My three tormentors started
laughing so damn hard that people were looking at us from all the surrounding
tables. I felt my face flame to the point that sweat started to trickle
down my damn back. It was probably a good thing though, because I'm pretty
sure I had been white as a sheet only moments before that. Certainly didn't
need Heero going into a fit of over-protective 'are you all right' concern
right here in the middle of the restaurant.
When the three stooges settled down enough that people weren't staring
anymore, I dared to take a peek down into my lap. But the damn cover of
the magazine hadn't changed; it was still a glossy picture of me and Hayden
decked out in our leather Gladiator costumes in the middle of our routine
at the Zero-gravity exposition. The photographer had caught us at the
moment of impact as we made the two-handed pass. Hayden's face is twisted
in a grimace of almost-hidden fear and mine is a jaw-clenched mask desperately
trying to hide the pain that was lancing up my arm. Our bodies are sheened
with sweat, our muscles standing out in sharp relief as we drove ourselves
across the stadium floor. Fuck, we almost looked like we had been artfully
oiled. I closed my eyes for a second and said a little prayer, but when
I opened them again the damn thing was still in my hands.
"Oh Jesus," I muttered to myself, because I didn't think the
guys could hear me over their own chuckles. "What did that damn woman
The caption across the bottom of the magazine promised an exclusive interview
with 'the multi-talented man who took second place in the Colonies' annual
The expo was not something that ground-bounders had ever taken an interest
in. If you polled a hundred people on the streets of Earth, less than
a quarter of them would even be able to tell you that such a thing existed.
How in the hell had that Goddamn woman found out about my competing in
time to get pictures and have them inserted into the interview? The lead-time
in the publishing industry is months; she should not have had time to
find out the details and rewrite the article to fit it in.
What in the hell was this going to mean to me? My reputation sucked right
now. My business was in serious trouble; I was nearing the edge of what
could become a financial black hole if I could not get my ass back to
work and get my name cleared of the tarnish that was currently all over
it. This damn... publicity had the potential to take me the rest of the
way down. How would people see this? I doubt it would have much of an
impact amongst those in the trade; it was our damn expo after all.
My competing was nothing out of the ordinary. There might be some backlash
from the fact that I had granted this interview to a ground-bounder but
it would all most likely work itself out. I would probably have to endure
some teasing. Would probably be having this same fucking magazine shoved
in my face for some time. I could deal with that.
But what about potential clients? They were not in the trade. Would
I look like a flying, freaking idiot to them? My name plastered all over
this picture... this picture? Were there more? I was afraid to
open the damn magazine and look. I realized that this could be infinitely
more damaging than it had looked on the surface. What kind of fucking
Pandora's box was lying in my lap? Could this truly get any worse? Do
not - ever - as long as you live, challenge the power of worse.
I realized that I had completely removed myself from my surroundings when
Heero's hand slid over and pulled the magazine from my slack fingers,
forcing me to come back into the here and now. I blinked up and found
that some of the humor seemed to have faded from the three faces across
from me. Great; now I probably looked like I had lost my damn mind. I
tried to dredge up some of the last couple of comments and just couldn't
do it. I went with the generic response and ruthlessly pulled a smile
out of my ass, plastering it on with spackling and rubber cement. "Well,
I'm pleased that I'm still able to entertain you guys even after all these
years," I chirped brightly.
I picked up my water and took another swig, watching the unease that had
been settling on them wash away in the face of my good humor. Heero was
leafing through the magazine and I forced myself not to look. My fingers
found the edge of the label on my water bottle and it was just fucking
toast. I picked and shredded for all I was worth. Screw it; I'd just order
another bottle if I had to.
"That's quite an outfit, Duo," Trowa commented dryly and there
was a twinkle of mischief in his eyes.
I put my grin on autopilot and repressed the urge to stand up and just
freakin' run away. They were only teasing. This was nothing any different
from what Hayden and I had endured from Toria. Really it wasn't.
