He eyed me a little bit like
he really was questioning my mental state and I tried to tone it down
a little. He glanced up the corridor and raised an eyebrow, "I thought
it was just you and me?"
I flashed him a smile that was meant to convey safe, sane and stable.
"It is," I confirmed. "Don't all pilots talk to their ships?"
I turned and led the way to the cockpit before he had a chance to answer.
He hesitated slightly in my corridor, looking at my line of passengers
and I left him to it; it was fifteen minutes to launch after all and no
point in his belting down already.
I mercilessly quashed the urge to check my e-mail one last time and when
I settled in my pilot's seat I disconnected immediately from the colony-net,
to remove the temptation. I synched with the local traffic control, confirming
departure time and called out to Neo. "There's juice and soda in
the galley, if you want anything."
"Too close to launch," his voice came back from the hall. "I'll
wait 'til after." There was a slight hesitation and then, "No
"Nope. Sorry," I called cheerily and imagined a sigh I couldn't
possibly have heard this far away.
When he spoke again his voice was a little closer and I estimated that
he was standing in front of Solo, right outside the doorway. "Bruce
said you're some hotshot artist. This your work?"
I laughed a little mirthlessly. "Hotshot? No. My work? Yes."
There was nothing for a very long few minutes and then, "Looks pretty
damn hotshot to me."
I shrugged uncomfortably under a gaze I could feel but not see. "It's...
passable I suppose, but I don't have any formal training. It's amateur
He positively roared. I turned to look at him and he was leaning in the
doorway laughing at me so hard he had tears in his eyes. "Amateur?
Are you a fucking asshole? What the hell do you call professional?"
I just stared at him for a minute and then couldn't help but smirk at
the picture he presented. "You know...Art? The stuff that
gets painted on canvas and hung up in art galleries and shit? People buy
The comment only made him shake his head and he came on into the cockpit.
That stopped both his forward motion and his mirth as he got far enough
to actually see the décor in there.
"Son of a bitch," he murmured, sounding awed, and I wondered
idly what he would say about what was behind door number two.
I turned back to my boards with my face burning faintly and got back to
work. I could feel him behind me, just standing there looking around and
I was kind of uncomfortable with it. I wished he'd go sit down.
"Uhmmm... mind if I ride shot gun?" he asked hesitantly and
it surprised me.
I grunted softly, glanced across at Fuzzy-butt and my face positively
flamed. "You gotta share the seat with my co-pilot," I grumbled
defensively and saw, out of the corner of my eye, Neo move up to look
at the seat.
"This is your co-pilot?" he chuckled, raising that eyebrow again.
"Only one I've ever had," I confirmed and decided to stop being
embarrassed about it, the guy was having too much fun watching me turn
He chuckled again and leaned down to pick Fuzzy gently up, his face growing
wistful for a split second, the expression come and gone so fast I almost
missed it. "All pilot's got their traditions, kid," he told
me quietly and settled himself in the chair, carefully tucking Fuzzy in
"Maxwell's Demon, this is control," came across my speakers
and it made my heart leap. I think I managed not to jump. God, but I was
strung tighter than a drum.
"This is Maxwell's Demon," I responded. "Is that you, Kayla?"
"Hi, Duo," she answered, confirming her identity. "You're
leaving so soon?"
"Got a schedule," I laughed lightly.
"The clinic cleared you?" she said and I could almost hear the
frown in her voice.
I tried not to look over at Neo. "Clean bill of health, Mom,"
I teased. "Promise. And on that subject... can you tell Phil 'thanks'?
I never even got to say goodbye yesterday."
"Will do," she said and her voice seemed lighter, slightly reassured.
It was simple banter after that as she cleared me for launch. I teased
and laughed with her for all I was worth, using her voice to hold the
fears away. Using Neo's presence to convince myself that I was not
I dithered over the music and on a sudden whim of black humor queued up
'Pressure'. I glanced across at Neo, "Sorry... I launch to music."
He gave me a dismissive wave of his hand and a snort, "don't bother
me none, kid."
'I'm sure you'll have some cosmic rationale, But here you are in the
ninth, Two men out and three men on, Nowhere to look but inside, Where
we all respond to Pressure. Pressure.'
I had to swallow down hard on a slightly hysterical laugh. Ok... that
might not have been the best choice for launch music. My hands were either
dancing across my boards or wiping ineffectively down my pants legs. My
mouth was on total autopilot, exchanging witty chitchat with Kayla even
as the little voice in the back of my head woke up to its surroundings
and started that Goddamn, 'Nononono... ' shit again.
