by: Sunhawk

Deceptions (cont)

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 beer?"

"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 work."

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 it?"

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 funny colors.

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 with him.

"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 alone.

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 self-deprecating voice.

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 hate?"

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.

"Duo?"

"Yeah?"

"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 miracle enough."

I squirmed uncomfortably and started feeling guilty about taking this guy's money.

"You headed to Earth for a reason?" I queried, hoping to change the subject.

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 welcomed me.

"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 this way'.

"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, fucking stubborn."

"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. "More stew?"

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 ago."

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 say.

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 now?"

"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 mind."

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 shivered.

"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 head.

"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 always would.

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 maybe?"

"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.

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