"Well... we might have considered changing the act if we'd known
we were going to make the cover of 'The Rising Times'," I quipped
"You did manage to show a... fair amount of skin," Wufei murmured,
only partially managing to conceal a wide grin behind his glass of tea.
"Hey," I informed him, trying not to sound too defensive. "Those
are completely accurate, second century BC recreations from the Roman
"Are the shorts under the tunics accurate?" Quatre snickered,
not even trying to hide his grin.
"Ya got me there," I muttered and took another drink of my water,
finding the bottle almost empty. The three stooges were chuckling and
exchanging looks again. Well hadn't this evening just taken a turn into
the Twilight Zone? As much as I had been dreading this dinner, it had
managed to exceed my wildest expectations.
I dared a glance in Heero's direction to see how he was taking this. We
had gotten firmly back around to that fear I had of embarrassing him in
front of his friends.
He had obviously come to the section in the magazine that contained the
article on little ol' me, and the odd look on his face made my eyes flick
down to the pages he was staring at. Holy shit.
I sat my bottle down with slow deliberation and glanced around the room.
"Where are the restrooms?" I asked no one in particular and
Trowa gestured vaguely over his right shoulder. I tapped my empty bottle
and calmly said, "If the waitress comes back, order me another one,
would you? I'll be right back."
Then I stood up and made my casual way to the restroom where I puked into
the toilet until I thought I would turn myself wrong side out.
There was a centerfold collage in that magazine of my very own little
self. There were the pictures that damn woman had taken of me aboard my
ship. There were more from this year's expo; I had caught a glimpse of
a dramatic one of Hayden carrying my limp body out of the arena. There
were pictures from the other two expos that Hayden and I had entered;
a picture of us still in our blue, Atlantis, all-over body make-up accepting
that year's award. Another from our first year, when we had done the Cherokee
theme; I had learned to do bead looming for that one. I had seen something
that'd had a Gundam in it and a small copy of that ages old wanted poster
from the colonies. The damn woman had managed to condense my life down
into a two-page photo spread.
That damn woman; that's how I thought of her now. I couldn't think
of her as 'Angie', I was trying hard not to think of her as 'that bitch'.
So, by default, she was going to be that damn woman.
The restroom was empty, the first piece of luck I'd had in a very long
damn time. I finished in the stall and went to the sink to rinse my mouth
and wash my face. I met my own eyes in the mirror and I looked haggard.
Ok; enough of this. Get yourself together, Maxwell, I chided myself
and dug down deep, looking for... something.
What in the hell was wrong with me tonight? Where had my balance gone?
Where was this damn, dark depression coming from? If I had been sitting
around a table with Toria and Hayden, we would be leafing through that
magazine and laughing our asses off. Toria would fucking be rolling on
the floor and I would be rolling right along with her.
Why couldn't I do that with this group of guys? Because they weren't really
my friends the way Toria and Hayden were. They were Heero's friends and
I was terrified that I was going to humiliate him in front of them. I
was afraid of looking up to meet his eyes and seeing scorn there.
Was I embarrassed by the things that were in that magazine? If someone
had suggested that I would be, even six months ago, I would have laughed
in their face. I don't really embarrass all that easy and there are not
a lot of things in my life that I'm ashamed of. Well... not since the
But... and here's the rub... I wanted the respect of those four men sitting
out there. Wanted it. Craved it. Needed it. But they had seen me, in the
last six months, at my lowest. At my absolute worst. Respect was probably
the last damn thing on their minds when they looked at me right now. This
magazine, full of all my secrets, was not helping matters much. Goddamn
I dug down deep for a piece of my music. One of my ever-present songs
that I used to mold my own psyche when it needed molding... needed a little
nudge down the right path. I came up with an old 'the hell with you' song
and let it flow.
'So I flew around the moon three times and caught a falling star
And came into this world of mimes to live just as you are
But all I found was pain here, and one thing that held true
That you did not believe in me, so I won't believe in you.'
