"This seat taken?"
Noin looked up from the cheerful umbrella drink she was neglecting, equally happy Hawaiian shirt and worn sunglasses smiling back at her. She shook her head. "Please."
Howard sat down, planted his beer on the small, round table and tilted his sunglasses far enough down his nose to look over the brim. "Miss Noin, your face is one of the few ones here that isn't happy tonight. How's that? You don't think peace is worth cheering for?"
She sighed, suddenly wishing she hadn't invited the old man to the table. She didn't want to sit alone, but she wasn't too inclined to being told what to think, do, or feel, either. "I'm not in the mood for it right now, I'm afraid." She idly spun her glass. "I just... I want some time to process his - his-"
Troubled, Howard took to studying the lines and thin cracks of the table. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
Noin put her hands over his folded ones, smiled faintly. "It's okay. I know."
Eyes above brim. "We've all had losses in this war. I'm sorry for yours, but won't there be time to grieve later?"
She chuckled, leaned back, wiped away a stray tear. "That sounds disrespectful, putting them on hold."
He smiled, took a gulp of his beer, wiped his moustache dry. "I suppose it is - but it's still sound advice. Look around us, Lu - how many here do you think have put their mourning on hold for just this night? That Lady Une-"
Wry smile at both names. "Her little disorder probably comes in handy now. Switch to the other mindset when one is feeling down..."
Howard's face hardened momentarily.
Noin sighed again. "I know, I know... I'm sorry. I feel so alone. And angry. Angry that he just left me here."
He scratched the back of his receding hairline, threw a lopsided grin. "We-e-ell, nobody is ever truly alone - and you have lots of friends, and-" He leant in, face serious once more, voice low, but steady. "You wouldn't really want to follow him there, now would you? One thing is being loyal and deeply in love, but I think Shakespeare really blew it with all those 'Romeo and Juliet' shenanigans. If he had known what-"
"Oh." He focused on his beer again.
"And I'm not thinking about suicide, Howard. I don't believe- No, I know Zechs isn't-"
Two slender, long-fingered hands slammed into the table. "Whatchya hidin' back here for, guys? We're trying to have a party here!"
Howard grinned up at his pseudo-protégé. "We needed a break, Duo - that's all."
He grinned even wider. "Well, break's over." Duo extended one hand to either conversationalist, but got no acceptance. "Oh, come on. You know you want to see Quatre get all liquored up."
Noin flagged a brow. "I didn't think Quatre even touched alcohol."
Wink. "Not to his knowledge, either."
She shook her head, smiled slightly. "Duo..."
"Okay, so I didn't really tamper with his drink... Well, not the booze level, anyway."
Howard chuckled dryly. "Oh? What kinda trouble are you up to now, squirt?"
"You'll have to come and see." Again, he put his hands forward, and this time, both were taken. Noin and Howard let themselves be half-dragged into the main crowd, a happy mass of people, bordering on critical, judging from the high-spirited mood permeating the so-called great hall of the cramped Mo2 resource satellite. A few self-appointed servants dodged inebriated celebrators while handing out glasses of standard military issue faux champagne to any idle and steady hand left. They let Duo drag them towards the genuine bottles Lady Une had procured for their little subsection of the party. He abandoned them to near-jump Heero, much to his chagrin not causing anywhere near enough of a reaction for even a drop to spill. Quatre nodded to them in solemn greeting, Trowa, Wufei, Une and Rashid following his cue. After dismissing his assaulter, Heero did the same.
"To the future!" someone in the larger crowd cried out, to cheers, raised glasses and repeated down-the-hatch calls. "To peace!" another shouted once the first salute died down, and the process repeated. From the corner of his eye, Howard caught the slight twitch in Noin's. He was about to put a hand to her shoulder, but she slipped away, hastily grabbing a glass from a passing waiter, ignoring the lack of quality. She raised her glass. "To friends not present!" she said in a strong, firm voice, it below and she above shouting.
The room felt eerily quiet, and she immediately felt as if the entire crowd was staring at her. A wiry, wrinkled hand took a firm hold of her shoulder. She glanced at Howard, and his glass. "To friends not present," he repeated, lifting it high.
Une nodded in agreement. "To friends not present," she said somberly. The pilots quickly followed her lead, as did the rest of the room, all drinking to that.
If there was anything the entire room had in common other than gain, it was loss - spirits high, high spirits, and spirits to remember.