Disclaimer: I do not possess or own any rights to the show Gundam Wing or its characters.

Breathless: Chapter 8

By Crystal Delphina

Monday April 3, A.C. 200, 08:22~

Trowa's singular call had quickly matriculated to the point that within ten minutes, news networks across space and Earth began reporting the Vice Foreign Minister's recovery. Reporters gathered at the entrances to the hospital – desperate for a comment or an actual view of Darlain – made it difficult for the Preventers' rescue and recovery team to enter through the main doors. It didn't take long for the news teams to ascertain how the sudden appearance of five uniformed high-ranking Preventers and the CEO of the Winner Corporation were related to the colony terrorist incident.

Duo brusquely shoved his way past microphones and cameras, charging his way towards the entrance and cutting a path for the others to follow. Once inside, the group sprinted towards the hospital room that they had been routinely monitoring over the past three days. Bursting into the room in a very unprofessional manner unbefitting of their rank and uniform, they were greeted by the site of Relena sitting up in bed with Zechs seated beside her in a chair. Meanwhile, Trowa stood beside Heero's bed in the midst of a discussion pertaining to how the communication jamming device used during the attacks had managed to override the sophisticated security features of the shuttle. The impromptu entrance of the group was an effective method of interrupting the conversations in progress. Bright smiles alighted upon the faces of the newcomers and the bedridden alike, although Heero and Wufei's were much more subdued.

The small hospital room was not designed for holding so many people, but they all gladly suffered the close quarters to hear what happened after the two patients had departed the ill fated colony. Relena and Heero were thorough in their explanation, the explosions still very fresh in their mind's eye.

The comrades gathered began to exchange odd looks with each other, which the two survivors didn't seem to notice. At first the small behavior went undetected, but a few minutes into the story, the rescuers realized that Heero and Relena seemed to be – as hard as it was to believe – finishing each other's sentences periodically. That trait had certainly not been the case before.

While Heero might not have noticed the odd looks the group was secretively sharing, the muffled giggles were hard to miss. He stopped midsentence to shoot a glare at Noin. But this only prompted further laughter from Quatre and Sally when Relena finished his half-voiced thought without missing a beat. Duo appeared to be having difficulty staying in his chair.

"What the hell is so funny?" he demanded with a scowl, Prussian colored eyes sharpening to regard the hospital visitors with a glare.

"N—Nothing," Noin sputtered, bringing her hand up to her mouth to help stifle her laughter. Unconvinced – mostly because even Trowa had a bemused smirk – Heero surprisingly decided to let the matter drop; it just took too much energy to interrogate when he wasn't in any position to do it. That didn't mean of course that he didn't vow to himself to determine the cause of their laughter later, when he was better equipped to properly intimidate. This of course meant when he received his standard issue .40 Smith & Wesson automatic back and his not-quite-as-much-standard-issued-and-still-being-tested Mashtof revolver.

The story was completed, lacking a few personal details that the larger group at hand needn't be privy to. The laughter subsided as the audience began commenting on parts of the ordeal, which took little time to deteriorate into political debates and what the next few work days would undoubtedly entail. If the Senior Officers had been griping about paperwork before, the din of annoyance would be unbearable on the sixth floor of headquarters once they all had to return to Earth. It would take at least two months just to finish the initial incident reports and multiple security debriefs and analyses.

After ten minutes of the ruckus, someone cleared their throat in a vain attempt to gain people's attention. When the multiple small, and noisy, conversations continued on, the forceful and much louder, "Ahem" was effective. Ten heads simultaneously directed their attention towards the door to the hospital room to find one of the doctors frowning at them with a twitching eyebrow.

"Sorry to interrupt," she said, with little conviction in her voice that she was actually apologetic, "but in case you have forgotten, these are still patients that are still needing rest. I'm going to have to ask the visiting party to leave."

"But—"

"No 'buts' Mr. Merquise. It is the best for Ms. Darlain and Mr. Yuy. The trauma their bodies just endured requires time to heal. Out."

"When can they be released?" Trowa bravely ventured.

"Their vitals have looked fairly stable in the last 24 hour period, saving the coma component. If they continue to remain that way for the next 24 hours, we may be willing to release them Wednesday morning, under the condition of a medical transport back to Earth."

"Well good thing we travel with our own private doctor," Wufei said with a nod towards his partner, who provided one of her small genuine smiles in return.

"Is this true?"

"Doctor Sally Po ma'am," Sally said while extending her hand, which the doctor shook accordingly.

