Traditions (cont)

Over the years, I've done everything in that place from plumbing to wiring. Carpentry to small appliance repair. What I did usually wasn't much, but I knew it saved Octavia a bundle not having to take things in to the shop.

It was damn gratifying that with Heero's help, we managed everything on that list. Starting with the broken hinge on the back screen door and ending with fixing the toaster. Nothing huge, but all necessary.

A couple of times, as I crossed paths with Heero as we worked on separate jobs, I had to take a moment to watch him as he patiently explained to Sarah just what he was doing and why. Sometimes, actually letting her do some small thing like taking out a screw. It was... a strange image of Heero. Unexpected, and all the more precious because of it. I started to figure out part of her obsession when, the third time I happened to be in the same room as they were, I heard him teaching her the Japanese names for the tools he was using to fix a loose chair rung.

Allison had settled in beside the couch, and resisted my few efforts to draw her out. But she only seemed absorbed in her new art supplies, so I left her alone.

At one point, I found myself alone in the kitchen, tightening a leaky pipe fitting under the sink. Devon and Ethan had momentarily been lured off by the sounds of Heero hammering a loose floor board back into place at the top of the stairs and had abandoned me as having a boring job.

I hadn't been left alone long, before I felt a presence in the room. I glanced up to find Mark lurking around the doorway and wondered if he'd been hovering for the last hour, waiting for an opportunity.

'Hey kiddo,' I called, without appearing to look at him. 'Could you hold this flashlight for a minute? My helpers ran out on me.'

He came over, squatting down beside me and took the proffered light, holding it unerringly where I was working. 'Thanks,' I murmured and just went back to tightening.

He was quiet for a long time, just holding the light while I grunted and fought with the stubborn pipe, but then finally blurted. 'I don't have to hug you or nothin'... do I?'

I snickered lightly, but just kept working. 'Nope. Completely optional.'

The light wavered minutely while he nodded. 'Uhm... thanks,' he said after another minute.

'You're welcome,' I replied and grinned as I finally felt the wrench turn that quarter inch I was looking for. 'I think I got it!' I crowed. 'How about turning the water on and let's see if this sucker still leaks?'

I took the flashlight back from him and he jumped up to turn on the tap, squatting back down to watch the pipes not leak with me. We shared a grin and then he went back to hunt Davey up.

It was a start.

I was pretty relieved when we finally got to the end of that list. I'd wanted to get as much done as we could, God only knew when I'd make it back again, but the honest truth was... I was getting kind of tired. None of the jobs had been huge, labor intensive tasks, but there had been a lot of tedious ones. On top of a couple of rough days; I was more than ready to be done.

Heero finished about the same time I did, so I didn't have to hunt him up, Sarah hauled him back to the sitting room the instant they finished their last job, trying to get him to read her more of her new books. I moved to intervene; the kid had to be driving him crazy, but he surprised me by telling her no in a gentle but firm way, not even caving when she tried whining a little.

It made me feel odd. Kind of proud of him, if that makes any sense.

Then it was time for the goodbye part. The boys had recovered their macho, grown-up status, and refrained from joining in when the girls came to hug me goodbye. Sarah hugged Heero too, the only one who would, and actually got weepy. I had a moment of panic, I was usually pretty good with keeping the leave-taking light hearted and hadn't had one of those horrible crying scenes in a long time, but Heero said something to her and she settled right down.

At the last minute, Allison darted out and handed me a rolled up piece of her new art paper, tied not so neatly with the ribbon from her present. I was admonished to save it for Christmas day, and I swore that I would.

There was the general uproar and giggling, but we eventually managed to obtain the front porch, which is three-quarters of the battle.

Octavia followed us outside, which was unusual, flapping her apron and telling the kids to, 'Stop gawking like a bunch of baby chickens!' and to 'Go figure out where this horrid eye-sore of a playground is going to go!'

The kids got excited about it and ran dutifully off, not doubting for a second that they'd just been excluded from some adult conversation.

Octavia shook her head and sighed in that put-upon way she has, before turning on me. 'You certainly didn't spare the expense this year,' she observed drolly.

I ducked my head and had to confess, 'Well... I hope I didn't over-do it, because it was kind of a one-time thing.'

