Title:And I Almost

Summary: Even the smallest thing may start a chain reaction, that will change ones life forever. Even the simplest words have the power to destroy your world, then rebuild it from ashes. It's Piper's 18th birthday – and from now on nothing can ever be the same.

Keywords: Stork, Piper, Aerrow, Dark Ace, Storm Hawks, Angst, Drama, Comedy, Slash

Pairings (main): Stork x Piper, Aerrow x Piper, Aerrow x Dark Ace

Rating: (eventually) M

Disclaimer:My twisted mind belongs to me, me, me, as well as twelve kinds of mental disorders. Characters and the world of Atmos © Nerd Corps

A/N: I ran out of cookies. And keep in mind, that English is not my first language, so from the very beginning I'd like to apologize for any possible spelling/grammar mistakes.

Chapter I: Thinking

Well, here it is. The Big Day. Just like that. Simply like that. Pretty ordinary. Pretty normal. Dull? Maybe. Uninteresting? Probably.

So why does it fell like he's been waiting for it for the last 2 years, 7 months and 87433 minutes? Oh, make it 87434.

Waiting for it.. The mysterious "it", the unpredictable "it", unclear, hazy, strange "it". Like a feeling that someone is behind you, but when you turn around, there's nothing but empty space. Song that has a melody, but you can't remember the words, no matter how hard you try. So… what exactly has he been waiting for?

Stork sighted heavily then continued to walk aimlessly in a circle. This day. The Big Day. Her eighteen birthday.

And he still didn't have a present.

He tapped his chin with his dark nail, not even thinking about it, deep in thoughts of what the hell could have gone wrong one year ago. Oh, and two years ago. Hm, to tell the whole truth, three years ago as well. Something.. something must have been terribly bad. But what exactly? Stork couldn't put a finger on it and it annoyed him like not being able to repair a mechanism. Just what was WRONG with his presents? He put his whole heart into them! But no, seriously – he truly did.

Three years ago he gave her deluxe edition of AntiToxinianDesert'sRashWhichEventually LeadsToTurningIntoASpaceSquirell Pills. (He owned one box himself and damn, he was proud of it!)

Two years ago, when he grew to like here a bit more, he proudly presented Helmet of Ultimate Defense Against Mind Eating, Brain Sucking Giant Caterpillars – and it took him over six months to locate it! (He almost kept it, such a great item that was.)

Last year, when Stork realized – and I didn't come without a shock – that she became his dearest friend, he found himself determined to give her something very, very special. He almost cried when he decided to part with Bracelet of Protection Against Vampire Bats but after three hours of sitting silently in a corner, he figured out he can do it. He can bear the loss (and he could bet, that just five seconds after giving the bracelet away all of the vampire bats in the world will gather around him and suck the last drop of blood from his body, twisting in agony, but well, he was in a heroic mood – he could take it! Um, but he preferred the bats to be very small. Or that all of the bats died from mysterious sickness, leaving only one. Very small one.). He can totally bear the loss – if it was for her.

He felt like such a useless, dumbest fool, when – after a few months - he realized she wore his bracelet just once – the day he gave it to her. And even that was probably only because he was watching her with waiting, eager eyes and a somehow proud look on his face.

But then it hit him. It was so very obvious, that Stork was amazed he didn't see it from the start. She totally didn't like what he gave her. What he thought would be the perfect gift, what he treasured so much.. turned out to be merely an object of disgust for the girl. It was a terrible feeling, that took almost all of what little confidence he still had. What was wrong? What was so wrong with him? Idiot. He couldn't even come with a proper present for his friend. Best friend. And God knows he didn't spend even half of the time thinking about what to give the others for birthdays – sure, he wanted them to be happy. Sure he did. But his priority washer happiness. And he totally failed.

"What to do? What to do?" He muttered to himself over and over again, while still walking aimlessly, his footsteps the only sound in his cabin apart from the hushed noise the machines were making. He must have missed something.. some details of great importance… maybe… maybe…

And then he had it. He stopped and clapped his hands. That's it! The gifts must have been simply not suitable for a girl. Since he didn't really have buddies, that were females, he automatically gave her presents that would be okay for a boy. For a teenaged, happy-go-lucky boy, that has only fun and adventures in his immature mind – but not for a girl. Girls, no matter, how good they are in jobs that were originally thought to be men's, no matter, how strong, fearless and great in battles – they still needed girlie things once in a while. Until now Stork never believed, that every female – even the strong, lone wolf types – longs to be treated like a lady from time to time.

