AN: This is not by any means intended as an accurate representation of the characters. In fact, it doesn't even mesh with my own interpretation of Noin, who I think is a much stronger character. I just had this image flutter through my head as I was driving home from work one night, and I knew I had to get it down before it vanished again.

Yes, it's cheesy, but I figure I'm permitted one cheesy story per decade – and this is it. Bonus points to anyone who catches the obscure '80s television reference. (And Amarone, for people who are connoisseurs of other things than wine, is a high-proof Italian red wine.)

Legally, disclaimers are so much chaff in the Minskoff wind tunnel… I'm not even going to bother.

Pillow Talk

Noin didn't know exactly why she started speaking to inanimate objects. One day, after a particularly trying mission, it seemed to her that one of her couch cushions resembled Lady Une a bit too much for its own good, and she had punched it. It seemed a natural vent for her emotions.

From then on, it became habitual: Whenever she was frustrated, upset, sad or lonely, something in her apartment would be transformed into the person she wanted most to see at that moment. The chair in the corner became Sally Po; the umbrella stand by the closet assumed the identity of Quatre; a painted ceramic vase above the refrigerator was Relena. Zechs was her bed pillow. Talking to them was a release, a way she could sort out her own emotions without making anyone else feel uncomfortable. It was comforting to know that she could talk or rant in person if she needed to – she'd never known Sally to turn down a cup of coffee and a conversation in the years she'd known her – but the friends of her heart, embodied by her furniture, were a good substitute if the real ones were unavailable.

15.04.198 – 09:22:46

Thunder grumbled a warning in the distance as Noin reached for the smart black umbrella in the stand. Quatre had always been patient and kind, taking time to listen to her problems and offer advice, but today she didn't know if he would be able to help her. She stared at the stand, envisioning the blond satellite-mining magnate in the corner before her.

"I know it's a big responsibility," she sighed. Quatre nodded understanding, his incongruous blue eyes fixed on hers. "…And I know it's a good sign that Zechs is trusting me with Relena. Knowing the way he feels about his sister, I should be honored… I should be honored that he has that kind of respect for my abilities." Noin shifted uncomfortably in her stiff dress attire. "It just feels… wrong… somehow. Almost like there's an ulterior motive. I'm not sure how to explain." Quatre folded his hands beneath his chin and prompted her to continue.

"Relena and Lady Une both warned me about this ambassador, this… politician we're meeting," she confessed in a confidential tone. "They told me about his gamesmanship, how he deliberately antagonizes people to throw them off-guard. That's part of the problem – I'm not cut out for politics, and I don't know how well I can deal with the man." Noin raised helpless eyes to Quatre. "I know I'm impatient, and I know I'm easily provoked. I have trouble keeping my temper under control. And I know Zechs knows that about me, so I'm not sure why he's sending me instead of attending, himself, when he's so much better at this than I am." She sighed. "I don't know how he and Relena deal with everyone so easily."

In her mind, the blond youth smiled encouragement. "Just leave the politics to Lady Relena," he pronounced wisely. "Today, you're just like a fire extinguisher – only there in case of emergency."

Noin shrugged into her coat and stared at the umbrella stand. "That sounds like something he'd say – my daily fortune cookie," she muttered, "except he'd have made some clever pun about my code name." Noin wasn't even sure she understood the words she'd put in Quatre's mouth. She was Preventer Fire, and today she was supposed to… prevent a fire? "I don't want to always put out fires," she protested. "I'd rather start a few of my own." She brushed out the door, dropping the umbrella back into its place. Let it rain. She was Fire. She was ready for it.

15.04.198 - 16:37:04

Bottles crashed together, mimicking the thunder outside, as Noin slammed the door of her refrigerator. Another five minutes in that meeting, and she knew she would have lost control of herself. Zechs had specifically requested that she attend as Relena's attaché, ostensibly because she'd spent time both in the Cinq Kingdom and in the colonies, but the way that son-of-a-transistor-manufacturer Sieben talked to Her former Royal Highness had made Noin want to grab the wheezing little worm by the collar and fling him out of the fifteenth-floor window. While he elaborated on the faults of Relena's administration, Noin's fingernails had been carving deep gashes inside her clenched fists. Her wounded hands stung bitterly as she wrenched the cork out of a bottle of Amarone, and she paused at the sink to rinse the fresh crescents of blood from her palms. Ordinarily she didn't drink until the evening, and then only on special occasions – but alcohol was alcohol, and tonight she intended to get quickly, thoroughly and irretrievably drunk. She chomped a bite out of a leftover sandwich, decided it was past its prime, and dropped it into the trash. So much the better. It was hard to become inebriated on dinner wine, but the alcohol would take effect faster on an empty stomach.