I was surprised when she didn't mock me, but only looked a little disappointed.

'What is it you need, Octavia?' I asked her bluntly and got to watch the woman's cheeks color slightly for the first time in our acquaintance.

She gave me a little grin, hands going into her apron pockets. 'I'm that transparent, am I?' she laughed.

'Only to me, cause I'm your favorite,' I teased. 'Now out with it.'

She hesitated for another second, before shaking her head. 'It was silly of me to hope that you'd suddenly come in to a fortune. I should have known you'd have been sending more if you had. It's just... the doctor said some cosmetic surgery could be done for Allison, but...'

'Insurance won't pay for 'cosmetic',' Heero finished for her, and Octavia nodded.

It made me angry, on some far away level. Angry that anyone could deny that little girl something like that. But, really, I'm a product of the L2 system; 'Life ain't fair' is our motto. While it made me angry, it wasn't anything I hadn't dealt with a million times before, so it wasn't an anger that would really come clear.

Octavia went ahead and gave us a few more of the details, because we asked, and I tried to be shocked at the price tag put on a child's piece of mind, but couldn't really. I hadn't paid that much for my car.

But then Octavia swept it all away with her dismissive 'what can you do but deal?' smile, thanked us profusely for all we'd done, and sent us on our way.

When our feet finally hit the sidewalk, it crossed my mind that it had been a damn long day.

'What now?' Heero asked me, sounding a touch uncertain, and I blinked my way out of my reverie.

'We won't be able to catch a cab this far out,' I explained. 'But it's only a couple of blocks to the main drag, we can find one there.'

He nodded and took a step in the proper direction, but I suddenly found I couldn't move. I just stood staring at him, a little appalled at what was stirring in my head.

'Duo?' he questioned softly, something about my expression causing his brow to furrow.

'Walk with me first?' I found myself asking and he nodded. It still took me a second to turn my steps in the other direction.

Don't ask me what in the hell possessed me, on top of everything else, to think to take Heero down to the Maxwell church memorial. Some strange, masochistic tendency that felt the week needed something to cap it? Some residual guilt that I'd taken Relena there, but not Heero? Some fear that we might not ever make it here again? Maybe the damn thing had some siren call that only I could hear. I don't know. I really just do not know.

'Sarah really seemed to take a shine to you,' I observed after a moment, mostly so he wouldn't ask me where we were going. I still had a faint hope that I might just walk on by the thing in the end.

Heero grunted and glanced side-long at me. 'It didn't bother you, did it?'

I snorted. 'Not in the least.' Then I gave him a quirk of a grin. 'I actually felt kind of bad for not being able to rescue you.'

His expression did something odd then, I'm not sure I could have said what, and it took him a second to tell me, 'It was all right... I didn't really mind.'

I studied his expression, as much of it as he was letting show, until I thought I had it identified. 'You ok?' I asked him gently.

His eyes lifted from studying the side-walk and he looked across at me. Maybe seeing understanding. He nodded tightly and we walked a half a block in silence before he said, 'I felt kind of bad... I think I reminded her of her father. She seems to just barely remember him.'

I nodded. 'I wondered if it wasn't something like that, when she got so fascinated with you at first sight. She's usually pretty shy.'

'Half way through fixing the toaster,' he said. 'She suddenly told me he was Japanese. I think... the doll and books you got her were a good idea.' I could see him working something around in his head and he suddenly said. 'I think we should make a point of bringing her things that will help her understand her heritage better.' He stole a glance at me, and I'd swear his cheeks were flushed.

I grinned at him, and wished I could reach out and take his hand. 'That sounds like a good idea,' was all I said.

He grunted, and then we were there. I stopped walking, but didn't say anything.

It didn't really take him long to figure out where we were and why. You can't exactly miss the damn memorial. If you ask me, it's something of an eyesore. I think they could have put up a rock about half the size of the stupid thing they'd used, and it would have been fine. I don't know, maybe it's just the fact that I knew how much Sister Helen would have been bothered by the thing, but I doubt I could warm up to anything that might have gotten erected on the site. See? I can fess up to my own prejudices.

Heero was quiet, looking at me and looking at the empty lot and looking at the damn rock and then looking at me again.

