Author: Sunhawk
see part 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Connections (cont)

I muttered something under my breath about ownership, but she didn't notice, leading me through an arch into what proved to be the main gallery. Some ancient training tickled at the back of my mind, and I found my eye tracing the lighting and noting the security measures; both were very subtle... but very present. It was something of a kick at reality, trying to think about my own drawings hanging in the place, and I had to mask a snort of amusement as a cough. The very idea of my piddly little sketches being guarded by all that security was just... flat fucking ridiculous.

Mrs. DeBoye appeared to be a landscape artist, and there wasn't a damn drawing anywhere. There was nothing but oil paintings and watercolors as far as the eye could see. What I considered real art. Elegant gardens with paths leading off into nowhere. Wild gardens with bits and hints of arches and gates half obscured. Ordered Zen gardens, perfectly balanced and serene. Beautiful works that made you want to know if such places really existed outside the artist's mind.

The clerk caught me looking at a study of a park bench, with a spreading maple tree behind it, and grinned. 'I like that one too,' she prodded, perhaps remembering her job. 'It hasn't sold yet, if you're interested.'

I took the bait, mostly out of idle curiosity, and asked, 'How much?'

The number she quoted almost made me whistle out loud. Triple digits. I hoped I didn't look as shell shocked as I felt, but suspected from the slight smirk the girl was wearing, that I did. I attempted to change the subject with a casual, 'Is it always this busy?' I couldn't tell if her chuckle was for the evasion or the joke.

'Only on closing night,' she said as we walked. 'Openings are the busiest, of course.'

'Of course,' I echoed, and tried not to think too hard about that.

I wondered if all the customers got guided tours, or if the poor kid was just so bored that leading me around was better than standing at the front desk.

The gallery was laid out to take you in a circular path that would bring you back around to the reception area when you were done, secure that you hadn't missed anything. Mrs. DeBoye was a damn prolific artist and I despaired how my own show was going to look with no more pictures in it than I had. When I questioned that inequality of productive habits, I was shown how a certain loop could be closed off, shortening the tour area without it being obvious that part of the gallery had been shut.

The place was a masterpiece of efficiency. In an artistic way, of course.

The tone sounded that I knew heralded a new arrival, and the receptionist excused herself to go do her meet and greet thing. I continued my wanderings on my own.

I became aware, once I was alone, of gently playing music and had to listen for a moment to catch the genre. I was surprised to detect a slight Cajun feel and couldn't help smiling. I wondered if the music was the choice of the artist or the patron. Then I wondered what would be playing the next night and had to shake my head.

I just could not damn well imagine it. When I looked at the detailed and colorful landscapes and tried to imagine my own dark images up there... I couldn't. When I tried to imagine my own music playing through the completely invisible speakers... I couldn't.

When I tried to imagine myself 'mingling' with the type of people who wouldn't even blink at the idea of spending thousands for a painting... I just damn well couldn't.

I was oddly calmer, having seen the place and found it not to require some secret handshake at the door, but... I was also not in the slightest bit reassured. If anything, I had reinforced the notion that I just did not belong there. I was a mechanic, for God's sake. I felt like a little kid playing dress up in Daddy's clothes or something.

Though I was quite sure that if I tried phoning Aleyah and telling her I was calling the whole thing off, that I would find my own ass hanging from the wall instead of my drawings. The woman would damn well kill me.

And I suppose I would deserve it. I was kind of hip-deep at that point, with no choice but to keep on wading and hope I managed not to drown.

Standing there, looking at a watercolor seascape, I sighed right out loud, and then continued on my way, pretty sure that my reconnaissance had bought me all the information it was going to. Might as well go on home, I did have work the next day.

As I neared the reception area from the opposite direction, I heard someone talking and at first assumed that the receptionist was speaking to whoever had come in. Then I realized that I only heard the one voice and was pretty sure she was on the phone. '... all over my face! And get this, Jen? when I finally got it off and turned around, it wasn't one of those typical stick-in-the-mud, blue-haired types, but the best looking guy to come through those damn doors in like, forever! Why do I always have luck like that?' There was a pause and then an exasperated snort, 'Oh, thanks a whole hell of a lot!'

I didn't know whether to be flattered or appalled, so I just hesitated about going through the exit arch until the conversation had turned to something to do with school. I waved on my way out and she waved back, seeming oblivious to having been overheard. Just as well, the bubble-gum thing had probably been embarrassment enough.

I was kind of surprised to find that I'd lost the light; I had not thought I'd spent that long inside, but I guess I'd gotten kind of drawn in by the artwork. I walked back to my car not at all sure if I'd made things better or worse. Better, I thought, but only marginally. I was so going to stand out like a chicken in a flock of swans. One of those brown ones.

Traffic on the drive back wasn't nearly as heavy as it was on the drive home from work, and the trip didn't take as long. I was just as glad, because screwing with that damn car's radio was just frustrating, but I really felt the need for some sound. It ended up being little more than that, as I listened to the strains of music through the hiss of static. Have I ever mentioned that I really hate my car?

