Traditions (cont)

I raised my head and found Heero’s eyes on me. He looked... damned tired.

‘Hey,’ he said softly. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Somewhere between road kill and pond scum,’ I quipped, and tried to lever off him.

He caught at me and I found myself resisting. ‘Take it easy,’ he told me. ‘You’ve been out a long time.’

And that, of course, begged the question, ‘How long?’

He looked a little bit sheepish, but had to tell me, ‘We have a few hours before we dock.’

‘Shit!’ I blurted and pushed harder until he let me sit up. My head exploded, my stomach churned and I must have swayed, because he followed me up to a sitting position, catching at my arm. ‘I’m ok,’ I told him, not sure if my head found its way into my hands, or if my hands came up to clutch at my head. I might have made a small sound of protest against my entire week.

‘Here,’ he told me, slipping a supportive arm around me. ‘Just lean on me.’

I dropped my hands and straightened, trying to give him a grin, but feeling my face flaming for all it was worth. ‘I believe I’ve been leaning on you all damn night. I’m ok now.’

‘Duo...’ he protested, but then didn’t seem to know what else to say; only reaching to stroke his knuckles down the side of my face.

‘Can we just agree that those tranquilizers were the worst idea we’ve had in a long time and leave it at that?’ I grinned and touched his own cheek with my fingertips, watching carefully so I didn’t hurt. I couldn’t maintain the expression though, not in the face of his obvious upset and dropped both gaze and fingers. ‘Heero, I am so very sorry...’

That upset flared into anger so suddenly all I could do was blink at him. ‘Don’t you do this to me!’ he snapped, grabbing me by the shoulders. ‘Don’t you dare fucking do this to me!’ I couldn’t help it; I flinched. Then I got to watch the frustration almost visibly drain out of him in a sudden rush of guilt.

‘Heero?’ I gasped; afraid for a whole new reason. ‘What...?’

I could see him tamping down on himself. Could see him wrestling his emotions into check. I was struck again by just how tired he looked. ‘Don’t shut me out, Duo,’ he told me wearily. ‘Last night... for the first time since the hospital, you let me see what was inside you; shared your fears with me. Don’t do this to me... I can’t take it again.’

I did that carp imitation that I keep swearing I’m going to give up, because I’ve seen how damn stupid it looks. But there just doesn’t seem to be another expression that fits that kind of moment. ‘I... I barely remember anything about last night, Heero,’ I had to tell him. ‘What are you saying?’

I flashed back on that time when I figured out that I must have suffered with a severe case of ‘confess your soul’ right after the accident. To this day I don’t know what all I said, other than the fact that it had left little doubt in anybody’s mind that I loved Heero beyond human ken, and left Heero with so much understanding of the workings of my head that I’d spent months suspecting him of having powers of mental telepathy.

He looked... pained. ‘I’m saying that you lay in my arms last night like you actually needed me. I’m saying that you let me care for you and watch over you without all the damn... defensiveness.’

‘You mean I fucking fell apart like... like some kind of raving lunatic,’ I grumbled, plucking at the blankets and trying to evade the intense look he was giving me.

‘I mean,’ he said gently. ‘That a mistake I made cost you your ability to cope with an extremely stressful situation, but instead of being angry with me, you... you sought me out. You let me help you without all this... bullshit between us.’

I dared a glance up at the expletive, but only Heero Yuy can us the word bullshit without really being angry. He tried to catch that glance and hold it, but I couldn’t. ‘Heero... I feel like a flaming idiot. I’m so sick of being so... damn fragile. So stinking weak.’ In front of me, just inches from my knee, the old sensei hamster appeared. He didn’t have a banner. He didn’t have a sign. He didn’t need them, he only glared long and hard and in the face of his pissed off visage, my mouth opened and I whispered. ‘Why can’t you understand how scared I am of you getting tired of supporting me? Why can’t you understand how awful it is to be this... feeble in front of the one human being in all the universe who means more to me than... anything?’

Sensei nodded once and vanished from sight, the damn old bastard. It was probably just as well; he’d have gotten crushed when Heero gathered me into his lap anyway.

‘And why can’t you understand that I don’t see you as weak; I don’t see you as fragile,’ he whispered against my hair, voice all twisted up tight. ‘You are the strongest person I know. I love that it’s me you turn to when you’re in need. I love you, and I want to be here for you.’

I didn’t know what to say to him, and just settled in his arms for a bit, trying to think it through. Trying to stop letting my embarrassment rule my mouth and my attitude.

There were just too many layers to what I was feeling; I wasn’t sure where my concentration should be.

