Traditions (cont)

‘I don’t know, man,’ I said instead. ‘Haven’t really slowed down enough to analysis it.’

There was a grunt from his direction, but I didn’t take my eyes off my drink to see the expression that went along with it, so I’m not real sure if it was an irritated grunt or an amused one. ‘And just when are you planning on taking the time to feel?’ he asked softly.

I sighed. I turned the cup between my fingers eighty degrees to the right and then back to the left. I sighed again. ‘It’s not exactly in the schedule,’ I finally confessed.

His own sigh was rather explosive, and I could feel him trying to will me to look up at him. ‘Duo...’ he began in that gentle as all hell voice, but stopped when he saw the little frown creep across my face.

‘Please don’t talk to me like I’m some kind of wild animal about to bolt,’ I asked him, probably a little tersely. ‘I really hate that.’

He was quiet for so long that I finally did look up at him. He seemed to be working with an uncomfortable, kind of sheepish look. ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured and I could tell he really hadn’t realized.

‘S’ok,’ I told him. ‘You don’t do it near as much as the other guys do.’

His expression cleared and he leaned forward a little further, putting us more on an eye level. He seemed to pick over his next words very carefully. ‘Duo... you have to realize that your somewhat... unique way of dealing with... stressful situations is what is giving Heero gray hairs?’

I didn’t throw my hands in the air, ok? I thought about it real hard, but I didn’t do it. ‘I don’t know what he wants, Tro!’ I grumbled, having to make an effort to keep my voice down. ‘He says he doesn’t want me all... uptight about it, but every time I manage to go five minutes without thinking about the whole damn thing, he starts in wanting me to fucking talk about it!’

Trowa gave me a somewhat sympathetic smile but just shook his head slightly. ‘He just wants you to deal with your fears.’

I felt my face warming again and dropped my gaze back to the cup in my hands. The one with the large dent in the side. Wonder where that had come from? I realized that I had straightened and didn’t even remember doing it. ‘I’m going, aren’t I?’ I growled. ‘Isn’t that dealing with it?’

‘That didn’t work so well last time, Duo,’ he said quietly.

I gaped at him, torn between suicide by blush and just storming out of the café. ‘There were extenuating circumstances last time,’ I told him flatly, hoping my tone of voice conveyed the fact that I would not welcome him questioning me any further down that avenue.

Our eyes were locked and there seemed to be a tiny little battle going on that I didn’t half understand. He looked down first, but I couldn’t say which one of us won.

‘I just...’ he began, hesitating and trying again. ‘I don’t know...’ but broke off a second time, looking frustrated.

‘Spit it out Trowa,’ I prodded. ‘My lunch hour’s almost over.’

He looked up at me, almost imploringly. ‘It’s no damn wonder you drive Heero to distraction,’ he quipped, trying on a smile but quickly losing it. When he finally spoke again, his voice was low and serious as a funeral. ‘It just took me a lot of sessions with Dr. Webster, before I could even think about putting on a vacuum suit without almost wetting myself.’ He was the one blushing furiously now, but he refused to drop his gaze. ‘It took awhile, after that... accident for all my memories to come back, but once they did, it was months before I got through a night without waking up in a cold sweat. Don’t fault me for worrying about my baby brother. Don’t blame me... us for caring.’

Out of the corner of my eye I saw George and Francis hiding behind the salt and pepper shakers, quietly taking odds on which of the two of us was going to spontaneously combust first. My money was on me; absolutely no doubt.

My mind chose to home in on the fact that my therapist and Trowa’s were the same person. I had not known that. It made sense, I suppose, when I thought about it... Heero had to have gotten a reference from somewhere. It wouldn’t be like him to just pick the first shrink he found in the phone book. I wanted to keep thinking about that, and ignore the rest of it, but the look on his face wouldn’t let me.

‘I’m not blaming anybody,’ I reassured him. ‘I’m just trying to do this the only way I know how.’

‘Denial?’ he asked almost affectionately.

‘I prefer to think of it as a time management issue,’ I grinned. ‘I have my nervous breakdown penciled in for approximately one o’clock tomorrow.’

It was, perhaps, not the joke to have made.

He looked... pained, and he was chewing on something he couldn’t quite get spit out. I cut in while he was still working at it. ‘Don’t, man; just let it be. What good does it do me to dwell on it for days on end? If I can put it out of my mind and just go on... why not? It’s not going to be a cakewalk; I know that. But why talk about it, and think about it, and just get all worked up now?’