I probably don't have to actually say that the first thing I did when I got home was to turn the stereo on. I needed something a little upbeat, and cued up my fiddles playlist. Then I turned on the television too, since the news would be on again soon and I'd missed the earlier report. It was something of a cacophony of sounds, but I really didn't mind; the combination of music and voices made a soothing background that mimicked a setting not unlike McMurphy's place. If I didn't think about it too hard, I could almost convince myself that I wasn't alone in the house.

While I waited for the news, I figured I should probably do something about my missed dinner and went into the kitchen. I'd long since tossed the shrimp, afraid that it had gone bad, but the fish was still there and I stood with the refrigerator door open picking at it. Oddly, it wasn't quite as bad cold; so I turned it into my meal. In a break in the music I heard a commercial come on for shampoo and knew it was getting close to the top of the hour. The next song up was Whiskey Mountain Waterfall, a somewhat loud and fast piece, and I couldn't make out how wonderfully silky the shampoo made the girl's hair. Even after the commercials, there would be the headlines before they got to the meat of the news, so I took the time to rinse the plate and wash my hands.

And then I thought I heard Heero call me. And oddly, by my last name. I shut the water off and listened hard, but the music was too loud. Feeling kind of stupid, I stepped over to the kitchen doorway to listen again, and very distinctly heard Captain Gray's gruff voice say, 'Roger.' I think I jumped a foot in the damn air.

Gray's face was staring at me from the damn television set, and I rushed over to the stereo system, slapping at the power switch. I was just in time to hear my own voice saying 'Yeah... let's just do it.'

What the fuck?

'Really though,' Heero's voice said. 'How smart could the Coyote have been to keep driving into painted tunnels?'

I just... stood and blinked at the damn television, somehow not able to understand what I was listening to. I heard us bantering and just couldn't get my head around it. It was surreal as hell hearing my own voice like that. What the fuck was I listening to?

And just to add another twist to my evening, somebody was suddenly pounding on my front door, I vaguely remember thinking I should go answer it, but couldn't quite pull my attention away from the TV as Heero did his best to... to distract me.

It suddenly fell into place what I was hearing, I just didn't know how. That was us... outside on the hull of flight 1410, repairing the vane array.

My door flew open on the heels of that realization, and some tiny part of my head pointed out to me that I'd forgotten to lock it again.

'Fuck,' I heard Trowa say, and then, 'it's too late? I'll call you back.'

I'd have turned around to greet him, or ask him what the hell was going on, or something, if I hadn't heard my own voice mutter, 'Shit,' in a tone that sounded very dismayed.

Trowa didn't exactly wait to be invited in, coming across the room and trying to get between me and the television. 'Duo,' he demanded, 'where the hell have you been? Heero's been trying to call you all damn?'

'Stop,' I said, and though it came out kind of quiet, there was something in my tone that made him do just that. I missed something that Gray said while we stared at one another. 'I gotta know,' I told him and he sighed heavily.

'Damn masochist,' he murmured, but stepped out of the way. They were flashing Heero's and my pictures now and I heard my own voice asking, 'You ever change out a vane with a high-v charge?'

They cut some, because the announcer came in to explain the principals of a ship's damping system, complete with little diagrams.

'Duo,' Trowa said, during the brief lull. 'Heero was trying to warn you?'

'This was,' I managed, not able to tear my eyes from the screen as little dotted lines hypothesized the course and velocity of the rock that had hit the ship. 'This was his ace in the hole? How the hell did they manage it? The ship's recorder?'

Trowa didn't waste time with a lot of words, knowing that it wouldn't take long before they were back to the part I would want to hear. 'Suit's recorders.'

'Oh fuck,' I muttered, understanding that I would be hearing some damn personal stuff here in a minute. Things that would not have been caught by the ship's recording system.

'Heero tried,' he told me firmly. 'He didn't want it to come down to this.'

I sighed, so full of conflicting emotions that it came out so shaky even I heard it. Trowa stepped in behind me and dropped his hands onto my shoulders. I think he might have said something more, but they cut back to the recording and we heard Heero ask me, 'You sure about this?'

I was almost shocked by the overwrought sound of my reply. I'd thought I'd sounded much more? unpanicked. 'We really don't have any choice, love. We get this array back on-line or we're going to discover for ourselves what lies outside this solar system.'

I listened to the sound of Heero's sigh, and felt the frustration behind it.

They left in a few lines as Heero and I talked about what we had to do, cutting away to the graphics again, their resident expert explaining about the charge a vane held and explaining, in what I thought was excruciating detail, what would happen if a person were to come in contact with said charged vane.

Trowa's arm came on around my chest and made me aware that I was quivering like a damn piano wire being tuned. I tried to relax, but it really wasn't much use. 'God, Duo?' he breathed, and I felt the gust of his breath stir my hair.

Even though I knew it was coming, I flinched when our voices resumed and Trowa reacted by squeezing tight.

'I'm not an idiot,' Heero's voice snapped, sounding almost staticy as his volume strained the little suit recorder. 'I know the man pulling the vane is going to be the dead one if the other guy screws up. I'm not taking that chance. You are doing the disconnect.'

I cringed when my own voice cracked as I yelled back, 'But I'm supposed to take that God damn chance?'

There was the sound of a sigh caught in the background, evidence that Gray was still listening to us. Heero reassured me and I exploded, the suit's recorder popping loudly as I overwhelmed it. 'My damn hands have been shaking since we picked up the stinking vacuum suits! It's going to take a steady hand to do that job without crossing something up!'

