I hesitated outside of Kurz's door, not because I was afraid to go in but because I could already hear his smart ass remarks.

Why, hello Sergeant Major. I always knew you would come to me in the night with a question burning in your eyes...

Oddly enough, I really did have a question this time, and this question needed an answer before I could end my stupid-long shift and finally get some sleep. Unfortunately for Kurz's perverted imagination, the question was pedestrian at best. I was sorely tempted to answer it for him and call it a night. I couldn't because Tessa's orders had been specific on the issue.

Please confirm with everyone in person...

The damn clever girl knew I would shirk, given the chance.

I pounded on Kurz's door, waited a couple seconds, and then pounded again. I knew he was inside. I had already checked the hanger, the mess hall, the training room, and just about everywhere else on the Tuatha De Danaan. Let me say it right now: submarines aren't big places. It's not like anyone can go missing at a hundred meters underwater unless Mardukas finally followed through on his threat to launch Kurz out of a torpedo bay, and if that had been the case, I would have heard about it. Mardukas promised me a front row view if that spectacle ever came to fruition.

I knocked for a third time on Kurz's door before opening it. Kurz and Sousuke shared the room, but Sousuke spent more of his time in Tokyo than on ship these days. I didn't have to worry about spooking any of the other guys by barging in. Either the room was empty because Kurz had figured out how to breathe underwater or the bastard was ignoring me.

I poked my head inside to discover that neither was the case. Kurz was there alright, but he hadn't heard me banging on his door at all. He sat on the floor with his back against his bunk, a guitar in his lap, and a notebook in front of him. Kurz had named his guitar Marie, and he could play a good song when the mood struck him. On the sub, we weren't allowed to make much noise, so Kurz used one of those mini-amps and a good pair of headphones when he wanted to plug in and play.

The guy was so wholly absorbed in his music that he didn't even sense my approach. The way his eyes bugged out when I flicked his elbow made me laugh.

"Hey. Sorry," he said as he pulled down his earphones. "I didn't hear you."

I flopped on his bunk. It had been a long, trying day, and his pillow was soft. "Dumb ass. Like I hadn't noticed."

His blue eyes got that sexy smirk that made some girls swoon and me gag. "Mmmmm, you're in my bed," he murmured.

I shoved his head away. "Get bent. I'm on official business. I had to spend an hour tracking down your sorry ass."

Kurz scribbled some musical notation that looked like gibberish to me on his notebook before reaching down and clicking off his amp. "Okay, Sis. What's up?"

"Bel wants to know your plans for the big holiday."

"So soon? It's only September," Kurz frowned.

"Yeah, well, it's the TDD-1's turn for the much-desired Big Winter Break this year. The higher-ups want everyone's plans nailed down in advance. You know how travel sucks over Christmas. Someone needs to have a back-up plan to get our asses back to base in case holy hell breaks loose," I explained from my comfy position lying stomach-down on the bunk. Kurz's pillow smelled like aftershave.

Kurz strummed a few chords a little absently. I pulled my hand out from under the pillow and poked him between the shoulder blades. "Earth to Weber. You going to do something during our two weeks' leave or what?"

"Naw. I think I'm going to hang out on base. I heard those chicks from R&D are easy, and they never take a vacation." He gave me that big, flashy smile that told me that he was full of shit.

"C'mon, that's lame!" I countered. "I can't remember the last time we were off for the holidays. You don't have some long lost relative to visit?"

"Nope. Not a one," Kurz fake-grinned back at me. I must have given him a sympathetic look because his face fell. He used putting the guitar back in its hard shell case as an excuse to look away.

I knew his parents were dead, but Kurz had this thing with some sick girl. I'd heard rumors and assumed that he would use the rare reprieve from duty to go visit her, but from the way Kurz was acting, I got the feeling that the romance or whatever was over. Maybe she had finally kicked the bucket. It would certainly explain why I'd seen Kurz on the treadmill, running full speed at the wall, every time I went to the training room in the past month.

I pushed myself up and swung my legs down on the floor, so I could sit up and give Kurz my full attention. Yeah, he drives me crazy, but he's a good friend. Something was up with him, and I felt bad for missing it before now.

"Me and a bunch of the guys are doing the annual Bender in Bangkok. You wanna come with us?" I offered. Unlike Kurz, I had a different problem with leave- too many relatives to see. I usually solved the problem by putting them off for another year and going on vacation with the wild boys instead.

Kurz snorted. "Nothing says Christmas like a subtropical city full of hookers."

I laughed. "You were hoping for snow?"

"Yeah," Kurz agreed to my surprise. "You grew up in New York. Don't you miss the snow and the lights and all that stuff?"

"The bad carols they play in all the stores. The ball-busting cold. The awkward family functions. No, can't say that I do," I said.

"Grinch," Kurz snarked back. "You want to evict some orphans for Advent kicks?"

I tapped Kurz in the knee with the steel-enforced toe of my boot in a mockery of a real kick. "Jerk. If you're so into dreaming of a white Christmas, why don't you go find one instead of hanging out on base like a loser? Last time it snowed on Merida Island was during the Ice Age."

Kurz closed up his notes and stood up to put it back into the line of books on the small, make-shift shelf over his headboard. "You got a point, but tell me this, sweetheart. What's more depressing than spending Christmas alone?"

I sighed. "Okay. You got me. How about paying Sousuke and Kaname a visit?"

"Um, Sis? You know that Christmas Eve is like a big, romantic thing in Japan, right? And it's Kaname's birthday. I'm not crashing their date night."

"Damn, I forgot all about that," I admitted.

Kurz sat down besides me on the bunk and gave me a hopeful look. "I don't suppose that I could talk you into going somewhere with me for the holidays."

A few months before, I would have laughed in Kurz's face or punched him in the ear for daring to suggest such a thing, but there was the not-small matter of my 26th birthday to consider. I don't know what got into me, but I took that birthday hard because it felt like 30 was right around the corner. I mean, there's only so long you can pretend that you are going to stay young and stupid forever. If I want to get really honest with myself, the pictures that arrived with the birthday greetings from my little sister probably didn't help matters either. She sent shots of her kids: my six-month old niece and two-year-old nephew. They were so cute, and I had never even met them. It's not that I want kids, but it got to me that I was still playing war with a bunch of sweaty guys while the world keep going and I got older.

Long story short, I got way too drunk on rot-gut vodka the next time we got a chance to cut loose. When I get really and truly wasted, I tend to get weepy or overly friendly. I don't remember it, but I've been told that I went the way of the latter that night and gave the wrong signals to some Skinhead types. Kurz had to do a little rescuing before I got felt up or in a fight or worse. Bel told me during the nasty chewing out that I got the next day all about how Kurz had taken full responsibility for my fall-down-drunk self. He did an excellent job of watching over me, too. Got me out safe. Got a hotel room. Got me cleaned up and into bed (on my side, so I wouldn't puke in the night and die an ignoble death drowning in my own vomit). All I remember is throwing up on his boots outside that nasty little bar and waking up with a hell of hangover and Kurz asleep in a chair by the door.