She took a mouthful straight from the bottle and rolled it around in her mouth. It would have been delicious six months ago, she decided. A few more weeks and it would be vinegar. Noin examined the label. It was a fine vintage: Costello, '83. The best we had at the Academy, she thought with a wry smile. And now it seems you've wasted that, too. Well, serves you right for waiting so long. She shoved the wet bangs out of her eyes, not heeding the cold rainwater that still trickled down her collar.

Noin stalked into her bedroom and wrested the pillow from a tangle of sheets on her bed. It wasn't the pompous Ambassador Sieben who would face her wrath tonight. No, this particular evening her anger would feast itself on the man who had put her in this position in the first place – the man who, now that she thought about it, was always putting her in some sort of discomfiting situation. He was responsible for the hurt and embarrassment she felt. He was the one to blame for her weakness, her indecisiveness. He had always used her as a lackey, assigning her menial tasks while he gallivanted across the untamed galaxy in search of fame and glory…

She fluffed the pillow until it could stand on its own against the headboard and stepped back, at first unable to speak and unsure what to say. Blood from her hands left grotesque semicircles on the white linen in an abstract pattern. She glared at the pillow, fitting it in her mind with the features of the man she simultaneously loved and hated. She conjured up an image of the fair-skinned officer she'd first met as a teenager. Tall, handsome, platinum blond hair constantly falling into those arctic blue eyes…

No. She wouldn't think about his eyes right now.

Another swig from the bottle in her hand loosened her tongue enough to deal out a good lashing. She invoked every curse she'd ever heard whispered after hours in the OZ barracks, calling blights down in torrents upon the head of her partner. Tonight was her night for revenge, for sheer and brutal honesty. She would tell him exactly what she thought of him, even if he weren't there to hear it.

She vented for half an hour, hardly pausing to draw breath and to choke down mouthfuls of the sharp, acidic wine. She dredged up dark memories from their Academy days, blasting everything from his superior piloting skills to his habitual courtesy. She blamed him for putting her in second place, making her test scores fall below her best, even though she knew she'd done it voluntarily (but naturally, it was his fault that she'd wanted to). Her effort had earned him a commission and full honors, while her reward had been to struggle through a year of teaching slovenly cadets how to pilot obsolete machines, counting the days until he came back to her…

Noin stopped ranting for a moment, silenced by sudden tears that stung her eyes. What had she given up for him? What kind of career, what kind of life, what rank and honor and due reward would she have had, if she'd only been true to herself instead of playing shadow to the god she'd fallen in love with at fourteen?

Automatically, her inner voice told her that it didn't matter, because either way the war would have destroyed OZ and Romafeller. Her honors wouldn't have meant anything, just as his didn't anymore. In another world she and Zechs still would have ended up as equals, if they'd both survived the fighting.

Noin realized that her inner voice was defending him, and told it where to stuff its rationality. I must not be drunk enough, she mused, and spent a moment divesting the bottle of its contents.

Images fluttered through her mind, things she'd nearly forgotten. She recalled ceremonies where she'd been decorated for one thing or another. She'd been so proud, up on the platform, with a new piece of fruit salad glimmering on her chest – but always, always, he had been there too, getting a medal or a commendation or something that she deserved. He had always taken the credit for whatever they'd done together. In fact, she had done so much for her partner – her partner in name only, because he didn't see fit to show up when he was needed, like today, when that turkey mechanic was insulting YOUR sister and nobody there had the right to slap him in his pudgy mouth – she'd practically made him, giving up anything she might have earned on her own…

"And for what?" She growled. "What do I have to show for everything I gave him? He treats our 'partnership' like a baby-sitting service, and we're only together when it's convenient for him. What has he ever, ever given me?"

Unbidden, another memory bled across her vision: Epyon speeding toward her, saber raised. It was the one time she hadn't capitulated; she'd stood her ground and faced him head on, fully expecting to die at his hand. But she hadn't.

He gave you your life then, the inner voice prodded. He respected you, he didn't attack you even when you—

Noin drowned the inner voice with another swallow. The bottle was half gone now. How long did it take to get roaring drunk, anyway? Surely she ought to be close to it by now. She was mad, really furious, at Zechs; she wanted to lash out and tell him off. There was no reason to be thinking about his good qualities. He didn't have that many good points, anyway… Just his looks, but that was just the way he was born; he couldn't take credit for that. And he was Mr. Good Manners, but that was all because of his training, just like his sense of honor and justice, and that inner nobility that he always had… And he was certainly intelligent, but that was probably how he had duped her into doing his dirty work for him. And he wasn't as polite or as thoughtful as most people thought, because after the war, he'd disappeared without so much as a post card. He hadn't cared if she thought he was dead. Most uncourteous of him.