I flashed a cocky grin at the mirror, just for practice and strolled out
of the restroom. Making my way smoothly between the tables, proud of the
fact that there was no visible sign of what had just happened. No sign
of the wide crack in my control. I managed to not even think about
slipping out the back door.
'Never again, to do as all adults have done
Never again, will my world and your own be one
Never again, will you hear when the child within me cries
Never again, never is where my heart now lies
Neverland, never is where my heart now lies.'
Strange song for the occasion? Ya gotta hear it sung with just the right
attitude to get the feel.
When I sat down at the table there was a full bottle of water sitting
at my place and the empty was gone. The magazine had vanished from sight
and the talk was about something totally innocuous.
Great. Let's complicate the problem, why don't we? Heero had obviously
figured out that the teasing was bothering me and had jumped their shit
while I was away from the table. He meant well, but this was only going
to serve to broaden the rift. It was all I could do not to drop my head
into my hands and groan. Nobody really wanted to meet my eyes. Except
Heero, and I steadfastly refused to look at him, it would only incite
a conversation I really didn't want to try and have here in front of the
It didn't matter; I had a new bottle with a fresh label.
Quatre gamely started a conversation about some movie he and Trowa had
just recently seen, but since no one else at the table had seen it, that
topic died fairly quickly.
Trowa asked Wufei about the motorcycle he had been customizing and they
managed to milk that subject until dinner arrived. I actually managed
to interject a couple of reasonably intelligent comments in there, but
it was quickly apparent that I wasn't the only one at the table who was
uncomfortable enough to puke. I didn't dare look up to meet Heero's eyes
to judge what the hell was going on with him, but the other three were
sitting across the table from us and I couldn't help but see the squirming
they were doing. I wondered what Heero had said to them.
I bent to cutting up my steak and sent a little wish up to the heavens
that this night would be over soon. Not that wishes and prayers had ever
gotten me much of anything, but I suppose it never hurt to ask.
I entertained the idea of broaching the subject of my imminent departure
for L3. What the hell; could things get any more tense? Maybe it would
actually make things easier if Heero found out here in front of witnesses;
it might keep him from getting thoroughly pissed off. So how to
start this conversation? Anybody know anything about ocelots? Funny thing
happened on the way back from therapy yesterday? Howard sends his love?
Ok... maybe not.
Heero's fingers brushed the back of my hand, pleading with me to look
up and meet his eyes. I froze. I really didn't want to, I didn't want
to see the reproach that I suspected was shining there. Couldn't bear
to see his disappointment.
Then a familiar voice called my name and took the decision out of my hands,
I turned in my chair and found the three musketeers sitting at the table
behind us. They didn't even have their drinks yet, having obviously just
been seated, explaining why I hadn't heard them before now.
"Smitty?" I grinned. "What the hell are you guys doing
out of your cage?"
He smirked back at me, pushing his glasses up with his middle finger before
answering, "I'll have you know we're out on good behavior."
Across their table, musketeer number two flashed me a smile, ignoring
his partner. "Good to see you, Duo."
"Hey Bernie," and then I had to lean across to accept the hand
of the last of the odd trio. "How ya doin', Havers?"
"Just fine, Duo," quiet Havers grinned at me. "Good to
see you out and about again."
I snorted and turned my chair a little further around to face them. "You
guys give up going down to 'McMurphy's' or you get thrown out?"
Smitty brightened and poked me with an elbow. "Nah! We were just
lookin' for a change of pace," then he grinned wider. "You should
come out with us, everybody would love to see you again."
I laughed lightly and fended Smitty's bony elbow off with a knuckle in
his bicep. "What? Me go out in public with you three?"
"Come on, Duo," Bernie cajoled. "McMurphy can't find anybody
else brave enough to drink those concoctions he makes up."
"You mean stupid enough." Smitty chuckled and then yelped as
I caught hold of a lock of his shoulder length blond hair and tugged.
