Traditions (cont)

He got that frustrated look again and his hand made an aborted gesture toward his already tousled looking hair. ‘I don’t understand why you think I would judge you... harshly, over this. Duo... why can’t you see how much I want to be here for you? I wanted to make this trip together. I thought... I could help. I don’t want to just follow along behind, carrying the bags while you try to shoulder this alone.’

My face heated rather nicely and I felt a shiver of almost anger ripple through my gut. ‘Why can’t you guys understand how utterly humiliating this is for me? This... fear is totally irrational. It’s nothing but a damn... psychological roadblock in my head! It’s driving me crazy that I can’t control this! That I can’t get the fuck over it!’

He looked at me, finally reaching out and curling his hands gently around my upper arms. ‘You’ve never let it control you. Why can’t you understand how proud of you we all are?’

‘For what?’ I jeered, pulling back from him. ‘Not actually throwing up in the pilot’s seat?’ This whole conversation had gotten just a touch past the uncomfortable stage.

I thought he would growl at me for a second, but then the almost angry look on his face kind of smoothed over and I could see him backing off and trying another tack. ‘When I was first in the hospital, and I couldn’t even roll over without your help... did you think any less of me?’

I resisted, just barely, the urge to roll my eyes. ‘Don’t be an ass, Yuy... you’d been shot! Of course I didn’t!’

‘Duo,’ he persisted, ever so gently. ‘You’ve been a whole hell of a lot more than shot.’

We did that dork-ass thing where we just stood and stared at each other for a long moment. I didn’t know what he wanted from me. I really didn’t.

‘I need to not talk about this anymore,’ I finally told him, and thought for two damn seconds that he was going to shake me until my teeth rattled. Instead, he let go and stormed out of the room.

I opted to get my jacket and go for a walk. I’d been meaning to take a look around the neighborhood anyway.

I’ll spare you the internal monologue. You’ve pretty much heard it all already. It was just a couple of hours of more of the same; my overflowing brain running itself ragged in the same circular pattern, with a little bit of anxiety thrown in over Heero and his frustrating frustration.

It’s a wonder I didn’t have poor little thought hamsters keeling over from exhaustion.

When I got back to the house, I’m not even sure Heero had realized I’d been gone. He had retreated to my studio when he’d fled the kitchen and I found him there still, standing in front of the new mural and just staring.

The room had been yard in its former life. You could tell if you looked at it really close that it wasn’t part of the original house. The lady who used to live in our home, had been something of a gardener from what I could tell, and I imagined sometimes her badgering her husband into having the addition built. I’m positive good old Lester hadn’t done the work himself, I was coming to understand as we ran across things, that the guy had not been the greatest handyman in the world.

The wall that once upon a time would have been the outside of the house had been finished oddly; sectioned off for some unknown reason, and that was where Heero’s Christmas present was painted, in the first section next to the corner. As I stood and watched Heero study the mural with an oddly wistful look on his face, I found myself wondering if there would be other portraits, and just what they would be.

I knew he felt my presence; you don’t sneak up on Heero Yuy, and I’m not crazy enough to try. But he ignored me for a moment and I got to watch him look.

He’s an incredible looking man; and sometimes I have a little trouble getting my head around the fact that I have any claim on him. I wondered what it was that attracted him to me way back when. I wonder why he puts up with all my shit.

He was leaning against the side-wall, arms crossed over his chest and his head cocked slightly as he studied what was in front of him.

While walking, I had decided to call off the trip. Then decided that it wasn’t something I could run from, and called it back on. But then I had started thinking about how unfair it was to put Heero through this, and decided that I should just gird the old loins and do it alone. And of course, had realized pretty quickly how that would go over.

He turned his head and looked at me with a faintly sad look in his eyes and I told the room at large, ‘I don’t know what to do.’

He sighed so softly I couldn’t hear it, could only just see the rise and fall of his chest. He unfolded himself and gave me the hint of a shake of his head. ‘I don’t either,’ was all he said.

We met half way across the room and when I said, ‘Hold me?’ I didn’t have to ask twice. Once I was safe in his arms again, I dared, ‘Do you want to call this off?’

‘Not unless you do,’ he replied.

‘Do you want to... wait here for me?’ I ventured and expected his irritation to flare.

‘No,’ was all he said.

‘If we’re doing this,’ I said then, ‘it’s time to go.’

‘I know,’ he said gently and kissed me. I wondered what he’d found, out among the painted stars.