There was the embarrassment, of course. Overlaying the discomfort of my drug-induced hangover. All on top of the lingering feeling of being trapped in a flimsy bubble that could pop at any moment, leaving us stranded in the cold blackness of space.

When I didn’t speak, he leaned to nestle his face against my shoulder and said softly, ‘You trust me with your body... you trust me with your heart... why can’t you trust me with your fears?’

I let my head rest against his. ‘Heero,’ I heard myself saying. ‘This nightmare is nothing compared with the fear I have of you being... ashamed of me.’

I couldn’t quite believe that had come out of my mouth. It was too close to asking for something I didn’t want to have to ask for. Putting something on the table that I hadn’t thought I was ready to. He lifted his head, forcing me to raise mine, and there was a solemnity to his expression that made me blush.

‘Long before you had my love,’ he told me, looking me square in the eyes. ‘You had my respect.’

It hit me like a damn blow. I made a sound as my lungs got confused about whether they were supposed to be sucking air in or gasping it out. All I could do was stare at him, searching for the lie... and not finding it. Why did it make so much difference hearing him actually say it? Why did the words mean so much more than any action he’d ever made? I don’t know, but it shook me more than the first time he’d told me he loved me.

You have to understand something about love. Real, true, I’m gonna be with you forever, love... it can’t exist without respect. Sure, you can care for a person, can even be fond of them, but you can not truly, deep down in the soul, love someone you do not respect. And I guess it just didn’t seem like there was very much about me lately, to admire.

In that moment... all I wanted was for him to lay me down and take that much vaunted control from me. Wanted to surrender to the heat of the fire he seems to feel for me. Needed to feel that heat spreading through me. But somehow, it seemed neither the time nor the place. I shivered and he wrapped his arms tighter around my waist, drawing me close, mistaking it for a chill.

I couldn’t find the words to tell him what that had meant to me. There just weren’t any words, so I held him tight as hell for a minute and then muttered, ‘We have to be getting cleaned up.’

He snorted softly, and kissed the hollow of my throat. ‘I can see I need to spend more time telling you just what an incredible man you are.’

I groaned theatrically, letting him lead us gently away from what was starting to become uncomfortable. ‘You aren’t going to start that crap again, are you?’

‘Every day until you believe me,’ he said simply, keeping the tone light despite the fact that I knew he wasn’t really teasing.

When I got up to make my wobbly way into the head, he let me go alone, though I could feel his eyes on me. He didn’t speak about how unsteady I was anymore than he commented on my leaving the door open. When I’d finished washing up as much as I could in a sink, and redone my hair, I came out to dress in clean clothes while he took his turn in the tiny bathroom. He didn’t close the door either.

When I went to dress, I found a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt waiting for me on the corner of the otherwise trashed bed. I took a minute for the first time to really look at the mess we’d made and was surprised by some of the things he’d thought to pack. My little MP3 player was there and I remembered hearing my music when I saw it. A copy of Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ was lying next to it and the sight made me remember something I couldn’t quite pin down. There were empty protein drink bottles and the torn wrapper from the patch Heero had used on me. That made me reach to the back of my neck, where I remembered Heero doing something, and I pulled the spent, useless thing off. There was a strange tingle in the air and I turned to find Heero watching me, waiting for me to blow up about it, I think. I went without a word and threw it away in the disposal slot. I’d already decided there was just no point getting upset about the whole thing. It was done. Though... the damn tranquilizers were going down the toilet at the first opportunity.

I was dressed and pretty much had the mess cleaned up by the time he finished in the head, but I found I needed to sit on the side of the bed when I was done. He came and sat beside me, pulling the duffle bag over and fishing around until he found a ration bar, a protein drink and my iron tablets.

I took them, because I knew I needed them, but gave him the raised eyebrow look. ‘If there’s another ration bar in there... you haven’t eaten either.’

He frowned in theatric distaste, but dutifully dredged up another one. I shared the warm protein drink with him and we finished our strange breakfast just before the ship’s bell chimed for strap down; we were getting ready to dock. I was wound so tight the sound made me flinch.

A warm hand settled on my shoulder and Heero softly said, ‘It’s all right, baby.’

I frowned at the hated pet name and gave him a half-hearted glare. ‘Could you refrain from calling me that?’ I grumbled. ‘You know I hate it.’

He blinked in what appeared to be genuine surprise for a second, but then only managed to look amused. ‘That’s right,’ he chuckled with an odd look in his eyes, ‘you do.’ I was left feeling like I’d missed something.

Then it was time to go. He shouldered our bag, and with a last look around, led the way to the cabin door.