I wondered almost inanely about the editing job. Wondered who had decided what of this recording should be heard and what should not, because they cut quite a bit of the next part. Graphics were flashed on the screen, animating two figures pulling a damping vane and I wanted to laugh, but knew where that would lead and didn't. When they cut back to the recording again, our words were being printed along the bottom of the screen as we said them. I blinked at the little white flow of characters, but couldn't make sense of it.

'Listen to me. Listen to me closely... you have to hold still, you hear me?' Heero's voice said intently and I thought my knees were going to give out.

'Oh God,' my own voice said, and it took me a second to realize it hadn't come from the television.

Instead, my recorded voice, not understanding yet, said, 'No shit?'

Heero's voice took on a gentleness then, wrapped around an intense need to force me to steadiness with just his words. Because it had been all he'd had. 'Listen, love, Hill's... suit, has drifted, ok? It's right behind you... just off to your left.'

I heard the me from those few weeks ago begin to pant and I cringed. It was a damn miracle Heero'd gotten through to me. But he had, and I listened to him do it again.

'I'm right here. Duo... I need you. You said it yourself; we're committed. We can't stop now.'

It sounded like I tried to say something, but even the subtitler didn't guess at what it was. Trowa took a step backward, taking me with him and I found us sitting on the couch rather suddenly. I was grateful he'd gotten us sat down before I'd fallen. My knees felt like they were made out of water.

'I need you,' Heero demanded, voice getting firm and no nonsense. 'Now.'

My next words were delivered in this humiliating voice, almost choked with fear. 'Just...don't let it touch me without warning me... ok?'

Trowa was a bastion against the images replaying inside my head. The only thing that felt steady as I listened to the nightmare unfold in front of us. Unfold in front of... everyone. Couldn't forget that part, now could we? That this was playing out for all the lovely home-viewers? My own little nightmare brought to you commercial free and in living color. I must have made a small sound of distress, because Trowa squeezed tight again and whispered, 'Oh damn, little brother. Just... damn.'

We listened to us go back to work, listened to me gain and lose control of my breathing a dozen damn times. Listened to Heero gently but firmly keeping me on track.

'Let me turn it off,' Trowa finally pleaded, right after we heard Heero's voice soothing me.

'It's all right, baby. I've got you. I'll take it from here and then...'

I felt myself blushed hotly, but I just shook my head. 'Gotta know,' I told him and heard him sigh. Bad enough knowing that the world was hearing this. Far worse to only guess at what they'd heard, because frankly? I hadn't remembered the half of it. The words lost to time and the fear of the moment.

They played part of our argument over who was going to rewire the vane and then thankfully cut away again. Though what came next was just a God damn recap of my original accident in the belt.

Nothing like having your phobias put into perspective on national television.

I found my hands clutching at Trowa's forearm where it lay across my chest, and tried to make myself stop.

They cut back again to the sound of me and Heero cursing resoundingly as I almost got caught in the airlock door. Then my voice, shaky, yet firm in my belief. 'He means to space us!'

Heero's doubt was met with my reasoning, voice firming as I spoke, as I started to truly believe it myself. 'Think about it, no one else aboard this ship really knows what's happened except for people who stand to be in almost as much trouble as he is. If we happen to have an accident... Captain Gray and his son are off the hook.'

I found myself wondering why Heero even bothered to voice the next objection, because his tone made it obvious he'd already been swayed. 'But why would he even let us back in the ship?'

They were down to the meat of the story now, and didn't stop the recording again. There was no cute little graphic explaining explosive decompression, for which I was eternally grateful. We got to listen to me finish my explanation, got to hear Heero believe me. I almost laughed again when the subtitles asterisked out the bad word when I yelled, 'We have to get the fuck out of this air lock!' in a voice so laced with panic that Trowa lowered his forehead to rest against my shoulder and murmured something that was meant to comfort.

The last coherent words on the recording was Heero's command to me when he managed to force the door open. 'Can't... hold. Jumper... controls.'

All sign of me disappeared not long after that, when I'd stripped the suit open to free my hands from the clumsy gloves. It was a wonder that Gray hadn't noticed that and been spurred into action. Then we had to sit through a couple of minutes of nothing but the sound of Heero's breathing. I was shocked to hear him begin to pant softly, and realized that he'd been scared too. It made the backs of my eyes sting, at the same time that it made me feel oddly better. That I hadn't been the only one scared out of my wits.

They played it right through to the damn end. Heero's fake scream when Gray blew the lock, though it didn't sound so damn fake. Sounded real enough that behind me, Trowa shivered, and I had to tell him it was ok. Even though he obviously knew it was, or Heero and I would never have made it back. I kept losing that part where I wasn't listening to real time.

Then it was finally over. The announcer, sitting behind gaudy 'special report' banners, came back to give a bit of a recap of what we'd just listened to. Trowa didn't ask that time, reaching around me to snag the remote control off the coffee table and shutting the damn television off. I didn't try to stop him, I'd seen the part I needed to anyway.

