Traditions (cont)

I let the sound of his heartbeat fill my consciousness and held very still in the little circle of peace we made, hoping to hide from the rest of the memories. Hoping they wouldn’t find me here. But it seemed a vain hope, even in this... place of peace.

‘This is supposed to be a peaceful place!’ Echoed through my head and I wondered when that little kid who lived in there had gone from being such a hard-headed, tough as nails little snot, to the whimpering thing he was now.

Or maybe that was me. Maybe the kid was the tough one, and I was the pathetic one.

And as if the echoes weren’t enough, Heero didn’t seem to be quite ready to stop listening. ‘More wine?’ he asked, ever so cautiously. I couldn’t help snorting.

‘You haven’t heard enough?’ I said, ignoring his offer for the real question behind it.

‘I’m greedy,’ he told me, and his arms cradled me close, just like I knew they would. ‘You smell good,’ he murmured against my hair. ‘Like the sea.’

I shivered hard, the damn comment coming at just the wrong moment, kicking memory back into high gear and it fairly took my breath away.

Sister Helen had hated it when I fought.

‘Duo... What... did they say to you?’

‘They said... They said I smelled like a sewer.’

And then had come the hug. You know, it was the first real hug I’d ever been given in my short life. I like to think there was a mother at one point, who might have cuddled me at least once... before she died, or abandoned me, or whatever in the hell happened to her. But that hug from Sister Helen was the first one in living memory. I remember being shocked. I remember feeling... good. I remember her telling me,

‘See, you’re not smelly at all.’

I hadn’t even known how to hug back.

I breathed a shuddering sigh, trying to remember the Sister Helen of the hugs, the one who always looked slightly shocked at my declarations, even as Father Maxwell laughed at my odd notions. Trying not to remember the other one. The one with the blood. The one lying in the rubble. The one who asked God to bless me with her dying breath, even as it became apparent to me that if there truly was a God, he just flat did not like me very much.

‘She had blond hair,’ I told him, giving it up for lost and letting that memory, of the only time I’d ever seen her hair, come flooding through. ‘I had not known that. The year I spent at the church... I always thought that nuns were bald. I thought they had to shave their heads and that’s why they wore those weird habit things. To hide their heads. But she had... beautiful, long blond hair... or it would have been... if it hadn’t been all matted with... dirt... and blood...’ I staggered to a halt and just concentrated on breathing.

‘Talk to me,’ Heero whispered, sounding almost afraid of speaking.

‘I’m just trying to get through this without the damn tears,’ I told him.

There was a long minute before he quietly said, ‘If you can get through this without the tears, then maybe you aren’t reaching quite far enough?’

There was some part of me that thought that was kind of a shitty thing to say. And a part of me that understood he was probably right. It was probably cheating to dance around the edges of the story so damn much. But, God... I was just so tired of it. Just so tired in general. It’d been a rough week.

‘There’s gonna be nightmares,’ I had to tell him.

‘I know,’ he sighed. ‘But I’ll be here.’

So I had to dig a little deeper. Had to fess up to that last little bit. And yeah... he got his damn tears.

‘... my damn fault...’

‘... just a child...’

‘...got so angry... just wanted them to leave us alone...’

‘...of course you did...’

‘...gave ‘em what they wanted... Broke onto the base...’

‘...oh dear God...’

‘...don’t know how I got out alive...stole the damn mobile suit... but I was too late... too late...’

‘... oh my baby...’

‘... the church was leveled. Just... gone. Sister... Father... All of them...’

‘... It’s all right... just let it go... I’m here.’

And I did; despite my best efforts. Despite the resolve I’d had at the beginning of the tale not to let it get to me. Though I managed not to do the hysterical sobbing thing, for which I was grateful. Low key; that’s me all the way.

We were quiet for a very long time after I finished leaking all over him, though I knew he was still awake because he kept stroking his hand over my braid.

‘You know,’ I had to tell him, though I felt stupid saying it. It seemed so... clichéd somehow. But it was important. Important to me, if not to anybody else. ‘I’ve never told that to anybody.’

The catch in his breath told me it might have been important to him as well. Maybe just a little.

