by: Sunhawk

Deceptions (cont)

He hesitated and I was suddenly afraid that he was gong to insist on an extraction, right here; right now. I straightened away from the wall with some effort and plastered a grin all over my face. "And can you not call me Captain Maxwell? It's always sounded... kinda pompous to me. The name's Duo."

The guy smirked at me, "I'm Phil. And you don't really need to tell me who you are."

I rolled my eyes and took the moment to turn toward my cabin. "Please tell me you know me from a mutual acquaintance or a bar fight... not from..." I hesitated and let him fill it in.

"The cover of 'The Rising Times'?" he supplied with a truly evil sounding chuckle.

I groaned. "I told you not to tell me that!"

He was laughing, and more importantly, he was following me to the cockpit. Mission accomplished.

I could hear the grin in his voice as he followed me. "I thought the name sounded familiar," he told me. "You're... kind of famous right now."

I sighed, having to walk with one hand on the corridor wall. "In all the wrong damn ways."

He took my elbow to steady me as we entered the cockpit and I had to let go of the wall. "What, exactly, did you do to your arm?"

I tossed him a self-deprecating grin as I eased myself into the co-pilot's seat, carefully mindful of my arm. "Would you believe I was changing air-filters?"

All I got was a raised eyebrow as he settled into my damn pilot's chair. He was oblivious to the surge of weird... almost territorial irritation that washed through me.

So I dug out that fairy dust again and told the most outrageous story about a vent grate and a stripped screw head. I embellished the crap out of it, throwing in all those little details that make lies sound convincing. I made him laugh and after that it wasn't hard to make him believe. Part of the trick is to make yourself believe first.

While I talked, the maintenance ship disengaged and moved off, and Phil brought my ship around and headed her for the docks.

"You taking her into my assigned bay?" I asked him in sudden concern, afraid he was planning on using one of the emergency docks.

He flashed me a reassuring smile. "You don't look like you're going to expire in the next five minutes. I think we can take it in by the books."

"Thanks, man," I told him gratefully and let myself relax a little bit.

I saw him glancing across at me a couple of times and wondered about it, until he finally said, "Duo... you need to strap in."

I looked down at the harness with a heavy sigh, trying to figure out how in the hell to manage it. I reached one-handed and found it just freaking impossible. He watched me fumble with it for a couple of minutes before undoing his own harness and coming across to help me. I thought I would die of mortification. It was extremely uncomfortable having this... virtual stranger in my personal space, hovering over me and touching, by necessity, places I'm not used to having people touch. I muttered my thanks and he just grinned at me.

"You'd think you would be used to all kinds of straps and buckles," he snickered before turning back to the pilot's seat. It took me a minute to realize that he was teasing me about the damn Roman costumes. I considered kicking his ass out of my airlock... but I needed him. All I could manage was a grunt.

Once he was settled back in my pilot's seat, he opened the comm. "Control?" he called. "You there, Kayla?"

"Phil?" came the quick reply. "I take it you're aboard?"

"Affirmative," he chuckled and began his approach. "What bay do you have me in?"

There was a hesitation, "I assumed that you would be..." Kayla began, but he cut her off.

"Nah..." he laughed and glanced across at me. "Captain Maxwell and I would like to do this by the numbers. Do you have anybody waiting on the 'Maxwell's Demon' at cargo pick-up?"

There was another small wait while she checked something. "Bay thirty-two," she said then and the tone of her voice told me she understood. Phil tossed a wink in my direction while we waited for her to confirm the presence of my clients. It took several long minutes and when she came back her voice was...amused. "Blackmoor and Smith Inc. will be waiting to off-load as soon as you dock."

I wanted to groan, thinking about the damn half hour repressurization wait, but suppressed it. I was shocked when, unprompted, my rescuer said, "Kayla...can I get a dock tube and hold off on a full repressurization? I want Duo off this ship ASAP."

I think I managed to get a tiny bit of a blush into my cheeks, because Phil grinned cheekily at me. "That's not necessary..." I stuttered but he only shook his head.

"We can do that," she confirmed, and then with a bit of concern in her voice. "You guys all right out there?"

"Let's just say," Phil said wryly, sparing me a glance. "That I have sheets with more color to them."