I struggled for a minute with what to say; This is the site of the massacre that took the only family I ever really knew? But that wasn't right, because I'd had Solo and he'd been lost in a whole different kind of massacre. That list of names is the start of my list of dead. People who lost their lives at my hand? Not really right. Exactly. And damn melodramatic sounding anyway. Even if it was how I felt. This is where I made the biggest mistake of my life? That probably fit better, but just didn't quite want to pass my lips.

Hell... let's be honest; nothing really wanted to pass my lips. I didn't want to talk about it. I wasn't even sure why I'd brought him here.

They say that every major disaster ends with somebody saying, 'Well... it seemed like a good idea at the time.'

This suddenly didn't seem like such a good idea.

Heero moved closer to the stone with its sad little plaque and I was struck with how different his movements were from Relena's. She'd been half angry with me, had almost read the thing with a stubborn, irritated air. Heero seemed to radiate... respect. Somehow understood, where she hadn't, that we trod in a graveyard. I had that same, sudden, cold feeling in the pit of my stomach that I remembered from the other times I'd been here. I don't make it a habit to come and rub salt in old wounds.

I've only done it three times now. Once, out of some twisted sense of duty. Once, in a fit of 'fuck you' irritation that Relena dared say it wasn't so. And now... wonder what this trip was driven by?

Heero stood and I watched him read the thing, his fingers lifting with an odd hesitancy to brush across the cold metal surface of the etching of the church... of the line about the fourteen children dead in the fire. He looked at the lot again and I wondered if he could see it. It made me sad sometimes, to think that I was probably the only person left who really remembered the place. I found myself aching to take his hand and run up the front steps of the church to introduce him to Father and Sister. I wanted to take him downstairs into the dormitory and show him the first bed I'd ever slept in. Wanted to show him the loose brick I'd found in the wall down there, where I'd kept my tiny stash of treasures. Things a kid collects; a polished bit of stone, a penny smashed under the tracks of a tank of the 'peace keeping force', the pocket-knife with the broken blade that Solo had given to me. Treasures lost to time.

It made me shiver to see Heero looking up where the stained glass window would have been. I didn't follow his gaze, I kept my eyes on him; afraid I'd see the flames again... afraid I'd see that window explode again. Because always, right after that, came the sounds and the smells.

Then Heero turned away from the things he probably wasn't really seeing, away from the rock with its matte-silver plaque, and toward me. When he opened his arms, I didn't hesitate to step into them. His embrace was fierce and possessive. 'Thank you,' he murmured in my ear, seeming to understand the cost to my heart in coming here. Seeming to understand that for all its strangeness, this too was a gift, albeit not an especially attractive one.

I wanted to ask him if he had any questions, but that was too much like what I'd said to Relena in this place and I didn't want to cheapen the moment, if that makes any sense at all. I wanted to give Heero better than that.

Neither of us is overly comfortable with these sorts of public displays, but I couldn't work up the energy to care enough to draw away from the comfort he had to offer. So we stood there probably a bit longer than we should have, until he finally drew away enough to look at me and say, 'Let's go find that cab and go back to our room, all right?'

He didn't completely let me go until I'd nodded and stepped away. Then we resumed our walk toward the main street.

It seemed strange to come down to the thing for no more than the five or ten minutes we'd stood there. I felt like I was cheating somehow. Avoiding something. But really, the heart of the matter was in me, not sitting on some slab of concrete out in the middle of an empty lot. I didn't need to stand in the cold in order to remember that night.

It somehow seemed that the time had come to share the damn, dark images with Heero, though I doubted my ability to do so. I doubted my reasoning for doing so. I doubted my right to inflict them on him.

But I had no doubt what-so-ever that I wasn't going to stand at the base of that damn memorial, in front of God and everybody and try to tell Heero anything.

There are some 'bad ideas' that even I can see coming a mile away.

He let me retreat into my silence again, not pressing, just getting us where a cab could be found, and then getting us back to our hotel.

He didn't poke at me until we were in the lobby, on our way to the elevator banks. 'Do you want to go in to dinner first?' he asked me gently.

I had to work not to blurt out something profane. 'I really don't think I'm in a frame of mind to deal with Mr. Anal-waiter, Heero. I'm kind of afraid I might just bite the man's head off.'

