by: Sunhawk

Deceptions (cont)

I had a message from the guy on L3 and he was absolutely ecstatic to finally be getting his paint job. Seems his current girlfriend had gotten around to refusing to sleep with him until the former girlfriend's picture was removed from over their bunk.

On a sudden whim I pulled up an internet search engine and went looking for the name of that guy in Hell; the one with the rock. It took me a good ten minutes, but when I finally found the information I about fell off the couch laughing. Sisyphus - his name was Sisyphus...and he ended up damned to hell for tricking Death...twice! What an unbelievable twist of the ironic. Sisyphus was my new hero.

Still chuckling, I downloaded a picture I found of an old etching of the guy, pushing his rock up his hill, head bent and muscles bulging under the strain. I turned it into my laptop wallpaper. When I finally died and went to Hell I vowed to see if I could find Sisyphus, maybe I could give him a hand.

My flight plan had come through as well, with a little note attached from Smitty apologizing for getting me in trouble with my 'buddy'. I grinned, the son of a bitch was fishing to see if he could goad me into telling him just what Heero was to me. Maybe if I ever ran into them again with Heero in tow, I would introduce him as my husband and see if I could actually render the smart-ass musketeer speechless.

I just had time to toss off a flippant response in which I did not mention Heero, before I had to head out to therapy.

My therapist was less than thrilled to find out that I would be out of town for the next couple of days and would miss at least one session and maybe two. The results of my last trip, after all, had not been that beneficial to my health. I got a rather lengthy lecture about how she was getting a little tired of backing up with me and starting over. That if I went off and did to myself what I had done last time, she was going to turn me over to the chief physical therapist, Dan, who was rumored to truly believe that 'no pain, no gain' was a way of life.

I eventually escaped the clinic and went straight to my ship to handle the resupply and final inspection. I had an appointment in the afternoon with the workman who was going to fit a lockdown station in the guest cabin for the ocelot cage. I sure as hell hoped the damn animal didn't stink.

That little chore took just over an hour. The mechanic was a big, beefy guy with a scraggly beard and a bad habit of using the word 'y'know'. I thought I would scream before I finally got him off my ship. I had to resist the urge to hose down the area he'd been working in.

I took the time to download the week's weather reports and ran a quick scan of the job boards to see if there might be something I could piggyback onto this job to boost my profit margin, but didn't find a thing.

That left me with just an hour before Heero was due home from work and I didn't want him arriving to an empty apartment. I didn't think that would do much for his mental state right now. I locked the ship down, called a cab and hauled ass.

I didn't make it; he'd skipped his session in the gym with Wufei and come right home from work. I saw the car in the lot and went pounding up the stairs to the third floor as fast as I could manage. He had beaten me, but not by much. He was still clutching the bag of Chinese take-out in his hand, standing in the middle of the living room with the most God-awful stricken look on his face, when I threw the door open and made my entrance.

"Damn it, Heero," I panted. "You weren't supposed to skip your work-out."

He managed to mostly banish the fearful look with a quirky little grin. "Technically, we're on our honeymoon... I thought it would be a nice gesture to come home early."

"And bearing gifts, no less," I grinned, trying to help him ease away from the tension.

"You as much as gave me orders this morning," his grin widened. "Something to do with sushi and sex?"

I slipped out of my jacket and tossed it across the nearest chair before heading toward the kitchen for plates. "The implication was that take-out would leave more time this evening for...other things. It's your gutter-bred mind that connected the phrase 'sexy ass' with the dinner request."

There was a grunt from my partner as he followed me into the kitchen and by the time I came back to the table with the dishes, he had put his moment of panic completely behind him.

The teasing stopped while we dished up dinner and an odd, almost uncomfortable quiet took hold. I was struggling for something to say, some reassuring comment I could offer up and pretty much coming up empty.

"I got a call from Trowa today," he ventured into the silence, not looking up from his plate.

"Oh?" I said brightly.

He stirred rice around with his chopsticks. "He and Quatre think... that I'm...throwing too much at you all at once." He glanced up at me through the curtain of his hair, with eyes that hoped I would refute the comment.

