by: Sunhawk

Deceptions (cont)

I wandered back to the guest cabin and found my sketchpad and pencils, deciding on a whim to sit and sketch the ocelot. I tried not to think about the fact that I was probably making the excuse to stay in the room with the beast just so I would be a little bit less alone.

"Hope you don't mind posing," I told the big cat and she promptly yawned hugely, displaying a respectable mouth full of sharp teeth. "I wonder just what it is that's waiting for you." A boyfriend, maybe? Perhaps a cushy new home in a zoo? I laughed again. "What about joining Catherine's circus? Maybe that's why you don't mind traveling; you're a circus performer!" She wasn't amused.

I put pencil to paper, but my mind was wandering and I found myself thinking how much Solo would have liked to have seen the big cat. He had loved animals, not that there were a lot of them to see on L2... well, except for the rats. But we had seen a lady with a dog once and Solo had followed her for three blocks, just watching the way the thing's hair had moved as it had trotted along.

"What do you think of Astra, rat-boy?" I queried, but didn't get an answer.

The lady with the dog had panicked after we had followed her for a while and had suddenly grabbed a cop when she happened to pass one and pointed us out. He had chased us for almost five blocks before we had gotten away by darting through traffic heavy enough to dissuade him. Solo had talked about that dog for days, before getting sullen about it. Then we had never talked about dogs again.

I thought about Hayden and Toria and wondered if they had their new ship yet. Probably not, or Toria would have called me to start redoing the paintings of their fantasy family. At least... I hope she would have called me. I was a little afraid that they felt so guilty over that zero-grav expo mess, that they weren't calling me at all. I suppose I should take the initiative and send a message out; see how they were doing.

The pencil moved over the paper while my mind wandered around in little circles. I was somewhat soothed by the familiar flow of light and shadow, form and line.

I wondered how Heero was doing. Wondered if he had gotten my last message. I hoped against hope that there would be something waiting for me when I got to L3 and could jack back into the colony net. I could call Heero from here, using the Ansible net, as he had used it to call Wufei on that last trip, but that was damned expensive. Besides, I had told him I was coming out here to do this on my own; calling him every five minutes wasn't much better than bringing him along. Leaning was leaning, no matter what the crutch was. I had to get through this alone.

It irritated me somewhat, this idea that he had, that I could just 'talk this through'. I think he was dying to try to convince me into therapy of some sort, but knew better than to bring that up. There was just no point to that crap in this case. It's not like I didn't know what the damn problem was. I knew it inside and out. I was screamingly, horrifically, absolutely terrified of being marooned in hard vacuum. I was borderline claustrophobic. I was nearly irrational about being alone. What was there to talk about? I had an accident. I spent a week in total darkness, near total isolation, on the verge of suffocation in the freezing cold of deep space. Yeah... I had issues. Talking about it wasn't going to make it any better. Facing it might. And then again... it might not. If it didn't... it was all over. I didn't have any choice but to sell the ship and walk away from the trade. Walk away from everything that I had single-mindedly worked toward for the last three years. I did not know what in the hell I would do then.

My stomach poked at me, pointing out that I had been abusing it today and it had finally settled enough, that food might be a nice idea. I straightened and felt sore back muscles complain. That made me glance at my watch and I realized that hours had elapsed. I was a little relieved that I had been able to calm myself down enough to have slipped outside the time flow a little bit. I had feared that the minutes of this trip would tick by with the sluggishness of hours. Then I glanced down to see how Astra's portrait had come out.

It wasn't the ocelot's face that I found on the paper, but my own... both of them.

I blinked stupidly at the self-portrait... portraits. It was me, looking haggard and worn, old and drained, holding... me. As a small child.

Grown-up me; my eyes are closed and shadowed, face lined with pain and defeat. My cheeks are gaunt and my hair is wisping free of the braid, straggling around my face. I am holding a little boy tight to my chest, tucked in under my chin. My arms are wrapped around him, clutching him to me with an almost desperate air, trying to offer shelter... trying to protect.

