Traditions (cont)

‘Damn,’ I muttered and suddenly felt very tired. Over twelve hours. God; I hadn’t done anything like that in ages. I felt... oddly drained. The arm around me seemed suddenly supportive without really changing position. ‘Uh... Merry Christmas?’ I murmured against Heero’s collarbone.

He just didn’t seem to know what to say, I felt him swallow almost convulsively and he turned to kiss the top of my head. ‘Thank you,’ he finally managed, voice raspy and thick.

I fidgeted under the press of the obvious depth of his emotion. It seemed strange to me. I couldn’t help feel my gift to him was nothing compared to what he was preparing to do on my behalf. Watching him struggle for words, feeling the almost palpable heat of his reaction was making me very uncomfortable.

‘Oh Duo,’ he whispered finally, and turned to take me fully into his arms, dusting kisses across my skin.

I held him, not understanding how overwhelmed he seemed to be. ‘Heero...’ I ventured, ‘it’s not...’

‘Shhhh,’ he breathed against the hollow of my throat. ‘It is. It’s wonderful and beautiful and you painted it for me.’ That seemed to be the sticky point somehow; the thing that was making his arms almost too tight, his voice unwieldy. ‘Just for me.’

I didn’t know quite what to say to him. Wasn’t sure how to respond, and when that rain of tiny kisses swept across my face again, I nudged upward until he met my questing lips. It turned rather demanding rather quickly.

He broke away, almost panting, and blurted, ‘God, I need you!’ We made it no farther than the couch right there in the room. I ended up throwing away two paint brushes the next day and I thought I’d never get the palette cleaned up, because I never did get back to put things away.

Morning found us still on the couch in my studio, and I don’t mind admitting that I woke up disoriented as all hell and surprised for the second day in a row to find Heero awake before me.

He’d gotten up at some point in the night to fetch the afghan from the living room, and we were cocooned in it together, wrapped up tight to fit on the couch. The sight that greeted me, when I blinked open gummy eyelids, was Heero, propped up slightly against the arm of the sofa, his one arm hooked around me to make sure I didn’t fall, and gazing across the room at the new mural on the wall. His expression, in the early morning light, was soft and open and spoke to me of great contentment.

‘Good morning,’ he told me, without looking down, somehow feeling that awareness had stolen over me again.

‘Morning,’ I croaked, stifling a yawn. ‘God... what did I do, pass out on you last night?’

His gaze, with some effort, left the painting and looked down at me. ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured. ‘You were much too tired for that; I should have realized.’

I couldn’t help a tiny grin. ‘You didn’t hear me complaining, did you?’

He bent to kiss me, an oddly gentle touch. ‘I never hear you complain,’ he said.

I tried to stifle the snort of derision... I really did. ‘My, aren’t we full of shit this morning?’ I teased, but it didn’t seem to shake him from his weird mood.

‘You’re such a romantic,’ he complained, smiling at me, and pressed his lips to the bridge of my nose. ‘Stop trying to spoil my moment.’

‘Your moment?’ I queried and raised an eyebrow.

‘My moment,’ he confirmed, and kissed my temple, just at the corner of my eye. ‘I’ve never been given anything like this before, and you are going to let me enjoy the feeling and not start with that damn self-deprecating crap.’

And of course, the majority of the things that wanted to tumble from my lips fell smack-dab in the middle of that category, so I just shut up. He grinned at me and turned his gaze back to the wall.

‘So many things inside that head of yours,’ he murmured.

‘Yeah,’ I grumbled uncomfortably. ‘It gets kind of crowded sometimes.’

He ignored me, his hand leaving my waist now that I was awake enough to make sure I didn’t roll off the couch, and sought my hand. Sought my scars.

‘When I asked for this,’ he said, a far-away look in his eyes. ‘I never even realized I was asking a question.’

‘Well,’ I had to tell him, feeling the beginnings of a faint blush. ‘I didn’t exactly know I was answering it.’

‘That... amazes me,’ he confessed. ‘The way it... takes you over. I’ve never seen you like that before. I called to you, but it was like you didn’t even really hear me.’

The blush got beyond the faint stirrings stage and I stammered out, ‘I’m sorry... I didn’t mean to ignore you.’

He smiled softly, almost sheepishly, still looking at his picture. ‘Well, I didn’t try very hard to get your attention, once I realized where you were. I... was afraid of spoiling it.’

I blinked up at him, suddenly realizing something that should probably have occurred to me earlier. ‘Just when did you get home?’