Then we packed the car, locked the house and took off for the shuttle port.

Heero played the radio for me, so the ride wasn’t made in total silence, because I just wasn’t up to conversation much. Too busy lying through my mental teeth to the voices in my head who were starting to politely inquire where we were going.

Out.

Where?

Just out.

But where?

For a drive.

But... where?

Oh, look at the pretty cloud.

Don’t laugh, it works. Mostly. But only to a point.

I felt my stomach tighten when we hit the access road to the port and Heero joined the line of cars going through the gates.

‘Breathing,’ Heero scolded gently, making me aware of how it had quickened.

I couldn’t really manage any actual breathing exercises sitting there in the car and just settled for stopping all together.

‘Smart ass,’ Heero muttered and I waited while he pulled up to the gate and got his parking token, before replying.

‘There’s just no making you happy,’ I teased, but made more of an effort to push down the anxiety.

We were quiet while he wound his way through the long-term parking lot, but when he’d found a spot and pulled in, he didn’t immediately let me out of the car.

‘Love,’ he asked, face showing me a bit of discomfort. ‘How do you want to handle... us?’

I blinked at him for a second, not sure of his meaning. ‘What?’ I said in bafflement.

He sighed, looking a little more uncomfortable before suddenly telling me, ‘If you need to make this trip sitting in my lap, I don’t damn well care. But I don’t want to do anything that’s going to make things worse for you.’ He was looking at me rather intently. ‘What’s too much?’

I flushed and looked away. I hadn’t really thought about that. I suppose ‘shipping out’ was so engrained in my memory as a solitary thing, that I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to how many people might be aboard the shuttle. I mean, I’d thought about it... but I hadn’t really thought about what it was going to mean.

Public displays. Great... another can of worms. I could appreciate his asking at this stage of the game at the same time I could feel the weight of just one more thing on my shoulders.

‘I don’t know,’ I had to tell him, with a slightly frustrated sigh. ‘I suppose we can just stick with what’s normal. Not cross that line if we can help it. This trip is going to be uncomfortable enough without having a sh...shuttle full of people staring at us.

We both heard me stutter over the word, and I got out of the car before he could comment on it.

It took him a moment to come around and help me unload the luggage out of the trunk. I avoided eye contact and he thankfully took the hint and let it drop. Though I got a gentle squeeze of my elbow while we were still relatively hidden by the shelter of the trunk lid.

We shared out the luggage and began the walk to the terminal.

It’s funny; the public side looks a hell of a lot different than the commercial side. Much more crowded for one thing. The parking area down on the spacer’s end isn’t nearly as large, for another. Not a lot of ship owner’s have cars to worry with. You’d have to have one waiting for you in every port and that’s just not feasible. So walking across that parking lot wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. It felt totally different from making ones way down the access road to the hangers. It almost felt more like going to the mall. Other than a vague unease and a dry mouth, I didn’t feel too bad. I was actually able to look around a little, and the clots of other people were helpfully distracting. It was interesting to see some of the oddball packages people were carting off to some family holiday. The little kid in the back of my head was actually buying into that whole ‘oh, look at that’ thing.

Until the first shuttle launched since we’d pulled onto the grounds and the kid woke up to his surroundings with a sudden snap to attention. I’m afraid I stopped dead in my tracks right in the middle of the damn walkway, staring up with a dawning sense of horror. A noise escaped my mouth that was something like a whimper before I got it snapped shut.

Somebody cursed me for blocking the sidewalk, but I didn’t even see them, I was too busy staring up at that column of blast flare. Too busy scrambling around trying to come up with a lie to placate the panicked voice in my head. Too busy adjusting my mental schedule and trying to decide if I needed to work in another bout of vomiting.

Someone muttered something about ‘damn gawky tourists’, and then somebody else had me by the arm and was steering me off to the side. Incidentally, blocking the sight of that shuttle from my sight.

I blinked Heero into focus and tried to grin but it didn’t even come close and I knew it. I opened my mouth to tell him I couldn’t do it. To ask him to pretty please take me home. ‘They sure are impressive goin’ up, aren’t they?’ was what came out.

His eyes held mine and offered whatever I needed, barring absolutely nothing. I’m almost certain if I’d told him I needed him to kiss me blind right there, he’d have done it. It made me grin and give him a tight little nod.

We rejoined the flow of foot traffic, and when the next launch happened, I was able to keep my eyes on the ground and not stop. I’m sure it was only the press of other people that caused Heero to shift close enough to bump shoulders with me.