Child me; my eyes are closed too, scrunched up in sheer terror. My face is grubby and my clothes are tattered; a street rat clear down to the soul. My little hands are fisted tightly in the shirt of the man holding me. I seek shelter. I seek comfort. The man looks as though he is long past being able to protect either one of us.

We both looked... lost.

I flipped the cover closed on the sketchpad with a muttered curse and threw myself off the bunk. Astra yawned toothily again and stretched languidly, otherwise ignoring my outburst. I started to head for the galley and then suddenly realized I wasn't hungry anymore. I turned instead for the cockpit. I could check course and heading and double-check that I hadn't somehow missed an incoming call. I sometimes don't hear things when I'm drawing. Really I don't. It would kill a little more time.

I was almost through the cabin door when it hit me that I hadn't stopped to touch Solo's shoulder before launch. Hit me. I mean that in an almost literal way, I felt like someone had hauled off and punched me in the damn stomach. I just fucking stood there in the doorway, afraid to turn around and look at the portrait. My Demon seemed, suddenly, a very damn quiet place. Three years I'd been touching Solo, talking to Solo, shipping out with the only real partner I'd ever had. The ghost of my childhood protector. The ghost of my heart's brother. And... I had forgotten.

I turned slowly to look at the familiar figure. He stood, just as he has stood since I had painted him there, with that sardonic, almost bored grin. My mind wanted to supply a snappy line, wanted to hear him jeer at me mockingly for breaking the tradition. He should have taunted me about 'messing with spacer luck'. Should have pointed out that even Heero had known to slap his shoulder before launching.

"My ghosts don't rest", I had told Heero once and I had meant it. My ghosts have never gone gently into that dark night... they are very vocal little bastards. At least inside my own head. There were no voices today. No comforting jibes, no condemnation. Just cold, hard silence.

I had forgotten.

My fingers sought the line of scars on my arm as I realized that I had forgotten much, much more than a simple launch ritual.

The day I had gotten my wrist brace removed. I had been so wrapped up in myself that I had forgotten what day it was. After all these years... I had forgotten the promise I made to Solo. Forgotten my oath to forever honor the day he died.

There aren't a lot of days in my life that I keep. I have no birthday. I have no family, so there are no birthdays or anniversaries to observe. I really don't believe in Christmas, a fact that would have appalled and saddened Father Maxwell. But he had preached of a kind and merciful God... something I'd never seen any evidence of. That, somehow, made it all the worse – I only really have that one day of remembrance a year; you would think I could manage not to screw that up.

I suddenly understood the quagmire of depression I had been wallowing in for the past several days. Understood it and was so overcome by it, that it was all I could do not to sink to the floor right in the middle of the hall and wail out my guilt and misery. I felt like my whole world was twisting out from under me.

There were thirteen thin, white scars on my forearm...one for each year that Solo had been gone. There should have been fourteen.

"Solo..." I found myself panting. "I'm so sorry...I didn't mean too...I didn't forget you, I...I just let the time slip by..."

There was no excuse. I knew that, and I knew I was only trying to ease my own guilt. There was no one here to hear me.

I'm not nuts. You do understand that, right? I talk to my ghosts and my memory of them lets me hear their replies. Lets me paint in what they would have said to me if they had lived and were still a part of my life. I know that. I don't for a minute believe that I am hearing the voices of my dead. But I have a very...vivid imagination. My mind can supply some very lovely lies. But right now, my mind was so swamped in regret and shame that it wasn't supplying much of anything. The silence was enough to bring the sting of tears to my eyes.

"I am so, so very sorry," I whispered to no on in particular.

Then I staggered off to my cabin to find my hunting knife. I would put this right. I would fix this... right now. It was to be, perhaps, not the smartest decision I ever made.

I remember finding the knife buried in the bottom of a drawer, next to my box of old photographs. I remember stumbling back to the corridor to stand looking up at Solo's portrait. I even remember holding the knife blade in my teeth while I rolled my sleeve up. I was shaking so badly I had trouble doing it.