We just sat for a couple of long minutes, I was staring at the blank television screen and Trowa had his forehead resting on my shoulder again. He bumped one of my bruises and it made me remember my own hands, and I forced my fingers open, hoping I hadn't hurt him. I should have been squirming with discomfort, and I thought maybe I would be before too long, but in that moment, still hearing the echo of my own gasping breath... I couldn't make myself pull away from him.

'You have got to be so tired of driving all the way out here,' I finally managed, and won a snort from Trowa. Though the sound was more sad than amused.

'Just wish I'd caught up with you sooner,' he said, and then he was the one who straightened away. For the first time... I hadn't been quite ready to let go, and felt the loss of his strength like losing my footing. 'Duo? Heero is frantic. I promised him we'd call. He's been trying to reach you all afternoon.'

I blinked for just a second, finally taking the time to really think about that. 'Why in the hell didn't he warn me this might happen?' I blurted, turning around to look at Trowa, almost unintentionally putting a bit more space between us.

'He didn't want to worry you with it until he was sure they'd have to resort to using the recording,' Trowa explained, then hesitated. 'But...'

It only took me a second to make the mental leap. But... the last time Heero had been able to call me, he'd caught me in the middle of... God knows what it had sounded like on the phone; a breakdown? A fit? A bout of hysteria? I suppose I could see why he hadn't been all that keen on informing me of the card he'd been contemplating playing. 'Ah,' I said, in understanding, and Trowa looked a little relieved.

I couldn't even begin to decide what I was feeling. I think I was just still, on some level, in shock. There were hamsters lining up with lists of names, wanting to inform me of who all might have seen that damn report, but I really wasn't ready to think about that yet. There was a part of me that wanted very badly to work up to being seriously pissed off, but that would require allowing myself to really let the whole thing sink in. Not quite ready for that either.

But Heero Yuy has never been the world's most patient man, and while Trowa was still sitting there, looking at me like he wasn't sure if I was going to bolt from the room or die of terminal humiliation... his cell phone rang. He made a noise that bordered on disgusted and pulled it out. The look on his face told me it was Heero's number on the display and I just held out my hand. Trowa handed it over without a word.

I flipped it open and put it to my ear; I never had a chance to even say hello, Heero was already talking before I even had it positioned to hear him. Or perhaps 'talking' is too mild a term. '...damn it to hell, Barton! What is going on? Did you fucking find him or not? Where are--'

'Hey,' I said quietly and it served to stop his tirade dead in its tracks.

'Duo?' he asked, and I almost laughed at the instant change in the tone of his voice. Almost... but not quite.

'I'm here,' I told him and wondered how the man could exude 'relief' over a damn phone the way he did, without really making a sound.

'Duo, I'm so sorry,' he burst out, words that had obviously been waiting for hours to be said, almost stumbling over themselves. 'I've been trying to reach you all evening. Gray's lawyer was calling for a dismissal and we had to move with the suit recordings before we lost our chance. I didn't want to, love... you have to know that. I did my best to keep you out of this, and--'

I cut him off with a rather gusty sigh. 'Heero... I was 'in this' from the minute we stepped on board that shuttle. There wasn't any keeping me out of it.'

Trowa seemed to decide that it was a good time for him to give me some space, and rose to wander almost nonchalantly into the kitchen. I was grateful, even though I had my doubts that he was far enough away that he couldn't still hear.

'I know...' Heero said through his own sigh, and I heard him make a sound that let me know he'd just dropped to sit down. I imagined him pacing restlessly while he'd been waiting and it made it just that little bit too hard to get really angry with him.

'As much as I love you for the White Knight routine,' I told him. 'I'd rather you stopped treating me like a damn five year old that isn't allowed to eat at the big people's table. This was... hard. Some advanced warning would have been good.'

'I'm sorry,' he told me again, sounding so damn tired and worn that I just didn't have the heart to really bust his chops over it. 'I thought I'd have more time before the damn thing hit the news. I didn't want you finding out this way... This was the last thing I wanted to happen... I...'

His voice was wound so tight, his tone so damn distressed, that he made me ache wanting to reach out for him. 'Hey,' I interrupted him, unable to listen anymore. 'It's done... it's over... stop.'

He did stop, words just staggering to a halt, but I could almost feel him struggling with the million and a half things he wanted to say. He made a soft sound that I couldn't identify and it made me sigh again.

'Heero,' I soothed, wondering how one went about saying it's ok, when it really wasn't. 'I'm not mad, I'm just... I dunno what. I... God; I know you had to do that, but... I just wish I'd had some warning. That was... was...'

Damn fucking painful? Surreal? Sickening? Not how I'd planned on ending my day?

I heard him take a breath that seemed to quiver and he said my name in a voice so anguished that it hardly sounded like him. 'Duo? Tell me... please...'

Damn near killed me. I ask sometimes, when I need reassurances, but Heero somehow seldom seemed to question. Seldom faltered in his belief in us. In his belief in me. It took me back in a rush to the last time he'd felt the need, made me stop and remember the feel of him clutching at me, lost in memory.

'I love you,' I told him firmly, because he needed to hear, and I needed to reaffirm. 'You know damn well I'm not going to forget that over something like this.'

'I... know,' he whispered and then got quiet. Kind of... too quiet, really.

