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

Connections (cont)

It was all too soon for me when Heero came into the garage to pick me up. I was delighted to see him just walk in though, coming straight from the building to get me. Before he'd left on his trip, he'd developed the habit of bringing the car around to pick me up and it had been getting on my nerves. A guy passes out on the job one damn time and everybody treats you like an invalid. It's irritating.

I started putting my tools away when I saw Heero coming across the bay, but was surprised when Giles stepped out to speak to him. I swear to God, for about ten seconds my blood ran cold while my mind replayed the damn conversation I'd had with the guy. Surely he wasn't going to try talking to Heero about...

I think I forgot to breathe waiting for him to actually speak.

'Hey, Yuy,' he called, in that drawl of his. 'You sign up for short-stop again this season? I saw the sheets went up.' I actually sighed in relief, though I was too far away for either of them to hear me.

Heero stopped and flashed a grin. 'I called it the day the sheet was posted, and Chang's got third again.'

'Are we going to manage a team this year since we lost Robinson and West?' Giles asked, absently wiping grease off a wrench while they talked. Ever wonder about that proprietary 'we' stuff, when it comes to organized sports? To my knowledge, Giles was not even on the team.

'We're just short a couple of players,' Heero reassured, still moving in my direction. 'It's early yet, we should make it.'

'Hey Maxwell,' Giles suddenly called, grinning from ear to ear. 'Why don't you sign up?'

I am rather proud of the fact that I neither choked on my own tongue nor dropped the volt meter I was in the process of putting away. Though I have to admit that it took me a minute to work words out of my mouth. The first thing that occurred, but did not get passed on, was the whole fact that I had never played softball in my life and had not a clue how one went about it. I had a vague notion what it involved, mostly from seeing Heero's gear when he came home from games, and hearing him and the guys talk. But play? Yeah sure... lot of opportunities in my childhood for stuff like that.

The second thing was the more pressing fact that I really didn't know that Heero would want me infringing on that part of his life. It was something he shared with Wufei, a history that I was not a part of, and I certainly didn't want to try inserting myself into the middle of it. It had all the ear-markings of a thing that could be very awkward.

Isn't it amazing sometimes, how innocent third-parties can stir shit up and not ever realize what was in the pot they'd decided to screw with?

I continued putting my tools away and did not even consider glancing in Heero's direction. Didn't want him feeling obligated to jump on Giles's band-wagon out of some misguided notion that he would upset me if he didn't. 'My therapist says I should avoid sports that involve hurling things,' I quipped, and Giles burst out laughing. That, of course, led to some ribbing from several of the guys about my mental state, and the softball notion was forgotten. Much to the delight of my manipulative little self.

Maybe I hadn't lost all my conversational dodging skills after all.

The drive home was filled mostly with Heero's sporadic attempts not to burden me with the details of the Gray case. I think he needed to vent about the tedium of the reports and the lack of progress on anybody's part in getting past the united front of the flight 1410 crew. But he kept stopping himself and trying to turn the topic to something else. It wasn't hard for me to get him going again though, just a well placed question or two, and he'd be back to worrying at it like a dog with a bone.

He just seemed to be twisted in knots trying to keep the case from going to actual trial. And I knew most of that was his desire to keep me out of it as much as possible, despite my reassurances that I could handle it if it happened. As things stood now, I'd made my statements to a pair of Ms. Kasten's cronies and to the Preventors. No big deal; sat in a room with a couple of agents and talked to a voice recorder while they asked questions. Things would be a whole lot different with an actual trial, and while I can't say I was looking forward to the possibility of taking the stand in front of all those people, it wouldn't kill me either. I really couldn't understand why Heero was letting it make him so insane that he snapped at his partner for simply walking into a room. I had a vague feeling like I was his 'big gun' and he just didn't want to resort to me unless he had to. Which really didn't make much sense; it was going to come down to our word against theirs, and it was still five against two. I wasn't going to improve the odds that damn much.

'It still bugs the crap out of me that Spencer as much as confessed in front of Amazon woman, but she can't do anything about this mess,' I grumbled as Heero was parking in front of the house, and I heard him sigh.

'It's not admissible in...' he began, but I cut him off with my own heavy sigh.

'I know... I know,' I said, hauling my tired butt out of the car. 'But it still sucks.'

He snorted and shook his head, following me up the steps. Once we were in the house with the door closed firmly behind us, Heero snagged one of my belt-loops and tugged me toward him, giving me a peck on the end of my nose. 'Why don't you go get cleaned up and I'll see what I can find for a quick dinner?' he grinned and the kiss made it ok for me to wrinkle my nose; though it was more for the idea of eating than the unexpected touch. I couldn't say I had much of an appetite in the face of the rest of my evening.

'Ok,' I reluctantly agreed. 'Just... keep it light... all right?'

He gave me a tiny little frown in return, but nodded. I headed up to the bathroom, and he to the kitchen. I hoped he listened; I really didn't think I could stomach much.