I thought about it and decided that I should probably not let this opportunity pass. Though it was a toss up whether I wanted to kiss or kick my little brother. Quatre really needed to stay the hell out of things that were none of his business. I sighed softly, "I'm sorry, Heero...I have to admit that I'm not...entirely comfortable around your friends yet."

He looked up at me with a frown. "They're your friends too."

"No they're not," I told him gently, but firmly. "I barely know them... it's been years."

He sat and regarded me for several long minutes and I felt myself wanting to crawl under the table. I bit down on the urge to fill the silence with rambling reassurances. The ball was in his court; his serve.

"Those... guys, last night?" he finally said. "Those were friends?"

I flashed a smile. "Well, I hope they still are."

He mulled that for a few bites and then looked up at me again. "You were... more at ease while you were talking to them."

I stopped with a forkful of rice half way to my mouth and thought about it. I suppose I had relaxed somewhat while talking to the musketeers. I had been on the inside of my own set of inside jokes, after all. "Well, I've known them for a couple of years... we have a history," I went ahead and ate that forkful of rice before saying, "like you have with the guys."

His gaze darted toward me, then dropped to his plate; we ate in silence while he considered the implications of that.

"I'm sorry," he murmured and was back to stirring his rice around his plate in a strange parody of one of those Japanese sand gardens.

"Nothing to be sorry for, Heero," I told him matter-of-factly. "You didn't ask me to do anything... over the top. It just came after a very bad day, I should have known better than to even have gone."

He raised his eyes and the look he gave me can only be described as... intense. He opened his mouth. Shut it. Opened it again. The look on his face turned... frustrated. I wondered what in the world was going on behind those deep blue eyes but knew I wouldn't find out until he was damn good and ready to tell me. Eventually he settled on, "Quatre asked me to invite you to lunch one day next week, just the two of you. He thinks it might be... easier for you."

I couldn't keep the frown from my face but I nodded. "Tell him... I'll call him. We'll set something up."

"Duo?" he questioned gently and drew a sigh from me.

"It's a... nice gesture on his part, love." I tried to squelch the faint irritation. "But I have to confess you guys are starting to make me feel like... like some kind of damn skittish, wild animal that you're trying to tame."

He blinked across at me and the flush that darkened his face made me throw back my head and laugh out right, the last of the irritation washing away.

"Enough already," I told him then. "I don't even want to know what Wufei had to say on the subject. I don't want to talk about last night. I don't want to talk about that damn magazine. I want to spend tonight with my lover, not my mother-hen."

We finished dinner, cleaned up the mess and settled on the couch to play a little backgammon. Talk was kept light, he told me a little bit about the case he was working on and I told him about the workman who had come out to the ship that afternoon. I developed a cramp in the calf of my leg from running up the stairs earlier and he offered to rub it out. The evening progressed rather predictably from there and we spent the rest of the night in his room this time. He made love to me like it was the last time he would ever see me. When we finally settled down for sleep, I was exhausted enough that I actually managed it.

I woke with his arms still curled around me. I was a little surprised at first; we normally roll apart once we're asleep, each of us seeking a more comfortable position. Then I tried to slip away to go get a shower before he woke and... found myself trapped. He wouldn't let go. Even sound asleep. I would have laughed if it hadn't been so... heart wrenching. Guilt crawled stealthily up the foot of the bed and bit me resoundingly on the ass.

I glanced across him to the clock and sighed, he still had a half an hour before he needed to get up. I guess I would just skip the shower for now; I could always take one aboard ship later.

I raised my head from his shoulder to look up into his face and was dismayed to find dark-circled eyes and a faint frown even in his slumber. I wondered how long he had lain awake last night.

His arm tightened around me when I shifted. "Not yet...please..." I think he was dreaming.

"Shhh...I'm right here," I whispered softly and felt another nip from guilt as the faint frown faded away.

I lay my head back down with a sigh and resisted the urge to turn around and try to kick the shit out of the slathering, sharp-fanged beast that was guilt. Guilt sucks.

I just felt like I had too much on my plate right now to be able to deal with his fears too. I had enough of my own. There was a part of my head that could not even think about going back out there between the planets all alone again. I just had to keep shoving that aside, focusing on the immediate. One freakin', damn step at a time. Step one; shower. Step two; pack. Step three; get to ship on time. Step four; run through checklist. Step five; take on cargo. Step six; launch. Step six kept bringing me up stone cold. My mouth would go dry and my hands would start to shake. So I just didn't think about step six. I'd get there after step five and I'd deal with it when the time came. But I was already screwed to hell in that I couldn't even manage step one.

