I really have no excuse for taking so long to post a new chapter. Please forgive me. What can I say? Real life is a bitch. I hope that, in any case, you will have found the wait worthwhile. I promise to try my best to post more often.

Part 27

Hilde and I made our way to the rec room, and I was quite, quite grateful that we didn't run into anyone else. I knew I couldn't avoid the others forever, but that didn't mean that I wasn't happy to postpone any confrontations for as long as possible.

"So, what movie would you like to watch?" Hilde asked once we'd arrived.

"Uh, I don't really care. Whatever you want to watch," I replied, dropping onto the couch and feeling inexplicably awkward. Hilde shrugged and started to flip through Quatre's collection while I fidgeted on the couch. Finally, she selected a disk and popped it into the player.

I couldn't have cared less what we watched. I just wanted to not have to think for awhile. I desperately tried to lose myself in the inane comedy, but despite my best efforts, I continued to fidget restlessly. I didn't want to admit it, even to myself, but deep down I knew why I was so restless.

I wanted to drink.

The world felt entirely too… real. Too sharp. I couldn't deal with it. I needed to soften its edges. I needed to be numb. God, I hated myself so much. How could I even be thinking of that now? After everything that had happened? With… with how much Hilde believed in me?

My fidgeting and restlessness only grew worse as the first movie ended and Hilde started another one. After awhile, she paused it and rose from her seat. I didn't question her, assuming she needed to go to the bathroom or wanted some water or something. A few minutes later she returned, bearing two glasses, one of which she held out to me. I smiled and accepted it, taking a sip and expecting it to be cola. But it wasn't. At least, it wasn't just cola. There was vodka in it, too. I blinked at her in shock.

"What?" she asked calmly. "I know you wanted it. And I'm not going to judge you. Or try to tell you to ignore the craving. You're… you're an alcoholic." Her voice warbled a little, but her gaze didn't waver. I swallowed convulsively, feeling my cheeks flush. "You're an alcoholic, and you need to drink, but I'm not going to let you drink alone." She raised her glass in a mock toast.

I… I didn't know what to say. She… she wasn't judging me. She… she was accepting me. Even… even drinking with me. I couldn't wrap my mind around it. Couldn't believe that she could be so open-minded. I felt so completely overwhelmed.

"Thank you," I mumbled quietly, the words so terribly inadequate to express my gratitude. She beamed at me.

"Seriously, I think it would be crazy to expect anyone to stop an addiction cold turkey. That's just crazy. We'll tackle this slowly… and together."

I could do nothing but stare at her silently for a moment, the reality of the situation still sinking in. What she was saying… it was just so unbelievable.

"So… let's say we won't have another drink for an hour. So we'll drink these slowly to make them last. How does that sound?" she smiled at me. I raised an eyebrow at her. This felt just too bizarre to be real. But… why not give it a try?

"Um… how about… forty-five minutes?" I asked. Just to sort of test the waters. She looked at me askance, but there was no censure in her gaze.

"Okay. Forty-five minutes," she replied. And with that we returned to watching the movie. I sipped at my drink as slowly as I could manage, loving the slow burn down my throat and the spreading warmth from my stomach. She had made the drinks pretty strong, though not as strong as I would have made them. God, I loved the feeling so much. Every tense nerve in my body seemed to start to unwind. It was a feeling, I realized, not unlike what I felt after cutting, only considerably less… intense.

I managed to make my drink last for thirty-two minutes, an admirable feat indeed. I tried not to keep glancing at the clock during the remaining time, and I tried not to worry about possibly having to actually ask for another drink if Hilde were to forget. I needn't have worried, though. As soon as the clock struck the specified time Hilde paused the movie and took our empty glasses over to the bar area. I hadn't even noticed that she'd finished hers. After a few minutes she returned and handed me my re-filled drink.

"Thank you," I mumbled. Again, the words just seemed so inadequate. I seriously could not believe that she was doing this for me, that anyone could be so open-minded and understanding.

"No problem," she smiled. "So, what do you say? Do you want to try for an hour this time, or forty-five minutes again?" I looked down at the drink in my hand, feeling awkward. Now that I had the beginnings of a buzz going, I knew I would just want to drink more and more. I'd have a harder time drinking this one slowly.

"Forty-five minutes?" I said tentatively. She smiled reassuringly.

"No problem."

The rest of the evening passed pretty smoothly. We went through six drinks, and stuck to forty-five minute intervals. I refused to up it to an hour, and she likewise refused to shorten it to thirty minutes when I asked after my third drink. Needless to say, we were both pretty drunk by the time Hilde decided we should call it a night. But instead of falling into my usual dark depression, Hilde managed to keep the mood pretty light-hearted, partly by sticking to movies that were hilariously funny. Mostly, though, I think the difference was having someone there with me, not just drinking with me, but being there for me. I really liked being able to enjoy the more pleasant aspects of being drunk without worrying about her judging me. We stumbled off to bed at somewhere near three in the morning, and I felt better than I had in recent memory.