I was a little surprised when Heero smiled. 'Might do you some good.'

I had to laugh, but wasn't convinced to brave it. Though, I suppose the guy couldn't possible still be working as late as it was. 'If you don't mind... I think I'd just as soon do room service.'

'That's fine,' he told me; sounding as though he'd half expected it, and didn't seem to mind.

When the elevator doors closed on us, standing side by side, I couldn't quite help leaning my head over to rest against his shoulder. 'So,' I murmured. 'Having a good time so far?'

He laughed; sounding genuinely pleased, and rubbed his head against mine. 'Of course. I'm with you, aren't I?'

I had to lift my head in order for the effect of the rolled eyes to come across. 'You can be so cheesy sometimes.'

'It's the company I keep,' he told me, and I had some trouble deciding what his tone of voice implied. I was saved from having to reply, when the elevator doors opened.

There was no one in the hall but a maid at the very far end, and I was relieved, when Heero opened the door, to see she'd already done our room. I wasn't looking for company or small talk. I think I'd have probably just told her to leave fresh towels and skip the rest of it.

I started across the room while Heero chained the door, but suddenly found my wrist trapped in his strong hand. I turned and looked at him, and he quirked an odd little grin. 'I have needed to kiss you for the past three hours, so damn bad...'

It was almost a relief not to have to be the one to confess first. So we just did that for a little while, standing in the middle of the damn room. Teeth and tongues and lips and not a lot of breathing. In a way that should have had us ripping at clothes, but somehow didn't. It was... gentle, and reassuring. It was... anchoring and the feeling of coming home. But somehow didn't make us want more than that.

I honestly don't think the mood would have allowed for more than that.

When we finally drew apart, Heero rested his forehead against mine and softly asked. 'Are you all right?'

'Yeah,' I told him, because it was mostly true. 'How about you?'

It took him a minute to reply, so I knew he was being honest when he said, 'I hadn't anticipated...' but then he floundered, not sure how to word it.

'How emotionally draining a pack of kids can be?' I supplied, taking a stab in the dark. He drew back to look at me rather sharply and I was pretty sure I'd hit it fairly close. To my knowledge, Heero's never dealt with kids before. Especially not orphaned ones.

'Yeah,' he said after a quiet moment of regarding me. 'Does it...?'

I grinned. 'Every damn time and only gets worse as you get to know them.'

It got me pulled back into his arms, and I felt him draw a shuddering breath.

Oh come on, you think it's easy walking away from a place like that? No, those kids aren't miserable; they aren't living in squalor or eating out of trash cans. Octavia is a better guardian than you're going to find anywhere; firm but fair, and mellow enough not to bat an eye over a lot of damn shit. But... the big damn but here, folks. That's not what those kids wanted. They wanted a family and a home of their own. They wanted to belong, and not to a place referred to as 'The Children's Home' in whispered voices behind their backs. They wanted last names to match with the people they lived with. They wanted somebody to be there when the school had the Mother's day banquet, or put on the Father's day play.

No, it's not easy to walk away from that. Even when you know you aren't the right answer to what they want. Even when you were one of them once, and knew better than anyone what it felt like to sit with your face pressed to the glass, on the outside looking in. Even when they squealed your name and ran to meet you and some part of your heart wondered what it would be like if those shouts of 'Mr. Duo!' were 'Daddy!' instead. Even when you knew better... it still cut deep.

And that damn memorial is just the other side of the same stupid coin. I said I'd only been to visit it twice before that day, but I lied... I didn't walk down the street to look at the God damn thing, but in my head I visited it every time I made the trip to L2. Every time I came to see the kids.

I wonder if that's why I'm always so depressed at the holidays?

'You're chilled,' Heero finally ventured, and it was a little surprising for him to be the one leading us away from a topic for a change. I wondered just how much it was bothering him. 'Why don't we order dinner and then make use of that massive bathtub in there?'

'Sounds nice,' I murmured. 'I am kind of cold.'