We drank a little more wine after that, but I think we were both just too tired for much more talking. I, at least, was all talked out. Tired of the topic, tired of the emotional turmoil, just tired in general. At length, we turned out the lights, Heero spooned at my back and we settled down for sleep. It rather predictably eluded me for quite awhile, though I felt Heero’s breathing level out fairly quickly. A sure sign of how exhausted he was.

I felt kind of bad for the ride I’d had him on the last few days, and not for the first time, wondered at his willingness to shoulder all my crap. Wondered what he saw in me that had won me that fierce love of his.

Though, and this may sound kind of weird, but it wasn’t just my memories that kept me awake that night, but my wondering about what Heero had been doing while my life was being turned upside down. Wondering just what it was that he wasn’t sharing with me, at a time when he was asking me to peel away all the masks and camouflage to reveal the dirty secrets underneath. Wondering about that look that had come over him.

I fell asleep trying not to feel hurt, trying to convince myself that he’d get to it in his own time.

Gave me a whole different set of dreams than the ones I’d been expecting though.

We’d not thought to pull the blinds the night before, and the first glow of the day-cycle woke me long before I was ready to be awake. For the first time in days, I was awake before Heero though, and I found that I kind of needed it. Thinking back on the previous evening, I was overcome with a fit of embarrassment. Hadn’t this just turned into a rather humiliating couple of days? I slipped silently from bed and went to cover the windows before the light woke Heero too. Then I stood there and watched him sleep for a few minutes before deciding that I should probably wash the brine salt out of my hair. I hadn’t gotten my braid soaked through, but I hadn’t been able to entirely keep the tail end from slipping into the water more than once.

The bathroom really is a poster-child for self-indulgence. Besides the whirl-pool bath, there’s a shower stall, and that was where I took myself that morning while Heero slept. And if there were the ghosts of other hands on mine as I unbound my braid, I paid them no mind, because I knew whose they were.

The trouble with stirring up old memories is that they have a way of staying stirred up for awhile.

I knew, at some point when the mental images of how pathetic I must have looked last night faded a little, I would probably be glad that I’d told Heero about that time in my life. That I’d finally gotten around to confessing my sins to another living being. But between me and that feeling of relief was a wall constructed of my feelings of weakness and embarrassment and I was pretty sure that would have to fade first before I could convince myself that any of this had been a good idea.

I was standing in the middle of the bathroom after my shower, combing the water out of my hair, when the bathroom door opened, and I glanced up to find Heero standing there. Still tousled from sleep, wearing only his underwear, he leaned in the doorway and just watched me.

‘Morning,’ I mumbled, feeling a full-body blush coming on at his intense scrutiny.

‘Good morning,’ he replied, and just kept standing there.

‘I... didn’t mean to wake you,’ I ventured, wishing he’d stop staring, and I got a tiny little frown from him. I put the comb aside and reached to separate my hair for braiding, suddenly taken with the urge to finish what I was doing in a hurry.

He pushed off from the door and walked across the bathroom to join me, gently pushing my hands away and taking my hair into his. He just held it for a second, then leaned to kiss the back of my shoulder before beginning the task of braiding. ‘You amaze me,’ he said softly as his hands worked.

I think I was supposed to say something, but I didn’t know what it should be and just stayed quiet.

‘So much going on inside you,’ he whispered, his fingers deftly weaving. ‘So many demons... so many memories...’

‘I...’ I began, still not entirely sure what I should say, but he stilled me.

‘Hush,’ he sighed, his fingers stopping for a moment while he leaned in again and gently kissed the back of my neck, making me shiver.

Then he straightened and I felt the tug of his braiding on my hair again. ‘So strong,’ he said then, letting that amazement he’d spoken of, come into his voice. ‘You’ve been through so much... but you never let it break you.’ He’d reached the end of the braid, and he slipped it into my numb fingers, squeezing his hand around mine to make me hold it. He kissed my shoulder again, whispering next to my ear, ‘You are amazing.’

Then he left the room and left me alone.

Well damn. How does he always do that?

I knew it had been designed to help me get over the discomfort of the morning. Knew his words had been carefully weighed and thought through, but they were no less a comfort for all that. The mere notion that Heero might not be utterly appalled at my bawling like a babe, yet again, was something of a balm.

