I hung up the phone, sat scrubbing my hands over my face and
just tried to get over the shock. What the hell? No way… what the
I heard the door to the apartment open and before I even had
a chance to raise my head, Heero was suddenly rushing to my side. ‘Duo?’
his voice was tight with concern. ‘Love? What’s wrong? Are you
feeling all right?’
I lifted my head and smiled, having to stifle a hysterical
‘You are not going to believe the phone call I just
He wasn’t completely reassured, his brow furrowed with
worry and his hands holding me by the elbows. ‘Do you need to go sit
I snorted up at him. ‘Heero… I am sitting down.’
He had the decency to look embarrassed but continued doggedly,
‘I meant on the couch.’
I shook my head at him and reached to pull him down for his
welcome home kiss. It had been more than four months since the accident.
Almost a month and a half since that hideous disaster called a party at
the home of Relena Peacecraft. I had only thought he hovered before the
party. But since that night when I had disappeared on him for three days
and he had later found me passed out on the floor of the cargo hold of my
ship, he had turned ‘over-protective’ into an art form.
‘I am fine,’ I told him firmly and disengaged
myself from his arms. ‘However… dinner will not be fine if we
don’t get in the kitchen and keep it from burning.’
He let me lead him into the other room but continued to frown.
‘Then what is the matter… what phone call?’
I set him to stirring the stew on the stove while I bent to
check on the cornbread I had in the oven.
‘Heero…’ I sighed on the sudden remembrance
of how the phone call in question had started out. ‘You never told
me you called the Emergency squad that day.’
His sigh was heavier. ‘I found you unconscious, obviously
having fallen from I didn’t know how high…of course I called
the Emergency squad. What does that have to do with the phone call you got
I pulled the pan of cornbread out of the oven and motioned
for him to start dishing up the stew. ‘Apparently one of the attendants
noticed the… paintings in the cargo bay.’
He paused in reaching for the large bowl I had sitting there
and looked at me, waiting for me to elaborate.
‘I guess he found it…interesting,’ I told
him pensively as I sliced the bread and put it on the serving plate. ‘He
didn’t know that spacers…decorated like that. He told a couple
of people about it…one of his friends on the police force has a sister
who is a journalist.’
Heero raised an eyebrow and finally prompted, ‘And…?’
I sighed and turned away from him to put the plate on the
table. ‘Said sister also thought it was interesting and started asking
around. She discovered that it’s a wide spread habit. She thinks it
would make a good human interest piece and wants to interview me.’
He followed me to the table with the stew and sat it down
without speaking. I went to the ‘fridge for drinks, fishing myself
out a bottle of soda and dared him with a glare to say something. He scowled
but refrained from getting on my case about it. We sat down to eat.
‘Are you going to do it?’ he finally ventured
and I could see something behind his eyes; I just wasn’t sure what
I snorted out right, ‘Of course not!’ And had
to repress a shiver at the thought of someone going aboard my ship and taking
pictures of my… memories… of my pain. ‘No bloody way in
He dished up some stew and waited, understanding that there
was more to it than that.
I sat and stared at my plate for a while, using my fork to
turn a piece of cornbread into crumbs. ‘The woman was fucking relentless.
I’ve been talking with her for the last half an hour. I couldn’t
get rid of her… I finally told her I’d think about it just to
get her off the phone.’
He took a couple of bites of stew before quietly asking, ‘Why
don’t you just do it?’
I jerked my head up and looked at him just to make sure he
wasn’t kidding. ‘Heero!’ I couldn’t believe he was
even thinking about it. ‘Are you nuts? She wants to bring a crew onboard
my ‘Demon’ and take pictures!’
I would have thought that the idea of having someone showing
the universe the damn mural I had painted of him dancing with the Queen
of the World while orphans froze to death outside their crystal palace would
be enough to convince him to drop it. Apparently not.
‘You are an incredible artist,’ he said softly,
dipping his bread into the stew and taking a bite. ‘I think you should
at least consider it.’
I just sat and blinked at him. Did he not fucking look at
the stupid paintings? Did he not understand that I had little control over
the shit that my demented muse chose to throw at the wall?
‘Heero…’ I breathed in shock, ‘it…
it would be like having someone come in and take pictures of my damned soul.’
His eyes left his plate and came up to meet mine. ‘It’s
a beautiful soul,’ he said simply.
I flung myself up from the table and stormed out of the room
with an inarticulate growl. What the hell? Was that damned woman paying
him? Little Miss Angelina ‘Call me Angie’ Masters? No way. No
fucking way in hell! I wouldn’t have the world trying to psychoanalyze
me based on the inside of my ship. What in the hell would people think of
a guy who painted the inside of his cockpit the color of dried blood? Not
to mention what it would do to my reputation; she was bound to want to talk
about the accident. Enough people already knew that I had totally screwed
up that last job; I didn’t need to keep having it thrown in my face.
I was half afraid now of what was going to happen when I recovered enough
to get back to work. I had little doubt that I would have trouble getting
job offers as it was.
I ended up in the living room staring out the window at nothing.
I felt all on edge and jittery. It had seemed like the woman was laying
siege to me and my ship, and I knew she wasn’t going to give up that
easily. She would be back and I didn’t know how to get across to her
that hell would start serving pink lemonade before she got on board my ship
with a bunch of photographers.
I heard Heero coming up behind me but I didn’t turn.
He rested his hands on my shoulders for a moment before beginning to gently
knead at my tight muscles.
‘I’m sorry, love,’ he whispered and I let
myself relax against him with a shaky sigh.
‘It’s too damn… personal, Heero. It would
be like having someone grope around inside my head.’
He wrapped his arms around me and I could see his face reflected
in the glass; he looked troubled. ‘It’s all right,’ he
told me. ‘You just do such unbelievable work… I hate to see
it hidden away. But it’s your decision. I had no right to say anything.’
I had to smile ruefully at myself; I couldn’t believe
the warm feeling that filled me at the praise. His praise, I had to admit
to myself. But I couldn’t understand how he could feel that way when
one of those renderings included him. I turned in his arms to look him in
‘Heero…how can you possibly want to reveal that
damned painting?’ I felt myself flushing and had to look down. ‘I
mean… it doesn’t exactly show you or Relena in a good light.’
He shifted his arms to draw me closer and quirked a smile
at me. ‘The light might be a little… harsh but it’s what
you were feeling.’ He bent to press a kiss on my collarbone. ‘There’s
a certain amount of truth in it.’
He made the guilt well up without even trying. ‘We talked
about this… I told you I don’t always know what’s going
to come out… I don’t …’
He lifted his head from my shoulder and smiled again, ‘…control
the muse; the muse controls you,’ he quoted and made me chuckle. Then
he stepped away and drew me with him. ‘Come on, dinner’s getting
I let him lead me back to the table and we sat down to eat;
we didn’t talk about it any more that night.
The next day was Saturday; I had come to cherish the weekends.
It didn’t used to matter to me; spacers don’t work by the same
calendar that the ground-bounders do. The regimented workweek means nothing
to those who typically work in the space trades. You start a job and it
isn’t over until it’s over, it doesn’t matter if it takes
a week or six months. You can’t pull a space shuttle over half way
to where ever and say ‘It’s the weekend!’ Your ‘downtime’
is based on your financial situation, not on the fact that the calendar
told you it was a day of rest.
At first, while I had those damn therapy sessions five days
a week, it was just the blessed relief of not having to go down to the clinic
for a day or two. I still had to do my exercises at home but that wasn’t
as taxing. Then, as my condition had improved and my sessions got cut back
first to three times a week and now to only two, Heero and I had started
doing things together. Nothing spectacular. In the beginning, when I was
still pretty weak, we had simply rented movies or played chess. When I got
a little stronger, we would go for walks or just go sit in the park. More
importantly, we’d done a little talking. We’d each given a little
bit. I’d finally gotten around to confessing how confused I was…
had managed to get across to him how panicked it made me feel not knowing
what had passed between us while I was so sick.
In his turn, he let me know how frustrating it was for him
to have gotten so close to me only to seemingly have me start pushing him
away once I started recovering. He told me some of the things I had said
to him in my fever dream. I had been completely flustered and we’d
had a strange, uncomfortable couple of days. We had finally agreed that
we needed to take a step back and start over. That we needed to disregard
what had happened onboard my ship and start out on even ground with each
So I looked forward to the weekends when he was home from
work and we had time to spend together, doing some of that starting over.
And that was just one other thing I had to hold against Angie Masters when
she tracked me down that Saturday.
We had decided to go over to the athletic park that was just
across the street from Heero’s apartment and try playing a little
basketball. If we kept the game friendly, not too intense, I thought I could
We hadn’t been playing fifteen minutes when I noticed
a woman watching us from outside the fence on the sidewalk. I didn’t
think too much of it and we continued for another fifteen minutes or so
before Heero called a halt.
‘That’s enough,’ he told me with that little
mother hen frown of his. ‘You’re starting to look tired.’
‘You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re
losing,’ I grinned at him and tried to hide the panting.
He quirked a grin at me, tucked the ball under his arm and
came toward me. ‘Oh yeah? Hold your hands out.’
We both knew if I did, they’d be shaking. I sketched
a little bow. ‘I give… you win.’
He snorted as we turned to head back across the street and
I saw the woman who had been watching us move on an intercept course. I
didn’t have to point her out; I saw Heero click over into full alert.
He passed the ball to me and increased his pace to insure that he was a
step ahead of me. I sighed in irritation and considered matching his stride
just to be perverse, but I honestly didn’t think the diminutive brunette
in the dark coat was a threat.
She had the smarts, at least, to realize what was glaring
daggers at her and pulled her hands out of her coat pockets, slowing her
‘Mr. Maxwell?’ she called out and I sighed as
I recognized her voice; I had spent a half an hour on the phone with her
the day before, after all.
‘Fuck,’ I muttered under my breath and Heero glanced
at me. ‘Ms. Masters… the journalist,’ I told him with
a roll of my eyes.
I didn’t reply immediately but waited until we got to
the break in the fence where she had stopped.
‘Ms. Masters,’ I ventured when we came abreast
of her, ‘I thought I made it plain yesterday that I wasn’t interested.’
She smiled at me, a wide open grin that probably melted guys
into malleable putty most of the time. ‘Please… I thought I
told you to call me Angie?’
I sighed, just wanting to get passed her to the apartment,
the air was rather crisp and cool and the sweat was beginning to chill on
my skin. That damned familiar shakiness was coming over me, letting me know
I’d pushed a little too far. ‘It doesn’t matter what I
call you… I’m still not interested in doing your interview.’
Her smile faltered a little but she kept doggedly on, ‘I’m
sorry for intruding but I just wanted a chance to talk to you face to face.’
‘Ms. Masters,’ Heero said in that low warning
tone he has, ‘if you have done you’re journalistic homework,
you know Mr. Maxwell hasn’t been… well. He really needs to get
out of this air.’ With that, he took my arm and steered me around
I thought for a second we were going to make it but she suddenly
burst out; ‘Damnit! Every lead I get on this story comes right back
to you… I need to talk to you!’
Heero caught my eye with a raised eyebrow and I closed my
eyes for a second with another exasperated sigh. ‘Fine. We can talk;
but I don’t promise anything.’
Heero glared at her and motioned for her to follow. The three
of us went back to the apartment.
Heero shepherded me in and insisted I sit down on the couch,
tossing the afghan over my chilled legs before he turned to deal with our
Somehow, during the walk inside he had managed to squelch
his irritation and was now able to take the woman’s coat without growling
‘Can I offer you something?’ he asked politely
and she shook her head.
‘Uhmmm… No thank you,’ she murmured. Some
of her bluster and sparkle had faded; maybe she’d figured out how
things were between Heero and me and realized her flirty charm wasn’t
going to get her anywhere. Or maybe Heero just intimidated her.
Heero went to the kitchen and I’m afraid I didn’t
give the woman much quarter; just sat and stared at her until he came back.
He brought me one of the sports drinks that the therapist had recommended,
then perched on the arm of the couch near me. The good Ms. Masters seemed
a little subdued by our united front.
‘You wanted to talk to me?’ I finally prompted
and watched the last of her perky façade fade away. I felt like I
was actually seeing the real woman for the first time. Her brown hair was
pulled back in a rather severe style that was probably meant to be ‘professional’.
She was a tiny little thing, pretty figure, pretty face with warm brown
eyes. I suspected that she was more than used to getting her way, particularly
with the male portion of the population.
She edged herself into the chair closest to the front door
and dropped her eyes. ‘Look… Mr. Maxwell; my editor has already
decided he wants to do this story. I have to write something. When you turned
me down, I attempted to make some other contacts but…’ she glanced
up at me and I sighed, knowing what was coming. ‘Your work is just
I rubbed idly at a temple that was suddenly throbbing and
couldn’t help glancing at Heero out of the corner of my eye. He wasn’t
watching her… he was watching me.
‘I… uhhhh… have done some commission work,’
I muttered, as much to him as her.
‘Let’s be honest,’ she blurted. ‘These…
space people all seem to paint their ships but all of the work that’s
worth the powder to blow it to hell is yours.’
I snorted and could almost feel Heero’s eyes boring
holes in the side of my head. ‘Bullshit,’ I told her flatly.
‘Look… you want a story; I can give you a list of names of people
that would be more than happy to talk to you.’
‘Here on Earth?’ she countered. ‘I have
to have this article turned in in two weeks time.’
I blew a breath out and thought about it. ‘Well…
that certainly shortens the list considerably but I think I can still…’
‘I want you,’ she said abruptly and I saw a hint
of that woman who usually gets her way. ‘I want to see the murals
that Roger told my brother about.’
‘The paintings inside my ship are personal. They were
never meant to be viewed by the general public. I might consent to the damn
interview… but you’re not going aboard my ship,’ I growled
and just wished I had a damn aspirin.
That was the closest she’d come to an acceptance yet
and she pounced like some kind of damn cat. ‘I have to have pictures
to go along with the article.’
‘Forget it,’ I snapped.
Then Heero surprised the hell out of both of us. ‘Duo…
why not just selected pictures? There’s nothing in the galley or your
Dear Ms. Masters was near salivating, suddenly dealing just
as though we already had an agreement and only had to iron out the details.
‘I want the cargo bay!’
‘No!’ I said again.
‘Why not?’ Heero asked softly and I looked up
at him in shock.
‘Because Relena would hunt me down like a mad dog and
castrate me, that’s why!’ I growled at him.
‘What if I could get this person to agree?’ She
was like a freaking badger with a meat-scrap; she had gotten her teeth on
it and wasn’t about to let go now.
I laughed out loud and was instantly sorry when my headache
kicked up a notch. ‘Fine! The two of you convince little Miss priss-ass
to let you publish pictures of my cargo bay and I will do the fucking interview!’
Ms. Masters knew how to quit while she was ahead and instantly
backed off a little bit, albeit with a feral glint in her eye. What in the
hell had I just done?
I leaned my head back against the couch and let Heero deal
with getting her the hell out of the apartment. I vaguely heard him tell
the woman that he would handle talking to Relena and would call her on Monday.
I sat with my eyes closed after she was gone and wished to
God I could take back what I had just committed to. What in the hell had
made me say that? Relena didn’t even know about the damn mural…
yet. I was not looking forward to the scene when she found out.
I heard Heero moving about quietly for a few minutes, then
became aware of his presence next to me. I cracked an eyelid and found him
standing over me with one of those worried frowns. When I met his gaze,
he handed me a couple of pain pills and pressed my untouched sports drink
back into my hands.
‘This is your damn fault somehow…’ I groused
as I took the pills, ‘I’m just not sure how.’
He sighed and settled on the couch beside me, pushing me up
and turning me where he could reach my shoulders. His hands began to gently
rub the tension out of sore muscles.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said and his voice sounded
hesitant. ‘I’m not really sure why I got involved… I swear
I didn’t mean to.’
‘I wish you hadn’t,’ I grumped. ‘I
can’t believe I agreed to showing the God damned thing to Relena.’
His fingers were kneading their way down my spine and I groaned
softly with pleasure despite my irritation.
‘I told myself I would stay out of it,’ he said
sheepishly. ‘I just wasn’t expecting… I mean, I didn’t
realize how it would make me feel…’
He fell quiet and I had to turn around to look at him. I was
surprised to find him blushing.
‘What?’ I murmured at the strange look on his
He dropped his eyes. ‘I’m proud of you, Ok?’
he blurted suddenly and before the shock of that quite wore off he stood
up and pulled me to my feet. ‘Let’s see what we can do about
I let him lead me to my room where he stripped me out of my
t-shirt and proceeded to do a much better job of massaging my back and shoulders,
the headache did ease as the tension began to fade. He stretched out beside
me when he was done and just lay rubbing his thumb in small circles on my
cheek. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open and he smiled affectionately
at me. I fought against the drowsiness and turned to face him, reaching
to lay a hand on his hip in open invitation. He slid the hand that was caressing
my cheek on around behind my head and pulled me toward him for a gentle
kiss that he slowly deepened. My heart quickened; was it finally going to
happen? Were we going to take that next step at last? There had been a time
when I would have sold my soul to feel his hands on me. But now…though
I would never let him know it, it frightened me a little… the thought
of opening myself up to someone else so much. Once burned and all that.
I felt vaguely guilty sometimes, like I was teasing him somehow. This wasn’t
the first time I had offered to make the leap and this wasn’t the
first time he had gently refused.
He drew back and his eyes searched my face for something he
didn’t seem to find.
‘You’re tired,’ he said softly and his voice
held a hint of something… regret maybe? I wasn’t sure. ‘Just
I ended up taking an afternoon nap for the first time in weeks.
Heero truly had promised Angie Masters an answer on Monday,
so Sunday afternoon found me sitting in the pilot’s seat of the ‘Maxwell’s
Demon’ waiting for Heero to show up with Relena. I was hoping that
she would turn him down flat and that would be the end of it. But I knew
Relena well enough to know that her curiosity would get the best of her
and she would have to see the thing herself.
I had fidgeted and fussed over things in an attempt to relieve
high-strung nerves before finally settling to watch for them. The hanger
had security cameras that ships were allowed to tap into in their respective
bays. I could see the hanger door and the edge of my own wide-open cargo
hatch. It took Heero a long damn time to come back. I held my breath when
I saw his car pass the hanger door to park, hoping beyond hope that he would
walk through there alone. But he didn’t and I let my breath out in
a sigh that turned into a soft groan all on its own. Damn.
I had truly meant to stay in the cockpit until it was all
over but I couldn’t help myself; I suddenly just had to see her reaction.
I rose and ghosted down the hall to stand just up the corridor from the
interior, open cargo bay door. I heard her steps ringing harshly on the
metal deck plates.
I found myself holding my breath and had to force myself to
relax a little. The steps slowed and there was the sound of a small gasp.
‘That’s… awful,’ she said a little
too loudly and lowered her voice instantly when she realized how it was
going to echo and amplify in there. ‘What is it? Why would anyone
want to have a painting like that?’
I figured out after a second that she was looking at the wall
with the floor to ceiling rendering of the aftermath of the Maxwell church
massacre…in all its glory. The church is still smoldering with thick
black smoke rising to obscure an otherwise clear night sky. The light glints
almost evilly off the one small piece of the stained glass window that is
still in the frame. You have to look a little closer to see the bodies;
I doubt she even noticed them. It is just the way I remembered it looking
on that night when I came running back and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt
the mistake I had made when I had agreed to steal that mobile suit.
‘It’s the Maxwell church on L2,’ Heero told
her gently. ‘Duo lived there for a time when he was a child.’
‘It’s horrible… I can’t imagine what
kind of mind would want to look at this all the time.’
‘Relena… I explained this,’ Heero’s
voice sounded a little weary and I had to wonder how much talking he had
done to get her here. ‘He only paints what he feels… I think
sometimes he isn’t even sure what’s going to come out when he
starts one of these murals.’
Her steps were moving again and I suddenly heard another gasp.
The first one had been mildly offended. This one was horrified and I knew
she’d finally walked far enough to see the painting on the end wall.
‘Heero!’ she snapped. ‘How could you ever
imagine that I would allow anyone to publish pictures of this… this…
I had to shake my head; this was the woman who was supposed
to lead mankind into a new era of peace? This person who was so tangled
up in class and social status she couldn’t see passed the end of her
damned nose? Mankind was in a shit wagon on a down hill ride straight to
I heard a sound that told me she had whirled around to confront
Heero and I felt faintly bad for him until I remembered this had been his
damned, stupid idea to begin with.
‘How can you even consider it?’ she burst out,
obviously aghast. ‘You’re in the painting too!’
I heard Heero moving slowly forward and I imagined him looking
up at the painting on the wall, wondering what part he was studying.
‘Stop looking at the subject matter, Relena,’
he told her calmly, ‘and look at the workmanship… look at the
art. It’s beautiful.’
I felt myself warming with the sound of his praise.
‘Beautiful?’ she practically shouted and I flinched
despite myself. ‘It’s hideous! It’s ridiculous! Look at
those children… that’s so trite and clichéd! Where in
the Earth sphere have you ever seen children in that condition? It’s…absurd!’
I felt my temper starting to flare. Absurd? I could name each
one of those children and they looked just as they had when I had last seen
them alive, right down to the rags they were wearing. Dear God… the
woman didn’t have a clue! She’d never been outside that glittering,
hopelessly flawed crystal palace to see the real world. Daddy had done quite
the job protecting her. Maybe that naivety had helped when she was first
starting out; I think it was part of what had gathered her following to
her. But now she wasn’t a kid anymore… she couldn’t keep
living in the bright lights pretending that the dark didn’t exist.
There comes a time when naïve isn’t innocence anymore…it’s
‘Relena…’ Heero was saying but broke off
when I walked into the cargo bay.
‘I take it then,’ I said as I walked toward them,
‘that your answer is no?’ I carefully stayed away from Heero;
I wouldn’t put him in the middle of this.
She whirled around to face me and I had only thought that
she had disliked me before. Her face positively seethed with anger and hatred
‘Of course it is no,’ she said emphatically.
It’s funny; it’s what I had wanted. To be able
to tell Ms. Masters that her answer was no but have it not be my fault.
This way I could shrug my shoulders and point in some other direction; see?…out
of my hands. So I have no idea why I said what I did next.
‘You realize that I don’t need your permission,
don’t you?’ I asked softly and watched her expression go from
open hatred to fear in the space of two heartbeats.
Then it hardened back into anger. ‘You wouldn’t
‘I might.’ I smiled carefully and turned to look
up at the picture above us, I hadn’t really taken the time yet to
come down here and study it since the night I had painted it and passed
out on the floor.
‘My lawyers…’ she began and I chuckled.
‘Can’t do a thing. I’m not selling or publishing
it for profit.’ I was taking a perverse pleasure in watching her boil.
‘Duo?’ Heero asked softly and I turned to find
a confused look on his face.
‘You started this,’ I told him and was surprised
when he gave me a small nod of acknowledgment.
‘What will it take to make you forget this?’ Relena
gritted and I was surprised she wasn’t gnashing her teeth.
I ignored her for a minute, looking at my cluster of children.
‘The little one is Becca…the plague got her; she was about six.
The plague got a lot of us street rats.’ I pointed to the first boy
kneeling in the snow by the window. ‘That’s Eel. We called him
that because he could wiggle out of just about anything; skinny as a rail
and double-jointed.’ I grinned at Eel, remembering his funny little
snort of a laugh. ‘We never knew what happened to him…he just
didn’t come back one night.’ I let my eyes drift over the picture,
sliding past my younger self, standing beside Eel in front of my adult self.
Damn…I hadn’t seen that before.
‘What will it take?’ she growled again and it
was a miracle she didn’t snap teeth off as hard as she was grinding
She didn’t believe me. She thought I had made those
children up. She thought that mural was all about her and I suddenly knew
it wasn’t. I suddenly knew what it was about…mostly.
‘I can’t be bought, Relena,’ I told her
and turned away from the painting to face her. ‘It was true back then
and it’s still true now; you can’t buy me off. There’s
only one thing that is going to keep me from going through with the interview.’
She blinked at me, suddenly unsure of herself; money got her
highness out of just about everything. ‘What?’ she snapped.
‘I want you to come with me…’ I glanced
at Heero and didn’t see anything in his expression except support,
‘with us. To L2… to see what the real damn world is like outside
your crystal pink dream.’
Shock registered on her face… a horrified shock. ‘I’m
not going anywhere with… you!’
I shrugged and turned to walk away.
‘You could bring someone…’ I heard Heero
‘What?’ Relena yelped, ‘you support this…
this ridiculous attempt to…’
‘Show you a little truth?’ he said and it made
both of us turn to look at him.
‘Heero?’ she gasped and just stood and stared
‘It’s a two day trip out.’ I interjected,
looking at Heero and not Relena. ‘As Heero suggested, a chaperone
might be in order. We would spend a day on L2 doing a small tour. Two days
back. Otherwise… Ms. Masters gets her story after all.’
I turned on my heel and got the hell out of there. Behind
me, I caught the beginning of a petulant rant, ‘This is black mail…’
I sought my cabin, the serene comfort of my womb of stars,
and just stood trying to slow my thundering pulse. God damn, that woman
could drive me to distraction. I’d never met anyone as freaking…
uneducated… as she was. This was not a stupid person we were talking
about here; how could she have gotten as far as she had with no more damn
idea what life was really like?
And just what in the hell had come over me? What was I thinking?
I was not going to be able to change her damn mind about anything; what
had made me say that? Where had that half-baked, lame-brained idea come
from? I really was nuts; five days locked up in a space ship with Miss Relena?
When had I turned into a masochist?
Strong arms slipped around my waist and Heero was suddenly
there, pulling me back against his warmth. ‘Are you all right?’
he asked softly, rubbing his cheek against my hair.
I let my breath out in a gust. ‘I’m sorry Heero…
I don’t know what made me do that. She just makes me so damn mad.’
He snorted softly, ‘I noticed. It seems to be mutual.’
I turned in his arms because I just needed to be held for
a minute. ‘Where is she?’ I murmured against his shoulder.
‘I left her waiting in the car. I didn’t want
to take her home before checking on you,’ he told me and his voice
‘Take her home, Heero,’ I said, pulling away.
‘Tell her to forget the whole thing… I’m not going to
do anything. I don’t know what in the hell I was thinking.’
‘No,’ he said and I blinked at him in surprise.
‘I care for Relena a great deal; I truly believe that she is the person
who can assure that this world remains at peace… but you’re
right about her. It took my seeing her in there,’ he jerked his head
toward the cargo bay, ‘to understand that. She is unbelievably…’
‘Naïve?’ I supplied and he grinned and nodded.
‘And intolerant.’ He regarded me with an intense
gaze. ‘Your idea is a good one. A very good one… I think we
should see it through.’
I gaped at him. I couldn’t help it.
‘I… I count on you being the level headed one
in this relationship,’ I finally managed and he raised an eyebrow.
‘I think your spontaneity is wearing off on me.’
‘God save us,’ I muttered and he kissed me then,
rather suddenly and very passionately.
‘You’ll wait for me here… please?’
he whispered when he broke the kiss and we laughed lightly at the small
‘Where would I go?’ I grinned and then sobered.
‘Take her home; don’t make her wait any longer… she’s
I waited until I was sure they were gone and then went slowly
back to the cargo bay to stand and look up at the painting in question again.
I seldom know what is going to come out when I sit down to
paint. Some inner voice whispers half formed ideas to me, then it’s
almost as though some other entity takes over my body and I won’t
come up for air sometimes for days. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I can
draw and I can paint whenever I feel like it. It isn’t always like
being possessed. My commission jobs don’t work that way. But sometimes
something deep down in my soul just needs to come out. I think it’s
a little bit therapeutic.
This painting…this one was a little odd. This was the
first one that I hadn’t immediately understood. Well…not completely.
I understood my part in it. I understood Relena’s, but I wasn’t
entirely sure why Heero was in the damn thing. Did I doubt his love for
me? Was I worried that he harbored feelings for Relena or that she was not
entirely over her girlhood infatuation? Did I think of Heero as being like
her? I didn’t think so, not about any of it. What was my head trying
to tell me? I just wasn’t sure.
I was still standing there when Heero came back two hours
later. He didn’t say a word, just closed the cargo door and calmly
steered me off to the cabin. We spent the night on board, tucked up together
in my own bed, under my own blanket. Heero queued my night music for me
without my having to ask and I slept better than I had in a very long time.
I woke the next morning to the feel of Heero’s eyes
on me and it took a second for me to reconcile where we were. When he saw
my eyes open, he brought his fingertips to brush softly over my face, tracing
my jaw line… stroking my cheek.
‘The last time we slept here together, you were so very
sick…’ his expression was lost somewhere between melancholy
and content, his voice a mere breath. ‘You don’t look…
I smiled sleepily up at him where he was propped up looking
down. ‘I’m a pretty tough little sucker.’
His eyes did something strange then and his voice filled with
pain, ‘I almost lost you…’
I blinked up at him and wondered how long he’d been
awake, lying here thinking about that trip, thinking about those dark days.
I slid an arm around him and drew him down to my chest. His
muscles resisted for a moment and then he curled tight against me, his head
pillowed over my heart and let me hold him.
‘It’s all over, love,’ I told him softly
and brushed my knuckles over his hair. ‘We’re going to be Ok
A shudder ran through him and he held on tight. Emotion welled
up in me; I suddenly had an overwhelming need to protect him, to keep him
here safe beside me, to ease his pain.
‘I’m here now…’ I murmured over his
head, ‘everything’s all right…’
Is this what Heero felt? Is this what made him hover over
me and worry about me? This wash of need? This clenching in the gut that
demanded I do whatever in the hell it took to shelter him… shield
We were quiet for a time then, while we each thought our thoughts;
I can only attest to my own.
This was the first time that Heero had allowed me to offer
some of the support that he was constantly giving me and I was having a
little trouble getting my head around it. But… it was nice.
I felt him take my hand and after a moment there was pressure
against the palm. I looked down to find him gently kissing my scars and
I shivered; I don’t think he knew I couldn’t really feel it.
‘I’ve hurt you so many times,’ he sighed
and his voice seemed thick.
‘Heero…’ I dropped my head back to the pillow
and stared up at the ceiling. ‘We’ve talked about this…’
‘It doesn’t alter the fact that you had to do
this to yourself…to cover my mistake,’ his voice was bitter,
full of self-loathing.
‘The mistake was mine… I used too much explosives,’
I told him gently. ‘I was the one who brought the damn ceiling down
on Quatre to begin with.’
Where the hell was this coming from?
‘Stop it!’ I hissed at him, ‘Damnit, Heero…
you can’t keep dragging this up…’
He raised his head and turned bleak eyes on me. ‘I have
so many things to make up for.’
I pushed him up and off me, rolling us over to take the upper
hand and it was my turn to hover over him while he blinked up at me. ‘Get
past it; Goddamn it, I have! Just… let us be happy.’
Something unreadable passed over his face and he opened his
mouth to speak but then closed it.
‘I love you,’ I told him with all the intensity
I could muster. ‘I don’t want all this… crap between us.’
There was something more he wanted to say and I waited for
it but it never came.
‘Heero… please…’ I sighed and wasn’t
even sure what I was asking for.
His hand came to cup my face. ‘I love you so much…
and I’m so damn bad at it.’
I snorted and grinned down at him. ‘You? Don’t
be ridiculous; you’re the most attentive, caring partner I could ever
have asked for.’ I lost the grin. ‘The past is the past…
let it die.’
He pulled my head down to lie on his shoulder and that seemed
to end it because when he spoke again the subject was completely changed.
‘We really should get up; we have a lot to do.’
‘Uhmmm?’ I murmured, content where I was.
‘Well, love;’ he sighed, ‘Relena agreed
to the trip last night.’
I jerked my head up and stared down at him wide eyed. ‘What!
Why the hell didn’t you tell me?’
He chuckled softly. ‘I didn’t think the news would
help you sleep.’
I considered decking him but decided the statement was probably
the truth. You shouldn’t deck people over the truth. No matter how
tempting it was.
Shit. This was going to happen. This half-baked, insanely
mutant plan had come to pass. What had I fucking gone and done?
My brain kicked over into high gear and I fairly threw myself
out of the bunk. ‘Did you set a date yet? Shit… how long do
I have? I’m going to need you to stock the galley… I can hardly
feed the Queen of the World ration bars for God’s sake. Do we know
who she’s bringing?’ I was scrabbling for clothes as I talked,
hopping on one foot as I struggled into my pants and turned to find him
still lying there with the most damnable smirk on his face.
‘What?’ I snapped.
‘Calm down,’ he said. ‘I told her it would
take a couple of days.’
‘Days?’ I gaped at him. ‘I only have a couple
His expression changed to mildly confused. ‘What do
you need more time than that for?’
I rolled my eyes and jammed my hands on my hips. ‘God,
Heero… we’re not in the middle of a damn war anymore. You can’t
just go blasting off where ever you choose! It takes twenty-four hours just
to log and get a flight plan cleared!’
That turned my thoughts back to the task at hand and I headed
for the cockpit; time to get to work.
The flight plan was top priority and I sat down and keyed
that request in first, sending it off to ‘traffic control’ before
quickly putting a call through to the office. Never hurt to use a little
personal touch to make sure things went smoothly.
I was vaguely aware of Heero settling into the co-pilot’s
My vid-screen flared and I grinned up at the bored image of
the scrawny man who blinked at me for a moment before whooping, ‘Maxwell!’
‘Hey Smitty!’ I beamed and he turned his chair
away from the screen.
‘You guys! Look! Duo’s back!’
There were instantly three faces clustered around the monitor.
‘Hey! Welcome back asshole!’ grinned Smitty’s
shorter co-worker, Bernstein.
‘Watch it, Bernie!’ I chuckled and waggled my
fingers at the monitor.
‘Good to see you, Duo,’ smiled Havers, the restrained
one of their little group.
‘You guys didn’t go out of business without me
around to keep you busy?’ I had made the acquaintance of the three
musketeers when I had, on a boring run, added the line ‘Two day lay-over
in Never-Never Land’ at the end of my itinerary. The approved flight
plan had come back with the line removed and the note that ‘Never-Never
Land’ was closed for the season but I could reroute to either Eldorado
or Atlantis if I didn’t mind an extra day. Most of my flight plans
after that had included some silly destination or another. It became a game
that we played until we couldn’t help but meet face to face. They
were a great bunch of guys and I had to admit it helped having friends in
the ‘traffic control’ office.
‘You heading out on a job, Maxwell?’ Smitty asked
and I shook my head.
‘Not yet…’ I told them with a slight blush
that I hoped they didn’t catch. ‘Still a little early for that,’
I smirked then and reached to pat the bulkhead beside me lovingly. ‘The
old girl’s just getting jealous of my hospital bed! Taking her out
for a ride.’
There were a couple of rude snickers and Smitty muttered something
that made Bernstein smack him in the back of the head. I grinned at them.
‘So… can you push it through for me?’
Bernie grinned back. ‘We might be able to manage.’
He glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to wink at me. ‘Duty
calls… gotta go. Good to see you Duo.’
We signed off. My hands were already moving to login and send
through the request for a complete refuel when I heard Heero sigh beside
me. I glanced up and found him smiling oddly at me.
‘Well… I feel utterly useless,’ his smile
quirked into a half-grin. ‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘Actually,’ I told him, looking away and feeling
awkward, ‘I can deal with the ship preparations… but I don’t
know how to deal with Relena.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked softly.
‘She’s not a… spacer, Heero.’ I sighed.
‘She is going to have a cow shipping out on something that is going
to be very much less than the first class she is used to.’
He grunted and quirked me a tight little grin. ‘Isn’t
that part of this… show her how the other half lives?’
I shook my head. ‘The point is to prove to her that
children like Becca and Eel exist.’ My fingers were working over the
console even as we talked and I started a download of the area weather patterns
for the next four days. ‘She hates me. She is going to be convinced
that anything she ‘suffers with’ while she’s onboard is
my fault. She will expect from me what she would dish out in my place.’
He watched me intently for a few minutes, digesting that.
‘She’s truly not a bad person.’
‘I… know that,’ I told him, sparing a glance
up from my workstation. ‘But if there had ever been a chance that
we would learn to get along, I think that mural killed it.’
He looked vaguely guilty and I suppose he should when you
got right down to it. If he had stayed out of things, I’m pretty sure
I would have eventually told Ms. Angie Masters to bugger off and Relena
would never have even seen the damn painting.
That reminded me of the stupid interview and I pulled out
the journalist’s card; considering it for a moment. Did I grant the
interview or not? She wouldn’t get the pictures she wanted. Maybe
she wouldn’t be interested without them? I settled for sticking the
business card in the top of my keyboard; I’d decide later.
When I focused on Heero again, he was out of the co-pilot’s
chair and standing over me. I grinned up at him. ‘I’m putting
you in charge of the care and feeding of our passengers.’
He leaned down to kiss me. ‘Aye, Captain,’ he
murmured against my lips and made me laugh.
‘She’s gonna have to share the accommodations
with her chaperone, too!’ I hollered after him as he left the cockpit.
‘There’s only one guest cabin!’
He didn’t respond and I’m glad I didn’t
have to argue the point. I queued up my music as soon as he was gone.
It took me every bit of the three days to get the ship fueled,
supplied and ready to go. She’d been in dock for months and everything
had to be inspected and gone over. It was tedious, time-consuming work but
oddly… soothing. It was familiar. I was exhausted each night when
I crawled into my bunk but I felt good. I simply had to put out of my mind
the reason for the trip and just concentrate on the job. I felt, for the
first time, like I might actually get my life back someday.
We were scheduled for departure on Thursday morning. Tuesday
evening I e-mailed Ms. Masters and told her that she could have her damn
interview if she shut the fuck up about the pictures and could just deal
with only taking the shots that I outlined. Without argument or I would
throw her off my damn ship.
I had a reply from her within five minutes and she agreed
instantly. We squeezed the interview in on Wednesday morning because she
couldn’t afford to wait until I returned from L2. I insisted that
Heero hang around for it just to make sure the wily Ms. Masters didn’t
try anything cute. There would be two of them; she and her photographer,
and this would assure that there was someone to watch the both of them.
I didn’t want her outflanking me.
She was true to her word when she came onboard that morning,
her pony-tailed photographer in tow, not asking once to shoot anything I
didn’t authorize. I let them take pictures of the other murals in
the docking bay, the galley and my cabin. Turns out it was the painting
of the Maxwell church that had impressed her brother’s friend and
that was the one she was most interested in anyway. Go figure. She wanted
pictures of me, something I hadn’t anticipated but should have, and
I had to endure being posed in the middle of my star-field cabin. Turns
out Dirk, the photographer, was something of an amateur stargazer and recognized
that the midnight walls, floor and ceiling of my cabin were an accurate
configuration of the heavens as seen from the moon. From the only vantage
point and at the only time that all the colonies are visible at the same
time. I had gone so far as to put L5 back in my own personal night sky.
It took me by surprise; no one had ever noticed before.
He and I chatted about it for a few minutes and it did serve
to put me a little more at ease while he snapped his damned pictures.
I caught Heero looking at me with that Mona Lisa smile a couple
I made to lead them to the galley when they were done in the
cabin, the only place we could really all sit comfortably. Angie…yes,
damn it, I had finally broken down and started calling her Angie; shut up
all ready. Angie hesitated in the corridor, looking at the odd rendering
there of the line of people.
‘Not to overstep my boundaries,’ she smiled, ‘but
what about these? You haven’t mentioned this one.’
I had to turn and look at it while I mulled it over. My gut
instinct was ‘Hell no!’ These were my dead; I didn’t much
want to have to get into it. But for a second, I could see in my mind’s
eye Solo turn toward me with a wink.
‘Glory hog,’ he would have smirked. ‘Maybe
we woulda liked to get our pi’tures took too.’
I was probably the last living soul to remember these people.
I let my eyes travel down the line; all the ones who had been mine to protect…
and I had failed. All the ones that I had let die. It would be a kind of…
immortality. Not that the people seeing their faces staring back at them
from some magazines pages would ever really know them… but…
well, I think Solo really would have gotten a kick out of it.
‘All right,’ I found myself saying and Angie had
Dirk move in fast before I changed my mind.
‘May I ask who they are?’ she said softly.
‘Were,’ I corrected without thinking.
‘Pardon?’ she questioned, confused.
‘They’re my dead,’ I told her, turning to
look at her at last and realizing that the interview had started while I
wasn’t paying any attention. I sighed; oh joy.
‘Your family?’ she asked gently.
I shook my head. ‘Not… in the sense you mean,’
I found myself saying. ‘I’m an orphan.’
I pointedly turned my back until Dirk was finished and then
led them to the galley. I had learned my lesson about the camouflaging use
of drinks and offered them around. Heero and Angie declined but Dirk accepted
and I fetched squeeze bulbs of juice for the two of us.
As I had half expected, Angie questioned the use of the bulbs
and I had to explain to her the effects of zero gravity on things like liquid.
That led me around to explaining the fact that everything on a ship has
to be bolted down.
‘Most of us in the space trades spend a great deal of
time on our ships if we don’t actually live on them. We can’t
decorate the way you ground…’ I caught myself but not in time.
‘Ground-bounders?’ she smirked.
What could I do but smirk back? ‘You’ve done your
‘You spacers seem kind of elitist,’ she prodded.
I shrugged. ‘Not really. It’s just a language.
Slang. It grows up in any culture that has to find words for things that
never existed before.’
She didn’t look convinced, raising one of those carefully
lined eyebrows. I grinned at her. ‘Tell me there aren’t a dozen
words that you use around the office that wouldn’t make a bit of sense
She opened her mouth and had the decency to blush. ‘Ok…
Ok… I’ll give you the ground-bounders remark.’
I saluted her with my bulb of juice.
‘You do a lot of commission work,’ she stated.
‘Tell me how that came about.’
I saw Heero shift his stance where he leaned in the doorway
like some kind of damn imperial guard.
I gusted a breath and thought back. ‘We can’t
hang pictures or… set out mementos the way you do,’ I explained
as I wrestled with the words. ‘At first, I painted things… and
people I was afraid I’d forget.’
‘Like in the corridor?’ she asked very quietly
and I nodded.
‘Or…’ I gestured with my juice at the blue
sky around us, ‘like in here… just something to brighten things
up. We spend a lot of time in these ships. It gets…’ I hesitated,
thinking about it.
‘Lonely?’ she ventured when I didn’t finish
the sentence right away.
I shrugged noncommittally. ‘And… quiet. And monotonous.’
I grinned at her, dispelling the melancholy mood. ‘Damned boring is
what it gets; so we paint things like this!’
She sat and waited for me to get around to the original damned
question and I had to retrace my mental steps for a second to see where
in the hell I had been headed. ‘I seem to have a certain amount of…
ability,’ I told her with a wry grin, ‘and when my friends started
asking me to paint things for them…’ I shrugged again. ‘How
could I refuse?’
She looked at me, a little surprised. ‘You don’t
I laughed. ‘I didn’t, but it got to the point
that I never had time to do anything else, so I started charging just to
cut back on the number of requests I was getting. I have a salvage business
to run after all.’
She gave me an odd smile and said, ‘You are very talented…
you know that don’t you?’
I snorted and gave her a dismissive wave. ‘I can copy
down the shit I see in my head… doesn’t make me a Rembrandt
or a Picasso.’
She snorted in return. ‘You’re a fairly humble
guy Mr. Maxwell.’
I fought against a rising blush and sipped at my juice.
When she didn’t get a comment, she shook her head and
went on. ‘What is it you paint for other people?’
‘I thought you said you’d seen some of my work?’
‘I have,’ she conceded. ‘I was just curious
as to where it comes from. Do you choose? Do they make requests? What?’
I sighed and thought about it, tilting my head a little to
look up at the ‘sky’. ‘It varies. Sometimes they just
give me vague ideas.’ I grinned, thinking about some of the things
I had been asked to paint. ‘Sometimes it’s very specific; there’s
a guy out of L3 who now has a portrait of his ex-girlfriend in freefall
over his bunk.’
Dirk almost spewed juice all over himself and I couldn’t
help laughing at him.
‘Ex girlfriend?’ Angie asked with a hint of disapproval
in her voice.
‘Oh she wasn’t his ex when I painted it,’
I grinned remorselessly. ‘In fact, I have a request from him to come
and redo it to look like his new girlfriend.’
There was a tiny sound from Heero’s direction that might
have been a chuckle; I didn’t catch it over the sound of Angie’s
‘I paint whatever they ask… sometimes it’s…’
I waved my hand at the walls around us, ‘something simple like this.
Sometimes it’s something more… personal.’
‘You call this simple?’ muttered Dirk and it garnered
a look from Angie.
‘More personal how?’ she asked when he had subsided.
I thought about it for a minute. ‘Sometimes I paint
other people’s dead,’ I told her plainly and she just sat and
blinked at me for a minute.
‘Do you keep a log of what you’ve painted?’
she asked suddenly, ‘Do you take photographs?’
‘Sometimes,’ I said guardedly, I wasn’t
sure I liked where this was going.
‘Could we borrow some of them for the article?’
she asked then and it was pretty much what I had expected.
‘No,’ I said flatly.
She gnawed her lip for a second. ‘Why not?’ she
ventured at last, maybe deciding that she had enough already to write the
article if I threw her out.
‘Those are other people’s homes,’ I told
her. ‘I can give you a list of people to contact but it’s their
decision if they want you to see their paintings. They don’t belong
‘But you painted them,’ she pointed out.
‘They were gifts… they never belonged to me.’
This was starting to get tedious.
‘Gifts? I thought you started taking commissions?’
she said sweetly.
‘I don’t charge my friends for painting portraits
of their dead… their memories.’ I told her and it came out a
little harshly. ‘I don’t paint anything that personal for anybody
but my friends.’
She looked a little taken aback and murmured, ‘From
what I’ve seen… you have a lot of friends.’
‘Do you have enough information yet?’ I asked,
suddenly sick of the whole game. She was really starting to tread around
things that I didn’t much want to talk about.
She got an odd, rushed look on her face as though she realized
she was almost out of time. ‘Well… I was curious about your
relationship with Mr. Yuy here…’
My glance flicked to Heero and I saw the irritated glint that
appeared in his eyes, ‘I thought you told me you wrote for ‘The
Rising Times’, not ‘True Tattler’,’ I told her rather
coldly. ‘I fail to see what Mr. Yuy has to do with the interview you
She back-pedaled so fast I thought she was going to fall out
of her seat. ‘I’m sorry Mr. Maxwell… You’re right;
it’s none of my business.’
Damn straight it’s none of your business, I thought
angrily and had to struggle to keep it off my face. I had no idea how Heero
felt about having our relationship out in the open. He had a rather high-profile
position with the Preventors and having it bandied about that he was in
a… whatever the hell we were in… might not be a good idea for
There wasn’t much after that, she asked a few more fluff
questions and then they finally left my ship. I didn’t breathe freely
until they were completely out of the hanger.
‘I am so sorry I did that,’ I muttered almost
to myself and Heero came to take me in his arms.
‘You all right?’ he asked softly and I let my
head rest on his shoulder.
‘I’m fine,’ I told him, ‘just…
thinking that was an incredibly bad idea.’
‘I thought it went ok,’ he reassured me, his hands
sliding up and down my back soothingly.
‘I’m worried about what she’s going to write,’
I confessed. ‘She threw me with that… question.’
No need to tell him which question and he brought his hand
around to raise my face where he could see me. ‘It was none of her
damn business,’ he told me, echoing my earlier thought. ‘But
I want you to know that… I don’t mind. If you want…’
he hesitated and I swear to God he blushed. ‘I don’t have a
problem with people knowing about us,’ he said in a rush.
I cocked my head and looked at him hard. ‘Heero, it
couldn’t be a good thing for your job…’
He cut me off. ‘My life is more important to me than
my damn job,’ he said softly, not taking his eyes off mine, ‘and
you are my life.’
I could only stand and gape at him. I didn’t know what
to say, so we just stood and held each other. I really didn’t trust
‘You told me,’ he said softly; hesitantly and
I knew we were talking about one of those things I had said that I didn’t
remember. ‘You felt you didn’t deserve…love. Didn’t
deserve… me.’ He looked at me intently and I felt my face flaming.
‘I need you to know it’s the other way around; I’m the
one who is undeserving. You are… so alive… so talented and so
I buried my face in his shoulder to hide from that burning
gaze. ‘Heero…’ I whispered, wanting him to stop.
‘You know this trip is going to be… rough,’
he said gently against my neck. ‘I don’t want you to let her
get to you. You’re right; she’s going to be bitchy because she
resents this whole thing and is seeing herself as a victim. I don’t
want you doubting yourself. I won’t have her making you feel…’
he hesitated, looking for words.
‘Like a filthy street rat?’ I supplied with a
grin, ‘like a disfigured, loathsome…’
‘Stop it!’ he snapped and his hands tightened
almost painfully on my shoulders as he pushed me away where he could see
‘Chill, Heero!’ I told him, shocked at his vehemence.
‘I was kidding!’
The emotions running behind his eyes were hard to read but
he deflated quickly, ‘I… I’m sorry…’
‘Heero,’ I smiled softly, ‘when are you
gonna learn to just speak plainly to me?’
He gusted a sigh and eased his grip, ducking his head and
it was his turn to blush. ‘I love you. I’m proud of you. It
hurts me to see you in pain. I don’t like the way she treats you.
I like it even less that a part of you listens to what she says.’
He tilted his head up a bit to look at me through the veil of his bangs.
‘Is that plain enough for you?’
I chuckled. ‘Pretty damn plain… but it seems to
me that she’s the one that needs the talk.’
