to finish my report first.’

‘Oh joy,’ I grumbled and he laughed at me. I sat up so that he could go get to work, but he had to kiss me before he went. Deep and slow; promising more later. Promising much more later.

I sat for a long while after he left me there, and stared at the painting on the wall. Tried to look at the picture itself with a critical eye. Tried to see beyond the flaws. Tried to see what there was in it that had taken Heero’s breath away.

Then I got up to go get the phone.

Heero had all the guys programmed in, and I hit the 03 that would dial Trowa’s private cell phone, smiling at the old joke.

‘Hello?’ he said after the second ring, and I wondered where he was and what he was doing. Wondered if I was bothering him.

‘Hi, Trowa,’ I said, feeling suddenly awkward, losing my amusement over the speed dial programming. ‘You got a minute?’

‘Of course,’ he told me. ‘What do you need?’

‘An honest opinion about something,’ I informed him, glad he couldn’t see me squirming.

‘I think I can do that,’ he said, his tone implying a chuckle he didn’t actually deliver.

I hesitated a minute, thinking about wording, and he waited patiently for me. ‘I can’t ask any of the other guys, because they’re so damn... besotted with it. But I think I can trust you to be straight with me.’

He did chuckle then. ‘Maybe I will be... if you get around to telling me what this is about.’

‘My artwork,’ I blurted before I ended up just hanging up and forgetting the whole thing. ‘They’re all so damn in awe of it, but when I look; all I see are the things I did wrong. The things that don’t look like what I saw in my head. Trowa... am I any good, or not?’

‘Yes, Duo,’ he told me with a sound to his voice that was both firm and affectionate. ‘You are very good. If there are flaws in your work; I don’t see them.’

I gnawed on that for a second and then forced myself to go on to the next question. ‘This sister of Quatre’s... just what does she have in mind?’

‘She wants to take your work into the gallery,’ he told me, quite matter of factly. ‘She wants to introduce you to the art world.’

‘What’s she get out of it?’ I had to ask, because it’s been my experience that people don’t generally do things without a reason.

‘Prestige,’ he said, without hesitation. ‘If she discovers a major new talent, it elevates her standing in the circles she runs in.’

‘What do I get out of it?’ I asked, feeling somewhat mercenary, but I was quite deliberately on the kitchen phone and staring at Allison’s picture, bolstering my resolve.

‘It depends on what you want, Duo,’ he told me. ‘Anything from simple exposure to the certainty of some very lucrative sales.’

Lucrative sales; there were the magic words. Because that was very much what I was after; the money to buy my Allie-cat’s bright smile. The money to make a thing right.

I smoothed my fingers gently over the picture on my fridge and told Trowa, ‘Can... can you guys tell her I’m ready to talk?’

It was his turn to hesitate, though he wasn’t quiet near as long as I had been. ‘Are you sure about this, Duo?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, though I wasn’t at all. ‘I am.’

‘Ok then,’ he told me. ‘I’ll talk to Quatre and we’ll get back with you.’

‘All right,’ I agreed and wondered if he heard the note of panic in my voice.

‘Duo,’ he said then, voice oddly warm. ‘You really are very damn good.’

‘Thanks, Tro,’ I managed, and we hung up.

Holy bleeding hell; what had I just done?’

‘You couldn’t have just asked me?’ Heero’s voice was gently chiding, but didn’t sound all that serious, and when I turned to find him in the kitchen doorway, he was looking at me with that cocked-head smile.

‘You’re besotted,’ I accused.

His smile widened and he came to take me in his arms. ‘Yes... I am.’

I snorted and tried to settle my head on his shoulder, but he recognized it as the hiding that it was, and wouldn’t let me.

‘So did Trowa give you the confirmation you needed?’ he asked.

I blushed, as I had known I would, and dropped my eyes. ‘He thinks I’m pretty good.’

Heero laughed delightedly. ‘Pretty good,’ he mocked. ‘He didn’t tell you you were amazing?’

‘Stop it,’ I grumbled.

He did quit teasing, but his smile refused to fade. ‘So tell me; what brought this on?’

I felt my face heating further and looked down, studying the pattern in the linoleum. ‘I didn’t figure you’d let me take a second job,’ I muttered and listened to it get quiet.

His fingers found there way under my chin and he coaxed me into looking up at him. His expression was... wistful. ‘So this is about... the money?’

I cringed; it made me feel so damn mercenary. ‘No,’ I told him, sounding sullen despite myself. ‘It’s about Allison.’

There was a small sound of understanding, but he left it hang there and I finally sighed heavily. ‘I guess... a year is just a long time to drift around trying to figure out what I am.’

His hand moved the rest of the way and cupped my face, thumb stroking gently over my cheek. ‘Not so long,’ he soothed. ‘You take all the time you need.’

I couldn’t contain a rueful little grin. ‘Heero,’ I told him firmly. ‘It’s time you took the training wheels off. I don’t need babied any more... I need...’

He grinned too. ‘Kicked in the ass?’

I blinked at his wording, then impulsively, I turned and kissed the hand that was caressing my cheek. ‘Exactly.’

His smile faded and he took me into a tight embrace. ‘I don’t know that I can do that.’

‘Yeah you can,’ I chuckled, remembering his firm voice leading me through my mental mine-field when I’d faltered. ‘I’m not asking you to be an asshole, I’m just asking...’

‘I know,’ he whispered.

‘I guess I just need to know what I am now,’ I told him.

His lips came to brush against my ear. ‘My partner?’

‘As happy as that makes me,’ I sighed as he traced my earlobe with the tip of his tongue. ‘I need to figure out what I am... on my own. I’m not a spacer. I’m not a salvage man. Just what the hell am I? A mechanic? I think... I want more than that.’

He drew back to look at me, all trace of teasing gone. ‘You know I’ll support you in whatever you want to do.’

‘I know,’ I smiled. ‘And that means the world to me.’

He kissed me then, and not in the gentle way he had been. It was deeper... hungry. I was aching with need in a matter of moments, hands tangled in his hair, body struggling to get closer to his. But I knew we didn’t have the time. Despite Heero’s reappearance downstairs; I’m sure he wasn’t done with his report. I tried to draw away, tried to still the urges making me kiss him so hungrily in return. Making me press myself against him. But he wouldn’t let me, following my retreat until we were backed against the refrigerator.

‘Stop denying yourself,’ he commanded, voice husky. ‘Stop denying me.

I blinked at him, wide-eyed, suddenly consumed with guilt. ‘I didn’t mean to... I wasn’t... God Heero; not there. I couldn’t...’

‘Shhhh,’ he told me, tone gentling, looking at me intently. ‘I know. But we’re home now.’

‘We don’t have time,’ I whispered, even as I was moved to kiss the hollow of his throat. Kiss the pulse in his neck, so strong and so fast.

‘We’ll make time,’ he growled. ‘Because I need this every bit as badly as you do.’

I couldn’t have refused that if my life had depended on it. I didn’t want to.

I let him convince me. I let me convince me. All the longing and need from the trip came home to roost and I didn’t think we’d make it up the damn stairs. Clothes became an irritation, to be jerked off and discarded as fast as possible. There was little in the way of foreplay. I wanted him inside me. I needed to give. He needed to take. It very quickly became desperate. Frantic. Demanding. Damn loud. And, my God... damn wonderful.

We ended up being more than just a little late. Ms. Kasten was not a happy woman. But you know... we just didn’t care.

End Traditions

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