I left all the tedium of luggage checking and crap to him. I could not have dealt with it, I don’t think. It was mostly unfamiliar to me; I hadn’t shipped out on a commercial flight in years. Heero did it all the time and moved through the practiced red-tape tango with ease. I just followed along, going where he directed and moving with the flow. It was an indeterminate amount of time before I found us seated in a waiting area. Most of our luggage was gone, given over to the tender mercies of a gang of baggage handlers, except for the single over-night bag that Heero took charge of. I wished he’d let me carry it so that my hands would have something to fiddle with, but had to make do with the end of my braid. A habit I thought I’d long ago given up.

It wasn’t long at all before I noticed that a ship was coming into the station right outside the windows of our waiting area, and I realized that Heero had timed things to get us here at almost the last damn possible moment so that I wouldn’t have to sit and stew in my own juices for an hour.

Beside me, Heero stirred, passing the bag over to sit between my feet instead of his. ‘Be all right for a minute?’ he asked softly and I nodded, not at all sure what he meant. Maybe he forgot to go to the bathroom before we left?

When he rose and walked briskly off, I damn near jumped up and ran after him. It was understanding how pathetic that was, that kept me sitting where I was. I latched onto the strap of the overnight bag, twisting it and turning it in lieu of my hair. I found myself getting anxious that they would call to board before Heero got back.

God... what was wrong with me? You’d think I couldn’t cross the damn street without help.

It only made matters worse when the gate opened and the current passengers began to disembark before he returned. My eyes were completely locked on the spot where he’d disappeared and I really hated myself for the almost physical rush of relief I felt when he came back into view.

I gave him a quizzical look when I saw the bottle of water dangling from his fingers, but then he sat back down and began rummaging through the bag and it all began to make sense. I’d forgotten about the promise I’d made. It was in my head to argue over it, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to. As much as I didn’t want to take the damn tranquilizers, I didn’t want to disappoint Heero more. And it didn’t help my case much, that when I reached to take the bottle of water from him, my hand wasn’t exactly what I’d call steady.

He pressed two pills into that hand with a hopeful little smile just as they called for boarding. It was all I could do to choke the damn things down. I truly wished I’d not agreed to it, but having promised, I couldn’t make myself argue. He was doing enough for me... it would not kill me to do this one thing for him.

Then he was shouldering our bag and standing up. I tried to follow him, but the commands I sent to my legs got waylaid somewhere and nothing really happened. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him subtly offer his hand and I took it without hesitation, letting him pull me to my feet. It took some effort to make myself let go and start walking.

I vaguely remember saying something witty to the flirty little flight attendant who did something... professional to our tickets, but I couldn’t have told you what it was. It was Heero’s hand, touching me gently in the small of the back that made me walk into the boarding tunnel. There is a moment of near privacy as you leave the sphere of the ticket lady, before you enter into the sphere of the welcome aboard lady, and Heero took it to lean close and whisper softly, ‘I’m right here.’

It was a stupid ass thing to say and I should probably have been irritated with him over the implication that I was giving serious thought to turning tail and running away. Except for the fact that on some level I probably was thinking about turning tail and running away. So instead of the annoyed growl I should have given him, I settled on a grateful smile.

Then I had to turn some part of my attention to the welcome aboard lady while she checked our seating and directed us to the right place. Not that I was paying the slightest bit of heed to those directions, I trusted Heero to know where to take us, but it still took some effort to produce the smile and the nod.

He led me down the aisle, but then hesitated when we got there. ‘Window or inside seat?’ he asked me, and I had to think about it. Which was worse, being able to see out, or being where someone might see me if I decided to go into some kind of apoplexic fit? I ended up deciding that I probably couldn’t affect my comfort level much one way or the other with one seat difference, and opted for a little less humiliation factor. There were three seats and I took the one by the window, as far from the world as I could get, and Heero sat next to me, settling our bag into the seat next to the aisle just as though he were positive no one would be sitting there.

The shuttle was not crowded, thank God. I guess there just isn’t a lot of draw to L2 for the holiday crowd. And I will always wonder if Heero’d done some finagling with the shuttle service computer system. Or maybe he’d just bribed someone, because somehow we had ended up with a pair of seats near the back of the main cabin with nobody very close to us at all. It would have taken some neck craning for anybody on that flight to get a really good, solid look at us. Not for the first time in the last week, I wished that there weren’t laws about where you had to ride-out launch. I would much have preferred to be locked away in our cabin, no matter how small the thing would turn out to be, rather than out here with all the other passengers, such as they were.