While I was thinking about it, I dug the bottle of tranquilizers out of the bag of bathroom paraphernalia and flushed the damn things away. Wasn’t taking a chance that Heero would try that stunt again, though I think he’d learned his lesson. I wasn’t a total shit, though; I left him his package of la-la land patches, just in case of an emergency.

Then I finished my brush and floss routine and ventured out into the other room.

Heero really did seem to be understanding my skittishness, and had refrained from dressing completely, until I had remedied my buck naked state. Nothing makes you feel quite as vulnerable as being the only unclothed person in a room

‘If you’re done with the bathroom things,’ he told me while I rummaged for clothes. ‘I’ll pack them up when I get done.’

I grunted an affirmative and he went on into the bathroom, letting me have a minute to get dressed. I hoped this uncomfortable feeling went away soon; I didn’t like this weird sensation of not feeling at home in my own skin.

I pretty much decided that morning, that if I ever got around to telling him about Solo and the kids... it was going to be a good long time in the future.

Our shuttle didn’t depart until mid-morning, so we had plenty of time to clean up and pack. Heero let me be for about a half an hour before he came and planted himself in front of me, wearing an odd little bemused smile. ‘You look sun burned,’ he observed wryly, and only escalated the state.

I ducked my head and blew out a breath, feeling my bangs stir. ‘I think it’s a permanent condition.’

He snorted and reached for me and I took the opportunity to hide my face against his shoulder. ‘You have nothing to be embarrassed about,’ he told me gently. ‘Especially not with me.’

I heaved another sigh, and felt him kiss the back of my head. ‘Oh yeah... hysterical weeping is just what every guy in the world wants to admit to.’

I could feel him smiling, don’t ask me how, but I could. But he said, tightening his hold, ‘If you had told me about... that night, without ‘weeping’, love, I’d be worried about you. Besides... if you can’t cry in front of your husband, who can you cry in front of?’

I had to lift my head to look at him so he could see the sardonic irony, and the raised eyebrow. He had the decency to duck his head and blush just a tiny bit, but had to give me a cheeky little grin anyway. ‘It’s an injustice,’ I muttered and won a laugh.

‘Forgive me?’ he whispered, all husky voiced.

I heaved a theatric sigh and told him, ‘of course.’

Then he gave me my good morning kiss, and by the time he drew away, things were feeling a little less uncomfortable.

With all the presents gone, our bigger suitcase was completely empty, so we simply packed the slightly smaller one in it, and only had the two bags to deal with.

I was concentrating entirely on the packing/check out thing, keeping my mind off that whole shuttle/launch thing, and didn’t immediately realize that Heero was heading us into ‘The Courtyard’ again until it was almost too late.

‘Uh, Heero,’ I stammered, hesitating just outside the doorway. ‘Do you think we could find somewhere else to eat breakfast?’

Heero stopped walking and looked back at me quizzically. ‘Are you telling me you’re going to let that man run you off?’

I gave him a half-hearted glare, but resumed walking because the conversation was obviously only going to turn into a scene if I tried to continue it. ‘Apparently not,’ I grumbled.

My favorite waiter was, indeed, on duty again, and took his own sweet time coming to show us to our table, despite the fact that the place wasn’t all that busy. And then he tried to give us the table right behind the kitchen door. I had to roll my eyes, and gave Heero an ‘I told you so’, look behind the guy’s back, but Heero apparently wasn’t in the mood for Mr. Rude this morning either.

‘I believe we’ll take that table over there,’ Heero said stonily and got an exasperated little sound out of the guy. Heero didn’t wait for any sort of acknowledgment though, simply leading the way to a better table and setting down the bag he was carrying. I settled the other bag beside it and took the seat opposite him. It wasn’t like seventy percent of the tables weren’t open anyway.

I thought the guy was going to rupture a blood vessel, and I was sure I could hear his teeth grinding, but he went off to fetch menus and the water pitcher.

When he came back, he didn’t bother to hand the menus out, simply put them down on the table, and barely managed to get the water poured without spilling it.