I kept expecting Solo's voice to growl his displeasure at me. His 'ghost'... his memory had always hated this part of my yearly ritual and my mind usually used his voice to argue with me over it. There was only more silence. Somewhere deep inside, I knew it was only my guilt keeping me from supplying what I wanted, but in the state I was in, it felt like a denunciation. It felt like blame.

After that, I don't remember a lot. Pain. Blood. Fear. A feeling like I get when the muse takes control, that sudden, raging need to answer the call of the 'art'.

It's a freakin' miracle I didn't kill myself.

It was the sound, finally, of Solo's blessed, beloved voice echoing in my head that brought me back to reality. "What the fuck ya doin', asshole!?"

It was my own brain finally engaging, you say? Fuck you. I say it was Solo that saved my sorry ass because he forgave me. You don't like my reality... bite me.

The blood was freakin' everywhere. I saw it in front of me first. I was facing the blank corridor wall across from the line of my dead and there was a brand, spanking new portrait there. A dark and brooding likeness, somewhat flat in its monochrome medium of my own drying blood. There was a hell of a lot of blood.

I looked down almost fearfully at my arm and was shocked to see the gaping wound there. I could see the damn bone.

What in the hell had I done?

"That's what I been askin', you fuckin' moron!" came the familiar voice and I laughed in relief despite everything.

"Sorry...King-rat," I murmured.

"Get yer damn head together, rat-boy!" he yelled and it served to kick my ass in gear. Training that pre-dates conscious thought finally engaged and I grabbed at the gash, applying pressure even as I headed myself for the head and the med-kit.

Distantly, I heard Astra growl unhappily and imagined that the big cat was scenting all the blood... and not approving.

It took everything just short of a damn tourniquet to get the bleeding slowed and finally stopped. I was reeling by the time I managed it and as scared as I've been in... well, in five or six months, anyway.

All I could think was... Heero's going to kill me. It actually crossed my mind to try and hide it. But... well, I freakin' sleep with the man. It was going to be a little difficult. The idea made me chuckle. The chuckle rose up out of my throat until it was a full-bodied laugh that quickly got out of my control. I was sobbing brokenly before I even had a chance to figure out I was dancing on the edge of hysteria. I despised myself in that moment. How could I have forgotten Solo's day? How could I have let something that important slip by me? It was like that fucking damned accident had robbed me of... of everything. My strength. My nerve. My past. It was trying to rob me of my ship, of my livelihood. Sitting there in my blood-splattered clothes, sobbing like an idiot... I could feel it all slipping through my hands. I was only grateful that I was alone; I didn't need any damn witnesses to this day.

I got my fucked up little self back under control when I managed to start the bleeding up again. God, I was still hours out of L3. If I wasn't damn careful, I could bleed to death before I got there. More direct pressure and more gauze wrapped almost tight enough to cut off the circulation all together, and I got it stopped again.

Calmed by necessity, and much more cautious, the reality of my situation beckoned to me. I was out here on my own, just like I had wanted... now I had to deal with it. Wasn't anyone around to pick up the pieces but me, so I set myself to work.

Astra was a high priority and I went there first to check on her. Her water bottle was still half full and she seemed content to lounge around her cage, though I saw her testing the air with interest when I stuck my head into the cabin.

"Sorry, girl," I muttered to her. "I'll have to get back with you later."

Then I took myself off to clean up the mess in the corridor. It was awkward as all hell one handed and having to be oh so careful to keep my left arm as immobile as possible lest I start the bleeding up again.

When I got to my destination, at the very least, I would have Astra's handlers aboard my ship. It would not do to have the port authorities find my corridors splashed about with blood and a freakin' military hunting knife lying in the middle of it all.

Blood's a bitch to clean up, especially if it has a chance to dry. Coupled with my new handicap, it took me over an hour just to get it off the floor. I had to get down on my knees to accomplish the task; leaning over almost made me pass out.

Then I turned my attention to the wall and wasn't quite sure what to do.