‘Because,’ he said earnestly, ‘you may think you’ve put it aside, but it’s still in there... eating away at you. The fact that your nightmares are back again should tell you that.’

His use of the words ‘nightmare’ and ‘again’ in the same sentence so much was starting to bug me.

‘Well I’ve sure as hell never known what magic spell to use to get rid of nightmares,’ I groused, feeling defensive as hell. ‘Mind sharing your secret?’

‘Talking it out,’ he said simply, and too late I saw the road he’d led me down.

I sighed heavily and began clearing up my lunch trash and piling it on the tray. ‘Talking has never done much for me,’ I said, not looking at him. ‘I need more direct action.’

‘What got you through those dreams when Heero was in the hospital?’ he asked, seeming to almost pounce on me since I’d given him the damn opening.

‘I returned that stupid journal to Captain Camden’s widow,’ I stated emphatically.

‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘Or was it getting to talk things through with the woman?’ I opened my mouth to retort, but then stopped, unsure. He didn’t wait for me to deny or confirm, but pushed ahead. ‘I’m just saying that you may think you understand yourself, that you may think you understand how your mind works, but sometimes it helps to... see things through someone else’s eyes.’

I finished clearing the table and glanced up at him. ‘I need to get back,’ I said and got to watch him grin.

‘You’re impossible,’ he sighed.

‘So I’ve been told,’ I replied and rose to go dump the trash. He waited for me by the door and we walked back out onto the street.

He raised a quizzical eyebrow when I stopped at the soda machine next to the alley entrance, but didn’t comment. I bought my drink and we started the walk back. He didn’t speak until we’d crossed Broadway. ‘I’m sorry,’ he told me, while we were still side-by-side, before we passed a parked car in the alley and he had to drop back.

‘For what?’ I asked.

‘Giving you indigestion for lunch,’ he teased and I gave him the smile he was looking for.

‘That’s ok,’ I told him. ‘I imagine it wasn’t much of a treat for you either.’

He followed me around the car, walking silent as a cat behind me, but didn’t answer me for almost half a block.

‘I’m not going to try and tell you it didn’t stir up a few thoughts I’d rather not be thinking,’ he said softly, totally dropping the light tone we’d achieved. ‘But if anything I said gets through to you, it’ll have been more than worth it.’

I managed not to stop and look back at him. My mouth tried to come up with something witty, but failed. I just kept walking.

When we emerged across from the Preventors building, he fell into step beside me again, and wasn’t even trying to hide the strange little smile.

I was just ready to step off the curb when I realized he’d started to slow his steps. When I hesitated, he stopped altogether. ‘Car’s over there,’ he nodded in the general direction, and I glanced to see his car parked just down the way. We’d come to our parting of the ways.

I cocked my head and looked up at him; his eyes did look a little haunted... a little troubled. Before I had a chance to think about it too hard, I blurted, ‘You know when they ask you to do crap like this, its ok to say no.’

There was an awkward moment while he just stood and looked at me, but then he grinned rather broadly. ‘As well as you know that when we make offers of support, it’s ok for you to say yes.’

Caught me quite flat-footed, the asshole. I blushed darkly and his grin turned into a chuckle. He sobered though, and suddenly reached out, wrapping his hand around the back of my neck, squeezing gently and giving me a little shake, making sure I met his gaze. ‘Remember your breathing lessons. Remember your safe place. Don’t shut Heero out trying to be strong. Try to have a good time, at least while you’re on L2, and if there’s anything you need at all... all you have to do is ask.’

‘You’re not going to hug me or anything... are you?’ I gaped up at him and he let go, snorting softly and giving a rueful little shake of his head.

‘Impossible,’ he murmured, and turned to head for his car.

I stood and watched him go for a second, before thinking to call after him. ‘Thanks, Trowa... I think.’

He tossed me a wave and climbed behind the wheel. I turned and finished the walk across the street. It took a little bit of Frances’ patented ‘repress’ help to keep from looking up where I knew Heero’s office window was. I was afraid if I saw him standing there I’d flip him off.

The first thing I did when I got to my toolbox was use some of that soda to wash down a couple of aspirin, making a mental note to get a new bottle, I’d almost gone through the one I had. Tension headaches were just becoming a part of my day. Wonder what Heero had planned for dinner, sushi-bar with my therapist? Or was he sitting in his office at that very moment researching foods that were good for stress? The only damn thing I could think of that was supposed to be good for that was green tea. I sure as hell hoped that wouldn’t end up being the main course.