I sat staring out the window, watching the little slice of the field that I could see, and wondered if any of the tow trucks I saw out there were being driven by anybody I knew.

After a moment, I felt Heero curl his fingers around my wrist and I looked at him, he was frowning faintly and I realized he was taking my pulse.

I didn’t need to see the trace of concern in his eyes to know that it was elevated as hell. The faint buzz in my ears and the dull ache in my throat told me that my body had spit as much adrenaline into my system as it could manage, and was struggling valiantly to produce more.

‘Aren’t you feeling any effects of the medication yet?’ he asked, and I wondered if he’d try to give me another dose if I told him no. I had to stop and think about it, drawing my attention inward and taking an inventory.

When I thought about it, I did feel a little... odd. Kind of shaky. I knew if I were to stand back up, my legs would feel rubbery and weak.

‘Kinda wobbly,’ I reported back, and his frowned deepened. ‘I just took the damn things, Heero,’ I told him, feeling like a damn lab rat. ‘Give it time.’

‘The doctor said ten to thirty minutes,’ he informed me, and I realized he was still holding my wrist.

‘It’s barely been ten,’ I grumbled and pulled on my hand when I heard the flight attendant approaching our area.

‘I’ll need you to secure that bag, sir,’ she told Heero politely, and accepted his tight nod as compliance, because she didn’t hang around to make him do it, simply gave us the little ‘thanks for flying with us, we’ll be launching in fifteen minutes’ speech.

I could see the gears going around in Heero’s head and suddenly realized that he was so concerned over the damn drugs because he was afraid he’d misjudged the optimal time to administer the things. I resisted the urge to chuckle at him. ‘Hey,’ I asked him instead. ‘Is the rest of the bottle of water in the bag?’

He fished it out without further prompting, seeming glad to have some request he could fulfill for me. I took it and damn near drained it before I realized I was going to. My mouth felt like it had been lined in sand. I thanked him and handed the empty bottle back for him to stow with the rest of the gear, you don’t want stuff like that lying around loose during a... while you’re... well, you know.

I went back to staring out the window, not sure if I was glad I couldn’t see any more than I could between the wing and the terminal section or not. On the one hand there was less to see to trigger... thoughts. On the other, there was less to see to distract me from... thoughts.

We hadn’t dressed up for the trip or anything, but I had put on a button-down shirt instead of a t-shirt and I was rather glad when I felt myself beginning to sweat and it instantly chilled on my skin in the circulated air of the cabin. I’d had the sleeves rolled up and I reached to roll them down without looking.

‘Cold?’ Heero asked, and I turned to give him a sheepish little grin, feeling badly for how much I must be ignoring him.

I swallowed, finding it difficult, and wished we had another bottle of water. ‘I’m sorry,’ I told him and he looked a little confused.

‘For being cold?’ he asked wryly and I did snort softly that time.

‘For being a silent lump,’ I explained.

‘It’s all right; I understand,’ he told me and dared to reach out and brush his fingers along the side of my face. I found my eyes closing and I leaned into it, so he let the caress linger a little longer. ‘I brought your sweatshirt if you need it,’ he told me and I had to smile. I didn’t have to say anything for him to murmur, ‘I know how you get.’

I opened my eyes again and straightened a little bit, his hand dropped away and I found I missed the heat of it. ‘Yeah,’ I said, feeling the hint of a shiver wanting to take hold of the base of my spine. I let it run its course while he was turned away digging the thing from the bag that I was beginning to suspect had been very carefully packed.

I let him help me put it on without thinking about it, liking the touch of his hands as he tugged it down and straightened the collar.

‘Better?’ he asked and I nodded. That made my head feel funny though, so I quit pretty quickly. He had that look in his eyes that makes me think of mother tigers and I couldn’t help giving him a grin that was probably a little goofy. It felt a little goofy anyway.

‘I love you,’ I blurted and then just sat blinking at him, rather appalled that I’d said that right out loud in a public place like this.

His expression danced between warmed and surprised; I don’t think he could believe I’d said it either. He leaned over and whispered next to my ear, ‘Forever, love.’

I had to put some serious concentration into not letting my head fall to rest on his shoulder once he’d brought it so close.