He opened his mouth and then closed it with a slight smirk.
‘You’re right… again.’
‘Good,’ I grinned, ‘now kiss me, damn it,
we have to get back to work.’
He smiled warmly and drew me back against him to do just that.
Rather soundly, thank you very much.
No amount of back rubbing helped me sleep Wednesday night
and by the time Thursday morning dawned, I felt like I was going to throw
Sometimes I truly am sorry about the messes that my mouth
gets me into. I was looking forward to this trip about as much as one would
look forward to a frontal lobotomy. Without anesthesia.
I slipped from the bed early, leaving Heero sleeping while
I went and showered to a fault. Yes, damn it; I never quite got over that
whole ‘you smell bad’ thing from my days at the Maxwell Church,
ok? It never really mattered what Sister Helen had said, it was just something
that had gotten under my skin and most likely would be there until I died.
I always worried about it, especially when I was going to be around someone
like Relena who would probably have that assistant of hers rush her to the
hospital if she ever broke into a sweat.
God, this was such a bad idea on just so many different levels.
I was, apparently, a masochistic, moronic little bastard. But it was too
damn late now.
I spent the time waiting for Heero to wake up doing a last
walk through, checking gages and seals, double-checking the vacuum suits.
I hadn’t told Heero I’d had to shell out the cash for two more;
I’d only owned two. That had hurt; those things aren’t cheap.
I ended up in the cockpit, running over the checklist and
going over the weather reports one last time.
Truth be told, it was more than just Relena that was bugging
me. This was going to be my first flight since the accident, my first time
back in the saddle. I guess that was eating at me too. Wouldn’t confess
it to anybody, not even under torture but I was nervous as hell. You’d
think it was my first time in the pilot’s seat. I was scared to death
that I’d lost my nerve. I could kiss my business goodbye if that happened.
Heero had tried to tell me how messed up I was on the trip back from the
belt, before I’d fallen so ill. But if I have any one, true talent
it’s denial. I think I had denied it for so long that even Heero had
bought into the ‘I’m fine’ lie.
I was sitting there staring at my view screen, watching nothing
happen in the hanger and debating if I should tell him that I maybe wasn’t
so damn fine after all, when he came wandering out of the cabin.
‘Duo?’ he called, a hint of concern in his voice.
That tone made up my mind for me; if I even suggested that I wasn’t
sure I was ready for this, he would call a halt to the whole thing.
‘In here,’ I called and he followed the sound
of my voice to the cockpit. He leaned down to kiss me good morning.
‘How long have you been up?’ he asked suspiciously,
eyes noting my damp hair.
‘Couple of hours,’ I admitted sheepishly and watched
the concern turn to a full-fledged mother-hen frown.
‘Duo love,’ he murmured softly, ‘if this
is going to upset you so damn much you can’t even sleep, then I’m
calling this whole thing off right now.’
I grinned for him, ‘Heero, I always get up early on
launch day.’ I noted movement in the monitor in front of me as that
ugly pink car pulled up to the hanger. ‘Besides, it’s a little
late now,’ and I nodded at the image.
He turned and looked, his frown changing subtly until it contained
more irritation than concern. It surprised me, as we spent more time together
how I was slowly becoming able to read his expressions. I remembered a time
when I had thought he had no damn expressions.
‘Heero,’ I said softly, feeling a faint frown
of my own, ‘Relena is your friend… please don’t let the
fact that she and I don’t get along affect that. How she and I feel
about each other should not change how you feel about either one of us.’
He turned from the monitor to look at me with a bemused smile.
‘What the hell are you doing,’ he said, ‘applying for
I snorted and flushed. ‘Shall we go greet our passengers?’
He headed out and I followed, dropping back just a little
so I had a moment to reach and touch Solo’s shoulder as I passed his
portrait on the wall. It was one of my habits before any launch, to touch
Solo for luck.
‘Thought ya forgot me, rat-boy,’ he would have
‘Maybe I’ll give the habit up, King-rat,’
I whispered. ‘Didn’t bring me a lot of luck last time.’
He would have laughed out loud.
Relena was standing next to the ugly car with another woman
while her assistant… what was his name? Paragon? I think that was
it. While Paragon unloaded their luggage from the trunk. My first thought
was; Holy Lord, did she bring everything she owned? My second thought was;
why the hell is the sixty year-old guy the one manhandling that heavy luggage
out of the car? I sighed and moved past the women with a cordial, ‘Good
‘Here, Paragon,’ I told the man, ‘let me
He gave me a surprised look but stepped back to let me do
it. I’m sure some strapping young porter had loaded the crap into
the trunk back at the Peacecraft estate but no one had thought about the
poor old guy giving himself a heart attack trying to get it out again.
‘Thank you, young man,’ he said softly and I swear
to God I saw Relena’s back stiffen.
Heero was taking her and her chaperone in hand, for which
I was eternally grateful, though he came to take a couple of the bags to
save us from having to make two trips. Heero had two bags, I had two bags
and Paragon was carrying several small cases. I shook my head with a wry
grin; how many changes of clothes did a Queen need for a five-day trip?
Heero was leading the women in through the open cargo hatch;
I slowed my pace to match Paragon’s so the old guy wasn’t trailing
behind on his own. He surprised me again when we passed through the cargo
bay. He stopped to look up at the mural and I felt myself standing there,
red as a beet waiting to hear what he had to say.
‘So that’s the… ’infernal thing’?’
he grinned and I choked on a laugh. ‘Master Yuy was right; you are
a very talented young man.’ He stared up at it for another long moment
before looking back at me with an utterly inscrutable expression. ‘I
wish you luck Mr. Maxwell.’
I sighed and couldn’t help myself, ‘I think I’m
gonna need it.’
He chuckled and we followed after the others.
I came into the guest cabin door just in time to hear the
tail end of a conversation, ‘…hardly what I would call spartan,
Relena,’ Heero was saying and his tone was one you would use with
a five year old throwing a temper tantrum.
‘Boy, am I gonna need it,’ I muttered under my
breath and moved into the cabin to set the luggage down with a bright smile.
‘Welcome aboard my home, Rel… Miss Peacecraft.’
I beamed at her, deliberately ignoring the ice that was forming on everything
within a mile of the woman. I turned to the second woman and gave her one
of my patented grins. ‘I don’t believe we’ve met?’
She was a middle-aged woman, shorter than anyone in the room,
dark hair shot with silver and a face that looked like it was more used
to smiling than wearing the frown that now covered it. I’m sure she’d
been told I was the devil incarnate.
‘I’m… Chezarina.’ the woman said,
reluctantly taking my hand when I extended it.
‘Greek?’ I asked with a smile and saw that I had
surprised her. She smiled almost shyly and nodded.
‘Welcome aboard, Chezarina,’ I said warmly and
turned to include Relena again. ‘Have you ladies settled on bunks?
We launch in an hour; your things will need to be stowed.’
I could see Relena grinding her teeth and looked passed her
at Heero’s amused expression. ‘Heero… would you mind getting
them started while I see Paragon out and start locking down?’
A strange grin played around his lips but never really came
out full strength. ‘Aye Captain.’
I flashed him a smile and left the cabin.
Paragon didn’t speak again until we were walking down
the ramp and were mostly outside. ‘She’s a good girl, Mr. Maxwell,’
he said softly. ‘I could only wish that the Darliens hadn’t
spoiled her so much.’
We stopped and stood looking at each other for a moment, I
finally let out a sigh. ‘I have to tell you that I have no real clear
idea how this mess came about. I was fully intending on turning down the
interview…’ I grinned at him sheepishly; I had no doubt he knew
the whole story.
He smiled wryly. ‘I don’t think it matters how
it happened, Mr. Maxwell… I just hope that you and Mr. Yuy can open
my little Relena’s eyes a bit.’
He walked away and I just stood and blinked after him in surprise
for a minute. Good God…the man loved her like a Grandfather and she
treated him like a damned servant. I shook my head, walked back aboard and
started the lock-down procedures.
I had everything sealed up and ready to go within twenty minutes
but kept double-checking things that didn’t need it, until I finally
admitted to myself that I was avoiding going back to that cabin. It was
my guilt for leaving Heero there alone with them that finally drove me to
I hesitated as I approached the open doorway, hearing Relena’s
irritated voice, ‘I still can’t believe you are endorsing this…
Heero’s voice was the epitome of patience. ‘Relena,
it’s hardly kidnapping; you agreed to this trip yourself.’
‘Under duress!’ she snapped.
I heard the sound of Heero stowing luggage and there was a
pause before I heard him say, ‘Why can’t you give Duo a chance?’
She didn’t have a ready answer and Chezarina interjected
softly, ‘He seems like a nice young man, Miss Relena.’
‘Don’t let that… that suave exterior fool
you!’ Relena snapped. ‘He’s nothing but a common criminal!’
Heero’s voice was taking on an edge. ‘Relena,’
he reprimanded, ‘Duo didn’t have the luxuries you had growing
up… yes; he may have stolen to survive but that hardly makes him a
‘Where I come from,’ Relena said haughtily, ‘stealing
is a crime.’
I decided that it was time I put a stop to this before she
seriously pissed Heero off. Though it still amazed me, I had discovered
that he was extremely protective of me and as much as I might have enjoyed
listening to Relena get her ass chewed out; I knew that Heero would be sorry
for it later.
I retreated several yards and proceeded to approach the cabin
again, this time deliberately making myself heard. The conversation in the
cabin stopped. I popped my head in and grinned happily at them. ‘Everything
all stowed? Great! We should get up front and get belted down. Lift off
is in twenty minutes, they’re just about to come and tow us out to
I let Relena’s glare deflect off the armor of my smile
and offered my arm to Chezarina. ‘Milady? This way please?’
If I stood little chance of charming Relena then I would turn
my attention to the chaperone.
Chezarina took my arm and I led her down the corridor toward
the cockpit. She gave me a small smile after she was out from under Relena’s
gaze and I rewarded her with my 100-watt grin. She stared openly at the
portraits of my dead, stopping for a second to look at little Becca’s
tear stained face.
‘Poor little poppet,’ she murmured but didn’t
ask. The pause gave me the chance to punch Solo lightly on the shoulder.
It was part of my launch ritual and it comforted me to be able to squeeze
it in without making a big deal out of it.
I settled Chezarina in one of the three jump seats in the
rear of the cockpit and made sure she knew how to strap herself in. ‘Ever
been in space?’ I asked her gently and she blushed a little.
‘Enough to know I really don’t like launches,’
she said wryly and I looked at her a little harder, seeing the slight strain
around the eyes and the faint sheen of sweat on her forehead. I squatted
down in front of her with a frown.
‘What the hell…’ I murmured. Heero and Relena
must have continued their conversation because they hadn’t followed
us yet. ‘Why in the world would Relena have picked you to come along
if you have a problem with space travel?’
She patted my hand where it lay on the armrest. ‘I doubt
she even knows,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t worry about it.
I just find lift-off a little… unsettling. I’m usually fine
I growled in irritation; that woman had to be the most insensitive
human being I had ever met… right next to Commander Une before she
‘Hang on a minute,’ I told her and moved to fetch
the med-kit. I took out one of the anti-nausea patches and returned to kneel
in front of her.
‘These are standard issue in med-kits,’ I reassured
her. ‘A lot of people have trouble with the heavy gee-force of launch
and with zero gravity. This has a very mild sedative and something for nausea.
Not enough to put you to sleep but enough to help you relax. A lot of the
problems that people experience stems from nerves.’
‘Oh… thank you,’ she beamed at me and I
helped her apply the thing to her arm.
We were just finishing with her belts when Heero led Relena
in. I left him to get her settled and took myself off to the pilot’s
seat to answer the beep of the comm.
I checked the security feed and found that my ‘tug boat’
was here. I hit the acknowledge and waited to see who was in that tow truck
‘Maxwell!’ I heard the booming voice of Dusty
come across the speakers. ‘You gonna leave me sit out here all day?’
I laughed and hit the open mike. ‘I damn near fell asleep
waitin’ for you to get here, old man!’
He chuckled back at me. ‘None the worse for wear, I
‘Take more than a little asteroid to put me out of business,’
I teased him and glanced up to see Heero settling into the co-pilots’
seat. He was smiling at me and I grinned back.
‘Good to have you back, kid,’ Dusty said then
and rather took me by surprise. I glanced back at the vid pickup that showed
him just sitting out there.
‘Hey…’ I ventured after a moments thought,
‘I didn’t think you worked on Thursdays?’
‘Didn’t think I’d let anybody else haul
your rust bucket out for its first flight in almost five months, did you?’
I grunted, ‘Damn, Dusty…’ I began but he
cut me off with a chuckle.
‘Though you might want to avoid my wife for a couple
of days. She had plans to clean out the garage today. She’s a little
pissed at you.’
I threw my head back and laughed. ‘That’s just
great!’ I scolded him, ‘she won’t invite me to dinner
ever again and I love her damn meatloaf!’
He snorted and muttered something about me and the dog being
the only ones.
‘Dusty, man,’ I ventured after a minute, ‘much
as I’d love to sit here and talk… you planning on hooking up
or what? I’m kind of on a schedule.’
There was the strangest silence and then he said hesitantly,
‘Duo… is everything all right in there?’
‘What?’ I said stupidly. ‘What are you talking
‘Where’s the music?’ he asked. I sat and
blinked for a minute, and had to resist the urge to turn around and look
‘Uhmmm… Dusty… I can’t…’
I began but he wouldn’t move an inch.
‘I been hauling your butt out to the field for goin’
on three years, whenever you’re in these parts,’ he said firmly.
‘We got a ritual, Maxwell… and I don’t believe in messing
with spacer luck.’
I chuckled at him and felt my face flaming. I glanced across
at Heero only to meet his mystified smile.
‘Ok… Ok… I give,’ I conceded, ‘What
do you want to hear?’
‘How about ‘Trip Across the Mountain’?’
he suggested and I breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t asked
for some of the other things we had been known to play.
I reached to queue the song, a fiddle piece that starts slow
but would speed up by the time we got out into the yard. I let it play on
the external speakers at the normal blaring volume but turned it down in
the cockpit, ‘Happy now, oh most exalted of drivers?’
‘Got your cross?’
‘Is the bear in the co-pilots seat?’
I had forgotten that one and looked across at Heero with a
wicked smile. ‘Well… sort of.’
‘Maxwell,’ Dusty warned.
I rolled my eyes and was opening my mouth to lie to him when
I saw Heero fish around beside his seat, coming up with the battered teddy
bear that Dusty’s kid had given me for Christmas one year, so that
I would have a second. We had named him Co-pilot Fuzzy-butt and he rode
in the co-pilots seat on all my Demon’s runs.
‘Bear is in place,’ I confirmed as I watched in
utter disbelief as Heero tucked the bear in beside him. Behind us, I heard
Chezarina giggle. ‘Can we go now?’
‘Sure thing!’ Dusty chuckled and I heard the clang
as he connected up and we were finally moving.
‘I meant to ask you about this,’ Heero murmured
as Dusty towed us expertly out of the hanger.
‘Dusty’s son Denver thought I should have a co-pilot…
so he bought me one.’ I grinned across at him, losing myself a little
bit in the comforting familiarness, ‘Heero… meet Fuzzy-butt;
Fuzzy-butt… meet your replacement.’
There was a moments silence and then Heero murmured, ‘Wouldn’t
want to mess with spacer luck.’
I lost the feed from the security cameras as we left the hanger
and switched to my own external view. As we moved, I ran over my checklist
one more time and wasn’t really paying attention to the vid-screens
so it rather took me by surprise when Dusty called quietly.
‘Hey Maxwell… kick it up; we’re an event.’
‘What?’ I said and looked up to see pilots moving
out of their hangers all down the line. ‘Shit,’ I murmured.
‘Come on, Duo… we can do better than ‘Trip
Across the Mountain’…’ he said and I could hear the grin
in his voice.
‘I… I…’ I blinked up at the screen
as spacers began to line the strip and I had to swallow the lump in my throat.
‘Got any suggestions, man?’ I almost whispered.
‘Hey… how about ‘Rocket Ride’?’
He could have suggested ‘The Coachman’ and I probably
would have agreed. Later I would look back and approve the choice. At that
moment, my fingers just moved of their own accord.
‘Nowhere to run…nowhere to hide, nothin’
worth doin’ that I haven’t tried, there ain’t no livin’
on planet-side, come on with me baby on a rocket ride….’
The change in music served to let the scattered pilots know
that they had been noticed and they began to wave and applaud. My God damn
eyes misted over. My face was so hot I wanted to fan it with my hand. I
wished longingly for a stiff drink. Damn.
I jerked when Heero reached across and touched my hand. I
turned toward him, tearing my eyes off the view screen and judging by the
grin on his face I must have looked damn stupid with my eyes bugged out,
my mouth hanging open and my face God only knew what color.
‘Did I fail to mention that you were… missed?’
Dusty chuckled at me.
‘It… doesn’t seem to have come up,’
I muttered and he laughed outright at my obvious consternation.
‘Well, you were kid.’
I felt a little bit like we were running a gauntlet. Heero
squeezed my fingers after a minute and when it got him my attention again
he murmured softly, ‘You planning on belting down?’
It served to bring me back to reality and I shook myself out
of my shock. ‘I suppose that might not be a bad idea.’
He let go of my hand with a chuckle and I settled down to
get my head out of my ass. I strapped down and took a deep breath trying
to calm scattered nerves; it had been damn touching but that little display
had only managed to tip me a little further off my balance. I licked dry
lips as we made the turn out to the field. At least we were away from the
hangers. I couldn’t believe the butterflies I had in my stomach; I
had to keep wiping sweaty palms on my thighs.
It seemed to come to Heero all at once that this was my first
time at the yoke since the accident and his voice came to me low and full
of concern, ‘Duo; are you all right? Do you need me to…’
I flashed him a smile that I hoped wasn’t as wan as
it felt. ‘I’m fine, love,’ I whispered back and began
to bring my ship to life.
Dusty maneuvered us with practiced ease onto the slingshot
launch track and I initiated the latching process.
‘See ya on the return, Maxwell!’ Dusty yelled
as he hauled his truck out of the way at top speed. We were running a little
‘Apologize to your wife, you asshole!’ I hollered
back. We never said goodbye; it was part of the ritual.
Then it was just me and my Demon. I let the music play; the
hell with Relena. I let it fill me and wash over me and I found that while
my stomach was turning somersaults, my hands and my head knew what they
were doing. I synched with the tower and we commenced the countdown. I brought
the engines on-line and checked the temperature gauges for any fluctuations.
‘Ok, Demon-girl…’ I murmured, ‘you
remember how this is done, right?’
The tower called the final all clear on the minute mark and
I scanned through the seal report one last time, getting green lights all
around. I felt the thrum as the drive chain locked in at thirty seconds.
‘Please put your drink trays in the docked position
and refrain from leaving your seats; ladies and gentlemen we are about to
leave the atmosphere,’ I said without really hearing myself.
The chain engaged at fifteen seconds and we were moving. There
was a tiny sound from behind me but I couldn’t really spare the attention
to feel bad for Chezarina, I was too busy wishing I could wipe the sweat
off the palms of my hands again. Slingshot launches are… damn fast.
We hit the end of the vertical ramp and I hit the thrusters. There was the
familiar roar of the engines and crush of the invisible hand of God on my
chest, Tom Smith was still belting out ‘Rocket Ride; ‘…I
want a bubble helmet matting down my hair, the ground giving way to the
open air, the joy and wonder as I head out there and I know I can have it
if I only dare…’
The yoke vibrated like a thing alive in my hands and I held
her tight as we fought our way clear of those clinging bonds of gravity.
‘Come on, Demon-girl… the stars are callin’,’ I
whispered to my lady, as much to calm my own hammering heart as hers. I
had not taken into consideration the strain on still-weak muscles that the
gee forces of launch would have; I had a horrified minute when I thought
I was going to have to have Heero take over from the co-pilot’s seat,
then we were out and free, the flash glare gone from the view screens and
I cut the thrusters back. The pressure eased from my chest and I heard an
audible sigh of relief behind me. ‘Everybody all right back there?’
I called out and Chezarina actually chuckled lightly.
‘I believe that we survived, Mr. Maxwell.’ Her
voice was fairly steady and I spared a moment to turn and grin at her.
‘Make you a deal,’ I told her. ‘You call
me Duo instead of Mr. Maxwell and I won’t call you Ma’am.’
She managed a laugh. ‘A… all right; it’s
‘Can you turn that incessant song off now?’ Relena
‘Sure thing, Miss Peacecraft.’ I grinned at her
as well and reached to kill the music. The sudden quiet hit me like a blow
and I sighed; it really was going to be a long fucking week.
I had the course programmed in already but had to call it
up and initiate it, I busied myself with that while my passengers unbelted
and began to move around. ‘There’re drinks in the galley if
anyone would like anything,’ I called absently as my hands and most
of my attention worked over my boards. As twisted up as my gut was over
this flight… I had still missed this.
I let the programming and the minor adjustments consume me.
The familiar activities took me over and for a small space I almost forgot
that this flight was any different than any other of my thousands of flights.
When I became aware again some time later, I glanced across at the co-pilots
chair and only found Fuzzy-butt staring back at me. For the space of a heartbeat,
fear welled up in my chest that I had dreamed the whole damn thing…that
it was just me and Fuzzy-butt and my ghosts aboard my Demon again.
‘Hey,’ Heero’s voice came softly from behind
me, letting me know he was there and he walked over to stand beside me when
he saw he had my attention. ‘How are you doing, love?’ he asked
I snorted up at him, feeling suddenly how tense my shoulders
were, how tremulous my muscles felt. ‘I launched a space shuttle,
Heero… I didn’t have brain surgery.’
He chuckled lightly but still reached to gently brush his
fingers through my bangs. ‘You had me a little scared,’ he admitted
gently. ‘You seemed to have trouble… finding your focus.’
I let my head fall back against the headrest and my eyes fall
shut. ‘Well… maybe a little bit.’
‘Are you done here?’ he asked.
‘Yep,’ I confirmed without opening my eyes. ‘On
course and on our way. Auto-pilot takes care of things for the next couple
I opened my eyes when I felt his hands take mine and tug gently.
I let him pull me to my feet and into his arms. ‘You feel… shaky,’
he frowned at me.
‘Shaky.’ I grinned. ‘Yeah… that kind
of sums it up.’
‘Duo love,’ he whispered against my hair, trying
to keep this private I think, ‘I’m sorry… I was so wrapped
up in the whys and the wherefores that I didn’t think about this being…
your first time in space since…’ He trailed off.
I straightened away from him a little bit and smiled. ‘What’s
with the word mincing? I thought we talked about this speaking plainly thing?’
He snorted and pulled me closer. ‘How are you doing
mentally?’ Then he quirked a grin, ‘And the plain speaking works
He surprised a laugh from me and I shook my head. ‘Shaky…
describes it pretty well. A little off balance, a little nervous. It’s
makin’ me… reflect a little bit…but I’m all right.’
His hands slid up and down my back. ‘You’re tense.’
I chuckled. ‘That’s about half launch jitters
and half… Relena-itis.’
He pulled me close again and I just let myself lean on his
strength for a minute. Let his arms dispel the last of the heart wrenching
terror that he hadn’t been real…that I had dreamed him. Dreamed
‘I’m here for you,’ he breathed next to
my ear and I shivered.
‘That means… everything,’ I murmured back.
We shared a final tight hug, then separated.
‘Where are they?’ I asked with a sardonic grin,
which he returned with a roll of his eyes.
‘In the galley.’ He sighed and we moved to head
that way. ‘What made you think this was a good idea, again?’
I snorted and took a playful swing at him. ‘I believe
you were the one who insisted.’
‘That’s not how I remember it,’ he teased
and we were close enough to the galley that all I could do was glare at
Relena and Chezarina were sitting at the table in the galley
with bulbs of something in their hands. Relena was frowning and her companion
was just looking uncomfortable.
‘Ladies!’ I beamed as we came into the room and
I moved to fetch my own bulb. I briefly considered a soda but decided that
a protein drink would probably be a better choice. ‘How are we doing?’
Chezarina fairly grinned back at me. ‘Oh, Mr.….
Duo…’ she hesitated over the name with a faint flush, ‘I
can’t thank you enough for that patch! It made all the difference
in the world! That’s the first launch I’ve been through where
I didn’t think I was going to throw up!’
Relena looked at her sharply. ‘What patch, Chezarina?’
she asked suspiciously.
‘Just an anti-nausea patch,’ I informed her.
Chezarina seemed to have missed the look, busy pushing her
sleeve up to look at the thing. ‘When should I take it off?’
she asked me.
‘They’re twelve hour patches,’ I told her,
‘but if you normally don’t have any trouble after launch, you
can take it off whenever you want.’
Relena was frowning at me and I kept my innocent smile firmly
in place. ‘Mr. Maxwell,’ she began rather coldly, ‘you
are not a Doctor, I don’t know that…’
Heero cut her off rather smoothly before I had a chance to
even think about it. ‘Relena, they’re standard issue on any
flight. It’s an over-the-counter medication… they’re safe
for use on children.’
She took it, because it came from him but I could see it rankled.
It was killing her that he kept taking my side. I thought about that for
a moment and realized that it wasn’t going to do my cause any good
if Relena started feeling picked on.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Peacecraft,’ I murmured
contritely. ‘I probably should have mentioned it to you first but
they take several minutes to take affect… and we were a little short
Chezarina seemed to notice for the first time that something
was going on here and she looked first at me and then at Relena. ‘Miss
Relena, please don’t be angry with him… it was really rather
sweet that he noticed my discomfort with everything else he had to take
I saw the annoyed look on Relena’s face falter and realized
that this woman had some pull on the young Queen’s emotions. She couldn’t
quite make herself look me in the eye but she quietly said, ‘I…
understand. Thank you, Mr. Maxwell, for taking care of it.’
I gave her a mega-watt grin. ‘No problem. You ladies
need anything at all… just let me know.’
I decided that I would make myself scarce for a little bit;
that was the closest thing to a civil sentence that I had gotten out of
the woman in… well, ever. I decided not to push my luck and excused
myself. Behind me I heard Relena murmur softly, ‘Chezarina, why didn’t
you ever tell me that space travel bothered you?’ She actually sounded
a little hurt.
The older woman spoke warmly. ‘Don’t worry about
it, Miss Relena… it isn’t that bad.’
I shook my head; what was it about that girl that won her
such loyalty? She certainly didn’t inspire anything in me outside
I passed most of the morning keeping busy with mundane things
that really didn’t need to be done, mostly just avoiding Relena until
she had a change to settle in a little bit. I was hoping that she wouldn’t
be able to maintain that level of pissed for the whole five days. I wasn’t
about to bet money on it…but I was hoping. I spent most of my time
either in the cockpit or in my cabin, giving Heero a chance to maybe put
them at ease. I was standing in the cockpit holding Fuzzy-butt, trying to
figure out what to do with him now that there was somebody who’s place
was going to be in the co-pilot’s seat, when Chezarina came looking
‘Mr. Maxwell?’ she called from the doorway and
I turned and grinned at her maliciously.
She laughed lightly. ‘I’m sorry… Duo. The
‘mister’ is hard to lose when you’re in my line of work.’
I plopped Fuzzy-butt back in his seat. ‘Well; in my
line of work, you’re not a ‘mister’ until you’re
too old to pilot and you have to take a dirt-side job.’
‘I came to tell you that lunch is ready,’ she
told me then and I grinned appreciatively; I hadn’t been able to stomach
breakfast and I was getting a little hungry.
‘Great!’ I smiled broadly. ‘Lead on!’
We stepped out into the corridor and she started to head back
for the galley but then stopped. I caught her looking at the mural on the
‘Duo…’ she said after a moments hesitation,
‘why is this little girl crying? It gets to me every time I see it.’
I stopped and let my eye travel down the line of my dead.
‘That’s Becca,’ I told her softly. ‘She was one
of the few of us orphans who knew what her given name was. She even knew
her birthday… we all thought that was amazing.’ I gave Becca
a melancholy smile. ‘She remembered her parents, so it was harder
for her. She cried a lot.’ I shrugged. ‘I guess that was just
how I remembered her.’
Her eyes were wide and she was trying to decide whether to
look at me or at Becca. ‘Oh Heavens… that’s so sad. What…
what happened to her?’
‘She died in the plague,’ I told her simply and
tried to get her to move on toward the galley. But she wasn’t quite
done with the questions.
‘You mean that Duo Maxwell isn’t your given name?’
She blinked up at me and I swear for a second I thought she was going to
I flashed her a grin. ‘Nope. They called me Dodger before
I was Duo and before that, for the longest time, I thought my name was ‘Heyyou’.’
I made it breezy and I made it funny and she laughed when
I did, though it was fairly weak.
‘Come along, Milady,’ I urged, ‘I’m
She took the arm I offered and when we turned toward the galley,
I saw Heero standing in the doorway with an unreadable expression on his
It was such a totally alien thing to walk into my galley…with
my blue sky and green grass…and smell real food. The table was set
with the real dishes and everything. I looked up at Heero and grinned. ‘Hey,
oh grand chef… if you can cook, how come I get stuck doing it all
He chuckled with me as I handed Chezarina into a seat. ‘I
had some help,’ he said and I looked to try to catch which one of
the two of them he was looking at.
‘Heero,’ I reprimanded lightly, ‘these ladies
are our guests…you can’t make them cook and clean.’
Chezarina laughed out loud and I knew beyond a shadow of a
doubt that she’d done most of the cooking. Relena was being very subdued
and I wondered what they had spent the morning talking about.
The meal started out easily enough, we were able to do the
‘pass this’, ‘pass that’ thing for a bit and then
there was the complimenting the cook part. It really was very good, a simple
casserole with potatoes and diced chicken.
Then something seemed to pass between Heero and Chezarina
and she turned to me with an odd smile. ‘So… all the portraits
are of real people?’
I flushed and thought I was going to choke on my lunch. ‘Uhmmm…
Yeah,’ I confirmed when I could swallow.
‘Who are the Priest and the Nun?’ she asked and
I swear to God the look on her face was just a little too innocent to be
‘Father Maxwell and Sister Helen,’ I breathed
and tried to catch Heero’s eye but he was studiously eyeing his plate.
‘They ran the orphanage where I… spent a couple of years.’
I stirred my potatoes around and just prayed that she didn’t ask what
happened to them, I really didn’t want to get into it.
‘Maxwell?’ she asked brightly. ‘Is that
where you took your name from?’
‘Y… yes,’ I confirmed, my stomach starting
to knot as I waited for her to get around to asking the next question. I
didn’t know that I could sit here and talk about the massacre.
‘He was a darn tall man,’ she commented and it
was so not the comment I had been expecting that I laughed.
‘Well… I suspect he might not have been as tall
as that,’ I grinned at her, ‘but when we were kids he seemed
like a giant to us!’
‘He has a kindly face,’ she remarked and I suddenly
realized she and Heero were trying to turn them in to real people for Relena.
‘He was damn scary looking when we got in trouble.’
I laughed and decided maybe I could play their game. ‘I’m afraid
I had a penchant for getting into fights that usually ended with me polishing
the brass railings.’ I didn’t mention that I was usually in
those fights trying to defend the little ones from the whole wide world.
Trying to fill Solo’s shoes.
Chezarina laughed with a twinkle in her eye. ‘I imagine
they were the shiniest railings on L2.’
She won a true laugh from me and I looked up to finally find
Heero’s eyes, he gave me a small, almost imperceptible nod of encouragement.
‘I imagine they were,’ I chuckled. ‘What Father didn’t
understand was that I didn’t really mind polishing them because Sister
Helen liked to see them all shiny and bright.’ My smile turned melancholy
despite myself. ‘We all adored her… we’d do anything to
make her happy.’ I snickered, ‘It was kind of bizarre when you
got right down to it; we dreaded ‘the look’ we’d get from
Father Maxwell… and the lecture, of course. But then after we were
done with the punishment, we got the reward of hugs from Sister Helen.’
I shook my head in remembrance and continued to push potatoes around.
‘What… what happened to them?’ The question
was like a blow to the gut. More so, because I had let my guard down, trusting
that Heero had warned Chezarina not to ask it. I couldn’t remember
that I had told Heero the story but somehow with the other things that I
had spilled to him in my fever dream, I had little doubt that he knew at
least the gist of it. They had apparently not taken Relena into account
when they had hatched this little plot to un-bastardize me. I saw Heero’s
face go still and he opened his mouth but I stopped him with a raised hand.
‘It’s all right, Heero,’ I told him softly
but I could tell from the look in his eyes that he could see in my face
that it wasn’t. Well, it wasn’t her fault; they had started
this. No one had told Relena that the question wasn’t askable.
I looked up at her and only saw guarded curiosity on her face.
‘There were… skirmishes all over L2 at the time.’ I took
a sip from my juice bulb because my throat was suddenly dry. ‘Rebels
broke into the church and it was… destroyed when the Federation came
after them. They… were killed during the fighting.’
I saw a flicker of what seemed to be true sympathy in her
eyes and I was moved to reach and pat her hand. She flinched and I drew
back without touching; I had forgotten my scars.
‘I’m… sorry,’ she murmured and now
she was pushing potatoes around on her plate. This wasn’t going at
all as planned, I suspected.
Chezarina looked just freaking miserable and Heero had a rather
stricken expression on his face. I really couldn’t read Relena. Something
was clenching tight in my chest.
‘You know…’ I said after an uncomfortable
moment, ‘Fuzzy-butt is a decent enough co-pilot but you have to watch
him like a hawk or he veers off course. He’s been looking for Ursa
Major for the last year.’ It was ridiculously lame. On a better day
I would have handled things just fine but after the last dozen hours, it
was just a little too much. Too much raw edged emotion. Too many memories,
some old and some not so damn old. I excused myself and headed for the cockpit
to ‘relieve’ Fuzzy-butt. I trailed my hand down the wall as
I went, letting my fingers brush over the images of my ghosts. As I reached
the cockpit door and passed Solo, I heard the echo of his voice, ‘Get
yer shit together rat-boy.’
‘I’m tryin’ rat-king,’ I muttered
and went in to the relative privacy of the cockpit to do just that.
‘Minding your manners, Fuzzy-butt?’ I murmured
and picked the stupid thing up to hug to my chest. Damn, that had totally
blindsided me. I should have realized that all these paintings and pictures
were going to generate questions. I guess I had just become so focused on
the incriminating new one in the cargo bay that I had kind of forgotten
about all the others. I rubbed my cheek against the well-worn, familiar
fur and had to sigh. Fuzzy-butt and I were old comfort buddies. He wasn’t
a much better conversationalist than ‘Demon’ was but he listened
pretty damn good.
There were suddenly warm hands on my shoulders and Heero’s
tender voice near my ear. ‘I believe that’s my job he’s
He plucked the thing out of my arms and tossed it back in
its seat, turning me around and tugging me into a fierce embrace. ‘I’m
so sorry love… it never dawned on us that Relena would actually enter
I muffled my laugh against his shoulder. ‘Well now;
doesn’t that just say a whole hell of a lot about our present situation?’
He wrapped me close, molding us together until it felt like
he was all that was holding me up. I closed my eyes and let myself cling.
‘You hug way better than Fuzzy ever did,’ I murmured and pulled
a chuckle out of him.
‘I’m so very sorry,’ he told me for the
second time. ‘I knew they were dead but I didn’t know it was…
I chuckled but there was no humor in it. ‘It’s
worse than that, love,’ I whispered and felt the familiar pain welling
up. ‘It was my fault.’
He didn’t speak, just stroked a hand over my hair and
held me close.
‘One of these days,’ I sighed, ‘when we
have some time alone… maybe I’ll get drunk enough to tell you
Oh God, Duo,’ he said then, his voice thick, ‘I’m
so damn bad at this.’
I squeezed him hard where my arms were wrapped around his
waist. ‘You are not,’ I told him firmly. ‘Holding good.
Touching good.’ I lifted my head from his shoulder to smile at him.
‘And stop apologizing.’
‘I don’t want to hurt you,’ he said softly
and I knew what a splinter that was under his skin.
I stopped him with a gentle kiss. ‘Now is not the time
for this, love.’
He sighed but nodded his agreement.
I slid reluctantly from his embrace. ‘I should probably
go speak with Chezarina. She looked… a little upset.’
Heero smiled ruefully. ‘I really feel sorry for the
poor woman; I’ve had a couple of opportunities to talk with her. She
really likes you and I think she would like to turn Relena across her knee.
She really feels caught in the middle.’
I had to stifle a laugh at the mental picture that comment
dredged up and I related to him a little of what Paragon had said to me
in the cargo bay.
He snorted and shook his head. ‘No pressure here.’
Then he glanced at his watch and sighed. ‘Do you mind if I use the
radio? I need to check with Wufei about a few things I left hanging.’
I mock glared at him. ‘Heero, you know damn well you
don’t have to ask my permission to use the stupid radio.’ I
turned to leave the cockpit and glanced back at the last minute to see him
settling into the pilot’s seat, ‘And tell Wufei I said hi.’
He grinned over his shoulder at me.
I found Chezarina in the galley cleaning up the dishes and
I cursed myself under my breath.
‘Hey, Milady,’ I grinned as I came into the room,
‘you are a guest aboard my ship; it’s bad enough you did the
cooking… I won’t have you doing the dishes as well.’
She flashed me a wan smile. ‘I don’t mind, it
gives me something to do,’ she murmured, looking at me as though she
wanted to say something else.
I moved in and bodily shifted her away from the sanitizer
and ushered her to sit at the table. ‘I am not such a cad that I would
kidnap you and then use you as forced labor!’ I intoned loftily and
continued with the cleanup.
‘Duo…’ she ventured after a moment of watching
me work, ‘I am so sorry… We were only…’
I cut her off with a grin. ‘I figured out what you two
connivers were up to; you have nothing to apologize for.’
‘We should have talked to you first, so that it wasn’t
such a surprise.’ She frowned, thinking over the conversation again,
‘No.’ I sighed, just wishing we didn’t have
to talk about this any more. ‘If I’d had time to think about
what I was going to say… it probably would have come out sounding
rehearsed and stilted. I’m the one who should be apologizing; I’m
not normally so touchy about it. It’s just been a kind of rough couple
I put the last of the plates away in the cabinet, locking
them into their restraints; she was quiet until I was done. I turned and
leaned against the counter to face her, giving her a chance to get whatever
else she had on her mind out in the open. Might as well get this the hell
‘Rough?’ she asked gently.
I sighed and scrubbed a hand over tired eyes. ‘Look,
Chezarina…I’m not really sure how in the hell I got us all into
this. I never intended to do that stupid interview.’ I had no doubt
that the woman knew all the juicy details to this whole sordid affair. ‘Heero
just kept pushing me… before I knew what my big mouth was doing, I
had agreed under the condition that Relena said it was ok to publish pictures
of that thrice-damned mural.’ I dropped my hand from my face and stared
down at my scarred palms for a minute. ‘But… when Relena came
onboard and saw the thing…she attacked it. Said that I had made the
children up…’ I stopped and looked up at her. ‘I just
got so damn mad…’
She stood up and came to lay a hand on my arm, ‘I’m
so sorry, Duo.’
I snorted softly and flashed her the ghost of a grin. ‘Have
I ever mentioned that my big mouth tends to get me hip deep more often than
She chuckled. ‘I’ll bet it gets you out of trouble
as often as it gets you in,’ she observed dryly and I had to shake
‘She truly is not normally like this,’ she told
me softly then. ‘She is a kind and compassionate woman. Her father
sheltered her too much… there are just so many things that she’s
‘I know that.’ I sighed, looking back down at
my hands. ‘Heero cares for her. I trust his judgment… if he
believes in her, then I believe in her.’ I grinned at her, trying
to lighten the mood. ‘She just sure as hell doesn’t make it
She chuckled, mostly I think, because I wanted her to and
very deliberately reached out to take one of my hands. One of my poor scarred
hands. I looked up into her eyes, startled. She opened her mouth to speak
but then there was a sound in the corridor that told us that we were no
longer alone and she only smiled.
‘I think I’m going to go back to our cabin,’
she said, a little too cheerfully. ‘I packed some books and I think
I would just like to sit quietly for awhile and read.’
‘That sounds damn nice right about now,’ I agreed
and she gave my hand a last pat before turning and heading toward the door.
I stood for a second and listened to the sound of…nothing.
I really wished I could play my music. When I was out in space on a job,
the music never stopped. Day or night, there was always something playing.
I used it to adjust my mood, I used it to bolster myself when the memories
came hunting, I used it to cover the silence.
Maybe I would just go to my cabin for awhile as well; I still
had the works of Kipling to go through after all.
I don’t know what made me glance to the right when I
walked out that door. I really don’t. Later, I would not be able to
say if I heard something or just what it was that made my eyes flick in
that direction. What I saw made my blood turn to ice and I was running hard
that way even as my brain engaged and I was yelling, ‘Relena! Don’t
I saw her glance over her shoulder, the look on her face hardened
and I knew in an instant that she thought I was just being pissy. She turned
back to the controls to the cargo bay and reached defiantly for the button
to open the door, punching at it savagely. I got to her just two seconds
too damn late. All I could do was grab hold of her and hold on for dear
I don’t pressurize the cargo bay if I’m not carrying
Relena yelped indignantly and struggled against my arm, almost
making me miss my lunge for the zero gravity handhold over our heads. Then
the alarms started to blare and we were suddenly in a wind tunnel as the
door slid open. She screamed and all of a sudden I wasn’t so damn
repellent as the tornado winds ripped us from our feet.
I hadn’t gotten a good hold of the metal rung that was
the only thing keeping us from being swept into the icy, airless cargo bay,
the best I had managed was to wedge my fist in it. I threw back my head
and bellowed as best I could over the sound of the alarms and the rush of
the wind, ‘Zarina! Stay in your cabin!’
My hold on Relena was precarious and I was probably bruising
the hell out of her ribs trying to maintain my grip. She got a good solid
handful of my shirt and hung on for dear life, eyes squeezed shut and trying
to scream in the thin air.
‘Heero!’ I shouted for all I was worth, ‘the
cargo door overrides! The cargo…’ And the door was sliding shut.
We dropped like puppets with the strings cut and I felt something pop in
my wrist as we fell to the floor, and my arm twisted in the trap of the
handgrip. I hissed in pain but it was lost in the sound of the alarms and
Relena’s hysterical weeping.
We were sprawled across the deck, tangled together like a
couple of discarded rag dolls. She was sobbing, I was panting, the bulkhead
under us was ice cold and I was willing to bet that it would take the ship’s
systems hours to adjust for the loss of air. The alarms had cut out when
the door had slid home and my suddenly pounding head blessed the quiet for
‘Duo!’ I heard the thunder of Heero’s running
steps through the bulkhead under me. ‘Duo, what the hell happened?’
Relena was trying to lever herself off me and I reached with
my good hand to steady her by an elbow. ‘Relena, are you all right?’
I managed but she only recoiled from my touch and almost fell on her ass
beside me. I withdrew my hand and sighed. ‘Zarina! Are you all right?’
I called, even as Heero was throwing himself down beside me on the floor.
‘Can I come out now?’ I heard her voice, slightly
muffled with distance.
‘Yes, please.’ I called again. ‘Rel…
Miss Peacecraft needs you.’
‘Duo?’ Heero’s voice was damn near shaking,
‘Are you ok?’
‘I’m ok.… ’ I muttered, just trying
to concentrate on getting my heartbeat back under control. ‘Is Relena
He never even looked at her. ‘No.’ His fingers
were stroking over my head, checking to see if I’d hit it. ‘You’re
in pain. What’s wrong?’
Chezarina came down the corridor on the run then, gathering
Relena up like a small child. ‘It’s all right now, my little
poppet,’ she whispered gently and I swear to God Relena only started
to cry harder. ‘Are you hurt?’
Relena shook her head and words tried to come out around the
broken sobbing, ‘I didn’t know… I just wanted…’
‘What the hell did you think the damn red warning light
was?’ Heero snapped at her and I saw her cringe. Guess he figured
out what had happened. Chezarina looked up at Heero, shock clear on her
‘Heero!’ I warned and his eyes came back to find
me, completely dismissing them. I saw the fire of his fierce protectiveness
and it made me shiver. ‘It was my fault.’ I told him. ‘She’s
never been aboard anything but the commercial shuttles before. I should
have gone over the safety rules with her.’
His anger seemed to deflate a little and his eyes were searching
me almost desperately. ‘You’re hurt,’ he reiterated. I
caught Chezarina’s eye and nodded for her to take Relena back to their
cabin. She drew her away and I waited until they were around the corner
before letting myself relax back onto the floor with a sigh, cradling my
throbbing arm to my chest. ‘I… think I broke my wrist,’
I finally told him and he hissed through clenched teeth.
‘It has been something of a sucky day,’ I told
him with a smile but he would have nothing to do with my joking. Before
I quite knew what he was doing, he had me caught up in his arms, lifting
me as though I were little more than the rag doll I had compared us too
‘Heero…’ I scolded, ‘I fail to see
what a broken wrist has to do with walking.’
‘Just shut up,’ he growled and when I let myself,
I could feel the trembling in his arms, could see the thunder of his pulse
in his throat.
‘It’s all right, love,’ I told him gently.
‘Just calm down… it’s all over.’
He didn’t speak again until he had me in our cabin and
stretched out on the bed. ‘Let me see,’ he told me and took
my arm in his hands, running his fingers over the wrist until I winced and
bit back a cry.
‘That…’ I hissed, ‘would be the place.’
He went to get the med-kit and when he came back, he seemed
a little more under control. I kept my comments to myself while he worked;
just let him fuss over me until he seemed to settle some.
‘I think it might be fractured,’ he told me after
a bit. ‘We’re going to have to have it x-rayed as soon as we
get to the colony.’
I watched him working over it, his hands moving deftly and
it took me back to the war years with a start. We locked eyes for a moment,
‘Uhmmm… Nice field dressing,’ I mumbled and knew that
he was in that same place.
‘Heero,’ I ventured when he had it wrapped and
was setting a cold pack gently around it, ‘we need to go check on
‘I will… go apologize when I am done with you,’
he murmured, not meeting my eyes.
‘I really am at fault, Heero,’ I told him firmly.
‘I should have gone over things with them… I let the fact that
she doesn’t like me keep me from doing my damn job.’
He sighed, putting the finishing touches on my binding. ‘I
should have handled it,’ he said. ‘I know how the two of you
feel about each other.’ He managed to dredge up a rather sad little
smile for my benefit. ‘You did task me with the care and feeding of
our passengers, after all.’
I chuckled for him and raised my good arm. ‘I wouldn’t
object overly much if you felt the need to, you know, hold me for a minute.’
I thought he would give me whiplash pulling me up and into
his arms; the icepack fell away, forgotten for the moment.
‘Damn it, Duo,’ he murmured against my hair, ‘I
could just shake her! What in the hell was she thinking?’
‘I imagine she was just going to look at that stupid
painting again,’ I told him gently. ‘She really didn’t
realize, Heero. She came as close to getting killed as I did.’
That might not have been the best thing to say right at that
moment, because his arms tightened around me almost convulsively, until
I found breath something of a struggle. I awkwardly stroked his hair with
my good hand and let him ride through the fear.
‘I love you so much,’ he whispered against the
top of my head when he could again and I gently kissed the side of his neck,
the only thing his embrace would let me reach.
‘I’m all right, love. Everything is going to be
ok,’ I whispered against his shoulder, suddenly just very damn tired.
He seemed to feel some change in me, maybe he felt the shakiness
that was coming over me because he eased me out of his embrace and lay me
back down on the bed.
‘Heero…we have to go check on our passengers,’
I told him sternly, even though all I really wanted in that moment was to
lie down and go to sleep for a little while.
He was rummaging in the med-kit again and came up with the
pain pills. I could tell there was just no arguing with him. I swear half
his hovering was generated by the earlier fiasco over lunch; he was still
feeling so guilty about setting me up to have the Maxwell church thing thrown
in my face that it was about to kill him. I dutifully swallowed a couple
of the pills, mostly just to make him feel better.
‘I will go check on them,’ he told me firmly.
‘You are going to rest for a bit.’
‘Heero…’ I complained, starting to get frustrated,
‘it’s a fractured wrist…not a sucking chest wound!’
He frowned down at me and moved to lay his hand on my forehead.
‘You’ve been pushing yourself too hard,’ he told me. ‘You’re
still recovering your strength… this trip wasn’t supposed to
be this stressful.’
I rolled my eyes and opened my mouth to ask him just how in
the hell he thought a trip that involved locking me and the personable Miss
Peacecraft in the same spaceship was going to not be stressful, when there
came a quiet, ‘Excuse us?’ from the door to the cabin.
We both looked up, startled, and there were Chezarina and
Relena in the doorway. Relena seemed to have gotten her shit together, though
her face was a little puffy and red. Chezarina seemed totally nonplussed;
as though she dealt with crap like this everyday. And who knew, maybe things
were more exciting in the Sanc household than one would have thought.
‘Ladies?’ I greeted them and tried to lever myself
up on one elbow. Unfortunately, my left side had the sprained/fractured/whateverthehell
wrist and I couldn’t manage it. So I had to endure laying there flat
on my back with the three of them hovering over them.
I caught Relena looking at her shoes and discreetly tucked
my hands under the covers.
‘Relen…’ I grimaced, I was going to have
to stop thinking of her as Relena to keep myself from making that slip,
‘Uhmm… Miss Peacecraft; are you all right?’