Though I suppose, from what Trowa said, Wufei was as much to blame for my little lunch conversation as Heero was. But Wufei was... forbidden ground. Our relationship was just starting to resemble what it once had been, and while I might get irritated with his rather high-handed interference, I would not reprimand the man for love nor money. No way in hell was I going to risk him tucking tail and crawling back into his little guilt shell. Not even over his attempt to turn Trowa Barton into an impromptu lunch-hour psychiatrist.

But seriously; I wish I knew what they thought that whole damn thing was going to accomplish. Just what in the hell did they want from me? Just what did they think was going to change with my twisted little phobia-ridden psyche before... Tuesday?

Maybe it was the simple fact that the conversations ebbing and flowing around me had dwindled, but try as I might, I couldn’t achieve that state of forgetfulness again. Could not banish thoughts of what I would be facing tomorrow.

Simple anxiety was a very large part of it. I was a little afraid that old saying about getting back on the horse was going to turn out to be very true. Out there in the asteroid belt, the horse had not only thrown me, it had picked me up, tossed me around, wallowed me flat and shit on my corpse. On that trip to L3, I’d tried to mount up again, and gotten royally kicked in the head. At that point, I’d called it quits and had not even thought since about stepping aboard so much as a helicopter.

Now here I was, as I’d told Trowa, taking the bull by the horns. Again. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to react. Hell... I might not even be able to make myself walk aboard the damn shuttle, much less sit through launch.

But as much as anything else, I was terrified of looking like a flaming idiot in front of Heero. The memory of sitting in the middle of my Demon’s bathroom, crying hysterically with my arm gashed to the bone was... painfully fresh. If I’d had anything at all to be thankful for on that trip, other than not dying, it was not having any witnesses.

Utter humiliation and I don’t make good dance partners.

So by the time it rolled around to the end of the shift, I was tied right back up into a nice little Gordian knot of tension.

The garage had been gradually losing employees all afternoon. The next day was the beginning of the Christmas break and nobody really cared if guys were slipping out early or not. So I didn’t feel too bad about cleaning up a little before the hour so that I could walk up and wait for Heero by the car. He was still bringing the stupid thing down to the back of the garage to pick me up, and I honestly didn’t want him coming in there. I was a little irritated with him, trying to fight it, and not sure how successful I was being. I was afraid if he didn’t wait for the privacy of the drive home, to ask how lunch had gone, I just might kill him.

I was sitting on the hood, doing my best to convince myself that a huge fight the day before we ended up confined to a dinky little shuttle cabin together, was probably a bad idea, when I saw him come out of the stairwell and start toward me.

Several things passed across his face when he saw me sitting there; a frown of almost annoyance, followed by a look of concern, which quickly changed to an expression of resigned understanding.

He unlocked the car without speaking and we climbed in. I had opted to give ‘pleasant’ a go, and didn’t give him the chance to start talking. ‘I don’t really feel like green tea for dinner; can you swing by the market so I can run in long enough to pick up some meat? I think I’m going to fix steaks if you don’t care.’ I could see him glancing at me out of the corner of his eye while he started the car and pulled out, but I just kept going. ‘Maybe just steaks and a salad. I think there’s still some lettuce in the crisper and some carrots if we didn’t eat them all. I suppose while I’m there, I should get some candy...’

‘Duo,’ he said, voice trying to wedge itself into the middle of my ramblings. It wasn’t all that loud though, and I chose to ignore the tone.

‘... for the kids. I usually bring them candy after all, and what’s Christmas without candy? Octavia isn’t all that thrilled...’

Duo,’ he said again, a little louder, a little more forcefully. Telling me we were going to talk about what I really didn’t want to talk about, and pleasant went right out the window.

What?’ I barked out, before I realized it was coming and found myself glaring at him, daring him to start with me, because I suddenly found that I was rather spoiling for a fight.

‘I’m sorry,’ was the next thing out of his mouth, which wasn’t going to do much for escalating this into the knockdown, drag-out argument I was itching for.

‘Well, you fucking should be,’ was the best I could manage. ‘For which damn part?’

‘I should have stopped Wufei when I realized he was planning on calling Trowa,’ was the reply, but then he glanced across at me uncertainly. ‘You are mad at me because of Trowa showing up for lunch?’

‘Damn straight!’ I growled. ‘What the hell was the idea of putting him through that?’