Then Kayla signed off and it was time, damn it, and I just did
what had to be done. My head flashed on that stupid self-portrait I had
blindly sketched the day before. I was moved to apologize to that little
kid. But since that little kid was me, it seemed kind of... nuts.
"Solo?" I breathed, when the thrum of the engines was enough
to hide the sound.
"I'm here, baby-rat," echoed in my head, all the comfort I was
likely to get.
We were out and away and my hands did their job even while my head was
working on convincing the little boy that he was safe, that everything
would be all right. Launching from a colony dock isn't near as stressful
as a planetary liftoff. You aren't fighting against the pull of gravity.
It's more maneuvering than anything else. Still takes concentration, but
isn't nearly as... physically taxing.
When we were out and clear, the course was laid and I came up for air,
I found Neo sitting with Fuzzy in his lap giving me the strangest stare.
I blushed and tried hard to stop... for all the good it did.
"Ready for that drink now, kid?" was all he said.
"Sounds good," I muttered and unbelted, finding that my hands
were shaking and leaned forward to hide it. I led the way out of the cockpit;
my hand reaching without thought to touch Solo as I passed. Neo didn't
comment about that either.
I pointed out the guest cabin when we passed that side corridor, letting
him know that there was a shower there whenever he wanted. He trailed
behind me, oddly quiet, following me into the galley. I went to the fridge
and found myself a soda, thought better of it and got a protein drink
instead. I held the door wide so Neo could see the contents and he settled
on an orange juice.
"I can pretend it's a screwdriver," he chuckled in a slightly
He sat down at the table, swiveling his chair sideways so that he could
prop his long, gangly legs in the next seat over. I went to the cupboard
and fished out a couple of pain pills before sitting down on the opposite
side of the table from him, my arm was throbbing dulling.
He raised that quizzical eyebrow again and I wondered how in the hell
the guy could communicate so damn much with just that single gesture.
I grimaced and ducked my head.
"So what'd you do to your arm?" he broke down and asked when
I didn't respond to his non-verbal question.
I gusted a sigh and found my damn hands picking at the label on my drink
bulb. I told the stupid story again, with all its embellishments and melodramatic
high points. He laughed in all the appropriate places but something in
his eyes told me he wasn't buying it. He confirmed it with a quiet, "Nice
story kid... but you're lying through your teeth."
I sighed. "But it's a darn pretty lie... isn't it?"
It surprised a bark of laughter out of him, I think he had been expecting
me to sputter and stammer and be all indignant.
"So what really happened to your arm?" he asked very quietly
after a couple of long, silent moments.
I looked at him very deliberately and said, "I cut it shaving."
Then I set my drink down and stood up. "I'll go lay out towels and
stuff. Do you want some clean clothes? I don't think we're very close
to the same size, but I can try."
He regarded me for a minute and there was some strange, sad emotion in
his eyes that I couldn't name. I looked away first.
"No," he said. "I'm fine."
I left the galley questioning my good common sense and wondering what
in the hell had made me think this was a good idea. But then I thought
about trying to do this alone and decided that he might be irritating...
but he was distracting as well. I fetched towels, soap and shampoo from
my own bathroom and left them on one of the bunks in the guest cabin.
I just stood in there for a minute looking at the lock-down station that
I'd installed for Astra and would probably never need again, and tried
to get my thoughts to stop flitting around like bats behind my eyes. I
repressed an odd little giggle, a bit horrified at the sound that had
almost come out of me. Bats in the belfry. Sometimes I even amuse myself.
I took a deep breath, hoped fervently that my good friend Neo would take
the 'I'm not talking about it' hint, and turned away to return to the
galley. He was standing in the doorway of the guest cabin watching me
with those pale blue eyes. I almost shivered. I imagined Heero berating
me for allowing a total stranger aboard my ship and had a truly surreal
moment of feeling trapped. It was utterly ridiculous; I could look at
the guy and tell that even in my current state I could probably take him
out without raising a sweat. The training of my youth had taught me more
ways to kill a man in hand-to-hand combat than most people knew existed,
and I had used better than half of them in actual life or death situations.
This guy looked old enough to be my damn grandfather... I don't want to
sound cocky, but I figured if it came down to it, I wouldn't have much
trouble defending myself.
I think something of what I was thinking must have crossed my face, because
Neo suddenly straightened from where he'd been leaning in the doorway
and took a deliberate step back.
"I left the stuff there on the bunk," I told him, mostly to
break the tension. "I'll go start dinner. Anything you particularly
He flashed me one of those self-deprecating grins. "Nope. I'm not
what you would call a picky eater." Then his face got a little wistful
again. "Though... something hot would be nice."