She nodded but still seemed to have trouble making herself
look up at either one of us, Chezarina seemed to prod at her mentally somehow
and she stepped a bit further into the room. ‘I… I am very sorry.
I only meant to go look at the painting again.’ Her eyes flicked toward
Chezarina for a moment. ‘Everyone else seems to see something in it
that…’ Her voice faded before she got much further with that
thought. ‘I honestly didn’t realize the danger.’ She turned
her gaze on Heero then and I realized how much his yelling at her must have
stung but he was still in full guardian mode and she got little more than
a glare from him. I jabbed him lightly with my knee but only got the glare
turned on me.
‘I’m the one who should be apologizing,’
I told her, since he didn’t seem about to unbend enough right now
to do it. ‘I live with these things everyday and I forget that the
whole world is not full of spacers. I should have gone over things with
the both of you.’
‘Are you all right, Duo?’ Chezarina asked then
and I quirked her a reassuring grin.
‘Depends on whether you ask me or Heero!’ I chuckled
and got a glare from my significant other.
‘He may have broken his wrist,’ Heero said sullenly,
as though I’d done it on purpose somehow.
‘Well it beat the hell out of the alternative!’
I laughed at him and suddenly realized that I was feeling almost no pain
and felt oddly relaxed.
Chezarina looked a little shocked. ‘You broke your arm?’
she asked, eyes wide, ‘What are we going to do?’
I snickered. ‘Heero already took care of it,’
I told her, pulling that arm out from under the blanket to show her his
handy-work. ‘The five of us got fairly good at patching each other
up during the war.’ My voice sounded funny and I looked at Heero to
find him smiling affectionately down at me. ‘You asshole.’ I
blurted. ‘That wasn’t a God damn pain pill… what the hell
did you give me?’
He reached to brush my hair from my face. ‘One of them
was a pain pill; the second one was a sedative.’
‘I’m gonna kick your ass,’ I muttered.
‘But not for a couple of hours.’ And his soft
smile was the last thing I was aware of.
I woke with my wrist throbbing dully, my mouth tasting like
cotton and with an overwhelming desire to knock Heero and Relena’s
The first thing I did was drag my ass out of bed and go to
find my old gloves. My left hand was pretty much swathed in bindings already
but the least I could do was cover the right one as well. My scars were
obviously more than Relena could handle. No point in making the poor girl
any more uncomfortable than she already was. I made a quick trip to the
head to use the facilities and splash a little water on my face, then went
to see what the rest of the world had been up to while I was… sedated.
I had to repress a shiver as I made my way through the silent
corridors. I really wished I dared turn my music on; the damn silence was
eating at me like a cancer. I really hated it.
I went to the cockpit first and checked my course and heading,
and found the message light blinking. I hit the play button and was greeted
with Wufei’s highly agitated voice. ‘Yuy! You damn well better
get back to me and tell me what the hell is going on out there!’ There
was some incoherent Chinese cursing then and I had to chuckle. Heero had,
apparently, been in the middle of his call when the alarms had gone off.
I trudged off toward the galley, about the only place left
where he might be holed up, grinning from ear to ear. He was indeed there,
working on dinner with Chezarina. Relena was nowhere in sight and I assumed
she was in her cabin. Maybe Heero sedated her, too.
I cleared my throat as I came into the room and they both
looked up in surprise. Heero frowned slightly. ‘What are you doing
‘I had to pee.’ I laughed at his look of consternation.
‘And a good thing I did too… or were you planning on letting
Wufei swing in the breeze forever?’
His eyes went wide and he had the good grace to look somewhat
horrified. ‘Shit,’ he muttered and ran for the cockpit.
‘Tell him I said hello!’ I called after him with
an evil snicker and moved toward the fridge to get myself a soda. Best stuff
in the world to cut the crap out of your throat. And the caffeine would
help me fight off the last of the damn drugs. I took a swig and went on
around the table to lean over Chezarina.
‘So, Mom;’ I teased, ‘what’s for dinner?’
She blushed and looked up at me with a grin, ‘Meatloaf
and fried potatoes,’ she told me with a twinkle in her eye and I beamed
‘How’d you know I like meatloaf?’
‘You said you did when you were talking to that nice
man back at the shuttle field.’ She looked terribly pleased with herself.
I grunted and reached to steal a slice of the raw potatoes
that they had sitting in a bowl of water on the counter. She chuckled and
I think she would have smacked at my hand but she remembered my wrist at
the last minute and didn’t. Her smile faded a little.
‘Please tell me Heero didn’t make you peel all
these?’ I asked, eyeing the huge bowl.
‘Of course not!’ she scolded. ‘He peeled
the potatoes while I mixed up the meatloaf.’
‘That’s good,’ I grinned. ‘I was starting
to think he was getting lazy.’
She shooed me away from the counter so I perched myself on
the corner of the galley table and propped my feet on the nearest chair,
idly swinging it too and fro. ‘So…’I ventured after a
minute, ‘where’s… Miss Peacecraft?’
She gave me a funny little frown. ‘Why do you keep calling
her that? You’re even on a first name basis with me for crying out
I shrugged and took a swallow of soda. ‘The last time
it came up, she made it clear that we were not on first name terms and since
then… she hasn’t offered otherwise.’ I raised an eyebrow
and she finally remembered the original question.
I chuckled. ‘Heero didn’t drug her too, did he?’
She shook her head regretfully. ‘I’m afraid he
didn’t have to. She was… very upset.’
I sighed and sat the soda bulb down long enough to rub at
gritty feeling eyes. ‘After dinner we are going to go over some things,
Heero came back in then, looking suspiciously like he had
just been royally chewed out and I grinned at him. ‘Oh, I hope he
ripped you a new one.’
He flushed darkly and tried to glare at me but it failed miserably
since we both knew he’d screwed up.
Chezarina looked from one of us to the other with a confused
expression. ‘What is going on?’ she finally asked.
‘He…’ I jerked my thumb at Heero and grinned
evilly, ‘was on the radio with a friend of ours when all hell broke
loose and he left him sit for…’ I glanced at my watch, ‘the
last three hours thinking that we’d all died a horrible death out
‘I apologized.’ Heero glowered at me.
‘Well that’s a fine thing!’ I laughed at
him, ‘You don’t call Wufei back and he gets an apology! You
slip me drugs without my knowledge and I don’t get squat!’
He finally unbent a little and quirked a small grin at me.
‘Maybe that’s because I’m not sorry.’
I turned toward Chezarina in mock irritation. ‘Do you
see what I have to put up with?’
She was grinning at us rather openly and finally chuckled.
‘Poor baby; wish I had to put up with someone like him.’
That left me blushing rather furiously and somewhat at a loss
for words. Chezarina took pity on me and called Heero over to drain the
potatoes. I shifted to a chair at the other end of the table out of the
way and just sat watching them work with my wrist cradled against my chest.
I propped my feet up in the next chair over and settled my soda in my lap,
listening to their quiet conversation and the totally unfamiliar but oddly
comforting sounds of dinner cooking. The drugs were far from out of my system
and the bit of caffeine I’d ingested wasn’t really doing the
job of counteracting them. It didn’t take long before I found my eyes
trying to slide shut and damned if I didn’t doze off sitting at the
I woke to Heero’s gentle touch and found him squatting
beside me smiling tenderly. ‘Dinner’s ready.’
‘Wha?’ I muttered thickly, struggling against
the siren call of sleep, blinking owlishly at him and feeling like I was
only about half there.
He leaned in and kissed me softly. ‘Wake up, Sleeping
Beauty,’ he chuckled.
‘Where’s Chezarina?’ I murmured, feeling
the blood rise to my face.
He kissed me lightly again, completely unrepentant and then
leaned back to pull my arm down from where it had lain across my chest while
I slept. ‘She went to wake Relena.’
I winced as he checked my wrist. ‘I’m almost positive
it’s fractured,’ I told him with a sigh.
‘It wouldn’t take much,’ he agreed. ‘The
doctors said it would be months before your bone density came back to normal.’
Something seemed to settle over my shoulders of a sudden and
I looked up at him, feeling utterly unable to muster up even the ghost of
a grin. ‘God Heero… I’m so tired of being so… scattered.’
He reached to cup my face, looking me in the eyes with a bright
intensity. ‘I know, love,’ he told me gently, ‘but you’re
getting better… you have to see that. Just remember those early days
when you couldn’t even walk. It’s getting better.’
I gave him a somewhat drawn smile and laid my good hand over
his. ‘I know… I guess I’m just tired.’
His eyes flicked toward my hand and his face darkened in a
frown. ‘Duo… why in the hell are you wearing…’
I cut him off. ‘It’s common courtesy,’ I
told him as firmly as I could, ‘I used to wear them for Quatre’s
sake… I can wear them for Relena’s.’
‘Damn it,’ He frowned even harder, though I wouldn’t
have thought it was possible. ‘There is nothing wrong with…’
I sighed in exasperation. ‘Heero, don’t be an
idiot. The scars obviously bother her…that’s all that matters.’
I made an effort to steady my voice. ‘She almost busted her ass in
the corridor just trying to keep from touching them.’
‘I won’t have her making you feel…’
I could see that protective streak rearing its head again and I resisted
the urge to reach out and smack him.
‘What? Disfigured?’ I snapped before I could quite
stop myself. ‘Damn it, Heero… I am. My hands are…’
I glanced down at them, though I couldn’t see the scars on either
one at the moment, ‘not…ugly, I guess… not since the surgeries.
But they sure as hell aren’t normal! I don’t care… they’re
my hands and I’ve lived with them for so damn long I barely remember
what they were like before. But God damn, can you please face the fact that
I make some people uncomfortable? It’s nobody’s fault…
it’s just a fact.’
I thought he was going to choke to death on whatever the hell
it was that was struggling to come out of his mouth but then his eyes told
me that Chezarina was back with her charge. Without turning, I put the grin
into my voice and said, ‘There you are! Come on… it’s
going to get cold, let’s eat!’
Heero stood and went to help Chezarina dish things up. Relena
sat down but she only sat staring at her plate. I stifled a heavy sigh and
made the damn leap; I really was just getting too tired for this shit.
‘Miss Peacecraft…’ I ventured into the uncomfortable
silence; ‘I can’t feasibly pressurize the cargo bay while we’re
in transit… but if you are still interested when we get to L2 I’ll
make sure to open it up.’
I didn’t think she would answer me for the longest moment
but then I got a very quiet, ‘Thank you… I would appreciate
Well, damn. Ok… almost civil. Should I pursue a conversation
or quit while I was ahead? I could see her gnawing at something that she
couldn’t quite seem to get spit out but couldn’t seem to completely
Supper came to the table then and I decided to just leave
things go for a bit. We did the standard compliment the cook thing and it
really was very good. I had an inkling why Dusty didn’t like his wife’s
meatloaf by the time the meal was over. I’d never had fried potatoes
before and found them oddly addictive; I had to force myself to stop eating
before I made a total pig of myself.
‘God, ‘Zarina;’ I beamed at her at last,
shoving my plate away, ‘it’s a good thing you aren’t going
to be onboard very long or I’d end up so fat I wouldn’t be able
to get in my damn vacuum suit!’
She laughed easily with me though I thought I saw Relena stiffen
a little bit and wondered idly what in the hell I had said now.
I insisted when dinner was over that Heero and I clean up
the mess and, with a little prompting, they took themselves off to their
cabin. Heero did most of the cleanup, of course, though I did what I could
one handed. I found I was able to dry the dishes if I laid them down on
the counter and wiped one side, then turned them over to dry the other side.
When Heero finished with the sanitizer, he dried his hands and informed
me he was going to shower before bed and left me to finish putting things
I snugged the last of the plates down and latched the cabinet
a few minutes after he left. I probably shouldn’t have, that close
to sleep cycle, but I grabbed another soda out of the fridge and sat down
at the table to sip at it.
It still kind of gave me a shiver up the spine when I thought
about how close Relena and I had come. The cargo bay is not open to empty
space; we would not have been sucked out of the ship. We would, however,
have impacted rather heavily on the far wall. I might very well have survived
that with my experience in zero-g maneuvering but that would have left me
in a vast, airless room as cold as the depths of space. Suffocation, flash-frozen,
or splattered all over the wall… take your pick. Yuck.
My wrist was starting to throb again and I raised it across
my chest to get it above heart level. This was going to suck; though Heero
hadn’t said it out loud, the bone density thing was going to mean
I would heal slower than normal. Yep… an absolutely perfect start
to this hair-brained trip.
‘Does it… hurt… a lot?’
I just about jumped out of my skin. I’d been so lost
in thought I hadn’t heard her coming. I looked up to find Relena in
the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb as though afraid to come all the
way into the galley.
‘It’s… not so bad,’ I reassured her
and subdued the urge to blurt out that if she were looking for Heero, he
wasn’t around right now.
‘I never thanked you… for saving me,’ she
said, not taking her eyes off some point behind me.
‘You don’t need to,’ I told her and found
myself fiddling uncomfortably with my soda.
‘You could have stayed in the galley and not gotten
hurt,’ she stated and it came out a little… odd. ‘You
didn’t have to come after me.’
‘Yes,’ I told her evenly, ‘I did.’
She didn’t say anything right away but her eyes left
the middle-distance and she really looked at me for a minute. But just for
a minute and then she was looking passed me again.
‘I was… just a toddler when the Sanc kingdom fell
and my real parents were killed.’ She hesitated but I didn’t
speak. ‘They burned the manor… I don’t remember anything
else, not even my parents…but I remember that. I remember seeing…
a man… and the burns. I don’t even know who he was.’
I’m sure my eyes were wide as I listened, absolutely
appalled and shocked as hell that she was telling me this. Her voice was
as calm as anything I have ever heard but there was something in those eyes
that wouldn’t look right at me.
‘I’m… so sorry,’ I breathed, inadequate
words at best but all I could manage.
‘I am sorry that I react the way I do… to your
scars. I just wanted to tell you that it wasn’t you.’
‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘it doesn’t
She nodded and turned her back but then hesitated, ‘Thank
you for… the gloves,’ she said softly. ‘Good night…
‘Good night, Relena,’ I called after her and then
she was gone.
Well fuck. She was making it real damn hard to hate her guts.
I finished the soda and made a final walk-through of my ship,
making sure everything was battened down and nothing left lying out. I verified
our course, checked for messages and took my tired ass off to my cabin.
I touched Solo’s shoulder as I went by, ‘Night, king-rat.’
I murmured and let my mind hear his quiet reply.
I hesitated in the corridor, looking on toward Relena and
Chezarina’s doorway, feeling like I should let them know we were going
to bed or something. I was just standing in the doorway of our cabin gnawing
on my lip, not sure what I should do when Heero wandered out of the shower.
He smiled when he saw me and came toward me, toweling his hair dry.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked, seeming amused.
‘Think they’ll be all right?’ I couldn’t
help but whisper. ‘Think we should check on them?’
He chuckled as he stepped up to me. ‘Good night ladies!’
he called down the corridor and Chezarina called cheerfully back. Then he
took my arm and led me into the cabin, palming the door shut behind us.
I stripped to my shorts, then there was an awkward moment
while we sorted out who slept where. ‘Heero… I’m the pilot,
I need to be on the outside where I can get up in a hurry if I have to.’
He had slept on the outside when I had been so sick and when we had been
docked. It hadn’t bothered me then but out here… it made me
uncomfortable. He finally acquiesced and crawled in, sliding to the back
edge and holding the blanket back for me with a soft smile. There was another
strange moment while we tried to arrange ourselves; I tried lying with my
head on his shoulder but then couldn’t find anyplace to put my arm
that didn’t put pressure on my wrist. I ended up on my left side so
that the wrist could lie flat and then Heero came to spoon against my back.
We were quiet for a bit but I couldn’t get Relena’s
little confession out of my head and found myself shifting this way and
that, trying to force sleep to come.
Heero leaned in after enduring my fidgeting for a while and
nuzzled my shoulder. ‘What’s wrong, love?’
So I ended up telling him about the strange conversation I’d
had in the galley with the Queen of the world.
‘I never realized,’ he murmured softly when I
‘I suppose it makes sense,’ I told him thoughtfully.
‘I’ve seen the old news reports on the fall of the Sanc kingdom…I
just wouldn’t have thought she was old enough to remember anything
He snorted mirthlessly. ‘I think the two of us should
certainly understand how the traumatic things are the ones eternally etched
I couldn’t answer that, could only lie and repress a
shiver. He pulled me closer against him. I knew he wanted to ask me about
the massacre but I also knew he wouldn’t push it until I was ready.
I was a long damn way from ready.
He stroked his hand up and down my arm and I could feel the
soft warmth of his breath against my back as he spoke, ‘I swore to
myself… when I took this ship across the system to find you…
that I would never sit by while you were in pain again.’
I couldn’t see him, couldn’t read his expression
but there was something in his voice that made me almost hold my breath
in anticipation. ‘I… don’t understand,’ I whispered
when he didn’t immediately continue.
His fingers slid down my arm and he caught my hand in his,
his thumb stroking gently over my scars. I repressed a shiver at the odd,
tingly almost-not-there feel of it.
‘On that mission… with Jensen and the suit factory…’
I squeezed his fingers to tell him there was no reason to elaborate more;
I knew which mission he was talking about, ‘I…I used that listening
device even… even when you weren’t…’
I blinked at that implication. ‘You spied on me?’
I murmured, not sure whether to feel amused, pissed or horrified. I found
my mind trying to race back through the years; trying to dredge up conversations,
trying to remember where that very listening device had been at just what
He pressed his forehead against my back. ‘Yeah…
I did. I… I’m sorry. It was too much of a temptation, to be
able to hear you. To hear your voice when you weren’t being so…
defensive. To check on you and make sure you were all right… It was
wrong and I’m sorry.’
I wanted to laugh at him, to have carried the guilt all these
years for such a trivial thing amongst all the other things. But it had
obviously been eating at him and I couldn’t bring myself to make light
of it. ‘So that night, after I was jumped… when you came out
to check my status?’
‘I was listening and could hear you tossing and turning…
I couldn’t stand thinking that you were in pain and hiding it. You
hide so many things. I had to know…’ His voice was very soft
and almost timid. I knew he feared my getting angry with him.
‘I knew I wasn’t making that God damn much noise!’
I said with just a touch of triumph.
‘No,’ he agreed, ‘you were very quiet…
so very damn quiet while you… cried yourself to sleep.’
I felt my face flame and was glad he couldn’t see it.
‘I ached to come out and comfort you,’ he whispered
against my shoulder blade, ‘but… I couldn’t… I didn’t
The remembered pain of that night came rushing back to me,
only slightly dispelled by the reality of his arms around me; his presence
in my bed. ‘Oh Heero… you don’t know how bad I wanted
I felt his fingers tremble where they held mine. ‘I
know… I’m so sorry. I couldn’t… I just couldn’t.’
‘Why?’ I blurted, asking the thing that had plagued
me through all the years since the war.
‘I didn’t dare,’ he told me, his voice tight.
‘I wanted to… I was so twisted up. I almost… I would have
done anything to protect you.’ I felt the tension in his arm, could
feel his fingers clutching at mine as though he were afraid I might pull
away. ‘I couldn’t even think straight when you were in the damn
room. I would have compromised the whole stupid mission to keep you from
having to do what you did. None of the decisions I made on that whole assignment
were based on logic. I was dealing from my gut and making stupid choices…
wanting to protect you, trying not to let myself…’
His voice was rising and I twisted in his arms. ‘Hush,
love,’ I whispered, ‘it’s long over…’ I carefully
wrapped my arms around him and he buried his face against me taking the
reassurance that I wasn’t angry.
‘And when that son of a bitch was touching you…’
His voice twisted with remembered anger. ‘I wanted to kill him…
I wanted to break cover and run over there and blow the bastard’s
head off. But you wouldn’t give the signal… you wouldn’t
call for help…’
‘I was all right,’ I told him, not wanting to
have to think about Jensen after all this time. Not on top of everything
else. ‘It all worked out.’
‘No thanks to me,’ he said; voice pained.
‘Heero… where is this coming from?’ I asked
softly. ‘What’s making you think about this after all these
He was quiet for a minute, mulling it over I guess and then
he said, ‘I just can’t ever seem to protect you… I want
to keep you safe. I don’t want to see you hurting… but somehow
‘I’m a big boy, Heero,’ I told him gently,
‘I don’t always need protecting. I’m not Relena, I can
take care of myself…’
The mural came to me then… the one in the cargo bay;
Heero in his world protecting Relena and me on the outside in mine, protecting
Maybe he felt me go still as I thought it through but he was
quiet, waiting for me to speak again. ‘I’m not… Relena,’
I repeated softly and stared off into the darkness over his head, ‘I
don’t need you to protect me.’
He pulled back a little so that he could look at me in the
dim, night-cycle light. I could see the hurt in his eyes and suddenly realized
how that must of sounded; like I didn’t need him… maybe didn’t
‘I need… other things from you,’ I assured
him. ‘I need your love… your support… I need someone I
can count on… I need…’
‘A partner?’ he said and his tone was wistful.
‘Yes,’ I smiled. ‘Exactly. A partner.’
‘That’s all I’ve ever wanted.’ He
sighed and bent to kiss me.
His touch always goes through me like an electric shock, even
after all this time. His kisses are warm and gentle, his lips soft, his
breath sweet. His fingers stroked along my cheek, asking for more and I
willingly gave it, letting my lips part and allowing him to deepen the kiss.
It was slow and loving, a mutual exploration, a meeting of something more
than just our mouths. I think, perhaps, something more might have happened
that night if I hadn’t forgotten myself, lost in his touch, and reached
for him with my bad hand.
Pain lanced up my arm and I pulled away with a gasp. ‘Damn!’
I growled, curling my arm almost automatically in against my chest.
He stroked his fingers across my forehead until the frown
of pain eased some and then helped me turn back over where we could settle
the damn arm out flat on the bed.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked softly and I had
to chuckle at him.
‘Fine,’ I told him. ‘I just keep forgetting
the damn thing…’
It was his turn to chuckle lightly. ‘I don’t see
how you could forget it; as wrapped up as it is.
‘I was distracted,’ I said with a petulant air
and he laughed at me.
‘Go to sleep, love,’ he murmured then and it didn’t
take me near as long as I thought it would.
I slept somewhat fitfully, the wrist waking me more than once
with stabs of pain whenever I shifted it in my sleep. I dreamed of fire.
I woke early and just stayed in the warmth of our bed, not
really ready to face another day of this damn trip. Heero was a comforting
presence at my back, it was still such a shock sometimes that he was here
with me; that we were… together. Whatever the hell that meant. I had
to smile to myself thinking about the unlikelihood of us ending up like
this. Six months ago I would have laughed until I ruptured something if
anybody would have suggested it to me.
The smile faded as I remembered the day before. Remembered
Heero rushing down that corridor to my side after Relena had almost turned
the two of us into flash-frozen corpses. He’d barely given Relena
a second glance. Even though she had been sitting there sobbing hysterically,
something that used to send him into macho, protective over-drive. It had
been me he was concerned with. Me that he had come running to. I was the
one he had hovered over and taken care of. He had put me first.
And there it was, the last piece of the puzzle of the mural.
Even though Heero had been telling me for the last four months that he loved
me… I had still expected to come in second or even third to the rest
of his life. Relena… his job… his partner… and then somewhere
after that was where I assumed I ranked. Maybe… maybe that wasn’t
That stupid mural has a lot of layers to it. It wasn’t
all about Heero and me; it was about people like Relena and people like
us street rats. It was about having and not having. It was about life and
death. It was about what I am on my own and what Heero is on his. What are
we together? I’m not sure yet.
‘You’re thinking so hard I can hear the gears
going around,’ a sleepy voice told me.
I turned to look over my shoulder at him and had to smile
at the tousled, drowsy beauty of him ‘You really do love me,’
I whispered, feeling almost awed, as that fact seemed to filter down farther
than it ever had before, to some deep recess that had been refusing to believe.
He blinked at me and something swept through his eyes just
before he pushed himself up to look down at me intently, his expression
serious as a funeral. ‘Yes. I do… more than anything.’
You put me first, I wanted to tell him but knew just how insecure
that would have sounded and so didn’t.
‘I know you’ve been hurt…’ he ventured
into the silence I had left, ‘but I want you to be able to count on
me. I’m not going anywhere.’
A chill breath of air swept out of my past and ran across
my skin, making me shiver. His arm around my waist drew tight and he whispered
low against my ear. ‘I’m here.’
God… I’d talked about that whole… abandonment
thing. I thought about the line of my dead out in the corridor and in my
head I saw Heero’s portrait added to the end of the row. The shiver
turned into something harder and I was suddenly wracked with a shudder I
couldn’t seem to get stopped. He turned me in his arms and pulled
me close, tucking my head under his chin and just holding on tight. ‘The
war is over, love. We made it through… nothing is going to happen
to me. I’m here to stay.’
I clung to him as best I could with my one good hand and fought
against suddenly roiling emotions. ‘I’m scared…’
I blurted before I even knew I was going to and saw for the first time just
what it was that had kept him at arms length from me. What had kept us from
moving any farther forward in this strange relationship we were in.
It was all me… my own fears of losing yet another person
who meant something to me. These last few years, out here between the stars
with nothing but a battered stuffed bear and a ship full of ghosts…
I’d been hiding. Hiding from the fear of remembered pain. Hiding from
my inability to open up and believe that I was worth loving. Afraid that
I didn’t have the strength to learn to trust again. Something inside
my head unwound a little bit… and it hurt; like old scar tissue giving
I clutched him to me, forgetting the wrist, forgetting everything,
‘Heero… Oh God… Heero, it hurts …’
He seemed to understand I wasn’t talking physical pain,
because he ignored my arm and held me tight, cradled in his arms. ‘Everything’s
going to be all right,’ he told me in that soft comforting tone he
can have, ‘I’m here… I’m right here with you…
I listened to the steady beat of his heart and found my own
heart settling and evening out. The shivering eased and I was finally able
to relax the death grip I had on him. ‘I’m…so messed up,’
I whispered to him.
‘No more than the rest of us,’ he soothed, his
voice calm and his tone affectionate. He ghosted kisses across my brow and
along my cheekbone until I turned to catch his lips with mine. ‘Don’t
doubt me, my love,’ he said when the kiss broke, ‘you are the
most important thing in the universe to me. Don’t ever doubt that.’
It was both the easiest and the hardest thing to believe in,
lying there in my star painted night sky. He was leaning in for another
kiss, his eyes heavy-lidded and glimmering intensely in the dim light when
the emergency signal alarm began to chime.
I was out of the bunk, through the door and half way to the
cockpit before Heero had a chance to do more than curse.
Incoming emergency signal. My heart was thudding in my ears
and I wondered idly just who in the hell had put the voodoo curse on this
trip even as I was throwing myself into the pilot’s seat and pulling
up the message, killing the chime. Standard, canned mayday message, ship’s
id number was attached but I didn’t immediately recognize it; I’m
better with names. I pulled the coordinates and patched them into a vector
map, displaying it on the main screen. It was very near our position.
I vaguely heard panicky, questioning voices behind me and
then Heero’s reassuring reply. They were coming into the cockpit even
as I was breaking out of autopilot and changing our course.
‘What is it, Duo?’ Heero asked me when he saw
what I was doing. I grunted and glanced up at him, surprised that he hadn’t
recognized the tone of the alarm. Then I shook my head and had to grin at
my own foolishness… he wasn’t a spacer any more than the rest
of them were. Just because he could pilot and knew how to handle himself
in space did not mean that he knew the standards of those in the trade.
I turned to address the room in general as they were all going
to need to know. ‘There’s a ship in distress out here, I’m
changing course to intercept. We have…’ I checked our course
and speed, ‘probably ten minutes before we get there. Everybody should
be in the cockpit and belted down before we arrive.’
Heero was looking at my consoles, reading the message and
looking over my maps but Relena was gaping at me like a carp.
‘Don’t… don’t they have… services
for this kind of thing?’ she asked, her eyes wide. ‘Shouldn’t
we be contacting someone…?’
I chuckled. ‘This isn’t like breaking down on
the freeway,’ I grinned at her. ‘You can’t just call a
She wanted to say more but Chezarina took her by the arm and
drew her back toward their cabin; they were still in their nightgowns. I
glanced at Heero and saw that he had slipped on a pair of pants before following
me. Making me the only one in the room who was only in their damned underwear.
‘Mind making sure everything’s latched down while
I pull some clothes on?’ I asked and he gave me a quick nod. Our course
was locked in and I had something like eight minutes left. We dashed off
on our separate missions.
I only took the time to pee and throw on a ships jumpsuit,
the lightweight, stretchy clothes designed to go on under a vacuum suit.
It’s what I wore most of the time aboard ship, had only been dressing
in a more ‘traditional’ manner to try to help put Relena at
ease. Then I hastened my ass back to the cockpit and took my station. ‘Ok,
Demon-girl,’ I muttered, ‘let’s see what we’ve got
I pulled up the recorded message again and detached the ship’s
id and ran it against the registry database; I about shit myself when the
search finished and flashed the ship’s registered name on my screen;
‘The Ragged Gypsy’.
‘Damn it!’ I growled and pulled the vector map
up to check my distance to the site of whatever the hell was going on with
a pair of my best friends. I judged I was within sensor range and replaced
the map on the main screen with an exterior view of space in front of me.
I jacked the magnification a couple of times and was finally able to make
out the Gypsy floating in space in front of us. ‘Tell me something
I don’t know here, Demon,’ I told my lady and let my hands fly
over the keyboard in front of me. I pulled up heat and radiation readings,
looking for hot spots and hull breaches even as I keyed on the comm.
‘Gypsy this is Demon,’ I called into the open
mike, ‘You guys awake over there?’
I was only vaguely aware of the sound of movement behind me
and the murmur of hushed voices; I trusted Heero to get our passengers belted
down. There was nothing from the ship I was rapidly closing on.
‘Hayden? Toria? Come on you guys; rise and shine!’
I called again and could tell my voice was a little bit high. I felt Heero
moving to the co-pilot’s seat and he said something as he sat down
but I didn’t catch it.
‘Ragged Gypsy this is Maxwell’s Demon…’
I hollered, ‘Do you fucking read me?’
The scan report in front of me chose that moment to divulge
to me the problem that was plaguing that ship out there. Engine core overload.
‘Son of a bitch!’ I growled and looked back at the main screen.
‘Duo,’ Heero was warning me off and I glanced
up at him briefly to see that he had mirrored my screen on his console.
‘What is going on?’ Relena demanded and I ignored
‘Hayden?’ I called again, for lack of a better
plan, slowing my ship as I did, ‘Toria? Can you…’
‘Duo!’ exploded at me over my speakers and I almost
laughed out loud. They were still alive.
‘What the hell is going on over there?’ I demanded.
‘We had a breach!’ came Hayden’s familiar
voice. ‘We’re trapped in mid-ship and the engines are going
‘Critical?’ I heard Relena saying. ‘What
does that mean?’
‘What’s your status?’ I called to Hayden.
‘We’re both unhurt… but we can’t get
to our suits.’ came Toria’s voice, sounding a little calmer
than her husband.
‘Heero?’ Relena demanded behind me, ‘what
does that mean?’
‘The ships engines are going to critical mass and are
about to explode,’ Heero told her and he, at least, was making an
effort to keep his voice down.
‘Duo,’ Toria was saying, ‘can you bring
your ship in and mate with ours?’
They had an extendable pressure tube and a docking ring on
their ship that we could ‘mate’ as it was called, between our
two hatches. I opened my mouth to reply and there was a horrified gasp behind
‘You can’t go any closer if their ship is going
‘Miss Relena,’ Chezarina whispered, ‘please…
they know what they’re doing. They wouldn’t put us in any danger.’
‘Duo?’ Toria’s voice was rising, ‘Hurry
up, buddy-boy… we’re running out of time!’
I could see Heero refreshing the scan reading on the co-pilot’s
station. ‘There isn’t much time…’ he warned me.
‘Heero?’ Relena said again from her jump seat
and I could hear panic in her voice.
I was just about ready to howl with frustration. ‘Shut
the fuck up!’ I shouted and reached and hit my music. The sudden blare
of ‘Battle Mountain Breakdown’ washed away all the bloody noise.
Damn. Damn. Damn! I had to get Hayden and Victoria out of
there; they were counting on me. I had passengers to think about now; I
couldn’t endanger them. I was fucking running out of time. They didn’t
have suits; if they’d had access to their damn suits they could just
‘walk’ across to the Demon and we’d be on our damn way.
They needed suits. I had suits.
Mind made up, I hit the maneuvering jets until I had the alignment
I wanted. ‘Heero!’ I yelled over the music, ‘take the
helm and fucking hold her right here!’
I unbelted and tore out of the cockpit before he had a chance
to object or say a word. I slapped Solo’s shoulder as I ran passed
him and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Heero sliding into the pilot’s
seat as I had bade him.
The vacuum suits are in their re-gen niches just next to the
cargo bay door. I stopped my head-long dash there and pulled mine down,
slapping on the open mike on the console by the cargo bay door as I began
pulling the thing on. My wrist was screaming and I pushed the pain aside
just hoping I wouldn’t further damage it to the point I couldn’t
use it at all. ‘Toria! Can you hear me?’
‘Duo!’ came her alarmed call, ‘what the
hell is going on?’
‘I have passengers,’ I told her and knew that
she would understand from that what I could and could not do.
‘Well… fuck,’ she said dismally.
‘Don’t give up on me yet, Victoria Brannigan!’
I snapped. ‘Get your outside hatch open!’
‘Duo?’ I heard Heero question and there was a
note of fear in it. I felt guilty ignoring it.
The instant I was suited up, I pulled two of the little ‘spurt’
maneuvering guns down and strapped them both on.
‘Heero… partner,’ I called to him and knew
that he would realize immediately that he was hearing me over a suits radio
now and not the ships comm., ‘I need you to do exactly as I say; you
‘Damn it, Duo…’ his voice came to me over
the tinny suit radio with the sound of my fiddles and electric guitars.
‘I need you, Heero,’ I told him even as I was
dragging down two more vacuum suits. I keyed the sequence to open the exterior
doors on the cargo bay.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ he asked me, trying
to make his voice stern and failing miserably.
‘What I have to,’ I told him and watched for the
indicator lights to tell me the outside doors were completely open.
‘Duo?’ he called again and his voice was begging
me not to do what he had to suspect I was getting ready to.
The light stopped flashing and went solid. I hit the inside
hatch door and clutched at the extra suits for all I was worth. Explosive
decompression sucked me out and I was hurtling through the cargo bay and
heading for ‘outship’.
‘Now, Heero!’ I shouted. ‘Shut the inside
‘Duo!’ I heard his anguished scream and felt guilt
kick me in the gut. I was kinda busy though and would have to deal with
‘Incoming!’ I shouted to the Gypsy, ‘You
guys ready over there?’
‘What the hell?’ Hayden yelled at me and I laughed
that edge-of-control laugh I hadn’t heard in a long damn time.
‘Didn’t you guys order a pizza?’ I chortled
maniacally, ‘I’ve got the right address, right?’
I could hear Toria cussing a blue streak.
‘Strip to your undies and get ready to suit up!’
I laughed again as I pulled out the first spurt gun and adjusted my trajectory.
Yeah; laugh your ass off Maxwell; it makes it easier not to
hear the pounding of your own damn heart and your teeth chattering like
Their air-lock door was standing wide and I aimed unerringly
for it, my momentum needing little help; in fact, it was necessary to use
the gun to slow myself as I approached.
‘Knock, knock!’ I hollered and knew beyond a shadow
of a doubt that I was completely panicked. I was sweating in the suit like
a stuck pig already; this was the first time I’d done zero-g since
the accident. The first time back in a vacuum suit. The first time outship.
Oh yeah…and this whole hurtling toward a ship that was getting ready
to blow itself to hell was pretty much a first too.
Ever wonder just what in the hell a stuck pig is? I think
I might have had my metaphors crossed a little bit on that one.
‘Maxwell!’ somebody hollered, ‘Yer a flamin’,
It took me a minute to realize it was Solo. I laughed again.
‘That’s right, rat-boy,’ I growled at him.
‘What?’ Hayden said and I could actually see their
faces through the port in the inside air lock door as I touched down there.
I keyed the magnetics in the boots and then had to wrestle the extra suits
in with me; making absolutely sure that everything was clear of the outside
‘I’m in!’ I yelled and the door slid shut.
They didn’t wait for routine pressurization; the air lock was small
but would still take a couple of minutes under a normal cycle. I saw them
move away from the inside hatch and then the door opened and I was buffeted
by the air rushing to fill the little space.
‘Suit up!’ I was yelling but Toria and Hayden
were already pulling the suits out of my hands and dragging them on. I killed
the magnetics now that I was within their gravity field and turned to help
Hayden climb into his suit. Toria was third generation spacer and could
monkey her way into a vacuum suit blindfolded, with one hand tied behind
her back faster than I could unhandicapped. I’d lost a drunken bet
on it once.
She’s damn tall without an extra ounce on her frame,
graceful as a fish in zero-g and tough as gundanium nails. Practical as
all hell too, which was a damn lucky thing because her husband is a sensitive
soul, a big bear of a man and a dreamer besides. A groundbounder until he’d
fallen head over heels in love with the blond spacer-girl.
As expected, she was completely suited up before Hayden and
I even had him zipped in. She came and took over from me and I gave ground
without an argument; she had been muttering a continuous string of curses
since I’d blown my way out of my Demon. I wasn’t about to get
in the woman’s way.
‘Duo?’ Heero’s voice came to us and he’d
found his control; his voice was the one I remember from the war. ‘What’s
your status over there?’
‘Almost ready,’ I told him. ‘Hold her steady;
we’re coming back the same way I got over here.’
Toria’s hands were slapping Hayden’s helmet in
place at long last just as the lights flickered around us.
‘Son of a fucking bitch!’ Toria’s monologue
hit a crescendo and I wanted to tell her to shut up before she gave Heero
a heart attack.
‘Come on… come on… come on…’
I found myself chanting as she and Hayden were throwing the last of the
helmet latches. This was going to get a whole hell of a lot harder if we
‘Move!’ she was suddenly yelling and move I did,
back into the air lock and I felt somebody grab hold of my suit.
‘Ready?’ I yelled.
‘Go!’ She shouted and I hit the door release.
Out we went on another plume of decompressing air. I imagined Toria and
Hayden behind me in the strangest fucking conga line ever seen and I laughed
a little hysterically again.
As soon as we were clear of their hatch, they shifted and
whoever had been right behind me reached and grabbed my left hand. I almost
screamed but bit back on it; it was necessary that we leave the single file
formation that we had needed to get clear of the Gypsy before we touched
down. Whichever one of them it was, knew I was right handed and was leaving
that hand free to use the spurt gun if we needed it. It wasn’t their
fault I’d broken my damn left wrist.
I glanced that way and saw Hayden and realized that Toria
had deliberately put him in the middle; he was far from inexperienced anymore
but she still treated him like he was. I chuckled at the thought that Heero
and Toria would probably get along just fine.
I had to use the gun to change our trajectory just a touch
and when we were close enough, I used it again to slow us. We separated
at the last moment to avoid landing in a tangle and I called to Heero as
soon as we were passed the threshold, ‘Close the outside doors!’
and was relieved to see them instantly begin to slide shut. I touched down
and locked the magnetics, a second after Toria. As soon as Hayden was down
I yelled again, ‘We’re in and down! Go!’
I felt the vibration of my engines kicking in and the three
of us duck-walked with our magnetic boots toward the nearest wall and the
handholds to be found there. We didn’t make it.
‘Hold on!’ Heero shouted and all we could do was
hunker down and kiss our own asses. The shock wave hit in a matter of seconds
and I heard Relena let loose with a strangled scream. I kinda wanted to
Getting jerked around with your feet stuck to something is
kind of bad for the knees. Toria killed her magnetics and rode the wave
to the nearest wall and managed quite gracefully to catch a handhold. Hayden
was crouched down on the floor holding his own ankles, not something I could
manage with one hand. I ended up having to cut my own magnetic connection.
‘Show off,’ I muttered to Toria and she actually
chuckled at me.
I missed the handholds and wound up having to use the spurt
guns to keep from careening off the end wall, finally managing to latch
hold down there.
The shuddering of the ship finally stopped and we breathed
a collective sigh.
‘Duo! Status!’ Heero barked at me and I grinned
like a fucking loon where he couldn’t see it.
‘We seem to be in one piece,’ I informed him.
‘You manage to keep from wrecking my ship?’
He only grunted.
I laughed and it came out kind of shaky so I stopped. ‘You
two Ok?’ I called and was answered with one of Toria’s war-whoops.
She launched herself away from the wall and went kiting toward Hayden.
‘We’re alive, buddy-boy!’ she crowed and
Hayden straightened from his crouch in time to catch her. I saw them touch
their helmets together and knew that they were speaking privately.
I kicked off from the wall and headed their way; I was having
a little trouble drifting down there alone. ‘Heero,open the outside
door again, would you? We’re going to walk around to the air lock.’
‘Duo, we can pressurize…’ he began and I
knew he really just didn’t want me back outside the ship, but bringing
pressure up in the bay would take hours.
‘I… I would rather not wait,’ I told him
softly and hoped that he understood.
Now that the crisis was averted and the adrenaline rush was
fading, reaction was setting in and I suddenly was just very damn tired…
and I needed out of that suit. I glanced at the suits chrono and almost
chuckled; hell, it wasn’t even mid-morning yet. I felt like I’d
been awake for days. I couldn’t reconcile to the fact that I had hardly
been out of bed for an hour.
The cargo bay doors began to open and I sighed in relief.
‘Right this way, ladies and gentlemen.’ I laughed and it sounded
feeble even to me.
I led them out and across the hull; the air lock isn’t
far from the cargo bay doors but it seemed like a damned mile, walking with
magnetics is damned hard on the leg muscles and I thought I was going to
die before we got there. The outside door was open and ready for us and
we crowded in without further adventure. We cycled through by the books;
no more explosive decompression thank you very much, and it took a couple
Heero was standing there when the air lock door opened and
I didn’t think he would let me get out of Toria and Hayden’s
way before he started undogging my helmet. Then I thought he was going to
fucking deck me where I stood.
‘God damn it!’ he snarled in my face as soon as
the helmet wasn’t between us anymore. ‘Don’t you ever
do something like that again without warning me first!’
I passed up the five flippant answers that came to mind first,
decided against yelling back and was trying to decide between kissing him
or just saying ok, when Toria came up behind me and threw an arm around
‘Gonna introduce us, buddy-boy?’
I caught the somewhat surprised look on Heero’s face
as he looked up… and up at her and then I looked up at her too and
grinned. ‘Heero Yuy meet Victoria and Hayden Brannigan.’
She stuck her still-gloved hand out and he grudgingly let
go of my suit to shake it.
He growled something that might have been, ‘Pleased
to meet you.’ or it might have been ‘Go to hell.’ It wasn’t
really coherent enough to tell.
‘So you finally got yourself a second, Duo?’ She
grinned at me and I rolled my eyes at her. God; she was on an adrenaline
rush like I’d never seen.
Behind us, Hayden called a quiet hello to Heero and then,
‘Torie, honey… I think you jammed one of these latches; I can’t
get this helmet off.’
I turned to look at him before she did and he winked at me.
Toria turned to help him and I mouthed my thanks to him.
My left hand was hurting so bad I was half afraid to pull
it out of the suit. I barely had time to even consider how I was going to
work my way free one-handed when Heero’s hands came back and began
undoing latches and seals; I tried to help but he only pushed my trembling
hand aside. ‘Just let me, damn it.’ He was trying hard to stay
angry with me but I could hear it leaving his voice. He seemed to be calming
down as he worked at the suit and so I just stayed still and let him. He
was gentle as hell when he got down to the left hand and we both knew the
fracture was worse by the time he was done.
Hayden and Toria were unsuited long before I was and I saw
them turning to watch Heero work over me. Toria had a maniacal gleam in
her eye and was opening her mouth to start the teasing when Hayden settled
an arm around her shoulders and said something to her that I didn’t
catch. Her smirk faded and the look she gave me next was calculated and
a little clinical.
‘Hey, buddy-boy;’ she said softly, ‘what
the hell’s wrong?’
‘Nothing,’ I said and it came out a little defensively,
‘Bull-shit!’ she snapped. ‘You look like
crap! You’re white as a sheet and sweating like you just ran ten miles!
And what’s wrong with your arm?’
I was finally free of the damn vacuum suit and found myself
leaning on Heero’s arm a little more heavily than I had meant to.
I could see Chezarina and Relena standing down the corridor near the cockpit
door watching us like we were a soap opera. I felt myself flushing. This
was getting to be fucking ridiculous.
‘Look…’ I began but Heero calmly interrupted
‘Despite his fervent protests,’ he said, giving
me a warning glare, ‘he is a long way from completely recovered from
the accident and on top of that, he fractured his wrist yesterday. If you
will excuse us for a few minutes I’m going to go check his arm…please
make yourselves at home.’
I gaped at him for a minute before responding to the tug on
my arm. ‘Uhmmm… be right back guys,’ I managed. ‘Hayden…
you know where the galley is; why don’t you guys make some…
coffee or something.’
Heero didn’t give me time for more than that but pulled
me unrelentingly toward our cabin, not saying another word until we were
there and the door was closed. Then he turned on me again and I was reminded
of my earlier thought that he just might deck me.
‘What in the hell were you thinking?’ he burst
out then and I might have gotten angry if I hadn’t been able to see
the very really fear in his eyes.
‘I couldn’t let them die,’ I told him simply.
‘Look at yourself!’ he snapped, his voice rising.
‘You’re shaking like a damn leaf! If things had gotten any rougher
out there, you might have passed out!’
I bit down on the first couple of things that popped into
my head and finally managed a soft, ‘What would you have had me do?
I couldn’t move in close enough to use the docking tube without complete
consent from everyone onboard…’
‘I should have gone across while you stayed here at
the helm,’ he told me sternly and all I could do was blink at him.
‘I couldn’t ask you…’ I breathed.
‘Are we partners or not?’ he demanded and it made
my knees want to turn to water. I nodded in shock and he was suddenly beyond
talking, jerking me into his arms and overriding anything I might have said
with the most intense kiss he has ever given me. It was full of his frustration
and his fear, tinged with a little of his anger; it told me more than words
ever could just how badly I had scared the hell out of him.
‘I’m sorry,’ I panted when he let me go,
‘I was afraid you’d try to stop me. I had to try… I couldn’t
just sit here and let them die.’
He pulled me close and leaned to bury his face in my shoulder.
‘I know. But you have got to start trusting me, Duo. I should have
been the one to go… it would have been a better tactical choice.’
I gave him the small chuckle he wanted for his choice of wording.
‘I… I’m not sure I could have let you go,’ I whispered
and he laughed out loud.
‘But I’m supposed to sit here and let you go?’
He raised his head to look at me. ‘You are so God damn hypocritical!’
I managed a tired grin. ‘I know.’
He shifted me toward the bed and I let him ease me down on
the welcome softness, the last couple of hours suddenly rushing up to smack
me resoundingly between the eyes.
‘Hayden grabbed my hand when we were coming across…’
I confessed to him. ‘I think we made it… way worse.’
His breath hissed in irritation and he bent to the job of
unwrapping my wrist. I just sat back and let him work, too tired to care.
‘It’s swelling…’ he murmured almost
to himself after a few moments. ‘If it wasn’t fractured before,
it sure as hell is now.’
‘Hurts bad enough to be busted,’ I sighed and
just tried to hold still while he felt it over, satisfying himself that
the damn thing wasn’t completely broken.
‘I don’t want you using it at all until we have
a chance to get you to a Doctor,’ he commanded as he began to rebind
it. ‘We’re going to put it in a sling.’
I chuckled around my grunts of pain. ‘Yes, Dr. Yuy.’
I managed to reach past him for the med-kit and snagged the
bottle of pain pills, he raised an eyebrow at me and I glared. ‘I
don’t want to risk getting sedated again.’
‘You need to rest,’ he told me flatly and I thought
I would scream in frustration.
‘I have to get us back on course. I have to talk to
Hayden and Toria and find out what in the hell happened. I have passengers
to check on. I…’ He cut me off and the frustration in his voice
seemed pretty damn high too.
‘I am perfectly capable of setting a damn course from
here to L2. Your friends’ ship is long gone; what happened to it can
wait a couple of hours while you rest and get your strength back. Relena
and Chezarina are just fine and I will…’
‘Damn it; I’m not a fucking invalid!’ I
snarled and kind of wished I hadn’t when he flinched.
‘Why can’t you trust me to take care of things?’
‘Why can’t you trust me to know when I need to
rest?’ I snapped back.
‘I’ve never been able to trust you not to hide
it when you’re hurting!’ he threw at me. ‘You’ve
pushed yourself too damn hard for as long as I’ve known you!’
I opened my mouth and suddenly realized that what was about
to come out was pretty damn below the belt and I would hate myself later
for it. I just shut up for a second, closing my mouth and looking away from
him; taking a deep breath and a step back. ‘Ok, how about this?’
I tried again when I felt able, ‘You let me get up and go down to
the galley to talk to the Brannigan’s and I will let you take care
of getting us out of here. Just let me talk to them for a little bit, let
everyone see that I’m all right and I’ll take a break after
lunch. I promise… I won’t do anything but sit and talk. Deal?’
I could see him doing the same thing I had done; could see
him taking that step back. ‘Take the pain pills now?’ he said
I nodded. ‘No sedative though.’
He finally gave me a sad little smile. ‘No sedative,’
he agreed but then his eyes narrowed. ‘Unless you need it later.’