He did look back at me then, and smiled lovingly. ‘Around six.’

Heat flooded up through me again and I stared up at him, wide-eyed. ‘You didn’t sit here that whole time, did you?’

‘It’s not like it was a chore,’ he whispered, his fingers letting go of my hand to come and trace over my face. ‘You’re damn beautiful when you’re painting. So intense... so focused. I could have watched you all night.’

I managed to combine my carp imitation with my spontaneous combustion parlor trick and he ended up laughing at me in pure delight.

‘I’m not...’ I muttered, but he stopped me with a look.

‘You are,’ he said simply, kissing the end of my nose. Then he turned back to look at the mural again, clearly closing the topic. I sighed, but held my tongue, just lying and watching him look.

Then I saw his expression go a little pensive and his arm snaked around my waist again, almost unconsciously.

‘Ask,’ I commanded, and caught him enough by surprise that I got to see his own tiny blush.

It was his turn to sigh and his arm pulled me close. ‘Duo... that man...’

‘Jensen?’ I supplied. ‘The guy from that mobile doll factory?’

He nodded, his eyes growing hard and his expression turning damn fierce for a moment. ‘He weighs on your thoughts... a lot sometimes. He... I mean... he didn’t...’

Heero Yuy, floundering for words, is a thing that could turn a rabid Rottweiler to mush. I stretched up and kissed his cheek. ‘He never so much as got my shirt unbuttoned,’ I reassured. ‘But... the man was a rapist and a murderer. It just kind of got to me... knowing what he’d intended. I don’t really know why; I guess I’d just never come that close before.’ Despite myself, I found memory supplying me with details and I shivered.

Heero was looking damn disturbed and couldn’t have held me any closer. ‘I’m sorry... I shouldn’t have asked.’

‘It’s all right, love, he never really hurt me,’ I told him, and had to snort softly when Heero’s hand came to gently touch the side of my face where Jensen had damn near cleaned my clock. ‘You know what I mean,’ I had to justify. ‘He didn’t come anywhere close to doing what he’d taken me in to that factory to do. He was just... a damn big man. I hate to admit it... but he scared me.’ I found the encounter replaying in my head and fought down another shiver. Fought down the bile that rose in my throat whenever I let myself remember too much. ‘I just... I just...’

‘What?’ Heero pressed, when I stumbled to a halt, having already said more than I’d intended to.

I sighed and tried on a grin. ‘Nothing. It’s stupid.’

‘Tell me,’ he said, voice very intense. ‘Please?’

He was leaning over me, staring into my eyes and I found my mouth opening of its own accord. ‘I wanted my first kiss to be with you... not on behalf of some damn mission. Not from some damned...’ I hardly recognized the voice as my own, and stopped when I heard it starting to strain.

We just stared at each other for a long minute and then he gently gathered me in, turning me to face him and holding me tight. ‘Oh God, Duo,’ he whispered. ‘I shouldn’t have let you go... I should have aborted the whole damn mission... I...’

‘Hush,’ I chided. ‘Long ago and far away. Doesn’t matter now. It’s all over and done.’

‘It does matter as long as that bastard lives in your memory,’ he said fiercely, and I could feel his agitation in his elevated heartbeat. He drew back a little to look down at me, his expression a strange mix of furious and pained. ‘You had nightmares about him... right after,’ he told me softly.

I smiled up at him, able to answer the disquiet in his eyes. ‘But you came and chased him away.’

He started and looked at me long and hard. ‘You... knew?’

I stretched and kissed him lightly. ‘I thought you were a dream. Until much, much later.’

The furious part won out for a second and he suddenly blurted, ‘I’ve never wanted to kill another human being as much as I wanted to kill that son of a bitch.’

‘Well he’s quite good and dead,’ I told him, trying to lighten things back up. Trying to take away the look on his face. I pushed up to prop on an elbow, trusting Heero’s grip to keep me on the couch. ‘Now I think it’s time we forgot about him.’

His anger did fade then, but was quickly replaced by concern. ‘You’re trembling,’ he observed, suddenly fearful. ‘Damn it... I’m so stupid; you didn’t eat yesterday at all, did you?’

I opened my mouth to protest, but it was pretty pointless because he was already in motion. Before I could mutter a ‘what the fuck’, he was off the couch and I was firmly tucked in and had been informed to stay the hell put until he came back. It hardly seemed worth the effort of arguing. So I stretched and yawned and stayed the hell put.

He didn’t even take the time to hunt up his clothes, padding off stark naked for the kitchen and I could only pray he wasn’t intending on frying bacon. Ouch.

