by: Sunhawk

Absolution (cont)

I blinked at the screen of my laptop for a minute and then just shut it down. I couldn't answer her right now. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I didn't think either one was a good idea right then, so I just didn't think about it.

The receipt had made me think about the money that I wasn't going to be able to send to the home, though. So I thought about that instead. Before the accident, the funds that I had supplied had accounted for most of the extras those kids ever saw. If there was any one thing that I could point to that was eating away at me; that was probably it. That I was letting Octavia and the kids down.

That made me think about my stupid vacuum suit in the closet. It was completely irrational for me to hang on to the damn thing. I no longer needed it. It was worth a hell of a lot of money. The kids could use that money and I was being a total jerk for hanging on to it when I could sell it.

I left my laptop and went into the bedroom. There was a moment of hesitation when I got there, remembering the weird... flashback thing that had happened the last time I had opened that closet door. But I hadn't been prepared then; I knew what was in there now and wouldn't be taken by surprise again. My hand shook when I reached for the knob anyway.

I didn't give myself a chance to think about it, but grabbed hold of the damn thing and hauled it out into the light of day. I needed to go over it, make sure it hadn't been damaged, make sure it had been cleaned to specs. I'd been stuck in it a little longer than the regs stated was... recommended. I would salve my guilt over not being able to send as much money to the kids, by selling the suit. I would salve my unease over getting rid of the suit by sending one hundred percent of the profits to the kids. There... neat little solution, if I do have to say so myself.

I dumped the thing on the floor and began by checking the seals. I tried not to think too hard about being on the inside of the damn thing. I tried not to think... period.

When my thought-hamsters began their parade, little thought banners flying, I snarled, "Shut the hell up!" to no one in particular, and they ran off to regroup. George was the last to go, dragging a 'what the hell?' banner without much enthusiasm.

My fingers were on automatic, checking filters, inspecting seams, opening all the flaps on the utility belt. Then my fingers found something... unexpected.

Something stowed in the main carrying pouch. Something hard and oblong. I pulled it out.

"What the hell?" I muttered and thought I heard a hamster giggle.

My trembling hands twitched in a violent shudder and the book fell from my fingers. A book. It took me several long seconds to figure out what it was, where it had come from, and how it had found its way into my pouch.

The journal of the Captain of the Londonderry. He of the flash-frozen blood crystals. The very man who led his crew through my nightmares on a fairly regular basis.

Another long moment's thought told me the rest of it. The book whose retrieval had cost me the precious final moments I had needed to get off the Londonderry before he had parted ways with the Randy Wench.

The little thing lay on the carpet on the floor of my room in Heero's apartment and looked... very innocent. The thing had actually been my damn downfall, when you got right down to it. If I hadn't gone back for it, I would have made it off the ship before the accident. I would have been on the right side of that tether when it broke. It never would have happened. I looked down at the unassuming thing and didn't know what to say... what to think. I wanted to be angry, but it just wouldn't come.

George left his brethren behind for a moment to scamper out and present me with a thought; 'son of a bitch'.

So I obliged him. "Son of a bitch," I said, but it didn't really help. I shrugged at George and he shrugged in return and trotted off to try again later.

I found my hands reaching for the journal. I just sat on the floor and held it for a bit, but my little thought-producing buddies deserted me for a change and I couldn't quite make up my mind what I should do with it. There was a momentary urge to fling it across the room, but it was too short-lived to come to fruition. I finally decided that I didn't want to be sitting in the same room with both the suit and the journal, and so wandered with it out to the living room. I ended up curling into the corner of the couch and eventually I ended up opening the cover.

Captain James Lyle Camden.

I read the name on the title page and closed the book again. Captain half-face had a name. I shivered again and wondered about why it seemed so cold of a sudden. James Lyle Camden. Had his friends called him Jim? Jimmy? Or maybe JC? Had he even had any friends? Had he been a good Captain? He'd gone down with his ship, that said something, didn't it? I suppose the answers to a lot of the questions running around my head were right there in my hands.

Captain Camden. The Captain of the Londonderry. The man whose ship I had defiled. One of the ghosts who kept me from sleeping when no one was around to guard my rest.

I couldn't believe that I had forgotten the damn thing. It had been stuffed there, in the 'pocket' of my vacuum suit for... months now. Ever since that moment that a piece of space debris had found its way, in all the vastness of space, to that tiny little place occupied by my steel, twenty-four gage, tether line.

This book had cost me my life and I was afraid to open it again. What if there wasn't even anything in it? What if it was just the guy's duty roster? What if it was just his damn inventory? Did I really want to know that I had given up everything I was and everything I had dreamed, for... what now lay in my lap?