All right then, simply change the schedule. Forget the shower. Step one; reassure terrified lover.

Fifteen minutes before he was due to get up, I managed to squirm out of his arms and position myself to better advantage. I said 'good morning'... without benefit of words. He started awake with a strangled cry and I almost got kneed in the side of the head for my trouble. His look of blurry confusion was priceless and I raised my head from what I was doing to give him a teasing, "good morning, husband-mine," before returning to the task at hand.

He managed something that might have been, 'morning' and might have been 'more'. I wasn't sure and obliged anyway. His confusion faded quickly and before long the room was filled with the sound of his erotic moaning.

After the moaning crescendoed in a piercing cry and he collapsed, gasping and spent, I crawled up the length of his body and purred in his ear. "Shower with me?"

"If I can still stand up, damn it!" he mock growled and made to reach for me but I ducked away.

"We'll be late," I scolded and headed toward the bathroom with a grin that made him grumble some more. He took almost five full minutes to come staggering in after me. I let him help me wash my hair until his soapy hands left my scalp and began working elsewhere. "I have a schedule, Yuy," I told him, pulling away to rinse my hair. I almost sighed at the near imperceptible tension that arose at the remark.

"Hey," I smiled, tapping at the container of shampoo. "Can you pick me up another bottle the next time you're at the drug store? I'm almost out."

He folded his arms and tilted his head with an odd smile, watching me slick the last of the shampoo from my hair.

"Ok, love," he murmured. "That's enough... I get the message."

I blinked water out of my eyes and met his gaze. "Busted, huh?"

"I'm not that dense," he sighed and this time, when he reached for me, I let him take me in his arms. "I trust your intensions. Just...just stay safe for me?"

"I'll do my best," I told him, because anything more would have been a lie. An obvious lie.

"I love you," he murmured, and his arms tightened around me. "More than anything."

"I love you too," I responded solemnly, then drew back to smile at him. "I'm like a stray cat...you fed me; there's no getting rid of me now."

He didn't answer, just held me close under the warm spray of water.

I sighed softly. "It's not even a salvage job, love."

I felt him go... all tense and there was the sound of an almost gasping sigh. "Duo... I was there when you put that vacuum suit on to go after the Brannigan's. I heard you... I saw you when you came back." He pushed me away to hold at arm's length. "You were white as a ghost...shaking like a leaf. I thought you were going to pass out. You may be able to lie to yourself, but you can't lie to me. You aren't ready for this."

I felt a thread of anger run through my blood but it refused to flare into anything stronger because... because I knew he was right. He was right but it didn't matter. I didn't know what in the hell to say to him.

His eyes were... strange. Dark and almost angry, but I couldn't figure out which of us he was upset with. Me for going, or himself for letting his fears eat at him so much. I smoothed his wet hair away from those dark eyes and tried to calm the anger from them at the same time, "I'll be back before you have a chance to miss me."

"I miss you already," he growled.

Well screw it...he just wasn't going to make this any easier.

"Heero..." I began, but he cut me off with a sudden kiss, almost harsh in its desperate intensity.

"Damn you," he breathed against my cheek, voice twisted near to breaking. "You come back to me...do you hear me? You damn well better come back to me."

Then he was gone. Fled the shower. Fled the bathroom. By the time I had picked my jaw up off the floor, finished rinsing and gotten out...he had fled the apartment.

Well hell. There was nothing in this world I could do to reassure him short of canceling the damn trip. If I quit the job I was sunk. I might as well sell my ship and kiss the trade good-bye. This was going to be a long, hard, up-hill battle building my business back. It was going to be harder than just starting out had been. I hadn't had any negative rumors floating around about me back then, a clean slate. Before I could work my way back to something substantial I was going to have to pay my dues in a lot of little scut jobs to prove I could still pilot. If I could still pilot.

I could not...it kills me to admit it...but I just could not deal with his fears on top of my own. And yeah, I get the odd little irony of the fact that it was my not dealing with mine, that was mostly causing his. Twisted little situation we were in the middle of here, by anyone's standards.