It was an odd portrait and not just because it was 'painted' in my own damn blood. It obviously hadn't taken me long, or I would have been dead long before I had finished it. It was nothing more than a dozen or so smears done with my hand. A study in light and shadow... rusty brown on steel gray. At first I thought it was Solo. Then I thought it was Heero. Then I just wasn't sure. I raised the cleaning rag to it three times, but couldn't quite make myself touch it.

"Leave it," Solo said near my ear, his voice a little flat. It was... a warning.

"A reminder?" I asked without having to turn to see that he wasn't there.

"Yeah," he growled. "Cause we ain't never doin' this again."

"Sorry old friend," I sighed. Sorry I forgot. Sorry I did what I did when I remembered. Sorry for just a whole Goddamn truck load of shit. I would damn near have given my left arm in that moment to feel him slip an arm around me. To have someone there to lean on.

So I left it. Walked away and threw the rags into the incinerator. I stood there and stripped to my skivvies, tossing the blood-soaked clothes after the rags. I found that it had seeped clear through to my damn underwear, so I tossed them too.

Then I took myself off to the head and did my best to clean myself up. I hadn't gotten it in my hair, thank Heaven, but it was just about everywhere else. It took awhile and I was damn cold by the time I was done, but I managed to not tear the wound open again.

Getting dressed was a chore I had not anticipated the difficulty of. I was already damn near done in, and I thought I was going to pass out before I was finally finished. All I wanted in the whole world, in that moment, was to lie down in my bunk, in my star-spattered cabin, and sleep. But I didn't think I dared. There was the very real possibility that I might never wake up. I decided at that point, that food might be in order, and stumbled off to the galley.

I settled at the table with a couple of ration bars and a protein drink, just listening to my heart hammering in my chest as though it were laboring to continue. I wondered if I had screwed up my arm permanently. I wondered what in the hell had come over me. I thought about how I was going to explain the injury when I got to L3, because it was a stone, cold cinch that I needed medical attention. I didn't think 'I fell down the stairs' or 'I ran into a door' was going to cut it. Especially with the other scars on my arm. Damn, but this could get ugly. All I needed now was to end up in an L3 psych-ward diagnosed with a raving case of free-fall fever.

It took some effort to get myself moving again after I had eaten and finished my drink. I was feeling weak and vaguely drowsy and it was the fear of falling asleep at the table that finally made me move my ass. I decided that the best place for me was in the cockpit where I could do something about staying awake.

I was at least, thank God, well past the halfway point and I decided that I should probably feed my guest before I completely forgot about her. I took the packet of meat to Astra's cabin and she must have scented it; she was on her feet when I got there.

"Hungry, girl?" I asked and she rumbled what might have been 'yes, thank you' or might have been 'feed me, you fucker or I'll take your arm the rest of the way off'. Either way, I obliged and dropped the meat through the feed-slot. She fell on it with obvious relish, eyeing me warily as she ate. Traveling obviously didn't affect her appetite.

I idly hoped she didn't make too big of a mess because I wasn't in any shape to clean up after her.

Satisfied that she was as happy as I could make her, I made my wobbly way to the cockpit and proceeded to set several of the ship's alarms. One to signal when I got within a half an hour of L3. The other one, I set to go off every fifteen minutes to ensure I didn't fall asleep sitting here.

I checked my course, I checked heading and time. I pulled up a vector map and just freaking looked at it. I changed my music. I pulled up Heero's last e-mail message and reread it. I stared at my arm. I looked at the chrono and groaned. I was obviously trapped in one of those space-time continuum things and I was never going to get there.

I found that I couldn't think about my arm too much or my imagination felt severed muscles retracting up under my skin. Have I mentioned that I have a fairly vivid imagination? Vivid and kind of morbid. I was afraid to try and use my left hand, partly for fear of starting the bleeding again and partly from the fear that I might not be able to.

I played that stupid 'count the picture' game. How many pictures in the cockpit had Heero in them? How many had both Heero and Wufei but not Trowa or Quatre? How many had me without a Gundam in the background?