I couldn't get my head out of that moment. When I had turned back down that dark corridor, my flash beam bobbing ahead of me as I returned to that room after that damn, damn book. I could still see the body, hanging in 'mid-air'. I could still see the dark red crystals dancing about, adding to the weird undersea imagery.

If I had just gone on. If I had just left the damn thing. I could, quite suddenly, pin the end of my life down to one defining moment. The second that I had stopped on my flight from the ship and gone back after Captain Camden's journal. It was like his ending his own life had left a trap waiting across all those years until I had blundered into it, and it had ended mine as well. My fingers moved to open the cover of the book so many times that I lost count. I was so cold.

I balanced the journal on the arm of the sofa and curled up tighter, drawing my legs up to my chest and wrapping my arms around them. I lay my head down next to the book and stared at it. Did I really want to know? I couldn't say, so I just stared at it.

"Duo?" a voice was calling and I jerked upright as the apartment door swung suddenly open. I blinked up with gritty feeling eyes, and found,

"Wufei?"

"Maxwell!" he snapped, and looked oddly uncomfortable. "Are you all right?"

"I...I guess so," I told him, feeling terribly confused. "What's wrong?"

He came across the room to stand over me, where I still huddled in the corner of the couch, but he seemed oddly reluctant to really look at me. He kept trying to meet my gaze, but his eyes kept sliding away.

Maybe I could get Wufei to look in the book for me? Maybe... maybe he would sit here with me and read some of it to me, if I asked him? Maybe he wouldn't even mind if I leaned against him a little bit... he was terribly warm and I was still so damn cold. They kept telling me that they were my friends and that they wanted to help me. They kept offering me their touch... kept insisting that we were all brothers, in this together. Was it... acceptable to ask? Was it ok to reach out and tell one of them that I needed to be held for just a tiny little minute?

I looked up at him, raising a hand, looking for a way to ask for what I didn't know how. Then he frowned, looking confused.

"Maxwell," he chided gently. "What in the hell are you doing? You scared Heero to death; he was expecting you over an hour ago. And... and where are your clothes?"

George darted out and did his job, supplying me with my next line;

"Shit!"

I scrabbled after the afghan and felt myself spontaneously combust. I was sure of it; I was about to burst into flame. Wufei looked just about as red and I growled something incoherent that caused him to turn away while I ran for the bedroom, and more importantly, my clothes.

Well... that probably left a lasting impression. God, where in the hell was my head? The short answer to that would be... the asteroid belt.

I dressed in a clean shirt and jeans and went back into the living room, still braiding my hair. I started to tell him to call Heero, but he was already on the phone.

"...on the couch." I heard. "Must have dozed off... No... No... He's awake now. Let me check."

Wufei turned his attention to me, and while my face was still flushed warmly, his seemed to have returned to his normal color.

"Heero wants me to tell you that if you're tired, you should just stay home today." I could tell from the tone of his voice that he knew damn well there wasn't any point in even asking, so I just rolled my eyes at him and he smirked back. "He's fine, Yuy," he said into the phone. "We're on our way."

"Tell him..." I suddenly blurted, not sure what moved me to do it, "it may be a few minutes."

Wufei quirked a questioning eyebrow in my direction, but relayed the message to Heero and then hung up.

"Duo," he asked gently. "What is going on?"

"Listen," I began earnestly, trying to get it out before I had too much chance to think about it. "Can I ask... Would you mind... I..."

He looked oddly amused, which wasn't helping things much, and I dropped my eyes. "Never mind. I need to find my boots."

I fled back to the bedroom, grabbed my boots and a clean pair of socks and threw myself down on the side of the bed to put them on. Stupid. What had I been thinking?

I was aware of Wufei's presence in the doorway before I was half done. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him taking in the sight of the vacuum suit sprawled out on the floor and his _expression was doing the strangest little dance. I'm sure he'd heard all about my... incident with the suit earlier in the week.

I stood when the boots were on, and headed toward him. "You ready to go?" I asked brightly.

"No," he said gently, but firmly. "Not until you finish what you were going to say."

I stopped, but he wasn't budging, I could tell.

"I'm sorry," he told me. "I'm just not used to you struggling with words, you've always been... terribly eloquent when you wanted to be." He smiled softly. "Please... whatever you wanted to ask me... it's yours."

My hand started to reach out and I turned it into a nervous brush of my fingers through my hair. He seemed serious enough. He seemed like he meant it. Maybe...?