'You did what you had to, husband-mine,' I said, lowering my voice just a bit, aware of Trowa, but not able to care more than that. 'I know that. Gray not getting away with attempted murder, not getting away with actions that got his co-pilot killed... that's a little bit more important than whether I... than my getting a little embarrassed.'

Do I get an award for understatement of the year?

We just sat together for a couple of long minutes, while I listened to him breathe and I understood that the last couple of hours truly had been, as Trowa had said, frantic for him. I tried to imagine him, desperately calling everywhere, trying to get through to me before I heard what he hadn't ever meant for me to hear. It made me feel strangely guilty for having left the house.

'I went down to the gallery,' I said, as much explanation as a sudden desire to fill the silence for him the way he'd filled it for me. Remembering how soothing his voice had been for me when I'd needed it. 'Have you ever been there? Damn place looks like... I don't know, like it was built by the designers of the Taj Mahal or something. Opulent is its poor younger cousin. And not a hint of dog piss anywhere. God, Heero, I felt like there was a dress code for just walking down the stupid sidewalk...' It took three or four more one-liners before I finally got a choked little laugh, and then I stopped because he sounded like he was still on some ragged edge. 'You're stuck with me, you know that, right?' I murmured and heard a shuddering sigh.

'God, I hope so,' he finally said, and sounded a little steadier, but still so unsure of himself that it was painful.

'Don't be an ass,' I grumbled affectionately, but he didn't rise to the teasing.

'I just feel like I've screwed up so many times in the last couple of weeks,' he said, his tone asking me to confirm or deny. A question in the sound of his voice that wasn't in the statement.

'Never,' I said firmly. 'Just stop trying to be Superman.'

He snorted, sounding like he was recovering. Sounding like he was calming. 'Superman was a solo act... I'd rather be Batman, he had a partner.'

I grinned at his attempt to pull himself out of his dark mood, and deliberately misread his comment. 'Wufei would never put up with the tights and the little cape.'

I actually got a rough little chuckle out of him with that one. 'I meant you,' he corrected and it was my turn to snort.

'I don't do elf boots, Yuy,' I growled in mock annoyance.

'I was thinking of the later costume,' he said, trying to make it sound suggestive and failing. I ignored the catch in his voice.

'You just like all the gadgets,' I teased, but he couldn't manage a return.

'I wish...' he whispered after a moment's hesitation, but then didn't finish it.

'Me too,' I agreed anyway, knowing what he wished and wishing it too. I would have asked him how much longer, but knew he'd have already told me if he'd had any idea. 'You just do what you have to,' I commanded, trying to sound firm. 'I'll be here when you're done.'

'I love you,' he told me then, a hint of desperation wrapped around the words.

'I don't doubt you,' I said; what he needed to hear more than anything else.

He couldn't hang up until I had, and I found it a harder thing to do than I would have thought.

Was it wrong to wish that Heero had a nice simple job? Something in accounting maybe? Something that never required he be away from home?

I was a little surprised when Trowa did not immediately appear when I'd snapped his cell phone closed and ended the call. Surprised, and more than a little pleased with the space. I looked at the little phone in my hand and found myself reflecting that I really needed to get myself one. The evening might not have worked out quite so... melodramatically, had Heero just been able to call me and give me some warning that my face, my neurosis, my history, and my love life were going to be plastered all over the evening news.

Oh yeah. My love life. Guess anybody who had just watched the news was going to have little or no doubt that Heero and I were... together. In every sense of that word you could come up with.

I am not particularly ashamed of my preferences in dating material. Heero doesn't seem to be either. We don't go out of our way to hide what we are to each other, but we've never really bothered to advertise it either. So I wasn't overly devastated that we had just 'come out of the closet', as they say. I guess I just would have preferred to have had a little more say in it.

I suppose most of our co-workers had pretty much figured out the basics. Our close friends were more than aware. But... I couldn't help thinking about other people hearing that news report. And God... it made my stomach knot thinking about my kids hearing something like that. What would they think of me? I just couldn't handle letting myself think about it. Couldn't let myself imagine...

I jumped when our phone rang, and for a moment I wanted to just let it go; I doubted it was anyone I wanted to talk to. It surprised the hell out of me when Trowa picked it up without asking though. I rose and shuffled slowly toward the kitchen, not really wanting to deal with whatever it was, but fully expecting Trowa to call me to the phone. I got to the doorway just in time to hear him tell whoever it was, 'I'm sorry, he can't come to the phone right now, can I take a message?' The look on his face was a strange, predatory one and I just stood blinking at him for a moment, but the look softened somewhat as he listened. 'Yes sir, that would be me,' he replied to something after a moment, and almost looked like he might smile. 'I will tell him, and thank you.' Then he hung up and turned to give me a wan little smile.

'Your boss is a damn loud man, Duo,' he quipped and I felt myself blushing furiously, thinking about Griff hearing that news report. 'He says that he consulted with Commander Une after the... 'new development in the case' and they don't want you coming in to work tomorrow.'

'Huh?' was the best I could come up with.

Trowa took a step toward me and gave me a funny little once over look. 'The dismissal was denied and the next step is a full-blown trial. You are going to be a key witness in this. They want you, as they said... 'out of the lime light' for now.'