"I believe," I chuckled at him darkly, "that it was the
both of us in that 'blue drink' competition; which makes you stupid
"Brave," he intoned with mock dignity. "It makes me brave
I laughed out loud while Bernie and Havers shared a look at our expense.
"As I recall," Bernie observed dryly. "You both looked
pretty damn stupid by the time the pitcher was empty."
I straightened with no small amount of pride. "Yes, but at least
I walked out of the bar under my own power."
Smitty dissolved into helpless laughter. "And promptly threw up in
that guy's convertible."
"And your throwing up down that woman's dress was better?" Havers
interjected, totally deadpan.
"Of course it was," Smitty drawled. "I passed out before
she could kill me, unlike Maxwell here and the owner of that convertible."
I snickered. "Nothin; like having a two hundred pound construction
worker after your ass to sober you up in a hurry."
After the merriment faded, Bernie looked across at me. "Come on,
Duo. Come with us next week, McMurphy'll probably buy a damn round of
"He can't, asshole," Smitty informed him with a roll of his
eyes. "Did you forget already? He'll be on L3."
It's always the little things that come back and bite me in the ass. Of
all the damn people to run into, in this place, tonight of all nights...
it had to be the three guys who worked in 'traffic control'. The office
that handled all the flight plans for inner system ship's traffic for
the entire fucking continent.
I spared a flick of my eyes in Heero's direction and saw a face that was
set in stone. Oh shit.
My own face must have done something really interesting because all three
of my musketeer buddies were looking at me like I'd just announced I was
going to get my nipples pierced.
"Was nice talking to you guys," I said airily. "I'll give
you a call in a couple of weeks." And I turned back to my own table.
There were confused but appropriate responses from behind me but I didn't
really hear any of them.
Have I ever mentioned that I'm pretty sure that God just fucking hates
I took a slow, deliberate sip from my bottle of water and tried to gage
the level of shit I was in from the faces across the table from me. Wufei
looked like he wished that he had totally blown this evening off and done
something fun... like getting a root canal. Quatre was just staring across
the table, first at me and then at Heero, that little muscle in his jaw
working, telling me he was thinking real hard about attempting to interject
himself into the middle of this mess. Trowa was cutting up his chicken
as though it was taking every bit of his attention; like the chicken might
just start fighting back any minute.
"This would be the conversation I had planned on having with you
later this evening," I said, absolutely delighted that my voice was
as calm as if I had asked him to pass the salt.
There was a terribly long silence, punctuated only by the sounds of Trowa's
cutlery. I found my water bottle in my hands and contemplated the possibility
of making a little money on the side, producing confetti.
"So you were planning on telling me?" Heero said, voice
sounding... cold. That couldn't be good.
I sighed heavily. "Of course I was," and I dared a glance in
his direction again. I was prepared for his anger but what I found in
his eyes was closer to pain. I hadn't really been prepared for that. "Heero...
it's a simple courier job, Earth to L3 and back. I swear to God."
"We haven't even discussed your... returning to work yet," he
stated and I tried not to flinch. There was a bit of new tension in the
air and I looked across the table to find Wufei glaring. Great, just what
I needed I had upset his partner and now he was pissed at
"I wasn't aware that I needed your permission... " I growled,
then stopped and closed my eyes for a second. This was going to get real
ugly, real fast.
I opened my eyes and squared my shoulders. Wasn't gonna dance this dance.
I pulled out my wallet and threw a twenty in the middle of my plate of
relatively untouched steak. "This was a bad idea," I told him
gently, "and I'm not going to sit in the middle of this restaurant,
hashing this out in front of the whole world." His eyes widened and
I briefly touched his shoulder. "I am going back to the apartment
and you are going to stay here and finish your dinner. I will see you
later and we will fight until your heart's content."
I stood up, nodded to the guys and turned sharply, smacking Smitty on
the back of the head as I went by. "You're buying, the next time
we go to McMurphy's, asshole," I told him. All he did was look up
at me, wide-eyed, and nod.