Docking does not speak to my nightmares the way launch does. Launch is going out into that thing that almost claimed my life in the slowest possible way. Docking is leaving that thing. Ground-bounders don’t get that. They don’t understand the difference between a space station and a space ship. They can’t understand the unfailing faith the colony-born have in our stations. They’re both out there in space, they say, why is a station any better than a simple ship? Hell, folks... the Earth is out there in space too when you get right down to it. Nothing more than a glorified open-face colony, just natural instead of man-made. It’s a mind-set as much as anything, I suppose, but it’s a mind-set that I thankfully possessed, or this trip wouldn’t have been possible at all.

As we made our way down the corridor toward the main cabin, the distant murmur of other voices suddenly made me think, and I glanced across at Heero. ‘What, exactly, did you tell the attendant to explain our... sudden need to be elsewhere, yesterday?’

‘I had not intended on telling her anything,’ he scowled in remembrance. ‘But she had noticed that you... didn’t look well. So I told her you ate something that didn’t agree with you.’

‘Oh,’ I muttered, suddenly wondering what in the hell the other passengers and crew thought about our total absence for the entire trip. People have a tendency to mingle aboard the longer flights. The cabins aren’t much bigger than a closet and there’s nothing in them to entice you to want to stay in one for more time than it takes to sleep. Besides the main cabin, there is usually a more casual lounge and I’m sure that’s where most of our fellow passengers had spent the trip.

Heero gave me an understanding smile and said, ‘The hell with them.’

I just had time to snort my opinion, and then we were there. As I had feared, every eye in the place that was in a position to see us, turned our way, and the undercurrent of conversation we’d been hearing, hit a low point. I flushed darkly and just aimed for our seats, wishing this whole nightmare was over.

But then Heero did that thing with his expression that makes large men tremble and small men run, and we suddenly weren’t the center of attention anymore.

I couldn’t get my ass in my seat fast enough. This time, Heero stowed our bag without being told to. I think he’d hoped to avoid the flight attendant coming over, but she came anyway, leaning down to smile at us.

‘Feeling better Mr. Maxwell?’ she asked solicitously and I wanted to groan. Either she’d done her homework and looked our names up in the system, or I’d been recognized. She totally missed Heero’s sudden narrow-eyed assessment, and I knew she’d just kicked him in his proverbial Preventors’ nuts.

Though I wasn’t much feeling up to witty chit-chat, I made the effort because I knew Heero wouldn’t. He was too busy making sure she didn’t have some nefarious purpose shoved up her sleeve. ‘Yeah, thanks,’ I smiled at her. ‘Though those dinky little bathrooms just aren’t designed for long term occupation, are they?’

She laughed at my lame joke, dimpling in delight, and flushing lightly. I knew without a doubt she’d figured out that I was that ‘guy from the magazine cover’. I thought I was going to have to throw myself bodily across Heero to keep him from taking her ass down, when she reached abruptly into her suit-jacket pocket.

It only took a heartbeat for his expression to change from ready to kill, to amused though, when she blurted, ‘Would it be too forward for me to ask for your autograph, Mr. Maxwell?’

I think I turned fifteen different shades of red but managed to sputter something that must have been acceptable, because she giggled at me and held out her autograph book and a pen. I dutifully took it and scrawled my signature in it as quick as I could. At a glance, between the shakes I had and the embarrassment of the whole thing, I wasn’t sure if the damn thing was even legible. I figured she knew me from the expo, so without much thought, I underscored the signature with a quick, simple sketch of a broadsword, and handed the book back to her. I thought she was going to kill herself thanking me, clutching the book to her chest and blushing like a damn school girl. It was a toss up which of us was the brighter shade of red.

But then duty called and she finally went the hell away. I managed to hold in the heavy sigh until I was pretty sure she was out of earshot. ‘Well,’ I muttered, feeling like a total ass. ‘That was... different.’

‘You handled it very well,’ Heero said, somehow keeping the laughter out of his voice. ‘The little embellishment to the autograph was a nice touch.’

I glared at him. ‘Nice to be a source of amusement for you,’ I groused and he did chuckle at me then.

‘Well,’ he murmured, leaning a little toward me so that he could lower his voice even further. ‘It’s kind of an odd feeling to find that I’m married to a celebrity.’

Nothing coherent would come out of my mouth and he straightened, grinning at me fondly. When it was pretty plain that I wasn’t going to manage a snappy come-back, he relented and said, ‘It’s not that big of a deal... it happens all the time when I travel with Relena.’

‘That might be because she’s the Vice Foreign Minister of the entire freaking Earth Sphere,’ I pointed out. ‘Not a...’ and there I had to falter. I’d started to say ‘salvage man’, but realized that wasn’t right. I floundered for a second and shouldn’t have, because Heero leapt into the silence.