'But what the fuck am I supposed to do?' I blurted, thinking about going stir crazy all day with nothing at all left to occupy my time. I had this horrid vision of Heero coming home and finding every damn surface of the house covered in mini brain dump murals. Hell, maybe I'd be working my way down the block by that time, I could do those stupid kid's chalk drawings on the sidewalk as I made my way down the street and then I could paint all the neighbors houses with giant portraits of their damn pets or something and then?

I was aware that Trowa had hold of my shoulders and was gently pressing down. 'Sit, Duo,' he commanded, 'and remember to breathe.'

Knees unlocked and butt met forcefully with chair seat. It felt like there was a hole opening up at my feet and I was about to fall into it. The implications of that newscast were... staggering. I kept thinking... or rather, trying not to think, about people who might have seen it. I was aware of Trowa kneeling in front of me and I looked into those deep green eyes of his and found myself saying, 'I don't want to think right now... thinking is bad.'

He couldn't contain a snort, but his hand reached out and settled on the back of my neck, giving me a gentle squeeze. 'Duo, I know how that...'

He was cut short when his cell phone rang, which was still clutched in my hand. I almost dropped it in surprise, having half forgotten it was there. Trowa took it from me with an exasperated little sigh, I think he was expecting Heero again, but I could tell from the faint fading of the lines around his eyes that it was Quatre. He gave me another little squeeze before letting go to answer it. He didn't make me move to give him his own moment of privacy, but stepped away just through the dining room door. As I had thought, it didn't do much more than offer the illusion of privacy.

'Hello?' I heard come from the shadows of the other room. 'Yes, I saw it? No, no, calm down Quatre, I'm with him. It's ok.' There was a long pause and I knew he was getting an earful. I heard him sigh softly. 'Please, my love... calm down. Yes, Heero knew and he did his best to warn?' he got cut off pretty quick after that line and I imagined that Quatre hadn't thought much of my getting 'surprised' by the whole thing. In fact, Trowa had to break in with a fairly firm, 'Quatre,' after several long minutes. 'I'm at Duo's house now. Heero got through and they've talked? it's ok.' Then something in Trowa's voice changed and I suspected that Quatre had gone from irritated to upset. 'I know? I know? hush now, it's all right. He knows you'd be here if you could. You'll be back tomorrow. Please, love... don't?'

I felt like the worst kind of voyeur and got up to vacate the area, making enough noise that Trowa would know that he truly had that privacy that had only been illusory before that.

Oddly though, it kind of helped me get my own brain back in gear.

Or maybe it just gave me something else to think about.

So... Quatre was out of town until Friday. Iron-clad cinch that Trowa wasn't going to be going home for the night then. I went upstairs to make sure the guest room was ok, trying to decide if I was grateful for that fact, or just further embarrassed. It would be nice to have someone with me, but I just felt so damn off-balance, I wasn't sure I wanted anyone around.

And yes, I know that doesn't make a lot of sense.

When I was finished turning back comforters and laying out extra blankets, I went and sat on the steps, close enough to hear the murmur of Trowa's voice, but not really close enough to make out what he was saying. It went quiet after a while and I suspected that he'd finally hung up. He didn't stir from the dark dining room for a long time, and I imagined the poor guy in there, just wanting to run away to the Bahamas. Made me feel bad that Heero kept sending him in to back me up.

When I was sure that his conversation with Quatre was over, Guilt Beast and I padded quietly down the stairs and into the kitchen. The mongrel curled up under the table while I fished around in the cupboard, looking for something I could fix quickly. It only took Trowa another minute before he joined me. He looked... kind of tired.

'I'm assuming, since you seem to have spent your evening hunting for me, that you haven't eaten?' I prodded, before he had a chance to say anything, and got an odd look and a shake of his head. 'I've got chicken and rice soup, and some weird ass chicken and broccoli stuff. Heero's got a thing for broccoli... guess it must be good for you.'

He smiled faintly. 'I'm guessing from that description that you aren't a huge fan of broccoli... the chicken and rice is fine.'

I pulled the can down and tossed it at him; he looked a little surprised, but caught it almost without looking. 'Pots are by the stove. You want a grilled cheese with that, or there might be some turkey left...'

'Grilled cheese is ok,' he replied and seemed almost bemused with me. He opened the soup and put it on to heat while I started the sandwiches. It was kind of weird working around the kitchen with someone who wasn't Heero, I had to keep reminding myself that Trowa didn't just automatically know where things were.

We were quiet while we worked, casting each other side-long glances, and I knew he was watching me for signs of how I was handling things.

But his call from Quatre was making me do the same. I couldn't help but wonder about the pressure this whole thing was putting him under too. Left to be the point man with the crazy guy, while the rest of his squad was off on their own 'missions'. I could imagine Heero hounding him all damn evening, driving him to track me down before it was too late. And then dealing with Quatre's frustration and general upset; off God knows where, and unable to help.

Oh yeah... and me. Me being the crazy guy.

When we sat down to eat, I could see he was chewing on more than just his food, and waited until he got it worked out in his head. 'Were I in your shoes,' he finally told me. 'I think I might just want some company tonight.'

I grinned and shook my head. 'I figured out you were staying the night a half an hour ago, man. The guest bed is ready and waiting.'

He chuckled, but had to ask. 'Do you want me to?'