"If that's the case Dr. Po, I would like you to accompany me so I can discuss the travel arrangements with you. And I'll need to talk with your commander as well. The rest of you, out already." The doctor turned around and began walking away. "After your goodbyes of course."

Relena exchanged careful hugs with Zechs, Noin, and Hilde, along with warm smiles with Quatre and Sally before the older woman was forced to run out of the room after the doctor. Trowa and Wufei each gave firm handshakes to the bedridden Heero, Trowa assuring Heero he had no intention of picking up his slack.

"Nice to have ya back buddy," Duo said with a small punch to Heero's shoulder. Duo, along with everyone else in the room, looked horrified though when Heero gasped and doubled over in pain.

"Duo!" Hilde exclaimed.

"You idiot," scolded Wufei.

"Oh god Heero. I'm sorry. I didn't know you had an injury there, honest." Duo looked around helplessly towards the others, not sure what to do other than plead for forgiveness and most likely his life. When his eyes fell on Relena though, and she appeared visibly under duress – to keep a straight face – he looked down at his friend to see the brown haired man's form shaking.

"You bastard…" he growled, jerking him upright by the front of his hospital gown. To say Heero was smiling would have been pushing it, but he was most assuredly giving a mischievous smirk.

"Just getting you back for laughing earlier, apparently at my expense," Heero explained.

Duo marched out of the room. "Don't think I'm not telling Une you're ready to go back to work the moment you land," he yelled from halfway down the hall. Hilde waved a final goodbye to Relena and winked at Heero before rushing after her partner to shush him and remind him that some people were trying to recover in peace. The rest of the ensemble filed out waving goodbyes and promising to stop in later if allowed.

"Hilde wanted me to pass along the message, in case she forgot to tell you herself, that life-threatening incident or not, you still are taking some 'fucking' time off and having a birthday party'" Noin informed, air-quotes and all, as she made her way out of the room. Relena fell back on her pillow when the door shut, already knowing that she had been defeated.

Friday April 7, A.C. 200 18:02~

The vast hall was complete with beautiful flower arrangements that were interspersed amongst candlelit centerpieces. Deep violet ribbons strewn along the walls were additional touches to the festive atmosphere. A small stage in the corner of the ballroom was prepared with music stands and chairs for the scheduled string quartet. The room was ready for the celebratory occasion.

Hilde, never one to procrastinate, had been thorough in planning all of the details necessary to throw the customary bash for Relena's birthday the day that she had departed on her ill-fated trip. Guests had been invited, the quartet hired, and food selected, all thanks to the Peacecraft trust fund. Never mind that Hilde didn't have direct access to the fund; that's what people like Pagean were for.

Alas, all of Hilde's hard work and planning was thrown out.

~:~:~:~:~:~

21:04~

She closed one eye and squinted with the other as she attempted to line up her shot. One small move to the left or right would be the end of it, and she wasn't in a position where that was advisable. Taking one last deep breath, and hoping that fate would play a hand in saving her from her own mediocre skills, she took the shot. There was a moment of breathless anticipation, and she waited to see if her weapon would hit the target. In reality though, it was all over in a matter of split seconds. And in those vital moments, she went from trying to find her way out of a desperate situation to being victorious as her dart sailed through the air to land perfectly in the center target. A chorus of cheers went up in the bar and she gave a high-five to her opponent and took a swig of her beer. While Trowa was a gracious loser, he still wondered exactly how he had managed to lose.

Relena rejoined the others who were seated around pub tables. Now that one event had finished, attentions went back to the third round of pool between Zechs and Wufei, who had tied with the first two matches. Duo was especially eager to observe the outcome of the game, seeing as he had challenged the winner, thinking it'd be a cakewalk. Now witness to how skilled both of his potential opponents were, he was willing to make a second bet that his original bet of a round of drinks was most likely going to end up taking a toll on his paycheck.

While the idea of white gloves paired with fancy gowns, all of the Preventers in formal military regalia, and various government officials invited for show and diplomatic purposes sounded like an enticing way to spend a birthday, Relena had decided to scrap the idea after her return to Earth. While she appreciated the effort Hilde had exerted, she just couldn't bring herself to see the value in such an event after the somewhat hectic week she'd had. Although it might have been rude to cancel the party the day before, no politician would dare breath a word of disagreement with the decision considering the circumstances. Of course, Hilde was more than understanding, and quite supportive, when Relena suggested a "just friends" get-together at an establishment that other normal 21-year-olds might choose to celebrate a birthday. Granted the building had been swept for bombs, background checks performed on the bar staff, and the beer tested for traces of poisons, and all other potential patrons politely turned away at the door for a brief explanation of a "private party," but these were all considered incidental necessities for the 21-year-old in question.