I swear to God, Heero almost forgot he was driving for a minute, turning to blink at me in puzzlement, before jerking his head back around and focusing on the job at hand again. ‘What?’ he asked, sounding confused.

‘You guys think it’s easy for him?’ I glared, keeping half an eye on traffic in case his attention should wander again. ‘Just because he did the damn therapy stint? You think you aren’t making him dredge shit up out of his head he’d rather not have to think about? And for what? Because it sure as hell doesn’t do anything for me!’

There was almost complete silence in that car for the next mile. Heero looked a little... taken aback. I imagine I just looked like I was working with a real bad case of constipation.

He stopped at the market without me having to say anything else about it. He even waited in the car while I made the quick trip in.

I got the steaks and the candy, and then picked up some damn mushrooms for the stupid salad. I hate the things and would just have to pick them out later, but Heero liked them. Stop laughing at me. That’s how you know when love is real. When you do nice things for the other person even when you feel like ripping their heads off and spitting down their necks.

It’s a twisted little reality and you can just bite me if you don’t understand it. I was pissed off at Heero for the hand he’d had in my wonderful lunch hour. But I was also well aware of the fact that I was feeling just a touch irrational. Stress will do that to you. So I might be over-reacting a little bit; I wasn’t entirely sure. Hence the mushrooms; a tiny apology without having to actually admit that I might be... over-reacting.

By the time I got back to the car, he’d obviously worked out what he wanted to say and delivered his lines before I could start in again. ‘I am very sorry; I should have realized. Wufei felt that Trowa might be able to offer an understanding ear, I should have known better. I should have stopped them and I apologize.’

When he’d said his piece, he shut the hell up and gave me the space to think about it. Not that I really needed a lot of time. Like I said; I’d figured out somewhere between the soup aisle and produce that I might need to back off a little.

‘I don’t suppose you’re up for going out, getting drunk and picking a fight with five or six really big guys?’ I asked as I settled my sack of groceries on the floor of the car between my feet and fastened my seat belt.

What?’ Heero burst out, turning to look at me so sharply it’s a wonder he didn’t give himself whiplash.

I sighed theatrically. ‘Didn’t think so,’ I muttered.

‘Please tell me you’re kidding,’ he asked, eyes a little wide.

‘Mostly,’ I replied agreeably. ‘But you have to admit it’s a great stress reliever.’

He had to chew on that the entire time he was starting the car and leaving the parking lot.

He tried two or three times to say something, before finally simply holding his hand out. He looked a little relieved when I settled my hand in his, and he pulled our twined fingers down to lie in his lap.

The quiet then was a little more... companionable.

When we got home he tried to take over the chore of dinner making, until I glared at him. ‘I need to be doing something, Heero. Just sitting around only makes it worse.’

We compromised by agreeing to do it together. He broiled the steaks while I made the salad, though he had to come and give me a little kiss when he saw me slicing the mushrooms. Told you he’d get it.

We managed to get through the meal on rather banal pleasantries, he’s become more aware of how easy it is to screw with my appetite, and he waited until we were doing up the dishes before he tried to bring up my lunch date.

‘Will I get yelled at if I ask how things went with Trowa?’ he prodded somewhat hesitantly.

I snorted, taking a plate from his hand to dry and put away. I ignored the question he’d asked in favor of the real one. ‘About as well as would be expected for two guys trying to do self-diagnostic psychotherapy in the middle of a deli.’

He was quiet for a moment and then ventured, ‘So... you’re cured?’

The God damn son of a bitch got the full-throated laugh he was aiming for, managing to look slightly flushed, and pleased as hell with himself all at the same time. ‘You’re such an asshole,’ I told him, putting away another plate.

‘I know,’ he murmured, and there was a hint of true apology in it. It made me feel kind of bad.

‘Guess I am too,’ I conceded, and he didn’t even bother to dry his hands before pulling me into his arms. It felt damn good. Despite the slimy feel of dishwater seeping through the back of my shirt.

‘I love you so much,’ he whispered near my ear, making me shiver and tighten the grip I had around his neck.

‘I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the ass,’ I replied just as softly, and we stood like that for a little bit; just holding on.

‘Are you sure about this?’ he finally said, breaking the quiet that had enveloped us.

‘As sure as I can be,’ I sighed. ‘You sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for?’

He turned his head and kissed the side of my neck. ‘I think I’m figuring it out.’