He straightened, but his fingers were on my wrist again. He didn’t seem overly happy with what he found. ‘Duo,’ he ventured after a moment. ‘How are you feeling?’

I had to close my eyes in order to force my attention inward again to figure it out. I felt... really kind of weird. I think it was safe to say the damn drugs had kicked in, and in that moment a thread of unease made its way through my gut and later I would very distinctly remember thinking that those tranquilizers had been a bad idea.

‘Weird,’ I told him, because he was waiting on a status. ‘Kind of... shaky. A little bit dizzy. My mouth is dry as the damn Sahara. I dunno, Heero... to be honest, it’s screwing with my concentration. I feel kind of... scattered.’

And I did. When I really stopped to make myself aware of it, I just didn’t feel so damn good.

When I blinked my eyes back open, it was to find Heero looking at me in a way that let me know he wasn’t entirely pleased with the report.

Then the waitress... no, that wasn’t right... the flight attendant came around again because Heero hadn’t stowed our bag yet. He apologized profusely, muttering something about needing something out of it, and quickly put it away. This time, she stood over him until she’d seen the job done right. I vaguely remember trying to smile at her pleasantly but I’m not sure I did, because she kept glancing my way with a strange look on her face.

Then she went away and I was so relieved to have Heero sitting back beside me, that I reached out and took hold of his hand. He smiled fit to make the sun come up and squeezed my fingers.

But then that same flight attendant’s voice was on the loudspeaker and we were being given the up-right speech. I heard the hatch seal shut and could feel as the loading ramp kicked free and began to retract. I think I made a tiny little sound, because the hand wrapped around my own tightened and a second one joined it.

My tongue worked until it came unglued from the roof of my mouth and I meant to tell Heero to abort the mission. I meant to tell him not to make me do this. I opened my mouth intending to say stop, but what came out was, ‘Well... this time tomorrow we’ll be on L2.’

We were at that point in the schedule, after all, where all parties concerned had to face up to what we were doing and get the hell over it. I glanced at the back of the seat in front of us to make sure there was a barf bag within easy reach.

In the back of my somewhat overcrowded head, something uncoiled and the kid woke up and that damn screaming started.

L2? Shuttle? You tricked me!

I drew in a deep, shuddering breath and tried to ignore what were really only my own thoughts anyway. But then I heard the hideously familiar metal-on-metal sound of a tow truck attaching to the shuttle and the kid let out with a wail, understanding that he’d got the news too late to do anything about it.

‘Oh God,’ came out of my mouth before I could stop it and I had a mind-bending moment of sheer terror thinking that the voice of the scared little boy might manage to gain control.

‘I’m right here,’ Heero whispered low and gentle, just as we jerked into motion. Some part of my mind got the feel of the hands driving the tow truck and I knew it wasn’t Dusty. I couldn’t make up my mind if that made things better or worse.

I endured the haul out to the launch ramp without managing to rip the stuffing out of the armrest, or break any of Heero’s bones. Though I have a feeling if it had been anyone but Heero Yuy sitting next to me they’d have been in some serious pain. I don’t think I could have let go if I’d wanted to. Nor could I focus enough attention to ease the grip; it was taking too much of my concentration to keep the terror bottled up behind my teeth.

I realized I was trembling like a new-born foal only when Heero began to whisper to me and I could vaguely hear the strain in his voice. Could feel his worry. ‘It’s ok baby, I’m with you all the way. I won’t let go.’

My heart was trip-hammering in my chest so hard it hurt. My throat felt swollen and pained, evidence of bodily systems on overdrive. All my awareness was simply on not letting that little screaming voice come out of my mouth. Had to keep it in my head.

No! Please no! I wasn’t bad... I’ll be good, please don’t make me...

We slowed and stopped and I knew the tow truck out there was lining us up on the ramp. The driver gave the truck a little backward kick, to loose the grapples and I knew in an instant it was Cortaine behind the wheel. It was a weird thought that gave me pause, throwing me back to a time in my life when I would have been the one in the pilot’s seat.

I turned to Heero with a look that I’m sure was far, far from reassuring and told him in a wobbly voice, ‘That line? I’m gonna cross all over it unless you tell me not to.’

And you know damn well he didn’t tell me not to, just opened his arms and reached for me. It wasn’t possible to do much with us both buckled into our seats, but I twisted myself around like a pretzel and buried my face in his shoulder and clung onto him like some damn leach. The g-forces of launch were not going to be pleasant in that position, but I was pretty sure without the contact, I was going to be screaming for them to stop the damn ship any second.