He rather amazes me how totally unself-conscious he is about his nudity. At least around me. But then, I suppose if I had a body like a damn Greek sculpture, I wouldn’t be all that self-conscious either.

I honestly had intended to wait where he’d left me, but after a bit of lying there, with all those old memories stirred up, I knew I was on the verge of replaying the feel of Jensen’s tongue invading my mouth, of his breath hot on my face and I shivered and scrambled after Heero, the afghan wrapped around my shoulders.

I did have to admit that I was feeling just a touch bit wobbly, but could tell it was nothing a decent meal wouldn’t fix, and just wished Heero would stop making a federal case out of things.

Heero frowned at me when I slid into a chair at the kitchen table, and I grinned at him. ‘Didn’t think I’d miss the opportunity to watch you cooking in the nude, did you?’ I quipped, but I could tell from his expression that something in my voice gave me away. He paused in what he was doing to pour me a glass of juice and bring me my bottle of iron tablets. He bent while he was next to me and kissed me gently on top of the head. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said simply and then went back to work.

Heero is... a damn fine looking man. It will never cease to amaze me that he wants me out of all the billion people he could have at a snap of his fingers. And while I love to see him aroused and wanting me... there’s something about seeing him like he was then, that just warms me all over. He’s not thinking about anything but the job at hand, and not excited in any way. Just moving about, completely comfortable in his own skin. I kind of envy that sometimes.

It didn’t take him long before he had a couple of omelets on the table along with a bowl of fresh fruit, and he topped off my glass of juice before sitting down to join me.

I let the afghan drop from my shoulders and pool around my waist, and dug in, suddenly very damn hungry. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before and I could see in Heero’s eyes that there was a lecture coming on. He’s been very damn touchy about the subject since the day I passed out at work. I was quick to start a conversation before he had a chance to chastise me about it. It’s not like I did it on purpose.

‘So,’ I ventured. ‘You were gone quite a while yesterday.’

He grudgingly allowed himself to be led onto the new topic, but I could tell I’d damn well better eat whatever he put in front of me or we’d end up right back where we started.

‘I managed to get all the arrangements made,’ he informed me, a touch of self-satisfaction in his voice. ‘We’re booked on a shuttle day after tomorrow and I have reservations on L2...’

I think he said some more. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that he probably said some more. But I hadn’t been thinking about it too hard when I’d led us down this conversational path. I stopped hearing anything much after the word ‘shuttle’. I’d let that word get inside my head and all manner of things were waking up and looking around and firmly asking, ‘What the fuck?’

I didn’t need that little boy who lived in the back of my head to take notice and start in already. I had no doubt he’d go to work on my nerves the first second he could, and I didn’t much want to get it going already. Shuttle. Such a simple little word to mean so damn much. My mouth was suddenly dry as dust and I reached for my glass of juice with a hand that was not altogether steady.

Heero caught it in his own and held it. I looked up to meet his concerned gaze and gave him a rather wan, lop-sided smile. ‘We’ll do better if we don’t talk about it,’ I had to tell him. It was no more than the truth and he might as well figure that out right damn now. This wasn’t going to be a cakewalk and as much as I hated looking like a moron in front of him, he needed to realize that from the start.

He looked kind of sad for a minute, and seemed to be working with something he wanted to say, but wasn’t sure how. Guilt was nibbling his way up the back of my leg, working toward a good chunk out of my ass, I’m sure. I started thinking about what I was probably preparing to put Heero through and it suddenly didn’t seem like such a damn good idea.

‘We should call this off,’ I blurted.

He blinked at me in surprise. ‘What?’ was all he could manage.

‘This is a really bad idea, Heero,’ I told him, and wished I could get my hand away from him. There was a rising something or other in my chest that I suspected was going to want to take off here in a minute for some quality time alone with a little thing I like to refer to as ‘emotional fallout’.

But he surprised me. ‘This isn’t like you. I thought you said you were sure?’

I sighed, gave a half-hearted tug of my hand that only made him hold on tighter, and said, ‘This is so fucking unfair to you... I don’t think...’

‘Enough of that,’ he scolded. ‘What’s this all about? The other night, when you made up your mind, I think I would have had to hog-tie you to keep you from going. Why the doubts?’

‘I wasn’t thinking,’ I had to tell him, staring down at my plate. ‘I don’t know that I can ask you to go through this, just because I got a wild hair...’

He tugged on my hand until my gaze flicked up to meet his. ‘You aren’t asking me for anything. As I recall, this was all my idea.’