I snorted indignantly but didn't comment. Kayla signed off and Phil began docking procedures.

I dared to let my eyes close for a minute, my whole body wanting nothing as badly as it wanted to go lie down. I wondered idly how God-awful therapy was going to be under the infamous 'Dan'. I was sure to find out because I had no doubt my therapist Jean would carry through on her threat. I was pretty sure this qualified as 'screwing myself up' again.

"So," Phil asked conversationally as he jockeyed my 'Demon' into position. "How long ago did you do that?"

"I dunno..." I mumbled groggily. "Five or six hours."

"Damn!" he burst out and I blinked my eyes open to see him looking at me appraisingly.

"Over all," I told him. "It's been a fairly crappy day."

"No shit?" he agreed amiably and I had to laugh.

The next bit was something of a blessed blur. I won't bore you with all the damn details. Phil got my ship in and stood by me while Mr. Smith, the associate of Mr. Blackmoor took possession of a rather bored looking Astra. Phil even made the effort to stay between my left side and my client so that the man never even saw my arm. It was a giddy relief when the guy, his ocelot and his two burly dockhands were off my ship and out of sight.

"You are on your way to Medical Services," Phil said then, putting a hand under my good elbow. "Now."

I gave him a rather wan smile and allowed him to lead me off the ship. I was more than happy to make the trip to the med lab. I was more than proud of the fact that I made it under my own power. And more than mortified when I almost fainted in the waiting room once we got there.

I was flat on my back on an exam table with my feet raised, and two medics and a nurse bent over me before I could say, "Holy shit!" Phil disappeared and I never even got to say goodbye.

It took some conscious effort to relax my arm when they told me to; I'd been holding it so still, at such an odd angle, for so long it had become automatic.

They did all the standard temperature, blood pressure things and some sort of fluid IV was started immediately. It was such a fucking relief to be able to really relax after almost seven damn hours that I found myself almost dozing under their hands. I heard what was starting to sound like an alien language; 'oncotic pressure', 'blood volume', 'haemodynamic', I wanted to laugh. Then someone started to work, stitching the fissure in my arm up and that rather quickly got my attention.

I blinked across at the medic sitting on my left side and grinned widely. "So, Doc...how many stitches do you think?"

The man frowned at me and ignored the question. "Just how did this happen?" he asked bluntly and I bit down on a sigh.

So once again I did my dog and pony show, waving my uninvolved hand around for emphasis. I told about the heavy, sharp edged air vent cover and the stripped out screw. I cussed about a series of dropped tools and other indications of just general bad damn luck. I bitched about working at that stupid screw for an hour with every tool at my disposal. By the time I got to the part where the screw had finally broken off of its own accord, two seconds after I finally gave up on it, and let the grate fall three feet onto my poor, abused arm, I had everybody in the room laughing... except for the guy stitching me up. He was eyeing the line of scars that ran up my arm at regular intervals and mentally noting that this new scar fell right into the pattern. I just lay and grinned at him. I made him ask.

He finally did. He was pissed about it though, I could tell. He thought his glaring at me would make me cave and start babbling guiltily. Yeah, right.

I reached out to touch my scars in an almost reverent manner and looked up at him wide eyed. "Isn't that the freakiest thing?" I breathed. "I just about shit when I saw that."

He looked somewhat unimpressed and frowned at me all the harder while he continued to stitch. I thought he was up to eight or nine stitches and he was still working inside my arm. "Where did the rest of these come from?" he asked rather flatly.

I let my eyes get all melancholy and blinked rapidly a couple of times for effect. "From the war," I almost whispered and felt a little bad about the sideshow I was putting on. "We used to keep track of the time that way... in the war camps." I looked away from him and the blush that rose faintly to my face then, was driven more by embarrassment over the melodrama than any memories.

I tried to look... haunted. He looked rather... stricken and I knew I had him. The frown left his face and he bent back to work, finally ending the third degree. I breathed a totally mental sigh of relief. I'd pulled it off.

He started to give me a little talk about nerve damage, until I turned my right hand over and showed him my scars and laughingly told him that I probably knew a little more on that subject than I cared to already. It seemed to corroborate my 'war' story somehow and he left off on the lecture. He really couldn't tell me what was going to happen when this healed anyway, only time would tell.