I chuckled darkly. ‘Let’s quit while we’re
He got me some water and I took the pain pills, then we spent
some time trying to find something to make a sling out of. I ended up sacrificing
an old cotton work shirt to the cause and he quickly cut, tied, and put
it on me.
I decided that now might not be the time to tell him that
half the reason I didn’t want to be left alone in the cabin in the
dark was I didn’t want to have all that time to lie around and think.
I’m pretty sure he hadn’t figured out just how completely freaked
I had been the whole time I was sealed in that vacuum suit. That confession
was not going to help my ‘I’m all right’ argument.
I needed a little bit of support to wobble my way down the
corridor to the galley and we were rather taken aback to find Hayden, Toria,
Chezarina and Relena settled around the table making short work of a plate
full of sandwiches.
‘There you are!’ grinned Toria when we came into
the room. ‘You were gone so long I was beginning to think…’
What she was beginning to think was cut off when Hayden smacked
her lightly in the back of the head.
God; she was still floating around a foot off the ground on
the dregs of adrenaline. Toria on a fear-induced rush was probably just
as bad as Toria drunk.
Heero handed me into the seat next to Toria and then excused
himself to the job of getting us underway.
‘Duo?’ Chezarina asked in her motherly way, eyeing
the sling, ‘are you all right?’
‘I’d be better if you’d hand me a soda out
of the fridge.’ I grinned at her since she was sitting closest to
it and she answered my grin with one of her own.
‘Duo…’ Hayden was looking at me hard, ‘you
should have told me…’
I quirked a grin at him, too, as I accepted the soda bulb
from Chezarina. ‘I kinda had a couple of more important things on
‘Well, I see your accident hasn’t affected your
smart ass attitude any,’ Toria observed dryly and I chuckled at her.
‘I could say the same to you, my dear.’ I raised
my bulb of soda to her and she snorted, raising hers as well.
‘To attitude,’ she intoned with a smirk.
‘Attitude,’ I rejoined, ‘smart ass or otherwise.’
And we brushed our drink bulbs together.
We drank while Hayden shook his head in his long-suffering
manner. Toria frowned down at the bulb sadly. ‘That is so much more
satisfying with real glasses.’
‘Forget it,’ Hayden told her sternly. ‘The
last time I let you two start toasting with real glasses you got drunk enough
you started throwing them into the fireplace!’
‘I’ve heard of that tradition,’ Chezarina
asked, like the great straight-person she was. ‘What’s so bad
‘The bar didn’t have a fireplace!’ Hayden
chuckled with a twinkle in his eye.
‘That jokes getting really old, Hayden.’ I grinned
‘Funny… that’s what the bar-tender said.’
Hayden may seem like one of those big, thick-witted guys but he’s
sharp and has a damn strange sense of humor. Well hell… He married
Toria, didn’t he?
‘So;’ I finally ventured, ‘you gonna get
around to telling me what in the hell happened over there?’
There was a moment of quiet while they glanced at each other
and some strange communication went between them. I’ve always hated
that; Trowa and Quatre do it to. I suppose it’s just a couple’s
thing and maybe that’s why it’s always bothered me so much.
They seemed to settle on Hayden doing the talking and he sat
back with a sigh, reaching to set his drink on the table. ‘We’re
not entirely sure. Something happened during the night cycle… The
hull breach alarm woke us. I don’t know if we took a hit or something
blew in the engine.’ He shook his head.
‘The emergency breach doors were closed all over the
damn place,’ Toria took the story up, ‘before we knew what in
the hell was going on… we were trapped at one end of the ship with
our suits at the other and nothing but hard vacuum in between.’
I could see Relena, who hadn’t spoken, at least not
since I’d come into the room, developing an odd little frown and wondered
just what in the hell her highness’s problem was now.
‘How about you, buddy-boy?’ Toria suddenly asked
me with her head cocked to the side in that way she has. It always makes
me think of a great bird of prey trying to decide if something is edible.
‘How’d you manage to break your damn wrist?’
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Relena lose the frown and
turn bright red.
‘Racket-ball injury,’ I said, sadly shaking my
head and managed not to look at the dear embarrassed Princess.
I felt my engines come back to life then and used it to change
the subject. ‘Looks like Heero managed to remember how a space ship
Hayden looked faintly confused. ‘I thought he was your
Toria giggled, ‘I thought he was your lover.’
It was my turn to blush and I managed to show Relena just
how it was done; I’m sure I was red right down to my toes.
‘I believe I’m still auditioning for both positions,’
Heero drawled from right behind me and I just about turned the blush into
a case of spontaneous combustion.
Toria threw back her head and laughed until tears started
down her face. ‘I like him, buddy-boy!’ she crowed. ‘Keep
Hayden rolled his eyes and gave us his long-suffering, apologetic
look. Shrugging as if to say what’s a guy to do?
Relena…well I’m not even going to try to catalog
what all ran across her face. We’ll call it…shocked and leave
it at that. I’m not sure if it was at Toria or Heero. Chezarina just
giggled and tried not to.
Heero’s hand brushed lightly down the length of my braid
as he settled in the empty seat on my right. I met his gaze and he couldn’t
seem to stop himself from a small, satisfied grin at the look on my face.
His eyes flicked to the soda I was drinking and I got the narrow eyed look
that told me he didn’t approve. I mock glared back at him to let him
know I really didn’t care; I wanted a damn soda and I was going to
drink a damn soda.
I looked away from him only to find Toria and Hayden gazing
at us with matching smirks. Damn. We’d just done that stupid couple’s
thing that I hate so much. Heero and I had just done that communication
without words thing. That couple’s thing. And was it not just a twisted
little commentary on little ol’ Duo that it gave me a warm feeling
all through my chest?
‘Have you eaten?’ he asked quietly and I could
feel his eyes watching me intently for signs of strain, for outward signs
of the shakiness I was feeling.
‘No, he has not,’ Chezarina proclaimed before
I could even think to answer and Toria snickered.
‘What the hell do I have here, a ship full of mother
hens?’ I muttered and took a sandwich from the tray in the middle
of the galley table.
Toria clucked like a chicken and damn near fell off her chair
laughing, righting herself and ending up with her head lying on folded arms
on the table, giggling. God but I hoped she came down off this high soon.
I eyed Hayden over her head. ‘I know I don’t have any alcohol
onboard… you didn’t sneak any in with you did you?’
He raised his hand solemnly, ‘She is as sober as a stone…
for once; I swear to God.’
I poked her in the arm. ‘You’re too damn big to
be a chicken, spacer-girl,’ I teased and then looked again; I didn’t
think she was giggling anymore. ‘Toria?’ I asked gently, laying
my sandwich aside and reaching to push her hair away so I could see her
face. She raised her head and sure enough there were tears struggling to
‘Come on, sweetie,’ I murmured and held my arm
She almost fell into my lap; ‘Oh Duo… my babies…
my poor babies.’
There were horrified gasps from Chezarina and Relena as they
jumped to a gut-wrenching conclusion and I scowled at them over Toria’s
head. Then I forgot the fuck about them.
‘S’ok baby…’ I told her gently, ‘we’ll
make it all better… I’ll repaint them… every one; I swear.’
She wouldn’t cry here in front of the whole damn world,
I knew her better than that, but she was right on the edge of it. She’d
just lost her home and her livelihood and everything they owned all in one
fell blow. ‘I can’t do that again,’ she murmured.
I chuckled and rubbed gentle circles on her back. ‘You
don’t have to… I remember them. We’ll get you to dock
on L2 and contact your insurance company. As soon as your ship is replaced
I swear I can redo every one of the paintings.’
Her arms around my waist tightened and there was a sudden,
strange stillness in the air. I looked down at her but all I could see was
the back of her shaggy blond head. I looked up at Hayden and he wouldn’t
meet my eyes. ‘You… do have insurance… right?’ I
asked incredulous. There was more silence. ‘Hayden?’ I asked
again and he finally glanced at me, his face a furious red.
‘Uhmmm…no.’ was all he said.
I took Toria by the arm and pulled her up to face me. ‘Victoria?’
I snapped at her. ‘Are you kidding me? Are you out of your fucking
minds? You don’t bloody well eat before you see that your damned insurance
is paid! What the hell were you thinking?’
She squirmed. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. Hell, she’d
taught me that damn rule, ‘Things have been… hard,’ she
told me, looking down at my lap. ‘I… took a gamble. We’ve
been running cargo, not doing salvage… I hoped…’ She just
let it trail off; she knew there was no justification for working in the
trade without insurance on your damn ship.
‘Why the hell didn’t you call me?’ I asked
her, feeling a little hurt. ‘You know damn well I would have loaned
you the money.’ She wouldn’t answer me and I looked passed her
‘Damn it, Duo,’ he murmured, his big hands toying
with his drink bulb, ‘Your plate was more than full… you almost
took the one way out-trip… we couldn’t bother you with our damn
problems in the middle of that.’
Toria patted the hand I still had on her shoulder and gave
me a small smile. ‘You aren’t always in a position to save the
damn world, buddy-boy. Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. I took
a gamble… and I lost.’
Hayden snagged her wrist and pulled her towards him with a
warning grumble. ‘We took a gamble and we lost.’
She settled against his shoulder and they smiled softly at
one another, then Toria flashed me one of her mega-watt grins. ‘Water
under the bridge, man. Now, tell me about this trip you’re on?’
I really hate when she does that; takes a topic and just because
she’s done talking about it, chops it off at the knees and goes on.
Doesn’t matter if you were finished or not. But I had learned a long
time ago not to fight it; I always lose.
I took a deep breath and let it out; Ok… how to say
I’ve kidnapped the Queen of the world in a valiant but vain attempt
to teach her something about how real life works? Without sounding…
insane. But around me I could feel that strange tingle in the air again
and before I could open my mouth, Relena of all people spoke up.
‘I’m afraid that I used our… friendship
to… convince Duo and Heero to take my aunt and I to L2 to see…
relatives.’ She was flushed and all but stuttering and I sat and stared
at her. What the hell?
‘Relatives, Miss Pierce?’ Hayden prompted politely
and my mouth about fell open.
‘Please…’ Relena smiled warmly at him, ‘call
Hayden smiled broadly and I wanted to reach out and smack
him; I never would have thought he would have been fooled by such a bad
acting job. What in the hell was this all about? Lena Pierce? What the hell?
Why in the world would she lie about her damn name? Unless… she was
afraid to let Hayden and Toria know who she was. Why, for God’s sake?
Did she think that they would try to kidnap her in truth? I glanced at Heero
but he seemed to be as confused as I was. The look on Chezarina’s
face wasn’t any help either. Though not caught as flat-footed as I
was since she’d obviously been here for the initial introductions,
she still looked… bemused.
I picked my sandwich back up so I had a reason to keep my
mouth shut and just watched the scene play out. Relena spun a silly little
story about going to L2 to see her Grandmother for her 75th birthday. They
had decided to do this at the last minute and were in a hurry and had used
their ‘relationship’ with Heero and my dear little self, to
con us into taking them for cost only. It was actually a fairly detailed
lie but a lie all the same and I found myself getting angry about it. Hayden
and Toria were my friends and I didn’t like her treating them this
way; there was no good reason that I could see for her making this stupid
‘Ever been to L2 before?’ Toria grinned at ‘Lena’
and Relena shook her head and claimed that Granny hadn’t been living
there all that long.
‘Oh, girlie!’ Toria chuckled. ‘You have
got to let me show you around! There’s a bar on the hub-side that
is to die for… they mix up the best rum concoctions in the known universe!’
Relena… giggled. I swear to God; she freaking giggled.
I blinked at her and wondered if maybe I had passed out in that vacuum suit
and was having nightmares about pod-people.
‘I have pretty fond memories of the place,’ Toria
was saying, ‘It’s where I met these two after all.’
Hayden actually groaned. ‘Torie…not that story
Toria fairly chortled. ‘Hey! I have a fresh audience!
They’ve never heard the tale.’
‘Nobody should have to hear that damn tale,’ I
growled at her but could tell she wasn’t deterred in the slightest.
So I got to sit and hear Victoria Brannigan spin the story,
for about the hundredth time, of how Hayden and I had arrived in the same
bar as her perky little self and her then-shipmates and been drunk under
the table. It had started with that damn vacuum suit bet, escalated to a
zero-g race and culminated in a drinking war. Hayden and I lost to Toria
and her two sisters at every turn. When the night-cycle was over I was as
sick-drunk as I have ever been in my life and Hayden was stone cold in love.
I got over it… he didn’t. Toria tells a pretty damn good story
though; she even had Heero laughing and he forgot for a little while that
he had wanted me in bed resting.
In between my interjected comments and embarrassed groans,
I was watching Relena. She was laughing her ass off with her eyes watering
and generally having a hell of a good time. I was really starting to put
some credence in the pod-people theory.
The story telling wound down a little, more sandwiches were
consumed and Heero finally moved in to make me hold up my end of the bargain.
He laid a warm hand on my shoulder to get my attention while Toria was describing
to my other guests just how stupid I had looked trying to get into a vacuum
suit drunk on my ass. I turned toward him and he leaned in to whisper in
my ear, ‘A deal’s a deal, love. You promised to get some rest.’
I sighed but honestly didn’t have the energy to argue
the point. I nodded my surrender and it won me an affectionate smile. ‘I
just have to do one thing first.’
I turned toward Relena and forced a smile to my lips. ‘Lena…
I need to get something out of your cabin, if you don’t mind?’
A vague discomfort passed over her face but she smiled bravely
in her turn and agreed to accompany me there. I excused myself and rose
somewhat unsteadily to my feet to follow Relena down the corridor. I waited
until we were in the cabin and out of earshot before I turned a somewhat
angry glare on her. ‘Relena… what are you doing? These people
are my friends and I don’t appreciate you lying to them.’
She blushed hotly but didn’t drop her gaze. ‘Please
Duo!’ she blurted, ‘don’t tell them who I am! I don’t
want to be Relena Peacecraft right now… they wouldn’t…
talk like that in front of me if they knew.’ She was wringing her
hands and gazing up at me imploringly.
I’m afraid all I managed was a confused, ‘What?’
‘People treat me… different when they find out
who I am,’ she said in a rush. ‘Please… I… like
listening to them talk… please don’t tell.’
I kind of deflated. It was so not what I had thought this
was all about and I found myself agreeing with a nod. I started to move
passed her to the cabinet in her cabin where I kept my drawing supplies
but she stopped me with a hesitant touch on my arm.
‘Duo…’ she asked uncertainly, ‘what
did she mean… about babies?’
I gusted a sigh and turned back to face her. ‘Toria
spent a couple of months working the Mars route on what turned out to be
a sub-spec cruiser. The radiation shielding was… not up to code.’
I didn’t much like telling this story behind Toria’s back but
I wasn’t too keen on Relena and Chezarina thinking what they had been
thinking either. ‘She’s… sterile. They didn’t find
out until after she and Hayden were married and started talking about having
children.’ I sighed and turned back toward the cabinet. ‘She…
invented kids… and I painted them for her. They were all over the
ship.’ I got out my sketchpad and pencils and closed the cabinet.
‘You have to understand, Relena… that was their home. They just
lost everything they owned.’
She had that strange frown on her face again, the one she’d
been wearing in the galley. ‘I don’t understand how people can
live like that. It’s so… dangerous.’
I chuckled. ‘And being the Queen of the world doesn’t
hold it’s own dangers?’
That got me a dark frown and I sighed. Guess I pushed it too
far. I didn’t bother to point out that I fucking lived like that too;
I guess my living dangerously was understandable or something. I just took
my things and left, going back to my own cabin to lie down and try to get
some of the rest that I had promised Heero. I saw Relena head back to the
I put my supplies down on the desk for later and went to stretch
out wearily on my bunk. It truly did feel good to lay down, my body was
just not used to that kind of adrenaline kick right now, not quite ready
for that much harsh physical activity. My muscles were complaining mightily
about the sudden abuse, my wrist throbbing in time to my heartbeat. I pulled
the sling off and tossed it aside, carefully laying the arm out flat on
My head was just too damn full of stray thoughts for me to
settle down though. I still could not believe that calm, levelheaded, practical
Victoria Brannigan had let her damn insurance lapse. What in the hell had
they been thinking? They both knew better than that. And I had to admit
to myself that it stung like hell that they hadn’t called me when
they needed me. I could have carried them for a couple of months without
too much strain. It felt like just one more thing that had been screwed
up because of that damn salvage job I never should have taken in the first
But then the weird thought came to me that, had I not taken
that job and stepped into the deepest do-do I’d ever been in, that
I might not be with Heero right now. I might still be out on my own, living
with my ghosts and phantoms. Might never have known the absolute…
wonder I felt whenever he touched me, whenever he kissed me or held me.
I was suddenly acutely aware that it had been a fair trade. All the pain,
all the suffering, all the fighting I was having to go through to get myself
back to some semblance of normal… I would do it all over again if
it was necessary to keep Heero with me. Do it all over again a dozen times.
Even this God damn, stupid-ass pointless trip to L2 with ‘Miss
Lena Pierce’. I had to repress a laugh. God; the girl was just nuts.
Completely certifiable. She wanted to hide her identity so that she could
listen to spacers use foul language? I was a spacer and I’d been talking
pretty damn foul for the last two days; didn’t I count? I certainly
wasn’t planning on acting any different around Lena than I did around
Relena. What in the hell was she expecting? Damn. Another revelation in
less than fifteen minutes. I was acting different. I was doing all kinds
of things that were out of character, everything from the way I dressed
to what I ate. I wasn’t playing my music. I wasn’t running in
zero-g. I wasn’t singing.
Though I suppose I couldn’t blame her presence for every
damn thing; I wasn’t supposed to be spending all that much time in
zero-g until my body had recovered some of its own metabolic balance. Zero-g
has some… odd effects on bone and muscle tissue, something that normally
takes months and months of prolonged exposure. They’re still testing
and learning about how the human body reacts to it. Apparently, it’s
not a good idea to mix it with malnutrition and dehydration. I sometimes
wondered if I would ever be back to normal. Today’s excursion, for
example, was something that six months ago would not have made me break
a damn sweat.
Of course… six months ago putting on a vacuum suit would
not have given me a screaming anxiety attack. Going out-ship would not have
made me almost pee my damn pants. Floating alone in my own cargo bay would
not have been enough to make me want to yell for Heero to get me the hell
out of there.
I thought about those damn sedatives and finally reached up
to queue some music, cutting it to cabin speakers only. Then I lay back
down and began doing course calculations in my head. L1 to L2. L1 to L3.
L1 to L4. L1 to L5. L1 to Earth. L2 to L1… It took almost a half an
hour but I finally did doze off.
I dreamed about the dead crew of the Londonderry and woke
hours later with the sound of Solo’s voice ringing in my ears, ‘They
want their air back, rat-boy.’
I must have gotten some rest, because I did feel better, less
wobbly at least. I rose and took the fifteen extra minutes to grant myself
the luxury of a shower and then took my sketchbook and pencils and went
to find my guests. God; I don’t know that I’d ever had this
many people aboard at one time before.
I swung by the cockpit to check our course and found Heero
sitting in the pilot’s seat. He was dozing, his legs curled under
him and his head propped on one hand, elbow braced on the armrest. I slipped
quietly back out and let him sleep. The ship seemed almost unnaturally quiet
considering how many people were aboard and when I got to the galley I was
a little surprised to only find Toria and Hayden there.
‘Hey buddy-boy,’ Toria greeted me when she saw
me coming in. ‘Feeling better?’
I dumped my sketchpad on the table and went on past them to
snag a bottle of juice from the fridge. ‘I think I’ll live,’
I smiled at her.
‘We weren’t so sure from the way Heero was hovering
over you,’ Hayden said dryly, trying to hide a smirk in his close-cropped
I felt myself flushed and glared at him. ‘He’s
a little… overprotective.’
I thought Toria would choke to death on her soda. ‘Now
there’s an understatement if I ever heard one!’ she chuckled
when she had her throat clear enough to manage it.
I glared at her, too for all the damn good it did me and found
myself getting oddly defensive on Heero’s behalf. ‘Well…
I’ve passed out on him a couple of times… since the accident.
He just… worries.’
I could feel them staring at me and suddenly, my juice bulb
was the most interesting thing in the room and I found myself picking at
‘You gonna get around to telling us about the accident?’
Hayden prodded gently and I snorted.
‘Not a hell of a lot to tell… I did a stupid thing
and almost paid the ultimate price for it. Would not be sitting here in
front of you today if Heero and his partner hadn’t come after me.’
The juice label was peeling away in strips.
‘Do not,’ Toria told me a little coldly, ‘make
me come around this table and smack the shit out of you. You can do better
So I ended up telling them the whole sordid little story.
I started out being a little evasive but once I got started I rather surprised
myself at the details I revealed. I even confessed to the talking to the
dead part. I voiced to somebody out loud for the first time just how absolutely
freaking horrifying it was to realize that I had spent almost a full week
in the hospital doing and saying things that I did not remember. I stopped
short of talking about Heero’s and my relationship despite how tangled
up it was with that damned accident. When I was done, the juice bottle was
naked as the day it was molded and there was a pile of shredded paper on
the galley table. I glanced up at them and found them both looking like
they just might cry. I felt myself blushing again and tried to stop.
Very quietly, Toria got up and came around to my side of the
table, squatted down at my side and gently wrapped her arms around me, careful
of the sling. ‘Damn it buddy-boy… we almost lost you…’
I grinned down at her. ‘Can’t say I didn’t
come any closer than you two did.’
The look I got from Hayden was vaguely… freaked. ‘At
least we would have gone… clean.’ He actually shuddered. ‘Not
that slow, draw-out…’ he just dropped it and I fucking shuddered.
Toria drew back and brushed her fingers through my bangs in
a strangely maternal way. ‘Are you really all right, Duo?’ she
asked me softly and forced me with a hand under my chin to maintain eye
‘I’m fine,’ I lied.
‘You are so full of shit!’ she snapped almost
angrily and stood up, smacking me in the back of the head before going back
to her seat.
‘Ow!’ I complained and had to smile at her ruefully,
‘Ok… ok… I’m dealing; all right?’ I rubbed
the back of my head and went back to fiddling with my juice bottle. ‘It’s
a one day at a time kind of thing… and some days just sort of suck.’
There was a slightly uncomfortable silence then and Hayden
moved to cover it by picking up the deck of cards they had been playing
with and I, by reaching for my sketchpad. They went back to playing poker
and I flipped to a blank page and began blocking in a sketch of their ‘daughter’
Brandy. It was the first of the children we had created together, I had
painted her portrait on the wall next to their bed, extending the mattress
into the picture and painting as though she were asleep next to them. She
had Toria’s gold spun hair and Hayden’s nose and lips. She had
been about eight or nine. Toria and I had spent hours sprawled across that
bed while she had talked through the pain of facing up to the fact that
these children would never be and I had painted what she had given me. After
some of the bitterness had washed away it had become almost fun; Toria had
wanted a daughter more than anything and we had done Brandy first. I had
teased her unmercifully about saddling a kid with a name like Brandy Brannigan
and then Hayden had insisted that their ‘second’ child would
be a boy and he came to join us. I found that his pain was almost as deep
as hers but he kept it carefully masked so as not to make hers worse than
it was. We birthed little five-year-old Jefty between the three of us and
I began to feel… some tug at my own heart at these little faces that
we were inventing out of pain and loss and... love. They let me name their
third child, another daughter. I chose Helen. Toria insisted that Helen
would have my chestnut brown hair and I spent a couple of very strange days
feeling awkward as hell around Hayden… as though I had actually slept
with his damn wife. The youngest was another boy and Toria had been adamant
that he be named Hayden Jr. He was little more than an infant but loved
free-fall and could be found in several places throughout the ship drifting
near the ceiling with laughter in his bright blue eyes.
The ‘Ragged Gypsy’ had echoed first with our tears
and later with our laughter. When I was done, that ship had contained an
army of children; the four Brannigan offspring. I had felt like a damn mid-wife.
They were everywhere… tussling in the corridors, making a God-awful
mess in the galley, belted down in painted jump seats in the back of the
I was so engrossed in recreating little sweet-tempered Brandy
that Toria had to clear her throat twice to get my attention.
‘So, since we’re telling stories,’ she grinned
at me when I looked up, ‘you gonna tell us how you came to be going
to L2 with her Highness?’
There was a moment of surprise and then I grinned at her like
a loon. ‘Oh you have so restored my faith in you! I was starting to
think that the two of you had lost your damn minds.’
Hayden snorted. ‘Don’t ever let that girl play
poker.’ He shook his head sadly, ‘She’ll get fleeced.’
‘Besides…’ Toria snorted, ‘she has
the most well known face in the universe… you’d have to be blind
not to recognize her.’
‘Then why in the hell…?’ I began and she
‘Who are we to argue if the Queen of Everything wants
to play some strange role-playing game?’
I shook my head; what a bizarre stinking game this was turning
into. ‘She apparently is afraid that you won’t be… your
normal selves if you know who she is.’
‘Well that’s a relief,’ Hayden gusted a
sigh. ‘We thought she was afraid of us.’
‘So did I.’ I frowned, finishing with Brandy’s
face and beginning on her hair. On a sudden whim, I decided to braid it…
It was long enough. ‘That’s why I took her to her cabin; I called
her on it. I was flaming pissed.’
‘Don’t worry about it, buddy boy,’ Toria
reassured me as she nailed her husband with a full house and scooped the
cards up to shuffle and deal again. ‘It doesn’t bother us any;
it’s kinda funny actually. I think she’s the only one who’s
I glanced up from tying off Brandy’s new braid with
a ribbon. ‘You mean ‘Zarina…?’
They shared a chuckle. ‘We think so,’ Hayden confirmed
with a twinkle in his eye. ‘She keeps giggling around us; she has
to know that we know. We think she has a better understanding of how…
high-profile the Peacecraft’s are.’
I roughed in the collar of Brandy’s t-shirt… she
favored t-shirts and jeans when she had a choice… and flipped the
page to start on Jefty. I shook my head again. ‘This whole damn trip
is just getting to be freaking…surreal.’
‘So?’ Toria prompted and I glanced up from my
page at her with a raised eyebrow. ‘You still haven’t told us
how you got out here in this mess to begin with,’ she said in exasperation.
‘Oh… that.’ I sighed and had to tell that
damn story too. I thought she was going to fall out of her chair laughing
‘Go ahead and yuck it up, spacer-girl,’ I snapped
at her when she just wouldn’t give it a rest. ‘It’s not
that God damn funny.’
She wiped the tears from her eyes and grinned at me. ‘I
was just thinking how much your big mouth gets your big ass in trouble!’
I glared. My only real consolation was that she was so distracted;
Hayden won the next two hands.
I was getting a little tired of being her source of amusement
and just bent to sketching Jefty’s round, grubby little face. He was
the kind of kid who was always into something. Followed anybody around who
was working on anything on the off chance that they’d let him remove
a screw or hold a flashlight.
‘Will you autograph a copy of the magazine for me when
the interview comes out?’ she chortled and I briefly considered trying
to kick her out of her chair from under the table.
‘Torie… cut him some slack,’ Hayden warned
gently and laid down three of a kind. Toria beat him with a straight flush.
She stuck her tongue out at him and snickered, ‘You’re
just jealous because he never hit on you.’ she teased and picked up
A very strange thing happened in the room then. A strange
and terrifying thing. It went still; still and cold as death. I could see
it all playing out and I just continued to sketch. Hayden had not stopped
to think about what Heero meant before. Had not for some unknown reason
made that leap to, ‘Duo likes men’. Maybe he hadn’t wanted
to think about it; I couldn’t see how else he would not have put two
and two together…he’s a damn smart man. We had been best friends
and almost-partners before he met Victoria. We had both been saving up our
money and had been talking about going in together and buying a ship. Hayden
was the only person I had ever even thought about trying to ship out with.
He had been easy-going to my buoyant. Quiet to my talkative. We had gotten
along very well and I had let myself entertain dreams. But not like that.
I had loved Heero even then and there was no room in my wounded heart for
more than that remembered rejection. Hayden had been my friend and nothing
more. I watched him piece it together in the cold stillness, watched the
almost visible thoughts as they flashed through his eyes and feared I was
seeing the death of one of my most solid friendships. I had to stop sketching
when my eyes started to sting.
‘Nah,’ I responded to Toria without looking fully
up at either of them, ‘he’s not my type… too hairy.’
She saw what she had done, I think, only at the sound of the
tone of my voice and her head jerked up. I sat with my eyes glued to the
paper in front of me, pencil poised over the portrait I could no longer
see and waited for it to finish playing out.
‘Don’t you fucking dare,’ she snarled at
him and I’ve never heard her quite that angry. And I’ve heard
Victoria Brannigan pretty stinking mad. ‘He is the best damn friend
you’ve ever had and you know God damn good and well that it is not
Hayden sat and blinked at her for a minute, looking a little
shocked. I don’t think he realizes how easy he is to read.
‘Duo,’ Toria said softly but her eyes never left
those of her husband, ‘would you excuse us for a moment?’
God; I did not want this to escalate into something between
them. The last thing on earth I wanted was to see these two fighting. ‘Victoria…
please… just drop it,’ I murmured, afraid to blink for fear
the damn tears would spill over.
‘I asked you for a little privacy here,’ she told
me and there was no arguing with that tone of voice. I laid down the pencil,
closed the sketchbook and left the galley. I headed for the cockpit without
thinking, almost veering off at the last minute when I remembered that Heero
was in there. But when I reached the doorway, he was gone and when I thought
about it, I could hear water running. He must be in the shower. I fled to
my pilot’s chair and tried to take comfort in the fact that I didn’t
hear any yelling.
I had met Hayden while I was still with the Sweepers. He had
been working at odd jobs around the docks and occasionally ran errands for
Howard. He was flirting with the idea of getting into the trade even then.
We had hit it off and had begun hanging out together. I think, at first,
he had been just picking the brain of someone already in the trade. Someone
from the colonies. Trying to answer some of the million questions he had
about the lure of ‘out there’.
But it wasn’t all one sided. I had been getting something
too; I had been relearning that I was a person now that the war was over.
Learning that I could be something besides a Gundam pilot. Hayden’s
friendship had reasserted for me that I was not such an impossible person
to get along with.
I think my dreaming and scheming had fired him up a little
bit, and we probably would have ended up buying that ship together and going
into the salvage business. Then we had wandered into a certain bar one night
and met Victoria Grace. Hayden had fallen head over heels in love and ended
up forming a different kind of partnership. He had indeed gone on to buy
that ship and go into the business, only with Toria. And I had gone on to
buy my own ship. It had taken me a little longer and ‘Maxwell’s
Demon’ wasn’t quite as big as the ‘Ragged Gypsy’
had been but it was mine. I never really met anyone else that I thought
I could ship out with and I ended up becoming a solitary pilot.
My sexuality had never been an issue. I had still been bleeding
from the one and only place my heart had chosen to try and throw itself,
and the last thing in hell I was interested in was… that kind of relationship.
It had never come up. I guess he had just assumed that I was interested
in women, and I had never thought about it one way or the other. I wasn’t
freaking interested in anybody, male, female, or otherwise.
And now he knew. He knew and he was having trouble with it.
I had seen him thinking back over the years and trying to remember just
how things had happened, just what things had been said. Looking things
over from this new perspective and it had made him uncomfortable. Damn.
I shifted my arm out of the sling and raised it across my
chest, trying to ease the damn constant throbbing. Almost idly I checked
ship’s status and course, glancing over the vector map and checking
for messages. It killed a depressingly short amount of time. I ended up
pulling my legs up to my chest and burying my good hand in my hair, just
wishing I could make the last couple of days go away.
I found myself longing for the comforting stillness of being
alone. I wanted to hug my stupid bear to my chest. I wanted to talk to my
Demon…wanted to talk to my ghosts. I wanted to turn the music on really
loud. How pathetic was that? I was missing the loneliness that had been
twisting my soul to shreds for the last couple of years. I really am one
screwed up little son of a bitch when you get right down to it.
‘God Solo,’ I let slip out on a mere breath, ‘I
don’t know how much more I can take.’ It felt like my life was
turning to dust in my hands.
There was the sound of a footstep in the corridor behind me
and I raised my head and tried to plaster on a smile.
‘Duo…?’ Heero called and I heard unease
in his voice.
‘In here,’ I answered brightly and ruthlessly
squelched the urge to throw myself into his arms.
‘Is everything all right?’ he asked as he came
into the cockpit.
I opened my mouth with what was becoming my tag line, ‘I’m
fine.’ But he never let me get it out. Wordlessly, he pulled me out
of the chair and into a gentle embrace. It felt like coming home. Felt like
he had lifted some great weight off me for the moment.
‘Talk to me?’ he murmured after a few moments
of my just leaning on him.
‘Later.’ I returned with a sigh.
He was quiet for a moment, only holding me, then, ‘Promise?’
I quirked a grin against his neck. ‘I promise,’
I whispered and was suddenly just very tired. ‘You know you’re
all the strength I have left, don’t you?’
In that moment I could have given over to him completely,
letting him tuck me up in bed or sedate me or just what ever in the hell
he wanted. Just so long as I didn’t have to interact with anyone else
for awhile. As long as I didn’t have to make any more decisions.
‘Love?’ he murmured, disquiet in his voice.
‘Sorry.’ I sighed and straightened, shouldering
my own damn problems again. ‘You know…’ I smiled into
clouded blue eyes, ‘we really should feed our guests; it’s way
passed dinner time.’
He opened his mouth to object but I brushed his lips with
the back of my knuckles. ‘Later,’ I reiterated and he subsided.
‘That’s what I came in here for. Chezarina was
heading for the galley to start dinner but…’ He looked troubled
‘She interrupted a… discussion?’ I grinned
‘Something like that,’ he confirmed. ‘What
is going on?’
‘I guess I need to go find out.’ I sighed heavily
and slid passed him to start down the corridor, back into the jaws of the
lion. I was rather surprised to almost run into Hayden right outside the
door. I’m afraid I flinched slightly. I didn’t mean to but he
caught me so totally off guard and I was half expecting him to verbally
let me have holy hell. They both noticed and Heero immediately went into
stone cold defensive mode. Hayden didn’t seem to notice Heero, but
definitely noticed my reaction. He ducked his head and frowned at me, then
suddenly looked up at me with a crooked grin, reached out and smacked me
lightly on the side of the head.
‘What the hell was that for?’ I blurted and his
grin grew wider.
‘Hey asshole;’ he chuckled, ‘I got smacked
for what I was thinking… so you get smacked for what you were thinking.’
A whole great big loud of shit got lifted off my shoulders
and I grinned at him full power, understanding that things were still all
right between us. Heero seemed to sense that things were ok again as well,
because I felt him relax. Hayden never even realized how close he came to
‘So am I allowed back in my own damn galley?’
I asked dryly. ‘Because I’m getting hungry and I’m tired
of waiting for you two to kiss and make up.’
‘Oh you’re allowed,’ he snickered in an
evil manner. ‘But you’re going to be sorry.’ And he turned
to lead the way.
‘Why?’ I asked guardedly and followed him. Heero
veered off to go and call Relena and Chezarina.
‘Because I lost the poker game,’ he told me cryptically.
‘Oh God,’ I moaned, ‘what in the hell were
you playing for?’
‘You.’ He chuckled and I swear to God I almost
‘What?’ I squawked but he wouldn’t say any
We walked into the galley and Toria was sitting at the table
looking damn insufferably smug. Hayden returned to his seat next to her
and I edged in, looking between them warily. ‘What in the hell is
going on? What do you mean you were gambling for me?’
Toria chuckled rather throatily and it was all I could do
to make myself take my seat. Heero appeared then, ushering the rest of our
guests into the suddenly rather full room. Relena… excuse me, Lena
took a seat and Heero and Chezarina headed to the counter to start dinner.
‘We were gambling for the right to ask you for a favor,’
she told me.
‘What?’ I asked, confused as hell. ‘You
know you can ask me for whatever you…’
She cut me off with a negligent wave of her hand. ‘We
were gambling between ourselves. Hayden didn’t want to ask and I did.’
Oh shit, this couldn’t be good. I could see Heero and
Chezarina behind them, hands working on dinner but attention firmly on the
‘What favor?’ I asked flatly. Hayden suddenly
found his fingernails to be the most interesting thing he owned and began
studiously looking them over.
‘Look buddy-boy,’ she told me, ‘we’re
in something of a bind… you know me well enough to know that our savings
were long exhausted or I wouldn’t have let the insurance go.’
‘Toria…’ I broke in with a frown, ‘you
know you can borrow every bloody last cent I own… but I don’t
have anywhere near enough to get you into a new ship.’
She sighed. ‘I know that, Duo… but I have a plan.’
I met Hayden’s eyes for a second and what I saw there
made me groan. ‘God save us.’
‘You have no idea,’ he muttered.
‘Knock it off, you two!’ she mock growled at us.
‘Just spit it out, Toria,’ I sighed.
‘The zero-g competition is this week. I want us to enter,’
she said in a rush.
The whole damn room went still as a stone and all eyes were
suddenly on me. ‘What!’ I exclaimed. ‘Are you out of your
‘Come on, Duo!’ she pleaded. ‘You two were
damn good… you placed every year you entered! If we could take even
second or third the prize money would be almost enough to get us started
again. We could borrow the rest…’
‘Victoria,’ I said flatly, making her snap her
mouth shut in mid sentence, ‘it’s been, what…’ I
glanced at Hayden, ‘a damn year?’ He nodded. ‘We haven’t
practiced… we don’t have a routine… it’s in two
‘You have that routine you were working on the year
we got married.’ She was leaning toward me with that damned bird of
prey look and I sudden felt very edible.
I blinked at her. I thought about that routine and looked
at Hayden, finding him studying his fingers again, his face beet red. Mine
flashed hotly in sympathy.
I put my good elbow on the table and dropped my face into
my hand. ‘Toria, ask me for my ship… ask me for my first born
child… but don’t…’
‘If I could sell your first born for enough damn money
to buy a ship, we’d talk,’ she drawled and won a tired laugh.
Then she cheated.
‘Please Duo… I don’t know what else to do?’
I hate when she does that. I hate that I can’t say no
to that Goddamn ‘please’ of hers. I hate that she knows that.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I growled at her
and could see from the look on her face that she knew she had me. I snatched
up the sketchpad and flipped irritatedly to the page I had left off on and
went back to work on Jefty. Toria was practically preening. ‘Don’t
get so damn cocky, spacer-girl.’
‘I’m not equipped.’ She smiled sweetly.
To my left, Relena giggled sharply and tried to cut it off,
then seemed to decide that since she had inadvertently entered the conversation
anyway to go ahead and speak. ‘What competition are you talking about?’
‘The Zero gravity exposition,’ Toria told her.
‘It’s big in the colonies. Like your Earth’s Olympics.
It’s held on a different colony each year and it just so happens to
be on L2 this year.’
‘Just my fucking luck,’ I muttered, just to let
her know I wasn’t happy with her. She only threw a grin in my direction
before turning back to Relena.
‘You should go while you’re on the colony…
Lena.’ Toria smiled at the Princess and Relena completely missed the
spark of mischief in her voice. ‘It’s a huge event… not
to be missed.’
‘Oh! It sounds like fun!’ Relena beamed back at
her and glanced up at Chezarina, ‘Would it be a problem for you…
I almost broke the pencil in my hand as I watched the first
of my feeble excuses slip through my hand before I half had a chance to
think about utilizing it.
‘I don’t see why not,’ Chezarina called
back gaily and I had to resist the urge to throw something at her. I glanced
up to find Toria smirking at me and Hayden giving me an oddly sympathetic
‘Give it up, Duo,’ he chuckled at my frown. ‘You’re
outmatched and out maneuvered.’
‘I don’t see what you’re so damn happy about,’
I snapped. ‘Or have you forgotten the outfits that went along with
I saw the color slowly drain from his face and was pleased
to see that he had indeed forgotten about the damn costumes. It was nice
to be the one able to smirk for a change. ‘Not so damned appealing
all of a sudden… is it?’ I smiled. We’d been several years
younger and a little less wise when we’d created that dance and designed
‘Shit,’ he muttered.
Toria only grinned harder, though I wouldn’t have thought
it possible. ‘That was the best part… getting to see two gorgeous
guys all decked out in leather.’
Hayden and I both groaned. Relena laughed out right and dared
to blurt, ‘This sounds like fun!’ though she blushed profusely.
Toria leaned across the table and punched the Princess lightly
in the shoulder. ‘Just wait until you see them! Yum!’
‘Just which event did you compete in?’ Heero asked
in a deceptively calm voice, entering the conversation for the first time.
‘Free-style dance,’ Toria informed him with entirely
too much glee.
Heero stopped what he was doing and turned around to look
at the group of us. ‘I don’t know that he is physically up to…’
Toria lost the grin and turned around to face Heero with a
steady glare. ‘I realize that. They will have to practice and see
what Duo is capable of… I won’t ask him to hurt himself.’
The temperature in the room was suddenly going up as the two
of them squared off. I had to remind myself to breathe.
‘He sees the Doctor first and has to be cleared for
competition,’ Heero stated flatly.
‘Of course,’ Toria responded, her voice just as
firm and just as level.
God. I felt like a damn bone with two junkyard dogs arguing
over me. I concentrated on my sketching until dinner was ready and then
just ate. I cannot tell you what in the hell they put in front of me but
I must have eaten it because nobody nagged me.
Dinner conversation flowed around me but I didn’t pay
any attention to that either. I just kept thinking about that stupid routine,
going over it and trying to make up my mind if I could still manage it after
all this time. I found that I knew it start to finish, could remember every
choreographed move, every leap and every kick-off. We had worked on that
routine the entire year between one expo and the next but then we had met
Toria and Hayden hadn’t been all that interested in dancing with me
anymore. It had just faded away and at the time, I suppose, I had felt a
twinge of disappointment that we had never gotten to compete again. The
routine had been pretty damn good; I had been rather proud of it.
I became aware that someone had said my name and blinked up
from my plate to find the room staring at me with varying degrees of amusement
‘What?’ I muttered brightly.
‘I said;’ Toria grinned across at me, one of the
amused ones, ‘are you going to make me and Hayden sleep in the galley?’
Damn. I hadn’t thought about the fact that stopping
off to pick up a couple of hitchhikers was going to totally screw my schedule.
The delay from the stop coupled with losing our momentum and having to build
speed again was going to get us to L2 a half-day later. It would mean another
night cycle. I had to bunk them somewhere. Damn.
I very carefully laid down my fork and gave Heero a smile
that was so frozen I thought my face would crack. ‘We’ll move
you into my cabin,’ I told them. ‘Heero… I’ll need
your help moving our things.’
I got up and left the room before anyone had a chance to speak.
I heard Heero following me and, thank God, nobody else. I went straight
to the locked door to the guest cabin at the end of the hall, beyond and
opposite the one I put Relena and Chezarina in and waited for him to catch
up to me.
‘Duo…’ he questioned me softly and I ignored
‘No one goes in here but you and me,’ I told him
and it came out in a cracked voice I almost didn’t recognize. ‘I
need you to move our things.’ I reached for the keypad with a hand
that was trembling like a leaf and Heero caught it in his, holding me steady.
‘Duo… what’s wrong?’ he asked me again.
I looked at him and just flat did not know what to say; didn’t
know how to warn him. ‘The… the password…’ I stopped.
I couldn’t fucking tell him what the password was. I slid my hand
away from him and keyed it; shouldhavebeenme and then hit the options menu
and quickly changed it to the first thing that popped into my head.
‘Hell,’ I told him. ‘The password is hell…
and welcome to mine.’ I could barely stand to be that close to the
damn door knowing that it was unlocked. Unlocked for the first time in…well
over two years. I pushed passed him and headed away, forcing myself to stop
after only a couple of steps. I couldn’t even turn back when I spoke
to him. ‘Just… just try not to look, Ok?’ I blurted and
fled to the cockpit. I even shut the damn door when I got there.
I grabbed Fuzzy-butt, queued my music, dimmed the lights and
threw myself into my chair. God… it’s always the little things
that get you in the end. Stupid; how could I have not realized this was
going to happen before now? Of course the delay would throw the schedule
off. Of course I was going to have to find someplace for all my guests to
sleep. Of course I was going to have to open up that last damn cabin.
The memory of what was in there was squirming around in my
head like some slimy, illusive fish that I just didn’t want to look
at. I had sealed that room almost before the paint had been dry on the walls.
It was one of the first things that I had painted back when my soul had
still been puking up the worst of the ichors inside it. I had painted it
in a frenzied purging of pain and guilt and loneliness. Had staggered out
of that room and locked the door behind me, swearing that I would go back
and sandblast the damn thing down to the bare metal. I’d never been
able to make myself go back in.
And I’d just sent Heero in there alone. With very little
warning of what he was about to see. Guilt came crashing down and I buried
my face in Fuzzy-butt’s fur and whispered, ‘God, I am such a
It was too late to stop it. More than enough time had elapsed
that I’m sure he had all of our stuff moved and Toria and Hayden were
probably already settled in our cabin. Heero’d had more than enough
time to study every square inch of that room. And I had no doubt he would…like
driving by a train wreck; it was hard not to look. Besides, it was in his
nature. He would have to know… would have to see every bit of it.
When the door opens you are confronted with the most horrendous
picture of a naked baby crucified to the outside of a boarded up abandoned
building. There is no doubt what so ever that the baby is me. From the hint
of violet eyes that shows in the screwed up, screaming face to the fuzz
of chestnut hair on it’s head. There is a woman walking away down
the street. A hammer dangles from her fingers; her back is straight as a
rod and a butt-length chestnut braid swings jauntily. She does not look
back. You can not see her face.
The room is a time-line of my life. If you turn to the right
you see the plague in all its hideous glory on the next wall. I am older;
my own hair beginning to lengthen and Solo is there… dying in my arms.
There are sick children all around us; Becca is there… already dead.
My face is pale and shocked. Not the over-whelming grief you would expect
but a look of utter disbelief. I had thought Solo was immortal. Had thought
he would be there to protect me… forever.
I rubbed absently at the line of scars down my arm.
Turn to the right again and you get to see the Maxwell church
massacre. Not the burned out shell that is in the cargo bay. In this vision
it is still burning; the dead are still dying. I am there again… a
little older, the hair in the braid that would become my signature. This
time it is Sister Helen who is dying in my arms. The despair on my face
is something tangible. There is a truck in the background with a stolen
mobile suit under a tarp on the back. In all the war years I never told
Trowa how my heart crumbled every time he used that method to hide his Gundam.
Never told him how it almost broke me to see the thing lying there under
that damn tarp.
My fingers sought the small cross hanging around my neck.
One more turn and there is the gruesome picture of me kneeling
on the ground, my face twisted in agony, my hands held up before my disbelieving
eyes… the skin charred away to reveal nothing but blackened bone.
The other pilots are all there… arrayed around me in a ring, their
backs carefully turned. Their faces expressionless. That portrait, of all
of them, isn’t fair… but that’s what came out when brush
and paint and psyche hit the wall.
And overshadowing it all, if you look up, there is the shattered
remains of Wing in the midst of a smoking crater on the ceiling. Heero lies
nearby, broken and bleeding…his eyes staring down at whoever would
dare to lie on the bed in that room. Staring down…empty and lifeless.
I suppose that portrait isn’t really fair either…
Heero had turned up alive some months later after all. But I had thought
he was dead… had thought for a very long time that he was dead. After
the battle in which he had so easily pushed that self-destruct button, I
had gone on and done what I had needed to do. I had fought and run and fought
some more. I had gone to ground with Quatre and the first time there had
been a break in the fighting, the first time I had slowed down enough to
fucking feel… I had attempted to push my own little self-destruct
button. If Quatre hadn’t been there, I’m pretty sure I would
have died of alcohol poisoning. I don’t really think I did it on purpose;
I was just trying to kill the pain. I almost killed it permanently.
When I painted that room it came out in a blurred series of
frenzied days. I had painted and crawled away to eat and sleep and then
staggered back to paint some more. I barely remember it. I just remember
stepping back one day and knowing it was done. Remember stepping back and
looking around and feeling like someone had eviscerated me and smeared it
on the wall. I had lain on the floor of that room and sobbed like I never
had before and then I had stumbled out, locked the door, puked in the hall
and went to bed where I slept for almost twenty hours. I had not opened
the door since. Heero probably even had to make up one of the two beds.
I curled there in my pilot’s chair in my dried-blood
cockpit and hugged my inanimate co-pilot to my face and almost started laughing.
I was sitting in a room the color of my own dried blood, surrounded by pictures
of me and my former comrades, in the midst of a war. Pictures of us in captivity…
pictures of us fighting and killing… pictures of us being cursed by
the colonies we were trying to protect. And I found it oddly comforting.
Guess I have a few loose bats still flitting around in the ol’ belfry.
With a muttered curse I tossed the stupid bear back into the
co-pilot’s chair and threw myself to my feet. Hours had passed and
I needed to stop hiding in here. But once on my feet, I found myself just
standing there facing the door unable to make myself move. I slumped back
down with another round of curses and scrubbed my hand over gritty eyes.
The hell with it… I’d just spend the night in the damn cockpit.
Behind me, I heard the door hiss open and I closed my eyes,
not wanting to deal with any more. There was the sound of a hesitant step,
a pause and then another step.
‘Duo?’ Heero called softly and his voice…
might have been someone else’s it was so altered by pain.
I opened my eyes and turned to look at him with a sigh. ‘I’m
I told him, ‘I shouldn’t have sent you in there.
I should have…’
Should have had the damn nerve to go in there myself.