I snorted and flashed him a grin. "I'll see what I can manage."
There was an uncomfortable moment while he stepped clear of the door and
I maneuvered my way out of the cabin and fled to the galley. I heard the
water start before I had even settled on what to fix for dinner.
I thought back to my days on the streets and wished I had stocked fresh
vegetables and fruit. That's something you never get when you're living
hand to mouth; it's never fresh, but expensive as hell anyway. I thought
about steak -- that's a thing that you don't ever dare eat unless
it's charred beyond recognition, just in case it was old enough to have
spoiled -- but I could very well make him physically ill if it
had been too long since he'd had much red meat. I finally settled on beef
stew and buttermilk biscuits, even finding a frozen pie left over from
the L2 trip that had never been baked.
I had time to completely heat everything before I finally heard the water
shut off. I had begun to fear that he would drain my damn water tanks.
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what it was that had awakened that hungry
look in his eyes while we'd haggled over the price of the trip... and
it hadn't been my cooking. I could remember the days when hot showers
were something akin to the Holy Grail.
I had the table set, deliberately putting us on opposite sides, and dinner
ready to dish up by the time he came out of the guest cabin with a sheepish
grin on his face. He'd left his long coat in the other room and somehow
managed to look even rangier without it to hide behind. His visible skin
looked scrubbed pink and his short-cropped hair was made silver by the
water still glistening in it.
I immediately launched into a running commentary on the stew and biscuits,
making sure he didn't want anything else to go with it, making mention
of the apple pie that would be cool enough to eat by the time we finished
dinner. His eyes followed my movements and he grunted his assent when
it was called for and finally stopped me with an upraised hand.
"I won't ask again."
I shut up and we sat down to eat.
He rolled his eyes on the first bite and groaned like a man having sex.
"God... this is good."
I snorted and gave him my own raised-eyebrow look. "I'm not exactly
a gourmet chief."
"It's hot," he informed me with a little laugh. "That's
I squirmed uncomfortably and started feeling guilty about taking this
"You headed to Earth for a reason?" I queried, hoping to change
He chuckled. "Not really, just time for a change of scenery. Haven't
been dirt-side in... a couple of years, I guess it's been." His eyes
flicked up from his plate toward me, "I just gotta get out in space
now and again... you know what I mean?"
I nodded automatically and my stew suddenly held no real appeal. Yeah,
I knew how that felt. That itch... that need to be out between
the stars. Sailing across the sea of space. My heart clenched painfully
in my chest. Guess that was just one more thing I'd lost. There was no
comfort here any more. This place, that used to be my home, no longer
"I'm gettin' this ride because you can't ship-out alone, aren't I?"
Neo said in a voice that was both gentle and sad.
I frowned. I sighed. I stirred my stew around and watched the broth slowly
fill the roads I made though it. "That pretty much sums it up, I
guess," I told him, without looking up. "Want another biscuit?"
He threw his head back and laughed long and loud, taking a minute to calm
his mirth before murmuring, "You have got to be the gutsiest little
bastard I've ever met."
I grunted and continued to stir at my stew, separating the potatoes from
the carrots and pushing them into neat little lines.
He watched me for a few minutes and I finally took a bite, not because
I wanted it, but because he was looking at me, and it felt weird.
"You were all the talk... after that accident," he said softly,
trying to appear as though all his attention was on his stew.
"Gossip in the trade always travels fast," I agreed companionably
and threw my head back to drain the last of my protein drink.
He regarded me in that strange, watchful silence again before venturing,
"You really stuck out there for a week?"
"Yep," I said flatly and stood to retrieve a soda from the fridge.
"You want anything else?"
I thought I heard a soft sigh, but he only said, "No, thanks."
That put the verbal ball in my court, so I took the advantage and said,
"So... is there really a 'Joe' at Joe's bar? Or is Bruce the real
owner? He kind of acted like the owner."
There really was a sigh that time, rather heavy and rather loud. "You
remind me of me when I was a hell of a lot younger."
I returned to the table and sat back down, opening my soda bulb, bound
and determined to alter the course of this fucking conversation even if
I had to bludgeon the man with the equivalent of a verbal road sign. 'Conversation
"Bruce seemed like an all right kind of guy," I said with a
cheerful smile. "Never been in the place before today."
He shook his head and finally muttered, "Ok, kid... I give."
"Good," I proclaimed. "Because I am nothing if not pig-headed,
"You're an odd one, all right," he agreed. "Bring me along
for company... and then don't want to talk."
I glared up at him, but only found him grinning at me. I raised an eyebrow.