‘I’ve got you,’ Heero told me, his arm around my shoulders and squeezing tight enough to bruise. ‘You’re not alone... I’m right here.’

Why do nonsense words comfort so much? I don’t know... maybe they just give you something else to think about. Maybe it’s just white noise. All I know is the little boy in my head was hanging on his every word much like I was hanging onto his shirt. Hands fisted tight on the thankfully stretchy fabric and eyes squeezed tight shut.

‘I... can’t do this,’ I told him, utterly appalled at my own mouth.

He was quiet for a minute and then his hand came to the side of my head, pressing me firmly against his shoulder. I felt him kiss the top of my head. ‘It’s too late.’

And it was. I knew it was, because the final countdown had started and once you hit the thirty second mark, God couldn’t stop a shuttle launch. The kid screamed so loud and so hard, that a guttural moan escaped my defenses.

I felt the thrum of the engaging chain and whimpered Heero’s name. On some level wondering how I had thought I could do this without him. Wondering how I had done it alone the last time.

On another level though, I was aware that things were... different. I was more scattered and out of control. My concentration was blown to hell and I just felt confused and off-balance. So damn disoriented. I couldn’t focus on any of the things that might have helped me get my shit together. And I sure as hell couldn’t work up enough anger to bull my way forward the way I had last time.

It was Heero’s gentle, siren voice that got me through that launch. Holding my scattered psyche together with the sheer power of his nonsense words. Weaving something solid for me to hang onto when everything else I reached for failed me.

‘...going to be fine. I’m here with you, I’ll always be right here. You can do this...’

When the harsh crush of launch force hit us, the pain of it pressing down on my twisted body made it impossible to speak. Made it impossible to scream. I was very glad for that... because I think I might have, otherwise.

Despite my eyes being shut tight, I could feel the play of launch-flare across my face, taunting me and trying to get me to look. I burrowed harder into Heero and felt his hand leave my shoulder for a moment. Felt him fighting the pull of the g-forces, and somehow he managed to reach the button that closed the window shield. The light stopped dancing across me and Heero’s hand came back to curl around me.

It was a lift-off that felt like it would go on forever. And I suddenly knew what Hell would be like when I finally got there. There would be no trotting over to help old Sisyphus with that rock on the hill. No, Duo Maxwell’s own private Hell would be the launch that never ended.

For the first time since the very early days of my Gundam training, I fell into that near-faint that gets the newbies. If it hadn’t been such a fucking relief... I would have been mortified.

I wasn’t completely unaware, just somehow removed from the pain and the stress. I think the kid in my head did faint. Or finally just went into a catatonic state. Heero’s voice got a little scared sounding when my hands stopped clutching and I went limp, but I couldn’t make myself come back to the unpleasantness of it all. I was just drifting in a place that was somehow soothing in its... blankness.

I completely missed that moment of leaving the atmosphere.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that it took Heero’s tone going from ‘a little scared’ to ‘almost frantic’ before I forced myself to come back from the hazy gray place and tried to reassure him that I wasn’t dead. Or whatever he thought.

It took a bit of blinking to get him to come into watery focus and the look I found on his face was nothing short of scared shitless.

‘Duo?’ he asked me, voice all tight and low. ‘God, Duo... are you all right?’

I just stared at him for a minute, trying to process the paleness of his face and the wide, shocked look to his eyes. He reached to cup my cheek when he saw me registering his presence again. When I remembered how speech worked, I croaked, ‘Cabin?’ and hoped to God he understood how important that was.

I needed out of there. I needed a bolt-hole. A place to run to and lick my wounds. A place I could try and get my head together and figure out what in the hell was wrong with me.

‘Ok, baby,’ Heero whispered and used unsteady hands to smooth over my face as though cleaning me up. I closed my eyes again and trusted him to get me the hell out of there.

I heard him unbuckle and stand to retrieve our bag from the compartment overhead. I felt him undo my own seatbelt and roused enough to try to stand. ‘Not just yet, hang on a minute,’ he told me.

Then the unthinkable happened. He left my side. Left my line of sight, and that rather made it through the cotton batting I seemed to be wrapped in.

There was some part of my brain that understood I was not alone; I could hear the murmur of other voices in the cabin, and when I put some effort into it, I could even pick Heero’s out, talking to the flight attendant in a slightly terse manner.