I frowned and looked away, studying the intricate layers of egg and cheese in my omelet. ‘Well, it’s hardly going to be a picnic for you; you don’t even know the kids or Octavia. It’s all about me and that’s not fair.’

I could hear the gentle amusement in his voice and had to look back up to see the expression that went with it. ‘Who says it’s all about you? It’s about my loving you and wanting to make you happy. I want to do this, Duo-love, and if all your doubts are for my sake... then they don’t count.’

The only thing I could manage was a very quiet, ‘O...ok.’ I hated that I caved to him that easily. Hated that I was allowing him to win the argument only because it was what I really wanted in the first place. Sort of.

We finished breakfast in relative quiet and then spent most of the rest of the day making general preparations for a trip I was pretending we weren’t making. Laundry needed to be done anyway, right? If Heero was taking some of it and putting it in a suitcase currently sitting open in the guest bedroom, instead of in the dresser where it belonged, well; who said that had to have anything to do with a trip?

And if Heero called Trowa, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. If he chose to ask him to fetch our mail for the next few days, what did that have to do with anything?

I do denial fairly damn well, don’t you think? It’s really something of an unappreciated art form.

Look; it’s like this... there was absolutely nothing I could do about the trip and how I might or might not react to it. Two days is not enough time to go through a thorough psych evaluation, or take up Zen meditation. So why think about something that is going to twist your gut into macramé knots for no reason? It’s not denial so much as... scheduling.

I just wished my methods of avoiding internal conflict with the voices in my head didn’t worry Heero so damn much. I figured out pretty quick where the triggers lay, and simply avoided them. It kind of got to me to see the open suitcase, so I just steered clear of the guest room. It made me twitch to say ‘the trip’, so if it became absolutely necessary to refer to it, I simply used the term ‘day after tomorrow’.

These were all things that seemed to bother Heero no end. So as the day wore on he started to... hover. Ever noticed how I react to that? Apparently, he hasn’t. We were feeding each other’s anxieties and by the end of the day, were both a little on edge.

It was fairly late, when I found him in the dining room, carefully packing the kid’s presents into the extra suitcase. It... made me feel very odd.

‘Heero,’ I admonished. ‘You don’t need to do that, I can get it.’

‘It’s all right, I don’t mind’ he said, and the ‘poor baby’ look he gave me made the heat flare in my face. He was doing that sheltering thing again, and it made me feel like a pathetic loser.

‘They’re my gifts,’ I heard pop out of my mouth, rather harshly. ‘I can get them.’

He kind of froze, looking up at me with this strange, fearful look in his eyes. It was that look he gets when he’s unsure of my reaction to something, but is fairly certain it’s not going to be good. Not going to be... entirely rational. I hate that look about as much as I hate anything in this world. Lovely feeling to know your lover doubts your sanity sometimes.

‘Fine,’ I growled, though he’d never spoken, and whirled away, feeling like an idiot and not knowing what to do about it. I’ve never really known how to wipe that look out of his eyes. ‘I’m taking the trash out... go ahead and finish.’

I knew it came out kind of pissed off sounding, but I couldn’t seem to help it. Any more than I could help slamming the cabinet doors when I got the garbage bag out to replace the one I damn near tore getting it pulled out of the kitchen trashcan. Heero wisely chose to stay in the dining room while I stormed around the house emptying trashcans into the bag. By the time I’d gotten the ones upstairs, I’d cooled off enough that I felt like a raving lunatic and wasn’t stomping quite so much. I felt so stupid, in fact, that when I went back downstairs, I took my trash bag out the back door and walked clear around the house rather than have to pass the room where I’d left Heero.

I don’t even remember dumping the garbage bag on the curb.

I found myself sitting on the front steps of the house, the cold seeping up through my butt, staring at the stars and wondering if I really had lost my mind.

That had been totally uncalled for. What the hell difference did it make which one of us packed the stupid presents in the stupid suitcase? It obviously didn’t, except for that part where Heero thought it would upset me. So it hadn’t really had a damn thing to do with packing? Maybe it had more to do with the idea of Heero trying to protect me from a suitcase? Or maybe the twisted reality that maybe I needed to be protected from something as asinine as... packing for a trip to L2.

I thought it almost ruthlessly, dredging the fact up and tossing it on the table for all the little aspects of myself to see. Fuck you, stupid self. We’re going to L2 and if you don’t like it, you can just damn well lump it.