I made quick work of the shower, not really feeling indulgent and my 'want this over' mind set making me do everything as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Though there was very little in the way of 'efficient' going on when I went to get dressed. Underwear and socks are a wonderful damn thing. Nobody cares if every pair you own are identical. If your BVDs on Monday look just like the pair you wore on Sunday, nobody is going to call you on it. Nobody is going to question if you changed clothes. It's just a given. Now jeans aren't really a difficult thing either. Maybe it's different for women, I've seen some of them wear some weird looking denim concoctions, but over-all guys are kind of expected to own a closet full of generic blue jeans and you won't get called on that either. After that is where it gets awkward. Why can't there just be some generic outfit that all people wear and that's that? Life would be so much simpler and we would all save time getting dressed in the morning. I dithered over my t-shirt collection for almost five whole minutes before I settled on the red one that claimed 'Some days it's just not worth chewing through the restraints'. A subtle message to most of my former Spacer buddies that I just didn't want to talk about some things. I was hoping it would save me from at least a small percentage of the uncomfortable conversations I was probably going to end up having.

Solo's portrait winked at me saucily. 'Sure, kid... that's real subtle, all right.'

'Bite me,' I told him and went downstairs.

Dinner was some kind of stir fry thing which probably met my 'light' conditions, but I still couldn't do more than pick at it. Heero did not look pleased with me, but since he didn't know I'd missed lunch too, he didn't press the matter. Just made sure I took my iron pill and put the leftovers in the fridge, presumably to try to feed to me after we got home.

Somehow, I doubted I'd have any more of an appetite then.

Heero was leaving again the next day and had some laundry to finish up and his packing to do, so I took advantage of the time and went back to my studio. If I didn't get too creative here in the final hour, I thought I could get the Jensen painting done before Aleyah descended on me. That would make three paintings and she'd just have to be happy with that. Assuming, of course, that she didn't kill me when she saw her own little bit of inspiration.

Most of what I had left was technical stuff. Just filling in some background and fixing a couple of things that didn't seem quite right to me. Not anything that I usually lost myself to, and I was aware of Heero moving around the house. I kept an ear tuned and tracked him as he went from basement to living room to bedroom to bathroom and back to basement. I could tell when he was carrying something, and knew when he took some time to clean up. It was... oddly companionable, even though we weren't in the same room together. Comforting. I was going to miss his presence when he was gone again.

I wondered if his making these trips was going to be like opening the flood gates. Now that he'd broken down and let an assignment take him out of town, would he start drawing those assignments again? Would there be more time with him away from home? Away from me? Was I right in suspecting that he'd only been escaping these trips because of me? Because of his reluctance to leave me alone?

I'd ask if I didn't want to not know so damn bad.

I was aware enough of his movements that I knew when he was coming to tell me it was time to go before he actually got there, and starting cleaning up. He came to stand beside me, watching me clean and dry my brush and put my paints away.

'Is it finished?' he asked, giving it a critical look.

'I think so,' I told him, turning to look at it with him. 'It could be. There's still something about the snow that is bugging me, but I can't put my finger on it.'

Heero was quiet long enough that I glanced at him and found an oddly hesitant look on his face. An elbow was as good as asking him what he was thinking and he sighed. 'There's... no snow on him.'

Startled, I turned to look at the painting again. He was right... while the snowflakes danced and skirled all around Jensen, there wasn't a flake settled on the asshole. As though the purity of the snow that was blanketing the rest of the street, making it look almost clean... wouldn't come near him. I snorted. 'Damn,' I muttered. 'You're right.'

It was Heero's turn to look startled and I laughed and shook my head. I don't think he quite gets how my sub-conscious sometimes runs the show without me really knowing it. Maybe I should have worn my 'Freud would have a field-day' shirt.

'Well, I guess it is done then,' I smiled, and we left the studio with Jensen smirking after us. I would be very glad to deliver that particular painting to the illustrious Ms. Winner and good riddance to it.

Heero had our jackets lying on the couch and I felt almost reluctant to take mine when he went to pick them up and handed it to me.

'We don't have to go,' he offered, looking sympathetic.

'Yeah I do,' I replied, though I'm sure it was pretty obvious that I really didn't want to. 'You sure you wouldn't rather bow out though? You know you don't have--'

He didn't even let me finish the sentence. 'Shut up, Maxwell. Didn't I tell you I'd be here?'

I had to grin, though it felt tired and probably looked worse. 'Ok then, Yuy. I suppose we better get going.'

The drive over was a little quiet. I kept thinking I should try to give Heero some clue what to expect, but didn't even know where to start. Hell, I wasn't really sure what to expect myself; Jock's... passing was not your normal method of leaving the mortal plain. I'm not sure I'd ever been to a send-off for a... suicide before.

Spacer send-offs really are a lot like a wake. They're more about celebrating the life of the sendee, and not dwelling on the death. But Jock's life had been... perhaps a thing that would be difficult to celebrate. I had no idea what in the hell to expect and I can't say I was even sure which way I hoped it would go.

And before you ask, colony-born does not mean spacer-born. Yes, Heero had come from L1 as near as he could tell, but he had never worked in the trade, and that's what made a person part of the circle. One of the brothers. It wasn't an issue of Earth versus Colony, but more of an issue of... mobility, I guess. Think of us as gypsies if you will; everywhere and nowhere at all.