Sufficient to say, I owed Kurz. Instead of laughing him off, I gave his crazy plan some thought.

"So you want to go someplace with snow?" I asked.

"Sort of. We got two weeks, so I figured we could find someplace quiet and safe. Nothing shady, so we wouldn't need to worry about stumbling into any trouble. I was thinking about going to the mountains to ski for part of it," he elaborated. "Hot chocolate and fireplaces and twinkle lights on trees. That sort of place."

"It could be fun to see how the other half lives," I admitted. It had been a really long time since I'd been anywhere like what Kurz was describing. There was only one real problem. "Weber, wouldn't it look weird as hell if we went off together alone? I mean, it sounds a little romantic."

Kurz waggled his eyebrows at me. "Afraid you'll finally give in to my charms?"

I gave him a hard shove off the bunk. "Thanks for reminding me why your idea sucks donkey balls."

Kurz chuckled and turned back to me on his knees with his hands balled up under his chin. He gave me those damn puppy-dog eyes. "Please, Melissa? I'll be on my best behavior, I swear."

I thought about my birthday. Kurz didn't try anything when I was drunk out of my mind, and I did owe him. Besides, Bangkok was overdone. Last time I was there, I saw a Japanese businessman buy a ten-year-old boy for the night. It really soured me on the whole city.

"Tell anyone about this, and your ass is grass," I threatened.

Kurz whooped. The smile on his face was genuine, and he looked so honestly happy that I laughed.

"Okay, loser. We need a place for the report that I owe Bel by morning. Where did you have in mind?"

Kurz snagged an atlas from his little bookshelf and spread it open on the bunk. "Okay," he started with the sheer glee of a schoolboy on the first day of summer vacation. "Here's what I was thinking..."

We poured over that damn atlas for nearly two hours. The requirements seemed simple enough. Snow. Celebrates Christmas. Near mountains. Safe. The problem was that both of us carrry around bad memories from too many different countries. Kurz recommended Russia, but I can't take that place after all those wicked fire fights. I wanted Switzerland, but Kurz vetoed any place were people spoke German because it would make him miss his mom. If he hadn't said it so sadly, I would have mocked the hell out of him for it, but what can I say? I'm not a total bitch, even when it comes to Kurz.

"What about here?" Kurz tried and pointed at the map.

I was sprawled out on his bunk again and getting too tired to argue. "Kurz, I said no USA. My family would kill me if they knew that I got back in that States and didn't see them."

"Yeah, but they are all East Coast. This is Oregon. Hell, London would be closer," Kurz reasoned.

I checked out the dot on the map. "Ashland?"

"A guy I worked with back in Basic came from there. He said it's really home-town kind of place."

"I dunno," I said. It seemed small. I would need a place with lots of good bars if I was going to hang out with Kurz for two whole weeks.

"Tell you what, sleepy girl. You tell me how much you are willing to spend, and I'll make it happen. All the annoying details that you hate to plan. I'll take care of it. Trip to remember. All you have to do is say yes," Kurz bargained.

"And you promise not to do anything sick like steal my bras or spy on me in the shower?" I asked.

"I'm offended that you think so little of me."

"Yeah, yeah. I know that you're the one who stole my black thong, so don't play innocent with me, ya creep."

"I swear that wasn't me," Kurz said and tried to look offended.

"Whatever. Just behave, and it's a deal," I yawned. Although Kurz had stolen the panties, I knew that he sold them to one of the guys in engineering for a hefty finder's fee. Tessa had canned the guy soon after, and I had made Kurz buy my drinks for, like, the last six times we had gone out. We were about fair by now.

"Deal," Kurz said.

I recorded the right info on the chart, turned it in the next morning, and didn't think much about the trip until two months later when Kurz handed me a stack of mail order magazines over coffee in the break room. We had been running pretty steady on missions, and everyone on the team had to cover a little more than normal with Sousuke on part-time status. The only thing I had done for the trip was start a countdown on my calendar because all the weeks underwater were making me twitchy.

"I don't know what you like," he said simply.

I flipped open the catalog on the top of the stack and noted where Kurz had dog-eared the pages featuring cute ski jackets or fancy woolen pea coats. The models looked pretty as hell with matching hats and scarfs and white smiles brighter than the fake snow drifts in the background of the staged shots.

"I don't need a coat," I said. "We all have standard-issue parkas, remember?"

"Those things?" Kurz scoffed and gave me a disapproving look. "Babe, the parkas are ugly as fresh shit."

"And who am I trying to impress?" I huffed. I pointed out the numbers below the ski jackets. "Have you seen the prices on these things? It's ridiculous."

"Trust me. You'll feel better in a civilian coat once we get there, and it's my treat." Kurz grinned sheepishly. "Besides, I don't know what else to get you for Christmas."

"No," I said firmly. "And speaking of money, I don't remember giving you my budget."

Kurz put on his best charming face, which I'll admit works on me from time to time. He wasn't put on the cover of TAG magazine because he is hard to look at, and Kurz knows how to turn it up. The problem for Kurz is that I've seen him use that face on every thing in a skirt from personal admins on base to random chicks on the street to Tessa. In the two years he has reported to my team, I have had the chance to build up a bit of immunity, so when I see the Weber Charm coming, I brace myself for the bullshit.

"Oh that. Well, I was thinking that you're being really good to keep me company and all. It wasn't your idea, so I was thinking this one could be on me," he said with all his charm turned up to eleven.

I flipped him off and pushed back from the tiny table.

True to his never-say-die nature, Kurz blasted me with another lady killer grin. "C'mon. It's a sweet deal for you, and I would like you to be my guest."

I didn't answer with words; I just stomped off to my next meeting before he could try to feed me another one of his bogus lines. As I expected, Kurz was waiting for me outside the door when the meeting let out two hours later, but I was still fuming.

"Hey," he tried to sound nonchalant as he fell into step beside me.

"No deal," I said curtly.

His jaw fell. "What?"

"I said no!" I nearly shouted, and some of the guys perked up and started taking an interest in our conversation. I rolled my eyes. Just what I needed. Another juicy tidbit for the rumor mill. Honestly, people get so nosy on submarines.

"I'm not approving another alteration to your M-9's stabilization struts," I said too loudly on purpose. "You want to take this higher up, go for it."

Kurz picked up on my cue and played along. "Fine by me, sister. Lead the way."

I did, and we ended up back at his room because it was one of the few places that we didn't run the risk of being overheard. As soon as the door closed, I turned on him.

"I'm damn sure not going to play the part of your little woman in some Santa-themed porno!" I hissed.

Kurz's eyes flashed with anger. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"I agreed to go because we're friends, asshole. Friends spot each other beers, not two-week holidays!"

"Are you hitting the bitch-crack again? Check back into rehab, babe. I was trying to be nice," Kurz complained.

"Screw your nice," I yelled. "I trust your nice like I'd trust a Thai pimp with my grandma."

"Fuck you," Kurz yelled back. "When have I ever taken advantage of you, huh? When?"