I resorted to singing, playing the fluffy dance music that I kept in the Helio folder. But that messed with my breathing and I ended up fairly panting for air. I stopped that and almost wept when I glanced at the chrono again. This was getting to be too much like my time in the asteroid belt with nothing to do but wait. Only this time, I didn't dare retreat into sleep. I started getting scared again.

"Solo?" I queried softly, just to make sure I could still conjure him.

"I ain't talkin' to you," his voice drawled. "You're an asshole an' a idiot."

I sighed. "Well fuck you too."

He appeared in the co-pilot's seat long enough to flip me off.

I called up a blank word document screen and thought about typing up that final message to Heero... just in case. The cursor blinked at me and I stared at it. How in the hell to tell him goodbye? How to tell him I hadn't meant for this to happen? How to make him understand? The cursor blinked at me some more.

The fifteen-minute alarm brought me jerking awake and I had a frantic couple of minutes cursing and fighting with the blood. I'd let my arm relax and when it had fallen into my lap, the flex had been enough to pull it open again. I was so screwed.

Having to turn the alarm off reminded me so much of using it after the accident, to remind me to change the air tanks, that I started to shiver in remembered panic.

My hand reached for the keyboard again.

I love you. I love you so much...please forgive me. I didn't mean for this to happen...

I erased it and stared at the blank screen some more. That sounded too damn... I don't know... whiney? I tried again.

I wish I had let you...

That one got struck away before I even finished the thought. It wouldn't do him any good for me to leave him anything that started with 'I wish'.

Please understand that I had to try this for myself. Understand that I thought I could handle it. I did not intend to do what I ended up doing. It truly was an accident...

God, that just sounded stilted, like I was making excuses.

In the end, I closed the damn utility and went back to playing 'count the picture'. Were there any with me and Heero together? How many with just Trowa and Quatre? How many with all five of us?

By the time the half hour alert went off, warning me that I was more than within communication range of L3, the pictures in the cockpit were burned into my retinas and I could give you the counts for every conceivable combination of them. I had also come to an unhappy conclusion. I wasn't going to be able to pilot my own damn ship into dock.

My face would have been burning with shame if I'd had the blood left for it.

"Control... this is 'Maxwell's Demon' requesting... assistance." The words tasted like sawdust in my mouth.

"Maxwell's Demon' what is your status?" promptly came back and I didn't recognize the voice.

"Control, I've had a small... accident and am unable to dock." I looked down at my arm when I said it... willing it to be better, but all that greeted my gaze was blood-soaked gauze.

"State the nature of your emergency," the unfamiliar voice said and I cringed.

"Pilot is... incapacitated." I reported, trying to keep it clinical. If I thought about having to do this too hard my stomach clenched up. I sure as hell didn't need that on top of everything else.

There was a slight hesitation and then the voice finally managed to get a little personality to it. "Just who am I talking to? What happened to the pilot?" I decided the voice belonged to a woman once she let a little emotion into it.

"This is Captain Maxwell," I sighed, wishing I could just vanish completely. "I am the pilot. I've had a small accident and have lost the use of my left arm... I can't bring her in without risking bleeding to death before I get there."

There was another hesitation, then, "Ok, Captain Maxwell... do I need to send a ship out to meet you?"

"I'm alright on autopilot," I told her. "And I could probably even manage to dock with just one hand... but I didn't figure you would appreciate me trying it."

That won me a small chuckle and I was suddenly aware of what a difference it was making, having someone to talk to. Even a nameless, faceless port clerk.

"Well, Captain Maxwell, my radar shows me you've still got twenty minutes. You want to tell me just what your status is?"

I snorted a dark laugh. "Screwed?" She laughed at me and I brightened further. "And how about calling me Duo... Captain Maxwell always sounds like he oughta be fifty years old."

"Duo then," she agreed but went doggedly back to the subject. "So just what did you do to your arm?"