If I'd had any hopes for a low-key evening, they were pretty well blown away when we walked through the door of McMurphy's place and I realized that they were already singing 'The Night Pat Murphy Died'. The whole damn bar full of people, and it wasn't a light crowd. I have to admit I was a little bit surprised.

Jess was there and came to take our coats, but it was more like she was inviting us into her home and I didn't think she was on the clock. McMurphy gave us a wave from his place behind the bar. I caught a glimpse of Havers and knew the rest of the Musketeers wouldn't be far. Dusty? Cortaine, I thought, though I wasn't sure... a guy I recognized from the field. A couple of fellow... a couple of ship owners. People. God, so many people. From a life I'd left behind. I think I heard hamsters dodging stripping gears in my head.

There was a touch in the small of my back. 'You ok?' Heero asked gently and I gave him a small smile.

'It's probably going to be a weird-ass night if they're singing that already,' I told him. It was with only a small amount of reluctance that I moved us away from the door. Really it was.

The first one to descend on me was Dusty, but that was probably because he hadn't seen me at all since my trip to L2. And I suppose he hadn't really 'seen' me then.

'Maxwell!' he called, and came striding across the room to greet me. He grabbed my forearm in the more personal greeting, and clapped me on the shoulder. I hid the wince quite well, I thought, and only lost a moment figuring out where the faint pain had come from.

A vision of Heero, clutching at my arms, came to mind and I realized that he'd done some damage. I wondered if I could keep him from noticing until after he was gone. He would not be happy with himself if he realized.

'Hey, old man,' I smiled and hoped I didn't sound as guilty as I felt. I used to eat at this man's house on a fairly regular basis. Had taught his kid how to shoot a slingshot. His wife addressed me as 'sweetheart'. And I hadn't so much as e-mailed him in months.

'Good to see you, kid,' he grinned, then ducked his head a little. 'Though, wish it could have been under different circumstances.'

'No shit,' I muttered and then Dusty was looking curiously just past my right shoulder. 'Uh... Dusty, this is my room-mate Heero Yuy. Heero... this is the music critic, tow truck driver that hauled us to the field on that trip to L2.'

I'd thought about that part quite a bit and had settled on 'room-mate'. People could take that however the hell they chose; I didn't much care. I had no more reason to shove our relationship down people's throats than I had to hide it.

I watched while Heero chuckled at my description of Dusty and they shook hands. I could see that Heero was surprised when he was offered a more traditional hand-shake, perhaps having anticipated the clasped arms greeting that I had gotten.

We shared a few pleasantries and then Dusty moved off toward the bar with a last admonishment to 'come out to the house sometime'. I was spared having to respond when Heero chuckled and asked, 'So... do I stand out that badly?'

I turned and gave him a little shrug. 'Trade's kind of... tight. It's more that nobody recognizes you. People will assume you're an outsider until proven wrong.'

I got a funny look, but then there was Cortaine giving me his fist to tap, and there were more pleasantries to exchange.

I was ready to go the hell home before we even managed to get close enough to the bar for me to say hello to McMurphy. Well, I suppose to be totally honest, I'd been ready to go home before I'd ever freakin' left it. I had known this was not going to be fun in any way, shape or form, and it's not always a pleasant thing to have your suspicions confirmed.

As was the twisted tradition, Mac was setting out glasses of the... deceased's favorite brand of poison, and people were making that their first drink of the night. I was not at all surprised to find that it was good ol' Jack Daniels. Rumor had it, as I had been told three times already, that they'd found an empty bottle in the tub with Jock.

I picked up a shot glass and knocked it back before I had a chance to think twice about it. Damned if I'd break tradition over a bit of squeamishness and it would take a damn lot more than one shot glass of whiskey to phase me. When I turned my empty glass over and carefully added it to the pyramid that would grow until the send-off was done, I'm not sure who was giving me the more concerned look... McMurphy, or Heero.

Somewhere across the room, someone had started up 'Spacer's Home' and I winced at the memories it brought up. I could make out Haver's mellow voice leading the chorus.

'Good crowd, Mac,' I said. 'Jock would be... proud.' I'd almost said 'happy', but somehow I think Jock might have been a little happier had some of these people shown up a bit before now.

Sitting on the bar was Jock's urn, not the one he was actually in, that one was signed, sealed and delivered to someone on an out-run who didn't mind doing the final resting place gig, but the collection urn. It was standing in for Jock's urn, a rather morbid bit of humor mimicking old time tradition, and was there to help reimburse Spacer's services for funding the... final arrangements. I fished out my wallet and made a sizable donation. I was surprised when Heero followed suit without being asked, and I graced him with a small smile.

'Yeah,' McMurphy agreed. 'I think he'd have been pleased,' he said, scanning the room as though taking a head count, his hands never really slowing in filling and setting out glasses. 'Glad you could make it, kid.'

I nodded to that, but didn't really know what to say. I remember wondering how long we would have to stay before leaving wouldn't be just plain rude.

Heero and Mac gave each other wary nods and I suddenly realized that there were a number of people in the room whose introduction to my 'room-mate' had probably been his attempt to murder a large number of their brethren in his efforts to get to me on the night Jock almost shot me. It made my gears shift again.