"Never. Because I don't give you the chance!"

Kurz marched over to the door and yanked it open. He face had gone all red, and it really showed on him because he is so fair-skinned. "Get out."

I pushed out a long breath and sat down on his bunk instead. He got me rattled with the 'be my guest' thing, but it wasn't worth risking a friendship. I like to finish fights, not run away from them.

"Okay, you're right. I'm probably taking this too far. I'm sorry, okay?" I started.

"I am not trying to buy you. How scummy do you think I am?" Kurz shook his head but closed the door again.

"You've done some pretty sleazy things," I maintained.

"You remember when you tried to do 26 shots for your 26th birthday and I had to stomp some punk in the face to keep him from sticking his hands down your pants?" Kurz asked suddenly.

"Honestly, I don't," I replied hotly. "Bel told me all about how I fucked up the next day though, so I really don't think I need another lecture from you."

"You came on to me that night," Kurz said.

"Liar," I shot back.

"You said that you always liked the way I looked in an AS suit," Kurz continued.

"Shit," I said under my breath. In the rare moment I found Kurz attractive was when he was in one of those skin-molding suits, but I had never told that to anyone EVER.

"You tried to get me into bed. Begged for it. If I was half the prick that seem to think that I am, I would have taken advantage of you back then, and I wouldn't need to buy my way into your pants now, as you seem to think I'm low enough to try to do," Kurz finished.

I took a moment to process Kurz's story, and as much as I hate being wrong, I'm not too stubborn to admit when I have made a mistake. It stood to reason that if I got wasted enough to hit on some punk-ass losers in a dive bar then I would probably be drunk enough to make a pass at Kurz. Plus, he had me nailed about the AS suit thing.

"Okay," I said. "I'm the jerk here. Can you please just let me pay my way and be done with it? I mean, the fact that we're having this fight is proof that I need a break, right?"

"Look, if you're not comfortable going with me then we can call it off," Kurz offered.

"Naw, I'm just being paranoid," I shrugged. "Plus, it sounds like I should probably keep you around to watch out for me. I can't believe I got that drunk."

"You were pretty blasted. I didn't want to bring it up before, but..." Kurz trailed off and ran a hand through his hair. "You don't owe me anything. I'm in a weird place right now, and I'm asking a lot of you."

"I said I would go, idiot. I just want to pay for myself," I explained.

"I know, and that was the idea. But I've been working on a plan, and what I want to do isn't cheap," Kurz said. He reached under his bunk and pulled out a file folder filled with brochures and print outs from websites. "I thought it would be easier to just pay for it all myself than ask you to go dutch on my big ideas."

"Will you let me be the judge of that? Geez, you act like I get lots of chances to spend my hard-earned combat pay," I said and reached for the file. "Now show me the holly-jolly Christmas to remember."

I know that as a female AS pilot that I should be less prone to stereotypes than most, but I really didn't expect a guy, let alone Kurz, to put so much effort into researching a simple vacation. He had all of this stuff: rankings of hotels from travel companies, maps, car rental coupons, you name it. In the end, the price was higher than I expected, but looking over all of the details got me excited about the trip. Suddenly, it wasn't just a break from the ordinary. I had the chance to play around in an honest-to-God winter wonderland.

"So what do you think?" Kurz asked when he handed over the spreadsheet with cost breakdown.

"I'm sold. Let's do this," I said.

"Yes! Can I buy you a coat as a present? Let's be honest. It's about the least romantic thing I could buy for you. Say no and I replace those undies you claim that I stole and throw in a lacy top to match."

"Fine," I sighed. "What can I get for you? I need an idea."

Kurz winked at me. "I like surprises."

The worst part of the trip to Ashland was the endless plane rides. The TDD-1 dropped us off in Guam. From there, Kurz and I caught a flight to Honolulu. After that we took another plane to Los Angeles, suffered a three-hour lay-over, and finally flew into Medford, Oregon. We had agreed not to splurge on first class tickets, so sleeping was not really an option. I caught only a few hours resting on Kurz's shoulder and woke up with a nasty crick in my neck. There was a pay-by-the-minute chair massage service in LAX that seriously saved my good spirits.

I always get antsy on long flights. I'm not much of a reader, and most magazines are so vapid that I want to castrate the writers to keep them out of the gene pool. The airlines showed holiday movies along with the expected Hollywood cast-offs during the flights, so that killed some time. Kurz packed a portable DVD-player and a headset splitter, and we watched some old Westerns in the downtime and during the lay-overs. I tried my hand at sudoku, but it's not my bag either. My thing is more along the lines of drinking, and the best part of the trip was Kurz's amazing ability to charm the air hostesses. Good looks are a universal language, apparently. We got tons of free cocktails, and the first class food options. Of course, I wouldn't have minded the normal food. Airline meals are nothing to complain about when you are accustomed to MREs.

By the time we touched down in Medford, we had been on the move for almost a full day, and I was bone-tired.

"I sincerely hope that you're driving," I told Kurz as we stood around waiting for the rental car. We had opted for a four-wheel drive SUV in case of inclement weather.

"You're the one who learned to drive in the States," he reasoned.

I pulled my new coat's collar up to my ears. We were still inside, but the sliding doors to the parking loop kept opening and letting in freezing gusts of winter air. "Fine, but if you get us lost, I'm leaving you by the side of the road."

"Umm, sure," Kurz mumbled. He drooped down against the high counter of the rental place. "I can't wait for a real bed."

I nodded and accepted the keys proffered by the girl behind the counter.

"It's parked in space B4," she said with a cheery smile. "Have fun, you two!"

"Thanks," I grumbled and flipped up my hood in preparation to brave the cold outside. The coat had a thick liner and a faux fur collar, and I rather liked it. Kurz had done well. I enjoyed it so much that I ordered a couple more cold weather clothes and had them shipped directly to the hotel. My duffel bag was rather light as a result, but Kurz looked like he had packed the world. On top of it, he insisted on bringing his guitar.

"Why?" I had argued with him back on the sub. "It's just going to break when you check it."

"It's my vacation. I'll do what I want," he sniffed, so I let it drop.

The wind stung my eyes as I ducked out of the airport building and looked up to follow the signs to the rental car parking lot. Luckily, it wasn't a far walk.

"Hey, Kurz, did you notice?"

"Notice what?"

"That it's cold as fuck, but there's no snow," I said.

"Give it time," he replied, none too worried.

The lack of snow really got to me. I had pictured big, fluffy drifts of powder-white snow everywhere. I was all geared up for icicles and sleigh rides and salted sidewalks. Instead, I got a bright blue dome of sky, a steely wind, and fields of brown grass. Beyond my disappointment, I was too tired to register much else except that it wasn't a long drive to Ashland from Medford, that the hotel looked nice, and that the down pillows were very, very soft and warm. I peeled off my traveling clothes and fell asleep in my cotton panties and tank top.