"I must be drunk after all," Noin murmured, and hiccupped. She found this incongruously hilarious, and started to laugh until she realized that tears were already streaking her cheeks. The harder she fought the feeling, the more she cried, until she couldn't see the pillow or her bed anymore, and the room was just a blur of lights and darks.

That had hurt. More than anything he had or hadn't done for her, or any feelings he hadn't reciprocated, or any gratitude he hadn't voiced, the year without word had torn her apart. Somehow she had known that he wasn't dead, but for twelve aching months, she'd agonized over him. Was he really dead, and she was just delusional? Was he alive, but trapped somewhere, in pain? Or had he simply forgotten her? She'd had to endure the knowing looks and the patronizing words of her fellows; they'd laughed about her, tried to put her in therapy, made her life a nightmare while she wondered if they might be right… She'd borne it all alone.

And then he'd miraculously returned, and stepped back into the forefront of her life as if he'd had a right to be there all along. Still there was no explanation, no apology; nothing about the year he'd left her hanging. She had never questioned him, but had always hoped that he trusted her enough to tell her the truth.

Apparently, he didn't. And that had broken her heart, because above all else, she wanted his trust.

"I gave you everything," she whispered. "I did what you asked. I protected what was precious to you. I stood by your side, even when you were in the wrong. All I wanted was your confidence—" A sob silenced her for a moment, and she pondered her own words, swaying slightly in the middle of the room. The familiar anger kindled again.

"No," she murmured, and the tears slowed. "I wanted more than that. I wanted you to trust me, to believe in me, the way that I believed in you. I wanted you to think of me, because I thought of you every moment. I wanted you all for myself, because without you I wasn't complete. I wanted to share your pain, because it hurt so much to watch you suffer alone. I offered you my life, and in return I wanted everything that was you. I wanted your affection, your praise; I wanted you to notice me beside you, instead of always looking straight ahead. I wanted you to… to love me…"

She took another drink, knowing what was coming and knowing it had to be said, tonight, even if only she and her pillow heard it.

"Because I love you," she declared finally. "There, I've said it. I love you. Are you happy now, now that you know I'm a fool who's so madly, completely, desperately in love she can't even think of herself without you?" Her speech was slurring, and she steeled herself as her stomach lurched in protest. Another swallow made her feel nauseated, but it gave her resolve.

"I love you," she seethed. "I love you to the point of being sick. I am sick. I'm sick of everything! I'm sick of living in your shadow, of being afraid of what you think, of following you like a chained puppy. I'm sick of hurting when I look at you. I hate myself for loving you so much."

She squinted back at the pillow, the fatigue and tears blurring that corner of the room beyond recognition. Still, she imagined she could see his eyes burning back at her, eyes she'd first spotted through slits in a metal mask, eyes that had enchanted her and captured her loyalty, eyes that had made her count minutes and hours and years, that had led her to forsake what she believed in to stand by that man's side in battle… She could see his face clearly now, staring back at her evenly, as if challenging her to detach herself from him.

A frustrated cry leapt from her throat and she drained the last of the wine, choking as she gulped air. She spun in a circle, her arms gravitating outward, the empty bottle slipping from her fingers and landing with a dull thud on the carpeted floor. When she stopped moving, the room kept spinning. She squeezed her eyes shut and whispered fiercely.

"I want to hate you… but I love you too much."

Slowly, she let her eyes open. His face was still before her, but it had changed from the stern commander to something else. Now, her chest ached to see the shock and hurt described plainly in his features. It lasted only a few seconds; the mask slipped back into place, and the face was once again cold and unreadable. Noin passed a hand over her eyes and felt her body go numb.

"Zechs."

There was a moment's silence. "Noin."

She swallowed, pushed damp hair back from her face, and turned away from him. Zechs did not move from his position in the doorway.

"How long have you been standing there?" She knew she needn't bother asking. Zechs wouldn't embarrass her further by acknowledging what he'd heard.

Another pause, longer than the first. Curse his propriety; he was too polite. "Relena… said you were upset when you left…"

Noin nodded, still dizzy. "I was." She took a sudden step to the left to keep her balance, and her foot knocked against the empty wine bottle. It rolled away, circling to point at the hapless pillow still propped against the headboard. She let out an odd sort of giggle.

"Sorry," she murmured, trying to focus her vision on the bottle. "I meant to save some for you…"

Zechs was gentleman enough to catch her as she passed out.

15.04.198 - 21:56:18

As far as Noin could remember, she'd never had a serious hangover. When she opened her eyes and felt the tent spike being driven through her skull, she wondered if it were possible to block hangovers, like other bad experiences, completely out of one's memory.