"Like she is the most beautiful, treasured thing in the whole wide world" – the line appeared suddenly in his head, causing him to frown a little. Must have been something from a crappy fairytale that he listened to when he was still just a little Merb. He shook his head, trying to chase away those somehow disturbing words. But maybe… maybe it really was the solution for his problems? If he could make her happy… If he could make her smile, Stork was willing to try.

But what exactly should he do? To tell the truth, he had no ideas, since his level of knowledge of how to treat a girl like a.. princess (he frowned again and hugged himself tightly) was just below the level of his excitement of meeting a tree-headed, bone crushing, heart eating green monster from swamps. That means – Absolute Zero. If we don't want to get to the minus scale, that is.

He sighted again. Looks like he has no choice. Really, really no choice. The feared, horrifying, paralyzing, stopping the blood in the veins thing has finally came to him. Stork closed his eyes and put a hand to his forehead. Here we go.

He walked out of the cabin and headed to the direction, where the party preparations were taking place. Since they could not surprise her with a normal "surprise party" anymore, they decided to go along with Finn's idea to act normally the whole day, as if they have really forgotten about her birthday, then wake her up just before midnight and start the celebration. Stork smirked to himself – he was damn sure Finn thought of it just because he wanted to have a party going until the sun rises up.

They couldn't do much right now, but preparing food and small decorations which can be hidden sounded like a good plan. And since she was out with Aerrow now, gathering information…

"Hi, Stork" He almost bumped into violet-haired girl, with plate of sweets in her hand.

"Oh, why, hello… Starling." So his grim fate found him sooner that he could have imagined. Great. Absolutely wonderful. And he didn't even have the time to make mental preparations! It' bond to be an epic fail. "Um… Starling.." Breathe, Stork. Breathe.

"Yeah?" She asked not really looking at him, starring puzzled at one of the cookies.

"Well… I was just wondering…" Stork put all of his will to stop his voice from falling to a whisper.

"Yeah?" Starling repeated not very intelligent, grabbing the cookie and lifting it closer to her eyes.

"Hmh… How do you satisfy a girl?"

Everything went silent, except for the sound the cookie made when it hit the floor.

The girl turned to Stork, wide-eyed with her mouth slightly opened.


Stork bit his lip and looked around, confused. Did he say something wrong?

More silence.

She looked like she had seen the Death itself. No, wait. Something much worse than the Death. The Worse, Uglier Death's Sister. Or Brother. Gender can become a confusing thing, when you're dealing with paranormals.

Stork clenched his fists, feeling more uncomfortable with every passing second. He just asked a simple, normal question, didn't he…? And then he thought about it once again. The realization hit him like a brick. Make it a whole bag of bricks. Really big bag.

Smooth, Stork. Real smooth.

"It'snot what it sounded like!" He slid his hand through his face. "It's just that…"

"Aww, man!" Finn appeared suddenly behind Strok's back, which made the Merb to jump a little. "You totally dropped the cookie! Is it laying on the floor for more than five minutes? Quick, quick, it's important!" He sounded like his whole future was based on the answer.

"No.. no, maybe just a minute or two" Starling's voice was quiet and flat. She blinked several times, as she has been awoken from a coma.

"Yesir!" The blond exclaimed happily and bend over to grab the cookie. "One of the greatest rules of the universe says, that you can eat food from the floor, if it's not there for more than five minutes" He waved his finger in front of Stork's face. "Now how cool is that?" He asked the girl and, not waiting for an answer, headed toward Junko with loud Dude, guess what I got!

Starling and Stork both fallowed him with their eyes, then looked at each other. The Merb smiled awkwardly and rose his shoulders a bit, hoping his pose is presenting I Know, That You Surely Think I Was Asking About How To Get Laid, But In Fact I Had A Completely Different Thing In Mind And I Can Assure You It Was About Being A Gentleman And Providing Happiness For A Certain Young Lady.

Instead of this, he just said or rather mumbled Uh.. huh and simply waited for Starling's reaction.