I let him do the ordering while I went and got the bath ready. The tub was one of those designed for... what we planned on doing with it; sharing. It appeared to be some sort of whirlpool thing, with a contoured bottom to facilitate lounging without sliding. The faucets were even conveniently located on the side so you could lay back without bashing your head on them, but still reach them without having to move. Decadence at its absolute best. I put everything near at hand and ran the water good and hot, even found some bath salts and figured, what the hell? Wasn't likely we'd have this kind of opportunity again for awhile.

I was actually kind of surprised that a hotel this damn nice existed on L2. I tried to dredge up what would have been in this neighborhood all those years ago, but couldn't really remember. Not even sure I'd been around here before. L2 isn't any smaller than any other colony... just a little bit poorer.

I meant to wait for Heero and dinner, but the lure of the hot water was too enticing and I gave in to the urge. I was chilled and tired, achy and worn out; it just looked too damn comforting to ignore.

I think Heero might actually have woken me up when he brought dinner in. He smiled warmly at my, what must have been, sloe-eyed look, set the tray on the counter and undressed. I couldn't see what was on the plate, but I was surprised as hell when he opened what proved to be a bottle of wine and poured a couple of glasses. There was a kind of ledge near at hand that seemed to be just for this sort of thing and Heero put the glasses there, setting the bottle down within reach. He brought our plate and stepped into the tub. I spread my legs to make a spot for him to sit in front of me, and was pleased when he took it, settling against me.

He made a tiny little sound of pleasure as the water swirled around us. 'That feels good,' he murmured. 'And it smells nice... what is it?'

I managed to roll my head in the direction of the jar and blinked until I could read the label. 'Neptune's Treasures brine salt.'

He snorted in appreciation of the sound of it, then tried to twist around where he could feed me. It was awkward as hell, and we almost ended up with a forkful of noodles in the water.

'How about you hold the plate, and I'll wield the silverware?' I suggested, and that seemed to work much better. We ended up eating our dinner that way, though I can barely report what in the hell it was we ate. Food; I know that much. I was too tired to care, and too caught up in the feel of Heero resting against me to notice.

When we finished, he sat up to lean over and put the plate out of the way, retrieving our glasses so we could reach them without getting up again. I was left with an unpleasant cool spot where his back had been, and frowned slightly at the loss. I felt almost groggy between the full stomach and the heat of the water.

'Com'back,' I murmured, and got chuckled at. He hesitated, looking at me for a long moment. 'What?' I grumbled.

'Trying to decide if you look relaxed or exhausted,' he said, before settling back against me.

It was nice. I liked holding him, though he seldom let me; usually being the one who supplied the support and the comfort. It was good to have him leaning on me. Good to have his head resting against my shoulder. 'About half and half,' I confessed and watched him sip at his glass of wine.

I wondered what had possessed him; we seldom drink alcohol of any kind. Or at least, he didn't, and I hadn't since coming to live with him. To be honest, I had been a little afraid of it for a long damn time; it had seemed a thing that could have been very easy to let turn into a crutch during those first dark days. I gingerly picked my glass up and took a tiny sip, feeling oddly edgy. I was reassured when I did not immediately feel compelled to drain the thing.

'You had a lot to deal with today,' he said gently, tilting his glass to and fro, watching the wine sway and swirl.

'I guess,' I said non-committally, but then felt bad when I heard him sigh very softly. 'I'm sorry,' I told him. 'I'm not trying to be evasive. I just... there's so much...'

'I know,' he told me, turning to stretch and kiss me just under the chin. 'I never dreamed this trip was going to be so... hard.'

'Are you sorry we came?' I had to ask.

He reached blindly with his right arm and caught at my shoulder, squeezing me tight for a second. 'No. I think you needed this, as rough as it's been. I only regret the mistakes I've made... But I'm not sorry I brought you... back here.'

Back here. Back... home? No, not ever. L2 might be the place where I'd been born, might be the place where a couple of good sized chunks of my soul were buried, but it had never been home. Home is the place you feel safe. Home is the place that nurtures you and cares for you. L2 had never been that.

Then he surprised me. 'Are you sorry we came?'

'No,' I answered promptly, not having to think about it, and then said something else before I had a chance to think about it either. 'But I'm damn glad you've been with me.'

There was a moment of silence while he... seemed to soak the words in, and I sat in appalled wonder at the tears gathering in the back of my throat.