They wanted to give me a transfusion and keep me for observation over-night. I mulled it over and finally decided that it probably wouldn't hurt. The colonies matched time to Greenwich Mean Time on Earth and it was already almost twenty three hundred hours. I needed sleep if nothing else, there was no way in hell I was up to repainting a damn ceiling in the shape I was in. And though I wouldn't let myself think about it... sleeping here with people coming and going was preferable to going back to my empty ship and sleeping... alone.

In the end, I agreed to stay overnight in the clinic and was lulled off to an exhausted sleep by the sounds of the third shift's voices. I dreamed that Heero was sitting next to me, holding my hand and looking at me with that frustrated, fretful expression that he had worn... my God; just that morning when he had run out of the bathroom.

By morning I felt a little steadier and checked myself out of the clinic with a certain amount of confidence that I wouldn't fall on my face. I hunted up a pay phone and called the guy who was way overdue for a paint job. I even managed to cajole a ride out of him. He came down the docks to pick me up and I spent the fifteen-minute wait fetching my paint supplies from my 'Demon' and sitting on a bench wishing I hadn't agreed to do this. We hadn't discussed yet just what he was expecting me to do for him. If he wanted the whole damn ceiling redone, I was going to have to tell him I couldn't do it this trip. If he only wanted some alterations...I might be able to handle that in the six or seven hours I had before my schedule had me launching on my return trip. I really, really didn't feel like thinking about that right now, so I just concentrated on the paint job for the moment.

Ian arrived right on time and greeted me with a great deal of enthusiasm. Mostly generated, I was sure, by the fact that he stood a decent chance of getting laid tonight if my paint job made his girlfriend happy.

He yammered away at me the enter trip down the line to where his ship was docked, about what had happened between him and his first girlfriend, who's name escaped me until he said it, "Stella". And then how he had met his new girlfriend, "Bianca".

Stella had been an... I believe the word is 'air-head'. I would have called her the typical, clichéd dumb blond except she'd been a brunette. I had actually been a little relieved when she and Ian had broken up, because the woman had not belonged aboard a ship. It was a damn miracle she'd never gotten herself or Ian killed. It had been an absolute bitch painting her... she had done nothing but simper and giggle at me while she had floated around naked in free-fall. Posing in the most absurd positions, flirting with me shamelessly while Ian had drifted in the corner and watched us. I think the two of them had gotten some sort of perverse rush out of it. I had never been so damn uncomfortable in my entire life. It was the fastest painting I had ever completed.

I found Bianca to be a pleasant surprise. She was obviously a true spacer; Ian had finally managed to snag himself a competent partner and not just a bed warmer. She had her dark hair bobbed in the typical spacer style, and wasn't near as... busty as Stella had been. She seemed predetermined to hate me though, probably for being the evil person who had graced 'her' ceiling with the presence of Ian's former girlfriend. I repressed the urge to blurt out to her that it fucking wasn't my damn fault; I only paint what the client asks for.

In this case, the client wasn't being very forthcoming. Ian was leaving it all up to Bianca, and Bianca only seemed to want to have the thing sand-blasted into oblivion. I suppose it was a spacer's frugalness that had kept her from doing just that before now.

I listened to them banter while I set my stuff up and suddenly I knew what I was going to do. I called to Ian to kill the gravity, thankful that I didn't have to do this on a ladder, and set to work.

Stella's portrait had been a nude because that's what Ian had wanted. Stella had been delighted with the idea and who was I to argue?

Bianca had more class. I could tell that just listening to her sling one-liners at Ian... some of which were going over his head. I was a little thankful when the work pulled me a bit away from reality; I was having trouble not laughing at the things that Ian wasn't getting.

I mixed my paints and matched the blue-sky background, using it to sweep in and eat away at the body 'drifting' in front of me. Deft brush strokes turned buxom, rounded Stella into lean, muscled Bianca. I lost myself in the flow of light and shadow, mixing the colors and humming softly to myself. Ian and Bianca went away after a bit, but I didn't notice.

When it was done, I found that I was very damn tired and I pushed off the ceiling to drift down toward the bunk to get a little distance from the work.

