"Neo?" I said at
length and was a little embarrassed at how strained my voice sounded.
"Yeah, kid?" he answered softly, aware I think, that I was going
to bring up a subject that neither of us was probably too keen on talking
"You said that you had... trouble being alone for... for... "
I hesitated and he sighed softly, taking the hint.
"A year," he supplied and then tilted his head to rest on the
seat back. "I didn't handle it as well as you are. It was probably
a year before I could sit in a room by myself without cryin' like a damn
babe in arms."
He stopped talking, having answered the question, but he didn't move.
Just sat and waited for me to speak again.
"Did it... did it just get better? Or... " I wanted to ask if
he'd resorted to some sort of therapy or something, but didn't know how
to say it.
He snorted softly, a little bitterly. "All my money ran out. I ended
up out on the streets... a place I found myself alone as much as not.
The human body can't... maintain that level of fear forever. I think I
just started to get a little numb to it."
I mulled that over. It could be beat then? If I just kept taking jobs,
would I eventually manage to get past this? Had I been on the right track
with this whole 'face it down' thing?
"Duo," he said softly. "It... never really goes away."
I imagine that the look I gave him then must have been pretty bleak.
He sighed, and got that sad, wistful look in his eyes again. "Look...
I know you don't want to hear my sad little tale and I ain't all that
wild about tellin' it again. But it's already on my mind and... well;
there's just something I need to tell you."
I sat and waited for him to continue for a minute and then realized that
he was waiting for me to say 'yea' or 'nay', so I nodded. He sighed again.
"We were in the salvage business too. Me, my wife and son. I'll keep
this part short... " He was looking up at my pictures and not at
me or maybe he was just keeping his head tilted up so the tears wouldn't
fall... I've used that trick myself. "We were on a job and I was
out-ship... old satellite recovery. Our ship... just exploded. No warning.
To this day I have to idea what in the hell... " He had to stop for
a minute and if I'd known him better, I might have reached across and
taken his hand. It was that kind of moment. He opened his mouth to speak,
then closed it and had to wait a minute. I just sat and didn't look at
him for a minute. "There was a ship in the area... It took them four
hours, but they picked me up. I was down to my last twenty minutes of
I suddenly found that I was hugging my knees to my chest but I didn't
even remember pulling my legs up. We just sat for a couple of minutes
and I wanted to ask him to give me Fuzzy-butt, but that would have sounded
worse than pathetic. Excuse me... I need my teddy bear. Yeah...
"Kid?" he ventured after a couple of long, awkward moments.
"I been wondering... how in the hell did you... I mean; a solid week?
Where did you get the damn air?"
I swallowed, seeing those drifting corpses in my mind's eye again. "The
ship I was after had been abandoned under attack during the war. Some
of the crew didn't make it out alive... they were kind enough to share
the air they had left."
His head came up off the headrest and he turned to stare at me, wide-eyed,
"Jesus fucking Christ!"
I wanted to laugh but was rather certain I would start... doing something
else if I let it out, so I just grinned mirthlessly. I heard Solo's voice
again, 'Sorry kid, the Derry crew wants their air back.' I might
have actually shivered. I turned it into a shrug.
He was just sitting and staring at me and I was studiously staring at
the wall. When I let my eyes focus on what was in front of my face, I
realized that it was one of the pictures of Heero. I met his tiny, facsimile
eyes and clung to the memory of his arms around me. Out of the corner
of my eye, I saw my passenger open his mouth.
"I don't want to talk about it, Neo," I told him softly. "I
He nodded and let his head drop back again. "You make me feel damn
It pulled my gaze away from Heero's face and I glanced across at him.
He looked as miserable as I felt. I knew he was trying to help me, but
I just wished we could go back to talking about beer and butterflies.
"Look, there's a hell of a difference between what happened to you
and what happened to me. I was alone. Nobody else was... involved."
I didn't use the word 'killed', ok? I have a little more tack than that.