"You're finally awake," Zechs observed unnecessarily. He helped her into a sitting position and handed her a glass. "You're dehydrated. Drink." She sipped the water slowly, though her mouth was parched. With every swallow, a miniature explosion detonated at the base of her neck. Zechs watched her for a few moments, his face unreadable, and finally spoke – quietly, she realized, though every word was cannon fire in her ears.

"You've been under a lot of stress, Noin. I think you're working too hard. I'll talk to Lady Une and arrange for you to have some time off." Quickly he added, "…if you like."

Noin shook her head, then immediately wished she hadn't. "You know the rookies can't handle our assignments. Preventers can't afford to give us vacations – there's no one else to do our work."

"Then I'll take over your projects while you're…"

Noin struggled upright to interrupt. "You, take my projects? Zechs, that's absurd. You already take double duty as it is. I refuse to be an inconvenience to anyone!"

Zechs leaned forward suddenly, forcing her back against the pillow, his pale blue eyes boring into hers with rare intensity. "And what kind of inconvenience do you think you would be if you were unable to do any kind of work at all?" His voice dropped, and she strained to make out his words. "Noin, this time it was a bottle of wine. Next time, what if it's something else? What if no one happens by to catch you when you fall?" His voice quivered along the edge of a whisper. "Or if you're on a mission, and no one can get to you… or worse yet, if someone can? What happens then?"

Noin stilled her quaking body with a conscious effort. She turned away, unable to meet his eyes. "I know what can happen, Zechs," she answered at last, and was surprised to hear that her own voice was steady. "And I know that some changes need to be made. But those decisions are mine to make, and no one else's."

Zechs nodded and looked away. "I realize that," he said softly.

Noin followed his gaze to the empty wine bottle that now sat on her dresser, along with her keys and everything else she'd discarded on the way in. He must have cleaned things up while she was asleep. How typically conscientious of him, Noin sighed mentally. He really is too perfect. But the way he'd looked at her, the way he'd spoken, the way he'd gripped her shoulders – that didn't match the cold façade he always projected. She had truly frightened him, or made him spectacularly furious, or perhaps both. Either way, Noin realized, a line had been crossed in their relationship. She wasn't sure if that development was good or bad.

Zechs was characteristically silent, and Noin sensed the mask sliding into place again. Her foggy brain floundered for something to say, to do, to ask, to keep the line of communication open. She didn't want him to be like this, especially when he was angry with her.

Finally, Zechs' smooth baritone broke the silence. "If I might make a suggestion…"

Noin nodded for him to continue, her heartbeat drumming in her ears.

"You might start by switching to a lower-proof wine." He turned back to her and smiled, an unspoken apology for his tirade.

Noin returned the gesture, wondering if he knew the emotion his smile awoke within her. She stole a glance at his eyes. Undoubtedly he knows. After all, he just heard me say that I… Her cheeks flushed scarlet.

Zechs stood abruptly. "I should let you get some rest," he said. He paused, frowning faintly. "Will you be all right by yourself?"

Noin nodded, then put a hand to her head as the throbbing returned. "I'm… fine," she insisted, reaching for the water again. She didn't feel fine. Her stomach churned, and she gulped the cold liquid despite the fire in her temples.

"Noin, I really don't think you ought to be alone." He stood by the door, not wanting to impose, but obviously unwilling to leave her in this condition. "Shall I send for a doctor?"

"No, I don't need anyone. I'm fine." Noin hated doctors. Doesn't he know that?

"Perhaps I should call Lady Une and explain the situation to her. I'm sure she'd be willing to send someone over for you." He reached for the handset on her dresser.

Noin scrambled upright and nearly fell out of the bed in her panic. "Oh, Zechs, please don't bring her into this! If Lady Une ever found out that I skipped out on assignment and got plastered over some two-bit politician, I'd never be able to–"

Zechs glanced up through his platinum bangs, and there was a glimmer of amusement in the frost-colored eyes. His hand hovered over the communicator.

"Sally, then?"

Noin's mouth twisted, fighting a grin, and she realized she'd lost the battle. "In the morning," she told him. "I want to sleep this off before seeing anyone."

"Agreed," he said with a nod. "Noin…" He met her eyes and paused, unsure of his words. Finally he shook his head and smiled. "We'll talk later," he promised. "Rest well."

Noin yawned and slipped under the covers as her partner closed the door behind him. Perhaps Zechs was right; she probably needed a vacation. But then, Zechs was frequently right, at least about her. That was one of his more irritating perfections…

A sudden thought roused her from the edge of sleep, inspiring a heady giggle at her own silliness. She turned her head and murmured a soft apology into her pillow, then pressed a kiss on the linen before settling down to rest.