He just shook his head at me, but then held his bowl out, the gesture
relating to my obstinance and not seconds. I dished up another helping
and it got quiet again.
"Had my own ship once," he said at length. "A long time
I opened my mouth to ask what happened and then closed it again. I could
smell an object lesson coming a mile away. When I opened my mouth again,
it was with a different thought. "What'd you name her?"
He looked up at me and quirked that lop-sided grin, "Newton's Apple."
"You're kidding?" I chuckled.
"Nope," he smiled a little regretfully. "It seemed terribly
witty when we christened her."
I caught the 'we' and didn't ask. I didn't want to know. I wasn't sure
I had it in me today to be sympathetic or to know the right things to
We finished the stew and I went to bring the pie to the table, cutting
a couple of slices and serving them. He murmured a thank you, took a bite,
and made those appreciative sounds again.
"You know," he ventured softly after we had eaten in a tense
silence for several long minutes. "Speaking from personal experience...
you have one of the strangest cases of vacuum disease I have ever seen."
My fork cut through my pie harder than I had intended and clinked loudly
against the plate. "I brought you along on this trip to keep me company,"
I told him calmly. "And if you feel I manipulated you, I apologize.
But either way... I did not bring you along to psychoanalyze me.
I am not stupid, nor am I blind. I am well aware of what my problem is...
I don't need you to tell me what I'm suffering with."
He was looking at me a little wide-eyed. "And you came out here anyway?"
his voice sounded a little... awed.
"I've had nightmares about one damn thing or another, most of my
God-forsaken life," I snapped. "Sometimes you can face them
down, and sometimes you can't... I didn't know until I got my sorry ass
out here and tried. Now are you satisfied? Can we stop talking about this
"I'm sorry, kid," he murmured, truly seeming to look at me
for the first time. "You're right; it's none of my business."
He hesitated, glancing up at me and then looking back down at his pie,
"I just been there... ok? I guess I should have just come out and
said it... I've been where you are, and if you'd like to talk, I don't
What was there to talk about? He'd been where I am and now here he sat
hitching rides on freighters and couriers just to get a taste of space
travel again. Didn't that pretty much say it all? It didn't really matter
if he'd been trapped in a stinking, stale, failing vacuum suit half a
solar system away, all alone in the cold and dark or if his fucking ship
had exploded. He'd obviously come out of whatever the hell, with the inability
to pilot and the end result was... the end of his days spent in bars and
hanging around the docks, hoping for a bit of what he had once had. I
"I will keep that in mind," I said solemnly.
He ate the last bite of his pie then, looked at me with a curiously shy
grin and cut himself a second piece. "There really is a Joe... but
he works evenings."
I was more than happy to finally get the conversation turned aside and
we talked about 'Joe's Bar' while Neo ate his second slice of pie.
We talked about Spacer bars. We talked about beer. We talked about how
God blessed expensive vacuum suits are now-adays. We talked about the
paint job in the galley; he even noticed some of the bugs I had painted
into the grass. He was the first person who ever had... they're to scale
after all. He teased me about not having any butterflies.
"I thought they might look... girly," I chuckled, ducking my
"Always loved butterflies, always meant to take my... " he stopped
talking of a sudden and looked... haunted. I had a glimmer of suspicion
about the past I hadn't encouraged him to speak of. I had a sudden, strange
urge to capture some memento of this meeting. I liked the old guy. As
much as I seemed to remind him of a younger self... he made me have thoughts
about my own future.
"Butterflies, huh?" I mused and went to get my paints.
He gave me a quizzical look when I came back, but didn't speak. I glanced
around the room and decided that butterflies would make more sense on
the wall by the door, where my field of wildflowers grew. I opened my
paint box and grinned at him. "Tell me about butterflies."
And he did. For the next hour he talked about the silly things, and I
painted them across my sky. They were obviously something of a hobby with
him, he knew a thing or two. We paid little attention to geography or
logic and there were Honduras morpyo cypris right next to North
American monarchs. I forgot myself for a time, catching his words
and transforming them into dabs of color. The little boy in my head was
mesmerized by the jewel-bright creatures and forgot to be afraid. A little
of my tension eased and when Neo finally ran out of words, I stepped back
and laughed out loud at the picture in front of me. There were a freakin'
hundred of them, of every imaginable color and size, spiraling up into
my sky as though they were all joined in some ancient dance that the likes
of which us mere mortals could never understand. Once my delighted laugh
faded though, the cabin was strangely quiet. I glanced at Neo and found
him alternating his glance between the butterflies and me. He looked...
almost awed. He looked... damned sad.
I wasn't sure what I'd done, but I felt bad for putting that look on his
face. I opened my mouth to apologize, but he spoke first.
