Risking a Star
"Wiggle it around a little," Hilde directed from below, which resulted in a glare cast down from Duo.
"Hey, you want to come up here and fix it?" he threatened, but the chide merely resulted in a suppression of tinkling laughter.
"You're doing fine, Duo," Quatre appeased, tilting his large azure eyes upward and shaking the beaded garland a little.
Duo maneuvered himself gingerly on the ladder, long braid swaying like a cat's tail, shaking loose sharp needles. They fluttered down in a shower of sweet winter-scent.
The courtyard was lit up with white and colored lights, trimming the window sills and shrubs, edging the sidewalks and fountains. The Winner family's winter mansion tucked snugly in the snowy Alps, and the young blond heir insisted that all his friends join him there for the holidays. With his sincere enthusiasm and gentle persuasion, he had managed to get Duo up a ladder to adjust garland on the two-story high Christmas tree. Wufei had only the patience to tinker with the lighting before sauntering off to his own preoccupations. Trowa watched serenely from beneath his sheet of honey hair. He held a box of ornaments, taking commands at his leisure from Hilde and Quatre.
"It's still uneven," Hilde shouted up, as if the height between herself and her braided friend made it difficult for them to communicate to each other. Her sleek black bangs fell into her eyes when she spoke.
"What about this?" Trowa said quietly, lifting an ornamental, silver-wire star from the box.
"That goes on last," Quatre said. Then, with a discreet glance at Duo, "Let's focus on one thing at a time."
Catherine hung back, smiling to herself. The interaction between the young men and woman was amusing and endearing. She had hesitated at first when Quatre's invitation extended to her as well, but his kindness eventually won her over. And besides, Trowa was going, and he was really all the family she had.
The dark sky decided at that moment to shake down another batch of powdered snow. The tiny flakes interspersed with the miniature twinkling lights gave the courtyard a mysterious, magical ambience. It was cold, and she tightened her red home-made scarf around her chin.
Down in the center of the courtyard, the debate continued about whether it was best to hang the larger ornaments on the bottom of the tree or more near the center.
Cathy put her hands in her pockets and turned toward an elegantly sloping staircase which led up to a balcony. Her feet made trace prints in the thin blanket of snow. She had a better view of the tree from up here.
It was really very magnificent. Quatre's friends and guardians had fetched it from the mountains, dragging it home in a jingling sleigh. He had then sent them to spend time with their families, proclaiming that he and his friends would decorate it themselves. The lights went on first, then the garland, then the ornaments. Last of all would be the star. But the ladder only went so high, and Cathy had a feeling that Duo was going to be done before the poor star even had a chance shine.
She felt the sudden, demanding urge to soar. With ease, she alighted on the balcony railing, rocking slightly on her tip toes. She put her arms down flat along her sides and spread her fingers out. The cold was sharp on them, but it felt exhilarating. She tilted her head toward the sky and breathed deeply. The air sliced into her lungs.
Out of nowhere she felt a harsh force moving her backwards. In a panic, she fought the tug, but this only caused her body to bend in half, and she felt herself drop. She came into contact with a concrete substance much too soon and fell with a thick thud on her backside, arms and legs flung out awkwardly.
She had landed in someone's lap.
"Wh-what are you doing?" she demanded breathlessly, yanking her arm out of grasp and scrambling to gain her bearings.
The equally perturbed Heero Yuy, tired of being jabbed by her elbows, touched her shoulder blades and shoved her off of him. She skidded around on her knees on the cold tiles, ignoring the slashing pain seeping through her pants and trying to look dignified.
"What were you doing?" he retorted, gazing at her darkly from beneath moss-brown bangs.
"I was just . . . balancing . . .." She realized as she trailed off how strange she must have looked up there. Her cheeks burned, despite the harsh air.
"You could have slipped," he said matter-of-factly, standing.
Cathy scrambled to her feet, swiping the powdered snow from off of her clothing and readjusting her scarf. So much for grace.
"I know. I'm a professional," she said, letting her voice soften.
"That's right," he said, quieting also. "You're a circus performer."
I prefer professional acrobat, she said to herself but thought better of it.
"Still," he said, unrelenting. "In the snow like this; it's pretty foolish of you."
She raised an eyebrow at him. She could go down the list of things that were foolish, all of them pertaining to mobile suits, big explosives, and battlefields; not to mention robbing a young man of his contentment among a circus troop, only to shove him back into a world of war and trauma.
But instead, she sighed and turned her neck to stare into chill space. "One has to take risks," she said. "Else how will one ever learned?" She looked back at him. "I could always have made excuses. It was too hot, and I was sweating. I could lose my grip on the other acrobats. The line was soggy from rain. I could slide off. The knives were too heavy, or I don't like the grips. I might miss my target." She shrugged. "I'm used to it." Her attention caught for a moment back to the tree, where Duo was engaged in sliding down the ladder, much to Hilde's chagrin.
When Heero didn't respond, she was curious. She looked at him; he seemed to be concentrating, but his eyes were un-seeing.
"Don't tell me you never take risks," Catherine said, smiling softly.
"Certain kinds." He looked at her again, but his attention was still elsewhere.