‘Heero...’ I began, and drew back to look at him. Almost, I asked him if he would still respect me when it was all over. But that was making too much of a joke out of something that was eating me alive. And, of course, implied that he respected me now. Something I hoped to some benevolent God was true, but wasn’t always sure of, and could not bring myself to ask. I just couldn’t find the words, and ended up staring at him with no idea how to complete the thought. How to articulate the question.

‘Forever,’ he reassured, somehow understanding anyway, and kissed my forehead in a gesture that I always found calming as hell for some reason.

He let me stand there, wrapped around him until I was ready to let go. Let me be the one to pull away first.

And then it was finishing the dishes and finishing the packing, and all the things that needed doing to prepare for a couple of days away from home. All the things that I’d let go because it had made it too hard not to think about what it all meant.

It was late by the time it was all done, Heero showered first and I found myself wandering around the house checking the latches on the windows until he came out. I’m not sure what he did while I was showering. When we were both done, we packed the bathroom stuff and somehow that seemed terribly final to me. I went off to the bedroom to turn down the covers while Heero sat the last of the luggage by the front door. Anxiety was making a dull ache in my throat.

I was undressing when Heero came to join me, luggage deposited and lights turned out in the rest of the house. He flipped off the overhead light as he came into the room, leaving us with only the warm glow of the bedside lamp.

‘Need some help?’ he asked, voice a husky purr as he came to wrap his arms around me from behind, taking over the task of unbuttoning my polo shirt.

I hummed a quiet affirmative, and raised my arms to facilitate his pulling it over my head once the buttons were freed. The shirt went I’m not sure where, and then his hands were sliding over my stomach, making my breath hiss and my muscles tighten. His questing fingers found the button on my jeans and tugged it free. I could feel his... interest pressed firmly against me. I let my head fall back against his shoulder as he eased my zipper down. I was just starting to lean into him, when he suddenly stepped away and before I half had a chance to react, my pants and underwear were nothing but a memory.

‘On the bed... now,’ he growled, and gave me a playful swat on the ass as I stepped away to comply.

‘Watch it, Yuy,’ I grumbled and sprawled out to watch as he undressed.

I got to see where my shirt had gone when his joined it in a pile by the door, and then he was crawling up to join me on the bed. ‘Roll over,’ he commanded, hovering over me. I gave him a raised eyebrow, but he refused to answer, only waiting, so I complied to that too, and rolled over as instructed.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he merely straddled my thighs, settling his hands on my shoulders, but I was. I grunted softly. ‘I thought you were interested in... other things.’

He leaned down and brushed his lips between my shoulder blades, whispering against my skin, ‘Time enough for that when you’ve relaxed enough that I don’t feel like I’m making love to a chunk of steel.’

His words made me feel the tension I hadn’t really registered in my own muscles, and I tried to loosen up but couldn’t seem to manage it.

‘Just let me,’ he said, dropping another kiss to my back, and then he set to work.

He started gently, merely stroking his hands over my skin. When he began to apply a bit of pressure, it was almost painful. I did my best to work with him, he let me hear his own measured breathing and I tried to match him, tried to concentrate on that simple job. Tried to block out the other thoughts. Thoughts of tomorrow. Thoughts of what was to come. Thoughts of where I was going and what I had to try and make myself do.

Thoughts of what had been.

‘Breath with me, love,’ Heero chided gently and brought me back to our room with him.

‘Sorry,’ I murmured, but he didn’t say more, just gently and thoroughly doing his best to reduce me to putty.

It... wasn’t an easy task, and there was more than one embarrassed apology as I forced my thoughts back to what he was doing, away from what I wasn’t supposed to be dwelling on.

When he finally rolled me over, I was probably as relaxed as I’d been all day, but I’m not sure that was saying much. He gave me a sad little smile, leaning down to kiss me softly. ‘You’re so very good at that,’ I sighed as he brushed his lips along my jaw-line. ‘Sometimes I’d swear you’ve had training.’

He raised his head to look down at me with a strange little amused look on his face. ‘I have,’ he informed me. ‘Don’t you remember?’

‘What?’ I asked, confused. It had been a totally random comment and I certainly hadn’t been serious.

He chuckled at my expression and his eyes went all tender as he reached to brush my hair from my eyes. ‘When you were first in the hospital. I took training classes with your therapists.’

All I could manage was a wide-eyed, ‘Oh.’ He only smiled and dipped his head back to what he’d been doing.

He nibbled and teased, stroked and suckled, doing all the things that would normally have me writhing and bucking beneath him. But while I could feel the evidence of his own arousal pressed against my thigh, it became painfully obvious fairly quickly that my own was pretty much... non-existent.