Stella wasn't even a memory. Bianca hung in the air above me, her short dark hair a halo floating around her face. Her graceful arms had brushed out and swirled clouds from the sky around her, cloaking herself modestly. Her face wore an odd, almost Mona Lisa smile. A long leg was visible, the curve of a hip, both lithe arms, part of a taut abdomen. It was a tantalizing pose... much sexier than Stella's had been for the mere imagination factor. A large part of what makes something sexy is the mystery. Stella had never quite gotten that.

I called to Ian to turn the gravity on and waited for them to come back into the cabin. Weight returned, dropping me the last couple of inches to the bunk and making me remember just how sore and achy I was. There was a gasp from the cabin doorway and I looked up to catch the expression on Bianca's face. I think she liked it. At least she was no longer looking at me as though I molested chickens for a hobby and smuggled sex-slaves for a living.

They offered me lunch and I gratefully accepted, having a little trouble remembering my last meal. From the looks of their galley, Bianca was something of a gourmet cook, but lunch was simple sandwiches and some sort of potato salad.

We chatted idly while we ate; Ian seemed more... refined in Bianca's presence. The last time I had been here, when it had been Ian and Stella, the raunchy jokes had flown around the room like a flock of pigeons looking to escape. I concluded that Bianca was good for Ian and it crossed my mind that she would probably get along quite well with Toria. Ian confirmed that he would transfer my fee to my account and couldn't stop thanking me. I'm fairly certain that Bianca would have ripped him a new asshole if she had realized that he'd actually told me about the whole withholding sex issue. I was discreet. We finished lunch and I took my leave. I still had two hours to launch and wanted nothing as badly as I wanted to be able to go lay down somewhere to sleep... but 'somewhere' wasn't good enough, of a sudden. Walking slowly back toward my ship, my supplies tucked under my arm, and trying to think about the return trip, it hit me like a physical blow. I wanted... I needed to lie down to sleep... not just somewhere, but in Heero's arms. I wanted him here, with me, so suddenly and so sharply that it hurt. It took my breath away. I felt like I had the day my wrist brace had come off; on the ragged edge and ready to lean.

Walking down the sidewalk, the thought brought a sudden dark chuckle and several passersby turned to look at me oddly. My sense of timing, apparently, sucks. Deciding I was ready for a little support and comfort wasn't going to do me a hell of a lot of good way out here on L3.

I should have called a cab, but money had become an issue lately and my frugal nature kept telling me that it wasn't that far from docking bay forty-eight, where Ian's ship had been, to thirty-two, where my own waited. I had to find a bench somewhere around thirty-seven. I still had a couple of hours before I had to be there anyway and nothing much to do after I arrived other than sit around and wait.

I kept thinking about getting back on board my Demon and taking off for Earth without even the company of the damn cat. Isn't that pathetic? My first solo flight in six months and I might have only made it because I had been hauling live cargo? Was I that much of a wreck?

I came to a sudden decision.

I sat until my legs stopped their trembling and then stood up to go find a bar.

Spacer bars are... not like your Earth bars. The trade is a tight knit thing. We recognize each other. We know each other. Not always by face or by name; it's far too big a beast for that. But you learn to identify... signs. A certain cadence of speech. A turn of phrase. The way we walk. It's there if you know what you're looking for.

This close to the docks, there were a number of bars to choose from and I picked one at random, drawn by the improbable name over the door of 'Joe's Bar'.

Spacer bars never close. Spacer's set their calendar and their time by the job they're doing and there were always pilots coming in off a run no matter the time of day. When I opened the door and went inside, there was an odd relief... a feeling, almost, of coming home. These places are havens. For most of us in the business, our only homes are our ships; these were the places we came to when we were in dock. To seek company, to find kindred spirits, to swap tales and ease a little of the loneliness that could get to you sometimes.

Heads raised and hands were lifted in greeting as I came into the dim room. I didn't know any of these people personally... but we were all brothers and sisters of a sort.

I went straight to the bar and settled down on a stool, wishing that there were a name for that drink that Greg had mixed for me all those weeks ago at Relena's party. When the bartender came up to ask what I would have I almost described it to him but decided on a soda.