On a better day, I might have risen to the occasion and needled the guy just for the fucking hell of it, but I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with his brand of prejudiced stupidity on top of the rest of my week. And it wasn’t helping that I hadn’t wanted to come in here in the first place; it was misdirecting a bit of my irritation in Heero’s direction and that was the last damn thing I wanted.

When the guy stalked off, I picked up a menu with an almost unconscious sigh and tried to find something that I could identify. Mr. Anal-waiter wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t been all that thrilled with coming in the place. I’m kind of a meat and potatoes sort; I like knowing what I’m ordering before it finds its way to my plate and I’m stuck with it.

Heero didn’t seem to be having any trouble, folding his menu and laying it aside after only a minute or so. I fought the blush I felt attacking my cheeks and just gave up, folding my own menu and putting it on top of Heero’s. ‘Can you just order something for me?’ I mumbled and kept my eyes on the water glass in front of me, turning it and watching the condensation form.

There was a moment of quiet that made me glance up at him, and I felt a little better at the guilty look I found on his face. ‘You really didn’t want to eat here, did you?’ he asked. ‘Not just because of... that man?’

‘Well,’ I shrugged, going back to playing with my water glass. ‘Between him and the menu... I can’t say I’d ever recommend this place to any of my friends.’

Heero snorted softly, but tilted his head, looking at me intently. ‘We can leave, it’s not like we’ve ordered yet.’

I shook my head. ‘We’re here now... it would be a waste of time. Just pick me something fairly simple that doesn’t have kumquats in it, ok?’

He chuckled, but it was brief, and I saw him looking around. We’d been sitting here more than long enough to have had our order taken. Heero must have managed to make eye contact with the guy over my shoulder somewhere, because I saw him execute that dark glare of his and Anal-waiter showed up at the table a few minutes later.

‘What can I get for you?’ he asked, staring off somewhere over our heads, obviously pissed as hell.

And that was when I saw Heero reach the end of his patience. ‘What you can get for us is someone to wait on us with at least a modicum of courtesy,’ he snapped, voice as cold as ice but loud enough to carry. ‘Because I am quite done dealing with your attitude problem.’

It was kind of pleasant not to be the one turning fifty shades of red for a change. The guy went stiff as a board and turned to stalk off without another word.

‘Jeez,’ I muttered under my breath. ‘Hope the guy doesn’t have a family history of heart trouble.’

Heero stifled a little snort and I couldn’t tell if it was amused or disdainful. ‘He seriously pissed me off,’ was all he said.

It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes before a waitress came from across the room, smiling broadly the whole way. I glanced around for Mr. Rude and didn’t see him.

‘What can I get for you gentlemen?’ she asked when she got to our table and I felt myself relaxing just a little bit for the first time since we’d walked through the doors.

‘Should we move to your section?’ I asked her, returning her smile, and got to watch it turn into a full-fledged grin.

‘That’s all right,’ she whispered conspiratorially. ‘It irritates Stuart more to have me coming over here.’

‘In that case,’ I whispered back, ‘if you promise to keep him from poisoning our food, we’ll stay right here.’

She laughed in delight, but then got back down to business. ‘So, what would you boys like this morning?’

I couldn’t help the rueful little smile. ‘How about something in English?’

She grinned at me again and leaned a little closer. ‘What do you usually eat for breakfast, sweetie, and I’ll translate it into high-brow for you.’

I flashed her a full-fledged grin. ‘Something simple? Something with less than ten syllables? Like an omelet or pancakes?’

She winked at me and nodded. ‘Got it... don’t worry; I think I can find you something.’ Then she took Heero’s order and started to walk away, turning at the last minute to tell us, ‘And I promise to keep Stuart away from your food.’

I chuckled at the joke, only I hoped she wasn’t joking, and turned from her retreating back to find Heero looking at me bemusedly.

‘What?’ I asked, feeling odd about the look he was giving me.

‘I don’t know,’ he told me. ‘It was like... watching you wake up or something.’

I snorted and shook my head. ‘I guess I just don’t deal with bigotry very well, first thing in the morning.’

‘No one should have to deal with that,’ he said, his amusement fading back into irritation. ‘At any time of the day.’