He sought my hand, underneath the water, and clasped it tight. 'I'm damn glad I was here,' he replied and sounded as though his throat might be a little tight too. Maybe it was the brine salt.

I sipped at my wine until the feeling passed and I felt like I could speak again. 'I wanted to thank you, for helping me with the chores. I know it wasn't exactly what you thought today was going to be like...'

'You don't need to thank me,' he interrupted. 'I was glad to do it. It was... different.'

I chuckled. 'Was it... ok that I couldn't get Sarah to leave you alone all day?'

It took him a second to answer, and I wondered about it until I heard his tone of voice. 'It was fine. I... kind of liked it. I just... I've never...' he was floundering so bad it was painful.

'I know, love,' I told him. 'They make you hurt inside wanting to fix the universe for them.'

He sighed, a tiny little frustrated sound and finally blurted. 'We could give her so much.'

I kissed the top of his head. 'Not what she needs. Not what she has a chance at, where she is.'

'I know,' he whispered.

'But it still hurts,' I agreed and set my glass down to wrap my arm around him. 'I know too. What they need is 'normal', and we aren't exactly that.'

He heaved a shuddering sigh and shook his head in agreement. We were quiet for a little bit until he murmured, voice kind of far away, 'I remember wanting normal.'

I snorted mirthlessly. 'I remember praying for it.'

'Somehow, I can't imagine you praying for anything,' he chuckled, but it was a strained sound.

'Back before I figured out it was best not to draw the attention of deities and devils,' I said with a sigh, leaning my head back against the wall. 'I loved Sister Helen quite unconditionally and it was hard not to have faith in what she had faith in.'

It was probably a kind of melodramatic thing to have said, but it seemed to fit the mood somehow and just slipped out of my mouth. I imagined the words hanging in the air like bubbles before sinking down into the water. I shivered as they popped on the surface.

Heero set his wine glass down long enough to turn the hot water on again.

'And did you have faith?' he asked gently, when he had heated the water back to a temperature that suited him.

I sighed, thinking about that one. 'It's funny, but even at the height of my efforts to please Father and Sister... I don't think I ever really did. Their bible told stories of a kind and loving God, and I'd never been a witness to anything like that.'

He grunted, picking his glass back up.

'Do you believe in God, Heero?' I found myself asking and wasn't even sure why.

He was quiet for a long time, swirling his wine and looking at I could only guess what. 'Not really,' he finally confessed. 'Though... I can remember being jealous of you, when we first met.'

'Jealous of what?' I exclaimed, wondering for a moment if I'd heard him right.

He chuckled and turned his head a little to nuzzle against me. 'With your priest's collar and gold cross... I thought you'd found a God who could forgive you what we did.'

I couldn't help laughing, though it died quickly when he didn't really join me. 'Back then, those things were my reminders of why I was fighting.'

'For God?' he asked quizzically.

'For revenge,' I told him, and was shocked as hell at the thread of bitter anger that welled up in my voice. I wouldn't have thought it, after all these years.

He twisted far enough to glance up at me, but I only saw it out of the corner of my eye, still lying back to stare up at the ceiling.

'I fought to take revenge against those I blamed for the massacre,' I whispered to nobody in particular. 'So I didn't have to blame myself.'

It got real damn quiet in that bathroom then. I think Heero was just flat afraid to say anything for fear of breaking the mood and I just didn't know where to start. We'd finally gotten around to that place I'd known we were heading for all damn day. Hell... I suppose I'd known on some level that we were headed here from the moment he'd asked to me to make this trip.

Somebody sighed.

'We... don't have to do this,' he ventured, surprising me again.

'I know,' I told him, but neither of us moved.

I didn't know how to tell him it was too late; the memories had already reared their ugly heads and were dancing through their individual parts in my mind. If I closed my eyes, I knew I'd see flames. Or the angry faces of men who seemed to tower over me.

I shivered so hard that a bit of wine slopped out of my glass. I brought my gaze down from the ceiling to watch it bleed away in the water. Heero took the glass from me and set it aside, next to his own. He started to turn in the curve of my arm and I knew he meant to reverse our positions, meant to bring me into his embrace, but I stilled him.

'Stay?' I asked, liking the feel of him where he was. Not wanting to have to meet his eyes. He settled back, but found both my hands and pulled my arms around him. I squeezed him tight and buried my face against his hair for a minute.