I woke up with a dry mouth in the black heart of night. Plane travel has a way of drying me out, so I rolled out of bed and felt my way to the bathroom in the dark. I found the light switch after a bit of groping and pulled the door to the bathroom part way closed for Kurz's sake. I could hear his even breathing as he slept. Five of those tiny hotel glasses of cold tap water restored me a bit. I put on one of the terry cloth bathrooms that the hotel provided to combat the cold and dug out my toiletry kit from my bag to brush my teeth.

I didn't need to look at the clock to know that it was fuck-all early. I had fallen asleep just after 6 p.m. local time, and I'm too old to stay down for more than ten hours at a time. I thought about watching some TV, but it seemed mean to disturb Kurz. He was just out of his teens and could still hibernate on command. He had sprawled out on his side of the king-sized bed with a pillow tucked under one arm like a teddy bear. Really, it was so cute that I could have taken a picture.

I know it would seem odd to people that we got a room with one bed instead of two, but we opted for a mini-suite with a full couch and big TV area instead of paying for a room with a set of double beds. I mean, I was already spending two weeks with the guy, so whether or not we shared a bed really didn't make much of a difference to me. If it got too weird, I figured that I would make Kurz sleep on the couch.

I dragged my duffel into the bathroom and changed into street clothes. The jeans and sweater looked weird with my combat boots, and then I remembered that I ordered snow boots from some preppy catalog. The front desk had agreed to hold my packages for me, so I decided to have an early Christmas all of my own. I grabbed my coat because it had my wallet- I had picked up some American dollars on our lay-over in Hawaii- and dumped out the contents of my duffel by the couch before heading downstairs.

The lobby of the Ashland Springs Hotel looked someone ripped it from the pages of a history book on the Gilded Age of the 1920's. The walls and furniture exude the honey-warm grandeur of wealth topped off with massive dangling light fixtures that diffused a yellow glow from the marble floors to the soaring, cathedral ceiling.

At just past 4 am, only one attendant behind the front desk populated the lobby, and she gave me a smile as warm as the light from the chandlers.

"You're an early riser," she said.

I walked up and rested my elbows on the desk. "Not where I'm from."

"Is that so?" she chuckled. The name on her tag read Dolores, and she was pretty in that twice-divorced-survivor sort of way. "Well, I'm afraid that there isn't much to do so early on Wednesday. The coffee shop down the street doesn't open until 6 am."

"That's okay." I waved a dismissive hand. "I just came by to pick up come packages that I had sent here."

She moved to the computer and typed in a few keystrokes. "Name?"

"Mao. Melissa."

"Hmmm," she fretted as she clicked through the system. "Gimme a minute to get it from the back, okay sweetie?"

I guess that I had ordered more than I thought because Dolores rolled out this impressive stack of boxes on one of those fancy hotel luggage carts. She grinned at my shocked expression.

"You got a rich boyfriend or something?" Dolores teased.

"Hell no! A girl's gotta do for herself!" I said.

Dolores tapped the brand name on what I sincerely hoped was the box that had my snow boots. "You got my kind of taste, girl."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I dead-panned and pointed to my scuffed combat boots.

Dolores laughed. "You smoke?" she asked suddenly.

"All the time."

"Tell you what. You keep me company until something opens up in this town, and I'll spot you smokes and fashion advice. What do you say?"

By the time 6 am rolled around, Dolores had made me try on all of my new clothes, helped me put them into outfits, and jotted down the names of several stores in Ashland that I "had to buy" from. She smoked these terrible, thin menthol cigarettes, but she was generous with them. I tried to tip her for helping me with the boxes, offering the fashion advice, and disposing of all the packing materials so I could jam my new things into my duffel, but Dolores flat out refused.

"You remind my of my daughter," she explained.

"You had yellow fever in a past life?" I teased. Dolores was as white as Kurz, and I'm pretty damn Chinese.

Dolores laughed, something she did often. "It's the attitude, child. My girl's stationed in Germany right now."

Dolores agreed to hold my bag while I dashed up the road for some coffee and breakfast breads. I opted to be nice and bought some for Kurz as well. By the time I got back to the hotel, Dolores's shift had ended, and she had pulled on her outer coat and gloves. She handed me back my bag and waved a goodbye while the new front desk clerk eyed us warily.

The shower was going full-blast when I got back to the room, and Kurz's stuff was everywhere.

"Pig," I muttered. I stuffed most of my things into the empty drawers in the chest by the TV and hung up anything bulky or fancy in the closet on the plush hangers provided by the hotel. I hid the slinky black dress that I used in Sicily in the back. Chances were that I wouldn't have a reason to wear it, but I hadn't given up the hopes of snagging a decent man to help me pass the time while on vacation. I toed Kurz's stuff onto his side of the bed. He came out of the bathroom with towel around his waist and nothing else while I was settling onto the couch to enjoy my pumpkin bread and black coffee.

"Geez, Kurz. Modesty is a virtue or whatever," I complained and kept my eyes on the lame cartoons on TV. He stared at me for a second before moving to gather his clothes.

"Damn, woman. You look like a real girl in those clothes," he commented. "Where did you get them?"

"Your catalogs. I brought you coffee." I did feel great in the clothes. Dolores had matched up a chunky-knit purple sweater dress over black tights with the new knee-high red snow boots. It wasn't really my style, but then again, my style was fatigues. Dolores said that I need a pretty necklace to go with it and wrote down the name of some boutique that I was supposed to visit.

"Hmm," Kurz murmured his thanks and accepted the paper cup before ducking back into the bathroom to change. He came out in dark jeans and a blue zip-up sweater over a white undershirt.

"What did you do? Buy the entire outfit straight off the model?" I teased.

"Like you can talk," he shot back and dropped down on the couch next to me. "Listen, I was thinking that we should set up some ground rules."

I sipped on my coffee. "Yeah? Like what?"

"We probably shouldn't get drunk together for starters," Kurz said.

"Fair enough. We can take turns," I agreed.

"Right. Also, you don't have to stick with me the whole time. I figure that if we want to do our own thing, that's cool. Maybe we can leave a note or check in every 24 hours or something," he said.

"I got one, too. No bringing other people back to the room. If you want to knock boots with some snow bunny, go for it, but not here."

"Oh yeah," Kurz said with this dreamy look like he was already banging some leggy blonde in his head. "That's a good one."

I shoved another piece of bread into my mouth to avoid saying something snarky.

"You want to ski today?" Kurz asked suddenly. I knew I shouldn't have started his one-track mind going on snow bunnies.

"There's no snow," I said pointedly.

"There's some on the mountain."

I shook my head. "I need to do Christmas shopping for my family before I do anything else."

I usually send my mom and grandmothers flowers, mail cards to everyone else, and just buy presents for the kids, but my family had a bumper crop of kids in the years since I had joined Mithril. In all, I needed to buy toys for six nieces, four nephews, and a god daughter, all ranging in age from eight to six-months.

Kurz was frowning into his coffee cup, so I said, "You want to keep me company?"

It was one thing to avoid your crazy family for the holidays and another to lack the option. Also, I hadn't figured out what to get Kurz yet and hoped that he might drop some helpful hints while we were out shopping.