But there was another part of my brain... the five-year-old part, that was on the verge of shouting for him; that felt the squeeze of memory in aching lungs. That was suddenly so very cold that I was visibly shaking by the time he came back.

I was not so far gone that I didn’t see understanding dawn in his eyes the minute he saw me. That I didn’t see the guilt well up in him. I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for him and I decided that I would be mortified later. After I felt his touch and knew he was real.

He pulled me to my unsteady feet, murmuring soft apologies to me and using his body to block me from the sight of the other passengers. God only knows what in the hell he’d told the attendant, in that moment he could have told her I was drunk for all I cared, as long as it got me where I wanted to go; someplace private. Someplace safe from prying eyes and listening ears. Someplace where I could finish the job of falling apart without interruption.

I wobbled and I staggered and I barely managed to keep my feet under me with the help of Heero’s hands on my arms. I let him guide me and we quickly left behind the sound of the other passengers. So many things were pulling at me, twisting my perceptions. The thrum of engines. The hollow, metal sound of boot heels on metal deck plates. The faint recycled tang of the air.

By the time he got me to the cabin, he was practically carrying me and I wouldn’t have cared if he’d pulled me into a broom closet, as long as we were away from the humiliation of witnesses and he stayed with me.

I realized I’d been apologizing in an endless litany when the door slid shut behind us and he took me by the arms and gave me a little shake.

‘Stop it, Duo!’ he commanded, looking intently into my eyes. ‘It’s all right... it’s my fault. We should have tested the tranquilizers before now. I should have given you just one, until we saw how you reacted to them. It’s not your fault.’

I blinked at him, trying to fathom what he was saying, my brain trying to piece together something I already knew, but couldn’t seem to keep in the forefront of my mind. ‘This sucks,’ was the best I could manage.

He gave me a shaky little laugh, a burst of tension, and then he was hugging me tight. ‘The pills were too strong. I’m sorry... they weren’t supposed to do this to you.’

I suppose it should have been in me somewhere to be angry with him; I’d never wanted the damn pills in the first place. I wouldn’t be this fucked up if I hadn’t taken them. And quite possibly, much later, I would be angry. Once my head was cleared enough to get past all the things that were swirling in my mind. Once his solid presence helped me redefine reality. ‘It’s cold, Heero. It’s so cold...’

I would say that I just gave over to his care and let him take charge, but it honestly wasn’t what you could call a conscious decision. Hell... my brain had abdicated somewhere around the time the hatch sealed and there just wasn’t much choice about who took the lead here. Left to my own devices, I’m not sure I could have done more than sink to the ground where I stood.

I could feel the crush of vacuum all around us, pressing on the outside of the ship like the tightening fist of a very angry God. I could feel the cold seeping through the walls, creeping inward like a fog of ice-frosted breath. Could feel the air growing stale even as we stood there. If I’d had a hamster left that wasn’t drugged or just plain hiding, they would have come out to tell me how much trouble we were in when I began to gasp for breath.

Heero doesn’t need hamsters.

‘Duo-love,’ he told me, even as he was flinging our bag onto the bed. ‘You need to calm down. Come on... listen to me; just breathe... it’s all right.’

I was only vaguely aware of him pressing me down to sit on the bed. It barely registered as he pulled off my boots and then he wrapped us both in a cocoon of blankets.

He took me to my safe place.

I don’t know when he lost his shirt or his shoes, but when he laid me down across his chest, it was bare skin he cradled me to.

‘Listen to my heart, baby,’ he whispered against my hair. ‘Everything’s going to be all right. Just concentrate on me. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’

I wondered if Trowa had been talking to him. I wondered if Heero had gotten ‘calm the mad mechanic’ lessons before we left. But I didn’t wonder for very long because it was taking all of my attention to try and do as he said; I was having a hell of a hard time remembering where I was supposed to be.

‘The air’s so stale,’ I told him, totally at random.

‘No it isn’t,’ he soothed and stroked his hands over my hair and my back. ‘Stop panting, we’re fine. You’re safe with me.’

I tried hard to do as he said, tried hard to concentrate on the steady sound of his heart against my cheek, but kept getting distracted by the sounds of things I hadn’t heard in a very long time. Sounds of a ship in flight. So familiar, but so very different from the pulse of almost-life that had been my home for so long. Pain welled up in my chest as I remembered another heartbeat; the heart of my ship gone silent.