Guess anybody who could add one and two, had already figured out the room-mate thing.

Across the room a guitar joined the singing and I finally spotted Smitty. The guy actually doesn't play all that bad, he just does better when he doesn't sing along. I was kind of relieved to note that Bernie and Havers hadn't brought the rest of their equipment, so we wouldn't end up sitting through an impromptu concert. Not that the guys are horrible, but they'd had rather enthusiastic aspirations to be a rock band in their day. A loud rock band.

Jess appeared at my elbow looking teary-eyed, handed me a beer and gave me a peck on the cheek. 'I think he's in a better place, don't you, Duo?' she asked, and I blinked at her, wondering just how much she'd been drinking.

I resisted the urge to say something flippant and managed a somewhat lame sounding, 'Sure, kiddo,' and she was suddenly hugged me.

'You were a good friend to him, Duo,' she blurted out. 'He always spoke highly of you.'

I stared down at her, not able to see more than the back of her head and that hump of pony tail. 'Jock was... a good guy,' I told her, hoping I sounded reassuring and not just nervous. I had a bad feeling she was going to burst into tears any minute.

'He wanted you to take his ashes,' she informed me and there was a tiny little oasis of silence around us. I saw a couple of people glance at her and then at McMurphy. 'You know that, right? He wanted his final ride to be aboard the Demon with you.'

Jess is not a ditz, so I was sure in that moment she'd had a bit too much to drink. She most definitely wasn't working then, because she doesn't drink on the job. I'm sure that she thought she was telling me a flattering, nice thing. And, I suppose in a way, she was. Not her fault it was also a rather callous, painful thing. Behind the bar, Mac cleared his throat.

'Jess, can you go bring me another bottle of Jack out of the back? I can't get away,' he said in a deceptively quiet voice, and Jess raised her head from my chest to nod at him.

'Sure, boss,' she said, wiped a tear away, patted my arm and walked off.

'So who picked up the job, then?' I asked Mac gamely, and he couldn't quite repress a small grin.

'Buck Kruger,' he told me with a touch of smugness to it.

'On the Star Shark?' I grinned.

'Yep,' he replied and we locked gazes for a minute. It might not have been Jock's 'dying request', but he would have gotten a kick out of the idea of taking his final ride aboard Kruger's luxury ship. It helped a tiny bit with the rest of it. Then I glanced past Mac and raised an eye brow.

'You might want to put that extra bottle away before Jess comes back,' I smirked at him, and he looked not at all guilty, simply setting the full bottle of Jack Daniels out of sight.

I turned away then, looking for some port in the storm of noise, and led Heero to a small, but wonderfully empty table near the door. He touched my elbow as he moved around me to sit down, giving me a look that was at once rueful and sympathetic.

I smiled and took a long swallow of the beer Jess had given me, it was blessedly cold. A covert glance at my watch told me that despite how it felt, we'd only been there about an hour. I sighed and looked up at Heero, 'We shouldn't have to stay too much longer, but I can't just...'

'It's alright,' he told me, and I saw him think about touching my hand. 'How are you... holding up?'

I let a grimace cross my face. 'God, Heero... I can't believe the guy actually designated me his courier.'

'He... didn't know?' Heero asked gently.

About my ship. About me. 'Jock... kind of lived in his own little world,' I explained. His own little alcohol induced world. It made me stop and think, and I set down the beer bottle I'd never really intended to pick up.

Heero settled his elbows on the table, and leaned in just a bit. 'You two were... close?' he asked in a deceptively casual voice. I knew he was balancing curiosity with concern and smiled for him.

'Would you understand if I said I wasn't sure?' I told him, trying to decide whether to pick at the label on my bottle, or rub at the back of my neck. 'I wouldn't have said so, not really; until tonight.'

Heero just watched me, letting me pick around at the words. I wasn't at all sure I knew what I was thinking, and was even less sure how in the hell to articulate it.

I hadn't thought of Jock as a 'friend' so much as just someone in the trade that I talked to sometimes. Perhaps I had been more than that to him? He must have considered me his friend or he wouldn't have bothered listing me as his courier. I guess I had kind of known that, but it was a little weird having it demonstrated to me at a point where it really didn't matter anymore.

It made me feel doubly bad. I had not only screwed up the being there thing, but hadn't even been able to fulfill the poor guy's last wish. Made me feel somewhat less than? reliable. Somehow kind of shallow.

'That night... in the backroom,' when the man in question had nearly ventilated my hide. 'That... wasn't exactly the first time I'd convinced Jock not to... not the first time that I talked him out of?'

'Ah,' Heero said softly and his fingers touched briefly on the back of my hand. I saw understanding in his eyes then, perhaps of a little bit more than I'd meant to share. 'You couldn't have followed him around twenty-four hours a day... you know that?'

Yep. Understood just a little bit too much.

'I know,' I sighed, giving in and rubbing at the back of my neck, mostly so I didn't have to look right at him. He was having one of his damn mind reader nights, and I already felt like my skull was very accommodatingly made out of glass.

Heero echoed my sigh. 'But you're going to feel guilty about it anyway?'

I snorted. 'It is what I do,' I informed him and took a swallow of my beer.