I tried to concentrate on the moment, tried to block out all the rest, but... my body just wouldn’t cooperate. That’s not exactly a thing a guy can hide.

Heero stopped when I started to tense up again, fighting against my own lack of response. Fighting against a severe case of humiliation. ‘It’s all right,’ he soothed, lying down beside me and pulling me into his arms. Just lying with me. ‘I should have realized. It’s all right.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ I muttered, feeling my face turn a here-to-fore unknown shade of red. Somewhere in the back of my head I thought I heard the faint sound of laughing hamsters.

‘Nothing to be sorry for, love,’ he scolded. ‘It’s not important; I guess it was kind of thoughtless of me. I hoped... it would help you sleep. Would help you relax.’

‘I feel like a moron,’ I grumbled, doing my best to hide my face against his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry...’

‘Stop apologizing,’ he commanded, giving me a firm squeeze. ‘I should have thought about how much stress you’re under.’

‘I just... feel like I’m teasing you somehow,’ I managed to tell him and it sort of came to me that I didn’t really need to let that happen. Didn’t really need to participate in order to offer him some sort of release. Curling my hand closed, I reached to stroke my knuckles down his side and over his hip. He shivered and sighed softly. Emboldened, I slid my hand further down his thigh and he turned to kiss me gently on the forehead.

‘Don’t, love,’ he said quietly, but there was a ring of firmness in his voice.

I froze, and his hand reached down to catch mine, bringing our twined fingers to lie in the middle of his chest. ‘What’s wrong?’ I stammered.

‘Our love-making is just that,’ he told me, voice so serious that I dared a peek up at him. He was staring up at the ceiling, not looking at me, so I watched him as he spoke. ‘Making love between the two of us. How could I take pleasure from it if I knew there wasn’t any pleasure in it for you?’ He drew me in close against his side and his voice got a little fierce. ‘I won’t have you... servicing me like... like...’ he hesitated and did look at me then, I had thought to avert my eyes, not really ready to meet that gaze, but I found I couldn’t. He cupped my cheek and smiled lovingly. ‘When you’re in my arms, I always want it to be mutual. I don’t ever want what we have between us reduced to just having sex. I want it to always be making love.’

I felt the foot of the bed dip as guilt beast joined us. I sighed and burrowed deeper into his arms. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, not able to stop myself. He snorted softly.

‘Stop apologizing and go to sleep,’ he chuckled and drew the blankets up around us.

I could feel guilt trying to worm his way under the covers, poking his damn cold nose into our pocket of warmth. I shivered hard and blurted, ‘I love you,’ since he didn’t want me saying I’m sorry anymore.

Heero wrapped me up close and told me, ‘It’s going to be all right,’ in a tone of voice that made it seem like it could be.

It was, of course, a very long time before I dozed off, but I am something of a master at faking it, and convinced Heero enough that he fell asleep himself before too terribly long. The trick is not to lie perfectly still. People don’t really sleep like logs; they roll around and shift when things get uncomfortable. And the breathing. A lot of it is the breathing.

I would have gotten up and gone to find something to do after the first hour, but I knew Heero was set on a hair trigger and would wake the instant I tried to leave the bed. So I just counted ivy leaves for awhile until it dawned on me that I could see those leaves in order to count them because Heero had left the light on for me. I glanced at it, but it was on his side of the bed and I couldn’t have reached it without waking him. Half my brain thought it was a sweet gesture, while the other half was a little embarrassed that he realized the dark bothered me when I was particularly off balance.

Not that I’m freakin’ afraid of the damn dark, but if it’s too deep, too dark, I find a part of my psyche starts doubting where I am. Starts doubting that I’d made it out of the asteroid belt. I still sometimes woke up expecting to find myself there... still floating.

I wondered how I was going to be in the morning. I wondered if I was going to be able to sleep at all. I wondered how it would feel to go out to the space port again. Wondered how I’d handle it if I ran into anybody I knew from the old days. Wondered how it would feel to go through launch again, especially with someone else’s hands on the yoke. Wondered a million damn things until I think I’d counted every ivy leaf in that room. Until I’d knotted myself back up to a state of physical discomfort.

It took a solid, concentrated effort to get my mind shut off enough to finally sleep. I managed to get my head to thinking past the trip, and about the kids. Then I started course calculations, carefully matching my breathing to Heero’s. The last numbers I remember seeing on the clock were 4:16. It was a very damn long night.