Kurz's face brightened. "Sure! If you don't mind. Can we get some breakfast first?"

"Kurz, what do you call what's in your hand?"

"This?" Kurz asked, holding up his paper cup of coffee and cheese-filled danish. "This is a snack! I want breakfast."

I hate boys and their stupid fast metabolisms sometimes.

We ate (specifically, Kurz ate and I drank orange juice) at the hotel restaurant and then hit Main Street. Yes, Ashland is so goddamn American that the thoroughfare through town is actually called Main Street. Little shops lined the street up and down, and the only problem with shopping was that we were out really early by shop standards. We must have walked the rows of stores five times before they all opened. One of the last to unlock its doors was a delightful toy store. It had a model train running around a track build just below the crown molding with tunnels and little fake trees lining its route. With eleven kids to buy for, I felt like I had died and gone to shopper's heaven. Kurz just looked like he had skipped the dying part and headed straight to paradise. Honestly, he got so excited about the Lego sets that I wanted to hide behind the rack of puppets and pretend that I had never seen that crazy German before in my whole frigging life. No other customers were in the store, and the shop keeper, a little old man with wire-rimmed glasses, had seen us come in together, so it was a moot point.

The old guy helped me pick things that were age appropriate for the kiddies. I mean, how was I supposed to know what kids like these days? Who decided that EZ bake ovens are bad for three-year-olds? The shop keeper was so sweet that he helped Kurz and I hauled all the stuff to the UPS store, so I could mail the presents out in time to arrive by Christmas. Of course, I spent so much in his store that I probably single-handedly keep the old guy in business for another season. I tried to buy the Legos for Kurz, but the jerk beat me to it.

Buying stuff after months of saving up your pay can be addicting, and I got suckered in by the pretty displays of this little gem shop. Someone told me once that pearls meant tears, so I bought my mother a necklace made of twisted strands of pink pearls for the buckets of tears she has cried over me and my reckless life. The girl behind the counter helped me pick out earrings for my grandmothers, and Kurz went back to the UPS store with me to ship them out as well. The guy at the mailing center remembered us and recommended a little cafe called Pilaf for lunch. The food there was decent. Kurz pouted that whole time because the UPS guy had failed to mention that it was a vegetarian place.

After lunch, we hit the boutiques on my list from Dolores. I thought that Kurz would ditch my ass for going to all these hyper-girly stores, but he chatted up the shop girls in each and every one while I tried on all of this ridiculous shit for giggles. The frillier and the pinker, the better. Kurz laughed his ass off when I flounced out the dressing rooms in these crazy get-ups while the shop girls exchanged baffled looks.

"I think it's cute," one would whine.

We were laughing like hyenas about this rosebud dress that was totally impractical for summer in most parts of the world, let alone winter, when we noticed that one of the girls was wearing that very dress. Kurz and I beat it out of that store fast.

I wasn't really buying much by then, but the shops didn't care much. They seemed accustomed to tourists. I dragged Kurz into stores with more mannish stuff, too, hoping that he would pick out something and put me out of my Christmas-gift-buying misery. He didn't.

In the last store, I tried on this wildly expensive cocktail dress on a whim. The satin fabric felt cool against my skin, and I did a wiggle-dance in the changing room to get it to zip all the way up. I thought it would be a hoot because the slutty thing was tight, short, low-cut, and held up by the magic of boning and the female anatomy. Despite the jaw-dropping number of zeroes on the price tag, I thought it looked like something a Times Square hooker would wear. I expected Kurz to bust out laughing when I finally emerged, but he gave me a heated look that made my heart stop.

"Wow," he breathed.

A shop girl peeped out from behind the register. "Ooo! You look seriously hot!" she squealed.

"What? Like seriously?" I questioned. Maybe they were trying to pull one over on me. Wearing that dress should have been like branding 'slut' on my ass.

The girl grabbed my hand and shoved me in front of a full length mirror.

"The color is perfect on you, and you couldn't ask for a better fit. It was like you had it tailored," she gushed.

I stood there like an idiot staring at myself. I didn't even look like me. My reflection was all legs, perky tits, and rounded ass. The girl bustled back with a pair of heels in her hand.

"Try these," she insisted. Dumbly, I used her as a brace to steady myself as I slipped on the stripper shoes. Seriously, they were higher than kites and made out of clear plastic with glittery snowflakes suspended in the elevated sole and enormous heels.

"You look totally sex-able," the girl beamed at me.

I stared at my reflection for a minute. The heels made me wobbly, but the tightness of the dress forced my back straight and out of my accustomed slouch. My mother would have been so proud of that. Against all logic, I looked kind of high class.

I caught Kurz's eye in the mirror, and he looked damn impressed. He was hanging out behind my right shoulder with his hands in his overcoat pockets. He wasn't laughing his ass off like I had expected, but he did have this odd grin on his face. I smiled despite myself, and something changed in his eyes. I felt this heat wash over me, and it wasn't all sexiness and Oo-la-la. His look had this edge of hurt in it. I felt it in the hollow of my chest. Then Kurz was pushing his way out the store and ditching me in that crazy dress. I watched him go, and the hollowness in me throbbed.

"You totally need to buy it," the shop girl was saying. "I would kill to make my boyfriend that into me."

"No," I said firmly. Suddenly, I really wanted to be back in my street clothes.

Outside, I did a quick scan of the street and couldn't see Kurz anywhere. Shopping had lost its fun, so I went back to the hotel for a nap. I needed a few hours to not think about how I felt when Kurz looked at me like that. Also, I started regretting the king bed idea.

I woke up about four hours later and felt much better. An extra sleep cycle always perks me up, even though I would pay for it later when I wouldn't be able to sleep until some god awful hour. The maids had been by to clean up Kurz's sloppiness while we had been out shopping, and I enjoyed the steam and orange-scented shampoo for at least six times the length of a regulation shower back on the TDD-1.

For the looks of the room, Kurz hadn't been back yet, and I told myself that it wasn't my problem. After pulling on my clothes, running a comb through my wet hair, and smearing some balm on my dry lips, I gave myself a once over in the bathroom mirror. It was just me. Same pointed chin. Same skinny arms. Nothing special. Nothing at all that would make Kurz look at me like I was going to be the death of him. I took a deep breath and decided that I really needed a drink.

Unlike that morning with Dolores, people filled the Ashland Springs Hotel lobby in the evening. I maneuvered through the crowd toward the bar. I had already picked out my poison of choice- an irish coffee- when someone snagged my wrist.

"Hey beautiful. I've been looking for you," Kurz said a little too loudly. He was sitting on an easy chair and ringed by, I kid you not, three double-process blondes. The woman all turned to glare at me through heavy eye-liner and fake tans.

Kurz's eyes pleaded Save me.

I started to shake my head. Kurz could deal with his own lady problems, but then one of the blondes leaned in to whisper something to the one in the middle. Both of them turned to me and positively sneered.

Fuck these bitches, I thought. I went along with Kurz when he pulled me into his lap.