‘Ex-Gundam pilot? War hero?’ he supplied, that damned smile on his face again. ‘Hands down crowd favorite at the last Gravity-expo? Cover boy for the most sought after issue of the ‘Rising Times’?’

‘Asshole,’ I informed him, and I would have glared him into silence, but you just can’t do that and combust at the same time. I settled on turning away from him, but that left me looking out the port, which was not the best idea I’d had all day.

Oh yeah... that was where that nagging oppressive feeling was coming from. Must have slipped my mind.

A hand closed on my wrist and I forced my eyes back to Heero, smiling as best I could. ‘What?’ I asked brightly.

His brow creased in a tiny frown and he murmured. ‘Your breathing just went shallow and your pulse rate went up; that’s what.’

I sighed, not quite sure what to do with his bluntness. ‘I forgot where I was for a second, ok?’ I muttered.

He blinked at me, his fingers sliding off my wrist to simply take my hand, and he gave it a little squeeze. ‘I’m sorry,’ he told me softly.

‘For what?’ I asked, puzzled.

It took him a second to work it out, and I just sat and watched him pick over his words. ‘For the drugs,’ he finally sighed. ‘I should have trusted you. I just wanted to... ease things for you.’

His way of admitting that I was handling things a hundred and ten percent better on my own than I had under the influence of his ‘just to calm your nerves’ tranquilizers. If I were a real shit, I would have said ‘I told you so’, but I’m not. Not really. At least, not most of the time. So I ended up not saying anything at all, which, I suppose wasn’t much better than just saying it. He sighed softly, gave my hand a last squeeze and let go.

‘S’ok,’ I relented. ‘It’s over now anyway.’

Then I made myself turn back to the port.

I consciously pushed down the apprehension that came with thinking about how close the press of vacuum was, and tried to concentrate on how close the stars were.

The stars. My beautiful stars. I don’t fear everything about space travel. There are things that I miss so much, my heart aches for it sometimes. The sight of the stars from a shuttle or ship is one of those things. We’ve talked before about how different the stars look from out here, haven’t we? Have I mentioned how many more of them there seem to be? No matter where you go on Earth, you just don’t get the view you do from a colony. From out here, there seems to be an endless sea of crystal bright stars. It makes you think of many things. At least... it always made me think of many things. Profound things. Stupid things. Things that made me laugh. Things that made me weep. Sometimes made me remember people who I would never be able to share those wonders with.

The universe and I had a long and bitter-sweet love affair. I had loved her passionately, though she’d been a cold mistress sometimes. And, I suppose, in the end she had betrayed me in the harshest of ways.

I turned back to Heero, thinking about the people I could have wished had lived to share these sights with me, and told him in a voice that came out wistful despite my best intentions, ‘It really is beautiful, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ he agreed, but there was an odd look on his face and I had the vague feeling we weren’t talking about the same thing. But the final warning chime sounded then, and there wasn’t room for more talking.

I found myself focusing on the feel of the shuttle, assessing the hands of the pilot through the movements of his ship, and grunted after only a few moments. ‘Newbie,’ I said to no one in particular and when I glanced at Heero, found him nodding faintly, as we felt the slight over-compensation of the jets. If you have much experience at all, you shouldn’t have to use the jets near as much as this guy was.

I noticed while I was looking that way, Heero’s hand resting carefully within my reach. An offer, if I wanted it, and I ended up reaching for him for the simple pleasure of his fingers curling around mine, and not so much that I needed it. He smiled warmly and we sat through the docking procedure like that. I was struck, again, with an almost grateful feeling that the shuttle was no more crowded than it was.

I’ll spare you the mundane details of disembarking. Nobody wants to hear the minute particulars of luggage collecting, cab flagging, and hotel check in. Suffice it to say that we docked without incident, found a cab without too much trouble, and our room was more than adequate for our needs.

Though, I swear to God, we both began visibly drooping the minute our feet touched station deck-plates. The removal of that constant main-line adrenaline feed, I suppose. Believe what you like; there’s very little in this life that will wear you down quite like emotional overload. I can only imagine how Heero was feeling, but by the time we were standing in the lobby of what turned out to be a damn nice hotel for L2, I was about ready to drop right where I stood. We accomplished check-in without too much fuss, and dragged our sorry asses to the elevator bank.

‘Food or sleep?’ Heero asked, as we stood waiting for a car to arrive.

I glanced at him, understanding how tired he was when I realized that I’d managed to get two of our three bags to carry, something that he hadn’t let happen once so far this trip, and told him, ‘Sleep.’

It might have been my imagination, but he looked faintly relieved. I wondered if he’d gotten any rest at all aboard the shuttle.