Should have thought of something else.
Should have painted over it years ago.
Should have been the one to die.
There was a strange, quiet moment during which neither of
us seemed to know what in the hell to say. Then I looked at him a little
closer and forgot about my own pain.
His eyes…God his eyes were blood-shot and red-rimmed
‘Oh Heero…’ I whispered. ‘Oh dear
God… I’m so sorry.’
I rose and we staggered toward each other, I jerked my arm
out of the damn sling and pulled him tight into my arms as he came to me.
‘Duo…’ he whispered against my shoulder,
‘Is that…? What is…?’ He struggled with the words,
seeming strangled with them. ‘Talk to me. Please talk to me,’
he finally begged, giving up on the questions all together.
‘It’s old, Heero…’ I soothed, reaching
to thread my good hand through his hair, being very careful with my numb
fingers. ‘From… right after the war. I should have gotten rid
of it years ago instead of just locking it away.’
He pushed away from me and caught my hand, peeling the glove
off and tossing it aside, stroking his fingers over my scars. ‘We
didn’t turn away from you… Didn’t abandon you… we
cared for you…’ His voice was anguished and confused.
‘It isn’t always reality that comes out when I
paint,’ I told him sadly, catching his fingers to make him stop that
touch that I could only half feel. ‘Sometimes it’s just…
fears… things I was confused about. Things I couldn’t understand.’
He brought my hand to his lips and murmured against the palm,
‘We hurt for you… we all hurt for you.’
‘I know that, love,’ I reassured him. ‘It’s
old… it doesn’t mean anything… just let it go.’
He closed his eyes and pressed his cheek into my hand. ‘Don’t
lie to me,’ he breathed.
‘Heero…’ I frowned but he cut me off.
‘It means… a very great deal. Don’t try
to tell me it doesn’t.’ His eyes were open again and boring
into mine. I looked away.
‘I don’t half know what it means sometimes,’
I blurted before I realized it was coming out of my mouth.
He caught my face in his hands and forced me to meet his eyes.
‘Duo… no more hiding. I need you to talk to me. I need you to
trust me… to let me be here for you.’
It was getting to be too much; the frantic race to save Hayden
and Toria, dealing with Relena’s stupid little game of ‘let’s
pretend’, fighting with my damned anxiety attacks, feeling like my
own body was betraying me, opening up that room, coming to grips with the
idea of trying to follow through with Toria’s hair-brained scheme…
and Heero… trying not to worry Heero… trying to bear up under
his damn constant scrutiny. My edges were fraying.
‘I’m sorry Heero,’ I sighed, ‘I know
I’m not handling this very well… I’m just so damn tired…’
Worry clouded those dark blue eyes then and he let go of my
face to stroke gentle fingers over my cheek before catching me by the shoulders.
‘Duo love, you need to get some rest. It’s late. Everyone else
has gone to bed and we need to get you…’
‘Heero…’ I gasped, ‘please…
I can’t go in there. Don’t ask me to go in there.’
‘Hush.’ He sighed and held my arms tight as though
he were afraid I might pull away. Though where the hell he thought I might
run is beyond me. ‘I’ve taken care of it… I pulled the
light panel and jumpered it out. The lights can’t come on in that
room. Understand me? You can’t see what’s on the walls in there
now… I swear to you.’
I blinked at him and felt my knees turning to water from…
God, I’m not sure what; emotional overload?
‘I… I’ll sleep in here,’ I panted
out and wondered when I had gotten so panicked.
He gently pulled me against him. ‘I’ll be with
you. You can’t sleep in here; you need some real rest. I brought the
med-kit and we can use the sedatives if we have to. It’ll be all right…’
I closed my eyes and stopped fighting it; let him lead me
out of the cockpit and down the corridor. I let him lead me blind; I couldn’t
open my eyes. He kept me wrapped close and moved us forward with soothing,
reassuring words. I tried to make myself believe that we were going to my
own cabin… the comfort of my own piece of space. He paused at the
door and I was relieved to hear him key in the password to unlock it; he
had taken me seriously when I told him that no one else was to go in this
Once inside, I heard him lock it behind us and felt a strange
shiver run up my spine. I wanted out of there very damn badly. He steered
me toward the bed and I let him undress me, wanting to prolong the touch
of his hands. He stripped me down to my shorts and then gently prodded,
‘Come on love, open your eyes. You need to prove to yourself that
it’s all right.’
I truly felt like a fucking idiot; all bloody weak-kneed and
trembling over a couple of damn, stupid paintings. I might have dealt with
it better a week before or maybe even a week after but the last few days
had seemed to pile one stone after another on my shoulders. This room had
felt like just one stinking stone too many.
I slit my eyes open enough to see that the room was, as promised,
pretty damn dark. There was a faint glow from the control panel over the
bed and from the panel by the door. Enough light to see dark shapes and
silhouettes but not enough to grant much color to anything, making the walls
‘Heero… I’m so sorry,’ I told him,
completely ready to die of embarrassment, ‘I don’t know why
I can’t seem to catch my damn balance today.’
He snorted softly and stepped back to undress. ‘You
may not know why… but I do.’ Stripped to his shorts and tank
top, he hesitated. ‘Which side of the bed do you want?’
I blinked up at him, not really able to see his face. I knew
what I should do; I knew what duty demanded… I was the Captain of
this ship; the pilot. I should be the one closest to the door. But…
Heero was my second… wasn’t he? Couldn’t I, just for a
few hours, let go and trust him to keep an eye on things?
I didn’t speak but edged to the back of the bed and
made room for him. I saw understanding in the squaring of his shoulders
just before he crawled in with me. There was some damn awkward squirming
around while we tried to get my arm settled. I finally said the hell with
it and just shoved it under the pillow above my head, needing to be facing
him, needing to have his arms around me.
‘I’m here,’ he murmured, pulling me close.
‘I won’t leave you alone in this room.’
It was a relief to hear it… a relief not to have to
ask for that promise. I settled my head against him and tried to ignore
the thrumming pain in my arm. The nagging, itchy feel of those images all
‘Duo,’ he kissed the top of my head gently. ‘Forget
this room for a minute. You promised you would tell me what happened between
you and the Brannigans. You seemed…almost afraid of Hayden this afternoon.
What the hell happened?’
I sighed, remembering the incident with a pang, ‘Damn,’
I murmured, just wishing he would drop everything and forget about it, ‘Hayden
and I have been friends since not long after the war,’ I told him.
‘We… almost went into business together. Probably would have
if he hadn’t met Toria.’
His fingers traced tranquil patterns over my back.
‘Before dinner… Toria was teasing him… she…’
I swallowed the sudden strange lump in my throat and tried again, ‘she
brought it rather pointedly to his attention that I… prefer men.’
‘He didn’t know?’ he asked me softly and
it felt like a rebuke, it made me a little defensive.
‘It never fucking came up, ok?’ I grumbled. ‘At
the time I wasn’t exactly looking to get my damn heart rip…’
I stopped and so did the movement of the hand on my back. I blinked into
the darkness; sometimes I almost forgot that this Heero and that Heero were
the same person. I really didn’t want to get into that right now.
‘It surprised him,’ I continued the story, ignoring
the lapse as though it had never happened. ‘I could see this…
almost horrified look on his face. You could watch him trying to reevaluate
our whole damn friendship.’
It took a moment for his hand to resume stroking over my back.
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured and I chose to take it for sympathy
over the Hayden matter.
‘He seems to have come to grips with it,’ I said,
‘or Toria brought him to grips with it… she was flaming pissed.’
He chuckled lightly. ‘I think she could change the mind
of a charging rhino if she decided to.’
I snorted and shifted slightly against him, trying to ease
the strain on my arm.
‘You…’ he ventured after a moment’s
silence, ‘do free style zero-g dance?’
I snickered at him. ‘So… I still have a few secrets?’
He tilted his head around and brushed his lips lightly across
my forehead. ‘That was not something you talked about.’
I grinned rather broadly. ‘Good,’ I teased him,
‘it’s nice to know you aren’t completely fucking omniscient.
Does it surprise you?’
He was quiet for a minute. ‘Yes and no,’ he said
at length. ‘It wasn’t anything I ever would have guessed…
but thinking back, you were always damned graceful in free-fall.’
I felt the blood rush to my face and snorted softly at myself;
preening like a damn school-girl at the slightest bit of praise; pathetic.
‘We competed two years in a row and placed third and
second. My half of the prize money was the seeds of my salvage business,’
I explained, ignoring my discomfort.
‘Duo love,’ he said after a minute and his voice
sounded worried, ‘are you sure you’re up to trying something
I gusted a sigh. ‘I don’t know,’ I admitted.
‘It’s been so damn long.’ I twisted my head up and tried
to look at him, seeing little more than the intense glitter of his eyes
in the dim light. ‘I have to try… you know that; right?’
It was his turn to sigh and the hand on my back stilled and
pulled me close for a second. ‘I know. But I don’t want you…’
he hesitated and his voice lost a little of the demanding edge it had held.
‘I’m worried that you’re going to hurt yourself. You’ve
struggled so hard to get back to where you are… I don’t…’
I tilted my head up to kiss him. ‘I understand,’
I reassured him, ‘but I can’t just walk away when they need
me… they lost everything. If I can help, I have to try.’
We lay in the dark for a little while, just holding each other
and my mind drifted back over the events of the day. I chuckled lightly.
‘What?’ he murmured.
‘Do you realize that Hayden and Toria know exactly who
His laugh was sudden and genuine. ‘You’re kidding?
You mean to tell me…?’
I snickered along with him. ‘Yep. The only one being
fooled in this strange little game of hers is… Relena herself.’
He shook his head. ‘I should tell her, I suppose,’
he sighed after thinking about it for a second.
‘I’d let it go,’ I told him firmly, ‘I
think I like Lena better than Relena. She’s not so damn uptight.’
He hesitated. ‘I won’t have her made the fool
in this.’ I could hear the frown in his voice.
‘Look Heero,’ I said, ‘she started it. I
talked to her about it when I asked her to go back to her cabin with me.
She says this is the only way that people will act ‘natural’
around her. Nobody is trying to make her look stupid.’
I was completely proud of the fact that I didn’t finish
the thought with she’s doing a good enough job of looking foolish
on her own.
‘I suppose,’ he grumbled but let it go and there
was another of those strange silences.
‘Toria is a little… blunt, isn’t she?’
Heero said suddenly.
I snickered. ‘You noticed?’
I could feel him smile slightly. ‘While I was moving
our things… she came and wanted to know where you were.’
‘Argh,’ I grunted, that would mean that she would
be all over my case the next time she saw me, wanting to know what was wrong.
‘What… what’d you tell her?’
He sighed rather heavily and I was kind of glad I hadn’t
been around for that conversation. ‘I told her that you were resting.’
I could tell from his rueful tone of voice that she hadn’t let that
‘I take it you got some argument?’ I smiled against
‘You could say that,’ his voice fairly smirking.
‘She wanted to know just what in the hell I had done to you.’
‘What?’ I asked, confused.
‘She says that you aren’t acting normal at all…
she wanted to know why you were dressed the way you are and why there hasn’t
been any music playing.’
I could hear in his voice that he was looking for confirmation
that she was right, that these were unusual actions for me. I sighed. ‘Heero…
I’m usually alone. I do play my music all the time when I’m
alone… but it’s common courtesy when you have guests to adjust
things for their… comfort.’
‘The clothes?’ he prompted and I made a mental
note to tell Toria Brannigan to mind her own damn business the next time
I saw her.
‘Yeah, maybe I do dress differently under normal circumstances
but I can hardly drift around in my damn underwear with Relena and Chezarina
onboard,’ I growled.
‘So you do usually pilot in zero gravity?’ he
pounced and I wondered just what in the hell all they had talked about.
‘That’s not my fault… I’m not supposed
to be using that much low gravity for the next couple of months.’
I felt defensive and wasn’t even sure why; I hadn’t done anything
wrong. Maybe it’s just because this all echoed the eye-opener I’d
had earlier about not really being myself around Relena. It was like Heero
and Toria had conspired to read my fucking mind somehow.
He didn’t say anything, only shifted away from me. I
had a strange moment of thinking he was angry with me before I realized
that he was reaching to queue my night music. It was isolated to the speakers
in this cabin and turned down low. It was almost a shock how soothing it
‘Despite what you think,’ he murmured to me as
he settled back beside me, ‘I can’t read your mind. You have
to tell me what you want.’
Our eyes seemed to be adjusting a little to the near darkness
and I could see him frowning at me slightly. ‘Duo… you can’t
I heaved a sigh. ‘I know. I guess I’m going to
have to sleep on the outside.’
He didn’t immediately move but seemed to be considering
something. ‘Not necessarily,’ he said at length and got up,
pulling the blankets free from their null gravity, Velcro fastenings, ‘We’re
not in zero-g,’ he informed me with a smile, ‘there’s
no saying that we need to fasten things down.’
I chuckled with him and we turned ourselves around so that
our heads were at the wrong end of the bed. I could lie on my left side
so that my arm was out flat on the bed and he could spoon in behind me while
still being on the outside edge.
‘Better?’ he asked when we were settled again.
‘Hmmm,’ I agreed and squirmed until I was nestled
as close in his arms as I could manage.
He stroked his fingers placidly over my hair and murmured,
‘You need to rest…go to sleep, love.’
I didn’t really want to. Lying here with him, talking
with him had been…pleasant. I didn’t really want it to stop.
I had felt… closer to him today than I think I ever had. It was odd;
I’m not sure where it was coming from. We’d certainly argued
off and on enough. Maybe it had started with that strange revelation of
the morning, thinking about the fear that had been in his eyes when he had
realized I’d been hurt in the mishap with the cargo bay door. Maybe
it had been the way his hands had shaken so much while he had been stripping
me out of that vacuum suit. I’m not sure… but I just really
wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet. I was feeling better; more settled,
but my head was still whirling with thoughts and half-formed ideas…
emotions still raw edged.
‘Heero…?’ I whispered and was surprised
at the tremulous sound of my own voice. He didn’t answer but pushed
up on one elbow and turned my face to meet his eyes. He looked at me, long
and hard and my heart was suddenly thrumming in my chest. He leaned in with
excruciating slowness and brushed my lips with his, drawing back to look
at me again. I tilted my head up, asking for another, deeper kiss and he
gave it to me. His lips are almost surprisingly soft and so very warm. I
closed my eyes and lost myself in that kiss… gave myself over to the
electric feel of it.
His hand moved to cup my face and as our tongues met and danced
a delicate ballet I became aware of that hand drifting down across my chest.
His fingers traced a line of fire that left goose bumps in its wake down
the center of my chest and across my quivering belly, stopping only when
they tangled hesitantly on the waistband of my shorts.
I couldn’t speak, only arched my back in answer, helping
him to pull the things off me. He broke the kiss and was suddenly rising
over me, stripping his own clothes off with almost desperate haste. I could
see him above me, silhouetted against the glow of the panel lights, his
body looking like some perfect damn sculpture. I wanted the Goddamn lights
in that moment; I wanted to see him… all of him, aroused and wanting
me. I wanted to see his eyes dilated with passion.
He dropped down, hovering over me, holding himself up on his
arms mere inches from me.
‘Duo…?’ he moaned, asking me for confirmation,
asking me for permission.
‘Please…’ I whispered, my voice thick and
I hardly even knew what I was asking for. ‘Please… please…’
but it was all I could manage. I reached up and pulled him the rest of the
way down. We both gasped with the sudden feeling.
‘Oh God… Duo,’ he groaned before claiming
my mouth again, full of desperate need.
My body arched up into his all on its own. His weight, pressing
me down into the bunk was an intoxicating thing; it filled me with strange
longings and heated desires. My arms wrapped around him and forced him harder
against me. His lips on mine were hot and demanding; it felt like he would
Our bodies were pressed tight together and fire ran in my
veins from the touch… from the feel of him. I was overwhelmed with
the very idea that we were here, together like this for the first time.
It was going to happen… I wanted it to happen… I needed it to
I could feel everything like my senses had been kicked into
overdrive. His knees were on either side of mine and I could feel the subtle
twitch of his thigh muscles as he shifted above me. His chest was flush
with mine and I could feel the brush of his nipples against my skin as he
moved. I could feel his tight belly, could feel his fingers clutching at
me, feel the cording and shifting of his back muscles under my arms. My
wrist was long forgotten… the room we were in was long forgotten…
who we were with and where we were going was long forgotten. I was lost
in the here and now.
And then he ground his hips down into mine and what little
conscious thought I’d had left fled in the face of that new feeling.
The evidence of his complete and total arousal stroked across mine and I
fucking forgot how to breathe. The ferocity of his desire… of his
love for me, took me and shook me to the core.
There was no grace, no gentleness to our lovemaking. It was
pure and primal, desperate and frenzied; we were lost in simply moving against
each other. His hands seemed to flow over me like scalding water and I wanted
so badly to stroke my hands over him as well but was terrified of accidentally
hurting with my damn, near-nerveless fingers. I fisted them in the sheets
instead and felt fire lance up my left arm… but I didn’t care.
His hand found its way under me somehow and settled in the
small of my back, guiding me; helping me turn my frantic writhing into a
rhythm. A rhythm he punctuated with moaning cries and the near sobbing of
We were both slick with sweat in a matter of minutes, equally
full of hunger and need, desperate for some kind of release, for an answer
to our body’s yearnings.
It didn’t take long. It was over in an embarrassingly
short amount of time. He was suddenly crying out to God and the feel of
his seed spilling hot and thick between us was all it took to make me arch
up against him, my head thrown back in a silent scream and I came right
along with him.
We collapsed together then and I swear for a time I couldn’t
have moved if the damn ship’s alarms had gone off. There was only
the sound of our panting breath and the thunder of my own heart in my ears.
It was long minutes before I was even aware enough to realize that tears
were streaming unhindered down my face. I made no sound. It was longer still
before Heero turned to gently kiss me and tasted the salt on my lips.
‘Duo?’ he breathed and made to lever off me, ‘Oh
God… I hurt you…’
‘No,’ I told him and let go of the sheets to wrap
my arms around him tight. ‘Stay… please… I’m fine.’
He stopped trying to get up but I could tell he was being
cautious with his weight. He leaned down to ghost small kisses across my
face. ‘What’s wrong, love?’
‘Nothing,’ I told him and smiled softly. ‘I’m
sorry… I can’t seem to get it stopped.’
He swept his kisses gently across my cheek. ‘Don’t
try… just let it go. It’s all right… I’m here.’
I sighed and it felt like something went out of me with that
breath. ‘I love you…’ I whispered, ‘so much it hurts
He gathered me up and cradled me close in his arms. I have
never in all my life felt so safe and protected… so cherished.
‘Duo.’ He sighed, his voice a mere breath next
to my ear. ‘My Duo… Do you understand how precious you are to
It made me shiver. ‘I… I think I’m beginning
He continued to gift me with soft kisses; raining them down
on my upturned face… on my exposed throat.
‘Heero?’ I asked after a bit, through the stupid
‘Hmmm?’ he pulled back a little to smile warmly
down at me.
‘Why this time?’ I blurted and felt my face flare
hotly. ‘I mean… I’ve offered before…’
His smile became tender. ‘This is the first time you’ve
reached for me because you wanted it.’
I opened my mouth to object and then thought better of it,
seeing the truth in it. I hadn’t been ready before this trip, had
been too afraid. I still felt oddly uncertain about… some things and
ridiculously inexperienced next to him. I almost wanted to laugh thinking
about it… here I was, Duo Maxwell, street rat extraordinaire and I
felt like a damn blushing bride on her wedding night. I’d be willing
to bet that I had seen and heard more things in my lifetime than he had
ever imagined and yet…
Ok… I might as well just say this. During the war I
had fallen in love with Heero Yuy. Fallen hard, been resoundingly rejected
and had crawled off to lick my wounds. I had thrown up more damn defenses
than a maximum-security prison. This was my first and only sexual experience
of any kind. Unless you count Jensen and I don’t. Stop your damned
I held him on top of me and he finally stopped fighting it,
giving in and relaxing against me and eventually the tears dried.
‘If you don’t let me get up and clean us up,’
he chuckled when I seemed to have calmed, ‘we’re going to end
up glued together.’
‘And wouldn’t that just be a bitch to explain,’
I smiled along with him and let him go.
He pulled away and I stifled a gasp at the empty feeling it
gave me to lose his anchoring presence. But he was right; we were pretty
disgustingly crusty and we ended up having to make a trip to the head together.
He carefully made sure the door was firmly shut before turning the light
While we were there, he insisted I take a couple of pain pills
and I didn’t argue; my wrist was killing me. Clean and in fresh shorts
we found our way back to the bunk in the dark and practically fell into
it. I felt completely drained and like I might actually be able to sleep
even here in the room from hell.
‘Thank you,’ I murmured drowsily after we had
settled back down.
‘For what?’ he asked, sounding amused.
‘I dunno…’ I yawned and nuzzled into the
curl of his arm. ‘Puttin’ up with all my crap?’
He snorted softly but didn’t speak and I felt myself
beginning to drift. ‘You know, Yuy,’ I snickered on a sudden
thought, ‘that was a pretty damn pathetic first time.’
He laughed out loud. ‘It was rather, wasn’t it?
What…five minutes, you think?’
I repressed a sound that was almost a giggle. ‘That
He leaned over, kissed me gently on the temple and said huskily,
‘We’ll do better next time.’
I meant to answer him but I think I fell asleep first. And
yeah, there were some damn strange dreams. I kept twitching awake, my hands
reaching to comfort a crying child that I could never find. I tried not
to wake Heero but a couple of times I found him stroking calming fingers
over my brow and his whispered words eased me back to sleep. It was a long
He had thought to lay clothes out for us the night before
and when we woke in the morning we dressed quickly in the dark. I fled that
room like all the little devils from hell were on my ass.
We were only a few hours out of L2 and I was able to use that
as an excuse to breeze through breakfast, then disappear into the cockpit.
I didn’t go so far as shutting the door this time, though it did cross
my mind. I kept expecting Toria to descend on me, but Heero must have been
running interference because she never arrived to get her questions answered.
I busied myself for the next couple of hours contacting the
L2 port authorities, reporting the accident and thus justifying my screwed
over schedule and requesting a new timetable. I was granted immediate dock
access under the emergency laws that gave priority to all ships involved
in any sort of rescue operation. I spent a few minutes arranging for a set
of the ‘holy shit’ disaster packages supplied by the local spacers
guild to be delivered to our designated docking bay. Then I ordered a couple
of changes of clothes for Hayden and Toria, charging it to my account and
paying the extra amount to have them expedited. It should all be there to
meet us when we docked. The spacers guild handed out kits of ‘necessities’
to disaster victims, and though the toiletries and ration bars would be
welcome, the clothes they supplied fairly screamed ‘welfare case!’
and I wouldn’t have my friends reduced to that. I would have loaned
them my own clothes if there had been a chance in hell that either of them
could have fit into anything I owned.
I spent the last hour connected in to the station net now
that we were close enough and hunted up the web site for the thrice-damned
zero gravity exposition. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I
was half hoping it was too late to register. Just my luck, registration
didn’t close for another eight hours and I was left realizing that
I had to make the damn decision. Then I came to me that there really wasn’t
any damn decision; it was like I had told Heero… I had to try. I signed
us up. Brannigan and Maxwell, back in the saddle again. Oh joy of joys.
Wonder where in the hell I’d packed away our damned costumes?
Twenty minutes out I got on the intercom and called all my
little birds to roost. ‘Time to belt down children,’ I called
brightly and heard their voices coming toward the cockpit a few minutes
‘…sink hole over all… but there’re
still places that you just have to see,’ I heard Toria saying and
felt like laughing. Victoria Brannigan, L2 tour guide. The idea of Relena
Peacecraft visiting some of the places I knew Toria to frequent was just
fucking surreal. Actually… if I thought about it too hard… it
was kind of scary.
Heero came and took the co-pilot’s chair and we shared
this… look. I felt the heat rising slightly to my face, feeling like
the whole damn world could look at us and tell what had happened last night.
Heero grinned at me and tossed me a wink.
I bent back to work, listening to the sounds of Relena, Chezarina
and Hayden belting down in the jump seats. I only had the three. Toria would
anchor herself to one of the snap rings and ride in standing up, being the
most experienced one in the group. Wouldn’t be a problem unless we
had an accident.
The comm. beeped and I got my final authorization and docking
assignment and began my approach, giving the faceless port authority tech
‘We don’t have to listen to more of that obnoxious
music, do we?’ Relena suddenly asked and I squelched the urge to play
something truly outrageous like ‘Rhinotillexomania’ and turned
to smile at her.
‘Not here,’ I explained. ‘I don’t
dock here often enough to have developed any… contacts.’
She gave me a confused look. ‘But… I thought this
was your home?’
I turned back to my boards to hide the pang of irritation;
did the woman not fucking hear I thing I said to her? ‘You’re
sitting aboard my home. I came from L2… that doesn’t mean I
live here. And it doesn’t mean I have to like it here.’
Oooops. That came out a little bit bitter.
‘It’s not as bad as it used to be,’ Toria
interjected gently and I realized she, at least, had picked up on my annoyance.
‘You just like it here because this is where your years
of stalking innocent spacers finally came to fruitation,’ I tossed
out with only half my attention.
‘You stalked me?’ Hayden asked, sounding aghast
and the two of them were off and running; I blessed them for moving the
conversation away from me. Then I just shut them all out.
Docking on a station is a hell of a lot easier than landing
on a planetary body. You match velocity and aim for the door, what could
be easier? We were in and down right on our new schedule, and had only to
wait for the docking bay to pressurize before we could leave the ship and
begin our business of the day. That gave me about a half an hour to figure
out just what in the hell to do. I had come here to take Relena around to
tour the site of the Maxwell church massacre and visit the new orphanage
that had been erected in its name, not three blocks away from the memorial.
I had meant to walk her through the neighborhood and let her see just how
one lived when one was not blessed with parents and money, fame and power.
But I had less than twenty-four hours before the exposition;
I had to get together with Hayden and go over the routine. We had to run
through it and practice since we hadn’t danced together in a very
long time. I didn’t even know if I had the stamina to pull this off;
I had to get myself into a tournament sized gravity bay and see if I could
And I had my ship to see to, refueling and refitting. My new
schedule had us departing for Earth day after next.
I sat back with a heavy sigh and reached to rub at a suddenly
throbbing temple. How in the bloody hell was I going to manage all this?
There was only one of me and not near enough hours in the day. I wasn’t
going to be able to pull this off. Fuck, Superman couldn’t pull this
I was suddenly aware of the fact that the cabin had gone quiet
and I glanced up to find everyone looking at me. Well shit; hadn’t
they ever seen a poor beleaguered salvage man at his wit’s end before?
Ok. I had a half an hour until we could leave the ship. I
could get a lot of the prep-work done toward the launch on Monday, the time
sensitive stuff and finish it up late tonight after everything else was
taken care of. If we left immediately, I could get Relena to the orphanage
and the memorial this morning and then this afternoon I could take Hayden
and go rent a gravity bay.
I rubbed at the back of my neck and turned toward my boards.
One thing at a time…I reached to log into the station net and a warm
hand descended over mine.
‘Duo,’ Heero said and there was rebuke in it,
‘you’re doing it again.’
I blinked up at him, confused. ‘What?’
‘You are not alone,’ he told me gently. ‘You
do not have to do everything yourself.’
I felt my face flushing. ‘Heero…’ I began
but Toria joined him.
‘Chezarina, Relena and I are going out today to do…
girl stuff.’ She grinned at me and I whirled around to look at them,
seeing the confirmation on Relena’s embarrassed face that the jig
was, indeed, up.
‘How…?’ I began and Toria’s delighted
laughter cut me off.
‘You went to bed too early last night.’ Her smirk
told me she hadn’t bought that story but was temporarily willing to
go along with it.
I looked from one of them to the other and started to feel
like a man who had walked into the middle of a complicated movie. Without
‘I am taking you to see a physician,’ Heero informed
me firmly. ‘Then I will come back here and make the arrangements for
our return trip.’
I gaped at him for a moment; I had forgotten about the trip
to the Doctor. Damn. One more freaking thing to have to deal with.
‘If the Doctor clears you,’ Heero temporized,
‘then you and Hayden will continue from there to the exposition to
I opened my mouth to tell him we were already registered and
then thought better of it. The ping of an incoming message kept me from
having to respond. My hands moved automatically to accept and a bored and
unfamiliar voice informed me that my packages had arrived and would be waiting
for me at the check-in desk. I thanked the woman and cut the connection.
‘What packages?’ Heero wanted to know, still standing
‘I ordered some things for Hayden and Toria,’
I told him absently, trying to adjust my thinking to this new idea of letting
somebody else take care of my duties.
‘You what?’ Toria demanded from behind me and
I cringed. Oooops again. I guess I should have worked up to that declaration
a little slower. I took a deep breath and turned around in my chair to look
at her. She and Hayden both were wearing only the gray shorts and tank top,
‘ships clothes’ that most of us wore when we were aboard our
‘Were you planning on touring L2 in your underwear?’
I drawled and was rewarded with a hint of color on her cheeks and I bulled
forward. ‘I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed before
but you are a good six or seven inches taller than I am… anything
I own is barely going to come down to your knees. You needed clothes…
I ordered clothes.’
She just stood and looked at me for a minute and then suddenly
whirled and stormed off toward the galley.
A strange, inarticulate sound of frustration and confusion
forced it’s way out of my throat and I turned on Hayden. ‘What
the hell?’ I demanded and was further thrown off by the weird little
grin he was giving me. After a second, he crooked a finger at me indicating
that he wanted me on my feet and Heero stepped aside to let me rise.
‘Hayden?’ I asked, somewhat hesitantly and his
grin only widened. He stepped forward and placed one of his big hands in
the middle of my back, giving me a gentle nudge toward the door.
‘My guess is she’s in the galley. You need to
go talk to her.’
I resisted the pressure on my back and looked around but saw
no help coming from any of the others. ‘She’s your wife…’
I began but he only leaned down and said softly.
‘But you’re the one who made her cry… you
go get snot all over your shirt.’ The nudge became a push.
‘Nani!’ I blurted and then sighed in defeat. If
this was any indication… it was not going to be a good day.
She was indeed in the galley and damned if she wasn’t
in tears. Guess the man knows his wife pretty well.
She was sitting in one of the chairs toward the back of the
room with her head buried in crossed arms and I could tell from the way
her shoulders were shaking that she was sobbing like a little kid.
Damn. The sight of steady, competent, drink-you-under-the-table,
tough as nails Victoria Grace Brannigan crying her eyes out was… scary.
I moved to sit on the edge of the table beside her.
‘Uhmmm…’ I ventured at length, ‘I’m
not at all sure what I’ve done wrong… but I’m really,
She raised her head and scrubbed rather ineffectively at her
eyes and glared at me. ‘You are insufferably thoughtful and so God
damn sweet I just wanna kill you,’ she growled and smacked the crap
out of my knee. ‘You are the best damn friend anybody could ever ask
for and I don’t know what in the hell we’d do without you.’
She smacked me again, then threw herself into my lap and starting sobbing
like her heart was broken.
It took me a couple of confused seconds before my head engaged
and I wrapped my arms around her and just held on.
‘I’m really sorry…’ I soothed, ‘I’ll
try to be more of an asshole from now on. I promise.’
She giggled against my thigh. ‘You’re going to
have to be a real prick to make up for all this nice crap.’
‘I will be a monster,’ I vowed, ‘an absolute
She raised her head and looked up at me, blinking the tears
away and her smile faded. ‘Thank you, Duo Maxwell,’ she whispered.
‘You are entirely welcome.’ I grinned and watched
something haunted come into her eyes.
‘Duo…’ she frowned, ‘I shouldn’t
have pushed you into agreeing to this tournament. I didn’t realize…’
‘Don’t you start with me,’ I smiled and
used my knuckle to wipe the last of her tears away. ‘I am fine.’
She arched an eyebrow. ‘That would be why you had to
take a nap yesterday in mid-cycle?’
I just smirked back and shrugged. ‘So I’ll take
a nap tomorrow after the competition.’
‘I don’t want you making yourself sick over this.’
She glared and laid her head back down on my leg. ‘You’re more
important to us than this stupid prize money.’
‘Toria, sweetie,’ I sighed, ‘what’s
the worst that could happen? So I get dizzy and flub the dance and we lose?
So what? At least we tried.’
She didn’t say anything so I took the opportunity to
change the subject. ‘So how, exactly, did you ‘find out’
She shifted and draped an arm across my lap, pillowing her
head on it. ‘Hayden and I talked last night. We realized just how
much you had going on and that we were going to have to see to it you let
somebody help you.’
I glared down at her but she didn’t see it.
‘We decided that I could take over entertaining your…
guests for you while you practiced with Hayden.’ She sighed, her fingers
plucking absently at the seam in my jeans. ‘We figured we might as
well just admit to Relena that we knew who she was.’
I snorted. ‘And that went over how well?’
She chuckled dryly. ‘She turned the most interesting
shade of red I have ever seen…next to you the other day when Heero
said he was auditioning to be your lover.’ I felt my face flame completely
against my will and she peeked up at me. ‘Yeah… that’s
I smacked her lightly in the back of the head. ‘Back
to your story, spacer-girl,’ I growled.
‘I had to explain to her that she has one of the most
recognizable faces in the damn solar system.’ She shook her head,
not an easy task with it still lying in my lap. ‘I swear to God…
to be as smart as she is, that girl can be dense.’
I repressed a snicker and then sighed. ‘I guess that’s
sorta what got us out here in the first place.’
She giggled again. ‘I think Chezarina was just glad
to have it all out in the open… I swear to God she was giving herself
an ulcer trying to keep all the secrets straight!’
I laughed. ‘I noticed she’d been awfully quiet.’
There was a moment of strange silence. ‘Buddy-boy?’
she said softly.
‘Yeah?’ I prompted, wondering what in the world
had her getting all serious again.
‘Heero…’ she said, her fingers still fidgeting
with the edge of the seam. ‘He’s… good to you? You’re
I smiled down at her. ‘He’s… very good to
‘I feel guilty sometimes,’ she confessed softly,
‘like I stole Hayden away from you.’
I snorted. ‘I thought we established that he isn’t
She raised her head long enough to frown up at me. ‘Not
like that, asshole. But I’m not stupid… the two of you would
have eventually gone into business together… you wouldn’t have
been all by yourself all this time.’
I chuckled and rubbed a knuckle against the top of her head.
‘Now you have a crystal ball?’
She finally sat up, abandoning my lap all together. ‘I
worry about you… the jobs you take. And all by yourself. Things wouldn’t
be like that if you had a partner.’
‘Well now I have one,’ I grinned. ‘And this
one comes with fringe benefits that the last one wouldn’t have.’
She threw back her head and laughed with delight. Thankfully
the all-clear chime sounded to let us know that we were able to leave the
ship, finally, and effectively ended our conversation.
‘You ok now, spacer-girl?’ I asked warmly and
she nodded. ‘Then let’s get out of here.’
‘After you Captain.’
I hopped off the table. ‘You got snot on my pants.’
‘I didn’t get snot on your pants.’
‘You wanna explain this mess in my lap then?’
‘Maybe Heero can explain that mess in your lap.’
She only giggled.
While we had been otherwise occupied, Heero had made arrangements
to have my arm checked by the station med team, circumventing the necessity
of making an appointment with a commercial physician by implying that the
injury had happened during the rescue of the Brannigans. Hayden had spent
the half hour on-line filling out electronic paperwork about the accident
and sending messages to their respective families letting them know that
everything was all right, they were both alive. News about ships’
accidents traveled fast among those in the trades.
I retrieved my packages from the check-in desk first thing
and brought them back so that Hayden and Toria could dress.
It was very strange; it suddenly seemed that there were people
all over my ship running back and forth and hollering at each other. Hayden
wanting to know if I even still had the damn costumes and did I remember
if the buckles had been let all the way out or not. Toria needing to borrow
some of my clothes, God only knew why, I’d ordered everything I could
think of. Chezarina questioning Toria about which shoes she should wear.
Relena wanting some assurance that the ship would be secure while we were
all out of it. It seemed I should be doing things but all I could do was
stand in the middle of this tornado of humanity and look bemused.
Just as it seemed that everyone was about ready to go, Heero
pulled me into the cockpit and before I quite knew what he was up to, into
‘I want you to call on me today when you need me,’
he told me resolutely.
‘Mine to command?’ I teased.
‘Absolutely,’ he confirmed with a small smile.
‘Then kiss me.’ I grinned and he did, long and
deep. Made my damn knees feel weak.
‘Stop now…’ I moaned, ‘or I’m
going to have to go change my damn pants again.’
He smiled with just a hint of satisfaction in his eyes.
We assembled in the corridor by the lock; I didn’t want
to troupe everybody out through the cargo bay with that damn painting staring
down at us. Time enough to get into that later.
Toria came out looking damn fine in the dark green jeans and
light green t-shirt I had picked out for her and I had to grin; green was
the woman’s color. I was pleased to see Hayden in the complimentary
outfit of black and green that I had bought for him. I had meant it as a
set and they looked good together. Chezarina showed up in a sensible pants
suit with a pair of comfortable walking shoes. Relena made me do a double
take though; I saw what Toria had needed to borrow some of my clothes for.
I would not have recognized her had she not been standing in my ship and
was clearly identified by process of elimination. She was wearing a pair
of my jeans and a white t-shirt that had a logo on it for a comic book I
was rather fond of; ‘The Hell-bound Beavers’. One of my denim
shirts was open over the top of it thankfully, because the more…graphic
picture was on the back of the t-shirt. Her hair was braided back in a simple
and utilitarian spacer style and they had done things with her make-up that
had Heero’s mouth hanging open. They had obviously gotten their heads
together and decided that Relena would go out and about as ‘Lena’.
Heero looked at Relena, looked at Toria and then looked at
me and his eyes conveyed what a terribly bad idea he had decided this was.
I turned on Toria and growled in my low, menacing voice, ‘She
does not come back tattooed or pierced. She does not come back drunk. And
she damn well better come back with her… virtue intact.’
She snickered evilly. ‘Well… shit, buddy-boy…
you just killed half the days plans.’
I glared. ‘Just remember… I have your husband
in my possession.’
Her grin widened. ‘Ohhh…. a hostage, huh?’
And she threw Hayden an appraising glance. ‘Husband… fun…
husband… fun. I dunno, hon,’ she told him, ‘tough call.’
‘Thank you, oh light of my life,’ he drawled and
gave me his put upon look, shaking his head sadly.
I turned to Heero. ‘Did you bring your pager?’
And I got a tight nod. ‘Give the number to Chezarina.’
It was the best I could do short of calling the whole thing
off. I’m not sure whether it was Heero or me who stole more glances
at Relena as we trouped our way out of the ship and across the cold docking
bay. Oh what a wonderful day this was starting out to be.
We split up after we passed through the check-in process;
the girls went their way and we went ours.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Heero growled when
they were out of earshot.
‘Me?’ I complained. ‘I thought this was
a bad idea the minute I saw Relena wearing my ‘Hell-bound Beavers’
‘You don’t honestly think they’d go…
bar-hopping do you?’ He sincerely looked nervous.
‘At this point,’ I sighed, ‘I am not about
to rule out anything on this nightmare tour of hell.’
His steps faltered and he looked at me sharply. I could see
ages old instincts kicking in; protect the girl. Protect the Princess. Protect
the Queen. Protect the peace. I had to squelch the strange little twist
of…something that curled around in my belly.
Then I thought about the trip we were making to the med-lab
and realized how it might be convenient if Heero weren’t there to
hear what the Doctor had to say. I was interrupted before I could act on
‘Listen guys,’ Hayden suddenly rumbled quietly
and we both stopped and looked up at him, ‘don’t tell Torie
I told on them… but she was only planning on taking them over to the
L2 history museum and then out to lunch.’
I grinned up at him. ‘You’re kidding?’
He shook his head and returned the grin. ‘She is very
aware of the responsibility she has taken on… she hardly slept at
all last night.’
We resumed our trek to the medical building and I stole a
glance at Heero. He looked very much reassured.
I got x-rayed and examined. Heero got a complement on his
field dressing. Then I got fitted with a removable, velcro fastened, plastic
and metal brace; I did very much have a fractured wrist. Though they let
me ditch the stupid sling.
Heero did not go into the examining room with me. I could
not believe my luck. I felt a little bad when I thought about it too much,
he obviously trusted me to tell him the truth. But then, I didn’t
really lie to him. The Doctor did not tell me I couldn’t compete…
of course, I never actually asked about it. But that doesn’t count
as a lie now, does it?
I came out to the waiting room with a grin plastered all over
my face and found Heero sitting there looking irritated and Hayden looking…
extremely uncomfortable. I wondered just what in the hell they had done
to occupy themselves for the half hour I’d been gone.
‘Come on, you guys!’ I called cheerily. ‘We
have some practicing to do!’ Implying, of course, that I had been
completely cleared for competition.
I managed to get them herded outside before it crossed anybody’s
mind to go speak with the Doctor on their own. We stood in the corridor
for a minute; this is where we would be splitting up.
‘You need to get the refueling request in the queue
as quick as possible,’ I warned Heero, ‘L2 is notorious for
taking forever; their scheduling sucks. And our flight plan needs to be
refiled. Cancel the original one first before you put in the new request
or they’ll get it all screwed up. If you…’
‘Duo,’ he cut me off, ‘I’ll manage.’
He seemed upset and I wasn’t exactly sure why. I met his gaze and
tried to ask without asking but all I got was a heavy sigh. ‘You need
to get going,’ was all he said.
He turned and made his way back into the bowels of in-station
and I watched him walk away for a minute before turning to follow Hayden
toward the more populated out-station. After a minute or two of walking,
Hayden seemed to relax a little.
‘How in the hell did you ever manage to hook up with
someone like… him?’ he suddenly asked.
I grinned up at him. ‘Uhmmm… just lucky, I guess?’
He snorted. ‘He’s… scary, Duo.’
The corridors were widening out and we were starting to encounter
more foot traffic.
‘Just what in the hell did you two talk about while
I was getting checked out?’ I asked, suddenly sure that was where
this was coming from.
He looked down at me as we made our way toward the commercial
section where we would have to hail a cab to take us where we were headed.
‘He threatened me with bodily harm if I allowed you
to hurt yourself,’ he said blandly, as though he had just commented
on the weather.
‘What?’ I blurted and wasn’t sure if I should
be angry or… glowingly pleased.
‘You never asked the Doctor about the tournament…
did you?’ he asked suddenly and I felt myself blush. Hayden chuckled.
‘Your… partner knows you too well. He told me you wouldn’t.’
‘Then why in the hell didn’t he just ask the guy
himself?’ I sputtered.
‘He told me he knew you were going to do this no matter
what he said and he knew better than to try and stop you.’ He chuckled
gently. ‘I think he left you the out so the two of you wouldn’t
have to fight about it.’
I sighed and just walked for a little bit looking at the ground.
Guess I should have realized there was a reason Heero hadn’t gone
in to see the Doctor with me. He never trusts that I won’t push myself
too far. On the one hand I was rather pleased that he had backed off and
was going to let me try this without interfering. On the other hand I felt
guilty as hell that he was obviously tied up in knots about it if he’d
actually threatened Hayden.
‘Hey… Brannigan to Maxwell… come in Maxwell.’
I glanced up into Hayden’s laughing eyes and realized that he’d
called me more than once. I grinned sheepishly.
‘This is Maxwell,’ I responded to that ages old
banter and watched his smile fade.
‘Duo… are you sure you’re up to this?’
he asked, suddenly as serious as I think I’d ever seen him, ‘Heero
seems… damned worried.’
I shrugged, uncomfortable. ‘Won’t know until we
He stopped our forward progress with a hand on my shoulder,
making me look up at him in surprise. ‘Just how the hell bad are you?’
I squirmed under his scrutiny. ‘Look… it’s
not as bad as it was… I’m getting better.’
He wouldn’t let us resume walking. ‘How bad was
it?’ I didn’t answer immediately and he glared at me. ‘We’re
going into this together… I need to know what your condition is.’
I resisted the urge to jerk away from his restraining hand.
‘Damn it,’ I growled, ‘I was a month in the hospital and
another month in a Goddamn wheel chair. I just… tire easily, Ok?’
He blinked at me but the frown faded a little. ‘You
glossed over a hell of a lot when you told this little story, huh?’
I snorted and he finally moved his hand and started us walking
again. ‘Nobody wants to hear the gory details,’ I muttered.
‘Well…’ he grinned after a moment, ‘since
my life is riding on not letting anything happen to you, I’d kind
of like a clue.’
I snapped a glance in his direction. ‘He didn’t
really threaten to hurt you, did he?’
His grin turned wry. ‘Not in so many words… but
he has a glare that can make your damn balls retract.’
I had to laugh. We caught that cab not long after and finally
found ourselves where this whole bloody day had been leading. We were lucky
enough to find one of the rattier little arenas that still had time available
and I rented the thing for the next three hours.
I spent the first hour just trying to get a feel for how much
my body was going to be able to take at one end of the dome while Hayden
ran through his part of the routine at the other. I was appalled at how
quickly I felt the drain and had to stop for a break after only a half an
hour. Hayden saw me leave the null gravity field and kited over with a worried
frown on his face.
‘Duo?’ he asked when he was close enough, ‘are
you all right?’
I grinned at him and waved him off. ‘I’ve learned
my limits… and not to push them. I’m fine. I just have to take
He sat with me while I took my five minutes and then I decided
we’d best run through the routine together while I was still able.
It was like we’d never stopped. I have to tell you,
much as I had fallen in love with Hayden’s Toria… I adored the
woman… I had felt strangely abandoned when they had gone and gotten
married. I had truly enjoyed competing in the expo and we’d been pretty
damn good together. It just wouldn’t have been the same entering the
contest on my own. Sure, there were events for solo athletes but it just
wouldn’t have been... hell, it just wouldn’t have been any damn
fun. I had to admit to myself that I had kind of missed this.
We ran through the routine once, laughing our asses off, teasing
each other about being sloppy, making jokes about the stupid costumes. I
was enjoying myself so much that I almost pushed it too far and wound up
having to go lie on the bench for almost fifteen minutes. Hayden hovered
over me, watching my hands shake and looking like he’d just swallowed
‘I’m calling this off,’ he blurted at one
‘Can’t,’ I drawled, grinning up at him,
‘we’re already registered.’
‘What?’ He glared. ‘When…?’
‘Modern technology,’ I smirked. ‘You can
do that on-line now.’
‘We’ll withdraw,’ he growled.
‘We’re passed the time-limit,’ I informed
him. ‘We’ll lose the registration fee.’
He just sat and frowned at me. I finally fished in my pocket
for some change. ‘Here… you wanna do something; go get me a
soda from the vending machines.’
He took the money and stalked off to fetch the requested drink.
I managed to get myself sitting up before he got back and I engaged him
quickly in a technical discussion of the routine. The worry in his eyes
slowly faded as he warmed to the topic and by the time I had drunk half
the can of soda we were ready to give it another go.
The realization that our practice time was limited to my stamina
kicked us in the ass a little bit and made us buckle down and get serious.
We ran through the routine again without all the horseplay and it was much,
much better. Except for the part where I almost passed out. I was able to
keep Hayden from seeing it; let him think that I had misjudged a kick-off
and gotten stranded in mid arena. It let me hang there and drift getting
my breath and sight back while he rebounded to my end of the gym and nudged
me into motion again. I called a time-out and went to finish the other half
of my can of soda.
‘Doin’ ok?’ he asked when we got settled
on the bench and I laughed boldly at him.
‘You’re starting to sound like Heero!’
‘I’m starting to understand Heero,’ he deadpanned
and there was warning in it. I just kept my hands moving to hide the shaking.
‘I’m fine,’ I told him firmly.
‘My ass,’ he growled back and made me laugh again.
We sat for a bit and contemplated the empty arena in front
of us and I finally ventured, ‘I think we should have a plan B.’
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. ‘Going
back to the war days, are you? We need a contingency plan for a dance routine?’
I snorted. ‘Well; it does sound kind of stupid when
you put it like that.’
He just waited for me to elaborate and I sighed, knowing he
wasn’t going to like it. ‘In case I can’t manage to finish
the damn thing.’
He looked at me rather sharply and I cut him off with a raised
hand. ‘You know it’s going to be more… strenuous tomorrow
with all the gear and props. If I can’t make it… I’d rather
cover it up than humiliate myself in front of the whole damn colony, Ok?’
I won a small chuckle and he finally agreed. We spent our
last hour working on plan B. When we were done, I was damned glad we weren’t
having to walk all the way back to the ship; I’m sure I wouldn’t
have made it. I didn’t think I’d make the short walk from where
the cab dumped us out to the docking bay. I swallowed a little of my pride
and made Hayden stop to let me rest when we were within sight of the docks.
I’d scare the crap out of Heero if I walked aboard ship in the state
I was in at that point. He’d probably sedate me on the spot and haul
my ass back to Earth.
‘I need to ask you a small favor,’ I said to Hayden
while we sat on the metal bench and I got my trembling under control.
He gave me a funny look and a sardonic smile. ‘I owe
you my life and the clothes on my damn back… I think I can do you
a small favor.’
I flushed and ducked my head. ‘Could you just…
not say anything to Toria about how much trouble I had today?’ I sighed,
studying my hands and realizing suddenly that I had forgotten to put my
glove back on. ‘I don’t think I can deal with the both of them…
hovering over me.’
He laughed rather abruptly. ‘Both of them? That would
be rather cruel and unusual punishment, don’t you think?’