"That was an impressive shot Relena," the Preventers' Head Commander said with a smug smile. "Too bad we can't recruit you for an officer."

The birthday girl blushed but graciously smiled, pleased with the compliment. "Thanks. You pick up a thing or two when you are surrounded by pilots."

"Zechs, have you been taking this girl to the range or something?" Sally called over. Her attempt at distracting her partner's adversary however was to no avail. He continued to carefully aim up his shot without breaking concentration. He brought the pool stick back, and with one fluid motion began to execute the shot to have perfect conta—

"No. That'd be me."

- to have near perfect contact with one of his last required solid colored pool balls. Instead of heading towards the prescribed pocket however, it picked up too much of a spin and instead went careening into one of Wufei's, helping sink a stripe in a hole.

"Yuy…," growled the platinum haired man, clutching his pool stick in both hands, ready to snap the offending piece of wood in half. "I'm going to kill you."

The supposed victim, unfazed by the threat, merely shrugged his shoulders and took a sip of his drink.

"Did he really take you to the range Relena?" Noin asked, intrigued at this new piece of information, shifting her gaze from examining the quiet young man to the girl that was like a sister to her.

"Yes, a few times. He claimed it was so I could have some basic inkling on how to properly defend myself. I've tried waving guns around before and it didn't turn out so well for me." Une visibly winced while Duo let out a bark of laughter.

"If she shoots someone in defense, can she still be considered a pacifist?" Quatre jokingly asked Trowa as the taller man sat back down in the seat he had before his dart match. Trowa shrugged as a form of response as he reached over and drank from Quatre's pint glass.

"I don't see why the hell not," Wufei muttered as he managed to land one of his last stripes in a pocket.

"Yuy, I'm going to kill you," Zechs growled again as he regarded the dire situation on the table. Even if he managed to line up his shots correctly and execute them correctly, he didn't think he'd have enough turns to beat Wufei to the 8 ball.

"Because he screwed up your shot? Or because he taught your baby sister how to shoot?" Hilde jokingly asked as a point of clarification. When Zechs looked up to pointedly glare at her, she was fairly certain of the answer. "So…both?" she offered weakly.

"Both," Noin confirmed with a nod of her head and a smirk. She managed to wink at Zechs before he turned back to his shot, and was pleased to see that the tips of his ears were slightly red from a subtle blush.

Finding that the amusing banter amongst the group was dying down, and wanting to avoid the conversation becoming more heated, Relena decided it was a good point to go buy herself another drink. "Anyone else want anything?" she offered as she stood up. In some capacity or another, either through gentle head shakes or utterances of "no thanks", everyone refused her offer, content with the drinks they had.

Shrugging, Relena moved around her chair and made her way towards the actual bar at the back.

Une had been in the midst of looking towards one of her actual on-duty officers to signal that they not allow the Vice Foreign Minister to wander through the premises by herself when Heero pushed away from his seat and followed her without a word. Une would have liked to have taken credit and said it was just because she had instilled within him an unshakeable sense of duty, even in his technical off time, but she knew better. He would have followed the sandy blonde haired woman even if they were in a high-security clearance sanctioned room of HQ. The Head of Preventers smiled and took another sip of her whiskey sour before challenging the Winner Corp. CEO to darts.

~:~:~:~:~:~

21:18~

"What'll ya be havin' dear?" the bartender asked, leaning over the sticky wooden surface of the bar.

"What would you suggest for a birthday?" While the beer had been enjoyable, she was ready to venture out and try something a little gutsier.

"Two tequila shots. Top shelf."

And gutsy is what she got. Surprised, she turned her head to see Heero standing next to her at the bar with a small smirk pulling at the corners of his mouth. The bartender looked to Relena to make sure she was okay with the order, and when she gave a small nod of approval, he quickly got to work pulling a bottle off the shelf of the bar wall and pouring shot glasses full to the rim.

"Are you trying to get me drunk ?" Relena asked, cocking her head to the side to regard her bodyguard with a raised eyebrow.

"Just trying to show you a good time on your birthday," he replied evenly and without hesitation. When he calmly shifted his eyes to look towards her, Relena sucked in a deep breath and had to suppress the blush she could feel creeping up her neck. That look was in his eyes again. The one she could never properly name because it was a mixture of challenge, attraction, and affection and it had only recently become noticeable in his gaze. The first time she saw it had been a few months ago while he was accompanying her on a diplomatic trip through northern Africa. At the time, she had disregarded it and thought she had been fabricating things in her head. But she saw it creeping back into his glances on subsequent trips and late night conversations in her room. How foolish she had been to dismiss it so completely or not question why he looked at her like that.