He chuckled lightly and shook his head. 'God, don't I know it,' he muttered and it made me blush darkly.

'I can't help how I feel,' I grumbled and my fingers went for my label.

'Hey,' Heero soothed, looking a bit concerned, and he actually laid his hand over mine to stop my confetti act. 'I didn't mean anything...'

'Just that you wish that I...' I began, but than stopped myself. What in the hell was wrong with me all of a sudden? 'I'm sorry, Heero.'

He smiled at me gently, but moved his hand away before anyone noticed. 'I was just thinking about how you used to tease Quatre for trying to take responsibility for everything. Seems to me he rubbed off on you.'

I chuckled, feeling the defensiveness bleed out of me. 'That whole air in space deal?'

Heero only smiled broadly and nodded.

I heaved a sigh and took another sip. 'I guess I just wasn't expecting... that. I always assumed that he had somebody looking out for him. It's just kind of... damn weird to think it might have been me, you know?'

Heero didn't have much he could say to that, and just gave me a look that was somewhere between troubled and sympathetic.

'He wasn't trying to hurt me,' I suddenly blurted, not really wanting Heero thinking that about Jock. Bad karma and all, to think bad things about the deceased at their own send-off. 'You know that, right? That shot was an accident... he scared himself almost as much as he scared me.'

But that led me back around to the fact that if McMurphy was right, that was probably the straw that broke the camel's back.

I made this intuitive leap, sitting there staring at Heero and thinking about an old dead, drunkard ex-spacer. 'Do you... do you think he... killed himself to protect me?'

'Duo,' Heero told me intently, 'you can't think like that. What he did... or didn't do, was on his head. Not yours.'

I made a noise that was vaguely in agreement, but I couldn't help worrying at it. Somehow it was a difficult thought to pin down. My failing to protect Jock from himself had led him to do something stupid to protect me from himself. Or somebody. Anybody. Not just me, I suppose.

It made my head hurt to think about it; it was too circular. To convoluted.

'When do you have to leave tomorrow?' I asked Heero, deciding that the topic was best set aside.

He gave me a look that made me wonder if he were stripping his own mental gears. 'Mid morning,' he finally said, not sounding all that happy about either that fact, or the subject change. 'We should probably drive separately to work.'

I sighed, wishing instantly that I'd been able to contain it. Heero looked mildly pained and I tried on a slightly self-deprecating smile. 'I'm going to start suspecting you of fooling around if you keep leaving home so much.'

He snorted, but wouldn't let me distract him. 'If this wasn't so important...' he began, and my sigh that time was a little heavier.

'It's your job Heero,' I told him, frowning down at the little pile of shredded paper on the table between us. 'It's part of what you are, and you can't stop doing it just because...'

I was cut off in mid half-formed thought by somebody calling my name.

'Maxwell? Where'd Maxwell go?' I glanced in the general direction of the bar; suddenly realizing that the random singing had stopped and things were headed into that part of the evening where they got a bit more... structured.

There are traditions to be upheld after all.

I took a couple long swallows of beer, wishing that the bottle were still cold enough that holding it to my forehead might actually help my headache, and raised a hand in vague acknowledgment.

'He's over here,' someone behind us supplied helpfully, and Bernie took a step away from the bar where he could see me.

'You got first toast, buddy,' he called and I think my heart dropped about three feet.

'Oh fuck,' I muttered, struck with that feeling again that I never seemed to see things coming. It made a certain kind of logical sense that if Jock had wanted me carrying his ashes, it was pretty darn likely that I would also fit the role of... whatever the hell you called the person left in the point position. Next of kin?

I set my empty bottle down, gave Heero a wan, sick little smile and pushed back from the table. If I had a hamster for this kind of thing, he had fled and taken his pack-mates with him.

My mind occupied itself on my walk across the room, not with what I would be saying, but wondering if pack was the right term for a group of hamsters. Herd? Flock? Nothing seemed quite right. Perhaps they didn't normally travel in groups?

Wake executor, was the term that popped into my head as I accepted a glass of whiskey from Bernie with which to deliver my toast. And that was pretty much all that was in there; coherent thought had fled with the hamsters.

How the hell do you toast a guy who freakin' slit his own wrists while sitting in a bathtub wearing his best suit?

I contemplated the glass in my hand for a moment, tilting it slightly and watching the light glint off the liquid. The room had gone silent as a damn tomb, waiting for me to speak. I dared a glance around at the expectant faces, some familiar and some not, and was a little surprised that Heero had followed me. He was standing just a few steps away, close but not too close. Available but not obvious. I smiled my thanks for the support, and then looked back down into the glass in my hand. Somebody in the crowd shuffled their feet.

'I suck at this,' I blurted, and it got me a round of almost nervous laughter that helped ease the silence just a bit. Somewhere in the back of the room, Smitty called out something that I didn't catch, but it took some of the nervousness out of the laughter, and it got a little easier.

I took a breath and glanced at Heero again, he caught my gaze and I could almost feel him lending me? something. Strength? Stability? I wasn't sure, but it was good to have.