I found myself looking at my toes. "When I got stranded... I was on my way out. I was leaving... I'd already downloaded the data and I was... damnit... I was leaving..." I stopped for a minute because my voice was getting... strained, already. "The Captain of the ship... he opted to... he decided to go with his ship... he shot himself. In his cabin." There was an uncomfortable minute while I picked through words. "At the last minute, I realized that a man who... that a guy who would do that would probably have left... something. I went back..."

"You went back," he repeated, as if he needed clarification. I nodded, miserable.

"Yeah... I was... almost out, and I went back." I blinked and dared a glance up at him.

"Ah hell, Duo," he murmured and then answered the need I had been unable to voice, and pulled me carefully into his arms. He did it slowly, as though afraid he might spook me, but I'd been alone all morning and the little boy who lived in my head was crying out desperately for someone to hold onto. It was the little kid who threw his arms tight around Wufei's neck and clung with bruising strength, not me.

His breath went out in a tiny little gasp, caught by surprise, I think.

It was easier to talk somehow, with my head buried in his shoulder, "The Captain had a journal. I took it... was just getting ready to leave his cabin again when... when it happened." He stroked a hand up and down my back and made tiny, soothing little sounds, but I barely heard. "I forgot about the thing... can you beat that?" I choked on a laugh. "Sold my life for that damn book and I forgot about it... I just found it this afternoon. Wufei... I'm afraid to look in it. I don't know what in the hell I'll do if... if that stupid thing... if I killed myself for nothing."

His arms tightened around me. "Stop saying that," he commanded almost angrily. "You did not kill yourself. Don't say that."

All I could do was nod against his shoulder.

"Where is it?" he asked then, his voice much gentler.

"In... in the other room," I told him with a shiver. "I was trying to make myself read it."

"Come on,' he said calmly. "Show me."

I lead him back to the couch and we sat down together. I didn't lean against him, as I had thought about earlier. But then... putting clothes on had gone a long way toward alleviating my chill. I felt myself flushing again, thinking about the picture I must have presented when he had burst into the apartment. I picked up the journal and held it in my hands.

"Quatre makes me wear pajamas," I muttered, by way of explanation, but I doubt he had a clue what I was talking about anyway.

He either followed my thoughts, or didn't care. "The silk ones?" he grinned and I nodded.

"They're... hot." I grumbled while my fingers toyed with the edges of the book.

"I don't like them either," he commiserated, and gently pulled the thing from my hands.

"James Lyle Camden," I said.

"What?" he asked, a puzzled frown gracing his features.

I nodded toward the book he now held. "I... got that far. Captain James Lyle Camden."

He opened it. No more trouble than that. I almost laughed, but was more than well aware where that would lead. Contrary to my earlier thoughts, I found myself leaning against the arm of the couch, away from him, where it was impossible to see the pages.

He was silent. He turned some pages. He read. He turned some more pages. He read some more. I found the end of my braid in my hand for lack of anything to shred into confetti.

"Come on, Wufei," I croaked, after what seemed like a half an hour, but probably wasn't five minutes. "What the hell is it... his damn laundry list, or what?"

He jerked guiltily. "I'm sorry Duo. No... this is most definitely not just a manifest list. This is the Captain's diary."

I let out a breath that I hadn't known I'd been holding. I opened my mouth to speak, but found my throat too dry to manage it, so I just nodded again.

Wufei carefully closed the journal and I suddenly felt the need to be elsewhere. Was flirting like hell with the ragged edges here, and I didn't trust myself all of a sudden. I was not going to have another one of those damn humiliating breakdowns. Especially not in front of Chang Wufei... again.

I rose, rather abruptly, and went off to the kitchen. I pulled a bottle of my soda out of the fridge with slightly trembling hands and downed half of it right there, with the door still open and a cloud of frosty air billowing around me. The thought of a beer flitted through my mind, but honest to God? I had been kind of afraid to touch any alcohol at all recently... afraid that I might find that it helped and I wouldn't be able to stop.

The Captain's diary. Well, that was something, at least. Some small consolation, that I had not sold all my dreams for Captain Camden's little black book or something.

That almost produced a chuckle, but I knew better than that and bit down on my tongue until the urge passed. I shut the refrigerator door and turned to lean against the counter. Wufei was in the kitchen doorway, watching me try to cope. He must have decided that I wasn't coping well, because he came across the room toward me.

"Don't, Wufei," I whispered, but he didn't listen. Wufei never listens.

He caught me by the shoulders and forced me to meet his eyes. "There are messages in there, at the last, to his wife and children. A dying man's last words to his family... it was worth the effort to try and retrieve it." I choked down a sob and he pulled me against his chest. "I won't say it was worth the price you've paid... but it wasn't 'nothing'."