He didn't so much as raise an eyebrow; a competent pilot doesn't drink when he's on a run. Another difference between a spacer bar and a regular old Earth bar... no one thought a thing about my not drinking alcohol in here.

I hadn't come here for a drink. I had come here looking to see if I could find a passenger.

I surveyed the room carefully while I waited on my soda, finding several obvious off-shift groups, a couple of solitary pilots and a few of the less apparent souls. Nobody leaped out and grabbed my attention, but that didn't really mean anything. There are always down on their luck spacers looking to hitch a ride on a freighter or a courier ship. Willing to shell out a couple of hard-got credits under the table for the right to ride in a cargo hold or an empty bunk. Sometimes they'd offer to do odd jobs. Sometimes, the more desperate ones, would offer... other things. I was looking for something a little above desperate. It was going to be somebody's lucky day if I could make a connection; all I was looking for was a little company. Someone to talk to, someone to help hold the nightmares at bay so I could manage the trip back home without arriving in a catatonic state. My fingers fiddled idly with the latch on my palette box until I registered the tiny clicking noise, and I made myself stop.

The bartender, presumably Joe, came back with my iced mug of soda and I grinned at him. "Nice touch," I saluted him with the mug and he snorted.

"Most guys don't notice," he grinned, obviously a little pleased but trying to hide it. He quirked his head a little sideways and frowned. "Do I know you?"

I sighed and ducked my head. "Probably from the expo," I murmured and tried to convey to him with a look just how much I would rather not talk about it.

I saw the light of recognition go on behind his eyes and I found myself sighing again. He smirked at me and stuck his hand out, "I'm Bruce."

I set my mug down and took his hand in a firm shake, "Duo."

"I know," he said, rather predictably. "You're kind of well know right now."

I flashed him a slightly self-deprecating grin, "I'm hoping that blows over when the current issue of 'The Rising Times' is off the news stand."

He laughed a little more heartily than the line had warranted and I just chuckled along with him. Maybe I should consider going into stand-up comedy?

"Listen," I continued, taking a sip of my drink. "On that note... I'm just getting back to work since..." I groped around for a Reader's Digest condensed version word and couldn't come up with anything better than, "since the 'Londonderry' job."

His expression sobered immediately and he gave me a piercing stare. "That was some damn nasty luck," he told me sympathetically.

I ducked my head, feeling my face flush. "Nasty luck that hasn't entirely let up yet," I murmured. "Jobs have been... a little sparse. I was here on a run and getting ready to head back to Earth. I was kinda hoping I might pick up a... passenger for the return trip."

His eyes got all compassionate... or full of pity... I'm not sure which. I imagine he'd seen dozens of Spacers go down the road I was on and had a pretty good idea what was at the end of it. I repressed the urge to sigh, because it would have made the fourth or fifth time since this little conversation had started. He grunted slightly and his eyes left me to flick around the bar, looking for someone in particular, I could tell.

"Hang on a second," he told me and I just nodded. He moved off, walking down to the other end of the bar where he could see around the corner where I couldn't from where I was sitting. I waited patiently and nursed my drink.

When Bruce came back down the length of the bar, another man was shadowing him, only on my side of the polished slab.

He was an old guy, grizzled and lean. His hair and short-cropped beard were more salt than pepper. His eyes were a piercing blue and he was sizing me up even as he walked down the hardwood floor. He'd obviously been drinking, because he was carrying a mug of beer, but he didn't seem to be drunk. He looked... somewhere between suspicious and amused.

Bruce introduced him as Newton but the old guy practically blew the bartender a raspberry and said, "Call me Neo."

We did the handshake thing and the guys grip was strong. I wasn't sure if he was trying to prove something or if he was testing me. I returned the pressure but didn't up the ante. He gave me an odd little grunt and let go, folding his lanky form onto the stool beside me. I was a little surprised when Bruce made himself scarce, leaving us to wheel and deal by ourselves. Neo didn't say anything immediately, just sat looking at me and sipping at his beer.

"So," I ventured when I decided it had been long enough. "You lookin' for a ride back planet-side?"

He considered it as though it was a damn essay question and I had to do that whole 'repress the sigh' thing again. At length he drawled, "Just lookin' to move on. Been on this colony long enough."