I raised the glass in my hand. 'I suppose that I should make a toast to Jock's lousy aim,' I quipped and the laughter that erupted was much more genuine. The pressure eased, and two or three of my brain cells decided to surface. 'But that would be the easy route and I think maybe Jock deserved better.' Things quieted again and I had to focus on a spot somewhere halfway between me and the nearest person, to continue. 'Jock... deserved better than a lot of things,' I heard myself say and hoped something relatively intelligent was in charge of my tongue. 'Jock Nottingham was a good man... one of our brothers, and a good pilot once. I think he'd like to be remembered for those days; before things went... bad for him. He was proud of his years in the military and he'd been proud of his ship,' I was afraid I was on the verge of rambling and hoped I didn't sound like some kind of lunatic. I knew my face was flushed from the hot feel of it, and I just wanted out from under all the attention. I dared a glance in Heero's direction, feeling his presence like a solid damn thing, and heard my voice falter when, I swear to God, for a second I saw Jock standing there with him. When I blinked, he was gone, and I prayed he stayed that way. 'To Jock Nottingham, the pilot... may Lady Luck be kinder to him wherever he's gone.'

I downed the drink and was finally able to turn away from all those eyes to put the empty shot glass on the pyramid. It was already a good half a dozen layers tall; Spacers will take whatever excuse they can to party, after all. I snagged a bottle of soda and a bottle of water from Mac as I got my ass out of the lime-light and rejoined Heero, while the calls of 'To luck!' and 'To Jock!' were still dying down. Heero took his water from me, and managed to touch my hand in a very intimate way in the process. I smiled, trying to imagine making it through this nightmare without him being there, and then wondered if I was being moony-eyed and tried to stop.

The next half an hour was spent raising our bottles and responding to toasts, and wishing fervently that it was all over. We drank to Jock's ship, and to his one big mining strike. We drank to various aspects of his military career; his rank, his last commanding officer, and the base he was stationed on the longest. We drank to the dog he'd owned when he was twelve. We drank to his mother. And one bitterly enterprising soul asked us to raise a glass to the woman that had left him in his darkest hour, asked us to forgive her in Jock's name. I learned her name had been Wanda, and I drank as much for Jock's peace as hers.

That toast seemed to settle and sober things a little, and I was just beginning to hope that we could finally slip away, when I realized that McMurphy had come out from behind his bar and was standing next to me. I looked up at him and was not happy to find the vaguely sympathetic look on his face.

'What is it, Papa-bear?' I asked, sure somehow that I wasn't going to like it.

He cleared his throat a little uncomfortably and I could see that he knew I wasn't going to like it either. 'Listen kid... Jock kind of left a letter and asked for... a couple of things.'

'Things?' I prompted, and felt Heero shift a little closer to me.

McMurphy sighed and rubbed at his neck. 'When he named you his courier... he asked if you would... you know; sing for him.'

It's kind of part of the tradition; the singing. I think maybe a long, long time ago there had been funeral type songs that were part of some ritual or service. But we Spacers have a tendency to bend the shit out of things to suit us. A couple of generations out between the stars and the singing had taken on a different slant. God only knows now-a-days just what in the hell you'll hear sung over the ashes of the dearly departed.

If he still remembered the somewhat drunken conversation we'd had, Smitty was under instructions to sing 'Rocket Ride' at my send-off.

I did one of those slow blushes that starts somewhere around my toes, and by the time it reaches my face, feels so hot I'm not sure what keeps me from passing out from it. 'He... what...' I said, purely and quite obviously stalling.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a singer. I was never tempted by any of the Musketeers offers to join their band. But I like music. A lot. In my days in the trade, it had been my only companionship and I had not been without it almost twenty-four hours a day. And I used to sing aboard my ship almost as much as the music played. If you get me drunk... I have a tendency to not care where I am.

Rowdy bar singing is something I used to indulge in quite a bit. But... I wasn't drunk, it had been a long damn time, and Heero had never been standing next to me before.

'He asked for you to sing at his send-off, Duo,' McMurphy told me, as though explaining something complicated to a small child. I would have glared at him for the tone, but I'd asked for it with the question, so I guess there wasn't much I could say.

'God, Mac...' I muttered and could tell from the look on his face, that there was something more.

McMurphy ducked his head and one of his big hands fell on my shoulder for a moment. The twinge when he hit the same bruise Dusty had, brought me around into focus; there really wasn't much I could do about the situation. I'd screwed up protecting the man... had not been able to take on the job of being his courier... how could I refuse the one thing he had asked of me, that I was actually capable of giving?

And though he'd have not said it out loud, I could see by the look on McMurphy's face that he was thinking the same. He had not asked me for a kidney, after all. A whole lot of people would think a whole lot less of me if I refused to do such a simple thing. And the regard of people I thought of as friends was something I felt in short supply of lately.

But, 'What song?' I had to ask, suddenly knowing I wasn't going to like it.

'In Another World,' McMurphy said quietly, and while I gaped like a carp in a drying up pool, Smitty appeared at my elbow.

'I'll play,' he offered, his hand patting his guitar for clarification.

'Shit,' I muttered to neither one of them, running a hand through my hair and struggling on some level to see if I still remembered the words.