The shots being slammed down onto the bar top broke the hypnotic effect he had on her and she looked blankly at the lime wedge the bartender held out to her. Finally, awaking from her trance completely, Relena quickly took the lime wedge from him after Heero nudged her in the side and took his as well. He placed cash down on the counter and the bartender thanked him before conspicuously moving down the bar to make an attempt of giving privacy.

"So…what do I do exactly?" she asked, regarding the wedge with suspicion.

He hesitated and suspiciously regarded her, mentally gauging if she was just playing innocent or if she really had never had a tequila shot in her life. Or at the very minimum, had never seen other people enjoying the smooth golden liquor. And then his mental calculations deduced it was Relena and she would have never done anything to jeopardize her post, even during typical periods of adolescent rebellion. He also could personally account for most of her actions over the past few years, and knew bars or house parties were not part of her schedule.

"Lick your hand."

"What?" she spluttered, certain she must have misheard him.

"Lick your hand," he repeated. Relena's eyes nearly fell out of her head from shock when she saw Heero Yuy dart out his dark pink tongue and lick the top of left hand. The sight was… truly unbelievable. And with all of the other's distracted by their dart and pool games, she had no available witness to attest to the ludicrous occurrence. Relena continued to stand there dumbfounded until Heero reached over and grabbed her own left hand. "Well if you're not going to do it…" he muttered, letting his words trail off as he brought her delicate extremity closer to his face.

Realizing his intentions, Relena let out a small quiet scream of shock and quickly pulled her hand back to safety. Her blush covered her face and neck nicely, providing a nice rosy hue even in the dimness of the bar. Her thoughts were racing as she considered the fact that no one was present again to witness the impossible events unfolding. Had Heero really been about to lick her hand? Surely, that had just been a joke.

"Are you going to do it or not?" he prodded, making a move to reach for her hand again. Without a moment's hesitation, the Vice Foreign Minister vigorously shook her head and then quickly licked the top of her hand. She jerked in flustered surprise again when he grabbed her hand a second time before she could do anything.

"But I licked it. I licked it!" she exclaimed, confused as to how she had managed to mess up such a seemingly simple task. Was she drunk already from just a beer? Maybe she was imagining all of this. Certainly she had to be imagining Heero salting her hand using a saltshaker that had been sitting beside the shots on the bar. Was he planning to eat her?

He let go of her hand and salted his own hand in turn, then placed the saltshaker down to instead replace it with one of the awaiting shots. He pointedly looked between Relena, and the lonely shot on the bar, and back again before she understood the intended message that she mimic his actions. Relena now stood with a shot of tequila in her right hand and a lime wedge in her left, curious as to what bizarre ritual Heero had signed her up for without her approval.

"You're going to lick the salt, take the shot in one gulp, and then suck on the lime. Got all that?" he explained, with the same tone and precision he would if he were describing how to complete a successful suit deployment from a moving shuttlecraft. Relena just nodded her head. "Okay then. On three. One…."

Was it just her, or was he smiling? If so, it was the smuggest smile she'd ever seen on him, and that was saying something.

"Two…"

What was she supposed to do again? Wait, did he just wink?

"Three!"

Having to forget about possible winks and smiles, Relena quickly followed Heero's actions and licked her hand, opened her mouth wide for the shot, gagged slightly, and then shoved the lime in her mouth, peel and all. She quickly remedied the situation by pulling it back out and just sucking on the soft part of the fruit. Realizing that Heero had added an additional step she hadn't been informed of, she slammed her shot glass down on the counter in a similar manner as he had done moments before. When she realized the ritual was over, and that she had survived the whole ordeal, she looked up at him quizzically, to discover he was indeed smiling down at her.

"Happy birthday," he said gently, and she vaguely recognized she was surprised she could still hear him despite the raucous din coming from the pool tables across the way and music flooding the bar. Someone must have won. "You can stop sucking on the lime now if you'd like."

She slowly removed the lime wedge from her mouth, and realized that she could feel her body becoming warm from the alcohol rushing through her blood. She looked up at Heero in wonder and mischief.

"You are trying to get me drunk. You're a bad bodyguard," she admonished with a smile, attempting to push him away by jabbing a hand at his chest. She stilled when his warm hand rose to cover hers and stop her from pulling away. Her smile faded when she saw that previously undefined look in his eyes, gazing at her intently.