The room was not Peacecraft-mansion opulent, but it was damn nice. Under different circumstances, I would have given Heero a hard time about the money he must have spent. We certainly didn’t need a room with a king-sized bed, a television the size of Kansas, and a sitting area to boot.

I took the moment to put out the do not disturb sign while he dumped the suitcase he’d been carrying, locking and chaining the door behind me.

I settled the bags I’d been carrying and then turned on him. ‘Ok Yuy,’ I told him firmly. ‘Bed; now.’ He tried for a wicked grin, but couldn’t get it past affectionate. I chuckled at him, shaking my head, and moved in to divest him of his clothes.

‘Sorry,’ he murmured, letting me handle buckles and snaps, while he watched, looking like he’d forgotten how such things worked.

‘Knock it off,’ I commanded, pulling his t-shirt over his head. ‘You wouldn’t be so exhausted if you hadn’t stayed up the whole way here taking care of me.’

‘You wouldn’t have needed me so badly if I hadn’t screwed up,’ he mumbled, and the fact that he’d said that right out loud told me more than anything just how drained he was.

I pulled back the bed-clothes and he climbed obediently into bed. ‘You coming?’ he asked, crawling over to make a place for me and I had to grin at the boneless way he sprawled out.

‘Yeah, gorgeous,’ he chuckled at him. ‘But I think I’ll shower first.’

‘You ok?’ he had to ask, though his voice already sounded unwieldy.

‘I’m fine,’ I reassured him. ‘Now go to sleep.’

He was gone off to la-la land before I got out of the shower. Hell; I’m pretty sure he was most of the way there before I got in.

If I have a choice, I prefer not to braid my hair fresh from washing it; it just stays wet for freakin’ ever. So when I came out of the bathroom, I dug into the duffle bag for a clean pair of underwear, intent on sitting up for a bit, maybe reading until my hair got past the drippy stage. But one look at Heero, sleeping so dead to the world and I knew I wouldn’t have the concentration to get much reading done.

Heero has something of a hair trigger, and does not usually sleep all that soundly. He sleeps... on guard, if that makes sense. I think it’s a conscious thing, and I think that’s part of why it drives him crazy that I can usually come and go out of bed without bothering him. Mucks with his soldiering instincts. He habitually sleeps in a compact, kind of curled up position, on his side. Unless he’s curled around me, but that’s another story.

So the picture he presented to me that evening, sprawled out like a big, lazy cat, was a rare thing. A rare and wonderful thing. Though somewhere inside I knew it was a blatant sign of the emotional roller-coaster ride I’d obviously put him through. I was caught half-way between guilt that his state of fatigue was partly my fault, and joy that some part of him trusted me to be on guard.

I was more than delighted, when I went hunting for that clean pair of underwear, to find one of my sketch pads at the bottom of the bag; Heero does his best to think of everything. I was quick to pull it and my pencils out. I filled pages with him. With the sweep of an out-flung arm. With the shadowed hollow of a collarbone. With the fall of that silky, dark hair against the stark white sheets. I shifted around the room, catching him from different angles, almost feverish to capture the sight. I sketched the beauty of his strength in gentle repose until I was near weeping with wanting him. Until my brain finally processed that this rush of emotion was my own exhaustion catching up to me.

It ended up being several hours before I joined him in sleep.

If there were dreams, I don’t remember them.

We slept through the evening and all through the night. Longer than I can ever recall sleeping at a stretch when I wasn’t in the throes of recuperating from one thing or another. I woke feeling much better. There was a slight headache, perhaps from too much sleep, and a vague shaky feeling that I recognized as my body demanding sustenance. But the feeling that all the drugs were finally, one hundred percent out of my system, more than balanced that.

Heero had sought me out in his sleep and I woke with his arm lying lax over my waist, his breath warm against my shoulder. My need from the night before reawoke, coiling hot and heavy in my gut. God, I wanted him. I wanted him to wake and pull me close. I wanted the brush of his breath across my skin to turn to warm kisses. I wanted to be borne down under his weight. Wanted him to fill me with his heat and his passion. Wanted him to hold my release at his command.

But I could feel my own emotional... instability. I knew if I tried to take from him what I needed, I would very likely come apart at the seams. I could feel the crumbling edge of my own control and knew that I couldn’t bear to give in to the vulnerability that he would bring to me. I was too bruised. Too frayed. I couldn’t let myself unravel here of all the damn places. I needed the security of our home, to let go that much. Needed the safety of someplace familiar.

But... dear God, I wanted him.

I shivered and it woke him, his arm tensing around me, pulling me tight against his chest, and damned if I didn’t shiver again.