And then it was Tuesday. No more evasive thinking. No more ignoring it. The bull was waiting and I could only hope I didn’t end up impaled on those horns.

Heero is a sweetheart. I love him with all my heart. He tries so damn hard sometimes it’s almost painful. But of all the things he could have chosen to do that morning, deciding to get up before me to fry some bacon for breakfast was not the best choice he has ever made.

I roused jerkily from sleep, feeling vaguely anxious about some dream that was fading even as I blinked open gritty eyes, and then I was hit with the sickening smell of sizzling pork fat.

I hit the ground running and barely made it to the bathroom before I was spewing whatever was left over from the night before into the toilet.

Puking your guts up is not something you can do quietly. No matter how hard you try. Though, I suppose the running down the hall thing probably gave me away before the violent heaving thing.

Heero came before I was half-finished, I heard him pounding up the stairs and then he was there, sweeping my hair out of the way and offering a supporting hand under my shoulder.

‘Damn,’ I muttered, when I could. ‘That wasn’t on the schedule until after the dock-web disconnect.’

I don’t know when I’ll learn which jokes are appropriate and which ones are going to go over like lead balloons. I really don’t.

He helped me to my feet and waited until I’d washed my face and rinsed my mouth before venturing, very carefully, ‘Are you all done?’

‘Should be,’ I managed, looking down at my feet, not much caring for the intensity of his gaze. ‘I only got sick once last time. Though... I have to tell you I don’t think I’ll be eating much breakfast this morning.’

He was very quiet for a second, and I figured he was probably pretty pissed off about my not eating. I opened my mouth to reassure him that I thought I would be able to take my iron tablets if he’d just give my stomach time to settle, when he spoke.

‘Last time?’ he asked in a deceptively calm tone of voice.

Ooops. My mistake. He was, perhaps, not pissed off so much about the food thing as he was about the inadvertent confession thing. I opted not to reply, kind of hoping to not confess anything more.

‘You... launched your ship while you were...’ he just couldn’t seem to find the words. Or maybe he just couldn’t quite manage to maintain the calm tone.

‘Actually,’ I quipped. ‘I’ve been thinking that L3 trip should probably be relegated to conversational ‘off-limits’ for the next three or four days, you know what I mean?’

I thought, for just a second, he was going to blow a gasket. Or an artery, in his efforts to get his mouth shut on the thirty thousand things trying to come out of it. He finally managed to pare it down to, ‘Are you all right?’

I started to nod, but then thought better of it. ‘Yeah,’ I mumbled. ‘I thought I’d just get a start on the total humiliation. You know... kind of get the ball rolling?’

He was quiet for a long second, and then blew out a breath that was just short of a frustrated groan. ‘This is how you’re going to deal with this all damn day, isn’t it?’ he ground out and it brought my eyes up to look at him. My lover was not a happy camper.

‘Probably,’ I had to agree. ‘It’s how I cope. I’m really sorry. Mad at me?’

He did everything but throw his hands up in the air, but told me in a tone of voice that kind of didn’t match his words. ‘No, but I’m starting to think I’m going to need some of those tranquilizers myself!’ Then he turned and headed back downstairs.

Well, maybe he could enter into the spirit of the thing after all. Or maybe he really was pissed off. I honestly wasn’t sure. I took my upset stomach and my bare ass and went to get dressed.

I fussed around the bedroom for a bit, making the bed and picking up the dirty clothes, giving Heero a chance to calm down. I hate it when I get so flustered that I let things slip out without thinking about it. I particularly hate it when those things are things that should not be shared. I found myself standing in front of my dresser, running my finger along the edge of the frame on Solo’s picture. Maybe unconsciously seeking comfort from a presence that had at one time been the center of my universe.

‘What a load a crap,’ the familiar voice muttered, as Solo’s likeness pressed his nose to the backside of the glass over his portrait.

I snorted. ‘You’re so sentimental.’

Center of my universe,’ he mocked, coming out of the picture to stand beside me, where it was easier to poke at me. ‘Yer gonna make me puke next.’

‘Should have known I wasn’t going to get much sympathy from you,’ I sighed, trying not to look too close at what I knew would fade under scrutiny.

He blew a raspberry and planted his hands on his non-existent hips. ‘Since when am I some great momma figure?’

‘I don’t know, King Rat,’ I sighed, reaching to touch the glass of his picture, tracing my fingers along the line of his shoulder. ‘Sometimes you didn’t do so bad in the comfort department. In your own gruff way.’