‘I didn’t mean to kill my Demon-girl, Heero,’ I confessed, and tried to look up at him, but things were all watery and hard to see again.

‘I know,’ was all he said, arms going tighter around me. ‘I know... it’s all right.’

Somewhere behind the panic that was trying so hard to run away with my head, I felt badly that I was obviously scaring him so much. Felt bad that I couldn’t seem to get my wits about me, or shut my damn mouth up.

‘I’m so sorry I’m such an asshole,’ I told him, feeling my voice wobble dangerously and Heero made a tiny little sound of distress.

‘Shhh... You’re not an asshole,’ he said, kissing my forehead and stroking my cheek.

Something... the fear of what was out there coming for me, maybe... was winding up tight in my gut, making it hard for me to remember where I was and why. I clutched at Heero’s arms and listened, utterly appalled, as the kid got control enough to beg, ‘You won’t leave me, will you? Please... don’t leave me alone again.’

‘I’m right here,’ He told me, voice sounding terribly strained. ‘Shhhh... please don’t cry. I won’t leave you, not for a second. Hush... it’s all right...’

I was very confused and raised my head to look at him, suddenly afraid of slipping into that place I didn’t want to be. ‘I... made it out, right Heero? I’m not... there, am I?’

‘God no,’ he breathed, voice fierce and firm. ‘You’re with me, we got you out. Everything is fine. I’ve got you... I’ve got you now, and everything is all right.’

While he talked, his hands were doing something, I heard things rustling and crackling and then his fingers were worming their way under the neck of my sweatshirt. He smoothed his fingertips over the back of my neck in an odd manner, murmuring soft apologies. I couldn’t figure it out, but settled my head back on his chest, seeking the sound of him again. ‘Tell me?’ I heard myself ask, needing to have that anchor, needing something to hang onto because it seemed I could hear the whispering movement of the Londonderry dead very close at hand.

‘I love you,’ he said, drawing me close and raining kisses down on the top of my head. ‘Always. I’m here with you and you’re safe with me. Forever.’

And suddenly I just couldn’t seem to keep my eyes open. Just couldn’t seem to focus at all. I remember being vaguely confused about how that could happen. I remember wondering if Heero had done something. Then I don’t remember much of anything at all.

As disjointed and weird as my memories are of the launch and the time right after, what’s in my head concerning the rest of that day and our night aboard ship is just a strange conglomeration of very few and far between flashes of awareness. Strung out as though they had no relationship with each other at all.

I remember coughing myself into semi-wakefulness and asking for water. And I remember some liquid being trickled into my mouth, but the two things don’t seem to be related.

I remember waking to the feel of Heero shifting and having a full-fledged panic attack that he was going to leave me alone in that helpless state. I seem to recall a lot of murmured reassurances after that.

I very distinctly remember opening my eyes to see Heero looking at me with an almost alarmed air and saying, ‘You have never been a burden to me, Duo. Never.’

I remember hearing my night music.

I remember hearing Heero talking softly and realizing he was reading to me.

Later, I would figure out that he’d drugged me. Heero Yuy is nothing if not thorough, and he always has a plan two. Apparently, he’d gotten more than just a bottle of tranquilizers from the clinic. He’d gotten some ‘knock a horse on its ass’ sedative patches too. Though I don’t think his original strategy had been for plan two to be a remedy for plan one.

I should probably have been pretty furious, but under the circumstances, some part of me had to admit it was probably for the best. With all of my defenses stripped away by the damn tranqs, I would quite possibly have just had a heart attack and freakin’ died if I’d had to suffer through the whole damn trip in the state I’d been in. Or something.

This understanding didn’t make the whole thing any less humiliating. And while I’m not going to say I was jumping-for-joy happy with how it all came out, I can’t really say I woke up blaming Heero for the mess. He hadn’t slipped me the pills; he’d asked me. I had agreed against my better judgment. I guess there had been a couple of bad decisions all around.

When I did finally come out from under the influence of all the crap in my system, I was still curled like a catatonic puppy all over Heero’s chest, still listening to the steady sound of his heartbeat. Feeling the reassuring presence of his hands stroking over my back and my arms. Still bundled up in sweatshirt and jeans, in every blanket the cabin had to offer.

Waking was one of those pasty, groggy, stiff and confusing affairs. I was first aware that something not very good had happened to me. Then I was aware that the body I was resting on was uncomfortably hot and slick with sweat. Thirst came next, and finally an overwhelming sense of how utterly pathetic a human being I am.

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