‘S’alright,’ he murmured, soothing before he was even completely awake. His frame of mind telling him I must be having a nightmare. ‘I’m here, love... it’s all right.’

‘Sorry,’ I murmured. ‘I didn’t mean to wake you.’

‘Bad dream?’ he asked gently, his other arm sliding under me so that my head was pillowed on his shoulder.

I couldn’t quite contain a shudder, and just went with the flow of his theory. Who was I to argue, after all? ‘Yeah... I guess.’

‘It’s ok,’ he told me, hugging me close. ‘Want to talk about it?’

‘No...’ I evaded. ‘Let it fade.’

‘All right, love,’ he agreed and he just held me for a minute before asking, ‘How are you feeling this morning?’

That was safer ground and I decided to follow him onto it. ‘Better. Not so... muzzy, I guess. Though I’m starting to get kind of hungry.’

As I’d hoped, the comment stirred him in a direction that was very off the track. Or at least off the track that I was on. Or something. You know what I mean.

‘You’ve barely had anything since we left home,’ he pointed out. ‘Of course, you’re hungry. Do you feel up to going out, or shall I call room service?’

I snorted, and had to grin. ‘I think I can manage to take my poor, weak self out for breakfast, Yuy.’

‘Yes, but if we stayed in, I could... hand feed you,’ he rumbled in his sexy voice. The one that should be outlawed.

I’m sure my own voice raised two or three octaves as I stammered, ‘I thought food sex grossed you out?’ The mental images he was giving me were damn near enough to make me stop worrying about love-making being more than I could handle.

But he was already crawling out of bed, a wicked grin on his face and other things obviously on his mind. ‘I don’t think feeding you constitutes food sex. Now I’m going to get my shower so we can go get you fed.’

I was somewhat relieved when he disappeared into the bathroom. I waited until I heard the water running before I climbed out of bed and dressed. I noticed he left the bathroom door open again, and it made me feel odd. It had taken him a long time to get to the point where he didn’t think much about leaving me alone after the accident. I sure as hell hoped we hadn’t set things back to the way they had been six months ago. While I won’t try to deny to myself that it didn’t bother me on some level, I knew it was something I had to overcome. I’m not sure Heero would give me the space for that, if he really realized. He is nothing if not protective... in case you haven’t noticed.

Somewhere in the back of my head I heard the voice of Neo, the grizzled old galactic hitch-hiker, ‘I couldn't stand to be in a room by myself for almost a year.’

Well, I’d done him one better, I supposed. I could manage it... if the music was loud enough.

I stood by the window, looking out on the streets of L2, rebraiding my hair and thinking about the conversation I’d had with that man. Kind of just getting my equilibrium back. By the time Heero came out and got dressed, I had achieved a state of composure that didn’t feel like it would be thrown off as soon as I took a deep breath.

Heero took his dressing cue from my attire and we ended up in simple jeans and t-shirts, though his was a plain black one, while mine said ‘Keep watching... it gets worse’. I’d slipped it in the suitcase when he hadn’t been looking, anticipating a moment when I might need an unspoken apology. I didn’t quite have the nerve to look right at him when he first spotted it, but I was rewarded with a dark chuckle all the same.

He came and hooked an arm around my neck, pulling me in to plant a kiss on the side of my head, grinning at me openly. ‘It can only get better from here, love.’

I grimaced at him, swatting him on the arm. ‘Damn it, Yuy!’ I growled. ‘Never challenge the power of worse!’

He laughed and gave me a bit of a squeeze before turning away to get out the other suitcase.

We unpacked the gifts and loaded them into a couple of shopping bags we’d brought for that express purpose, then finally headed downstairs for breakfast. I had to make a point of picking up one of the sacks before Heero could take them both. I sighed. He sighed. But we managed not to let it turn into a fight.

‘I’m fine,’ I told him as we got onto the elevator.

‘You haven’t eaten in over thirty hours,’ he informed me. ‘I’m just... concerned.’

I snorted. ‘I ate aboard the shuttle.’

He raised a derisive eyebrow, something you have to see to understand. ‘I don’t think one ration bar in thirty hours quite cuts it.’

‘And just how much have you eaten?’ I queried smugly.

It was his turn to snort. ‘I was able to eat breakfast Tuesday morning.’

‘So you’re a couple of slices of bacon up on me,’ I grinned. ‘Big deal.’

‘Duo...’ he began, but I cut him off.

‘Look; we’re on our way to eat,’ I sighed. ‘I can’t do anything else about it until we get down to the dining room, ok?’

He looked a little sheepish for a second but then must have decided I was right, because he altered the subject completely. ‘Do you want to go on over to the home right after breakfast?’