I walked out, head up and back straight as a ramrod. Kept my pace to a
sedate walk too, aren't you proud? I was actually rather surprised that
it wasn't raining when I got outside; it would have been... appropriate.
I glanced around and realized I was going to have to walk further up the
street before I stood a chance of hailing a cab. Damn, but this taxicab
bit was getting expensive. I wondered idly if there was a bus stop around
here close; it would sure as hell be cheaper and money was really starting
to become an issue.
I sighed and headed out, rubbing idly at a temple that was suddenly throbbing.
This day just kept getting better and better.
I heard running footsteps behind me before I got all the way across the
damn parking lot and had to resist the urge to scream.
"Maxwell! Wait up a minute." My strangled curse died in my throat;
I hadn't been expecting Wufei. I heard him slow when I stopped walking.
I turned to face him and waited for him to speak first.
He gave me an odd, cock-eyed grin. "We convinced Heero to give you
a little space on the condition that one of us drove you home."
"And you lost the coin toss?" I snapped, feeling mildly guilty
about the crack.
His smile became a little sardonic. "Actually, I volunteered. I thought
Winner would have better luck getting through Yuy's thick head."
That rather took me by surprise, and I just stood and blinked at him for
a second. Had I misjudged which one of us his glare had been directed
"Come on," he coaxed gently, inclining his head in the direction
of his car, "let me take you home."
"You weren't done with your dinner," I frowned at him, feeling
uncomfortable. "I'm just going to walk up to the street and flag
down a cab."
"Yuy will have my ass if I let you... " he began and my temper
"You mind telling me just what God awful thing is going to happen
to me during a fucking cab ride across town!" I felt my voice rising
and bit down on it, closing my eyes again while I hunted for the ratty
edges of my control.
A gentle hand came to rest on my arm, "Duo... please?"
I let out a ragged sigh and nodded, letting him steer me toward his car.
We settled in and pulled out in silence. I felt... like an utter ass.
"I... really didn't mean to spoil the whole damn evening," I
ventured after a couple of blocks of watching the street go by.
He chuckled darkly. "Well, it was memorable. At the very least, it'll
give me an interesting story to tell Sally later."
He won a laugh from me and I glanced over to catch him smiling at me.
"That's more like the Maxwell I remember."
I sighed. "Just hasn't seemed like there's been a hell of a lot to
laugh about lately."
His attention went back to his driving and his smile faded a little. "I...
apologize for teasing you so much over that... magazine article."
I grunted in no little embarrassment. "Not your fault... I don't
know why in the hell it blind-sided me so bad." I reached to massage
the bridge of my nose, "I sure as hell wasn't expecting the damn
thing to end up on the cover."
He snickered softly. "It was a rather... arresting picture."
He glanced across at me. "You really did that with a damn fractured
"Yep," I grunted, letting my head fall back and my eyes close.
"Never been known for my common sense."
There was another of those sardonic little snorts and then a small silence.
"You know," he said after a couple more blocks, "we may
have been teasing you... but there wasn't a one of us that wasn't impressed
as hell by that story."
"What?" I blurted, eyes popping open. "I looked like some
kind of... of... expositionist lunatic!"
He laughed out loud. "Well... the magazine did manage to find the
most sensational pictures they could. But the article itself wasn't bad,
I never knew you were such a talented artist.' His hands worried at the
steering wheel, fingers flexing. "You should read it before you let
it upset you so much you have to run off to the restroom.'
My face flooded with heat so fast I thought I would burst into flame.
Dear God... was I that damn transparent? The pain in my head flared
so sharply it sent streaks of white lancing across my field of vision.
"Did... did Heero... " I stuttered, feeling sick to my stomach.
"No," he told me firmly, his voice somewhere between amused
and concerned. "He never realized, he was too busy ogling those pictures
of your half-naked, blue-painted... "
I think I moaned. I covered my face with my hands and just wished we would
fucking get there, already. "Jesus," I muttered. "He must
"What?" Wufei practically barked and I flinched, I hadn't actually
intended to share that last thought. "Duo... don't you have any idea
how damn... proud of you, he is?"