‘Life ain’t fair,’ I quoted with a smirk. ‘I suppose you have to draw the asshole card every once in awhile.’

Which, perhaps, wasn’t the thing to have said, because it just started me thinking about Allison again; life being not fair and all that. Across the table from me, I heard Heero let out with an almost exasperated sigh.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked, blinking at him in confusion.

‘Duo Maxwell,’ he told me blandly. ‘I can not keep up with you. What in the world is going on in that head of yours now?’

I quirked him a slightly self-deprecating smile and kind of shrugged. ‘Sorry. Maybe I’m just a manic-depressive at heart?’

He snorted, but only gave me a questioning look, letting me know he was still waiting for an answer.

So I told him, ‘It just made me think of Allison, is all. Unfairness to the extreme, I guess.’

His expression changed to one of understanding, and I know he would have reached for my hand if we’d been somewhere private. ‘It isn’t... horrible, love. It could have been much worse.’

‘I know,’ I sighed. ‘But that won’t make it any easier for her, growing up into a young lady with that scar on her face. Hell... it might even affect her chances at being adopted. People don’t always look past the physical.’

He gave me an odd look, somewhere between tender and scolding. ‘I thought you said scars don’t make a person ugly? Or were you lying to her?’

I bristled and glared across at him. ‘No, I was not. Not in my eyes, it doesn’t. She’s still Allison.’

‘As much as you’re still Duo,’ he said gently, and he did dare to reach out and brush his fingertips across the back of my hand, the gesture disguised by his picking up his water glass and taking a sip.

There was an almost angry retort on my tongue, but the waitress reappeared then with our breakfast and I bit it back. She settled a plate of eggs in front of me, scrambled with bits of sausage and cheese, with plain old ordinary toast on the side. My irritation was lost when she gave me a broad wink and I had to set it aside to grin widely and thank her profusely.

Heero got whatever he’d gotten the day before, along with the fruit thing that I’d ordered, only mandarin oranges seemed to be the ‘fruit of the day’ instead of kumquats.

He let the subject drop, probably afraid of spoiling my already iffy appetite, and I decided it was a topic I was not going to delve into, and let it drop too.

Stuart-anal made his reappearance somewhere in there, stalking past us as though we didn’t exist, delivering an order to a table not too far away. Francis popped up on the edge of the table to help me resist the urge to stick my tongue out at the man’s back. I glared at the little guy, but then he made up for stifling me, by scampering off to follow the waiter around the room, wearing a little matching tux and mimicking his every move. Had to bite back the laughter all on my own though, since Francis was busy.

Too bad the damn little things are invisible; they were working up quite the little vaudeville act. Bet I could make a fortune if I could just get them an agent. Put me in mind of that singing frog cartoon.

‘You have managed,’ Heero suddenly said, ‘to go from depressed, to pissed off, to amused, in the space of about thirty seconds. What in the hell are you thinking about?’

I swallowed my mouthful of eggs and looked him in the eye. ‘Allison, your smart-ass attitude, and dancing frogs. In that order.’

It took him a second to connect his part with the proper emotion, and he blushed, but then surprised me with, ‘Frogs?’

‘Yeah,’ I confirmed. ‘I was thinking about that old cartoon about the guy who finds the singing frog, only the frog won’t sing in front of anybody else.’

‘Michigan J. Frog,’ Heero supplied drolly and all I could do was blink at him.

‘I don’t believe you know that,’ I had to tell him, and got to watch Heero Yuy look smug.

‘I got tired of not understanding your damn references,’ he informed me, and pushed his bowl of fruit a little toward the middle of the table. ‘Orange?’

I just fucking gaped at him for a minute, stuck mid-way between incredulous and... oddly touched. ‘You researched cartoons for me?’ I finally managed.

My reaction seemed to please him and he smiled. ‘Yeah. I did.’

I ate the offered fruit, and my sharing from his plate seemed to please him even more, because his smile got warmer, making we want to lean across and kiss him. ‘God,’ I muttered. ‘I can not believe we’re having a... a frog and fruit moment here in the middle of this restaurant.’