She finally smiled, a big, bright grin, which brought sparkles to her eyes.

"So, it's about Piper's birthday, right?"

Piper. Stork blinked rapidly as if he didn't hear that name in a long, long time. He realized, that even if she was constantly on his mind for the last few days, he… he just tends to not think about her by… by a name. Strange.

"Well yes, yes it is" He sighted again, as if he had been defeated. "I figured out I can't give her a proper present without a help from other female." He smiled again, hoping he didn't sound like a weirdo.

"But you managed to do it by yourself for the last.. two? Three years?" She looked questionably at him, raising her eyebrows.

"True. True - and not true, 'cause… well, 'cause she didn't like them." Hey, it's hard – a sudden thought struck him and caught off guard. It's actually hard to say it out loud: She. Didn't. Like. Them.

Starling saw miserable expression coming to Stork's features. "You can't be sure of that!" She said encouragingly to cheer him up but as that didn't work, she added quickly: "But I can help you, so that this year your present will be the best!"

Stork lifted his head, something like hope visible for a second in his eyes – and then he was once more like a puppy lost in the rain. Green, depressed and paranoid puppy – but still a puppy.

"Oh, come on, I'm deadly serious!" She patted him on the shoulder and showed direction with her chin. "We have some time until they're back, so let's go there and think something up, huh?"

"Um, but are you really sure we can leave those two…"

"It'll be okay. Trust me." Starling was also not so sure about Finn's and Junko's work, especially them working together, but somehow she believed that the Wallop will do his best to control blond's actions – in the end, it was Piper's 18th birthday, a Big Thing. "Come on. The sooner we start, the better!"

After a few hours Stork actually let himself believe, that this whole thing is going to work. Starling's ideas were simple and kind of cliché – he was ashamed that he didn't think about them himself – but he really, really liked them. They were so full of.. princessness yet without overdoing the main thought itself.

The first present will be a late night dinner under the stars (he had the urge to slap his forehead everytime he thought about how… how feminine it sounded) – or rather under the glass shield that is below the stars, but let's not ruin the moment with the ordinary stuff – with candles and all that pretty, glittering things, of which he had no idea (Starling promised to get them for him). Then Stork – finally gaining a little confidence - thought that if something is a bit unrealistic, it should be unrealistic to the extreme – he decided to make small changes to the hologram device, so that it would show a rain of petals at some point of the dinner. He also asked Starling to convince Junko to the idea of being old-fashioned waiter, which he accepted with a great excitement, just like Stork suspected. Finn volunteered – with a somehow mischievous grin – to play violin in the corner. He said he always wanted to use the instrument he kept as a memory of his final victory over a certain lady and now's a perfect occasion. The Merb decided it's a great idea. Idea of Finn being in the corner with a violin, that is. Stork told him that under any circumstances can he really play and – not listening to blond's complains – prepared background music with beautiful violin tunes (with urge to slap himself once more, but oh well – it was for her sake).

The second present is going to be a small yet beautiful crystal framed with silver.

I thought of giving it myself, but I think it will mean more to you,hm? Starling winked, while handing it to him, not wanting to hear his weak protests. I have something else anyway, so just don't worry, okay?

So here he was – sitting with the crystal, trying to change his colour a little, so it would match Piper even better. Starling suggested it to him, telling she would do that herself if she could.

After some time of really intense work, Stork was almost positive he reached the perfect shade - but since he wanted to be totally certain, he decided to consult Starling once again. She was so good at this girlie stuff it was quite amazing – who could have thought! He rose up and headed to the direction where the girl should have been. Stork was examining the crystal – which was glowing a little from the inside - from different angles as he was walking in the semi darkness of the corridor, not bothering with the light, since he knew all of the Condor's area by heart. Just as he was about to turn the corner, he heard a voice that made him froze in place.

Piper's voice.

His feeling of happiness was instantly overwhelmed by a panic, that the girl could see her present before it's finished. Stork looked around terrified, quickly deciding to go back to his workplace. He made a few steps, but his legs were shaking so badly, that the metal part of his suit clashed against the wall, making a little noise.

"Did you hear something?"

"Piper, don't change the subject" Aerrow's voice.

Tired, desperate voice.