Cathy's smile faded, studying.
"What?" he said flatly.
"What could you be afraid of?" She tilted her head.
He smiled sardonically, despite himself. "Who."
Her mouth opened a little, but all that came out was a gush of breath. "Oh."
They broke off conversation then, each watching their companions retreating toward the French doors, beckoning with warm squares on the snow, like a quilt of firelight. Quatre turned then and beckoned toward them. "Come inside!" they could hear him call, "Duo's tired, and Hilde wants some hot chocolate."
Cathy caught Trowa's gaze and nodded. He headed off last after them.
She sighed and looked back at Heero.
Large brown curls bouncing around her chin as she shrugged a little. "Why don't you tell her that you love her?"
She enjoyed watching how his eyes widened ever-so-slightly. He turned slowly to glance at her.
They gazed at each other for a long time. When she was sure at last that he was not going to speak, he opened his lips, and said, "Because I'm not sure of myself."
"And I hate that."
She nodded. "What would it take for you to be sure?"
He turned his body and leaned against the snowy banister. Crossed his arms in concentration. "I need to know it'd be worth the risk."
Then he pushed off the balcony and started away down the staircase. She watched his back curiously and imagined walking next to him the elegant, long-haired stateswoman, who could not be with them this Christmas.
The chocolate was hot and rich. That, combined with the crackling, smoking fire in the grand sitting room, seemed to have reconciled Hilde and Duo, and the latter was back to his carefree, joking self again. Catherine sat lightly next to Trowa, keeping a sisterly presence about him. Heero did not appear for the rest of the evening, but Wufei snuck in for a snack, suffering great humiliation in the form of Duo's rough-housing.
One by one, they trickled off to bed. The house was large enough that each could have his very own wing to himself, but Hilde and Catherine agreed to stay down the same hallway, neither being accustomed to so much space all to herself.
Catherine sat at her window for a long time, elbow on the sill, watching the curtain of powdered sugar snow descend noiselessly. She had at last settled beneath the white feather comforter, tucked her chin into her chest, and was floating into darkness, when a soft knock came to the door. It was quiet but unmistakable.
Thinking it must be Hilde, Cathy rose and padded across the lush carpeting to open the large-paneled door in her nightgown.
On the other side was a quiet yet serious Heero, still wrapped in outerwear.
"I need you to help me," he said curtly. "Put your coat and boots on."
"Now?" She hugged the open collar of her night dress against her neck in an attempt at modesty.
Too impatient to answer, he glided past her rudely and plucked her scarf and coat from a gilded chair. He started to jerk her into it, but she pulled away, muttering, "All right, all right, I'm coming."
He led her through the dim corridors and through the sitting room, where the logs still glowed from the embers of early evening. He opened the French doors unceremoniously, and trudged her along through the courtyard in deep drifts of snow. Catherine shivered. Beneath her boots and coat, the flannel yet thin nightgown provided her only warmth.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Here." He stopped in front of the Christmas tree, still lit with strings of firefly lights. From his coat pocket he procured the silver-wire star.
Heero looked at her. "Take a risk," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"Can you trust me?"
She started at him, and his eyes were cobalt and intense, like blocks of ice. She felt their shuddering trail along her skin.
Take a risk.
"Yes. I trust you."
He held the star out to her. "I'm going to toss you. You'll have to leap, then twist back so to avoid crashing right into the tree."
"You want me to put the star up?" She was incredulous.
His face was placid, so that she felt ashamed at her sudden drop in faith. "All right," she said, taking a breath. "I've never done this before." And with someone who doesn't know what he's doing, no less.
He shuffled around in the snow and ascended a few steps on the ladder, then leaned over her and put either hand on her waste. When he gripped her, she felt the strength in him and felt a little securer.
His face pressed along the side of her head, and she could feel his breath in her ear. "I'll catch you," he said quietly.
Then he lifted and flung.
She bent and reached, pushing her arm down hard. The star caught the top branch of the tree and stuck. Before she knew it, she was falling, twisting in the air. There was no trapeze to grasp.
A gush of cold was around her.
And the numbness gave way to strong arms clasping her, holding her weight against his core.
He tottered; then, forced to jumped, landed in the snow with agility. He was still.
She breathed heavily. Behind her eyes the sparks of lights streaking by rang in bursting echoes. As their backdrop, her fists clutched bunches of his grey woolen coat. Her forehead pressed against his neck, and it was hot and ebbing. Gingerly, he dropped her, feet first, into the crunching snow.
They didn't look at each other but at the tree. On the very top, the silver star glinted, like a far-off hope.
Cathy turned her eyes to him.
Without reciprocating her gaze, he murmured. "That was fun."
She nearly burst with laughter. But she clapped her hand to her mouth just in time. Then, "Run away to the circus with me?" she asked, laughingly.
He smiled, and it made a lovely profile. "We'll see."
Her laughter jumped out of her, and it made her fling her arms around his neck giddily. But before he could do anything, she unwound her red scarf, flung it about him, and sped off, kicking up chunks of sleet in a dash toward the door.
"Merry Christmas!" she called.
Then the dark house, and the warmth, and the quiet of a winter's midnight.