When I could hold my hands out and they seemed almost steady,
we resumed our walk.
‘You’re makin’ me feel like shit, Duo,’
he grumbled as we went.
‘I know,’ I grinned up at his scowling visage,
‘but, damnit, Hayden I wish you guys would put this in perspective;
we’re not going on a salvage run. We’re not going on a life
or death mission. What’s the worst that could happen?’
‘You could make yourself sick from the competition,’
he intoned, ‘at which point Heero could castrate me and feed my balls
to my wife since this was all her idea.’
I thought I would choke to death laughing my ass off all the
way up the ramp.
We found the girls still out and Heero alone on the ship.
I know he had more than enough to keep him busy but he still managed to
look like he’d done nothing but chew on something distasteful all
He greeted us with a guarded, ‘How’d it go?’
‘Not too bad,’ I grinned, ‘for a couple
of old, out of shape, salvage guys!’
Hayden snorted and headed for the galley, muttering something
about getting some juice. I’m pretty sure he was just giving us a
‘How’d your day go?’ I asked lightly, hoping
to keep things from getting too intense.
He actually gave me a small grin. ‘Life was easier with
a war on,’ he chuckled. ‘How do you deal with all the damn red
‘It’s an art form,’ I laughed at him. ‘So,
you have a little bit more appreciation for my skills?’
He reached out and snagged my good wrist suddenly and pulled
me forward with an odd smile. ‘Oh… I appreciated your skills
already. All of them.’
I would have laughed if my mouth had not suddenly found something
else to occupy itself with.
When he drew back, the worried look was dancing around his
eyes again. ‘You’re trembling,’ he accused and I opened
my mouth to wade into the familiar argument but he didn’t give me
the chance. ‘And you stink. Shower… then nap. I’ll call
you for dinner.’
I wanted to glare. I wanted to argue. But, you know, when
you got right down to it, it really sounded damn nice. So instead of getting
into it all over again, I just smiled and nodded and walked away. See? Sometimes
I do know when to just accept things.
But I did take the liberty of using my own cabin and my own
shower. Hayden hadn’t gotten all that damn sweaty, the show off; if
he wanted a shower he could wait until after dinner.
Once cleaned up, I fell into my bed and barely remember closing
my damn eyes. Even the faint throbbing of my wrist didn’t disturb
me after the little amount of sleep I’d gotten the night before. I
was totally dead to the world for the next couple of hours and when Heero
came to wake me to tell me it was time to eat, it was a major struggle to
convince myself that I needed to get the fuck up.
I made him go find my glove before I’d consent to go
to dinner and then used the few minutes he was gone to throw cold water
on my face and rinse my mouth. God; seemed like all I did anymore was sleep.
He came back with it and helped me pull it on even though
I’m sure he was about to bite his tongue off to keep from objecting.
I gave him a warm smile of appreciation and a small kiss. ‘Thanks,
love,’ I murmured.
He only grunted.
I was relieved to hear the ladies’ voices as we went
toward the galley and I glanced up at Heero with a mischievous grin. ‘Relena
didn’t come back tattooed or… worse?’
‘Not as near as I can tell,’ he answered and I
honestly don’t think he was kidding.
‘Hey buddy-boy!’ Toria crowed as we came into
the room, ‘you’re just in time… dinner should be here
‘Be here?’ I questioned, confused.
‘Lena here,’ she jabbed a thumb in the general
direction of her Majesty, who was still wearing my clothes by the way, ‘has
never had pizza! Can you believe that? So we ordered pizza.’
I worked my way around the perimeter of the galley to the
fridge and snagged a soda bulb, then thought better of it and grabbed a
protein drink instead. I glanced up to see if Heero wanted anything while
I was there and was graced with an approving smile. I was able to keep myself
from flipping him off, just raised an eyebrow instead and he nodded. I brought
him one of the protein drinks too; if it was good enough for me… it
was good enough for him.
Two seats had been saved for us, side by side and I sank into
mine, sitting across from Hayden, making sure that Heero got stuck with
the chair next to Relena.
‘So how did you ladies enjoy your trip?’ I asked
brightly, hoping to put off the part where Toria and Heero grilled us about
our practice session. My sketchpad was still laying on the table and I leaned
back, pulling it into my lap and went back to work on Jefty while we talked.
‘Not bad; the beer at the ‘Grotesque Carousel’
is just as bad as I remember it and since when do you have to sign a waiver
before you can get your damn belly button pierced on L2?’
I was actually reaching out a hand to make sure Heero didn’t
launch himself across the table at her when Hayden intervened by swatting
his wife on the thigh with a warning growl. ‘Some things are not funny,
my little flower.’
‘Spoil sport,’ she groused, sticking her tongue
out at him.
‘We had a lovely time at the museum,’ Chezarina
interjected smoothly, ignoring the by-play. ‘You don’t think
of the colonies as having separate histories. I’ve been to L4 and
it’s a very different… culture.’
‘I went to several of the colonies with my father,’
Relena said quietly and I was a little surprised to hear her enter the conversation
at all, ‘but we were always taken right from the shuttle port to whatever
embassy he was scheduled to go to. They all looked pretty much the same…
I never imagined there was more than that.’
I kept very still, thinking maybe she would forget I was there
and would not get all weird again. I concentrated on blocking in the screwdriver
clutched in Jefty’s little hand and left it to the others to carry
‘All the colonies are very… individual,’
Hayden commented, sipping at a soda, ‘if you get out among the people.’
He chuckled lightly. ‘It’s been my experience that government
officials and executives don’t vary much from colony to colony.’
Well, that was subtle. I threw him a sharp glance but he ignored
it, only smiling at Relena and raising his soda in mock toast. ‘Present
company excepted… of course.’
I held my breath for a minute, waiting for the searing comment
that was sure to come next but Relena only chuckled darkly, ‘Of course,’
she accepted graciously and raised her own bulb in return. I almost fell
out of my chair. It took some effort for me to get the pencil moving across
the paper again.
‘You certainly weren’t acting much like a high-brow
official when that blond was giving you the lap dance,’ Toria purred.
I was on to her game by now and didn’t so much as flinch
but I really did think Heero was going over the table after her that time,
he actually sat forward like he was on the move.
‘Kidding, Heero!’ Toria chortled. ‘Good
God man; shit that brick outta your ass, will ya? Lighten up!’
I had the most surreal urge to yell duck and cover!
Relena was struggling hard to suppress a giggle and failing
miserably. ‘Victoria!’ she admonished, trying to make it come
out stern and then they were both laughing uproariously. Even Chezarina
was hiding a wide smile behind her hand and I suddenly recognized all the
earmarks of an inside joke. I glanced at Heero and stoic didn’t come
close to describing it. I bent my attention back to my sketchpad, managing
to finish Jefty’s portrait and flipping to a fresh page to start Helen’s.
Wasn’t going to wade into the middle of this one…uh’uh;
no thank you ma’am. No way in hell.
Chezarina did leap into the breach not long after, gamely
trying to turn the two younger women back to a civil conversation. ‘Actually,
we had lunch at a very nice little bistro. They had the most exotic sounding
‘Where did you take them?’ Hayden prodded Toria,
teaming with Chezarina in an effort to curb his wife.
‘We went down to the ‘Ivy Cottage’,’
she reassured him with a haughty little smirk. I almost gouged a hole in
the paper jerking my head up to look at her. Shit, that place was probably
the most expensive restaurant in this whole damn sector. Who in the hell
had paid for lunch? I saw Hayden asking Toria that same question with a
widening of his eyes and then saw the almost imperceptible flick her fingers
made in Relena’s direction.
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or appalled. Relieved
that Toria hadn’t done something stupid like charged their account;
or appalled that one of my guests had been forced to shell out that kind
of money to feed another of my guests a meal. I should have thought of making
sure that Toria had money before they left the ship that morning but I had
been so wrapped up thinking about that trip to the med-lab and then practicing,
that it never crossed my mind. I vowed to get some money in their possession
before we left the ship again.
Chezarina was describing their lunch with just a little too
much detail and I was grateful. It was giving everybody the time to settle
down. Relena and Toria were stifling their giggles and beside me, Heero
seemed to be thawing back out.
I was lingering on Helen’s picture a little too much,
I realized and tried to stop it but she always had been my favorite. I know;
Godfathers shouldn’t play favorites but I couldn’t help it.
She was my little demon-child; had somehow picked up my penchant for jokes
and had a laugh that would have rung off the walls. I felt eyes on me and
glanced up to see Heero watching me work with an odd glint in his eyes.
I guess when I thought about it; he’d never really seen me draw before.
Just the little bit that might have been required for a mission back during
the war, mapping sometimes. His scrutiny made me feel uncomfortable and…
Just when I thought Chezarina was going to quote us the entire
menu from memory, the in-coming call bell chimed and Toria grinned, rubbing
her hands together in anticipation. ‘Dinner has arrived!’
I flipped the sketchpad closed on Helen’s half finished
face and practically leaped to my feet. ‘Great!’ I grinned around.
‘You guys set the table and I’ll go get it!’
I was out the door before anyone had a chance to do more than
blink. Damned if Relena was paying for the pizza too.
I went out through the cargo bay, there’s a comm. unit
in there and I answered the call from it. The pizza and the delivery guy
would be waiting at the check-in desk. Food deliveries were not allowed
into the dock area.
I asked to verify the account number on the order before I
would accept it and sure enough, it had been pre-paid. It took a small amount
of arguing to get the guy to change the account to mine but I tipped him
rather handsomely and in the end, he did what I wanted.
I took the pizza boxes and made my way back inside, stopping
in the cargo bay to hit the lock-downs for the night-cycle.
‘What the hell took so long, buddy-boy?’ Toria
greeted me when I walked back into the galley and I only smiled at her without
comment. Then the pizza boxes were being spread across the table and opened,
and she forgot about it.
I settled back in my seat unable to completely suppress a
small grin of satisfaction but nobody seemed to notice.
I helped myself to a couple slices of pepperoni and sausage
and sat back with my sketchbook in my lap, alternating between drawing and
eating. I was more than happy to just let the world flow around me if it
was content to leave me alone.
There was much teasing as Relena had to taste each of the
four varieties of pizza that Toria and Hayden had selected. I let it go,
only half listening, and lost myself in remembering just how we had decided
that Helen would look, trying to capture that bright, devilish grin. She
would have liked Fuzzy-butt and I sketched his bedraggled ear clutched in
her little fingers, hinting at his shape with a few quick lines. She was
the subject, after all and I only insinuated his presence. I put her in
a t-shirt I had seen once that had a little dragon clasping a teddy bear
to its chest. She would have liked that too.
I flipped the page to begin the portrait of tiny Hayden Jr.,
pausing to work my cramping hand for a few minutes and suddenly became aware
that the room had grown very quiet. I glanced up to find most of the eyes
in the room on me. ‘What?’ I asked, feeling like a pork chop
on display at the market.
There were several stifled giggles/chuckles and I frowned.
‘Though I am more than happy to entertain my guests in whatever way
I can, mind if I share in the joke?’
Chezarina took pity on me while most of the others just laughed.
‘Victoria has asked you a question three times now, dear.’
I felt my face flush and turned my gaze in Toria’s direction.
‘What can I help you with spacer-girl?’ I grumbled.
‘I said… for the fourth time,’ she couldn’t
resist ribbing, ‘may I go turn on some music? It’s entirely
too damn quiet in here.’
‘Knock yourself out,’ I growled and she leaped
to her feet with a happy smile, going to the control panel there in the
galley. She poked at buttons for a minute and I thought to add, ‘no
‘You are no damn fun, buddy-boy,’ she tossed over
her shoulder and I could see her scrolling through file names on the small
‘You are entirely too much fun, spacer-girl,’
I muttered and took another bite of pizza before bending back to my sketch.
‘Ah!’ Toria crowed and hit some buttons with a
certain amount of decisiveness.
‘ …make their yellow blood run cold, fight until
you die or drop, a force like ours is hard to stop, close your mind to stress
and pain, fight ‘till you’re no longer sane, let not one damn
cur pass by, how many of them can we make die?’ Was suddenly blaring
across the speakers along with wailing bagpipes and pounding drums.
‘Toria!’ I bellowed and her fingers finally stabbed
out and cut the fierce voices off in mid battle cry.
She turned slowly around and every damn eye in the room was
on me again. ‘You listen to some truly weird shit, Duo,’ she
said quietly and it made me a little mad.
‘That’s why it was in the folder labeled battle
music. You wanna tell me how you mistook battle music for dinner music?’
‘I was lookin’ for something a little upbeat.’
She glared back at me.
‘Try the folder labeled Helio,’ I ground out and
didn’t miss the odd stiffening from Heero’s direction.
‘Well now that makes much more sense!’ she proclaimed
with a roll of her eyes, but turned back to try again and thankfully remembering
to adjust the volume. It was pure fluff and dance music this time, light
and bright and apparently just what she was looking for because she turned
back to the table with a smile, our near argument completely forgotten.
I scowled back down at my sketchpad and found I had to erase
a dark line that had appeared when the music had kicked in. Jesus, there
was a song I hadn’t needed to listen to since the damn war. It took
a minute or two before the conversation recovered and I noticed again that
it was Chezarina who prodded it back to life. I sure as hell hoped that
Relena realized what a gem she had in that woman. I trusted she was getting
some kind of bonus over and above her regular salary for this little trip;
she sure as hell deserved it.
Half way through the portrait of Hayden Jr.’s pudgy
little face, Heero nudged me gently and admonished me to eat. I glanced
up and smiled sheepishly, realizing that I had barely put away half a slice
of the pizza. I stopped drawing long enough to finish the first slice, listening
for a few minutes to the others talk about the history museum, then went
back to work. I didn’t miss the slight sigh from Heero’s direction
and spared him a quirk of a grin.
I put little Hay in one of those weird onesie things that
snap in the crotch and with ‘Daddy likes me best!’ printed on
the front. Finished, I flipped the pad closed and lay it aside, eating the
second slice of pizza with a pointed glance in my partner’s direction.
Heero’s eyes were so full of questions it was not even
funny. Generated by the sketches or the music or maybe just wondering about
the practice that morning, I’m not sure which.
‘…absolutely, positively every politician I’ve
ever met has been prim and proper, perfectly fit and boring as wheat toast!’
Toria was chortling and then she glanced at Hayden and they chorused, ‘Present
company excepted…of course!’
I think I must have missed something, because everyone at
the table was suddenly cackling like loons except for Heero and me, and
even Heero was wearing a broad grin.
I resisted the urge to look down the table at Relena to judge
her reaction. Of course, I really didn’t have to see her… she
was laughing right along with the rest of them. I reflected on the likelihood
of pod-people again.
‘Well; all the spacers I’ve ever met have been
loud and obnoxious with terrible table manners.’ Relena suddenly said
in an odd, stilted voice and then spoiled it by giggling out, ‘present
company excepted…of course.’
I blinked and reached for my protein drink, keeping my face
carefully blank while I listened to them laugh. It crossed my mind that
before Hayden and Toria, I was probably the only spacer that Relena had
ever met. Had that crack been directed at me or had I just been an innocent
bystander? And why had my gut just flinched? How in the hell I had become
the outsider here? Toria and Relena seemed to have bonded on their little
outing and I should be delighted. I should be thrilled. I think I was…
jealous. Fuck… maybe I was the damn pod-person! I shook my head at
my own stupidity and Hayden noticed.
‘What’s up, buddy-boy?’ he asked lightly,
his face still alight with mirth.
I quirked him a slightly sick grin, covering with the first
thing that came to mind, ‘I was just thinking that I need to go hunt
up our… outfits. If we can’t squeeze our fat asses back into
them, we’ve got a real problem.’
He groaned and Toria beamed at me, ‘Oh good! Now the
‘I don’t think so,’ I informed her firmly.
‘I said we needed to find them and try them on. I didn’t say
we were going to model them.’
She pouted. I glared. She pouted some more. I was fine unless
she said please and I’m not even sure that would work this time. Not
with Relena and Chezarina sitting there.
‘I am pout-proof Victoria Brannigan; get over it,’
I growled. ‘Besides you’ll see us tomorrow along with the rest
of the damn known universe.’
Hayden and I shared a disconsolate sigh. I rose and trudged
off to my cabin, trying to remember where I’d seen the damn things
last. Behind me I heard Toria tell Hayden in a sultry voice, ‘Y’know…I
always thought that outfit made you look damn sexy…’
‘Not on your life, Toria!’ I hollered back at
her from the safety of the corridor. ‘Leather freaking stains like
It took me several long minutes of digging but I finally unearthed
the things in one of the bottom drawers, buried under the remnants of that
old priests costume I used to wear and a stack of Hell-bound Beavers comics.
I grinned; I thought I’d gotten rid of the comics.
I sealed the cabin door and pulled mine out, having to repress
a groan. There had been some excitement a couple of years ago over a movie,
a remake of some classic epic monstrosity; it had focused on an ancient
Earth time period. For awhile, Egyptian everything had been all the rage.
Clothing… jewelry… hairstyles… all fueled, not so much
by reality but by that film’s version of reality. Popular culture
creeps into everything, even things like the costumes at the expo. There
had been six separate routines with an Egyptian flavor that year.
Ours was not one of them. We had never been ones to follow
fashion. But it had sparked a conversation about the fact that there really
were other cultures during that time period. Honest. Egypt had not owned
the world. The conversation had ended up inspiring the routine that we had
created for the following year. Yep. You guessed it; the leather comment
gave it away, didn’t it? Rome. The great Roman Empire with its colorful
emperors and outlandish decadence. And it’s gladiators. Stop fucking
laughing at me.
I stripped and struggled my way into the damn thing, having
to do it in the head so I could use the mirror to get all the buckles and
straps in place. Hayden and I used to help each other with this but I decided
under the circumstances that he might be a little uncomfortable with it.
Our outfits are a little different; mine is almost all leather
and metal. Metal greaves and studded armguards, what amounted to a leather
skirt and a wide studded belt. My chest is bare except for some cris-crossing
leather straps. There are a couple of artfully placed pieces of jewelry,
mere circlets on the upper arms and what looks like a torc collar but is
actually a transmitter/receiver so we can talk to each other if need be.
I am all dark brown leather and gleaming silver.
Hayden is a mix of dark brown and honey brown leather with
gold studs and buckles. His is more of a tunic and a bit more of his chest
is covered. His bracers are a little more elaborate than mine as well. We
had pretty much made the damn things ourselves, working on them almost as
hard as we had worked on the routine itself. Studying the history and doing
the research had been fascinating; the two of us had shared a slight obsession
with the time period for awhile. Until the night we’d wandered into
that bar. Funny, when I thought back on it, I believe we had been arguing
over some piece of Roman history when we had walked into the place.
I moved about the room, bending and shifting and was pleased
that the stupid thing still fit. The arm bracers stiff enough that it should
support my fractured wrist quite nicely. I stripped out of it quickly, redressed,
put my brace back on and returned to the galley.
‘Well?’ Toria greeted me with a grin.
‘I managed to cram myself into mine,’ I chuckled.
‘Let’s see how Hayden does. It’s laying on the bed.’
He took a long, dramatic pull from his soda bulb and then
stood up and squared his shoulders like a man going off to the gallows.
‘If I’m not back in ten minutes… save yourselves,’
he intoned solemnly.
Toria snickered. ‘Oh… I don’t think so.’
And she bounded after him. ‘This I gotta see!’
‘If you’re not back in ten minutes, I’ll
know what the hell you’re doing!’ I yelled and just caught something
from Toria about the door having a lock.
‘Woman is impossible,’ I muttered.
‘She’s funny,’ Relena ventured quietly and
I glanced down the table at her but she was carefully nibbling a piece of
pepperoni she had picked off one of the pizzas.
‘God…you haven’t been laughing at her jokes,
have you?’ I dared in mock horror. ‘Don’t encourage her!’
‘But she tells funny stories,’ she responded,
a bit bolder.
‘Don’t let her hear you say something like that.’
I warned, ‘this behavior is… mild.’
I found myself picking at the remains of my own slice of pizza
so that we didn’t have to look at each other. Hayden was always complaining
that Toria and I had a very similar sense of humor. I wondered idly why
Toria was funny but I was annoying.
‘Well… she loosened up a little while we were
out today,’ Relena supplied in an odd voice and I caught a look pass
between her and Chezarina.
‘She didn’t really take you to the ‘Grotesque
Carousel’ did she?’ I blurted before I had a chance to bite
back on it. Toria was as bad as I was about hiding the truth in the lie.
‘No,’ she reassured, ‘we honestly only went
to the museum and out to lunch. Walked around a little bit; that’s
all.’ Then she couldn’t seem to help but ask. ‘What exactly
is that place?’
I blew a breath out, ‘Only the most disreputable bar
on L2. It gets its name from the carousel built around the center bar.’
Her eyes flicked in my direction but she only said, ‘Oh?’
I flushed, thinking about the hideous, pornographic thing.
And yes, I’ve seen it. ‘Ask Toria… I’m not describing
it.’ Then I blinked. ‘Just do it when I’m not in the room.’
She giggled and looked at me again. ‘It must be bad
to make you blush.’ It was said rather softly, as if she were afraid
I might get angry about the remark.
‘That damn thing would make a mobile doll turn red!’
I laughed and then dared, ‘you might just spontaneously combust.’
She gave out with a nervous laugh and then raised an eyebrow.
‘Is this first hand knowledge?’
That one caught me by surprise and I laughed out right. Relena
looked pleased. ‘Honest Mom,’ I grinned at her, ‘I only
went in the use the bathroom!’
Both she and Chezarina chuckled.
The ball dropped there but I was ok with that. I really didn’t
want to push my luck with her Highness too much; a civil conversation with
a little honest teasing thrown in? I wouldn’t have bet money on it
a week ago; I wasn’t about to cross that line.
Hayden and Toria came back then and my dance partner plopped
back into the seat across from me and dropped his head down on his folded
arms. ‘May God have pity on us, Duo. What in the hell were we thinking?’
I patted the back of his head consolingly. ‘We were
‘We were stupid,’ he groaned.
‘Just what in the hell…’ Chezarina burst
out and then looked horrified, turning red to the roots of her hair. ‘Oh…
I am so sorry!’
I thought I would fall out of my chair. Heero gave me a gentle
nudge back toward an upright position and I roared all the harder.
‘We’ve corrupted her!’ Toria proclaimed
and managed to sound extremely pleased with herself.
‘Corruption aside;’ Heero drawled and I swear
it was the first words he had spoken in an hour, ‘just what in the
hell are these costumes like?’
‘Roman,’ Hayden said simply and tried to leave
it at that.
‘Roman?’ Heero questioned, his brow furrowed.
‘Uhmmm… gladiator,’ I elaborated.
‘Skimpy; sexy as hell,’ Toria decided to elaborate
further and I found myself with the sudden desire to drop my head on the
table along with Hayden. ‘Leather and studs. These really short tunic
things; with straps and buckles just freakin’ everywhere!’
I glanced at Heero out of the corner of my eye, just about
ready to crawl under the table and caught the strangest expression on his
face for an instant before he covered it.
Toria was looking all too pleased with herself and I cast
about for a way to change the damn topic of conversation. My eyes fell on
my sketchpad and I dragged it to me, pulling out the four pages I had just
finished and passed them across to Hayden and Toria.
‘Here,’ I glared at her. ‘Despite the evil
way in which you treat me.’
Their eyes fell on the top portrait and Toria fairly squealed.
‘My babies!’ They quickly shuffled through them, Toria laughing
with delight and Hayden grinning in a strange, paternal way. Yes, we live
in a twisted little reality. Deal with it.
I saw Hayden’s eyes light up with mischief when they
came to Hayden Jr. in his little ‘Daddy likes me best’ shirt
and as predicted, Toria turned an outraged glare in my direction. ‘And
just what are the other children going to think? I won’t have my babies
thinking that their parents play favorites!’
Relena and Chezarina sat forward with interest and the leftover
pizza boxes were cleared away so that Toria could spread her pictures out
like any proud mother. She solemnly named them each off and gave their ages
and there were the most priceless, confused looks on most of the faces in
‘Hey, buddy-boy,’ Toria suddenly blurted, ‘since
when does Brandy wear her hair in a braid?’
‘She has decided I am her favorite God-father and is
going to start emulating me.’ I smiled benignly.
She scowled at me. ‘Bad enough that you have so much
influence over Helen. I will not have both of my daughters corrupted by
your evil power.’
I shrugged. ‘I didn’t tell her to start wearing
it that way,’ I told her smugly.
‘Well, I’m her mother and I will tell her not
to.’ She smirked at me. ‘Take it out.’
I chuckled. ‘She’s going to be mad at you for
the rest of the week.’ I warned but pulled the sketch back and quickly
erased the braid. I had anticipated its removal in the first place and had
only lightly blocked it in. Then I put the hair back in its traditional,
high ponytail. ‘Oh… she’s pissed all right. I’m
not even going to repeat what she just said.’
‘It better not have been a four-letter word or she knows
God damn good and well she’ll get her mouth washed out!’ Toria
snapped, then she and I made eye contact and broke into laughter. Hayden
rolled his eyes in that patronizing way he has but things were different
this time as he had a kindred spirit sitting at the table.
‘How do you cope?’ Heero said dryly and Hayden
‘It isn’t always easy,’ he responded. I
remembered my thought of the previous day. God…just yesterday? That
Toria and Heero would be the ones to hit it off; I revised that opinion
as I watched Hayden and Heero exchanging long-suffering glances.
‘Duo,’ Chezarina suddenly interjected, ‘you
are very talented! You did those…just now, while we ate?’
I ducked my head and fiddled with my almost empty drink bulb.
‘Started them yesterday,’ I murmured, oddly embarrassed.
‘They’re so detailed!’ She exclaimed, lifting
the picture of Helen carefully by the edges.
I think Hayden noticed my growing discomfort because he sat
up and stretched hugely. ‘You know we have to get up at the crack
of bleeding dawn don’t you?’
I chuckled softly, jumping all over the offered change of
topic. ‘It is getting late, isn’t it?’
That pretty much broke things up, we made short work of the
mess dinner had left and everyone wandered off toward their respective cabins.
Toria pausing to give me a peck on the cheek and a misty-eyed, ‘Thank
you.’ With their pictures clutched to her chest.
Heero and I stalled around until everyone else was gone and
then headed down the corridor to the back cabin. He slipped an arm around
me before reaching to key the password, ‘Ready?’
I quirked him a somewhat self-deprecating grin and nodded,
closing my eyes to make sure I didn’t glimpse anything while the light
from the hall spilled into the room. I heard him punch the keys, the door
slid open and he led me inside.
‘It’s all right now,’ he told me, unnecessarily
as the door slid shut. I still had to crack an eyelid first to assure myself
it truly was dark before I could manage to make my eyes open completely.
I sighed; I truly felt like some kind of neurotic asshole.
I made to move toward the bed but Heero caught at my arm almost
hesitantly. I turned toward him but my eyes hadn’t adjusted yet and
he was little more than a shadow beside me.
‘I… need to hold you a minute,’ he whispered,
voice suddenly tight with some unnamed emotion, ‘if that’s Ok?’
I snorted softly and reached for him. ‘That’s
something you never have to ask about,’ I told him warmly and he pulled
me into his arms.
His embrace was… fierce. Sometimes, it seemed, his love
flared hot enough to burn. I shivered.
‘I love you so damn much,’ he murmured, his arms
solid and possessive around me.
‘You are my strength,’ I whispered, letting my
head rest on his shoulder, wondering where my own strength had suddenly
fled. Wondering where this strange almost melancholy mood had sprung from.
‘Me?’ he said and his voice sounded pained. ‘You
hardly need mine.’
‘Just knowing you’re there,’ I sighed tiredly,
‘knowing if I fall too hard… you’ll be there to pick up
His arms clenched convulsively around me and I let myself
sink into the comfort he was offering me. Wrapped my arms around his neck
and all but hung in his arms.
‘Let me care for you tonight?’ he requested softly
and I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant but I more than agreed. He
led me toward our bed where he stood and gently undressed me, pushing my
hands away when I moved to help. ‘Just let me, love.’
I felt… strange. He was being very intense, very tender.
I was surprised when he slipped my sleep shorts on me but I didn’t
comment, just let him lead me where he wanted to go.
He eased me down on the bed, rolling me over until I was stretched
out on my stomach. He was very careful of my arm and made sure it was lying
flat and not twisted in a way that would hurt. I turned my head and watched
him step away to undress as well, pulling on his own pair of sleep shorts.
Then he came back to the bed but instead of lying down with me, he settled
himself above me, straddling my thighs. His hands came to rest on my shoulders
and soon his fingers were kneading away at tight muscles. ‘You’re
very tense,’ he murmured. ‘More so than earlier… what’s
I tried to relax under the steady pressure of his hands. ‘I’m
sorry… this room just gets to me.’
He sighed. ‘You didn’t sleep well last night,
is that why?’
I nodded against the pillow. ‘Being in here… just
makes me think about… things. Even if I can’t see it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he sighed dejectedly. ‘I
thought it would help…’
I chuckled mirthlessly. ‘Oh it helps… you wouldn’t
want to see the mess I’d be if I actually had to look at it.’
He was quiet for a moment, his hands stroking over my back
and across my shoulders. I moaned softly, letting him work his magic on
me. There was something in the air, something on his mind but I knew better
than to push.
‘Duo… love?’ he asked after a long silence,
‘I… Can I… ’ He was floundering around with something
he wanted to ask but was afraid to.
I grinned into the dark. ‘Speak plainly… remember?’
He sighed and his hands faltered. ‘Can I… I would
like to ask about…’ The paintings. He wanted to ask about the
murals but was afraid of upsetting me.
‘Which one?’ I asked softly and in answer he reached
out and touched the wall beside us. I cringed. My baby picture. I might
have guessed; the thing is rather… arresting.
‘Go ahead,’ I breathed, ‘ask.’
His hands resumed their work. ‘It’s not…
real, is it?’ His voice was so hesitant, so full of genuine fear it
gave me the strength to talk about it a little bit, for him.
‘No,’ I reassured him and felt a certain tension
go out of him. ‘Not as far as I know, anyway. I have absolutely no
memory of my parents. My earliest memories are of the streets.’
His hands were moving down my back, his thumbs digging in
along my spine and he pulled a deep groan from me when he got to the tight
place in the small of my back. He concentrated his attention there. ‘Then
‘I don’t know,’ I interrupted, trying to
spare him the struggle with words. ‘It was just something that preyed
on my imagination a lot, growing up. It’s easy for a street kid to
understand the absence of a father; hell… they were a rare breed.
But mothers… if you couldn’t remember what happened that put
you on the street, you couldn’t help but wonder why.’
He shifted off to the side and began working my legs next,
making me hiss as he hit bunched up muscles that had been objecting all
evening to the work-out I had given them this afternoon.
‘I dunno… I just couldn’t help but imagine
things. Was she dead? Had she died giving birth to me? Would she have given
me up if she were alive? I guess that was just my darkest fears about it…
that she had willfully and coldly dumped me to die.’ I stopped talking,
surprised that I had spouted all of that out loud. I had not really meant
to say that much. The dark, somehow, seemed to draw things out of me. It
was easier to talk like this… almost as though I were merely musing
Heero shifted again and prodded at my hip to make me roll
over. He sat on the side of the bed and, again, carefully arranged my injured
arm before bending back to work. He started with my shoulders and ran down
my chest, kneading and massaging, leaving me feeling like a puppet whose
strings have been cut.
‘You are so damn good at this,’ I moaned, partly
to let him know that I felt like we had pretty much covered that topic and
would just as soon drop it.
‘Will you do something for me?’ he asked softly.
‘If I can,’ I told him with a smile that I knew
he couldn’t really see.
‘You have to get some sleep tonight if you’re
going to manage this… damn thing tomorrow. Will you let me give you
one of the sedatives?’ He really wanted me to and if I let myself
consider it, I knew it was probably a good idea. I wasn’t going to
be sleeping in this damn room without nightmares otherwise. Especially after
lying here talking about… things. But God, I hate drugs.
I chewed on it, thinking it over and he let me; just continuing
to rub and work my sore, tired body. ‘All right,’ I finally
agreed, ‘but just one; I can’t afford to not be able to get
myself going in the morning.’
He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. ‘Thank you,’
he said solemnly and I chuckled at him.
‘You make it sound like I just agreed to give you a
kidney or something,’ I teased.
‘I just worry about you so much,’ he muttered,
obviously embarrassed and I’d be willing to bet he was blushing.
‘I know,’ I told him warmly, ‘and I’m
sorry for giving you gray hairs.’
He snorted, his hands moving down the front of my thighs,
his thumbs stroking firmly along the length of muscle. ‘Oh, the gray
hair you’re sorry about but not the heart attacks and the ulcer?’
He was sorry he had brought up bad memories and was trying
to make up for it by lightening my mood. I chuckled for him, and he finally
went off to fetch the sedative and a glass of water. He brought back a pain
pill as well, and I took it with a resigned sigh. I guess he’d had
a bad day of his own, stuck here in the ship all by himself with nothing
to do but worry and think.
Finally, he was settling in beside me and I turned toward
him, carefully laying my wrist across his chest. I felt him stiffen. ‘I’m
sorry… the brace must be uncomfortable,’ I apologized and made
to turn over.
‘No!’ he said. ‘Not at all… just don’t
let me hurt you.’ And his arm came to curl around me protectively.
‘Just for a while,’ I sighed. ‘If you don’t
mind… you can shove me off in a bit. I know it must be like having
a damn brick laying in the middle of…’
‘Shhh…’ He cut me off with a kiss on my
forehead. ‘It’s fine. You sleeping in my arms is still such
a… dream come true… I wouldn’t care if the damn thing
was a full plaster cast.’
‘What’s making you so poetic tonight?’ I
grinned up at him, wishing I could see better.
‘Watching you,’ he whispered, his fingers coming
to find the curve of my face in the dark and he guided himself down to deliver
a languid kiss.
He settled back then and let me lay with my head on his shoulder.
‘What’re you going to do all day tomorrow while
we’re gone?’ I muttered thickly and realized that the drugs
were kicking in.
There was a strange, electric tingle in the air and Heero
didn’t say anything for a minute. ‘You don’t think I’d
miss this, do you?’ He sounded amused.
‘You jus’ wanna make fun of us,’ I grumbled
around a yawn and he chuckled.
‘Besides… the ladies have already made it known
that they intend to be front row center.’
‘Oh God,’ I moaned.
I wondered idly if he’d figured out yet from the description
of our gladiator garb that this dance routine was nothing more than a choreographed
fight. Well, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to tell him.
‘Go to sleep,’ he admonished sternly and it wasn’t
all that much longer before the drugs took me under.
Morning seemed to be there before I half had a chance to close
my eyes and I could tell it was going to be another one of those surreal
days where everything goes by in a blur. I had my mental checklist and just
threw myself into it. I hit the galley before anybody half had a chance
to start breakfast and wolfed down a couple of ration bars. Say what you
want about those things; they’re designed to give you the fuel and
calories that the body needs. A hell of a lot more food value than pizza.
I popped a protein drink and took it with me as I started to work, hauling
a couple more along to pack for later.
I stopped off in the cockpit and checked for messages, finding
only the canned reminder to all athletes of check-in time. I printed it
out to take with us, it had our entry numbers and assigned locker room noted
I rousted Hayden and Toria out next and went in to pack up
the costumes and props, stowing the protein drinks in the duffle with everything
else. I particularly wanted the props out of sight before Heero got out
of the shower.
Then it was back to the cockpit to download our soundtrack
to CD, something I had damn near forgotten.
Everybody seemed to know to stay the hell out of my way and
I was just as glad since the little voice in the back of my head that kept
chanting, ‘I don’t wanna do this… I don’t wanna
do this… I don’t wanna do this…’ would have made
conversation a little difficult.
I passed Hayden at one point in the corridor and he gave me
his woebegone face saying, ‘Do you feel like you could throw up?’
I smirked mercilessly. ‘Since this was all your wife’s
idea…throwing up will not get you out of going.’
‘Damn,’ he muttered and we both went on about
We ended up heading out for the stadium almost a half an hour
early, but neither of us could stand the strain of just hanging around the
ship. Toria came and gave the both of us a hard hug, drawing back to look
at me seriously. ‘You be… I don’t want you… ’
she began several times before hugging me a second time and blurting, ‘thank
you, Duo Maxwell… I don’t know what in the hell we’d do
without you… even if you are a bad influence on the kids!’
We were all clustered near the airlock and I was flabbergasted
when Heero moved in and slid an arm around my waist to pull me close. ‘You
watch that damn wrist,’ he growled and gave me a small shake as if
to emphasis his words. I knew I was beet red but I was oddly pleased as
well. I considered given him a small kiss but I guess I wasn’t quite
ready for that yet because just thinking about it made my face flame even
more. I settled on merely returning the hug.
We grabbed a cab as soon as we got to the street. I meant
to conserve every ounce of energy for the dance itself.
The cab got us as close as possible and we had to walk the
rest of the way in through the crowded, cordoned off streets. It’s
funny; we’d only missed one year since we had started competing but
it seemed like forever. Performing is a strange thing, both exhilarating
and frightening all at the same time. The idea of screwing up in front of
all those thousands and thousands of people is enough to turn your bowels
to water and make you want to throw up. But the feeling you get when you
really nail a performance, when the crowd is yelling and you just know in
your gut you could not have done it better… that made your knees turn
weak in a whole different way.
We made our way inside, having to give our entry number and
names to security. The guy recognized us and flashed us a wide smile, passing
us through. Once in the building we began to see familiar faces, other spacers
that we had competed against before and I began to hear the murmur of talk
flow around us. ‘Brannigan and Maxwell?’, ‘Didn’t
they take the silver two years ago?’, ‘I heard he was in a bad
way… almost died.’, ‘D’ya hear the Brannigan’s
lost their ship?’, ‘…asteroid belt…’, ‘…hull
breach…’. I glanced up at Hayden and wondered if my face looked
as uncomfortable as his did.
Not everybody stood off and just talked about us, some knew
us well enough to come up and speak. Frankly, I preferred the gossip; that
I could let wash by without having to deal with it. Much easier than handling
We finally made our locker room and I threw myself down on
a bench with a heartfelt sigh. ‘Ok… I hadn’t taken the
time to consider the rumor mill aspect of things.’
Hayden chuckled, sitting next to me. ‘Did you hear the
guy who’d heard we all got sucked into a black hole?’
I laughed. ‘No. Missed that one. I was too busy listening
to the story about me getting a screaming case of free-fall fever and being
in an asylum for the last five months.’
He grinned maliciously. ‘Oh, that one could be helpful.
We’ll cultivate that one and just tell people you’re only out
on a day pass.’
We were slotted in the fifteenth place and wouldn’t
even be going on until almost noon. We unpacked our gear but didn’t
bother to suit up yet.
There are monitors mounted on the walls in all the dressing
rooms, tuned of course to the expo. We sat and watched the opening ceremonies.
Not long after that, our ops-coordinator came in to pick up our music and
gravity sequencing. He whistled softly when he saw the complicated program
and really seemed to look at us for the first time. ‘Hey… I
remember you guys. You did that dry-ice thing a couple years ago.’
I grinned at him; leave it to an ops guy to remember us based
on our props. Hayden and I have a somewhat distinctive look; he is a good
head and a half taller than I am and broad shouldered enough that it looks
like he could break me over his knee. His shoulder length hair is only slightly
dark than mine and that immaculately trimmed beard gives him a grim appearance.
Standing next to him, I look like some kind of elfin creature; all long,
lean lines next to his almost burly presence.
Hayden asked if he could check the gravity sequencing after
it was programmed and the ops guy agreed with a wry look down at the paper
in his hand. Any surprises in the middle of a routine like ours could get
somebody a broken neck. He told us he’d send a gofer down when it
was done. Then he was off to the next locker room.
We watched a couple of the races, commenting on those people
we recognized, talking almost not at all about our own fast approaching
time in the spotlight. The little voice in the back of my head was getting
louder and had changed its tune a little bit; ‘I really, really don’t
wanna do this… I really, really, really don’t wanna do this…’
About two hours before our performance time, the promised
gofer showed up to take Hayden up to the control booth. Hayden fairly threw
himself up off the bench, obviously happy to have something to do. I chuckled
at him and he growled a ‘Shut up’ at me. I drank one of my protein
drinks while he was gone.
When he returned, we grudgingly agreed that we needed to suit
up. I pulled my gear out of the duffle bag and retreated to one end of the
bench, working with my back turned.
And yes, before you ask, we had found some suede cloth that
matched the leather to make shorts out of to wear under those tunics. We’d
never found out just what real Romans wore under there; probably nothing
at all. But then, Romans would not have found themselves fighting twenty
feet off the ground.
There was nothing for a while but the creak of leather and
muttered curses as we struggled into costume. Finally, on an explosive breath,
Hayden said, ‘God damn it…get over here and buckle this damn
thing for me… I can’t reach it!’
The last of the uneasy tension that had been between us seemed
to just melt away. And I’m very aware that part of it had been coming
from me, trying overly hard to be… sensitive to the issue. It was
like old times as we helped each other strap in, making sure everything
was on straight and secure as we could get it. The last thing I did was
sit down to pull my arm brace off and Hayden frowned at me.
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’
he said sullenly.
‘The bracers are almost as stiff as it is… it
should be all right,’ I reassured.
‘At least let me wrap it first,’ he growled and
I imagined he was thinking about Heero ripping his head off when he saw
I had taken the thing off. So I let him wrap it and help me on with the
arm guard. We still had a half an hour before we got the call-out, an hour
before we were to perform.
‘I think I’m gonna be sick,’ I muttered
and he snickered at me.
‘You had no sympathy for me, I have none for you.’
‘We should get out the swords,’ I told him.
He nodded. ‘We should have practiced with them yesterday.’
I hung my head. ‘I know… but I was afraid Heero’d
have a cow.’
He looked at me sharply. ‘You mean he doesn’t
know?’ I had to shake my head.
‘He’s… not very happy with me right now,’
I sighed. ‘Keeps referring to the whole expo as ‘that damn thing’.’
Hayden snickered. ‘I figured if he realized just what in the hell
we were planning on doing out there, he’d have my ass drugged, tied
up and on my way back to Earth.’
‘Maybe he’s… right?’ he asked then,
looking at me intently. ‘We’re getting ready to go out there
and have at each other with a couple of feet of tempered steel…’
‘I’ll be fine,’ I muttered, embarrassed.
‘Duo, I think I can keep myself from getting skewered
if you slip… but I’m not sure I can…’ he began,
worry clouding his face.
‘That’s what these are for,’ I touched the
torc around my neck with the earphone currently dangling down my chest.
‘If I get into trouble I will tell you.’ I grinned up at him.
‘That’s why we have a plan B…remember?’
He still looked troubled but there was a sharp rap on the
door then and the voice of some nameless, faceless gofer saying, ‘Last
call!’ It was time to go meet our public.
I made a quick trip to the bathroom and stopped by the vending
machine that all locker rooms had in the corner, punched in for a soda and
drank half the can standing there. I offered the other half to Hayden who
was watching me with an odd look on his face. He shook his head and I tossed
the rest of it in the trashcan. ‘Little caffeine kick can’t
hurt,’ I grinned but he only frowned some more.
God, I wish this was over with.
We pulled out our swords, inserted the ear jacks, slapped
each other’s shoulders for luck and headed out.
‘I feel like an ass,’ Hayden muttered as we went
down the access passage toward the main arena. ‘We thought these were
a good idea, why?’
‘We were young and naive and thought they made us look
really cool,’ I grinned at his broad back.
‘It was only a year or so ago,’ he complained.
‘How could we have been that much… stupider, just a year ago?’
‘Guess we grew up fast,’ I snickered.
He looked back at me sharply. ‘Oh God… you’re
starting to enjoy yourself!’
I was. I almost laughed out loud as I realized it. The old
familiar rush was coming back and some of the self-consciousness and apprehension
was washing away on its rising tide.
‘Come on, man.’ I grinned up at him. ‘Brannigan
and Maxwell… back in the ring. We’ll probably never do this
again; this is our farewell performance.’
He looked doubtful and I struck a heroic pose. ‘It’s
all attitude, partner… you remember that. We go out there thinking
we look like idiots… then we’ll look like idiots. Let’s
go out there and look damn cool.’
Finally, he grinned at me and there was just a touch of that
old spark in his eyes. He turned and resumed walking but I noted that his
back was a little straighter and his head a little higher.
Then we were there, moving into the athlete’s staging
area and we were suddenly surrounded by a score of people in costumes just
as outlandish as ours. I recognized a large number of them and exchanged
polite waves and a couple of handshakes but there is a kind of unwritten
rule in the staging area about too much talking. Everybody is trying to
get to that place in their heads that they need to be in to perform. Each
of us respects that and we keep our distance.
Hayden and I make a point of not watching the other competitors,
we concentrate on our own routine and just doing the best we can. I don’t
want to be affected by seeing someone else do something that is similar
to a move I use and then feeling like I should alter my routine.
‘You know…’ Hayden leaned down and whispered
next to my ear, ‘I kinda missed this.’
I flashed him a smile so wide I thought my face would crack
and he laughed at me, seeing that I had too.
Our number was called and we moved up to the field gate. The
butterflies in my stomach morphed into something a whole lot larger…
eagles, maybe. And the little voice in the back of my head just screamed
and ran away. My mouth was dry and I had to wipe sweaty palms on my bare
thighs because there was nothing else but leather.
‘We shoulda brought towels,’ Hayden groused and
I glanced to see him struggling with the same problem.
Then the announcer was giving our intro and I was standing
on that knife-edge between complete panic and the total calm that comes
over you when you start something you’ve practiced until you can do
it in your sleep.
The announcer guy knew his dramatic shit, withholding our
names until he had listed our other wins and pointed out that we were ‘back’
after a yearlong absence. Then he called out ‘Brannigan and Maxwell’
and there was a roar from the crowd. I looked up into Hayden’s shocked
face and muttered, ‘What the hell?’
He caught at my arm and leaned down to whisper fiercely, ‘They
think we’re competing despite our… problems.’
God. I hadn’t thought of that. Nobody in their right
mind would decide in the final hour that they were going to enter the gravity
expo. Everybody thought we had been planning to enter this year all along
and were now valiantly going ahead, despite all our trails and tribulations;
my accident, the loss of the ‘Ragged Gypsy’. Gamely going forward
against all odds.
‘I feel so mercenary,’ I said and it was his turn
to laugh at me.
‘You’re up,’ called the gate man and I moved
‘Don’t break anything,’ Hayden called.
‘Don’t miss your cue,’ I called back.
The first drum beat of our music hit and I launched right
on my mark, despite feeling like I could toss my cookies right there.
We dance this to ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’.
Yeah, I had taken a real liking to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The piece starts
slow, almost a death knell of simple drumbeats. I have thirty seconds to
make my trip clear across the arena from that one powerful kick-off, taking
my position near the ceiling, striking my pose and waiting for Hayden.
He comes out at the thirty-second mark to the flare of the
brass section. He gets almost the same thirty seconds to move in and take
his position low and opposite me before the drums kick in again.
The song picks up speed after that rather quickly, it’s
all drums and cymbals and electronics. Gets the damn blood stirring, let
me tell you.
The routine runs just under ten minutes. It was to be the
longest ten minutes of my life.
As soon as Hayden was in position and on the cue of the drumbeat,
we moved toward each other with swords brandished, arcing across the arena
and taking our first pass.
That is our first truly dramatic moment, because we swing
and let the swords clash off each other. It rang in the stadium shockingly
loud, just as planned. The crowd gasped as they realized the swords were
real metal and I had to repress a smirk.
We flashed to opposite sides of the arena and I got ready
for the first gravity kick. It came right on the mark and we changed our
glides into acrobatic landings and turned to run at each other, making our
second pass. The swords rang again and I leaped hard off the floor, knowing
that behind me Hayden was doing the same. The gravity vanished just when
it was supposed to and I was kiting toward the wall for a hard rebound.
This is what we do well. The gravity cuts. We didn’t
invent the style but by God we did it better than anybody else currently
performing. It’s all split second timing to make the transition look
smooth as watered silk. The crowd cheered the effect.
The next move was a close pass; you couldn’t have gotten
a hand between us as we sailed by each other. It always reminded me of the
old circus performers, the trapeze acts. Two flyers passing in mid-air is
a damn hard thing to master. Two gravity dancers passing that close is just
as difficult. There had been not a few accidents before we had gotten good
enough to stop kicking each other in the face. It was the other thing we
did very impressively; we left no margin for error.
I was already drenched with sweat. There was another change
in the gravity then, not total, lending a strange effect to an almost fall.
Makes it more of a float. Then full gravity and we make another run. I wished
I could wipe the sweat off my palms. This one was a big dramatic swing,
two hands on the sword and the pain lanced up my bad arm like an electric
shock. I must have gasped, though the clash of the swords and the roar of
the crowd kept it from traveling far. Except to Hayden who had a direct
‘You ok?’ he questioned worriedly.
‘Felt that,’ I muttered. The gravity went out
again and I was gliding back toward the ceiling. When I turned and faced
him again, I was able to flash him a grin.
We circled each other, posing and showing off for a couple
of seconds and then it was time for my swan dive. I worked my way to the
highest point in the arena and Hayden moved in under me. The gravity kicked
in and I plummeted like a stooping hawk right towards him. He planted himself
firmly on the ground and raised his sword. The crowd was going nuts. At
the last possible second, the gravity went back out, Hayden kicked clear
and I turned the dive into a tumbling jack-knife kick, launching back into
the air, giving pursuit.