I worried at it, like a dog with an old bone, looking for that last scrap of...whatever the hell, while I threw my things into a duffle. But I came up empty. I couldn't think of a single way to make this better, could think of nothing I could do or say that would ease this for him. Hell, I couldn't think of a way to ease it for me. I already felt like I was going to pass out and was steadfastly not thinking about where I was going and why. I was just doing my best to concentrate on step two; packing.

And I finished that without coming to any conclusions. I left for my ship without leaving a note... there was nothing more to say. I managed to accomplish step three with five minutes to spare.

I stowed my gear and set about starting the final ship's lock-down, just doing my best to lose myself in the familiar routines. Letting my hands do their well-known job, body on autopilot while brain tried to inch it's way toward the idea of launch. I briefly considered the notion of attaching six or seven of those anti-nausea patches all over my ass.

When I worked my way through the ship to the cockpit, my message light was flashing. I jacked into the dock-net and called up my e-mail. There was a single message, from Heero of course, and I found myself almost reluctant to open it.

I was down to my last two steps. Getting my cargo loaded and then that last one, the one that I was having trouble thinking about. The one that was making my stomach churn and my throat ache despite my not thinking about it. If this message was another plea for me to cancel the trip... I was afraid I just might do it. I was that close. That God damned near a breaking point I hadn't realized I was on the edge of. My hand hovered over the touch pad for several minutes before I finally broke down and clicked the message open with an almost violent gesture.

Don't ask me if I was hoping he would ask me one last time not to go... because I don't know the answer.

'I'm sorry,' the message read and I could almost hear his breathless voice trying to get it out before it was too late. 'Please forgive me. You're right; I'm scared. I just found you... I can't lose you. Do what you have to do, but please just come home safe. I love you, Duo, I want forever.'

He'd finally stopped to think about what he was doing to my concentration. The message was disjointed, not like his normal carefully crafted ones. He'd been rushing to get it sent before I launched. I'm not sure if it made things better or worse. I could picture him sitting in his office at work staring at his computer screen, waiting for a reply. I saw him running his fingers through that unruly hair of his in that gesture he makes when he's at wit's end.

My fingers brushed over the keys while I thought. I didn't have a lot of time; my cargo was due in a matter of minutes, but I had to answer him. I couldn't manage this launch with that mental picture of him dancing before my eyes; sitting... waiting... I began to type.

'I told you, you are my soul's home. I will always come back to you. Always and forever. You're my strength, Heero...you have to be strong for both of us just a little bit longer. Don't doubt how tough an old street rat can be... I can do this. You just be there, waiting for me when I come home. I love you.'

I agonized over it until I saw the cargo truck pull into the bay, I hit the send button before I had a chance to change my mind about the wording for the hundredth time and ran to direct the cargo handlers into the guest cabin. Maybe it wouldn't have sounded so hollow to me if I had believed that part about being able to do this.

Ocelots are damned impressive beasties. It was sedated for the launch and napped happily in its cage while two dockworkers wrestled it into the lock-down station. The cat's handler stood over them, watching their every move like a hawk, even while he was rattling off a set of instructions to me about the care and handling of 'Astra'.

Mr. Blackmoor was a tiny little man with a pinched up, unhappy looking face. A guy who frowned more than he smiled and I was betting if he didn't have an ulcer from perpetually looking on the dark side of things, he would have one before he got much older.

I was given a hardcopy of the same information packet that I had been e-mailed the night I took this job. I didn't need it, but took it without argument. He gave me a bundle that consisted of more sedatives for Astra if she became agitated after the first dose wore off. He told me she had traveled before and shouldn't have any problems as long as I wasn't one of those 'hot shot' pilots. I almost laughed at that one. I was cautioned to make sure her water bottle remained full and was instructed on how to refill it without getting my hands where Astra might decide to snack on them. He gave me a long lecture about the fact that ocelots were not house pets; they were wild animals and should be treated with caution. He showed me how the bottom of the cage retracted for 'cleaning' before finally showing signs that he was going to get the hell off my ship. I got a wink from one of the dockworkers as they made their escape and I suspected that they had already heard this monologue once already today.