In some small corner of her mind, she knew what was coming. But that didn't stop the chills from coursing through her body as her heartbeat struggled to maintain a normal healthy rate. She could feel her body tense in nervous anticipation when he stepped closer towards her and tilted his head down so his mouth was level with her ear. His breath on the sensitive skin there quickly made goose bumps appear on her arms.

"I love you," he murmured in her ear without any fanfare.

"I love you too," she genuinely replied without any hesitation.

She felt him gently squeeze the hand he still held pressed against his chest and felt him stiffen slightly before finally turning his head to capture her lips with his own. All sorts of contradictory adjectives could have flitted through her thoughts at that moment, such as the rough texture of his lips meeting her soft ones, or the savory and rich taste of his mouth greeting her tongue when they opened their mouths wider and how it complimented her own sweet taste. But in actuality, she wasn't thinking anything nearly as poetic or complicated as all of that. She was just lost in delirious happiness at finally kissing the man that preoccupied her thoughts for the better part of five years.

As he pulled away, somewhere in the far back of her mind she registered that she heard her brother cursing at losing a pool game, Duo cursing the fact he was about to lose money, and Une cursing the fact that Quatre was much more ruthless in darts than she originally thought him to be. No one in their party though questioned the fact that Relena had departed to go get a drink some odd 8 minutes ago and no one seemed to be any the wiser to the romantic interlude happening at the back of the bar.

No, there were no grand proclamations of love in front of a room full of people at a formal ball. And they were not kissing bathed in moonlight on some deserted beach. They weren't even in private. Instead, they were pressed against a bar in a small local pub near Preventers HQ. And neither of them could conceive of anything more romantic and real. They had already had their dramatic romantic moment, at the expense of a brush with death, and they both preferred the more mundane down-to-earth setting.

Relena moved closer to Heero, turning her head so she could press a cheek to his chest and hear his heart despite the loud music. His free arm wrapped around her waist and she shuddered when he pulled her closer to him still. She tilted her head upwards to give him a small mischievous look full of light and laughter, which his eyes narrowed at in suspicion.

"Can I be expecting a late night visit tonight?" she asked, a smile gracing her lips.

He paused momentarily before smirking. "It's your birthday isn't it? I haven't missed it yet."

"I'll be looking forward to it then."

Her smile widened and before he could react, she lifted her free hand to have it tangle in his dark chocolate locks, pulling his head down so she could greedily kiss him again.

~:~:~:~:~:~

21:32~

Somewhere across the bar, someone finally took notice and shouting and teasing began to fill the bar from various friends, bewildered brothers, and approving comrades.

Heero and Relena were oblivious to it all as they finally pulled away from each other, both left in awe and breathless.

~:~:~:~:~:~

Fin.

Author's Note:

A very long time ago – literally a decade ago – I had this small nagging story in my mind that wanted to bloom. And it did – somewhat. I wrote out the story, in its entirety, but I wasn't happy with it, no matter how many drafts I spun out. And then time would pass between those drafts, first as weeks, then months, and eventually years until I honestly forgot about the story. And then with a vague recollection and reminder, I rediscovered the story a few years back, and completely overhauled it. I had a few more years under my belt, a bit more narrative skill, and a greater understanding of human connection and relationships. When reading back over what I initially crafted, I was disappointed and critical of my immaturity reflected in the story as it was (although this was understandable given the fact I had only been 14 when I first wrote all this). So the overhaul commenced, and I began to develop an iota of pride in the work, or at the very minimum – satisfaction.

But the last chapter continued to plague me. No matter how many times I read it over, or did minor tweaks, I struggled with how this story should end and how this couple should find resolution. And I lost inspiration again and subsequently neglected it after updating and "publishing" the rest of the story back in 2010.

I can't clearly articulate what inspired me this time, but earlier in the week I just remembered this story and committed myself to finishing and posting this chapter. This is the original ending. Reworked and edited, but the plot development, dialogue and settings are what I envisioned over ten years ago. I decided to stop fighting myself and to accept the story I originally wanted to tell. And I also figured that this was not going to be the perfect story and it would be far better to finally finish it than continue to let it sit on my hard drive in story purgatory due to my ambivalence/apathy/ angst. And I figured the readers who still gave a damn would prefer a conclusion as well.

I say all this to let you, the readers, know that I finished this because of those of you who reached out to me repeatedly over the years or left touching reviews questioning where the rest of this story was and voicing your support for its continuation. I say this so you hopefully have understanding and answers to some of your questions, for those of you who care and/or are curious about my particular writing process around this story.

As an aside, it's bittersweet knowing this is likely my last foray into crafting a GW fic, since the show was my gateway drug to both anime and fanfiction.

I am relieved to be done. I hope you enjoyed the adventure.