He let me hang on until I could breathe without it hitching in my throat. I was shaking with the effort of not letting it turn into full-blown tears.

"Can we go to the hospital now?" I asked when I could manage it. I really needed to go to the hospital. To Heero.

He nodded against my shoulder. "But you're coming home with me tonight, or I'm coming here with you. We're going to do some reading; there are some things in that book that you really need to hear."

He left me in the kitchen to finish my soda, and when he came back to get me, he was carrying Heero's duffle bag. Packed with things for me, presumably. Guess that meant I was going to his place tonight. I was starting to feel like a foster child.

He drove us to the hospital and we walked up to Heero's room together, I don't know what his intentions were, but I suspected they involved me and the word 'glue'.

Heero, of course, was worried as hell and while I would have been more than happy to tell some pretty, soothing little lie about falling asleep on the couch after therapy, I suspected Wufei would not. Sure enough, before I could open my mouth he jumped in and told the whole damn thing right down to the naked part. I glared at him, for all the damn good it did.

I wondered, sometimes, about that whole 'truth and nothing but the truth' thing they did with each other any more. I didn't remember any of them being so damn tight assed about the honesty kick during the war. In fact, I remembered being teased a couple of times about my own code of not lying. It had been a pretty childish whim of mine, I guess. I had tried for years to maintain that code, in honor of Father Maxwell, until reality had risen up and shown me the impracticality of it.

"But you're all right?" was Heero's main concern when the story was told.

"I'm fine," I reassured him with a sigh. "I just lost track of time."

A strange little frown crossed his face and he gave me an appraising glance. "Why in the world were you... I mean..." His eyes flicked in Wufei's direction and he flushed slightly. I suppressed – see how good I'm getting at that? – the urge to pull my hair out by the roots. I'll bet there wasn't a one of these guys who could pass a can of worms and leave it unopened. I spared a scathing look in Wufei's direction that I hoped imparted my extreme happiness with him in that moment.

"Look," I growled. "Quatre is a sweetheart. I adore him. He is wonderful. But... he is making me insane. He supplies me with these ridiculous, miserably uncomfortable pajamas and fully expects me to sleep in them. He keeps feeding me shit I couldn't identify if I was given the cookbook it came out of. I don't think there is such a thing as a soda in the entire damn estate. The man has people who... who run his damn bathwater, for Christ's sake!" I had warmed to the subject matter despite myself and had to force my voice down to a more normal level. "I needed a break. I conspired to get a couple of hours to myself and I hid out at the apartment, where I proceeded to use a shower, in water that was not scented with something weird, ate a damn tasty ration bar, swilled Mt. Dew and sat around buck-naked just because I could. Ok? I was not aware that anyone else had a key to your apartment. I was not expecting company."

Wufei was chortling insanely, trying to control it and failing miserably. Heero... somehow, just managed to look even more upset.

"What," I snapped, before I could stop myself, "the hell is wrong now?"

Pain washed across his face and he whispered, "When did you stop thinking of our apartment as your home?"

Whoa. Sucker punched. I felt the need to sit down, but wasn't anywhere near the chair. But, damn, did it serve to shut off Wufei's hysterical chuckling.

When did I stop thinking of it as my home? Had I ever? Yeah... I think so. When had things changed? I wasn't really sure.

The look on Heero's face made guilt give a half-hearted nibble at my ankle, but to be honest, I think the poor beast was getting tired; he just wasn't gnawing with his usual vigor. There's a thought; could you wear out guilt?

"I..." All I could do was stare at him. I didn't know what in the hell to say.

There was an odd little sigh from Wufei and he mumbled some remark about lunch, getting up and leaving the room in something of a rush.

Heero stretched a hand out toward me and I went to settle on the side of his bed, taking the offered touch.

"You feel so far away from me," he breathed, his fingers wrapped tight around mine.

I just felt like the weight of all the last few months was settling over my shoulders all at once. "Only because you're pushing me," I told him gently and watched him blink at me in shock. "Heero... love, I am at the very end of my endurance... please... just stop. I'm on a... a path... a very narrow path. I have to walk it. You can't do it for me, but your pushing is just... unbalancing me."

His eyes looked haunted and frustrated, his fingers were hurting mine.

"Why can't you stop trying to handle so much... why can't you let yourself rest... let yourself heal?" His tone was pleading.

"What would you have me do?" I sighed. "Stop coming here? What do you think that would do to me... to not be here with you at a time like this? Do you think I could just forget about you? Forget I was failing you?"

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