The last thing I was given was a package of 'ocelot dinner' that I was instructed to refrigerate. After the man was gone, I took a peek in the brown paper packet and whistled. Apparently, ocelots eat better than most people do. At least this ocelot did.

I stowed meat and medicine, and locked down the cargo bay doors before heading for the cockpit. Time to get this sideshow on the road.

I took two seconds to check my e-mail one last time and had to fight down a bitter upwelling of disappointment when I had nothing from Heero. What the hell else was there to say? Absolutely nothing. So, of course he hadn't answer me. I can't tell you what I had been hoping to find. One last entreaty? One last 'I love you'? I just don't know.

Like the pathetically superstition-bound idiot I am, I buckled Fuzzy-butt into the co-pilot's seat, giving his bedraggled ear a rub. I settled myself in the pilot's chair next and found my fingers fumbling for my cross without my conscious thought. I was steadfastly not looking beyond the second. I was not launching my ship. I was not alone on said ship. I was not preparing to go... out there. I was not.

I was simply running through a pre-flight checklist. That did not mean I was preparing to do anything. I was not...

The urge to throw-up over took me in a sudden rush. The little voice that had been whimpering in the back of my head all morning, the voice that I had been placating with little white lies, was suddenly, completely panicked and demanding to know what was going on.

OhGodohGodohGod...

It wasn't on the pre-flight checklist, but I ended up making room for it – 'puking guts up'. I had a sinking feeling that I was going to have to put it on the list from now on. Right between disconnecting from the dock web and the final check of all hatch seals.

I heard the chime of an incoming call before I was finished and knew that my tow-truck was here. I prayed all the way back from the head that it wasn't Dusty. I wouldn't be able to cover up how rattled I was with him.

I slapped the open channel and almost wept with relief when it was stoic old Cortaine who's voice came across my speakers.

"Requesting permission to lock onto your ship, Maxwell." He always manages to sound bored by the whole process. I've never exchanged more than the usual banter with the man, he has no sense of humor what-so-ever.

"Go ahead, Cortaine," I called and listened to the loud, metallic clangs of the grapplers latching on.

The voice in the back of my head was scrabbling desperately for a front row seat where it could exert some control over the body we both lived in. Nonononono...Won't go...Can't make me...Nonono...

My hands, on total autopilot, were buckling me in. I glanced down at an odd clicking noise and found my fingers shaking so hard I was having trouble getting the buckles to mate up. I giggled hysterically at the notion that they looked like somebody else's hands. Well hell; they'd looked like somebody else's hands for years now.

"What was that, Maxwell?" Cortaine called and my little internal voice almost managed enough control to yell for him to stop.

"N... nothing," I managed and cringed when my voice wavered.

The ship gave a lurch as we started to move. I was so slicked with sweat my hair was sticking to my forehead. God, if Heero could see me now, he'd probably deck me if he had to, in order to stop me. He wouldn't have had to. In that moment, if he had appeared in my cockpit and simply said 'wait', it would have been all over.

I was struck with a sudden, gut-wrenching desire to send him one last message. A final good-bye... just in case.

"You all right in there?" Cortaine queried and I wondered if I really sounded that bad, or if the whole God damn world knew what a mess I was.

"I think I'm allergic to my cargo," I joked ruthlessly. The lame comment, delivered in a voice that was tight with tension, would never have fooled Dusty. Cortaine laughed.

"Good thing you're only takin' the critter to L3 then," he joked. "It would suck to be stuck in there with it for longer than that."

I didn't bother to respond, he wasn't really expecting it anyway.

I hesitated over the music; I couldn't do this in a silent ship. No way in hell.

I wanted 'March of Cambreadth' but didn't figure Cortaine and the rest of the field would appreciate it. The whole damn area would know something was up if I launched without my music on external speakers. I never launch without my music, it's part of that whole 'spacer's luck' thing. People in the trade don't like messing with it.

I settled on 'Dance of the Sand Witches', and queued 'March' to kick in behind it. I'd be on the launch ramp by then and the hell with all of them.

My gut was clenched so tight I was in physical pain.

Nononono...Don't wanna...Can't make me...It's dark and cold and empty...I can't...I can't...I can't...