Gruff?’ he chuckled, hopping through my arm to sit on the dresser so he could tower over me. ‘I like it. Hell... I’m not even sure what it means, but I like it.’

‘I miss you,’ I murmured of a sudden and felt a faint, familiar prickle in the backs of my eyes.

‘Ah, hell!’ he yelped and jumped down to stalk away from me. ‘Don’t start that shit! You know I hate that! Go find yer Heero if yer lookin’ for sympathy... you know I ain’t no good at it!’

‘Yeah,’ I sighed, looking right at him so the morning light would make him fade back into memory. ‘But I don’t have to be humiliated in front of you; you’re dead. What do you care if I’m a fucking coward?’

‘Stop feeling so damn sorry for yerself!’ he jeered. ‘You don’t need none a that damn ‘comfort’ crap, what you need is a good kick in the ass!’

‘Maybe a kick in the ass is what I do need,’ I muttered, running my fingers through my bangs.

His laughter was derisive, but he went away. ‘Have a nice trip,’ was his parting shot. ‘Say hi to the old neighborhood fer me.’

‘I’ll do that,’ I whispered. ‘Watch my house while I’m gone.’

He didn’t answer, and I figured I’d better get my ass downstairs before Heero decided that I’d changed my mind about the stupid trip and had just gone back to bed. I gathered the pile of dirty clothes and headed down. I was surprised to meet Heero coming up.

He seemed a little flustered, which I guess was an improvement over irritated, and just stood in the middle of the stairs looking at me. ‘Are you... all right?’

‘Had to make the bed and stuff,’ I temporized. He gave me a very odd look but just reached for the wad of clothes in my arms. I sighed in exasperation. ‘I can get the stupid laundry, Yuy.’

I expected him to argue. Expected him to snipe back, but he just backed down with a quiet little, ‘All right.’ I wondered what had him so off-balance.

He turned on the stairs, heading back down and I followed, trying to decide just how bad this day was going to drag out. Would the morning take an eternity, or be over in a heartbeat?

We went into the kitchen, Heero to the sink while I went through to the basement stairs. There really weren’t enough clothes for a load, so I simply dumped them in the hamper and went back upstairs.

I realized when I got there, what I hadn’t noticed on my way down; that the smell of frying bacon was gone and the room was chilled. I glanced over and saw he had the kitchen window open and there was no sign that anything had been cooking in the room at all. It made me feel bad. He was drying the last of the dishes from his aborted breakfast attempt and I went to stand behind him, resting my chin on his shoulder and hooking my fingers in the belt-loops on his khakis. ‘Can I make a blanket apology now for the pain in the ass I’m likely to be for the next couple of days?’ I asked him gently and won the ghost of a smile, I could see it tugging at his lips out of the corner of my eye.

He gave me that little non-committal grunt that I chose to take as acceptance.

‘Thank you for getting up early to make breakfast for me,’ I ventured, and managed to wring a little snort from him.

‘You’re welcome,’ he replied, with only a hint of the faded ghost of sourness in his voice. ‘Too bad you couldn’t eat it.’

‘You didn’t just... throw it out, did you?’ I had to ask, the lacks of my youth making me feel guilty over the waste.

‘Not all of it,’ he sighed. ‘I ate some.’

I cringed inwardly. ‘I’m sorry...’ I began, but he cut me off.

‘How about you stop apologizing for everything short of breathing,’ he suddenly blurted.

I blinked and tried to catch the expression on his face in the reflection of the window, but couldn’t quite get the angle. ‘Heero?’ I ventured, drawing back a little so that he could turn around. It took him a second before he did. We just stood there, looking at each other.

‘I don’t like that you’re closing yourself off from me over this,’ he said, voice rather deceptively calm.

‘I’m not closing myself off from you,’ I tried to tell him. ‘It’s just easier not to think about it until I have to.’

‘That isn’t healthy, Duo,’ he said gently. ‘If you’re upset over this trip... if you’re having problems, we need to talk about it.’

‘Why?’ I had to say. ‘It won’t make it any easier when the time comes. If I sit down here in the middle of the kitchen and bawl like a little baby, or kick and scream like a toddler throwing a tantrum... what good does that do?’

‘You need to get it out...’ he was starting to sound frustrated.

It was my turn to sigh, so I did so. ‘You can’t ‘get this out’, Heero. It isn’t going to make the feelings go away. It’ll just make me arrive at the shuttle port with a stuffy nose.’

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