Another pass then, another clang of the swords. My heart was
starting to pound painfully in my chest. Shit. We were barely half way through
Coming off the pass, we sailed to opposite ends again and
took up positions for our really big move. This one had won Hayden a broken
nose and me a broken finger before we had perfected it.
‘Ready?’ he asked even as we were moving in the
hardest kick-offs we had used yet.
I snorted and realized that he must be able to tell I was
struggling; we normally didn’t talk unless we had to.
We bore down on each other but this one wasn’t a pass.
At the last second, we locked hands and repelled off each other. It required
Hayden to switch his sword to his left hand. I normally do that but under
the circumstances, we’d changed the routine. Even so, I still almost
lost my sword. The repel is tricky as hell and I’d never seen anyone
else try it. My wrist gave me another pang but I managed to keep it off
my face this time. We don’t give ourselves enough momentum to reach
the wall; we’re both left hanging in mid-air for just a second before
a gravity change drops us to the floor. I didn’t need to fake the
artful panting thing. We are supposed to land on our feet but the impact
drove me to one knee. I turned it into a pose though and no one was the
wiser. Except Hayden, of course.
I had to launch myself immediately into a run to make up the
time I had squandered on my near fall and we made another ringing strike
in the center of the arena. The impact drove a grunt of air from my lungs
but the gravity was due to go again and I needed to make my leap. Soaring
toward the wall, I had a second to realize that my ears were starting to
ring and I knew my breath was coming in ragged gulps.
I almost moaned thinking about the next move and Hayden called
to me again, ‘Duo?’
I didn’t answer, just concentrated on my set-up and
was thankfully in place when the gravity came back on. It had taken us longer
to perfect this move than any of the others. It doesn’t look like
much unless you understand the workings of gravity. It’s all about
momentum and friction and timing. Full gravity comes on while we are at
the top of the dome and we ‘run’ across the wall for almost
five full strides before the gravity goes to zero again and we are kicking
off into mid-air. The crowd went mad with cheering and I think sometimes,
looking back, that that sound was all that was keeping me going.
‘Duo?’ Hayden questioned again when we were off
the wall, since I’d never answered him the first time.
‘I…’ I faltered on the I’m fine response
that had been coming out of my mouth. I wasn’t. I could feel the shakiness
that had hold of me like something cold in my guts and my ears were still
ringing. I was having trouble catching my breath. ‘Don’t rule
out the contingency plan.’ I finally admitted.
‘Shit,’ he muttered and then it was time for another
Then the unthinkable happened. I cut him. I knew it when I
heard his grunt of surprise but I couldn’t look until I hit the wall
and made my return. It wasn’t bad, just a thin slice on his upper
arm but it was obvious as hell and the whole damn stadium gasped.
‘We planned for this,’ I snapped at him even as
I was coming back to meet him over the center of the arena.
He didn’t speak but I saw the almost-anguish in his
eyes. He had to cut me in return to make it look like part of the routine.
I could tell from the look on his face that he wouldn’t do it. At
the last second, I shifted my arm and made it happen. I even managed to
make it a mirror image of his own cut.
‘Damn!’ he hissed and when we turned to square
off again, I could see his face flashing anger. But when the crowd saw the
red stripe on my arm as well, the buzz of agitated voices turned to cheers.
I smirked at him even as I was kicking off again. I almost
missed my mark and the pass we made wasn’t near as close as it should
I couldn’t do this. I knew it in that moment.
‘Plan B,’ I panted, instinct turning my suddenly
leaden body as gravity kicked in and I had to land on the floor.
‘Duo?’ he gasped as we squared off again and he
got a good look at me. I think I must have been as white as a sheet, because
he looked truly scared. I danced the sword blade in tiny circles to hide
the way it was shaking in my hands. I had enough mind left to see him mimic
me and tried to grin.
‘Hayden… I’m gonna pass out,’ I warned
him and he moved in for the kill.
Yep. That was plan B. If I got to a point where I didn’t
think I could finish the routine, then Hayden was supposed to move in and
dispatch me as quickly as possible. At that point I finished out the act
as a limp corpse and he did his best to fill the rest of the time slot with
dramatic posing and gloating over my vanquished body. Stop laughing; we
didn’t have a lot of time to come up with something.
I managed to stay with him long enough to swing my sword in
one last, vain attempt to ‘save’ myself and then slump convincingly
around his forward thrust. That is the last thing I remember, the feel of
Hayden’s hand on my stomach, the sword passing neatly between my body
and my arm and his voice keening, ‘Ohshitohshitohshit…’
I might have told him to get Heero. That was the last coherent
thought I had anyway; ‘I want Heero’. I would have laughed at
myself if I’d been awake to do it.
Much later they would tell me that we carried off my ‘death’
very convincingly. That Hayden kept a level head and had turned me over
so that the next gravity change had found me with my back aimed at the floor
and I had drifted artfully down to sprawl at his feet. He had ad-libbed
a short little victory dance and then crouched to ‘mourn’ at
the side of a worthy opponent. Finishing by carrying me off the field. We
even got credit for our sense of the dramatic by staying ‘in character’
all the way back to the locker room. I wouldn’t know. Maybe I’ll
watch the tapes someday.
I wasn’t aware of anything again for almost an hour.
It was a hard struggle up from the depths of that faint. I
heard things before I was able to come back enough to move. Or at least
before I came back enough to care.
‘…cock-sure son of a bitch! You’re not a
God damn Doctor!’ That was Toria and she was flaming, spitting pissed.
Her voice echoed strangely and it filtered down to my befuddled brain that
we must be in the locker room.
‘Torie… honey… calm down.’ That was
Hayden and I wondered vaguely why he was taking his life in his hands.
‘Calm down? Calm down? You are as fucking nuts as he
is! We need to get one of the medics in here! We need to…’
‘You need to shut up,’ Heero spoke for the first
time, his voice cold as ice. I realized muzzily that he was the warm thing
I was laying against, because his voice rumbled against my ear. ‘He
risked his neck out there to make sure that nobody realized how weak he
is. I won’t have you destroying all his hard work.’
‘But Heero…’ That was Relena. Good God;
were they all crammed in here?
‘Just who in the hell do you think you are anyway?!’
Toria was yelling.
‘Sweetie… back off…’ Hayden’s
voice was starting to sound scared and it crossed my mind that maybe I should
be doing something.
‘Enough!’ Heero raised his voice, something he
doesn’t do a hell of a lot but when he does…people pay attention.
The room went quiet as a church and I chose that moment to shift. It brought
my body awareness back and I realized that my butt hurt from half reclining
on the hard bench. I was cold but not as cold as I would have expected;
I found I was wrapped in a blanket. Heero’s arms were around me and
they tightened when he felt me move.
‘Duo love?’ he said softly and I blinked open
‘Hey.’ I smiled up into his worried, down-turned
face, my head supported in the crook of his elbow.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked gently and brought
warm fingers to brush the hair from my eyes.
‘Come to pick up the pieces again?’ I said and
my mouth felt cottony dry, making my voice come out raspy.
He reached behind us and magically produced a bottle of something
cold. ‘Here, love,’ he said soothingly and held it for me while
I greedily sucked down what proved to be a sports drink. ‘Slow down,’
he chided and took it away from me before I could make myself sick. ‘Better?’
he asked after a moment and I nodded.
‘How long?’ I asked, still feeling fuzzy minded.
‘About an hour,’ he supplied and then answered
my second question before I asked it. ‘You pulled it off; nobody suspected
‘But they’re going to if we stay in here very
much longer.’ I frowned and thought about getting up. Thinking was
about as far as it went.
‘We’re fine,’ he soothed me. ‘Everyone
thinks we’re in here watching the last of the competition. I think
there’s still several routines to go… no one will think a thing
until it’s over.’
‘Ok,’ I sighed and relaxed back against him. Aches
and pains were starting to make themselves known. My arm stung and for a
second I couldn’t figure out why, I tried to reach for it but found
myself tangled in the blanket. I quirked him a small grin, ‘You thought
of everything, didn’t you?’
He smiled tenderly back at me. ‘I know how you get.’
And his fingers were back, tracing gently over my face. I could feel his
concern like a current that ran under his skin.
‘Excuse me;’ Toria was suddenly almost in our
faces. ‘Remember us? Hello?’
I felt like laughing but really didn’t have the energy
for it; I truly had forgotten they were in the damn room.
‘Hey there, spacer-girl,’ I murmured. I was having
trouble keeping my eyes open and couldn’t seem to keep my damn head
lifted off Heero’s chest.
Her face lost all its twisted together anger and fear when
she saw she had my attention, ‘Duo… God, Duo… why didn’t
you tell me it was that bad? I never would have asked…’
‘And that’s why I didn’t tell you,’
I told her gently. ‘Besides… I’m fine. A little sleep
and I’ll be good as new.’
Her temper flared and she growled, ‘You asshole! You
scared the shit out of me!’ and raised her hand to slap at my arm.
The blow, however light it would have been, never landed. There was a tight
growl from Heero and Toria backed down instantly.
I sighed and made more of an effort to stop drifting, I managed
to convince my neck to support my head and I turned to look passed Toria
to Hayden. ‘Hey, big guy… how’s the arm?’
He scowled down at me, moving to sit on the bench beside us
so I didn’t have to crane my neck to see him. ‘It’s fine…
not near as bad as yours. You really pissed me off, Duo. I didn’t
want to cut you… I never agreed to that part of the plan.’
A dozen things ran through my head, arguments and justifications
but I was just too tired to care and, ‘I’m sorry,’ was
all I could manage.
He was quiet for a moment while he just sat and looked at
me and then he stood and briskly said, ‘Why don’t we step out
in the hall for a few minutes, ladies? Let Duo get changed out of that costume.
They’re damned uncomfortable, you know. They bind in all the wrong
places…’ He chattered away at them as he herded them out, not
letting a one of them object and when the door closed I couldn’t stop
a sigh of relief. I let my head fall back into the support of Heero’s
arm and smiled up at him.
‘Can I have that kiss now?’ I asked softly.
He smiled warmly. ‘And what kiss would that be?’
‘The one you’ve been dying to give me ever since
I opened my eyes.’
He chuckled for a moment but then something in his eyes changed.
Things went terribly still. He leaned down and brushed his lips over mine,
so softly I wasn’t sure if he’d actually touched me or if what
I’d felt had only been his breath. He did it again but this time I
rose to meet him, insistent. He gave me what I wanted, his sudden fierceness
contrasting dizzyingly with his gentleness. I melted in his arms.
‘You were… magnificent out there,’ he breathed
when he drew away and I felt warmth spread through my chest.
‘I felt like I was floundering all over the place,’
I grimaced and began trying to sit up.
‘Easy,’ he scolded and held me while the room
spun around us. I got my good arm braced on the bench and finally steadied.
When he was sure I wouldn’t fall over, he peeled the blanket back
and began unbuckling straps.
I was shivering before he even had me stripped to the waist.
He hurriedly pulled out a sweatshirt and worked it on over my head. I smiled
as he tugged it down. ‘Where’d this come from?’ I asked
with a raised eyebrow; I don’t own any sweatshirts.
He was down on his knee beside me, working at the leg guards
and glanced up at me through that unruly hair of his. ‘I told you…
I came prepared; I know how you get.’
‘You make it sound like I do this every other day,’
‘Once was enough to teach me my lesson,’ he smiled.
‘I’m a fast learner.’
I snorted and dared to sit up straight, taking my weight off
my hand. I didn’t immediately fall over, so I reached to begin undoing
the buckles on the wide leather belt; it really was binding just the way
Hayden had said. I sighed with relief when it finally fell away.
He helped me finish dressing and shoved the gear away in the
duffle bag before coming to sit down in front of me with my wrist brace
and I couldn’t help a sheepish grin. He only shook his head and I
was a little surprised I didn’t get the riot act read to me.
Hayden peeked in at the door while Heero was still undoing
the gauze and tape that had been under the leather bracer. ‘Decent
yet?’ he asked cheerfully.
‘Sure,’ I told him. ‘You guys can come back
They slipped back into the room, seeming a little more subdued,
a little calmer. Heero stopped what he was doing for a second and fished
around in the bag that had been magically producing the answers to all my
needs. He pulled out a ration bar, peeled the wrapper back and handed it
to me. ‘Here,’ he said gruffly, ‘eat that. And drink the
rest of that carb-drink.’
‘Yes sir!’ I grinned at him.
‘Hayden, come here,’ he commanded next and I was
a little surprised to see the big man jump like one of the gofers. ‘Hold
his damn arm; he’s shaking so hard I can’t get this tape off.’
I frowned, struggling to steady the arm on my own. I felt
He cast a scowl at the cluster the other three had made of
themselves. ‘Victoria, come over here and sit behind him… give
him something to lean against.’
I saw her bridle at his tone of voice but Hayden raised his
head from what he was doing and there was that electric tingle of unspoken
communication. She came without another word and straddled the bench behind
me, taking me by the shoulders and forcing me back so she could take some
of my weight.
‘Heero…’ I warned, afraid of what he might
have Relena and Chezarina do. He only glared up at me.
‘I think I’ve been more than tolerant today,’
he told me flatly. ‘Shut up and let us take care of you.’
Well, what in the hell do you say to something like that?
Yes sir, is the appropriate answer but I’d already used that line.
So I just shut up as I had been bade and ate my damn ration bar.
‘Excuse me?’ Chezarina interjected quietly and
we all looked up at her. Her eyes weren’t on us though but on the
monitor displaying the arena outside. ‘I think it’s over.’
I followed her gaze and realized that the last routine was
just finishing. All the contestants traditionally gathered in the staging
area for the announcement of the judging results. It felt like my heart
turned over in my chest. I wasn’t ready; I couldn’t go out there.
I would fall on my damn face.
I turned away from the sight and met Heero’s intense
stare. It welled up in me to beg like a child to go home. I can’t
go on any more, I wanted to scream, Take me away from here!
‘Guess we should be getting out there, huh?’ was
what came out of my mouth.
Something hardened in Heero’s face. His fingers finished
with the last of the Velcro straps on my brace but his eyes never left mine.
‘No more,’ he said suddenly in that soft tone he has. The one
that can make small children, old ladies and the faint of heart pee their
‘No. No more at all,’ Hayden agreed in an equally
soft voice and I could have wept with relief when nobody argued.
‘Well, you two should get out there at least!’
Relena suddenly blurted and there were several nervous chuckles. Heero slipped
an arm around me to steady me while Toria got up.
‘Duo?’ she said softly as she moved around in
front of me, ‘are you sure you’re all right?’
‘I’m fine,’ I grinned up at her in reassurance.
‘Now get going spacer-girl!’
There was a spark of the old humor in her face and she flashed
me a grin. ‘Ok buddy-boy… but if you two screwed this up and
you didn’t at least place, we’ll be sleeping at your place again
I laughed. ‘You should have given me that kind of incentive
before the damn expo!’
Hayden took her hand and gave it a tug. ‘Will you be
here when we get back?’ he asked gently, a smile dancing around behind
‘No,’ Heero told him before I had a chance to
open my mouth.
On a sudden thought, I stole a look at Relena. ‘Would
you ladies like to stay for the rest of the expo?’
She frowned at me slightly but I think it was only in indecision.
Probably thinking about being stuck in a boring old space ship for the rest
of the day with nothing to do. I was rather surprised though, when she looked
to Heero and Chezarina for direction. I could see Heero didn’t like
the idea at all; he was wearing that frown he gets that’s almost more
of a glare.
‘That would be wonderful!’ Toria suddenly exclaimed.
‘We need a cheering section!’
Relena looked to Chezarina who smiled at the notion and Heero
was suddenly overruled. The group of them headed for the door and Hayden
stopped to look back at us, the last one out of the room. ‘I’ll
see them back to the ship,’ he told Heero very gravely and then winked
at me, ‘and I won’t let Torie get them drunk!’
Then they were gone.
I quailed in the sudden silence. ‘I’m sorry…’
I murmured, ‘I keep forgetting who she is. You’re right; she
shouldn’t be out there alone. I’ll call a cab… you go
after them and…’
The look he gave me then, hit like a physical blow and I flinched.
God; he was pissed. His hand was suddenly locked on the back of my neck;
I jerked but he held me firm. I cringed, the look on his face making me
half expect a blow. I was completely caught off guard by the sudden, harsh
kiss he delivered. He fairly attacked my lips with his and I couldn’t
help trying to feebly push away. He eased off almost immediately and the
kiss gentled; became loving, speaking of tenderness and concern all wrapped
around a core of heated passion. When he drew away, I must have looked like
a damn deer half way across an eight-lane highway at rush hour.
‘The war is over,’ he growled at me. ‘It’s
not my damn job to sacrifice everything I hold dear any more. I am not her
bodyguard. I am your partner.’ His hand on the back of my head pulled
me forward so that we were nose to nose. ‘When will you get it through
your God damn thick head that there is nothing above you. You need me right
now, whether you can fucking admit it to yourself or not. And I would sooner
hack off my right arm than ever fail to be here when you need me.’
I gaped like a fish, ok? A really big, kind of stupid looking
The pressure on my neck increased and he pulled me into his
arms. I felt his breath go out in a gusting sigh. ‘Duo, I know what
you need. Tell me what you want?’
I wrapped my arms around his neck and sighed my own heavy
sigh, feeling absolutely at the end of my endurance. ‘I want not to
be so damn tired. I want to stop hurting. I want all these people to go
away and leave us alone. I want to go home. I want… my damned dignity
He snorted softly, burying his face in my hair. ‘You’ve
managed this whole thing with more damn… poise than should be reasonably
expected from anyone. No one has taken your dignity from you.’
I sat up, sliding from his embrace and held my hands out between
us where they shook like I had palsy. ‘I feel pathetic. Weak and helpless
and… and…’ I floundered in a search for words that didn’t
really exist to explain how utterly foolish I felt not being able to do
the simplest damn things. Having to lean on everyone around me. Having to
‘Hush,’ he admonished gently. ‘A month ago
you wouldn’t have lasted through the first minute of what you just
did out there. I know it seems like forever to you… but you are getting
He kissed me softly on the forehead and drew away, making
sure I was steady before letting go of me.
‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ he said
and I nodded my weary agreement.
He stowed the last of the gear and slung the heavy duffle
bag effortlessly across his back before moving in to help me to my feet.
He supported, I clung, the room spun around dizzyingly and we headed out.
The corridor was blessedly empty, everyone being down at the arena for the
big announcements. There are a lot of events in the gravity expo but the
free-style dance is hands down the big one, the crowd favorite.
I remembered with a strange pang the excitement of standing
in that throng of dancers, of fellow spacers. That group of miners and salvage
men, of pilots and engineers and dockworkers. The gravity expo isn’t
a competition like the Olympics; it’s for people who have developed
skill in zero-g by working in it. It wasn’t for trained athletes;
it was for people in the trade. Like me.
On a better day I wouldn’t have missed the end of this
for the world. Hell, I might even have kept the damn Roman tunic on for
the awards ceremony. We had the first year, when we’d done the Atlantis
theme. God, we’d been young.
But I found that today I just didn’t care. I had done
my part. I had tried as hard as I could have freaking tried. I gave until
I bled. If we didn’t at least place; if the Brannigan’s didn’t
get enough prize money to get them back on their feet… then I’d
think of something else. But not right now. I was done.
I realized with a start that we were out of the center and
on the street, and I didn’t remember getting there. I was shocked
somehow, to find that the lighting was still in the day-cycle. It seemed
as though it had been… forever.
‘Still with me?’ Heero asked and I almost laughed.
‘More like, back with you.’ I muttered, trying
to look behind us to reassure myself where in the hell we were and almost
He caught at me. ‘Steady.’
‘I have to sit down,’ I gritted out, completely
humiliated and he quickly found a bench.
‘Will you be all right sitting here while I go find
a cab?’ he asked from where he was kneeling in front of me. I blinked
at him, trying to remember how he had gotten down there. I started to nod
and thought better of it, holding my head perfectly still.
‘Sure.’ I told him.
I was two seconds away from stretching out on the damn bench
and going to sleep when he finally came back. I have a feeling the cab driver
thought I was drunk. I really didn’t care; it was somehow less embarrassing
than the stupid truth. I remember very little of the drive back, only a
vague irritation caused by the lingering odor of the cab drivers lunch.
Things came back into sharp focus as we disembarked and I had to walk again.
Heero put up with my weak-kneed staggering until we were off the streets
and back in the dock area. There was only a skeleton crew working; the expo
is practically a colonies-wide holiday after all. We passed almost no one
and he finally growled, ‘Enough!’ and picked me up in his arms,
carrying me the rest of the way to the ship.
By that time I didn’t even argue. After that is a confused
jumble of memories that ended with me in my own bed, clothes gone, blankets
applied and kiss delivered. I slept for almost fifteen hours.
I’m not positive if it was the throb in my arm or my
bladder that finally shoved me up out of sleep. I blinked awake with only
one thought; that was the stupidest fucking idea I have had in years.
I twisted my head to look up at the chrono and almost groaned.
‘You’re awake,’ Heero’s sleepy voice
‘Uhmmm…’ I grinned. ‘Eminent self-destruction
He snorted and moved out of the way so I could climb out and
make the trip to the head. The majority of my key muscles complained uproariously,
explaining to me with no delicacy what-so-ever that they were pissed as
hell at me and intended to stay that way for some time.
I relieved myself first thing, and then hunted up a couple
of the pain pills. I slipped back into the cabin to stand for a second looking
down at Heero; his open eyes looked back at me. I might have known he wouldn’t
go back to sleep until he saw me settled. Trouble was, after fifteen hours
I was pretty much wide awake despite it’s being oh-five hundred hours.
‘Are you all right?’ he questioned.
‘Fine.’ I smiled. ‘Can you get back to sleep
if I go shower?’
He pushed up on one elbow and looked at me more closely. ‘Are
you sure you’re ok?’
I sighed and stuck my hands out between us in the dim, night-cycle
lighting; they held steady. ‘I’m much better; see?’
I could see his drowsy smile even in the dim light. ‘Ok…
but you’ll call me if you need me?’
I snorted and raised my right hand in the air. ‘I swear
to God… if I drop the damn soap, I will yell for help.’
‘Asshole,’ he muttered, but he burrowed back into
the blankets. I laughed at him and then went to take a nice, long, hot soak.
I had gotten over that fifteen minutes in the shower thing once I had gotten
out on my own and there hadn’t been anyone to annoy. I took the full
thirty minutes and just dared anybody to come and say something to me about
it. By the time I got out, the pain pills had kicked in and I actually felt
like I might live. I towel dried, combed, braided, brushed teeth, dressed
and generally got ready for the general viewing public. I had been pretty
rank when I got back yesterday. If we stuck anywhere near to the original
schedule, I’d be spending a lot more time with Miss Relena than I
had since I’d pulled the Brannigan’s out of the jaws of death.
Certainly didn’t need to offend the Queen of all she surveys at this
stage of the game.
I padded out of the head and was surprised as hell to find
Heero really and truly asleep again; I had expected to find him lying there
listening for me. I crept out of the cabin and made my way to the cockpit
to check for messages and to go over the arrangements Heero had made the
day before. Don’t start with me; of course I trust him. But I’m
the damn Captain. This is my ship. It’s my job to check and double-check
The only message was to Heero from Wufei requesting that he
give him a call at his convenience. I left it queued as new to remind myself
to show it to Heero. Then I took myself off to the galley where I intended
to indulge myself with a damn soda and a nice, familiar ration bar for breakfast.
Needless to say I was surprised and quite honestly, a little
disappointed to find Relena sitting in there already, sipping at a cup of
coffee and leafing through my sketchpad.
I have to admit, I hesitated in the door for a split second
and if she had shown no signs of having seen me, I probably would have ducked
away and gone somewhere else. But she did see me. Not only saw me but blushed
in embarrassment and flipped the pad closed with a stammered, ‘Oh!
You’re awake! I… I’m sorry…’
I went on into the room; there wasn’t much point in
trying to pretend I was headed somewhere else at that point. ‘It’s
all right.’ I waved dismissively at my sketchbook, ‘I keep the
really erotic pictures locked up.’
I had been trying to maintain the… tone of some of the
conversations I had listened to her have with Toria and Hayden but she only
blushed all the harder and stared down into her coffee mug. I sighed and
went on around the table to the fridge to get my breakfast. God, but I hoped
somebody else woke up soon. This was going to be miserable.
I sat down at the table, not quite directly across from her,
sitting sideways with my legs propped up in the next seat over so that I
wasn’t looking right at her.
‘So…’ I ventured after a moment, ‘did
you have a good time with the Brannigan’s?’
She perked up a little. ‘Oh yes; Toria is so much fun.’
She wasn’t giving me a whole lot of help here. I thought
about asking what time they had gotten back in but cringed; that sounded
too much like some kind of overprotective parent. I found my fingers fiddling
with the end of my braid and I had to force myself to stop.
‘You…’ she said softly and dared a flick
of a glance in my direction. ‘Did anyone tell you that you came in
‘No shit?’ I burst out, grinning widely. ‘Ha!
They really didn’t realize I fucking passed out in the middle of the
damn thing!’ I shook my head in amazement and then noticed Relena
seemed to be flushing all the way to her toes. I thought about what I had
just said and sighed. Language. Good Lord, I was cussing like a… salvage
man. But then I thought about it a little harder. No way in hell was I cussing
any more than Toria did and she didn’t seem to bother little Miss
Priss-ass one bit. I sighed again. ‘Sorry,’ I murmured.
There was an uncomfortable silence while I desperately tried
to think of an excuse to get up and leave.
‘I… didn’t expect you to wake up so early,’
she blurted and I realized she was as anxious to make conversation as I
I snorted. ‘Fifteen hours was more than enough,’
I chuckled, sipping at my soda. ‘What are you doing up at this hour?’
‘Just a morning person, I guess.’ She shrugged
and fiddled with her coffee mug. I reached to unwrap my ration bar and she
cringed. ‘How can you stand to eat those things? They taste like…
‘It’s not about taste, it’s about nutritional
value,’ I told her.
‘But there are other things that you could eat that
would be just as good for you,’ she frowned. ‘But didn’t
taste so… vile.’
I nibbled at the thing and considered it. ‘They’re
not really all that bad,’ I shrugged, thinking back. ‘There’s
a lot of things in the world that taste a whole lot worse.’
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. ‘Worse than that? I
can’t imagine what it would be.’
I opened my mouth to tell her and then closed it again, thinking
better of it.
There was another of those ringing silences.
‘What?’ she said and sounded irritated. ‘You
keep doing that.’
‘Doing what?’ I frowned.
‘Starting to say something and then… not.’
Her gaze came up to meet mine for a moment.
I sighed heavily and found myself looking away first; my fingers
began picking at the label on my bulb of soda. ‘You don’t really
want to know what’s worse than military issue ration bars.’
She glared and opened her mouth but this time she was the
one to think better of it. I snickered and she flushed.
‘We don’t have much of a middle ground, do we?’
‘Not really,’ she said flatly.
Let’s see… can I think of another word of silence?
Stillness? Quiet? All too mild to describe the utter lack of communication
going on in that room. I picked relentlessly at my soda label, creating
a little mound of paper on the table and wondering when I had developed
this habit. I could see her eyes flicking toward me and then away again.
What in the hell was her problem with looking at me? Had I grown a second
damn head? And then I suddenly remembered my hands.
‘Shit,’ I growled; I had forgotten my glove. I
snatched the uncovered hand below table level and felt the heat rise to
my face. ‘I… I’m sorry. I forgot,’ I muttered.
She only looked more uncomfortable, though I hardly saw how
that was possible. ‘How can you possibly forget…?’ she
blurted and bit it off a little too late, her eyes flying wide at what she
had let slip.
I snorted. ‘They’ve been this way a long time.’
They say you can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.
‘How…?’ she dared in a mere whisper. Like
a small child asking questions they knew they could get in trouble for.
‘Old war injury,’ I grinned, not really in the
mood to talk about it and took a sip of my soda.
She frowned, something changing in her eyes. ‘Everybody
keeps telling me to give you a chance… but how can I, when you won’t
even talk to me seriously?’
I blinked at her, a little taken aback. ‘Relena…you’re
asking about some fairly personal things.’ I leaned toward her. ‘You
and I do not have a great track record talking on a personal basis.’
I was surprised when she didn’t lean back or look away.
‘I believe you are the one who coerced me out here.’
I was caught in a strange vortex, swinging between guilt and
anger. That one had taken me by surprise. ‘I’m not kidding;
it happened during the war. Mission went… sour.’ I leaned back
and felt the sharp teeth of memory nip at my ass. I couldn’t help
flexing my right hand where it still lay hidden in my lap. ‘Stealth
assignment. We got caught during the retreat and I had to… set off
some explosives to get us clear. It was a… split second decision.
I had to decide between letting our asses get shot or…’ I shrugged
and let it drop.
She looked suitable horrified and just stared at me for a
moment. I took full advantage. ‘You tell me something now; the night
we met… you sided with the guy who had threatened to shoot you against
the guy who saved your life… that’s bugged the crap out of me
for years. Why?’
I got to see echoed on her face the expression that must have
been on mine not two minutes before. A flash of hot anger tempered quickly
by chagrin and finally evened out with a strange resignation. She turned
herself sideways and mimicked my position so that we just flat did not have
to look at each other at all. ‘Heero…frightened me,’ she
murmured. ‘I’d never encountered anyone before who didn’t
think I was… wonderful because my name was ‘Darlien’.’
She sat and swirled her coffee in the bottom of her cup, staring down into
it as if she could read something there. ‘He made me feel things I’d
never felt before… it was exciting. Dangerous.’
I saw her eyes flick my way, gauging my reaction. ‘The
dark, brooding rebel is more attractive than the white knight, huh?’
I grinned and she snorted but then her face took on a hard set. She seemed
to have decided that there were rules to the game we were suddenly playing
and it was her turn.
‘Those people in the corridor… they aren’t
real, are they?’ Her face was guarded.
‘Very real,’ I told her flatly, a little irritated
that she could still ask a question like that after living on my ship this
long. ‘Every last one of them.’
‘Like Toria’s ‘babies’?’ She
pounced like a cat on my words.
I shook my head and resisted the urge to roll my eyes, ‘No.
Toria made up her children and I painted them for her. We made them together
to… help ease her pain over the loss of not being able to actually
have them.’ I paused and took a drink, holding the bulb awkwardly
in my bad hand, thinking about my words. ‘Those are my… ghosts
in the corridor. My dead.’
She didn’t look convinced but took a moment to sip at
her coffee. ‘I don’t understand why you would want to be reminded
of things like… that church.’ She was talking about the painting
in the cargo bay.
The label from my soda bulb was disintegrating under my fingers
and I had to chew on that one a bit. She glanced sidelong at me a couple
of times. Trying to decide, I think, if I was going to answer her.
‘Penance?’ I whispered at long last, feeling my
shoulders hunch in remembered pain. I swallowed a couple of times but couldn’t
manage more than that.
Technically, if we continued with this bizarre game of truth
or… truth; it was my turn. I only had one question left that I really
wanted to ask her; why do you hate me so much? But I just didn’t think
we were to the place where I could work up to that one, so I stayed silent.
‘When are we leaving?’ she suddenly blurted and
when I glanced her way, her face was set in some kind of strange resolution.
‘Not until this afternoon,’ I told her and wondered
what she was thinking about.
‘Take me to the site of that…’ Her fingers
flicked in the direction of the cargo bay, the direction of the picture
of the aftermath of my own personal hell, ‘Of that church. Do we have
I thought about it and realized that we could manage it if
we didn’t mess around about it. ‘Yes,’ I said guardedly.
She sat up and turned to face me. ‘I want you to take
She thought she was calling my bluff; I could see it in her
eyes. After all this… she still thought I was just making this shit
up. I was suddenly very angry. Angry in that cold as ice, total control
way I remembered so well but had not felt in a long time.
‘Fine,’ I heard myself say. ‘You should
go out as ‘Lena’, the way you did yesterday. Can you manage
that without Toria?’
Her eyes narrowed but she inclined her head. ‘I can
do it; I’ll need a few minutes.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’ll meet you
by the air lock.’
She rose from her seat and walked calmly out of the room.
I resisted the urge to flip her off behind her back. I had to wait until
my hands stopped shaking before I pulled my sketchpad over, pulled a blank
piece of paper out and left a note for Heero and Chezarina. I slipped back
into my cabin and found my damn glove while I was at it.
It ended up taking her ten minutes and when she came down
the corridor wearing my clothes again, I had to repress my irritation. Even
though it was what I had told her to do, it still bugged me.
I cycled us through the lock with a twinge of guilt; Heero
was going to be pissed when he woke up and found us gone. But this just
felt like something she and I needed to do by ourselves somehow. I couldn’t
have explained it to him if I’d tried. I couldn’t explain it
She hadn’t attempted the French braid that Toria had
put her hair in yesterday but had opted for one of those high ponytails,
and it swung jauntily as she walked. We stayed quiet as we made our way
through the docks and out to the street. I hailed a cab as soon as possible,
held the door for her while she climbed in and gave the driver the address
for a candy store I knew of just a couple of blocks from the orphanage.
Relena gave me a strange look when the cab pulled up there
and I couldn’t help grinning, ‘We can’t show up empty
The self-satisfied spark in her eye faded slightly and she
trailed behind me into the store. I didn’t waste a lot of time in
there; I generally bought the same thing and didn’t have to agonize
over the choices. I probably made L2 twice a year and never failed to stop
off at the orphanage while I was docked here. I always took the kids candy,
but they weren’t used to eating a lot of it, so I had long ago come
up with a mix of carob chocolate substitutes and sugarless hard candies.
And before you start in on me about being a cheap-ass; the stuff is actually
more expensive but it’s much less likely to rot teeth or cause sugar
induced fits of wall climbing. The kids still loved it and it didn’t
get me evil looks from matronly Mrs. Octavia who ran the place.
I thought about re-hailing a cab when we left the candy store
but it was only three lousy blocks and Relena walked at a rather leisurely
pace, so I risked it.
We walked slowly down the street, side by side. I thought
about offering her my arm; Heero would have but I didn’t think she’d
accept and I really didn’t want to set myself up for that kind of
smack in the face right now.
It was always strange coming here. It was… very different
than it was when I was a child growing up. The area… hell, all of
L2 was cleaned up a little bit from those days. Though it sometimes put
me in mind of braiding silk ribbons in the tail of a shit-wagon horse; you
could dress it up all you wanted… but it was still L2.
That wasn’t quite fair, I suppose. I would not be walking
Relena Peacecraft down this street if things were still the way they had
been when I’d been growing up here. The Maxwell church had been far
removed from the meaner streets and alleys that I had spent the beginning
of my life in but it still wasn’t a place I would have taken her.
The candy store and the liquor store next to it are the last
two businesses on that street before things pass into slightly less…
esthetically pleasing surroundings. I found myself slipping into ages old
‘watch’ mode as my eyes scanned and explored automatically.
‘Are… we in danger?’ Relena suddenly whispered
in a very small voice.
I looked down at her and found her gazing at me with wide
‘Why?’ I asked on sudden alert. Had she seen something?
‘You…’ she flushed, ‘Your eyes changed.’
I chuckled lightly for her and went ahead and offered my arm.
I was surprised as hell when she took it, moving a little closer. ‘No,
we’re fine. It’s just that this area… wasn’t always
like it is now. Just being here makes me remember.’
I tried to look around us with her perspective in mind. Had
she ever seen a boarded up building before? I realized that we had passed
a couple of winos a half a block back, sharing a bottle in a brown paper
bag. They had barely registered in my mind because I had automatically dismissed
them as something that didn’t need my attention. I’m sure they
had scared her though, with their unshaven, dirt smudged faces and ratty
The memorial was within sight, a block ahead of us and I felt
that old, familiar tightening in my gut. I had only come to see the thing
itself one time. After that, when I went to the orphanage, I made a point
of circumventing it. There was a little girl selling flowers from a basket
on her arm, positioned between us and the big rock with the plaque on it.
She curtsied prettily as we drew abreast of her. ‘G’day
m’sir… buy a flower for your lady?’
I’m not sure whether it was me or Relena who snorted
first; it came out in a confused, combined mixture of amusement and disdain.
The little girl blinked at us in bewilderment and sidled closer. ‘I
am sorry if I have offended…’
An ages old instinct kicked in and I caught the quick little
hand, camouflaged by the basket, as it moved for my pocket, ‘Bad form
to cop from a customer,’ I chided gently and allowed her to jerk her
‘I’ll scream rape if’n ya…’
the girl started but I laughed out loud at her, making her stop and glare
up at me. Relena was looking back and forth between us in bewilderment,
having missed the attempted picking of my pocket. She was mostly baffled
by the sudden change in the girl’s manner.
‘Save it fer the rubes, kid,’ I chuckled and watched
her eyes turn calculating. ‘Neat bit; ‘at basket. Can I see?’
‘If’n ya buy a flower,’ she demanded. I
laughed again and pulled two bills out of a completely different pocket
than the one she’d been going after. It was four times what she was
charging for the things. Her eyes narrowed but she took the bills without
comment, making them disappear inside her patched together dress. She handed
me one of the yellow daffodils and then turned the basket, careful not to
spill the flowers and let me see the bottom side.
‘Sweet,’ I complimented. It looked as though her
left hand were completely engaged holding the basket when in reality it
was supported on her upper arm with a cleverly hidden strap that left her
arm free from the elbow down. ‘Though ya ought ter make a breakaway…
case ya ever gotta run quick. That be damn awkward if ya tryin’ to
get over a fence in a hurry.’
She cocked her head and looked up at me. ‘Ya don’
look like no street rat,’ she proclaimed.
I smirked and etched her a faint bow. ‘Looks, my dear,
can be very deceiving.’ I tapped her on the end of the nose with the
flower, garnering myself a mini-death glare. ‘And I meant what I said;
it’s very poor form to steal from a paying customer.’
She opened her mouth with what looked like the beginnings
of a flippant remark, then seemed to think better of it; answered my bow
with another of those curtsies and smiled a feral smile. ‘Thank you,
m’sir. M’lady. G’day.’
I moved Relena on, not quite able to keep the grin off my
face; some things never changed. Relena had relinquished my arm during my
exchange with the flower girl and didn’t move to take it back. I could
see her chewing on something and waited for her to get it spit out.
‘Shouldn’t we report that?’ she finally
whispered and frowned at me when I chuckled.
‘Report what?’ I smiled at her. ‘Nothing
‘She tried to rob you!’ she flared.
‘The authorities would laugh you out of the precinct,’
I informed her gently. ‘If they tried to chase down every pick-pocket
wanna-be around here they’d never get anything else done.’ She
continued to frown at me and I sighed heavily. ‘Look, Relena…
the kid’s got to eat.’
‘She’s selling flowers,’ she snapped. ‘She
shouldn’t be allowed to rob people blind!’
I snorted. ‘You think she can make a damn living selling
flowers on the street corner? That’s just her cover… her gimmick.’
She looked up at me, agog. ‘You mean she’s…’
‘A professional pick-pocket,’ I confirmed and
had to fight not to roll my eyes.
‘But she can’t be any good at it;’ she blurted.
‘You caught her in a matter of seconds!’
I laughed and leaned a little closer. ‘Oh, she’s
not bad. I caught her because I’m better.’ We were at the memorial
and I ended the conversation by stepping around her to lay the daffodil
at the base of the great piece of granite directly under the plaque. The
kid would probably retrieve it to resell as soon as we walked away but what
the hell, it was the thought that counts, right?
Relena turned to follow my movements and things were kind
of still after that for a few moments.
The chunk of rock is fucking massive. Taller than I am and
just as wide, a strange pinkish gray color with black veining. The plaque
is a flat metal of some sort, has the look of pewter but has to be something
else. On the top half is a delicate etching of the Maxwell church as it
looked when it was intact. Underneath that, in big bold letters is the date
of the massacre itself. Below that is a listing of all the names of the
known dead. Across the bottom, under the names is a single line ‘and
fourteen unknown children’. It crossed my mind, just as it had the
only other time I had come here, that it should have read fifteen. But one,
out of all those orphans, had lived. My little yellow flower looked pathetic
lying on the cement in front of it.
My eyes were drawn, just like last time, to look at the etching.
None of my paintings show the church in one piece, as I remembered it from
the all to brief period of time I had lived there. Before… before
it had all gone to hell. Before a war not of my making had swept me under
and damned near drowned me. Looking at that little etching, I could almost
remember Sister Helen standing on the front steps, calling us in for supper
or for bed. Calling us away from our games. I hadn’t known how to
play games before I had come to live there. I could almost hear her voice…
The stupid thing swam in my vision and I had to blink. What
the fuck. I looked up at the sky and blinked again. Oh, Solo would be all
over my ass for this; boys don’t cry. Especially not in front of the
Queen of the fucking world.
I stepped away, intending to resume our walk to the orphanage
but Relena caught at my arm and her voice was… odd. ‘Duo?’
I was pretty sure if I answered, I was going to snap at her.
I ended up just turning my fucking back on her. It was probably pretty rude
but I honest to God didn’t know what else to do. It took me a couple
of minutes and I was surprised as hell that she just stood there and waited.
When I thought I could open my mouth without biting her head off or bursting
into tears, I turned around and offered her my arm but she got this stubborn
look on her face.
‘I didn’t come all the way down here just to look
at the damn thing and walk away.’ She went over to the stone and stood
reading the plaque; I didn’t follow. ‘This is what it looked
like? Before…’ she said and it seemed a banal, stupid thing
to ask but I realized she was in that uncomfortable place again, trying
to make conversation.
‘Yeah,’ I answered, turned mostly away but able
to see her out of the corner of my eye. She glanced at me and her face still
had that stubborn set to it.
‘Father Maxwell…’ she read softly, ‘Sister
‘Jacob O’Shea. Allisa Rose. Rafe Duncan.’
I quoted along with her and she trailed off, turning to stare at me. I wasn’t
looking at the damn memorial. There are fifty names on that God forsaken
thing and I gave them all to her from memory. I hadn’t known all of
them. They were not all painted along the corridor in my ship, though I
thought of all of them as ‘my’ dead; people who were no longer
alive because I had failed to protect them. I got to the end of the names
etched into the metal and kept going. I knew the names of those fourteen
children even if nobody else did. But I hadn’t been consulted when
the thing had been erected. ‘Allie. Sam. Red. Robin. Mikel. Rory.
Jo-jo. Pigpen. Ivy. Blade. Sandy. Jock. Tommy. Liz.’
Neither of us spoke for a long, still-as-death moment and
then I turned toward her, toward where the church used to be. I looked passed
her, over her head at the place in the air where the stained glass window
used to be. It had been Father Maxwell’s pride and joy.
‘What do you want to know?’ I asked softly.
She didn’t answer me immediately, glancing where I was
looking and seeing nothing. I saw her working through it, trying to decide
which of the dozen questions warring around in her head to ask. The memorial
pretty much proved the existence of the church and the actuality of the
heinous crime that had happened here all those years ago. I saw her consider
those questions and dismiss them. ‘How did you survive?’
I flinched like she’d slapped me but kept my eyes on
Father’s glowing window. ‘I… wasn’t where I should
have been that night.’ I was not going to tell her the whole damn
story. That was a too-private thing that not a living soul knew but me.
I might tell Heero one day, because he wanted to know, wanted to share my
nightmares with me. But I would not tell Relena Peacecraft just to satisfy
her morbid curiosity.
Above our heads, in my minds eye, the beautiful window exploded;
raining shards of brightly colored glass all around us. Flames licked mercilessly
at the empty window frame.
‘We should be going,’ I told her and was rather
proud of how steady my voice was.
She frowned slightly. ‘I…’ she began.
‘Please,’ I said and knew that my voice was tight
and on the edge of my control.
She glanced where I was staring again and of course didn’t
see the flames or the black smoke. I knew if we stood here much longer I
was going to start smelling the stench of burning flesh. She finally gave
me a little nod and I couldn’t turn away fast enough. We resumed our
It’s just about three more blocks to the orphanage and
the silence was uncomfortable before we’d gotten half a block. I tried,
a little desperately, after a bit to think of something light to say; some
small normal conversation to white wash over the tension with but nothing
came. We were damn near there and I could hear the faint sounds of laughing
children before I managed to get my tongue unlocked. ‘Look, Relena;
I’m sorry…I really thought I’d be able to deal with this
better. If you truly want to know more about it, look it up. There was a
huge amount of publicity about it at the time.’
She gave me a look that was absolutely unreadable and I sighed.
I shut up, because this was obviously just making things worse. I can not
describe for you the total and complete shock I felt when she reached out
and hooked her hand in the crook of my elbow again. She didn’t look
at me and we walked the rest of the block in silence.
The orphanage isn’t much to look at, just a renovated
old house. There’s a little well-kept wooden sign out front that says
‘Maxwell Memorial Home’. They don’t call them orphanages
nowadays, at least not in front of the kids. I looked down at her on a sudden
thought. ‘Listen… Lena,’ she looked up at me sharply at
the use of her ‘pretend’ name. ‘Don’t… please
don’t use my last name here, ok?’
Her gaze became calculating and I looked away. Either she
would abide by my wishes or she wouldn’t; I wasn’t going to
argue the point with her.
Then we were right in front of the place and all thought was
washed away by the first piping cry of, ‘It’s Mr. Duo! It’s
Mr. Duo!’ The cry became a chorus and they came running at us like
a pack of wild dogs. Relena moved slightly behind me and her eyes were kind
of wide, like wild animals really were attacking us. I had to laugh.
There were only a half a dozen of them; not quite so many
homeless children now that the war was over. I pulled out my bag of candy
and tossed it to the oldest boy, David, for safe keeping while the littlest
ones tried to climb me like I was a tree. This was what got me through the
nightmares some nights, seeing these kids and knowing that every last one
of them knew what their given name was. Knew when their birthday was. Their
parents might be gone, but by God it wasn’t the war that had done
that. They were not nameless. And there were only six of them. I counted
again with a grin wide enough to split my lip. Before the plague there had
been scores of us. At the Maxwell orphanage there had still been more than
a dozen. There were only six of them… and they all had names.
‘Where’s Beth Ann?’ I laughed down at them
as I found myself with a child on each hip.
The excited voices quieted in hushed tones of near awe. They
left the telling to David, the oldest.
‘She was adopted a month ago,’ he told me gravely
and I gave him a companionable grin just between the two of us. He was the
only one old enough to really remember the war and he gave me his brave
little nod, letting me know that he was watching out for the little ones.
I felt for that one; I’d been in his shoes. A little too old, a little
too wild. His prospects of adoption were slim at best.
‘Children!’ came the sudden stern voice of Mrs.
Octavia from the door of the Home, ‘get down off the poor man before
you break him in half!’
There was more giggling and I sat them on the ground.
Impertinent little Zinia peeked around me and pointed. ‘Who’s
I tapped the top of the child’s head with a knuckle.
‘What did I tell you about pointing?’ I told her grimly.
She dropped her hand instantly and her eyes went wide. ‘It’s
not polite and the next time I did it you were gonna bite my finger,’
she said gravely and then burst out in giggles as I gnashed my teeth at
‘This is…’ I turned toward Relena and she
stepped forward a little, the oddest almost-amused smile on her face, ‘a
friend of mine. This is Lena. Can you monsters say a polite hello?’
There was more laughter and a chorus of, ‘Hello Miss
Relena managed a demure little ‘Hello.’
‘You look like a parade out there!’ Octavia called
with her usual good humor. ‘Bring our guests in the house!’
They scrambled at the sound of her voice, David hanging back
to bring up the rear, bag of candy still carefully unopened under his watchful
I ushered Relena up the steps onto the porch and we had to
wait while the children all tried to fight their way through the door at
the same time. Octavia let out a long-suffering sigh and rolled her eyes
heavenward as if to ask for strength.
‘Works better single-file, monsters,’ I called
and they strung themselves out and finally managed to get their excited
selves into the house. I had to stop and get a smothering hug from Octavia
and introduce her formally to ‘Lena Pierce’ before we could
follow the kids inside.
The place was as sad and shabby as ever, clean as a surgical
bay; you could have eaten off the damn floor but… worn.
The kids were already in the front room, thrown down on the
hardwood floor around the single couch where I usually sat while I visited.
David passed the bag of candy back to me with a great deal of grown-up dignity,
as though discharging some sacred duty. I swept a hand fondly through his
hair and made him grin. I saw Relena settled in the corner of the couch
and then took my place. Octavia sat in her chair across the room with her
sewing in her lap, her glasses on the end of her nose and just let us play.
‘Now…’ I looked around at them in confusion,
‘I seem to have forgotten which one of you pups is the youngest…’
‘I am!’ shouted Sarah and bounced to her feet.
She’s all of about four, has some kind of Asian descent with black
eyes that can bore right through you when she’s pissed. They were
sparkling with glee at the moment though.
‘And what do you have to show me since I was here last?’
I prompted and she flushed sweetly.
‘I can do my ABC’s,’ she stated proudly,
eyes glittering with mischief.
I frowned darkly and played the straight man for her. ‘Sarah,
you showed me that last time.’
‘Backward!’ she fairly shouted and then proceeded
to show me. I was suitably impressed and let her dig into the candy bag
when she was done.
I didn’t have to call for the next oldest, when Sarah
sat down with her candy, Zinia scrambled to her feet and launched without
preamble into a song that she had apparently been practicing for me. Her
voice is high and piping and broke on the really high notes, ‘Look
what followed me home, Mom; look what followed me home. Can I keep him…’
I laughed until the tears ran down my face and almost fell off the damn
couch. She was giggling so hard at the sight of me that she almost couldn’t
finish the song. When she was done, she threw her arms around my neck and
gave me a big sloppy kiss before delving into the candy bag.