"You about ready for dinner, babe?" he asked and pressed a kiss into my shoulder.

"Sure. Can I get a drink first?" I asked. The trio of blondes stared at me with pure hatred. I couldn't say that I didn't feel the same right back at them.

"Good luck flagging down a server. I've been trying to pay out for the past twenty minutes," Kurz said. I spotted the cocktail hostess in the throng of people. She looked right at us and then went to another table. One of the blondes smiled to herself. I wanted to choke her.

First off, I hate stupid games. Paying off the hostess to help you corner some guy is low. Second, this broad had to be at least 40. All of them were old enough to be Kurz's mom. I don't have a problem with the cougar-type, per se, but triple-teaming a 20-year-old ain't cool at all. Kurz looked like he was totally uncomfortable, and he held onto me like I was the last bullet for his WA-2000.

"Hey, why don't you close your tab at the bar so we can get out of here? You promised to take me someplace nice," I said with a hint of whine for dramatic effect. Kurz nodded happily. I pried his hands off my waist and stood up to let him escape. The blondes had done a great job blocking him in, so he practically had to pole-vault his way out of their circle. They watched his ass the whole. No shame whatsoever. I settled into the chair and tried to take up a lot of space.

"Am I lucky or what?" I bragged. "He's just the cutest, don't you think?"

"How long have you been together?" the blonde on my left asked. She was sizing me up that way a thief cases a jewel store.

I smiled wickedly. "Oh, it feels like forever. He keeps begging me to marry him. But I think he's so young for that sort of thing."

Kurz had succeed in tracking down the hostess and shoved some bills at her. She smiled sheepishly. If I had to guess, the blonde harpies had quite a scheme going here, but try as I might, I couldn't blame the poor waitress. If I had to sling drinks in a black mini-skirt all night, I would throw some poor lamb like Kurzie to the slaughter for an extra $20, too.

Kurz waved to me, and I hopped up.

"Excuse me," I told the blondes. I tried to step on all their feet as I made my escape. Kurz was laughing by the time I got over to him.

"Damn, where did you find those skanks?" I asked.

Kurz slung an arm around my shoulders. "They found me. The bartender asked for my ID. Can you believe it? And once that guy announced that I was underage, those three descended on me."

I hit the elevator button to get upstairs. There was no way in hell that I was going outside with my coat.

"Why didn't you ditch them right off?" I asked.

"They got the server girl to bring me a pilsner," Kurz shrugged. "I was trying to be nice."

As soon as the elevator door closed, Kurz politely backed off without any shoving on my part. We didn't need to put on a show for an empty room.

"I need a drink," I complained.

"Me, too," Kurz agreed. He tipped his head to consider me. "You want to get blasted or can I take my turn?"

I shook my head. After dealing with all the humiliating stories from my last binge, I honestly didn't want to hit it that hard on this trip. "It's all yours."

We stooped by an Italian place for dinner and split a bottle of red wine, and despite my epic afternoon nap, I felt pretty damn sleepy after all that bread and pasta. Kurz seemed a little shaken by his encounter with the cougars, so he didn't go out to hit up the bars alone. Instead, we watched White Christmas on TV before I crashed out early. Kurz was playing that sad blues number on Marie as I closed my eyes.

I woke up when Kurz put a cool hand on my forehead. The room was already bright with daytime light when I opened my eyes, and Kurz had on his overcoat. Two cups of coffee rested on my night stand.

"You okay, Sis?" Kurz asked. "You've been asleep forever."

My throat felt raw, and I coughed up something thick as soon as I raised my head. "No," I croaked.

I fell back on the pillow and groaned. Just my luck to get sick as a dog on vacation. The bed rocked as Kurz said down on the edge near my knees.

"You're burning up," he said. "You want me to pick up some meds for you?"

"Yeah," I got out.

Kurz reached out and pushed my bangs out of my face. His fingers felt wonderfully cold. "I'm not good with this stuff. Tell me what to do," he said in a low voice.

"See if you can get me some azithromycin from the pharmacy," I rasped. "Ask at the front desk for directions there."

"Right," he said. "Anything else?"


Kurz filled a glass with tap water for me before he left. I chugged it. When he came back, I had transferred to the couch with half the pillows from the bed and the entire comforter.

"Bad news, babe," Kurz said as he sat on the coffee table. "They don't let you get a Z-pack in the US without a prescription. The pharmacist recommended some stuff, but I couldn't get you any antibiotics."

"You suck," I muttered from under the blankets.

"Yes, it's true," Kurz sighed. He fished around in the plastic bag and handed me a Gatorade followed by a series of pills, which I dutifully swallowed.

"Thanks," I coughed.

"You look really bad," Kurz said. He lined up the bottles of pills by the TV. "Do you want me to stick around with you today?"

"Nope. You go have fun," I waved him off.

"You sure?"

"You want me to cough on you all day?"

Kurz laughed. "Point. I think I'll hit the slopes, but I'll bring my cell. Call if you need me."

"Yeah, sure," I agreed and snuggled back down in the blankets.

Kurz changed clothes again somewhere near the bed, but I was too sick to bother with specifics. The last thing he did before leaving was lean down and tussle my hair.

"Don't go anywhere," he teased.

I glared at him. "Don't tempt me to borrow your toothbrush."

After he left, I drifted in and out of sleep all day and into the evening, waking up only long enough to take the odd pill and drink something before napping again. Kurz must have set out the 'Do Not Disturb' sign because the maids didn't even come by to bother me. I got to feeling a little better by nightfall when Kurz returned smelling of fresh air and carrying take-out.

"For you," he said and handed over a couple tubs of soups. I pried open the lids to find one of each type of standard Chinese soup: hot and sour, egg drop, and miso.

"I didn't know what you wanted," Kurz explained.

"All of them. I haven't eaten," I said and sipped the miso straight from the container. It wasn't as good as my mom's, but the salt tasted great. "How was skiing?"

"Man! It was a good time! The slopes here are really fun. Not as many runs as I would like, but it's not bad," Kurz explained. He popped open a package of General Tso's chicken and dug in with the cheap wooden chopsticks.

"I hate you," I grumbled. "I watched Food Network all day."

"Poor baby," Kurz chuckled. He tapped my shoulder. "Move."

I shifted over to make room for Kurz to join me on the couch. The scent of campfire and snow came with him. I could smell it even with a stuffed nose.

"I feel bad about ditching you," Kurz said between bites. "Think you'll feel better tomorrow?"

"God, I hope so," I complained. "You shouldn't feel bad, though. I'd ditch you in a heartbeat."

Kurz snorted with laughter. "I'll bet you would."

After the food, I did feel a little better. Kurz stayed in with me again, and we watched It's A Wonderful Life from the couch. I stuffed a pillow in Kurz's lap for my head, so I could lay across the rest of the couch. He didn't seem to mind.

"Hey, babe?" he said as the credits rolled on TV.

"Don't call me babe," I mumbled. I was getting sleepy again.

"Thanks for being here with me."