He snickered, spearing another piece of orange, making an odd gesture with his fork that left me fearing for a moment that he intended to feed it to me, but then popping it into his own mouth.

‘You make it damn hard to stay mad at you,’ I grumbled, feeling like the whole place was watching us flirt with each other.

He gave me a weird little look, a bastard mix of crest-fallen and innocent, and asked me softly, ‘But why are you mad at me?’

I gave him a shake of the head and muttered, ‘I don’t fucking remember.’

He grinned then, completely destroying the hint of innocence, and simply said, ‘Good.’

We finished not long after that, and when Heero settled the bill, I thought our waitress was going to crack her face grinning at the hundred percent tip Heero gave her. I had little doubt that dear Stuart would be made aware of it as well. Revenge can come in many different forms.

But then it was time to gather our bags and make our way to the docks, and there wasn’t any amount of bantering that was going to keep that fact from entering my thoughts anymore.

And Stuart ‘The Rude’ Anal, was suddenly not even a blip on my radar of concerns. I think I’d forgotten his name by the time Heero had the cab hailed.

‘Think they’d let me just pilot the damn thing,’ I blurted when we were settled in the cab and on our way. ‘If I asked nice?’

Heero turned to me, giving me that sardonic raised eyebrow look, and I wandered off on a tangent for a moment, wondering why one raised eyebrow is sardonic, but two is more... incredulous. ‘What?’ he finally asked, bringing me back on topic.

‘It’s like riding the bus,’ I explained. ‘It’s all about control.’

He smiled. ‘Theory’s valid... but I seriously doubt that ‘I’m a control freak’ is going to get you behind the controls of a commercial shuttle.’

The line took me by surprise and I laughed, understanding that he appreciated this time, a little bit better, just what would help me get through this and what would not.

I wondered if he’d found the empty tranquilizer bottle yet, and just kind of hoped it wouldn’t become an issue.

‘Technically,’ I mused. ‘My license hasn’t expired yet. Maybe if you flashed your badge, we could convince them?’

He played my game with me, rolling his eyes and giving me his indulgent sighs. Helped me keep the little kid placated, helping me keep the brooding silences at bay. Verbally sparing with me and keeping my mind occupied.

That’s all it really takes. When you don’t think you can do something, you simply don’t think about it until it’s too late, and you have no choice but to deal with it. It’s the anticipation and the thinking that will kill you. It’s a very simple method for dealing with stressful situations. It has stages. One... denial. Two... teeth gritting. Three... uhm... I think that one’s the emotional collapse part. I’m still working on making it a two step process.

We got through the cab ride joking about pilots and licenses and the probability of my charming my way into the cockpit with autographs.

We got through the walk into the dock area with a conversation speculating on the possibility that Sally really would attempt to give us her killer cat for Christmas or the next convenient holiday.

Check-in was managed with a lengthy argument over who had carried the heavier bag the most, and why it was ludicrous to act like anemia was a condition that rated admission to the ICU.

Boarding just couldn’t be done with any bantering, I totally lost the thread of the conversation about whatever in the hell we’d been talking about, when we walked through that hatch. Heero managed to touch me three times without being obvious and whispered, ‘I’m right here,’ at least twice.

I managed to work up a small smirk in return, which seemed to surprise him.

I swear to God, nobody freakin’ goes to L2 for the holidays. When we settled ourselves in our seats and the flight attendant came around, I realized it was the same one that had been on the trip out; we had to be on the same damn shuttle.

She was delighted to see me, thanking me for the autograph again, and making me suspect that I might be signing more of them before the trip was over. Heero got a reminder to stow our bag before launch.

When she was finally gone, I found I had to take a deep breath and hang onto it for a second, concentrating on settling my heart rate just a little bit. I glanced at Heero and he was watching me with a strange little smile on his face.

‘You doing all right?’ he asked and I smiled in return.

‘Not too bad,’ I told him. ‘A little anxious, but over all... not all that bad.’

He looked a little shamefaced, dropping his eyes for a moment. ‘I’m very sorry about... the trip out. I should have backed off.’

‘Let it go, Heero,’ I said. ‘In the scale of things, I think you’re still way ahead of me. If anybody should be apologizing it’s me. I know I’ve been a hell of a handful the last couple of days.’