God... it was no damn wonder Heero thought I needed to be watched like a hawk. I dropped my head into my hands and sighed heavily. I really was something of an... unorthodox individual.

I heard the front door open quietly, and hesitant footsteps on the porch. The cold wood creaking under his feet, he took a couple of steps and then stopped, unsure of his reception, I imagine.

‘I’m sorry,’ I called softly and heard him close the distance. He settled on the step behind me and the afghan was draped around my shoulders.

‘It’s all right,’ he told me. ‘I understand.’

‘Never done stress well,’ I said, trying for teasing and failing.

He spooned in behind me, pulling me back until I was leaning against him, his thighs were warm on either side of me, his arms came to wrap around my shoulders. One of us sighed. ‘I understand,’ he repeated, and dropped a kiss on the back of my head. ‘You warned me,’ he said, voice just a bit wry.

I sighed again, chest feeling tight and lungs aching for a deep breath. ‘I feel like such an ass,’ I confessed.

His arms tightened and he brought his hand down to take mine, but instead of just holding it, he raised it to the center of my chest. I was surprised he remembered to curl it so that the back of my knuckles was pressed there, his fingers entwined with mine.

‘Duo-love,’ he said gently. ‘Do you feel your own heartbeat?’

I didn’t really need the hand on my chest to feel it; I’d been feeling it in the ache of my own throat for hours.

‘It’s been beating like a trip-hammer all day,’ he told me, voice soft and almost tentative. ‘You’re on an adrenaline overload. I never meant to put you under this kind of strain. I... I don’t know that we can manage this with you in this state.’

I wasn’t sure whether to feel relief or disappointment. ‘It’s all right, Heero... I told you I wasn’t sure I wanted to put you through this in the first place. We should just cancel the whole thing.’

He leaned down to rest his head against mine and sighed again. Rather heavily. He was quiet for a little bit before he ventured, ‘No... I think you’re right that you need to do this. I don’t want to call the trip off, I just... just want you to do something for me.’

I could tell from the tone of his voice that I wasn’t going to like whatever he had in mind. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t sure I could deny him anything he asked of me. And I was kind of afraid of what he was going to ask. I just waited, and he finally went on, taking my silence for the question it was.

‘I went down to the clinic yesterday and I got them to give me some tranquilizers.’ He felt me stiffen in his embrace and was quick to add, ‘Just to help you calm down. They aren’t meant to knock you out completely... just to help settle your nerves.’

I hoped there wasn’t enough starlight for him to see how beet red I was. How damn mortifying. I didn’t know what to think of the fact that he’d thought to do that. Didn’t know what to think of the fact that he’d obviously had no trouble getting what sounded like a prescription drug from the doctor at the clinic. For the first time, I wondered just what in the hell kind of information was in my personnel file at Preventors headquarters.

He seemed... encouraged by my continued silence and bulled forward. ‘Love, if you’re this uptight now... what is it going to be like Tuesday morning?’

He was still holding our linked hands to the center of my chest, and we both felt the lurch my heart made. There was just no denying the facts, and I gave a defeated little nod. I heard him sigh in sheer relief and he seemed to curl over me just a bit more.

‘I swear to you that I’ll be with you every step of the way,’ he whispered next to my ear, sounding like he was taking an oath.

I wasn’t sure how to tell him that that prospect unnerved me at the same time it offered me the strength to do this in the first place. I don’t know that I could make this trip at all if Heero wasn’t with me, but the idea of him seeing me like... like I’d been on that trip to L3 was enough to make me want to curl up in a ball and disappear.

‘Why do you put up with me?’ I marveled, looking up at the stars that called to both my dreams and my nightmares.

‘Because you’re everything I ever needed,’ he murmured, nibbling gently on the top of my ear. ‘Everything I ever wanted.’

I snorted softly. ‘Romantic tripe.’

‘Just the truth,’ he smiled and nuzzled against my hair.

‘You need to get out more... date around,’ I teased, but feeling the edge of something odd loaming in front of me.

‘I’m a married man,’ he informed me haughtily.

I felt a shiver wanting to start and knew the joking was done. ‘Tell me?’ I demanded, but when it came out of my mouth it was barely a sigh.

But he heard me anyway, and I found myself hauled up into his lap, turned and wrapped tight in his arms. ‘I love you, Duo Maxwell. You know that.’

I nodded against his shoulder and let the afghan fall away so that I could wrap my arms around his neck. ‘Heero... I haven’t... I mean I...’ I stopped floundering and drew back to look at him. ‘Thank you,’ I finally managed.

