by: Sunhawk

Deceptions (cont)

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 do?"

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 Zero-gravity competition'.

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 drolly.

"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 empire!"

"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 war, anyway.

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 woman.

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 others.

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, "Maxwell?"

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 too."

"Brave," he intoned with mock dignity. "It makes me brave too."

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 drinks."

"He can't, asshole," Smitty informed him with a roll of his eyes. "Did you forget already? He'll be on L3."

Oh shit.

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 me?

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 me too.

"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 at earlier?

"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 flared.

"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 wrist?"

"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 be mortified!"

"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 before.

"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.

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