I glared across at him and felt my face flushing again. "Do not be
absurd," I mumbled, suddenly aware that the car wasn't moving. I
glanced around and realized we were sitting in front of the apartment.
"Thanks for the ride back, man," I told him and scrambled out.
"Duo... ?" Wufei called, his face looking... odd.
"Goodnight, Wufei," I said calmly, shut the door of the car,
turned and walked away.
I didn't hear the car pull out until I was inside the building.
Once back in the apartment I dug a soda out of the fridge and used it
to wash down a couple of pain pills. I made up an ice pack and went to
stretch out on the couch with it on the back of my neck; it didn't help
the blinding headache a whole hell of a lot, but it made me feel like
I was doing something. I would have gone on to bed if I hadn't promised
Heero that we would have this out yet tonight. I didn't know whether to
wish he'd hurry up and get his ass home, or wish he wouldn't come back
tonight at all. I really didn't know that I felt up to more... discussion.
You know... I utterly make myself sick. I don't know why in the hell it
is so hard for me to slap on the old court jester mask any more. All my
years growing up, especially after the... massacre... it just became second
nature, I could have grinned through a wolverine gnawing my legs off.
Why in the hell couldn't I manage to get through a single damn day anymore
without coming apart at the seams?
Heero gave it an hour. Whether he was giving me that time or taking it
for himself, I don't know. But I heard his key in the front lock an hour
after I lay down with my ice pack, almost to the minute.
The headache had eased some and I was dozing in fitful spurts; starting
at every noise, waiting for him.
He came into the apartment, seeming much calmer than when I had left the
restaurant. I expected him to come straight to the couch to start the
conversation/argument I was dreading, but he surprised me. He moved to
the little table by the door where he typically dumped his stuff each
evening, and emptied his pockets into the bowel that sat there. Turning,
he slipped out of his jacket and draped it across the back of the armchair
before wandering over to his stereo system where he began to pick through
his small music collection.
I sat up and dropped the ice pack onto the coffee table, turning to watch
him curiously. I saw him slip a CD into the player but instead of just
letting it play, he very carefully chose a specific track. He was moving
toward me as the first strains of music filled the room.
'Lend your love to me tonight,
Don't ask me who or what is right,
I have no strength... I can not fight,
Just flood my darkness with your light... '
Emerson, Lake and Palmer? Ok... I will be the first one to admit that
Heero Yuy will surprise the shit out of me right up until the day I die.
He stopped in front of me, taking my hand and pulling me gently off the
couch. He didn't let go after I was on my feet, but raised my hand to
his lips and kissed the palm before bringing it to rest on his shoulder.
Then his arms slid around me and I found our bodies swaying gently to
the soft music.
"It took me years to find this song," he whispered next to my
ear. "You played it... the first time I heard you sing... on that
mission." He brushed a kiss along the side of my neck, making me
quiver. "That was the first time I saw you with your hair down."
I didn't know what in the hell to say and just slid one arm around his
neck and rested my forehead on his shoulder. We'd never... danced together
"That was the night you... completely captivated me," he sighed,
leaning his head against mine. "I had felt drawn to you from the
moment we met... but that night... ." He straightened and made me
raise my head to meet his eyes. "God, love... I will never
forget how you looked that night." His voice was so... rich with
emotion that I shivered, staring into those bottomless eyes of his. Eyes
that could be cold as an artic wind or hot as flaring passion, by turns.
"Fighting won't make my heart content," he told me resolutely.
"You are the only thing that makes my heart content."
The song had long since changed but we continued our languid, barely moving
dance... not really hearing the music anyway. He leaned in almost tentatively,
bringing his lips near mine but not quite touching. Hovering close enough
for our breath to mingle; asking permission... waiting for an invitation.
[cont] [back to Sunhawk's