I glanced at my watch just as the elevator doors opened on the lobby. ‘It’s not really all that early, I don’t see why not.’

He let me lead the way and I followed the signs advertising ‘The Courtyard’ restaurant. It was just off the main lobby and didn’t seem to be crowded at all. I couldn’t help wishing we’d left the hotel and gone somewhere else though; the place didn’t look like it got a lot of mechanics. There were white linens on all the tables and the man who came to see us to our seats was wearing a nicer tux than the one Heero owned. I felt terribly out of place, though Heero didn’t even blink. I imagined the place was nothing compared to the kinds of restaurants he’d been to in the company of the likes of Relena ‘never had pizza before’ Peacecraft, but I suspected he wasn’t usually wearing denim. It may have been my imagination, but the waiter seemed a little disdainful.

I managed to find something that sounded like it might be just fresh fruit under an assumed name, and ordered that with some pastry sounding thing. I settled quietly with my glass of water, figuring the guy would throw me out if I did something so crass as to ask for a soda.

When Mr. Uptight had taken our order without, quite theatrically, writing anything down, he went away and Heero and I resumed our conversation.

‘Are you sure you want to go over there with me, Heero?’ I had to ask, thinking about how damn bored he was likely to be.

He gave me a perplexed little frown and said, ‘Of course I...’ but then he hesitated. ‘Unless... you’d rather I didn’t?’

‘Dork,’ I chided. ‘You know it’s not that. I just don’t know what in the hell you’re going to do for a couple of hours while I play Santa Claus.’

He smiled, something clearing from his eyes. ‘Well, according to what Relena reported to me, those children of yours are pretty rough. Maybe I just need to go along and guard your back.’

It kind of flustered me to think that her Highness had been talking about me and that little walk she and I took together. I wondered what she’d said about the kids, but was a little afraid to ask.

Then my bowl of fruit arrived and we shut up while the waiter set it in front of me. I muttered a distracted ‘thank you,’ and gave the bowl a dubious once over. I recognized three of the five varieties. God... couldn’t we have just found a McDonalds? Surely there was one on L2 somewhere.

Heero watched me poke cautiously at the green stuff and said, ‘Kiwi,’ with a small smile on his face.

‘Pardon?’ I asked, looked up to meet his amused gaze and he chuckled softly. I’d have probably been pissed off if there hadn’t been so damn much open affection in it.

‘The green pieces are kiwi fruit,’ he clarified, and somehow left me feeling like I should be picking hayseeds out of my hair. I felt myself beginning to blush and tried to stop. I speared a piece of something vaguely orange and held it out for his inspection. ‘Kumquat,’ he identified. ‘It can be a little tart.’

The pineapple, pears and peaches, I could readily identify, so I bent to eating. I decided that kumquat was not something I would go out of my way to look for in my grocery produce section, but the kiwi wasn’t half bad.

Heero had ordered a dish that had sounded like something you cleaned out of the bottom of your refrigerator, but actually turned out to involve eggs and meat. Despite the glaring looks of disapproval from the waiter guy, we had a fairly pleasant breakfast trading tidbits of this and that off each others plates. Though I’m fairly certain Heero had ordered his meal with the plan of feeding half of it to me, which was probably just as well, because my pastry thing turned out to be... not. I’m still not sure what the hell it was, but I hope to never run across another one.

When I finally swore to him that I could not eat another bite, he left off trying to get me to ‘taste’ everything within a five foot radius and asked, ‘Do you just want to sit for a little while?’

I couldn’t help the nasty little smirk. ‘Breakfast conversation under the watchful eye of Mr. Anal, over there? I don’t think so.’

Heero chuckled and made some motion that brought said Anal-waiter to our table. The bill was requested and I think the man couldn’t get us dealt with fast enough. It was painfully obvious that he wanted us out of his restaurant. I’ll always wonder if it was the way we were dressed, or if we had been too obviously ‘together’. Or something else entirely. I never did know, and I vowed while Heero was still settling up the bill that I wouldn’t partake another meal in his domain during our stay if I could help it. I didn’t care if I had to walk six blocks to find someplace else. I got some satisfaction out of the fact that Heero didn’t tip the guy.

Standing on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, my bags of gifts in our hands and waiting for a cab, it finally started to sink in just where we were going. I was going to get to see the kids. We were going to be there to see them open their presents.

‘Crap!’ I blurted, on a sudden thought. ‘I forgot the candy!’

‘It’s in the bottom of the bag,’ Heero informed me, managing not to sound smug at all.

I grinned widely. ‘You remember everything, don’t you?’

‘I try,’ he deadpanned and I laughed.