He smiled, leaning in to bury his face against my chest. ‘You’re welcome. Now let’s go inside... it’s cold out here.’

He tried to rise to his feet still holding me, but couldn’t quite manage to keep his balance under my weight. This seemed to please him no end for some strange reason. I stood, instead, and offered him a hand up. He took it, not letting go once we were on our feet, and bringing the afghan with him, led me back into the house.

I managed not to wake him with my nightmares that night.

Monday morning came entirely too soon. Not for the least, because it brought with it a change of evasive tactics. Not ‘day after tomorrow’ anymore; but ‘tomorrow’. God I wasn’t sure I was ready for this whole damn thing.

Heero somehow was aware that I’d had another bad night. I suppose I didn’t look all that great; I’d not gotten a hell of a lot of rest. ‘Why didn’t you wake me?’ he asked, sounding almost hurt.

‘One of us has to get some damn sleep,’ I grinned at him, having concluded somewhere in the deep of the night that I was going to have to make more of an effort to get my shit together or this was never going to work. I didn’t give him time to make any more objections, but went off to shower the sour stench of nightmare-sweat off.

I was a little surprised that he let it go, just going down to make breakfast and giving me a little space.

I was just as glad; it had been the drifting corpses dream, and that one always leaves me feeling just a little bit crawly for awhile. Kind of jumpy.

Breakfast was another overblown affair of these weird muffin things Heero had found, that had raisins and all manner of other ‘good for you’ things in them, sausage, fresh fruit, and juice. As far as I was concerned, it was enough for a family of five with leftovers for their dog.

This new quirk of Heero’s; cooking when I was upset, was already getting old. I managed a muffin and some of the fruit, and though I could tell he wasn’t thrilled, he let it go.

It was actually a bit of a relief to get to work. I am something of a master of... thought organization. Things can be quite nicely set aside to be dealt with when the time comes. Unless something, like Heero’s constant looks of concern, dredges up the thoughts I don’t want to think about and throws them in my face.

Griff and Giles and the rest of the guys had no idea that my impending holidays were going to be comprised primarily of my worst nightmare. So our conversations were about engines and tools, or their own holiday plans with their families.

Though I have to confess that I spent a little bit of time dwelling on the fact that those discussions weren’t making me squirm and want to be somewhere else, like they used to. Hearing other people talk about huge family Christmas celebrations when you’ll be going home to your empty ship to eat ration bars with your ghosts, your paintings and your teddy bear... used to be a tiny bit depressing.

Made me wonder what Heero used to do for the holidays. Made me wonder if he’d been as lonely. Then it made me wonder if he’d spent any of those Christmases with... anybody special, and I had to find something else to think about. Thought organization at its finest.

So I concentrated most of the morning on the running banter that sprang up when Dave admitted that he hadn’t gotten his wife’s gift yet and began lamenting how picked over everything was. He was given no quarter, especially from Giles who was quick to point out that he’d had his wife’s present for over a month.

‘Well, it ain’t so damn easy,’ Dave grumbled. ‘She won’t tell me what in the hell she wants! I’m supposed to be a damn mind reader?’

Giles and a couple of the other guys snorted their derision, sharing a knowing look and a roll of their eyes.

‘She’s telling you, moron,’ Giles chuckled. ‘You just ain’t listening.’

‘What the hell’s that supposed to mean?’ Dave groused, stopping work on the tune-up he was doing to glare past me at Giles.

‘Women don’t just come out and say I want so-and-so, you dip,’ Giles jeered, grinning over the hood of the car he was working on. ‘They drop hints. You have to listen.’

‘It’d be a damn site easier if women were more like men,’ Dave said, throwing a wrench into his toolbox in disgust. ‘If I damn well want something for Christmas, I ask for it!’

Somebody further down the line mumbled something that didn’t make it far enough for me to hear, but it garnered a handful of derisive chuckles and Dave whirled around to glare at the source. ‘That ain’t what I meant, and you assholes know it!’ he snapped, and I could tell he was starting to get a little irritated with all the teasing. ‘I just meant that men are easier to understand.’ Then he suddenly turned back around, looking at me and blurted, ‘Ain’t that right, Duo? I’ll bet Yuy isn’t making you fucking guess what he wants for Christmas!’

I was rather glad, at that moment, that my head was inside the engine compartment, because I felt my face burn until I was surprised ash wasn’t drifting down from it onto my work area. The whole damn garage went as silent as a tomb and it seemed the world was holding its collective breath. So into that silence, without ever looking up, I tossed a bold laugh and told him, ‘I don’t do Christmas, and listening to you guys bitch about it just confirms my choice. Sounds like a damn pain in the ass.’