We had to wait for a minute while six year old Allison ran
out of the room to retrieve a piece of treasured refrigerator art. It was
a rather fanciful portrait of a little girl astride a flying horse with
wings that wouldn’t have hefted half the weight of a horse that size;
but other than aerodynamics, it was really rather good. I imagined that
she might want to study art one day. It brought the faintest echo of the
sting of a long dead desire. I shook it out of my head and exclaimed delightedly
over the horse and explained about the legend of Pegasus. She took her candy
with a happy smile and carefully returned the picture to the kitchen.
Devon was next up and showed me a pretty darn good back flip,
though Octavia wouldn’t let him do the cartwheel in the house. He
was about seven and his current ambition was to join the circus. Last year
he had wanted to grow up to be an archeologist. He deliberated over his
candy choice with great precision, selecting by some totally unfathomable
criteria, finally sitting down with the ‘perfect’ piece.
Ethan is also seven and came shyly forward with his eyes on
the toes of his scuffed sneakers, finally raising his head and pushing his
mop of blond hair back to reveal a still healing red scar across his forehead.
I whistled appreciatively and tilted his head to the light to look it over.
‘Ethan, dude! What did you do?’ He preened and flushed.
‘I was climbing that tree in the back yard,’ he
explained, his face suffused with a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment.
‘And I fell out.’
I grinned and ruffled his hair. ‘Bet it bled all over
‘Made Mrs. Octavia scream,’ he whispered low,
like it was a secret and Zinia and Sarah giggled. ‘I had to get stitches.’
‘No way!’ I looked aghast. ‘How many?’
‘Five,’ he said and there was a little swagger
‘Did ya cry?’ I whispered and he ducked his head.
I grinned. ‘First time I had stitches I bawled like a baby and they
had to chase me half way down the sidewalk in front of the clinic!’
His eyes came up to meet mine and he grinned fit to make your
heart take flight. He threw his arms around my neck for a split second and
then dug into the candy sack.
‘You gonna tell us what happened to your arm, Mr. Duo?’
Zinia asked then and they all crept up to get a closer look. Even David,
who had been maintaining his ‘grown up’ distance from the show
and tell game we always played.
I ended up on the floor surrounded by laughing kids while
I told the story of the asteroid belt, altered enough so that it’s
own mother wouldn’t have recognized it and managed to blame my broken
arm on a space alien encounter. Ethan and Devon and Allison became space
aliens then and tried to wrestle me to the ground; it didn’t take
long before I surrendered to their greater number and agreed to be assimilated
and taken back to their home planet.
I ended up flat on my back on the hard floor wondering how
in the hell I had been brought so low that I couldn’t play with the
kids without feeling like I was going to pass out. I was questioning how
in the world I was going to get up again without them seeing that my hands
were shaking when Octavia came to my rescue.
‘That’s enough, you hellions,’ she called.
‘He’ll stop coming back if you kill him. Go get yourselves washed
up for lunch.’
The little ones came and each gave me a peck on the cheek,
the two middle boys settling for a handshake. David came last and I indicated
with a jerk of my head that he was to sit down beside me. I figured we could
talk and I could get my shit back together at the same time.
‘You think much about what we talked about, Davey-boy?’
I asked, looking up at him.
He sat down cross-legged next to me and fiddled with the frayed
threads on the hem of his pants. He nodded.
‘How old are you now?’ I asked.
‘Thirteen,’ he said and there was a little chutzpah
in it. I snorted at him and reached into the candy bag and pulled out a
couple of pieces, handing him one and popped the other one in my mouth.
Thirteen; I’d been piloting mobile suits by that time.
‘Time you ought to be thinking what you want to do with
yourself,’ I told him, working the candy around with my tongue and
looking up at the ceiling. ‘You gotten to that point we talked about
yet?’ The point where an orphan kid stopped dreaming about a family
coming to make him their own and decided where he was going to take himself.
‘Aw…’ he grumbled, ‘what difference
does it make? What the hell am I going to do?’
I jabbed his arm without really looking at him. ‘Watch
your language,’ I scolded almost automatically and went on, ‘you
got yourself a dream yet?’
He chewed on it, had probably been chewing on it since he’d
seen me in front of the house, knowing that I would get around to this conversation.
So he didn’t make me wait forever. ‘I was thinkin’ maybe
I should join the military…’
But I could hear in his voice that wasn’t at all what
he wanted. ‘I didn’t ask you what you thought would be the practical
thing to do,’ I glared at him. ‘I asked you if you had any dreams
He glared back. ‘Octavia says that if wishes was horses,
we’d all ride to town.’
I laughed. ‘Well; that’s just Octavia showing
From her armchair, Octavia snorted loudly.
‘Come on, Davey…’ I wheedled and gave him
a conspiratorial grin.
He sighed and rolled his eyes at me but then something finally
came clear and I knew that I was about to hear what I wanted to hear. ‘I
want to… make music. I want to learn to play the… violin.’
He was beet red and staring at the floor, little threads coming off the
edge of his pants in a fall like rain.
‘There,’ I told him, ‘that didn’t
kill you, did it?’
‘You’re not going to laugh at me?’ he said
petulantly and I grinned at him.
‘Not unless you play like shit,’ I smiled and
watched his face do a strange little dance between confusion and fear and
hope. I tilted my head around where I could see Octavia. ‘Would it
be too much trouble for your over-worked self, Mrs. Octavia, Ma’am,’
I grinned at her, ‘to take this poor, sad child to violin lessons
a couple of times a week?’
She gave me one of those martyr’s sighs and rolled her
eyes heavenward again, looking for that divine assistance. ‘I suppose
I could manage to work it in to my schedule,’ she intoned with a sigh,
‘though God knows where.’
First I thought the kid was going to cry. Then I thought he
was going to choke me to death with the hug. ‘You mean it Mr. Duo?’
he breathed and I laughed at him.
‘You’re getting big enough that ‘mister’
sounds stupid,’ I teased him. ‘Just make it Duo; you’re
not a kid any more.’
He blinked at me and had to say it, ‘Duo.’
I grinned and felt able to roll up on one side where I could
prop myself up on an elbow. ‘You realize you couldn’t have picked
a harder way to make a living? You’re going to have to work your tail
He nodded but I really don’t think he trusted his voice
because he didn’t speak.
‘Well; it’s settled then,’ I told him. ‘Now
go wash up for lunch.’
He scrambled out of the room with a grin a mile wide on his
face. I watched him go and then made a try for vertical. I managed it with
only a little stagger at the end.
‘Those space aliens really worked you over, huh?’
Octavia observed with a small smirk.
I made my way back to the couch and let myself drop there,
shaking my head sadly. ‘Evil space aliens can’t be trusted.’
She snorted, understanding that was all she was getting out
of me. ‘Violin lessons,’ she said and rolled her eyes. ‘Not
very damn practical.’
I grinned, completely unrepentant. ‘I told him he got
one shot at his dream as soon as he figured out what the hell it was.’
‘Language,’ she warned and I grinned at her. ‘I’m
probably going to want to kill you after a couple of days of listening to
I laughed. ‘Yes; but if he makes it big you’ll
be right there to tell how you supported him from the start!’
She laughed but put her mending down to really look at me.
‘Devon!’ she hollered in the general direction of the kitchen.
‘Bring a couple of glasses of juice for our guests!’
I ducked my head and muttered my thanks, surreptitiously raising
a hand to judge the level of my… unsteadiness. I caught Relena staring
at me and grinned, dropping the hand back in my lap. Devon came with the
juice then, giving Relena the good Smurf glass and handing me the jelly
jar. I drank it gratefully, hoping the hit of sugar would get me through
the rest of this trip. I noticed that Relena just sat and toyed with her
I felt a little guilty; I had put her right the hell out of
my mind as soon as I had started playing with the kids. I’d had to
in order to act… normal for them. If I’d been thinking about
her sitting there watching our every move, I would have been uncomfortable
‘I’ll transfer the funds to your account for the
violin and lessons when I get back to my ship,’ I told Octavia. ‘I’ve
done a little research and I’ll e-mail you an address for a reputable
place to go; they’ll be able to help you out finding someplace to
take lessons too.’
She raised an eyebrow and I smirked, pleased to be one up
on her. ‘Come on, Octavia… don’t tell me you didn’t
guess it was going to be music. I knew that two years ago.’
‘Let’s just say I held out hope that one of them
would grow up sensible,’ she sighed.
‘Something about the Maxwell legacy, I guess,’
I said and she gave me a little knowing smile in return.
I saw Relena starting to truly fidget out of the corner of
my eye and glanced her way, realizing that she was looking for someplace
to dump the juice without hurting anyone’s feelings. I held out my
empty glass and quietly said, ‘Here.’
She flushed dark red, but gratefully swapped my empty glass
for her full one. I drank it down, more than happy to have the replenishing
liquid; I wanted to make it back to my ship under my own power.
We sat for a bit longer and exchanged pleasantries with Octavia,
while I kept one eye on the clock. The longer I sat here the more likely
I would walk out under my own power but we still had a launch to make.
Octavia talked a little bit about budget problems. Told me
about the family that had adopted Beth Ann. Let me know that Davey had been
in another fight, not long after a family had talked to him but had then
decided they wanted a baby and gone elsewhere.
‘Damn it, Octavia,’ I growled, ‘don’t
let them even talk to him anymore… you know it won’t do any
damn good!’ I was feeling the sting of old wounds on the poor kids
behalf and knew it but couldn’t keep the irritation from my voice.
Beside me Relena made a funny little gasping noise.
It was an old argument between Octavia and me, though, and
she took it in stride. ‘I’m supposed to deny him a chance?’
she scolded but she was smiling gently at me.
‘There isn’t any chance by the time you get to
be that age,’ I frowned. ‘It hurts too much to keep getting
picked over… you should just let him be. It’s easier.’
‘Things aren’t the way they were when you were
that age, Duo,’ she said softly and I marveled at how she could fucking
make me feel like I was that age again.
I opened my mouth, saw her expression and just closed it again
with a wry grin. This was ground that we had been over a time or two before
now. We could both pretty much tell each other’s lines.
‘You survived,’ she said, not for the first time,
‘he’ll survive too.’
I called Davey in then and had him go call a cab for us. He
looked wide-eyed; this was probably something he’d never done before
but he ran off, eager to please me. I usually walked back to the main drag
and hailed a cab on my own but I didn’t think that I would make it
that far today. That damn exposition had taken more out of me than I had
We kept the talk to the weather and such crap until a horn
blew out front to tell us the cab was there. The kids all came running to
tell me goodbye. Davey had to call me Duo just once in front of the other
kids with his chest all puffed out and I called him David and we shook hands
gravely in the doorway. I ruffled his hair when the others weren’t
looking and he grinned and ducked his head. They all stood on the porch
and waved while we climbed into the cab. I directed the driver to our berth
at the docks and he took off.
We were back to that uncomfortable silence. It would have
been pretty damn unbearable if I hadn’t been so tangled up in thoughts
and memory that I hardly remembered she was sitting there.
‘I thought,’ she ventured after a little time,
‘they didn’t know who you were.’
I roused up and glanced over at her. ‘Octavia knows,’
I explained. ‘But the kids don’t. I’m afraid it would
make things… awkward.’
‘Afraid they’d think you were only there out of
some sense of… obligation?’ she asked, her tone light but regarding
me intently out of the corner of her eye.
I resisted the urge to draw my knees together in a protective
move; that had been a little below the belt. I had to think that one over
for a minute before I could answer her civilly. ‘Obligation?’
I repeated and stared out the front window, ‘isn’t that what
drives the whole world? If I hadn’t grown up an orphan… if I
didn’t know what it was like to live on the street scrapping and scraping
for every bite of food, would I be going down to that place and trying to
help out with those kids? Probably not.’ I sighed and hesitated, thinking
about my words but still not looking at her. ‘Growing up a…
street rat and a thief is what made me what I am. It’s what made me
tough enough to survive what I went through later… and thinking about
kids like that is where I found my purpose.’ I shut up and turned
to look out my side window, watching the streets I grew up on slide by…
they were so different from my memories.
‘It seems…’ she said rather hesitantly,
‘that your… money might be better spent on something more realistic
than music lessons.’
Well now, that just flaming pissed me off and I turned a cold
eye in her direction. ‘I don’t ignore the necessities,’
I told her flatly, ‘I know better than most people that those kids
have to eat… have to have clothes. The home gets a portion of every
paycheck I bring home. But this… this is extra because I also understand
better than most people what it is to dream and to have to watch those dreams
I only thought the silence had been uncomfortable before.
Well, the hell with her, if she had the balls to ask the questions then
she should have to balls to hear the God damn answers. I’ve been interrogated
by professionals; I can take the silent treatment from the Queen of Happy-land.
We were getting close to the dock area and I glanced at my
watch, we still had plenty of time. Though I should probably allow a little
extra for Heero to rant at me about going off without telling him.
‘I’m sorry,’ she suddenly said in a low
voice and I about gave myself whiplash whirling around to look at her. ‘I
should have realized that you weren’t that… impractical.’
I snorted. ‘Well… I suppose violin lessons do
sound a little frivolous when you’re drinking watered apple juice
out of a mason jar.’
She blushed darkly and began twisting the bottom button on
my denim shirt. I squelched the urge to tell her to be careful with my clothes.
‘You know…’ she murmured after a minute,
‘we’re a little bit alike… you and I.’
I want points here for not laughing my ass off, ok? I managed,
by biting down on the inside of my cheek to keep it to a merely interested
smile. ‘How so?’ I asked politely.
‘We both seem to have grown up losing all the people
we had come to rely on.’
I blinked at her but she kept her eyes on the floor of the
Father Maxwell and Sister Helen.
‘You never lost Heero, Relena,’ I blurted and
she raised an eyebrow and actually looked at me.
‘Didn’t I?’ she said ironically.
I looked at her closely, trying to read what was in her eyes.
‘No,’ I said firmly. ‘You have from him what you always
had from him; he’d throw himself in front of a bullet for you…
you have to know that.’
Her cheeks colored and she went back to looking at the floor
of the cab. I wondered idly what in the hell the driver was making of this
‘It wasn’t me he was worried about the other day
when…’ I could see the muscles in her jaw tensing till I thought
she’d spit out something bitter, ‘we had that… accident.’
‘He’s a soldier, Relena,’ I sighed. ‘We
both are, and a part of us always will be. He knew before he ever got down
that corridor that you weren’t hurt.’
Her eyes flicked up at me and away again, she frowned darkly.
‘He and I… talked… years ago. I knew that I would never…
that he was…’
That Heero would never love her unless, maybe, she decided
to get a sex change operation. I nodded to let her know that I got it, just
so she would stop struggling with the damn words.
‘But we’ve been… best friends for years,
until… recently.’ The frown couldn’t have gotten any darker.
So this was it; the answer to my last question. Why the hell
she hated me so badly. She thought I was stealing Heero’s friendship
away from her. I dropped my head back on the headrest and sighed in frustration.
‘For God’s sake Relena!’ I blurted, ‘cut him some
damn slack, there’s only one of him. He’s been a little preoccupied
with… not letting me die. Things will get back to normal one of these
days… I’m not trying to turn him against you!’
I thought she was going to worry the button right off the
shirt. ‘You can’t tell me you like me!’ she snapped and
I gave myself a minute to imagine throttling her right here in the back
of the cab and paying the driver to take the body off somewhere and dump
I raised my head from the seat and turned toward her. ‘You
and I are not likely to ever be close enough to… to… share hair
care secrets,’ I told her in exasperation, ‘but you are important
to Heero. That makes you important to me. I would throw myself in front
of that God damn bullet if it came down to it.’
That made her look up and she met my eyes for a long couple
of minutes and I think she read the truth of that statement there, because
she was the one who looked away first.
The rest of the ride was quiet as a freaking morgue.
When I paid the driver he gave me a sympathetic grin that
almost made me laugh. I didn’t think that would go over very well
right then, so I pushed it down. He pulled away and I led Relena through
the maze of in-station toward the ship. I kept the pace as unhurried as
possible, conserving my strength but unfortunately lengthening my ‘quality
time’ with the Queen of Tact. It would not have taken much more to
convince me to bankrupt myself by buying a couple of shuttle tickets back
to Earth and dumping the damn Queen and her entourage at the nearest port.
Guess we were back around to the whole obligation thing again. I had trouble
repressing a sigh.
‘You know…’ she said suddenly, ‘he
just wants you to… need him a little bit.’
‘Nani?’ I blinked and glanced at her. She had
an odd, determined set to her jaw.
‘You’re so damn… tough all the time.’
She frowned, staring straight ahead. ‘He just wants you to…
lean on him now and then.’
I snorted. ‘I’m leaning so damn hard now, it’s
a wonder I haven’t broken his back.’
She spared me a disdainful flick of the eyes. ‘I thought
I had issues with learning to rely on people again.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I growled but she
didn’t back down this time.
‘During the war, I had all these people that I counted
on, that I leaned on… my Father, then Noin and my brother. Heero.’
She blew out a gust of air, mulling something over. ‘Then my father
was… killed. My brother turned on me. Noin took off to be with him.
Heero stood by me the longest but eventually even he had a life to get on
with. It’s made it very difficult for me to learn to count on people
again. But… you are worse than I ever was.’
Well, wasn’t that quite the little speech? I glared
at her but she only gave me a little smirk in return.
Thank God the ship came into view about then and we were walking
across the dock to my open cargo bay doors. I was really tiring of this
particular conversation. I glanced at her again, looking so unlike Relena
Peacecraft in my ‘Hell-bound Beavers’ shirt with that bobbing
ponytail. ‘You know,’ I said on a sudden thought, ‘you’re
‘What are you talking about?’ she said and her
voice was that guarded one.
‘Paragon.’ I grinned, pleased to have this bit
of insight to parry her verbal attack with. ‘The man loves you like
a grand-child… and he’s been with you as long as I can remember.’
Her eyes flew wide and she looked up at me, it was her turn
to squeak. ‘What? He’s an employee… he…’ She
hesitated. Mere employees don’t stick with your ass through mobile
suit attacks and political maneuvering. They don’t follow you from
one end of the damn world to the other, driving pink cars without protest.
‘That would explain why he refers to you as ‘my
little Relena’ when he talks about you,’ I smirked and was delighted
to watch her jaw drop open and her face turn two or three different shades
of purple. Her mouth worked but nothing came out.
‘And Chezarina isn’t exactly chopped liver,’
I continued, on further reflection. ‘It hasn’t been my experience
that simple personal assistants go around calling their bosses ‘poppet’
in a crisis.’
It was fun watching her go from wanting to belt me to facing
up to it.
On a sudden, careless impulse I dropped my arm around her
‘Listen… let’s just agree that we both have
issues and call it a draw, ok?’
She stiffened under my arm but she didn’t pull away
immediately, only glared at me out of the corner of her eye and grunted.
‘You got that from Heero,’ I snickered. ‘It’s
his favorite line.’
She actually unbent enough to giggle at the comment. I stopped
pushing my luck and removed my arm as we walked into the cool shadows of
the cargo bay.
Heero didn’t run to meet us, ok? At least not while
he was within our line of sight, but he was in the cargo bay waiting for
us. Aw, fuck it. He was waiting for me. His eyes were on me. His agitation
was born of concern for me. I suppose if Relena hadn’t been walking
beside me he would have asked about her and if I’d told him she’d
been kidnapped by space aliens he would have torn off to her rescue. But
in that first moment, the worry in his eyes was directed at me and the questions
that he was biting back on, were about me and I was the one he was aching
to come and grab hold of.
But you want to know the funniest thing? The look on his face
was that same one he always wears; the one I used to think was the coldest
God damn total lack of expression in the universe. But I could see passed
it; could see his fear and concern as though it were written on his face
in glowing letters. I wondered with a start if he could see passed my masks
as easily. It was a sobering thought.
‘Hey.’ I smiled at him and when I didn’t
immediately get my head ripped off I moved into his personal space, not
touching, but close enough to make it an invitation. ‘Miss me?’
‘Hell yes,’ he growled fiercely and pulled me
into his arms.
‘Get a room,’ Relena drawled and walked on past
us toward the interior door where I saw, over Heero’s shoulder, Chezarina
waiting for her.
‘…leave me alone with a caged tiger again and
I’m going to demand a raise…’ was all I caught of her
comment but Relena laughed loudly and they went on into the ship together.
Heero looked vaguely embarrassed but it didn’t stop
him from kissing the hell out of me.
‘If you don’t stop disappearing on me…’
he breathed in a voice that was taut with emotion but he left the threat
‘I left a note,’ I justified, just reveling in
this… shelter; this place that I belonged. I was at home here in his
arms. Sheltered and protected, cherished and loved. All my dreams come true
in the circle of those strong, sure arms. I shivered.
‘What’s wrong, love?’ He drew back to look
‘Absolutely nothing as long as you love me,’ I
whispered on the sudden upwelling of raw emotion that was threatening to
fill me until I burst.
He blinked at me, shocked, I think by the need even I could
hear in my own voice.
‘Duo?’ he sighed, pulling me in close to kiss
me again and his lips found mine hungrily searching for his. He kissed me
until he was holding us both up; my legs had gone to shivering jelly.
‘Stop… stop…’ I panted, trying to
push away, ‘or I’m gonna strip you right here in the damn bay.’
My God, the look he gave me was this calculating thing; I
could see him doing the math in his head, working a bout of lovemaking into
the pre-launch schedule. Leave it to Heero to treat my arousal like something
that had the same priority as locking the ship down for lift-off. It was
absurd and the very idea wore the sharp edge of the feeling away, leaving
me with only a dull ache instead of that sudden, all-consuming need that
had washed through me. I started to laugh and he drew back, holding me at
arms length while he looked me over with a worried frown.
‘You’re a mess,’ he observed dryly.
‘Yep,’ I agreed companionably.
‘What in the hell happened?’
‘I took a walk down Memory Lane and damn near got run
over by a Mack truck.’ I grinned at him and I could see true concern
waking in his eyes. I snickered almost hysterically. ‘And then I was
abducted by six and seven year old space aliens; little buggers were kind
His hands were tightening on my arms.
‘Relena says I don’t know how to rely on anybody
anymore…’ And just like that the hilarity flooded out of me
like water and I was left teetering on the verge of tears. ‘God…
Heero, can I… dare I…?’
He was looking at me with the most God awful scared expression
on his face and his voice was as gentle as if he were talking to a wild
animal. ‘Of course… forever; you know that, love.’
‘Take me home,’ I implored him, arm-wrestling
with the torrent of emotions warring in me. ‘I’m done Heero…
I can’t take any more. Please…’
‘Shhh…’ he soothed. ‘That’s
what having a partner is all about.’ The smile on his face was…beauteous.
Relena had been right about that much; my reaching out for him like this
was answering…some deep need of his own. ‘Come on,’ he
coaxed gently. ‘Let’s go get you settled.’
I just gave in to it and let go; let him take me to the cockpit
and settle me in the co-pilots seat with Fuzzy-butt. Let him strap me in
and I just… drifted and watched him get my ship ready to launch. I
had a small moment of panic; some deep part of my mind waking up and wanting
to know just what in the hell I was doing. I’d never sat through launch
in the co-pilots seat before. But I didn’t have the damn strength
to really care and the little voice just threw up its hands in defeat and
went away. I was too lost in the past to listen to it. Too full of old memories
and old pain; too consumed with… remembering.
I thought with a pang, as Heero was checking the seal report,
that I’d forgotten to punch Solo’s shoulder. ‘Sorry, rat-king,’
I murmured and it got me a glance from Heero.
‘S’ok, baby-rat,’ Solo whispered in my ear,
sitting on the arm of the co-pilot’s seat with a cocky grin. ‘You
just take it easy. New guy looks like he’s doin’ ok.’
He would have ruffled my hair if he hadn’t been imaginary. I smiled
at him anyway.
Heero smiled back. I let my eyes close and when they blinked
open again I heard Relena and Chezarina’s voices behind me and knew
they were belted into the jump seats.
‘Zarina get her patch?’ I mumbled to Heero and
he smiled across at me.
‘I took care of it,’ he assured me and a strange
glint came into his eyes. ‘Bear in the co-pilot’s seat?’
he asked as though he were going over a checklist.
I reached to rub the ear of my second. ‘Bear is in place.’
‘Got your cross?’ he asked gently.
‘Of course,’ I responded to the familiar banter
coming from this unfamiliar quarter.
‘You want to queue the music?’ he asked, his own
hands flicking across my boards, bringing my engines to life.
I couldn’t help but grin when I heard the almost exasperated
sigh behind me, if I were a real shit I would have queued up ‘Planet
Zydeco’ or ‘Domino Death’. Instead, after a moments thought
I made my choice. ‘Take her out, partner.’ I smiled and closed
‘Aye, Captain,’ came the warm reply. The music
began and I felt the ship lift at almost the exact same time.
‘Don't tell a Gypsy she has no home
For the land is mine where ever I roam.
To a single place I need not return
For a Gypsy's home is where the heart will burn.
For the road is wide and the sky is tall
And before I die I will see it all
Yes, the road is wide and the sky is tall
And before I die I will see it all…’
He headed us back to Earth. It would take us two days to get
there but it didn’t really matter to me, I was already home. Home
was sitting across from me, deftly maneuvering my ‘Demon’ out
of the docking bay and into space. This trip had not ended up being at all
what I had thought it would be. I had grossly over-taxed my still healing
body and over the next couple of weeks I would curse this trip to hell and
back while I struggled to regain the ground I had cost myself. But I wouldn’t
have changed a whole hell of a lot even if I could have. I would not have
gone back and sacrificed Relena to save my wrist anymore than I would have
denied Toria their shot at the expo prize money. I had a couple of regrets
but very little that I was ashamed of. I had done what I had to when the
time had come. You can’t ask for more than that.
I suppose, when you thought about the reason I had come out
here to begin with, you could say this trip was something of a flop. I honestly
don’t think I made a bit of difference in how Relena saw anything.
But somehow, that mission looked a little…unimportant next to the
loss the Brannigan’s had taken. I had managed, despite all my own
problems, to be there when my friends had needed me. That was nothing to
sneer at. And maybe, if I hadn’t managed to make Relena dislike me
any less…maybe Toria had managed to make her see the colonies in a
different light. Relena had honestly seemed to like the woman, something
I never would have freakin’ predicted.
I dozed off again wondering idly if I would ever get my t-shirt
and jeans back from her Highness.
I woke to the feel of hands undoing my harness and my ‘ship
sense’ told me we were clear of the station and underway.
‘Wake up, love,’ Heero was saying gently and I
blinked open blurry eyes.
‘Everything all right?’ I murmured and he smiled
at me lovingly.
‘Everything is just fine,’ he told me, ‘let’s
get you to bed.’
I opened my mouth to protest and then closed it again. Why
the hell not? I was exhausted; why couldn’t I just go back and sleep
some more? Heero was here and taking care of things. I could trust him to
handle anything that came up… hell, he’d handled the launch
and nothing else was going to happen until we got to our destination.
‘Ok,’ I said meekly and I let go of the last threads
of control, giving over to him completely. His gentle smile became a grin.
‘Don’t get too used to this,’ I warned him with a growl
and he chuckled at me.
‘Oh, I know better.’ He said, ‘but that
doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it while I can.’
I snorted and allowed him to pull me to my feet. Relena and
Chezarina were already unbelted and gone. He steered me toward the door.
‘Let’s keep the cargo bay pressurized this time,’
I murmured, feeling a twinge from my wrist.
Heero chuckled, his hands on my shoulders, steering me through
the door. ‘It is.’
I hesitated in the corridor and with my cheeks flaming, reached
to touch Solo’s arm. I’m just a tiny bit superstitious, ok?
Heero’s one hand left my shoulder, covering my fingers where they
rested on the wall and he whispered close to my ear, ‘I took care
of that too.’ The very fact that he had noticed made me smile at him.
The fact that he had maintained that silly tradition for me warmed me to
Then he put me to bed and I slept like I’d been pole-axed
until dinnertime. Even then, he had to call me. Emotional turmoil is damn
wearing stuff. For two cents I would have rolled over and told him to leave
me the fuck alone but I got the fuel/heal lecture and I gave it up. Crawling
out of the bunk with only the minimum of muttered curses. I refused to leave
the cabin until I had redone my hair and washed my face and by the time
I wandered into the galley, yawning and stretching, the others were already
‘Well,’ Chezarina observed brightly, ‘you
look much better than you did the last time we saw you.’
‘Yeah,’ I grumbled, ‘the jury’s still
out but I think I might live.’ I went to the fridge and dug out a
soda and returned to the table with it. I was greeted with an unhappy frown
from Heero and I raised the bulb to him in salute and said, ‘Deal
Somebody dished up a plate of something that involved pasta
and tomato sauce and I dutifully ate it. It wasn’t bad but to this
day I can’t tell you what it was.
‘Relena was telling me about the children at the Home,’
Chezarina prodded gently. ‘They sound adorable.’
I snorted. ‘I don’t think there’s a one
of them that would thank you for that description.’
She chuckled. ‘Do you know any child who would?’
‘I suppose not.’ I grinned at her, thinking about
how pissed off I would have been at that age if someone had called me ‘adorable’.
‘So what is all this about music lessons?’ she
asked gently, keeping the verbal ball in the air and I wondered, not for
the first time, if the woman had some formal training in ‘conversation’.
‘Do all the children attend special classes?’
I sighed. ‘No… only the ones who end up not being
adopted. That’s a little rarer than it used to be. I usually wait
until they turn twelve.’
Heero was giving me an unreadable look and I had a feeling
when we got the hell back to Earth we were going to end up having a nice
‘But… violin lessons?’ Chezarina questioned
and I had to wonder just how in the hell Relena had told this story. I started
to feel defensive and tried to tamp down on it.
I traced designs in the tomato sauce on my plate. ‘When
you’re an orphan and you get to be… twelve, thirteen years old…
you can pretty well bet that your dream family isn’t coming to whisk
you away.’ That came out a little more… bitter than I had intended
and I gave her a small smile in an effort to temper it. ‘When the
kids get to be twelve, I tell them that they get one shot at their dreams.
They get a couple of months between my trips to L2 to decide just what in
the hell they want to do… and I do my best to see they get a shot
at it.’ I shrugged. ‘Davey wants to be a musician.’ As
far as I was concerned, that was all there was to say about it. Davey wanted
to be a musician. Davey got to try for it. Period. End of story.
She blinked across the table at me, perhaps seeing this amusing
story Relena had told her in a different light, ‘Heavens, Duo…
how can you afford…’ she stopped, looking vaguely uncomfortable
with what she had just said and I grinned at her.
‘Prior to my fracturing the hell out of my reputation,’
I told her lightly, ‘I pretty much commanded my own price in the salvage
business; there aren’t… weren’t a lot of people who do
what I do.’
Relena looked confused, her eyes darting around the room.
‘Then why in the world do you…’
I laughed out loud. ‘Why don’t I live like a…
an Arabian prince? To an old street rat… this is the lap of luxury.
I don’t need any more than this.’
She didn’t look convinced, only frowning at me in confusion.
‘No… why do you live such a… dangerous lifestyle?’
I was starting to suspect that little Miss Relena had a touch
of space-phobia. Probably hadn’t been helped by the two little ‘incidents’
we’d had on the way in to L2. ‘I live out here because I choose
to… I love space. I always have. I was born out here in the colonies
and to me this is no more dangerous than things that you don’t think
She raised an eyebrow. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Statistically, more people die every day behind the
wheel of a car than at the controls of a space shuttle. This isn’t
all that dangerous if you know what you’re doing.’
She looked at me with the strangest appraising look. ‘And
you know what you’re doing?’ There was a certain amount of challenge
in that little comment.
‘Yeah,’ I asserted and I suppose there was a certain
amount of pride in that, ‘I pretty much know what I’m doing.’
‘Then how did you end up stranded in the asteroid belt?’
She had glanced back down at her dinner and her face was flaming red but
she asked it all the same.
Well wasn’t this just her day for hitting below the
belt? I heard Heero… growl but I ignored him. ‘I took a calculated
risk and I lost,’ I said flatly. ‘It’s part of my job.
It’s what my business is based on… taking the risks that nobody
The room was just fucking dead still. Chezarina was working
her jaw like she was desperate to find a way to change the subject and didn’t
know how. Guess ‘Conversation 101’ didn’t cover this kind
of verbal battlefield. Heero was… fairly vibrating with tension. I
was a little surprised that Relena was still in one piece.
‘It seems to me…’ she said very softly,
‘that it was kind of selfish of you to take that job.’
I blinked at her. ‘Selfish?’ I prompted and was
really pleased that I was able to say it with a steady voice. She was really
starting to piss me off.
‘A lot of people endangered themselves to come out there
and save you.’ My God, I’d never seen anyone turn quite that
shade of red before. I’m surprised she wasn’t on the verge of
I reached across the table and gently lay my hand over Heero’s
white-knuckled fist without having to look. He was on the verge of delivering
a verbal attack that was going to amount to decimating the combat zone.
He bit back on it when my fingers touched the back of his hand. It would
have to remember to thank him for his restraint later.
‘It was a fluke that I survived the initial accident,’
I told her calmly. ‘You do not generally get second chances in the
salvage business. There wasn’t suppose to be anything left to rescue.’
All eyes in the room were on me but I bulled forward. ‘Nobody was
supposed to come after me.’
‘Why in the world did you take a job like that to begin
with?’ she blurted, totally oblivious to how close she was to getting
her head bit off.
‘It was too lucrative an offer to turn down,’
I said softly.
‘So you can be bought,’ she said and her jaw tightened.
I had to give Heero’s hand a little squeeze to keep him in his chair.
‘I guess I can,’ I smiled at her but she missed
it, as she was still staring at her plate. ‘My price is the need of
Her head came up and she took in my smile, my restraining
hand and the livid expression on Heero’s face all at the same time.
Damn shocking to look up and realize you’ve wandered into the middle
of a minefield.
Heero’s clenched fist suddenly opened and turned under
my hand. He laced our fingers together and I looked up to meet his eyes.
‘He took the job in partnership with the Sweepers not
because he needed the work but because his friends were in danger of losing
their business.’ He was talking to Relena but he was looking only
at me. ‘And when the job went sour and we mounted the rescue mission…
he begged us not to come. He threatened to kill himself to keep us from
taking the risk. But… we told him we were coming anyway… alive
or dead.’ His expression went gently wistful. ‘And while he
may be stubborn… he’s never been stupid.’
She was bright enough to keep her mouth shut. Heero was still
gazing at me and I could see he was reliving that trip. Remembering how
close it had all been. Abruptly, he squeezed my fingers and then let go,
standing to leave the room without another word.
I watched him go and then turned back to Relena. ‘You
don’t do your cause any good when you attack me in front of him,’
I told her bluntly and could have laughed at the totally confused look I
got from her. God, she was clueless sometimes. I sighed and scrubbed my
good hand over my face, searching for words to get through to her. ‘Relena…
he loves me. I almost died out there… think about it.’ And I
got up to go find Heero.
He was in our cabin, just standing in the middle of the room
with his back to the door. I know he heard me coming but he didn’t
turn, let me slide my arms around him from behind and he dropped his head
backward to rest on my shoulder. ‘It’s all right, love,’
His body was almost trembling with repressed anger. ‘I’m
going to kill her,’ he grated.
‘No you’re not,’ I soothed, pulling him
tight against me.
‘Who the hell does she think she is, attacking you like
that?’ His hand sought out my good one where it rested on his waist
and held on.
‘She’s your best friend,’ I murmured against
the side of his neck and waited for the explosion.
He didn’t disappoint me. He pulled free and whirled
around to face me, drawing me close against his chest. ‘The hell!’
he snapped, ‘I won’t fucking have anything to do with her if
she doesn’t learn to respect you!’
I chuckled at him and I think I was starting to get on his
nerves with my… calmness. ‘Heero…’ I asked softly,
‘what was your relationship with Relena like six months ago?’
He drew back to look at me, anger making his eyes dark. ‘What
the hell are you…’
I touched his lips with the back of a knuckle. ‘Just
answer the question.’ And grinned, ‘Plain speaking.’
He just stood and blinked at me for a few minutes, trying
to settle his temper. ‘I don’t know,’ he finally sighed.
‘We… were friends. Good friends. We got together probably once
a week or so and went out. I used to be able to talk to her.’ He was
frowning slightly as he thought it through. ‘She wasn’t like
she is now… I don’t know what happened.’
‘And that changed… when?’ I smiled lovingly
at him and I must have really looked like a condescending little shit.
He opened his mouth, shut it and then opened it again with
a touch of that temper showing, seeing exactly when things had changed.
‘You needed me,’ he said defensively.
‘Is it any wonder she hates me so much, Heero?’
I chided gently, ‘I stole her best friend away from her. The last
person who she had dared to count on through thick and thin.’
The anger seemed to seep out of him and he sighed heavily.
‘You can’t deny that I had other priorities,’ he said,
not quite ready to give up the argument.
‘At first,’ I agreed, brushing at a lock of his
hair, ‘but after the first month or so it wouldn’t have killed
me to spend an evening alone now and again.’
His arms tightened around me and he frowned. ‘You weren’t
ready…’ he growled and then stopped. We had never spoken out
loud about my anxiety attacks, about my near inability to stay alone. I
had sort of known that he knew about what I had been going through. But
I wouldn’t admit to it and he wouldn’t bring it up for fear
of upsetting me.
‘Look,’ I told him, ignoring what I didn’t
want to talk about, ‘I told you I didn’t want how she and I
feel about each other to effect how you felt about either one of us…
and I meant it.’
‘I won’t sit by and listen to her try to hurt
you,’ he said and the anger was welling back to the surface.
‘She’s only trying to hurt back,’ I told
him and wondered where all this deep psychological shit was coming from.
If you dug very far below my surface, all I wanted to do was go kick her
ass. ‘I took you away from her. I blackmailed her into doing something
she didn’t want to do. Then I dragged her out here and rubbed her
nose in ‘us’ as a couple for a solid damn week.’ I grinned.
‘We’re actually pretty damn lucky she hasn’t snuck in
and knifed me in my sleep.’
His eyes flew wide for a second like he was actually considering
the possibility and his arms tightened protectively around me. I knew without
a doubt that he’d be sleeping on the outside edge tonight. I laughed
out right, partly from the mental image of psycho Relena stalking around
my ship in a white, billowing nightgown with a butcher knife clutched in
her hand and partly from the warm, almost giddy feeling it gave me to have
that protectiveness directed at me.
I dared to slip my fingers into the hair at the back of his
neck and as carefully as though I were holding eggs, drew him to me. His
lips met mine with an almost electric shock and though I was the one who
had initiated it, he quickly took control. Sometimes his love is so fierce,
it almost frightens me.
When he let me go I whispered, ‘You have a life apart
from me. You can’t ignore it.’
We held each other in silence until he seemed to settle down
and then I led him back to the galley. Chezarina was there alone, cleaning
up the dinner mess.
‘Where…?’ I asked and she inclined her head
in the direction of the cargo bay. Ah. We had pressurized the bay and I
had deliberately left the door to it open. Guess it was time to get this
last thing out of the way. I found my soda still sitting on the table and
took a long drink.
‘Heero, can you give Chezarina a hand with the clean-up?’
He hesitated and I smiled reassuringly at him.
She was right where I knew she would be. Standing in the cargo
bay looking up at that thrice-damned painting; the one that had started
this whole thing. I stood in the doorway and watched her looking at it for
a minute. I suppose it was kind of inevitable that we would come full circle
to this place. It crossed my mind that I wish I had never painted the damn
thing. But then it crossed my mind that if I hadn’t made that trip
to L2, it was entirely probable that the Brannigan’s would be dead.
I shrugged to myself and walked over to join her.
‘You know,’ I said conversationally, ‘I
painted this the night you threw me out of your house for something I didn’t
She frowned darkly but didn’t speak.
‘For Heero’s sake, we’re going to have to
learn to get along,’ I told her, wondering a little bit at my sudden
nerve. ‘It’s just you and me in here… how about we knock
off the bullshit and just talk to each other?’
Her head jerked around and she looked at me rather sharply.
‘I thought we had been talking?’ she said frostily.
I sighed. ‘No, Relena. We’ve been sniping at each
other. There’s something of a difference.’
Her frown deepened and for a minute I thought she was fucking
going to burst into tears. ‘Everything I say to you just seems to
make Heero even madder!’
I resisted the urge to bury my hands in my hair and start
jerking it out by the roots. I’m getting rather good at that resisting
urges thing. ‘Well… Heero’s not here right now. You can
say what you want.’
She chose to say nothing. Ok… guess I’d start.
I moved a little away from her, we seemed to do better when we weren’t
looking at each other.
‘You know… that night we first met… the
night I shot Heero,’ I said in that conversational tone again, ‘I
thought you were probably the prettiest girl I had ever seen.’ I chuckled
at the memory but she didn’t comment. ‘I was rather proud of
myself for arriving in the nick of time and saving the damsel in distress.’
‘I wasn’t ‘in distress’,’ she
said and her voice fairly dripped with disdain.
I chuckled. ‘That would be the part where a terrorist
on a mission had a gun leveled at your head.’ I wished I could cross
my arms but couldn’t manage it with the brace on. ‘Even in the
colonies that constitutes in distress.’
I glanced back at her and was greeted with a dark scowl. ‘He
wouldn’t have shot me,’ she said with conviction.
‘In your dreams,’ I said.
‘And I suppose he would have fallen into your arms if
I hadn’t been there?’ She was perfectly capable of crossing
her arms and did so, taking an aggressive stance.
‘No,’ I turned back to the painting to hide my
grin. ‘He would have killed both of us that night. Fresh off the colony
at the start of the biggest mission any of us had ever been assigned, with
orders to kill anyone who set eyes on him? You bet your ass he would have
drilled us both right between the eyes.’
‘What?’ Her voice squeaked a little. ‘Orders
I had to indulge my newfound skill of urge repressing again,
squelching a smirk. ‘Yep. We all had standing orders to… eliminate
‘But, you didn’t…’ she stammered and
I found it somewhat telling that she obviously remembered that night as
clearly as I did. ‘You blinded me with that flare and… and told
me to run?’
‘I never could follow orders,’ I grinned. ‘I
was a little bit… older before I started my pilot training. There
were some things that they just couldn’t train out of me.’
I didn’t say anything for a minute, just looked up at
the painting and let that soak in.
‘He really would have,’ she breathed almost to
herself and I didn’t let myself shake my head or roll my eyes; proud
of me? ‘You… you really did save my life.’
No shit? No duh? Get a clue? I passed over them all and settled
for a quiet, ‘I like to think so.’
She had to chew on that and I let her. It was a long hand
full of minutes before she murmured a grudging, ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re entirely welcome,’ I said solemnly
and dared a glance at her, she was chewing on it all right… and looking
like she was about to choke. ‘You know… I didn’t steal
him away from you. After the war I went off and tried to make my own life.
He was the one who came after me.’
‘Oh, I know that!’ she snapped angrily. ‘It’s
just…’ She stopped cold and looked up at the painting completely
changing the subject. ‘Is that really the way you see me?’
I sighed and looked hard at the damn thing. ‘I think
I did…that night.’ I stepped back and moved in behind her, taking
her by the shoulders and moving her to the right a half a dozen steps. She
resisted for a moment and then followed. ‘Here;’ I directed,
holding my hand up in example, ‘block that half of the picture out…
just look at the ball room.’
She flicked me an angry glare and then sighed melodramatically
before doing as she was directed. I followed suit and looked again at the
picture above us. ‘Is that the way I see you? Beautiful? Poised? Elegant?
Yeah… I guess I do.’
She dropped her hand and spun around to stare up at me, wide
eyed, disbelieving. ‘Then… then why am I dancing with Heero?’
I dropped my hand as well and sighed a little sadly. ‘Because…
you both fit in that world.’ I cocked my head and frowned up at the
painting, thinking about it. ‘Like two fish in the sea of politics
and intrigue… Quatre can swim in that sea too; you understand the
currents and the tides of it…’ I found my hands working helplessly
in the air in front of me as I tried to grasp the meanings and give them
form. I gave it up and raised my other hand. ‘Now block out that half,’
I instructed and waited while she rolled her eyes before finally turning
around and complying. ‘That’s my world… I don’t
fit in yours. But…’ I was struggling again, ‘my world
is… is cold sometimes but it’s where I came from… where
I belong. There’s nothing wrong with it.’ I dropped my hand
to reveal the picture as a whole and she followed suit, oddly quiet. ‘The
mural is about… contrast. About perceptions… and…’
I was really not getting this across well, ‘And… obligations.’
I stepped away from her and moved closer to the wall, looking
at my cluster of children, ‘You’re champagne and caviar,’
I chuckled lightly. ‘And I’m watered apple juice and ration
She moved up beside me. ‘What’s Heero?’
she asked softly.
I shrugged. ‘I don’t know… champagne and
ration bars? Caviar and apple juice?’
She smiled fondly up at Heero’s figure above us. ‘He
does seem to fit in where ever he pleases.’
I sighed. ‘Something I can’t do. I don’t
fit in your world… I never will. You have to realize that as soon
as Heero gets it through his head that I’m not going to pass out every
time he turns his back on me, he’ll be back in your world.’
‘Oh… bullshit,’ she said and I think my
jaw hit the floor.
‘Nani!’ I gaped and she gave me a rather wicked
grin, pleased, I think to have shocked me.
‘You fit in where ever you go too,’ she said and
it came out a little… angry. ‘Everybody adores you! Every servant
in my employ was ready to mutiny after that stupid party! I got the cold
shoulder from every last one of them for weeks! Half the women there wanted
to know who the ‘guy with the braid and the hot…rear’
was.’ She was blushing furiously and I found that I was too.
‘Good God; Relena!’ I blurted, ‘you have
your own fucking fan club! There are people fawning over you every where
‘But none of them are friends!’ she snapped and
suddenly just shut up.
I was back around to feeling like pulling my hair out and
was suddenly just very damn tired… again. I sighed and just sat down
on the damn deck right where I was. ‘Look… you haven’t
lost him… I swear to God… they keep telling me this won’t
last forever; you just have to give it a little time… give him a little
time.’ There was the sound of one of those frustrated sighs somewhere
over my head. I was starting to wish she’d just go the hell away and
leave me alone. This damn, constant upheaval was eating away at me. ‘Hell,’
I muttered, ‘there isn’t even any guarantee that he and I will…’
I bit that off before it got any further.
She squatted down beside me and was glaring at me really hard.
‘Guarantee of what, Duo Maxwell? So help me, if you hurt him…’
It wrenched a twisted laugh out of my throat. ‘Don’t
be ridiculous,’ I told her, ‘but look at our relationship…
the whole damn thing is based on that stupid accident. What happens when
he doesn’t need to take care of me any more? What happens when I can
stand completely on my own again?’
‘Then,’ she said rather coldly, ‘you will
have the relationship with him I would have sold my soul for a couple of
years ago and if you screw it up I will personally come and smack you up
the side of the head.’
I blinked at her for a full five seconds before I burst into
laughter. ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I acknowledged.
She sat down beside me. ‘It’s that damn charm
of yours that just makes me insane,’ she groused but wouldn’t
look at me. ‘Everybody falls prey to it sooner or later and I always
swore that I wouldn’t be one of the sheep that fell under your spell.’
I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. ‘I can…
be an insensitive cad if it will make things any better.’
She snorted. ‘You’re not making it any easier.’
‘Ok… Ok…’ I murmured and gazed up
at the painting, ‘I can paint over it… if you want.’ I
offered and held my breath. I’d never tried to destroy one of these
damn things and I wasn’t sure if I could.
There was a moment’s silence and then she said, ‘Don’t
worry about it… it’s not like anybody who matters is ever going
to see it.’
‘Hey!’ I exclaimed before I realized she was teasing
and then I grinned. ‘I suppose I could always throw my own party;
kind of an open house.’
‘Who’d come?’ she drawled. ‘Junk yard
men and their dogs?’
I inclined my head her way with a smirk. ‘Score one
for the Princess.’
‘So…’ she ventured after another small silence,
‘are we going to be able to tolerate each other?’
‘Maybe…’ I turned the smirk into a smile.
‘I’m willing to try if you are?’
‘For Heero’s sake… I suppose we can make
an effort.’ Her eyes flicked my way again. ‘Just promise me
you won’t put me in any more murals.’
‘Done,’ I readily agreed and held out my hand.
We shook on it.
I somehow didn’t think it would ever move beyond ‘tolerate’
but it had to beat the hell out of what we’d been doing.
‘So…’ I grinned after a little bit, ‘does
this mean we can trade hair care secrets now?’
She snorted disdainfully. ‘Like I need tips from you.’
‘Hey;’ I protested in mock hurt. ‘Some people
consider my hair one of my most attractive features!’
She turned the most wicked Goddamn smirk in my direction and
murmured, ‘Yours may be longer… but mine’s thicker.’
I feared my eyeballs were going to pop right out of my head.
‘Dear Lord… I left you alone with Toria way too fucking long!’
I gasped and felt my face flaming that shade of red that amused afore mentioned
Ms. Brannigan so much.
I wondered what Heero and Chezarina thought of the peals of
laughter that echoed around the cargo bay then. They’d just have to
wonder; I wasn’t going to repeat that line in front of either one
On to Chapter Six:Deceptions
Back to Chapter Four
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