He dared reach out to brush his fingers over my cheek, smiling gently. ‘But you’re my handful.’

I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at him, but somebody went walking down the aisle then, and he sat up straight again, sighing softly. I understood his frustration.

I dropped my head back against the headrest and closed my eyes, taking stock. Heartbeat was up just a little and breathing rate needed to be adjusted again, I was starting to sweat just a bit too, and I knew before long I would be feeling chill. I worked the equivalent of a mental kata for the next few minutes until I lost that strange tight feeling in my throat.

I opened my eyes again to find Heero watching me intently, a strange look in his eyes. Approval? Something akin to it, at least. It made me flush and look away.

‘So you really did research on cartoons just in order to converse with me?’ I opened, and he met my thrust with a gentle parry.

‘I held out hope for a long time that you would pick up some culture from me,’ he informed me haughtily. ‘But your tastes seem to be too ingrained. Slap-stick is obviously more your style.’

‘Slap-stick?’ I asked in wide-eyed indignation. ‘There is nothing slap-stick about Pepe Le Pew! That cartoon has deep meanings about the perceptions of society and what is acceptable romantic behavior.’

I thought he would laugh out loud, but managed to contain it to a smirk. ‘Duo... it’s a show about a horny, near-sighted skunk. There’s nothing deep about it.’

‘Ah,’ I sighed sadly. ‘Like so many others before you, you just don’t get it. It’s a story of forbidden love. Star-crossed lovers, destined to forever hide their relationship. Hiding it in plain sight.’

He actually did snicker that time, staring at me like I’d lost my mind. ‘You have got to be kidding me.’

Come on, Heero,’ I pounced, ‘Think about it... how else could Penelope ‘accidentally’ end up with a stripe painted down her back every single episode!’

‘Penelope?’ he asked, looking skeptical. ‘The cat has a name? You mean... it’s the same stupid cat?’

‘That’s exactly my point!’ I crowed. ‘Same cat every time. How many places can you just find wet paint? White wet paint, no less. She’s doing it on purpose.’

I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again... Heero Yuy will surprise the hell out of me right up until the day I die. I could not get my head around the fact that he’d looked this crap up just to be able to understand my one-liners. I would never in a million years have imagined I’d be having this conversation with him, under these or any other circumstances. Made me stop and wonder, for the millionth time, just what I’d done to deserve him.

‘It frightens me a little bit that you’ve thought about it this hard,’ he quipped, quirking me that little half grin of his.

‘A lot of hours out here with not a lot to do,’ I informed him, faltering for a second when I thought about the implications of that statement, but recovering quickly enough that Heero didn’t catch it. ‘You can only spend so much time running diagnostics before you go nuts.’

He reached out and took hold of my hand then, so maybe he did catch it, but said, ‘I suppose that explains the ‘Hell-Bound Beavers’ comics too?’

‘Ah!’ I exclaimed, leaping at the verbal offering. ‘Political satire at it’s best! Do not mock the Beavers unless you have read them! No one should be allowed to enter politics without having a subscription.’

I finally got the full fledged laugh out of him I’d been looking for, and grinned at him unrepentantly while he rolled his eyes. ‘Somehow I can’t see Relena reading a copy of a comic book, especially not that one.’

‘Perhaps that explains her problem?’ I suggested with a smirk. ‘Maybe if we...’

But I totally lost track of the conversation when the flirty flight attendant came on the loudspeaker to tell the passengers to put their seats up and strap down. I half expected her to warn us to keep our arms and legs inside the car until the ride was over.

Joy.

Heero tried; giving my hand a little squeeze and steering gently toward the track I’d been on. ‘You think Relena needs to read more comic books?’

I opened my mouth, waiting for the words to come dancing out and make sense, but I think I only managed to stammer something completely unintelligent about beavers. Or maybe it was hamsters. I’m not sure.

Heero raised our clasped hands and kissed the back of my mine. ‘It’s all right, love,’ he said softly and I nodded.

I had to abandon the verbal sparring in favor of the panic regulation for a couple of minutes, just not able to do both at once. The brain just doesn’t work all that well when you’re struggling not to pant like a marathon runner.