Stork held his breath, while trying his best to calm down. He didn't want to stay and overhear the conversation but he was also afraid of moving and making even more sound. Either way – he was totally doomed. He should have been expecting things to go bad at one point or another, shouldn't he?

"I'm not" The girl's voice was hushed. "You know very well that I want to get to a conclusion… just like you." She sounded troubled, yet from her tone Stork felt that she smiled and it somehow made him alert.

"Yeah" Aerrow chuckled, winding up a little. "I know that."

There was silence for a couple of seconds, but for Stork it could be as well minutes, hours – he couldn't tell the difference nor did he care.

He was suddenly extremely tensed up, with eyes wide opened, starring into the semi darkness surrounding him. His cold hands were touching the wall, dry lips inhaling the air very, very slowly. He shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be here.

"Look, Piper" Aerrow broke the silence, his voice tender, caring. "I… I'm fully aware that our situations are different. Totally different and maybe… well, maybe we're rushing things…"

"Aerrow" Her voice was calm and steady, without a hint of hesitation. "I don't really think they are that different. I… though I can't imagine what you went through, even if my own life isn't exactly a bed of roses".

Stork close his eyes and bit his lip. Something is obviously wrong. He must stop listening. Stop in that very moment or it will be too late. For what? Doesn't matter. He just knew it would be.

"And just how long are we supposed to wait?" She smiled. Again.

"If you really think so." And he smiled back. He definitely smiled back.

"Yeah" It was barely a whisper, yet sounded like the final line in their conversation.

At least it sounded that to Stork, who rose his hand to cover his mouth. Idiot, they were just talking, you're getting so worked up over that? Their best friends, correct? Why shouldn't they be taking? In a remote lane of the ship, with lights off, voices down. Still, why shouldn't they?

Best friends. He was surprised that this thought alone made something deep inside of him ache. Best friends. Right. Stork could consider Piper as his best friend. But, oh – stupid him, forgetting about obvious facts – she didn't have to think the same way. She didn't need him. She had Aerrow.

Stork wasn't blind, he had seen the special bond they shared – seen it many, many times. The way they were looking at each other when they thought no one was watching; the way she was touching his shoulder to conform him; him squeezing her hand; long talks they had; long flights they took.

All of the damn, little things coming to his head over and over, one after another, spinning, making a mix of total disbelief over how dense he had been until now – and the pain. The pain crawling slowly under his skin, taking more and more of him with every memory, rising in his head. It surprised Stork the most. Why? There is no reason it should hurt… hurt so bad. Then… why?

He clenched his hands, digging nails into skin. He should go. He should go now, when there is still a chance of getting away unnoticed. Right. He'll go right away.

But he didn't.

Instead, not even thinking about it – like he was a puppet, moved by someone else's will – Stork moved an inch towards the end of the wall. Another inch. And another.

He shouldn't stay here. He really shouldn't.

Another inch.

His heart was beating in his chest so loudly that he wouldn't be surprised if the others would hear it and mistake it for someone very, very big knocking on the door with a great desperation.

Another inch.

Why, why does it hurt so bad?

And another.

He must have overlooked something extremely important, yet totally obvious, just like it had been with the present. Think, Stork. Think. What's the matter?

First thing that came to his confused mind was her smile. Genuine, beautiful smile, that – oh, what a cliché – lit up every room she came into. But it was truth. Every damn room.

And another.

Her eyes, big and bright. Her skin, dark and smooth. Hair, that looked like a river, flowing to her shoulders. Slender body and long fingers that she used to work with the crystals.

He was almost at the corner.

Her personality, how outgoing and open she was. So intelligent, someone you can talk to about everything. The way she instantly knew when someone was down and how she wanted to cheer them up. How strong, yet delicate she could be. Her sense of humor.

Stork looked carefully, very carefully over the corner.

Piper's arms around Aerrow's back.

Her happy face, her sad face.

His hands caressing her neck.

The way she talked, the way she didn't say a word.

Other hand delicately placed on her waist.

Everything. Everything about her.

Her closed eyes.

He was so stupid. So very, very stupid.

His closed eyes.

Stork finally realized, gazing at her peaceful face.

He loved Piper.

And she was kissing Aerrow.

Chapter I - END