Dave never missed a beat, seeming oblivious to the tension around him. ‘Well you’re no damn help!’

It sounded like the whole place remembered to breathe at the same time. I continued to stolidly remove bolts and just tried to get my face to stop burning. Beside me, Dave rummaged after a different wrench, muttering to himself for a second before blurting, ‘Well if you guys are so damn smart; you tell me what in the hell to get her!’

That fired off a round of suggestions that I won’t repeat, and the guys were off on a new tangent, for which I was very grateful.

Damn. Don’t get me wrong, I was vaguely aware that the place was vaguely aware that Heero and I were together, but it was something that had never just been brought out in the open before. That had been... vaguely weird. And damned embarrassing.

But shit-fire, it sure as hell gave me something else to think about.

I was rather proud of the fact that I wasn’t doing too bad by the time the lunch hour rolled around. Until I put my tools away, closed up my tool box and glanced up to find Trowa Barton standing by the front garage door.

He didn’t look any happier to be there than I was to see him. No damn doubt why he was darkening my doorway.

He gave me a sheepish little grin and cocked his head toward the diner up the street. I rolled my eyes, shook my head and made myself walk over to him.

‘Cluck,’ I said, as I came abreast of him.

He only raised an eyebrow questioningly, opening the door to let us out onto the street.

‘Mother-hen,’ I clarified, stopping on the sidewalk to look up at him. ‘So... when exactly did you get the call from Heero?’

He chuckled and ducked his head. ‘Actually, Wufei called me after spending the morning watching Heero nurse his ulcer.’

I felt my face flame and turned away, jamming my hands into my pockets. ‘So they thought that you could... what? Talk me out of it? Cure my phobias? What?’

He sighed, hearing the hint of irritation in my voice. ‘Give you somebody to talk to?’

I started walking, heading across the street intending on taking him over to the Andover deli. Damned if I was going to have this conversation in the diner across the way with half the Preventors organization in attendance. Trowa fell into step beside me without question.

‘Nothing personal, Trowa,’ I had to tell him. ‘But this is kind of annoying; I just spent the last couple of hours putting this whole thing out of my mind.’

He gave this tight little chuckle and I could feel him looking at my profile until we had to fall into single file for a few minutes to wind our way through a narrow part of the alley. ‘I think that’s what’s worrying Heero so much, Duo... your ‘I’ll worry about it tomorrow’ way of dealing with things.’

‘It worked for Scarlet O’Hara,’ I mumbled and won a snort of a laugh before he got it cut off.

He didn’t have an immediate reply and then we had to cross the next street over and our concentration went to dodging cars for a minute. When we hit the next sidewalk he blew out a breath and quipped, ‘Are we there yet?’

I laughed, glancing up at him and led the way into the next alley. ‘Almost.’

‘This place better be worth it,’ he muttered as he followed after me yet again.

‘The foods ok,’ I informed him. ‘But the bigger attraction is the fact that I don’t have to spend my lunch hour with fifty co-workers.’

That garnered a derisive snort. ‘You are a somewhat anti-social person, Duo Maxwell.’

‘You’ve just been around Quatre too long,’ I grinned back over my shoulder. ‘Your idea of ‘social’ has expanded quite a bit.’

He took a playful swing at my head, but I anticipated it and danced lightly out of the way.

Then we were out of the alley and he came to walk beside me again. ‘Welcome to the Andover deli,’ I grinned up at him and opened the door with a flourish, the little bell tinkling merrily.

He grunted, his eyes sweeping over the place for a second before stepping inside. He moved out of the way, and followed my lead to the counter.

We let the conversation lag while we made our sandwiches and got our drinks. I didn’t bother getting anything too complicated; I had a funny feeling that I wasn’t going to be all that hungry by the time Trowa was done with me.

We settled ourselves at a table by the front window, my favorite spot, and he couldn’t seem to help grinning at me as he sat down. ‘Could you not act like having lunch with me is akin to... waiting for your execution?’

I looked up from unwrapping my sandwich and quirked a grin. ‘Sorry... but we both know what you’re here to talk about and I can’t say I’m thrilled.’

His grin faltered and he gave me a look that was kind of... resigned. ‘I can’t say I’m all that thrilled either.’

‘Then how about we just spend the lunch hour talking about... cars or something?’ I ventured, and wasn’t really kidding.