I thought about it for a minute, not sure if he was hoping for an out or not. But, that really wasn't like Trowa, and I finally admitted, 'Well, since Quatre's out of town anyway... I suppose it wouldn't hurt.'

'That's not what I asked,' he said softly, not looking up from where he was stirring rice around in his bowl.

I tried not to sigh, and stalled for a moment with a spoonful of soup. I glanced up after I'd swallowed and found him not watching his bowl any more. 'Yes and no,' I confessed before I had a chance to think about it. And then I grinned. 'No, for all the reasons you're probably thinking yes.'

He actually gave me a low little laugh. 'Guess I'll stay then.'

He took a bite of his sandwich, his fingers unconsciously toying with the edge of his saucer. I watched him for a minute before asking gently, 'Trowa... are you all right?'

He looked up at me, his expression trying to look surprised, but I could see the faint flush of his cheeks and knew he hadn't intended to let so much show. 'I'm sorry, Duo,' he told me, looking chagrined, seeing from my expression that I understood. 'This is just... harder than I thought it would be.'

I felt Guilt Beast roll over and lean against my leg. 'You really don't have to stay, Tro. I'll be ok.'

He sighed and his expression slid over into something that made me wonder if maybe Guilt wasn't leaning on the both of us. 'I... don't much feel like going home alone, if it's ok?'

I gave him a wide grin. 'Great! We can be totally screwed up together!'

It surprised a bark of laughter out of him and he shook his head at me. 'How the hell do you do it?' he asked, and I'm not sure he meant to say it out loud.

'Denial, my friend,' I quipped, brandishing my spoon. 'If you move fast enough, the hamst... thoughts can't catch up.'

I blushed a little at the slip and he gave me an odd look, but it was more of a 'sometimes I don't get you' look, and not an 'oh my God, you're crazy' look, so I didn't worry about it overly much.

He had to do some thinking while we finished dinner, and I just let him. Though, I suppose, I had a bit of thinking to do myself. I wondered why it was that nobody ever remembered Trowa's own past when it came to these damn situations. Why did it never seem to occur to anybody how my nightmares would resonate with his own? It couldn't be easy for him listening to a recording of Heero and me, trying to avoid death by explosive decompression. It had to be waking a demon or two from his past.

While we were clearing the table and I was standing at the sink with my back to him anyway, I blurted, 'It's ok for you to tell them to fuck off, you know.'

There was a moment's silence and then his soft voice, coming from closer than I'd been expecting it. 'Not this time, little brother... I couldn't have let you go through that alone.'

It made me shiver, and his hand settled on my shoulder for a moment before he went back to clearing the table. He got the towel without being asked, drying while I washed, and I suspected he knew a thing or two himself about the art of forward movement.

If you just keep moving, sometimes you can out run what you don't want to think about.

By that time, it was damn late and I launched straight into my lock-down ritual, intending on showing him up to the guest room. But when I came back through the living room on my way upstairs, I was surprised to find him settled there.

'Dibs on the long couch,' he said quietly, and if there was a hesitation on my part, I think I covered it well.

I sighed rather theatrically and grumbled, 'Guest rights, huh?'

'Good a name for it as any,' he smiled, and managed to look relieved and almost sheepish at the same time. I left him sitting there while I went up to fetch blankets and pillows.

I won't say the idea didn't appeal, though I would have denied it if asked out loud. Sleeping in the living room was our only option for being in the same room without being in the same bed. And I don't know about Trowa, but I find I'm not all that crazy about sharing blankets with anybody other than Heero.

I just wished I knew if Trowa was making the offer for my sake, or asking the favor for his own. I hoped it was for his own sake; it made me feel less guilty for asking to put on my night music, but it just didn't seem to be a good time for silence.

It was destined to be the world's most God-awful long night, and completely lived up to its expectations. With Trowa stretched out on the one couch, and me curled on the other, with the lights off and the music playing softly, conversation just seemed? a horrible intrusion. So we didn't indulge, and just laid there. For hours.

I was pretty sure that Trowa finally managed to doze off somewhere in the neighborhood of two in the morning. Or else he faked it incredibly well. Had he not been there, I would probably have gotten up and gone to do something other than stare into the dark, but I knew he'd be on a hair-trigger where I was concerned, so I just kept still. And thought.

I think I've mentioned before -- once or twice -- that I really don't deal well with humiliation. Though you'd think by now that I'd be getting used to it. I just kept hearing that news report in my head, over and over. Kept thinking about the people who might have seen it. Though, if my last brush with 'fame' was any indication, it wasn't exactly as though the world was going to have just one chance to see the damn thing. The footage of the bus accident kept popping up for days after the fact. I had little doubt, unless something more interesting came along, that the shuttle recordings would be all over the news for a while. I suppose it would be kind of rude to hope that a war broke out, just to give the media something else to talk about, wouldn't it...

Everybody at Preventors' headquarters from Une right on down to the guy with the limp who emptied the trash at night had probably already seen the thing. I mean... when somebody you work with, even if you don't really know them, shows up on the evening news, you tend to pay attention. If only for the 'Hey, I know that guy!' factor. Probably most of the crowd at McMurphy's would have seen it by now. News travels damn fast in the trade, and that report would have two-fold interest to most Spacers; the involvement of a former salvage man, and Gray's own part in the story. I seriously doubted there was a person I knew from my old life who hadn't been pointed in the direction of an internet connection or a television set if they were anywhere dirt-side.