I cracked one eye to look at him. So far, all I had done on the trip was spend about a million hours on planes, drag him to a bunch of shops, and sneeze on the couch. "You're crazy," I concluded and closed my eyes.

"Yeah, yeah," Kurz sighed. He shifted me up and slipped out from under my pillow so that he could stand up. "I'm moving you to the bed, okay?"

"I'm fine here," I protested as Kurz picked me up from the couch. I like to pretend that I can push him around, but Kurz is a big guy, about six feet tall and pretty damn strong. He had no problem carrying my sick self across the room.

"You can't hog the blanket," Kurz reasoned. "I'll get cold."

Kurz laid me out really gently on the bed, and I didn't have to do anything but fall back asleep. Some time later he turned off the lights, and I felt him crawl into the far side of the bed. He was gone by the time I woke up the next day.

I killed another day on the couch, and I felt the recovery creep in bit by bit. A long, hot-as-I-could-take-it bath helped. So did phoning for room service. I even managed to drag my sorry ass to the lobby long enough to let the maids clean up the room. Kurz came back around dinner time with more take-out: chicken noodle soup and fresh biscuits from a cafe down the road for me and chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes for him.

"You are a wonderful, wonderful human being," I said after my first bite of the buttery biscuits.

"You eat today?" he asked. Kurz had set up his meal on the coffee table and was sitting cross-legged on the floor to eat.

"I got a sandwich from room service. Wasn't that good." The sandwich sounded fancy on the in-room menu, but it turned out to be about as good as the slapped-together boxed lunches we get during training on base. The soup, on the other hand, tasted like someone made it with a lot of love.

"You look better," Kurz noted.

I had to chew through the half biscuit that I'd stuffed in my mouth before I could answer. "I feel better."

"I bought some playing cards. If you're up for it, maybe we can hang out downstairs tonight. I'm thinking you're probably about to OD on television," Kurz offered. He was pushing around his food, and I was sorely tempted to swipe it from him. His portion smelled delicious.

"Yeah," I sighed. "But you don't have to stick around the hotel on my account. I can entertain myself just fine."

Kurz squirmed around on the floor and stared into his hot coffee. "I'd rather be with you, okay?"

"Sure," I said. Something was off with Kurz. He looked downright depressed, so I nudged him with my foot. "What's up with you?"

Kurz shot me one of his big, fake grins. "You worried about me?"

I gave him a hard look. "Yeah," I said seriously. "You want to talk?"

Kurz pushed away from the coffee table and stood up to deposit his entire dinner in the trash can by the door. "With you? I don't think so, Sis."

I got mad at that. It was probably more about the wasted food than Kurz's comment. "What the hell? This is turning into the worst vacation ever. I'm sick, and you're depressed. Woo freakin' hoo."

Kurz sank down on the bed. "Yep. No argument from me."

"Screw this. I wanna have some damn fun," I said and threw off the comforter. I was in my skivvies, and Kurz got this dopey look on his face.

"You are so fucking hot," he drooled.

"Shut up and help me find my boots. I'm sick of being sick, and you know what kills germs? Gin." I pulled on some jeans and the nearest sweater. I'm pretty sure that Kurz didn't think to move until I was fully clothed, but he did redeem himself by finding my left boot under the bed.

The hotel bar was thankfully clear for cougars, and despite being a Saturday night, we grabbed two stools right away.

The bartender smiled at me. "What can I start for you?" he asked.

"I'm sick, and he's in a bad way. Can you think of something?" I asked.

The guy flat-out grinned. "My kind of girl. Where did you find her?" he asked Kurz, who shrugged his reply.

"We're in the service together," I told the barkeep. It would be much better if the guy didn't decide to card Kurz, and if I remembered the code from my days in the Marines, most places didn't like to turn away soldiers.

"Nice. I'll make 'em strong then," the guy said and turned to his craft.

I turned to Kurz and thumped him on the shoulder. "Cheer up. Right now."

"Whatever you say, Sis," he shrugged again.

"I'm serious! We're here to live it up, and we shouldn't have a care in the whole blasted world."

"Yeah?" Kurz challenged. "How do you figure that?"

The barkeep presented us with our drinks. "If I may butt in..." He turned to Kurz. "If I looked like you, I would be too busy taking my pick of the ladies to worry about, well, anything. I don't know how you keep your hands off him myself," he said to me. "I mean, I'm pretty straight, but damn."

He winked at me and got a laugh out of Kurz. The barkeep gestured to the glasses before us. "Hot Toddy, just like grandma used to make for the lady. It'll cure what ails ya. And my favorite 'the world just fucked me, so I'm fucking it back' drink: the Rusty Nail."

I sipped down the Hot Toddy and, I kid you not, felt better on the spot.

"You are goddamn magic, my friend," I told the barkeep.

He did a little bow. "I aim to please. I'm Dex, by the way."

"I'm Melissa." I jerked a thumb at the German on my right. "That's Kurz."

"Well met," said Dex.

Kurz gulped down half his drink. "Not bad," he judged.

"Glad to hear it." Dex leaned on the bar and whispered to Kurz. "Just between us, you may want to avoid this place between, say, four and seven. You look the the Dirty Blondes' type."

I thought back to those shameless, platinum harpies who had cornered Kurz and started laughing. "Too late, Dex. I had to play the part of this one's girlfriend while he made his escape two days ago."

Dex shook his head. "They are good customers so I'm probably going to Service Hell for saying this, but I hate those crazy women. You know that they are all married?"

"No shit!" I gulped down another big swig of my drink. Kurz had already finished his, and Dex snapped up the glass and fixed another.

"Try to nurse this one a little, ace. It's good stuff when you take the time to taste it," Dex warned as he pushed the fresh drink in front of Kurz. Out of spite, Kurz slammed it back.

"You see what I gotta put up with?" I grumbled to Dex.

Dex gave Kurz a warning look, and Kurz pulled this innocent, sad face that got us all laughing again.

"Alright, kid. Here's another for you. Do with it what you will," Dex conceded. He leaned over to me and tipped his head to Kurz. "What's his sad story?"

"You got me," I said. "He went skiing today while I was laid up and came back all gloomy."

"Thanks a lot, Melissa," Kurz pouted.

"Is he always like this?" Dex asked me with one eyebrow raised.

The Hot Toddy had me feeling all warm and relaxed, and I had a feeling that I knew where Dex was going. "Not even close. Kurz is one of those damn happy-go-lucky types that makes me want to smack him in the morning. I can't think of a single person who doesn't get along with him, except this one officer but he suffers from stick-up-the-buttness like no one's business."

"No kidding," Dex mused. "How did you met?"

"I scouted him out of Basic. He tried to grab my tits, and I still offered him a place on the squad 'cause he's that good."

"Wait, you're his CO?" Dex looked perplexed.

"Hell yeah! He's done me proud more than most, too." I snuck a look a Kurz, and he was watching me with one elbow propped on the bar to hold up his head.

"That good, huh?" Dex asked.