‘So,’ I blurted when I had the attention for it, snatching at the first random thought that surfaced. ‘Do you do this Christmas thing with the guys, or not? Because I’m just confused as hell on that point.’

Heero seemed unsure for a moment, if this was just more joking or if it was a serious question, but after a slight hesitation, he answered me bluntly. ‘I assume you mean exchanging gifts?’

I nodded, not able to articulate much else as I heard the engines flare to life.

‘We’ve never really done anything before,’ Heero told me, voice trying for soothing and calm. ‘But I think your being here is making them think about it.’

‘What?’ I managed, blinking over at him. ‘Why in the hell would I make any difference?’

He smiled affectionately and leaned just a bit closer to tell me, ‘There’s just something about you that makes people want to give you the world.’

I stared at him for a minute, not sure if he was serious or if he was just trying to shock me into forgetting about the sounds of a ship preparing to launch.

‘But...’ I stammered. ‘They can’t... we don’t have anything...’ I was having trouble concentrating past the sounds around me. The sounds that were telling me just what stage of launch we were in.

Obviously, launching from a station is a whole different animal than launching from planet side. You don’t have to struggle to defeat that thing called gravity. So, it isn’t as stressful, it isn’t as flashy, and isn’t heralded by all the smoke and fire and hoopla.

It’s evidenced more by a series of clangs and hisses and the rumble of engines.

So, for the average Joe-tourist, it’s nothing. Almost anti-climactic. For your average student of the fine-art of vacuum-phobia... it’s not so darn easy. Because hoopla or not... you’re still going out into that place that almost ate you alive. You’re still going out where it’s cold and dark and still as death. Going where the fates are terribly amused by that whole ‘pushing your luck’ thing, beckoning with their gnarled little hands for you to come and roll the dice just one more time.

‘We should have gotten a batch of those stupid ‘My Buddies went to L2 and all I got was this stupid shirt’ shirts,’ I exclaimed, happy to have strung two words together, but not so happy about the strange hitch in my voice. ‘Cause we don’t really have time to shop now.’

Then the ship was moving. There was the rumble of the engines and the vibration as the last of the seals fell away, all perfectly normal. And there was an extra sound that told me our pilot was probably still that newbie, as the ship ‘kissed’ the launch guide. It’s a sound that you hear through your bones more than your ears and made me flinch in sympathy. Any self-respecting pilot would be dying of embarrassment right now, as control razed the hell out of them. No pilot worth their salt does that more than once.

I grinned at Heero, knowing he’d recognize the sound as well as I did, and he gave me a rueful little smile in return. ‘Poor bastard,’ he whispered, and there was a strange moment of quiet remembrance.

‘You ever do that?’ I asked, just to keep that quiet at bay.

‘Nope,’ he said with a hint of smugness in his tone. ‘You?’

‘Not even the first time,’ I was able to report, and was kind of glad I could match him. But then I couldn’t quite keep my gaze from flicking toward the view port, and it was no longer dock I saw through there, but the open stars. Crappy launch not withstanding... we were away.

‘Duo?’ Heero questioned softly and I drug my head around to look his way. ‘Still with me?’

I smiled and heaved a sigh that was an effort to slow my breathing again. ‘Where else would I be?’ I teased, but he didn’t laugh at the lame little joke.

‘Sometimes,’ he told me. ‘It seems you’re a million miles away from me.’

I couldn’t help saying, ‘More like 353,535,000 kilometers. Give or take. Calculated from L2 since that’s the closest launch point.’ The pained look that came into his eyes made me instantly regret the words. ‘Sorry,’ I murmured.

‘Don’t apologize for telling me what you’re thinking,’ he scolded lightly. ‘I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want to know.’

In the background, we heard the ‘all clear’ chime ring, and the level of conversation around the cabin rose as people began unbuckling. Heero let go of my hand and I missed the warmth of it before his fingers had completely left mine.

‘Come on,’ he told me gently. ‘Let’s get you to the cabin.’

‘Would you mind,’ I asked hesitantly, feeling my way through the idea, ‘if we went down to the lounge for a few minutes? I would absolutely kill for a cold soda.’

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