I wondered suddenly if Hayden and Toria had seen it yet. It would depend on where they were berthed at the moment. I tried to remember if Toria had told me their schedule in her last e-mail and couldn't. They were about the only ones I could think of who would really worry about me, hearing that damn tape, instead of just indulging in the typical 'tsk-tsk' water-cooler gossip. I made a mental note to send them an e-mail the first chance I got. I would have done it right then, but I didn't want to disturb Trowa after it had taken him so long to fall asleep.

And that, of course, led me around to thinking about Octavia and the kids and I just started feeling sick to my stomach all over again. I couldn't even imagine how they would take hearing me like that. I had sounded like the solar system's biggest wimp. They used to delight in my harrowing tales of salvage jobs and piloting daring-do. Had looked to me as something of a hero, I think. I was the guy who appeared out of the blue and brought them gifts, who sent money to their care-giver that let them eat the extras they wouldn't have had otherwise. The guy who came out of nowhere and offered them choices. And fixed the sink and patched the roof in my spare time.

The guy who could have banished big, mean dogs... Had he only been there.

I wondered what the whole thing would do to my Superman status; the cape was feeling a little tattered.

And we won't get into the whole sexual preference thing. Most of those kids weren't old enough to have gotten past the cooties stage enough to have thought about that aspect of things. What in the hell would they think, hearing Heero and I call each other 'love'?

God, I didn't envy poor Octavia the questions that I'm sure were headed her way.

I suppose while I was sending that e-mail off to Toria, I should send one out to Octavia as well. There was enough of an information lag in the newscasts, that if I was lucky, I'd get through to her first and she'd at least have some warning.

I wished again that Trowa had taken the damn guest room, so I could get the hell off my not-sleeping butt and go freaking do something. Lying still and staring off into nothing was making me crazy.

Though in the end, with false dawn thinking about making an appearance, it probably turned out for the best. I would never have known about the nightmare otherwise.

I never really did sleep, kind of faded into something that bore a close resemblance to a doze a couple of times, but not for very long. So I was very aware when Trowa suddenly sat bolt upright with a kind of funny little gasp.

His nightmares seem more... contained than mine. Not as instantly banished as Heero's, but... quiet. He just sat for a long moment, panting lightly, and then rubbed a hand over his face, as though wiping the remains away. I wasn't at all sure what to do, I know how I feel when I wake up from a trip down memory lane, and decided that I should maybe give him a bit of space. So I just stayed still and let him think I was asleep. I saw him register his surrounds all in a rush, and he jerked his head around to look over at me. He seemed relieved, so I patted myself on the back for making the right choice and watched him reach out to snag his discarded pants, rising with them in hand to slip quietly from the room.

I heard the rustle of cloth after a moment and knew he'd paused to pull the pants on. After another few moments, the pale shadows of the coming light told me he was sitting in the bay window in the dining room.

I managed to last maybe four minutes before I couldn't take it any more, and rose from my own dubious bed. I took a moment to slip into the previous days clothes and then padded silently off to the kitchen. There was enough light from the window to allow me to fill the tea kettle and put it on; I really didn't want the harshness of the electric lights. It seemed too... invasive.

Trowa didn't stir, didn't come to join me, and that spoke to me most eloquently of his disquiet. When the tea was ready, I filled two mugs and sought him out.

He looked very damn lost sitting there. The faint, early light washed the color from him, leaving him ghostly pale and almost... haunted. I shivered at the strange thought, almost slopping tea on myself. He didn't seem to notice, but gave me a wan little smile as I joined him, taking the mug I offered and cradling it in his hands, turning his gaze back out the window at nothing.

'You ok?' I asked softly and got a dry little snort. 'Ok... guess that was stupid,' I sighed. 'Is there anything I can do?'

He turned back to look up at me and I heard a sigh. 'I'm sorry I woke you,' was all he said, and it made me want to sigh too, but I didn't. I touched his shoulder instead, feeling skin that was chill under the brush of my knuckles. I sat my mug of tea on the dining room table and went to fetch a blanket from the living room, not bothering to reply until I had it settled around his shoulders.

'Now see,' I muttered. 'If I'd had a bad dream and not called you, you'd be pissed off at me right now.'

He tried out a chuckle and it was fairly steady, so he dared admit, 'You're probably right.'

I didn't really reply to that, letting it go now that I had him talking. 'You know... since I don't have to go to work today, I have all the time in the world.'

I thought I'd prodded too soon when he turned back to look out the window, so I just shut up, reaching out to retrieve my mug of tea. It seemed to remind Trowa of his own and he took a sip. 'Not bad... for a guy who hates tea.'

'I'm learning,' I replied and tried to see what he was seeing outside in the shadows of not yet dawn. Made me remember how Heero used to wonder what I thought about so much. Made me think about his mural in the back room and I had to smile a little. 'You know... there really aren't any answers out there.'

'Is that the voice of experience?' he ventured, the remark making him turn away from the window, but his gaze only fell to the mug in his hands.

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