'You know,' I said on a sudden memory. 'I always expected Relena's pacifist ideals to get her killed before the damn war ended. I never bought into that shit. I mean... it only works if the other guy is the pacifist.'

Heero kind of snickered, though he tried to stifle it and it made me grin for a second before I got to the other half of that thought. 'Father Maxwell was a dyed in the wool, card-carrying pacifist and he held to it right through getting beaten to death.' I was taken with the sudden urge to lean down and kiss Heero's shoulder and did so, though he tasted heavily of brine salt. 'Are you sure you want to hear this shit?' I whispered.

'Every word you're willing to share,' he whispered back. 'As long as you want to share it.' And since my lips were so close, he tilted and twisted until he brought our mouths together in a gesture that put all the support and love he could muster into it.

'We're going to look like prunes when we get out of here,' I told him, breaking away to rest my head against his.

'You ready to get out?' he asked.

'Not quite,' I told him, not sure I could maintain the mood if we moved. He let me have my hand back long enough for me to pick up my wine glass and take a drink. I was a little surprised to see how much of it was gone, and after a moment, reached for the bottle to refill it.

'You know,' I said when the memories had played that far. 'It's funny what sticks in your head. Funny what you remember. Their leader... I guess he was their leader... had the most ridiculous mustache I'd ever seen. It was black and came clear down to his jaw-line. I very distinctly remember looking at him when they forced their way into the church and thinking, 'that looks stupid'. Isn't that dumb? They were dragging in men with bullet holes in them, they were taking over the church... and I noticed the damn guy's facial hair.'

'Sometimes,' Heero ventured, 'the mind will focus on something mundane in an effort to block out something more frightening.'

I snorted and raised my glass to regard the room through the red liquid, trying not to draw parallels. 'That's the really stupid part,' I told him at length. 'I wasn't scared. I was furious. God, I had balls like a brass monkey back then... still thought I could overcome anything. Hadn't been smacked down enough yet, I guess.'

He didn't quite know how to respond to that, and so just stayed quiet, just turned his head to press his face against the side of my neck.

I heaved a sigh and took another sip of wine that turned into a gulp quite despite my intentions. 'They were just so... full of themselves. So damn self-righteous and convinced their cause was right,' I told him and wasn't able to keep the rumble of anger out of my voice. It kind of surprised me, after all these years, that I could still get so mad thinking about it. Would have thought that how it all came out would have taught me that anger hadn't been the proper reaction.

Piss-your-pants terrified should have been the proper reaction.

It took me a long lot of years to figure that out.

Heero didn't speak, but reached past me to get the bottle of wine and topped off both our glasses.

'Trying to get me drunk, Yuy?' I questioned lightly and expected him to laugh, but he didn't.

'You told me once that you'd have to be drunk to tell me this story.'

I just sat staring at the wall for a minute, remembering that conversation and had to admit, 'Guess I did. It'll take a hell of a lot more than a bottle of wine to get me drunk though.'

'Me too,' he chuckled. 'But it's the thought that counts, right?'

I chuckled with him and then took another sip. It felt cool going down again, the wine in the bottle staying chilled longer in the steamy room, than what had been in the glass. It made me realize that I was finally warm again. At least... on the outside.

'Ever wonder why they bother with seasonal changes on the colonies?' I asked the room and was a little surprised when Heero bothered to answer me.

'I think it was just something that people needed way back in the beginning, and now it's simple tradition.'

I thought about that, and knew he was right. Man, going off into the scary, scary sky to live, had needed the comfort of the familiar. Had needed a piece of what he was leaving behind. Comfort. Safety. Security. Weren't those all things that the human animal sought? Weren't those the things that had been ripped out from under me that night? Before I'd half learned to believe in them?

I had to set my glass aside to wrap Heero up close in my arms. He didn't protest, only holding on tight. He's the heart of whatever security I have now. My soul's home, I'd told him once, and as stupid and hackneyed as it sounded... it was true. When I thought about that solid church, made of brick and stone, and remembered how easily it had vanished... Heero seemed a damn fragile thing.