He didn’t take it as teasing either, meeting my eyes with a very serious look and sighing softly. ‘Don’t tempt me.’ We just stared at each other for a minute and then he glanced back down at his lunch. ‘Why don’t we just eat first?’

So we did, and I was just as glad, because I knew Heero would ask me later if I’d had lunch. He’d asked every day since the stupid passing out thing, and it wasn’t overly pretty on those days when I had to tell him I hadn’t.

Anticipating the fact that lunch was probably going to end up feeling like a lump in my gut before the afternoon was over, I’d only gotten the small sandwich and finished several minutes before Trowa. I found my fingers nervously folding and unfolding my empty sandwich paper.

Watching him finish those last couple of bites, it suddenly came to me that this couldn’t be any more pleasant for him than it was for me. I’m sure the guys had asked him to come talk to me because they felt we had a ‘common ground’. That, of all of them, Trowa could best understand what I was going through. But damn; did they not understand that this sort of thing had to be just as hard for him? That they were asking him to dredge up his own ghosts and memories?

‘This is so fucking unfair,’ I blurted and he looked up at me sharply, eyes going wide. ‘Not you,’ I amended. ‘Them.

His expression cleared and he gave me a funny little, almost grateful look. But then he sighed again. ‘It’s all right. I don’t mind if it helps you at all.’

The sandwich paper was shrinking under my fingers, as I folded and folded again. ‘But it doesn’t really help me to sit and talk about it,’ I told him. ‘I just don’t get what they expect you to do over a damn lunch hour.’

His answering grin was a little self-deprecating. ‘I’m... not sure I know.’

He sipped his drink for a second and I continued to crease paper. My mind kept bypassing the real reason he was here and kept getting hung up on the part where Heero and Wufei had asked him to come. ‘You know,’ I told him before I realized I was going to, ‘they make me feel like some sort of psycho nut case who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown or something. Like they think I’m going to... to go postal.’

He leaned forward then, settling his arms on the table and looking at me intently. ‘Are you trying to tell me this trip isn’t... bothering you? Heero says you’re having nightmares again.’

The heat crept into my cheeks and I sighed. Guess I should be glad we’d gotten as far into the conversation as we had before the damn blushing started. ‘No, I’m not trying to deny anything,’ I told him. ‘But I don’t understand why they don’t trust me to handle it.’ I looked down at my hands and found my sandwich paper transformed into an ungainly bird; stained with a spot of ketchup, one wing looking pretty bedraggled. I snorted softly and tossed it onto the tray with the rest of the trash. ‘I don’t understand why a simple holiday trip is turning into... such a high-profile, federal case.’

‘They’re just...’ he hesitated, seeming to come to a decision and changed the comment; still looking at me with those piercing green eyes of his. ‘We’re just worried about you, Duo. We’ve always been... something of a support system for each other, it’s very hard for us to see you hurting and not try to give you some of that support too. I know you don’t always feel like you’re a part of our group, but you are. You always have been, and you always will be.’

I could truly not have turned any brighter red. ‘Nothing to worry about...’ I muttered defensively, and since my sandwich paper had been sacrificed to the Gods of Nerves, I started in fidgeting with my drink cup.

He snorted softly, not even deigning to reply to that comment, just giving me that raised eyebrow look that said, try again.

I took a sip of my drink but it didn’t do much for the tightness in my throat. ‘Look, Trowa... I just deal with things a little differently than you guys do. I don’t see the point in trying to beat a dead horse until it gets back up. Yeah... I still have issues with space travel. We all know why. How is talking about it going to help? I just have a tendency to take the bull by the horns in situations like this.’ I shrugged helplessly, not sure how to better explain it.

He couldn’t contain a sharp laugh, and we both had to glance around, as a few people looked our way. ‘More like by the short hairs,’ he said under his breath, and grinned at me. I just gave him a rueful look, letting him know that the conversational ball was still in his court; that smart-ass remarks didn’t count. He gave his head a little shake and sighed, dropping his eyes to his own drink. He started to speak and then stopped; his fingers going up to sift through his hair before he tried again. ‘What are you feeling about this whole thing?’ he finally blurted, and looked damned unhappy about what had just popped out of his mouth.

I repressed a groan and sat back, hands resting on the edge of the table and still fiddling with my cup. Trowa never has been much of a one for mincing words. Maybe not as bad as Wufei, but pretty blunt sometimes, all the same. What was I feeling? I wanted to ask him how in the hell I should know. I wanted to tell him I was fine. I wanted to tell him I was scared. I wanted to go the hell back to work.

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