"She's exaggerating. I just do my job," Kurz chimed in. "Sis is a great officer. She brings out the best in us."

"Sis?" Dex looked from my face to Kurz's. "I'm not seeing the relation," he dead-panned.

It was a terrible joke, but I laughed anyway. "No relation," I said.

"Yeah, I call her 'Sis' because she threatened to kick my ass if I didn't stop calling her 'babe' all the time," Kurz explained.

"I get you. But why 'Sis'? What's wrong with 'ma'am' or 'bad mama jama'?" Dex reasoned.

"Because she's always watching out for us," Kurz went on. "Like we're family."

I raised my glass to Kurz, and he clinked his high ball against my mug.

"That's sweet, and I'm diabetic. Knock it off," said Dex. "So you guys here for the holidays together?"

"Yep," I said. "No where else I'd rather be either."

Dex's little talky trick cheered Kurz up enough to make him socialable. We stayed at the bar chatting with Dex for another hour or so until I started drifting off.

"You better take her home," Dex told Kurz when I nearly fell asleep into the bend of my own elbow. Dex slid the bill across the bar.

"I think you're right," Kurz agreed. He finished off the last of his amber-colored drink and reached into his wallet to pay out. I let Kurz take care of it because I had left my coat and the wallet inside it upstairs.

When he finished up, Kurz took me by the elbow and helped me off the stool.

"Thanks, Dex," he said.

"Yeah. Thanks," I echoed.

"Come see me tomorrow, kids." Dex dismissed us with a wave and went back to washing glasses behind the bar.

"How are you holding up?" Kurz asked as he maneuvered me to the elevator.

"Better and better," I said.

"Me, too." A bell dinged to signal that our lift had arrived. Kurz let me lean on the wall while he hit the right button for our floor. "Hey, can I show you something when we get back to the room?"

"As long as it's not in your pants, sure," I agreed. My voice sounded a little slurred, but I didn't feel that drunk. I felt sleepy and happy.

Kurz's back stiffened at my words, so I slapped it.

"Lighten up. I was just kidding," I said.

Kurz didn't reply. He just got off the elevator and made for the room, leaving me to stumble after him. My feet felt so heavy in the snow boots.

"Wait up," I said before I could think better of it. Kurz turned around fast and caught me hanging on the wall like a total loser. He looked at me for a moment and shook his head like he needed to clear it before coming back and putting an arm around my waist.

"You're kind of cute when you're so pathetic," he said.

"Eat shit," I slurred.

Kurz unlocked the door with one hand and deposited me on the bed. I toed off my boots and nestled down in the pillows. Kurz banged around some stuff while my eyes drifted shut, but then he was kneeling down by my side of the bed and touching my cheek.

"Hey, I need you to listen to this," he pleaded and held out the headphones. I dragged myself up to sitting and got the headphones on my ears on the second try. I tried to keep my tired eyes on Kurz's face while he plugged in the mini-amp into his guitar. He caught my eye to make sure that I was ready and then began to play.

I'd heard Kurz noodling around on his precious Marie before, but I hadn't heard the song that way that Kurz intended it to sound through the amp. How to describe it? I listened for almost the entire song before I opened my eyes and knew.

"It's so lonely," I said when Kurz finished.

The corner of his mouth quirked up. "Mmph. I guess it is."

Maybe it was the Hot Toddy thinking for me, but I leapt out of bed right then and there. "Get up," I ordered Kurz.

He gave me a weird look while he unplugged from the mini-amp, but he obeyed. As soon as he was on his feet, I gave him a big hug. Oh yeah. It was that cheesy and dumb, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. Kurz didn't try to grab my ass or anything. He hugged me back. It was nice.

"You're not alone, dummy," I told him, and he nearly picked me off the ground.

"Thanks," he whispered into my shoulder.

You know what's sad? As I held onto Kurz, I tried to think back to the last person who hugged me, and the only one that I think of was Tessa on the AS training field over a year ago. That's a long time to go without really touching another human being. I know it's cliche to quote that stupid study about how babies die when they aren't touched, but I'll be damned if there's not some solid truth in that worn-out warning. It felt really good to hold someone. Really damn good.

"Am I too late to take you up on that offer to talk?" Kurz asked when I finally pulled away.

"Sure," I said. "What's up?"

Kurz flopped down on the bed. I was still pretty sleepy, so I tried to stay upright to avoid passing out during the poor guy's confession.

"I don't know how to say this, so I'm just going to say it. Don't laugh, okay?" he started.

"No promises," I said. "You get beat up on the kiddie slopes or something?"

"I banged this girl that I met on the mountain today, and I feel really fucking bad about it."

I don't know what I was expecting Kurz to say, but that certainly wasn't it. I think I managed to keep my jaw from dropping. "Was she underage or something?"

Kurz hit me with a pillow. "Hell. No. But you know what? I don't even know her name. I think it was Kristen. How low is that?"

I tossed the pillow at his head. "Kurz, I don't see the problem here. So you had a one-night stand. It happens."

"It's just...I've tried really hard not to be that guy, you know?"

I let myself fall back on the bed, so when I let my head fall to the side, I was eye-level with Kurz.

"You're not that guy," I said. "But if you didn't want to hook up, why did you do it?"

Kurz groaned and stuck his face in a stack of pillows. "Because she was really hot and I've been really lonely? Lame much?"

"Sounds normal to me," I shrugged. "But what's with the loneliness? You weren't like this before."

"My girl was alive before," Kurz confessed.

"Shit," I blew out a long breath. So this was about the sick girl after all. "I'm sorry."

"Don't. I lost her a couple months ago. I haven't been dealing with it well," he admitted. He was still talking into the pillow, so I had a little trouble hearing him clearly.

"Have you talked to Peggy?" Peggy was the medic on the TDD-1, and even though she wasn't a licensed psycho-anything, she had a way with her logic. She could also refer you to a pro if she couldn't help you out.

"Nope," Kurz said.

I smacked him in the head with pillow. "Get right on that when we get back."

"Roger that." He turned to me with one elbow holding him up. "You don't think I'm a total sleaze, right?"

"Actually, I re-evaluating my opinion of you for the better. I thought you would take any chance to grab some ass," I tried to say frankly, but I busted out laughing. "You're fine, Weber. Stop feeling bad for giving it to some snow slut."

"Got it." Kurz bobbed up and gave me a real smile this time. "Thanks."

"Don't fuck any more worthless cunts, stop writing sad songs, and work on grieving like a normal person who, I dunno, tells his friends about stuff like that right away and not months later, and you'll be right as purple rain," I yawned. "Can I go to bed now?"

He got up to tuck Marie back in her case. "Goodnight" was all he said.

A/N: This story is a present to myself. I've been sicksicksick, and there is nothing in my house that remotely speaks to the nearness of Christmas. Also, I just broke my favorite mug, which was my last and best souvenir from Ashland. I took it as a sign.

This Weber/Mao piece is completely unrelated to my other works. I plan to keep updating "The Rushing Wind" this month, too. I'm too sick to do much of anything else. :-/