I hit the music and jacked the volume, thankful that I wasn't getting the same attention I had gotten last trip. The few pilots who happened to be on the field stopped and turned to wave, but there wasn't that gauntlet of well-wishers to run.

The music swelled and sped, I latched onto it for all I was worth. Cortaine stopped talking to me when it began to play anyway, so I was able to forget about him. Electric guitars. Electric fiddles. Pounding drums. The music set the pace of my heart and I let them drown out the voice of the little, scared boy in my head.

Don't wanna go...Please don't make me go...I'll be good...Please...please...

We were on the pad and Cortaine was aligning me with the ramp. My hands were moving over my boards, initiating the latching process. The tower was calling for the final synch. I started my engines.

Pleasepleasepleaseplease...

I got the green lights. The countdown commenced, the guy in the tower calling out the last thirty seconds, the auto selector amplifying his voice over the music. The 'March of Cambreadth' kicked in and the drums that drove my heartbeat steadied.

This was the song I had used during the war when I had not been able to go on any more. When fear and pain, exhaustion and doubt had slashed at my soft-underbelly... I had used my music to drive myself, despite all of it. I embraced it now like I hadn't had to in years.

'Use your shield and use your head, Fight till every one is dead, Raise the flag up to the sky, How many of them can we make die!'

What do you do when you're so scared you can't see straight? You get pissed.

No! I can't...I can't...

"Fuck if you can't!" I yelled for all I was worth and hit the jets.

My Demon roared to life under my hands and the voice in the back of my head got just enough control to scream 'Heero!' like the frightened child I can't afford to be.

It was all lost in the sound of the engines anyway.

There was nothing to see but flash-glare through the ports, but I knew the sky around me was giving way to the cold emptiness of space. The yoke vibrated like a thing alive in my already unsteady hands. "Come on, Demon-girl... don't fight me," I growled.

Out and free. That moment that used to fill me with peace. When the thrusters cut out because they're no longer needed and the crushing fist of God lifts from your chest. That moment when you are no longer Earth-bound... no longer ruled by gravity. I used to love that moment.

There was an almost giddy rush of accomplishment that rode in on the crest of a rising tide of fear. All tempered by a solid realization that I was committed. There was no turning back now. The trip to L3 is a good twelve hours. On a better day, that was a nothing run... I'd made the short hop a million times in my career. But somehow, today, the L3 port seemed a lifetime away.

My training kicked in and I found my body moving without my having to tell it what to do next. Shut down the thrusters, plot the course, engage the main drive, change the music.

The voice in my head was nothing but a whimper. It had given up the fight for lost and was just hunkered down trying not to think. Well, that was fine; I was trying pretty damn hard not to think too much either.

Duty made me get up and go back to the guest cabin to check on my 'cargo'. In her cage, Astra slit a heavy eyelid and gifted me with what seemed to amount to a pissed off glare. She didn't know who I was and I could see her nostrils flare, as she tasted the air for my scent. But the drugs in her system kept her from really giving a damn and those golden eyes fell closed again. She was gorgeous. I wished idly that I could take her out of the cage and pet her; it would really have been something to be able to touch that fur. It looked thick and soft as velvet. I could imagine her purring if I could have scratched her ears. But I remembered Mr. Blackmoor's warnings about her being a wild animal and decided that getting my hand eaten was probably not an acceptable risk for the brief reward of being able to... being able to touch another living thing.

I laughed out loud and Astra slit one eye open to peer at me disdainfully. God; was I that fucking desperate not to be alone? It was a stupid cat; what in the hell was I thinking?

I whirled away from the sight of the cage and headed for the galley, wishing on some level that I had beer in there. I probably wouldn't have drunk it even if I'd had it, but that didn't keep me from thinking about it. I knew better than to go that way, I'd seen enough people in the trade take that ride when things got rough, and I knew damn good and well that you didn't come back up that road nearly as easy as you went down it.

I settled on a soda and tried to sit at the galley table to drink it, but found myself too restless. I needed something to occupy my mind, something to help me not listen to the crying voice inside my head. The one that kept trying to tell me just how thin the walls of a space ship were. How very far away from a safe haven we had come. How very quiet it was behind the music. How very alone we were.

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