"Tried to cut it off," I sighed and proceeded to spin a yarn that was mostly air and fairy dust, but was terribly witty and served to keep her interest enough that she stayed on the line and talked to me the rest of the twenty minutes. I thanked God, because I honestly think if she had signed off and left me alone for that last bit... I would have been curled up in the fetal position on the floor by the time they came to get me. I honestly don't know if I was really that entertaining or if she could hear the fear in my voice. My bruised and wounded ego likes to think I was just too irresistible to hang up on. Maybe I was, I did finally get a name out of her.

"All right, Duo," Kayla told me at long last. "That's close enough. Can you hold that position?"

"You got it," I laughed and knew that there was a certain giddy hysteria in it. I'd made it. By God and fuck me sideways... I had done it. I eased forward in my seat, killed the engines and was able to use the maneuvering jets one handed to stop my momentum.

"That's good," she said when she was satisfied. "Now sit tight for a minute, there's a station maintenance ship heading for you. They'll link up with a docking tube and we'll get you out of there."

"I'd prefer to ride in aboard my own ship, if that's all right," I frowned, thinking about it. "I have live cargo that I really need to see to, before I disembark."

There was a bit of silence while she either thought it over or conversed with the pilot of the ship headed my way, I'm not sure which.

She came back after a few moments. "That's going to depend on your condition, Duo. Let's just concentrate on getting Mr. Banks onboard right now."

I nodded and then had to chuckle at my own lapse. I was nodding at my comm. unit. Jeez... I really was screwed up. "Seems fair," I told her then. "I'm not a complete waste, I can walk... I can talk... I just can't move my arm."

She chuckled for me and then I heard the clanging sounds of a docking ring attaching to the outside of my ship.

"Excuse me, Kayla," I grinned. "I think I have company."

I slipped from my pilot's chair and made my wobbly way down the corridor to the air lock. The retractable docking tube was attached to my hull and I keyed open my exterior hatch. It took a couple more minutes before I saw a figure enter the tube on the other end and head across. When the presumed Mr. Banks was in my air lock, I hit the key sequence to cycle him through, stepping back to give the guy room.

The man stepped aboard my ship and began undogging his helmet. I waited patiently and suddenly found myself feeling utterly mortified. I could not fucking believe I had gotten myself into this mess. I had never, in all my years of piloting my own ship, gotten myself into such a bad place that I'd had to call on ship's services. I suppose you could say that my little foray into the asteroid belt would qualify as a 'bad place', but I hadn't freakin' called for help. I'd sat my sorry ass down to face the Reaper and was shocked as the next guy when I lived through the experience. This was, obviously, not the lowest that I had fallen... but it was a damn low point all the same.

"Welcome aboard," I grinned at the guy when the helmet came off and I was greeted with a dark frown.

"Captain Maxwell?" he queried and I could see he wasn't happy.

"That would be me," I sighed, resigned to having this moment rubbed in my face.

"I was told you had an emergency," he said and his eyes were raking over me, obviously not happy to find me not at death's door.

He looked to be a dozen or so years older than me, roughly my height and not altogether happy with his present situation.

The grin I'd been trying to maintain slipped away all together. "Sorry to be an inconvenience," I told him and it came out a little flat. "I just need a little help docking... I can't manage it one-handed."

His eyes flicked first toward my right hand and then toward my left and his frown deepened. I gingerly raised my arm to display my bloody field dressing, realizing that I had been unconsciously holding my arm protectively behind me.

"Shit," he hissed and I was relieved to see the frown vanish. His eyes came back to look at me a little harder. "Control says you want to stay with your ship."

"I'd rather," I confirmed. "I have live cargo and I would really prefer... I'd rather not..." Well, wasn't this awkward.

My rescuer chuckled at me. "Wouldn't do much for your business to have your employer pick up his cargo from 'lost-and-found' ?"

It surprised a harsh laugh out of me and I had to shake my head ruefully, "No... my reputation leaves a little bit to be desired right now anyway..."

Shaking my head had been a mistake, something I comprehended when I suddenly found myself leaning against the bulkhead.

There was a hand on my good arm and a worried voice said, "Captain Maxwell?"

"Sorry..." I muttered. "I haven't been moving around much. Would you mind if we went back to the cockpit and sat down?"

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