'Come on, Duo,' Smitty cajoled, and I think it was his gentle tone of voice that pushed me over the edge of having to save face. Smitty had never in his life spoken to me in that tone before. It bordered too much on that 'wild-animal' voice that the guys had used when I was at my worst.

I sighed and glanced from one of them to the other. 'I haven't sung in years, guys,' I had to warn them. McMurphy gave my shoulder a final squeeze.

'Doesn't matter, kid,' he told me. 'It's what Jock wanted... he won't care how you sound.'

I was able, through sheer force of my well practiced repression skills, to not tell them that Jock was kind of in a place where he didn't care about much of anything any more.

'Let's just do it,' I grumbled to Smitty, and he gave me a wide grin, before stepping around me to drag a bar stool out enough to give him room to play.

I opted to just stand next to him, and I watched while he made a bit of a show of tuning the guitar, struggling with the damn opening lines while he worked. 'So many'... something. And something about drummers. Oh God? I couldn't dredge it up.

Around us, the room was falling silent, people knowing what was coming now that the toasting was done. I started to lean an elbow on the bar, but was too close to the pyramid of glasses and was afraid of bumping it; it would be just my luck. I looked and saw that the thing was one shot glass short of being complete to the sixth level. Impulsively, I reached out and snagged one of the glasses of Jack, downed it and then filled the hole that completed level six. I have a thing for even numbers.

Then Smitty was playing, and the notes clicked in my head somehow and the words came flooding back, brought by the music, or brought by the whiskey, I'm not sure. Hell... maybe Jock was whispering them into my ear.

'So many worlds of might have been...' tumbled from my lips, and I suddenly remembered Heero. I looked for him and found him not far away at all, watching me intently. I almost faltered and had to look away; God... he must be so embarrassed. There was a moment, when the words were a little less clear in my mind, but I concentrated on the sound of Smitty's familiar guitar and tried to forget that Heero was there hearing me make a fool of myself. '... in another world I'm alone and lost, a man without a clue, but in another world I still love you...'

The crush of feeling was... hard to sing past. I'd known the implications of the song the moment that McMurphy had told me the title. But knowing it, and singing it were two entirely different things.

Somehow, despite all his protests and all his advice and all his bitterness? Jock had never stopped loving that woman who had walked away from him.

And just damn the man to hell for making me voice what he had never been able to say while he was alive.

'Tiny things can change a life...' I managed, though I felt like my voice must sound as thick as though I had pneumonia. I couldn't look at anyone at all, standing next to Smitty and pretty much just staring down at his scuffed up old Reeboks. I got through another round of speculation on realities and then, thank God, there was a spot in the song for a bit of a guitar solo. I took the opportunity to just breathe, knowing I was right on the verge of losing it completely. Back around to that 'there but for the grace of God' feeling. I dared a glance at Heero, aching with the sudden knowledge that without him... I could very easily be just like Jock. Lost and alone.

The oddly... pleased look on his face took me by surprise and I stumbled a bit as I missed my cue, rushing through 'What am I doing in another world...' to catch up to Smitty. I had to look away as we wound the song out. 'I don't want what I have here, but I can't have what I want...' I seriously didn't think I was going to make it to the end of the damn thing, didn't think I could get through the final lines, but Smitty seemed to hear the twist building in my voice and he came in on the end of it, shoring me up, and we finished together, '...In a better world I'd be with you.'

There was an uncomfortable silence for a long moment; I think it was just awkward for people to know how to react to the thing. Jock's bitter distrust of all things female was legendary. There wasn't a soul in the bar who didn't get the message the old guy had left. It was a strange shift of perceptions, and... damn sad.

I wondered about the woman for the first time. Wondered where she'd ended up. If she was happy. If she would ever know how things came out for Jock. If she'd care.

And I wondered if I could be done now.

Someone finally broke the silence with a clap that was hesitant, but still sounded sharp to my ears. I think I flinched, but it was joined with a smattering of polite applause and Smitty took a rather theatric bow. While he was having his moment, I stepped away. A glance showed me that our little table had been taken when we'd abandoned it, and there wasn't another one in sight that was empty. I found myself standing in front of Heero, trying to find a way to implore him to take me home. Bernie wandered by and punched me lightly in the bicep.

'Not bad, Maxwell,' he grinned, 'though you're rusty as hell.'

I muttered something that masqueraded as a come back, but I think he was drunk enough that he didn't really care, and was probably gone before he heard it anyway.

'Heero?' I began, but was interrupted again when Cortaine stopped for a second.

'Jock would have liked that, kid,' he was compelled to tell me, and then snickered. 'Course, the old guy was tone deaf.'

I laughed dutifully at the joke, and tried not to cringe at the strained sound of my own voice. It was enough to make him wander on to take a poke at Smitty though, and I turned back to Heero, intent on getting the hell out of the place.

I was surprised to find McMurphy standing next to him, our jackets in his hands. He grinned at me and I grinned back while Heero took our coats.

'Don't forget your way here, kid,' McMurphy told me with a wink.

I ducked my head. 'Thanks, Papa Bear.' I felt profoundly grateful for the rescue at the same time that I felt embarrassed as hell that it had been so obvious I needed rescued.

Then finally, blessedly, Heero was leading me out the door and I thought I just might cry from the sheer relief.