I couldn't say the same the next morning, though. I woke up around noon with a predictable pounding in my temples and a decidedly sour feeling in my stomach. And I found myself wondering for perhaps the millionth time what it was about alcohol that made your mouth taste like absolute shit the next day. Compared to some of my hangovers, though, it was nothing. I stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom to relieve my bladder and wash my face. It was still hard to look myself in the mirror, but I forced myself to do it. Hair not quite so disastrous looking after I brushed it out and re-braided it. Skin still pale, eyes still dark and sunken looking.

"Hilde cares," I said aloud to my reflection, and then felt rather ridiculous. I retreated back into my room to get dressed. There really wasn't anything else to do, so I ventured downstairs, though I dreaded the possibility of running into Heero or Sally… especially Heero.

So who's voices did I hear as I approached the kitchen? Heero's and Sally's of course. I nearly high-tailed it back upstairs before I realized Hilde was in there, too. I stopped outside the door and shamelessly listened in, figuring, correctly, that they were talking about me.

"… I don't think that's really the point here. And could you keep your voice down, please? I have a headache," Hilde was saying.

"You're hardly going to get sympathy from me for a hangover headache. Do you have any idea how irresponsible what you did last night was?" Sally replied, her voice clipped.

"What, being there for a friend? Yeah, that was really irresponsible of me," Hilde shot back.

"Enabling his addiction is not doing him any favours, Hilde. You'll end up regretting it, I promise you," Sally said.

"How could you possibly have thought letting him get drunk was a good idea?" Heero growled. I couldn't help myself. I flinched.

"Letting him? I didn't let him do anything. He doesn't need my, or anyone else's, permission to drink, Heero. I chose to be there for him so that he didn't have to do it alone. What do you guys think would have been the 'responsible' thing to do? Ship him off to some psychiatric rehab hospital?" Hilde asked. I swallowed back a sudden lump in my throat.

"There are such places, you know," Sally replied quietly. "Hospitals that are equipped to handle both his psychological problems and his alcohol addiction."

"Of course I know! And I'll die before I let you do that to him!" Hilde hissed.

I leaned back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling, the blood pounding in my ears thunderously loud compared to the sudden heavy silence in the other room. I didn't deserve a friend like Hilde. Emotion I could not name was welling up in my chest, constricting my chest, making me want to shed tears. Whether they were tears of sadness or of happiness I couldn't say.

Heero made a disgusted noise and then stormed out of the kitchen… right out into the hallway where I was lurking. He stared at me in open shock for a moment, and I marvelled to see such an emotion on his face. And then it was gone, leaving a cold, blank expression as he gave me an appraising look. In turn, I'm sure I probably looked like a startled rabbit. For a moment he looked like he might say something, and I only just managed to keep myself from cringing, but then he turned heel and continued to stalk away down the hall without a word.

For some reason, it left me feeling like I'd been punched in the gut.

Reluctantly, I continued on into the kitchen. Hilde and Sally both looked up at my arrival. Hilde's face brightened, and she bounced over to wrap her arms around me, rather over-enthusiastically. Sally glared off to the side.

"Hey! How are you feeling this morning? Or, well, this afternoon?" she amended with a laugh.

"I… I guess I'm okay," I said truthfully. Though I would have been more okay if not for the encounter with Heero. Hilde beamed at me, and I could do nothing but smile in return. Sally's scowl deepened.

"I'm sorry, I can't just let this slide by. Do either of you realize what you did last night?" Sally said. I fought the urge to cringe away.

"What? Are you talking about how I was there for him when he needed me? I don't see how some alcohol being involved nullified that." Hilde replied acidly.

"It's your inability to see that that concerns me," Sally shot back. "It's not healthy to encourage an addiction! Do you understand what I'm saying? Duo is suffering from a number of psychological problems. This dependence on alcohol is one of them. You are making things worse!"

I grit my teeth, overwhelmed by frustration. I was so angry that Hilde was getting yelled at by Sally, when Hilde had helped me. Why couldn't Sally understand that? I looked at Hilde, but she had turned away, shaking her head but remaining silent. I couldn't help but speak up.

"Leave her alone!" I said. They both looked at me in surprise. My resolve wavered under their gaze, but I held firm. "This may be hard for you to understand, but I think last night was good for me. You know what? I didn't feel alone. Yes, we were drinking, but I had someone with me who wasn't judging, and that made all the difference! No, it doesn't solve everything, but it meant a lot to me." I had to look away then, suddenly losing confidence. "It really meant a lot," I finished quietly. For an endless moment, silence reigned.

"Duo…" Sally finally said, apparently at a loss.

I couldn't look at her. I couldn't look at Hilde. I couldn't do anything.

The silence stretched on.