‘You know,’ I had to tell him, thinking ahead to the greeting we were likely to get. ‘Kids will freakin’ say anything. Don’t let them think they’ve managed to shock you or they’ll be all over you.’

Heero quirked that little half grin and looked at me askance. ‘Don’t let ‘em smell the fear?’

I laughed in delight. ‘Exactly!’

He shook his head and might have said something else, but a cab finally pulled up and we moved to commandeer it.

I gave the driver the address once we were settled, and checked our packages one more time. ‘I sure hope nothing got damaged,’ I muttered, shifting things and looking through the sack.

‘You really didn’t buy anything all that fragile, Duo,’ Heero said in the strangest tone of voice.

‘Yeah, but think how bad it would suck to be the kid with the broken gift!’ I huffed, and looked up to find him smiling at me.

‘Well, I suppose we could open them all, check them, and then rewrap them before we get there,’ he said, managing to sound quite serious and reasonable.

‘You are mocking me,’ I accused in somewhat theatric horror. ‘Outright mocking me.’

‘I suppose I am,’ he agreed, still with that weird-ass little smile on his face.

‘What?’ I grumbled, feeling kind of uncomfortable under his scrutiny.

‘Nothing,’ he smiled. ‘It’s just... this was more the expression I was hoping my Christmas gift was going to give you. It’s nice to get to see it.’

I flushed, eyes darting toward the cab driver for a second, but he appeared to be paying no attention. ‘What?’ I prodded. ‘This is preferable to my puking on your shoes?’

He actually chuckled. ‘Very much so,’ was all he said.

There wasn’t much I could answer to that, so I opted to ignore the comment. ‘You know... the kids don’t know my last name,’ I told him on a sudden thought. I always kind of forgot about that. I’d been ‘Mr. Duo’, with no one around to refute that fact, for so long that it just sort of slipped my mind. ‘I’d rather not let them know.’

I expected a confused frown or a question. I couldn’t help remembering how Relena had taken the news. Thinking about her reaction made me feel a touch defensive.

But he surprised me when he only said, ‘Sometimes it’s best to just keep the past and the present separate.’

I couldn’t help grinning at him. He got it. I should have known he would.

Then the cab was pulling up in front of the home and there was no more time for warnings of any kind. We both reached for our wallets, but Heero insisted, informing me that it was my Christmas present and he was taking care of everything. When put in that context, it was kind of hard to argue. I suppose I could always slip some money into his wallet later.

We climbed out and I let Heero get both bags, not so much to make him happy, as to have my hands free. We were barely on the sidewalk before I heard the shouting start in the house. ‘It’s Mr. Duo! It’s Mr. Duo!’

It’s funny; I had kind of thought Heero’s presence would intimidate the little buggers a little bit, but there was no hesitation at all as the front door slammed open and they came running out. I heard the door hit the wall and knew that someone was going to get a talking to. It was Zinia at the front of the pack, and I had to grin. Damn fearless, that one, trouble on two legs. She never even slowed down, hitting the edge of the porch and leaping at me like a flying squirrel. Little monster had grown an inch or so, as well, and I thought for a moment she was going to take us both over backward. I had to turn my catch into a neat little spin to take the oomph out of her momentum. I spun us clear around so that we ended up facing back the way we started while she giggled manically.

‘Mr. Duo’s here!’ she hollered somewhat unnecessarily and then leaned out so far that I had to adjust my stance to keep her from overbalancing us. She gave Heero the once over, then straightened to cup my ear and whispered a little bit too loud ‘Who’s that?’ It rather gave me a jolt of déjà vu.

‘This is Heero,’ I told her with a mock glare. ‘And Heero is a ‘he’, not a ‘that’.’

Sarah had come off the porch in a more traditional manner and came to hang on my pants leg while she peeked around me at Heero. There was something in her expression that I wasn’t too sure about, so I ignored it for the moment. Devon and Ethan had arrived with Sarah and were standing solemnly waiting for some of my attention. I noticed that the new kid was hanging back on the porch, standing next to Davey with a kind of puzzled look on his face. Davey, of course, was much too mature to come running outside to greet anybody. That just wasn’t cool, though he was smiling.

‘Do you think you horribly uncouth monsters can manage a polite hello?’ I asked, rolling my eyes heavenward in a gesture that was so borrowed from Octavia it wasn’t even funny. Though the kids all laughed uproariously.

‘Hello, Mr. Heero,’ they managed after they stopped appreciating my skills as a mimic.

Heero only nodded, looking somewhat lost and somewhat bemused and maybe just a little bit nervous.

I grinned at him ferally and mouthed, ‘Don’t let ‘em smell the fear,’ and he smiled at me warmly, looking only a little reassured.

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