"I can't believe how you captured them," he blinked up at me.
"They're damn near perfect... they fucking look real!"
He looked away from me, his gaze returning to the new mural. "Thank
you," he said almost reverently.
I suppose I should have said 'you're welcome', but I didn't understand
what he was thanking me for, so I just stood and stared at him for a minute.
"You remind me so much of my son," he murmured after a moment,
looking at the fluttering insects and not at me. I don't think I was supposed
to have heard that. I don't think he meant to say it out loud. From the
look on his face, I was fairly sure that the son was no longer alive...
and I could guess that it had been a ship's accident. What ever had taken
his son from him, had taken his ship and his whole life right along with
it. Guess we did have a little bit in common.
I swallowed hard and got a mental grip on myself. I guess this was about
more than just me. I carefully sat down at the table across from him,
busying my hands with putting my paints away. With a lump in my stomach
that felt like a lead weight, I said, "Do you want to talk about
it?" I wasn't sure I was up to bearing this... but I couldn't just
watch the man sit there with that expression on his face.
He glanced at me sharply and his face took on a strange, unreadable expression.
"I don't think you really need to hear about it, kid," he said
softly. "Won't do me any good to tell it again... didn't help the
first thousand times." He grinned ironically. "And I don't think
it'll do much good for you to sit through it. Though I appreciate what
it took to make the offer."
I flushed to the roots of my hair and bent studiously to checking the
lids on all my paint tubes. It surprised me when his hand dropped down
and rested on my wrist for a second, squeezing gently before lifting away.
"I wouldn't mind a little bit of time to myself though... if it won't...
I mean, if you... " he was floundering and I flushed harder.
"I'm fine," I cut him off, feeling utterly humiliated. "It's
just the... knowing that somebody else is aboard... that's all. You don't
have to stay right here."
I glanced up at him out of the corner of my eye and he looked a little
embarrassed himself. "Wasn't sure," he mumbled, "I couldn't
stand to be in a room by myself for almost a year."
Then he was gone. Back to the guest cabin from the sound of his footsteps.
Guess I wasn't the only one in the universe with ghosts. It didn't do
much toward making me feel better.
I couldn't put my paints away, since I stored them in the guest cabin,
so I just cleaned everything up and left the paint box on the table. Then
I killed a little time cleaning up after supper.
I had lied a little bit... it did bother me to be completely alone. It
wasn't as bad as it had been when Heero had first gone back to work right
after the accident. During those first days I hadn't done much more than
pray for the phone to ring. But it was still with me; that fear. Still
lived at the bottom of my soul and I was beginning to suspect that it
There was nothing else to keep me in the galley and I went to the cockpit
to check my course. My fingers brushed Solo's arm as I passed him.
"Suck up," he grinned at me.
"I thought I was too stupid to talk to?" I whispered.
"Well... " his imaginary gaze swept the line of my other dead.
"The rest 'o these guys is just... dull."
I chuckled along with his uproarious laugh. I started to tell him he'd
be dull too, if he was dead... but then I remembered that he was, and
so just shook my head and went on into the cockpit.
There were no messages, and my course was still dead on. I sighed and
called up a vector map but there was sure as hell nothing new to see there.
I finally settled to fiddling with my music. I was tired of Billy Joel
and was waffling between hammered dulcimer and hard rock. Yeah... I have
rather eclectic taste in... well, just about everything.
"Don't suppose you got any classical music?" came Neo's quiet,
gravely voice from the doorway and I managed to hide the nervous jerk
I made when he surprised me.
I queued up some Mozart, answer enough, turning to catch the almost surprised
quirk of a grin. He moved into the cockpit, taking a minute to look at
the pictures that I had made a border out of.
He looked at me with a strange light in his eyes. "You were really
a damn Gundam pilot in the war?"
I felt my shoulders hunch in automatic defensiveness. "Yeah. I was."
"Kid... how in the hell old were you?" he had that oddly awed
tone of voice again.
I flushed and shrugged. "I'm not sure. I'm an orphan. Fifteen? Sixteen
"Jesus Christ!" he blurted. "What kind of motherless bastards
would send a fifteen year old kid off to fight in a God damn war!"
I laughed, but it lacked a certain mirth. "I don't know if they were
motherless, but they were certainly... dedicated. I can't begrudge them
my childhood... they gave their lives."
He shifted Fuzzy-butt and sat down in the co-pilot's seat, pulling one
foot up to rest on the seat. He looked all knees and elbows. I could see
his eyes still flicking up at my photograph border. Maybe he was playing
count the picture.
[cont] [back to Sunhawk's