It crossed my mind to wonder if he knew which flaming, damn colony he was even on. I was sudden impatient with the stupid dancing. "Well, I launch in just over an hour... if you're not interested, I need to know so I can move on down the line and try somewhere else."

That expression he'd been wearing definitely took a turn toward 'amused' and I tried not to frown. "Sure I'm interested, kid," he said and I think it was meant to ruffle me. I wanted to laugh; 'kid' was almost my birth name.

"How interested?" I parried, not rising to the bait, but only sipping at my soda again.

I saw his eyes flick to my glass and then surprised me by flicking toward my left arm. I realized that my sleeve had slide up a little and a bit of bandage was showing. He didn't ask and I didn't volunteer.

He hung his head in what was supposed to be a remorseful gesture, but it was spoiled by the cocky grin that was dancing around his lips. I didn't give a shit about the money, but admitting that would only serve to make him suspicious about my motives. He finally admitted, "I don't have a lot of money... I can probably spare five credits on this trip."

I sat and mulled that over. I didn't want to appear too eager; I certainly didn't need it getting around that I wasn't able to fly alone. Under the circumstances of my not having a second... that wouldn't look too good. I looked him over, giving him that same appraising rake of the eyes that he had given me when he'd walked over here. This was a man who had done without a few things in recent times. "Seven credits and I'll throw in a hot shower and dinner."

I saw his eyes go all hot and feral for a second. He really wanted one of those two items... bad. I let a corner of my mouth quirk up to let him know I'd caught the look. It was his turn to sigh and he gave me a half-hearted shrug, holding his hand out to shake on it.

I took it and I didn't get the same hard, testing grip. I grinned at him and he grinned back. At least it should be an interesting trip.

I gave him my dock number and a launch time and he agreed to be there at least ten minutes before lock-down. I finished my soda and took my leave feeling like an absolute and total loser.

Back aboard my ship, I did a quick walk-through. Just making sure everything was latched down and secure. I had left out the med kit and Blackmoor and Smith's dockworkers had managed to spill some cat shit in my guest cabin. I was a little shocked that I hadn't noticed it when it happened and studiously bent to cleaning it up. The rest of the ship was tight as a drum and I locked down everything but the cargo doors, leaving them open for Neo.

I finally went off to the cockpit and allowed myself to call up my e-mail, but there was nothing there. I was... hurt. Isn't that stupid? What would there have been for him to say? I felt like an idiot sitting there staring at my empty in-box but I couldn't help it. I had been so ridiculously sure that Heero would have sent something... some little note asking if I had arrived safely, telling me to be careful. Just... something.

My comm. beeped at me and I picked up on the expected authorization call for Neo. I vouched for his right to be here and they cleared his way to bay thirty-two. I had a few minutes while he made the walk, so I sat and carefully typed out a message to Heero. All it said was 'Doing all right.' My hand hovered over the enter key while I debated sending it. He hadn't sent any queries of his own; maybe he didn't care? I shook my head... I knew that was absurd; I could remember the damn look on his face yesterday right before he had left me alone in the shower.

I knew I was strung just a little too tight, was emotionally just a little too raw. There was no reason for me to allow the lack of one e-mail message to sink me into a bitter depression and cause me to retaliate by withholding my own reassurances. Heero was probably just trying not to push, trying to give me a little space. Isn't that what I had wanted?

I chuckled darkly to myself as I watched Neo making his way into my cargo bay through my monitors. Yep, this is what I asked for all right... and I had gotten it in freakin' spades.

I rose from my chair and went to escort Neo to the cockpit, slapping almost harshly at Solo's shoulder as I passed his completely inanimate, totally unresponsive, still slightly pissed off portrait.

"Ouch," he growled at me and I laughed out loud.

"Fuck you, rat-boy," I snickered. "You're not talking to me... remember?"

"You wouldn't talk ta ya either... not wit' that attitude."

I sneered, turning to flip him off as I passed the galley door.

I met Neo in the doorway of the cargo bay and grinned at him wolfishly. "You're early, my man!" I chirped brightly and then turned to lock-down the cargo bay before he had a chance to decide he'd agreed to ship out with a mad man and tried to flee. "Welcome aboard my humble home."

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