The cold night air was a balm after the heat of the crowded bar, the dark a comfort, and the easing of that constant sound was almost a physical relief.

I sighed heavily, and blinked as we made our way across the parking lot, my eyes still adjusting to the lighting. Heero reached out to steady me when I almost tripped on a break in the pavement that I couldn't see. I was surprised when he didn't let go again, and even more surprised when I found myself leaning into him. But then, it was early yet, hours before most people would be leaving and the parking lot was deserted.

'Are you all right?' Heero asked me with a slightly bemused tone to his voice.

'Yeah,' I told him. 'Just... damn tired. That was a lot more than I'd been ready for, I guess.'

Heero's arm tightened around me as we walked toward the car. 'You...' he said, sounding as though he were choosing his words carefully, 'handled yourself well.'

I snorted. 'It didn't feel like it. I felt like I couldn't string two damn thoughts together all night.'

We got to the car and Heero was quiet while he unlocked the passenger door. 'You have a damn sexy singing voice,' he murmured, as he leaned down to help me get in. I was momentarily confused about whether the line distracted me from getting irritated about the helping part, or if the helping part distracted me from getting irritated about the line. The door was closed before I quite got it worked out.

I thought about it while he walked around the car, and decided that I was too tired to fight with him over either thing. 'I'm not an invalid, and I sing like a damn frog, now shut up and take me home,' I said after he'd gotten himself settled.

Heero chuckled and gave me a look that was? weirdly affectionate. 'You are so drunk,' he commented offhandedly as he started the car.

I just sat and looked at him for a minute. Drunk? I hadn't thought so, but looking inward I could see that I wasn't completely unaffected. I frowned, trying to remember how much I'd had, and didn't come up with enough to make me more than a little... friendlier. But when I let myself feel it, there was a certain amount of truth to it. Though I was a long damn way from being as shit-faced as I'd been at my worst.

'Slightly buzzed,' I corrected Heero. 'I am not drunk until I have to be stopped from taking physical challenges and stupid bets.'

Heero glanced across at me, but didn't seem to know what to say. I couldn't help worrying at it though; it didn't make sense, I really hadn't drunk all that much. If there's one thing I have, it's a high alcohol tolerance. I know it had been a while, but I really shouldn't have been feeling as unsteady as I was with no more than I'd put away.

Beside me, Heero sighed softly and reached out to snag my hand. 'You didn't eat dinner,' he reminded me gently. I didn't mention the missed lunch, but it was actually something of a relief to have an explanation.

'Oh yeah,' I murmured and felt the weariness creeping up on me. I... echo when I'm drunk. Put me in a room of revelers, and I'm the life of the party. Put me in a room of mourners, and... I can become dangerously depressed. I think my poor brain was just worn out with trying to figure out how I was supposed to be feeling.

Without thinking about it overly much, I leaned over and laid my head on Heero's thigh, curling myself as best I could on the seat, legs trailing off onto the floor.

'Duo,' Heero warned, his tone telling me I'd taken him by surprise. 'You shouldn't do that... you need to buckle up.'

'I'm ok,' I assured him and there was a moment of silence. There was something oddly soothing about the play of light and dark as he drove, and we passed in and out of the range of the streetlights. 'You'll be careful.'

There was a sigh of almost exasperation, but he didn't argue with me further and finally his hand came to settle on my shoulder. Though I couldn't help noticing he slowed down just a bit. It made me grin where he couldn't see me anyway.

I felt vaguely bad for making Heero suffer through the damn evening with me. He hadn't known Jock, didn't really know any of the people who had been at the send-off, it must have made for a damn long day.

'I'm glad you were there,' I blurted, feeling the depth of it, and knowing how much harder things would have been on my own. I honestly was not in a state that I would have called 'drunk', but I knew I was close enough to it that McMurphy wouldn't have let me drive myself. Things could have gotten really awkward.

Not to even mention that whole moral support thing.

'I was just glad I made it back in time,' Heero said, his tone more 'relieved' than 'glad'.

Made me wonder just how stupid I'd seemed all evening. I wondered if I'd embarrassed him. It made me squirm inside, and I concentrated my attention on the play of Heero's thigh muscles under my cheek and just tried not to think about it. After a little bit, his hand moved and he began to almost unconsciously stroke his fingers over my hair. It was disturbingly relaxing and he almost lulled me to sleep before we got back to the house.

Heero apparently thought I actually had dozed off, because the first words out of his mouth after he'd parked and turned the car off were, 'wake up, love.'

'Not asleep,' I told him, and sat up. He seemed a little surprised, but only grunted as we got out of the car. I noticed him watching me closely on the steps, but I let it go because it gave him something to think about besides the drama that had unfolded on our front walk the day before. I was tired of seeing him grimace whenever we came and went from the house.

It was hard to get my head around the fact that it really wasn't all that late, it felt like it ought to be in the wee hours of the morning, but it was just getting toward the time we normally went to bed anyway. Heero locked the door behind us, and immediately started our ritual 'security check' for the night, so without thought? I did too. I went over and started picking through my music for something to sleep with.

'Duo?' Heero asked gently, 'what are you doing?'

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