He turned in my arms, as best he could, and kissed me hard then. Though I don't know how he knew how badly I needed it. Maybe it was the trembling. Maybe it was the grasping.

'I'm here,' he murmured.

'Forever... right?' I had to ask.

'Forever, love,' he reassured, and then just let me sit and hold on to him for a little bit.

When I could make my arms loosen a little, I reached for my glass again, making myself take little sips, just taking the moment.

'Father Maxwell wasn't a young man,' I said, starting down a different track. Trying a different angle. 'I can remember thinking that; the first time I met him. Thinking that he was the oldest person I'd ever seen. I don't know that he really was... but he looked old. Maybe it was living on L2... made everyone age faster. I think that was why it shocked me so much, when that rebel hit him with his... with his damn rifle. Knocked him out... I thought he was dead, at first. I just couldn't get over those guys picking on an old man. Would have thought I'd have been upset that they'd hit a priest, for cryin' out loud, but it was his age that got to me. That they'd hit an old man like that... like hitting somebody's grandfather...'

'Duo,' Heero said, ever so gently, and I felt his fingers touch the back of my hand. 'Broken glass in the water would be a bad idea.'

I blinked at were he was looking and saw my hand clenched tight on the delicate wine glass. Distantly, I heard Kurt's voice yelling, 'Duo! Hands!' And I made myself let go. Heero took the glass away from me and set it aside again.

'I need to get out now,' I told him, no longer happy with the touches we were managing in this awkward position, in the confines of the hard tub.

'All right,' was all he said, rising out of the water and stepping from the tub. He turned and reached for my hand when he was on solid ground and pulled me out too. We were quiet while we toweled each other off, Heero wrapping me up in the terrycloth bathrobe supplied by the hotel and sending me off to the sitting room while he finished in the bathroom.

The dinner dishes he set out in the hall, though later I would notice that he kept the wine and the glasses. He drained the tub and hung the towels, putting on his own robe before coming to find me where I stood looking out the window.

'You have a fascination with windows, love,' he teased, coming to stand behind me and wrapping me in his arms.

'Just trying to remember what was here in A.C. 187,' I told him, and then on a sudden thought. 'Heero... where were you in '87?'

There was a hesitation that made me turn my head and the look I found on his face made me regret the question. 'It's all right,' I blurted. 'You don't have to tell me.'

His face softened again and he smiled at me, brushing a kiss against my temple. 'It's not that I mind,' he told me. 'It's just... I was a lot of places back then. Was probably traveling.'

That closed off look he'd had on his face made me afraid to ask more. I wanted to; wanted to put his life in perspective with mine, but for a split second he'd had that stone-cold expression on his face that I hadn't seen in a long damn time, and it shook me to the core. I must have gotten a little bit more than quiet.

'I'm sorry,' he murmured, and kissed the side of my face again.

'I didn't mean to pry,' I apologized and my voice sounded subdued even to me.

He turned me around, and his gaze was intense. 'Duo,' he breathed. 'Don't... I'm sorry, I wasn't reacting to you... I was reacting to my own thoughts.'

I ducked my head and tried on a sheepish little grin. 'You're scary when you look like that.'

It was meant to be funny, meant to break the tension, but you would have thought I'd slapped him. 'I don't ever want you to be afraid of me,' he said, voice verging on strained.

'I'm not,' I soothed and embraced him almost fiercely. 'Not ever.'

'Come lie with me?' he asked and I nodded against his shoulder, more than happy to retreat to the familiar. Retreat to his warmth and the feel of his strength. Retreat to my safe place.

He was done with letting me hold him, and the place he made for us with propped up pillows and a cocoon of blankets, wine within easy reach, was a place where he meant to shelter me. Meant to cradle me against him.

I think I was ready for that part.

We lost the robes and crawled into bed; he settled against the pillows and settled me against him. I lay with my head resting on his chest, the way I had so many times during the long months of my recovery. Finding warmth and comfort in Heero's presence. He made a small sound of contentment.

'We can't ever get fat,' I teased him. 'We won't fit together the way we do now.'

He chuckled lightly and ran a hand down my back. 'Somehow, I don't think we ever have to worry about that.'

I burrowed closer, taken with the urge to bring my lips to his body, but I knew it for the evasive thought it was, and let it go.

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