"I knew exactly what happened... I wasn't left with a million unanswered
questions. The ship involved wasn't even mine. I did not... " I cut
off the phrase 'did not lose everything' before it came out of
my mouth. He cast a look in my direction that was somewhere between grateful
"Thanks, kid," he mumbled after a minute. "Look... here's
what I wanted to tell you and then we'll talk about something else, ok?"
I was more than happy to nod my agreement.
"I got offered a second's position a couple of years after... the
accident." I wanted to snicker; I wasn't the only one who had trouble
with that word. "I think the guy kinda felt sorry for me. It'd been
long enough that I thought I could try. We got into a sticky situation
and... I... " He had been almost blurting it out to get it said,
but now seemed to get bogged down. "I froze," he said ruthlessly.
"I panicked and I froze and I got the other guy killed."
"Shit." I blurted and then flushed. I glanced at him, but the
pained expression on his face seemed almost... too personal and I looked
away again, my eyes seeking Heero's picture. I want to come home, love.
I whispered to him in the back of my head. God, but I want to come
I heard him unwind himself from the co-pilot's seat and stand. "Do
you mind if I have a soda?" he asked quietly.
"Bring me one too?" I smiled without looking up and heard him
snort a small laugh.
"Sure thing, kid." Then he left me alone. Must have got lost
on the way to the galley too, because it took him a good twenty minutes
to come back.
The rest of the trip we passed speaking of things that can only be described
as mundane. We were both cautious as hell about subject matter. I avoided
kids and spouses and the word fear. I can only imagine what constraints
he put on his own speech. We talked music and I played a couple of odd
songs for him. We talked a little about the streets and the hustlers,
and he showed me a trick he could do with a coin and a handkerchief that
I had never seen before. I told him about McMurphy's. He told me about
someplace called 'Heaven's Gate'. We told drinking stories.
Somewhere in there, it dawned on me that his accident had probably happened
while I had still been running the streets as a kid. I wanted to know,
suddenly, in order to put it into context with my own life, but didn't
want to start that subject up again.
I had to wonder about a life spent both fearing and craving the same thing
with equal intensity. To lose the ability to pilot and ship out... but
to forever miss that place between the stars that used to be home. I guess
I got quiet thinking about it, because I glanced up to find him looking
at me with sympathy in his eyes again. He'd been down the road I was on
and knew that it led nowhere. I looked away first.
Then it was time for reentry and I was taken with the sudden realization
that I hadn't done this last time. This was going to be my first reentry
since the belt. I was a little surprised that I wasn't taken with quite
the same fear as I had been at launch. But then... I wasn't going out
into that thing that I feared the most... I was leaving it. There
was still some anxiety, still some doubt, but the end result of a screw
up here was death riding a fire-ball to Earth, which wasn't half as frightening
as abandonment in hard vacuum. I would have laughed out loud at that bizarre
notion, if Neo hadn't been sitting there next to me. Didn't need the poor
guy thinking I'd completely lost my mind.
I called the tower and killed the autopilot. Taking my coordinates and
plotting my trajectory and then started my descent. I spared a glance
at Neo and found Fuzzy-butt clutched to his chest. Maybe reentry didn't
play to my fears... but it must play to his. I didn't have the time or
free brain cells to think of anything to say to ease it for him. Mozart
was still playing in the background and I bumped the volume a little so
it could be heard over the roar of the engines. Reentry is something you
have to do by hand, it's too damn touchy to leave to a computer. Computers
don't have instincts. Computers don't recognize the subtleties of 'feeling'
right and wrong through the seat of your pants. We became one, my Demon
and I, and fought our way back down to the fragile safety of the mother
Earth. My fingers were clenched white on the yoke and the slash on my
arm was screaming with the pressure I was putting on it. Sweat was beading
on my brow and I could only shake my head to dislodge it before it ran
into my eyes. Then there was the hard impact of landing gear on tarmac
and the scream of the breaking thrusters. I thought I heard the tail end
of a muttered prayer from Neo's direction, but I discreetly ignored it.
We finally rolled to a stop at the end of the runway and I ran through
my shutdown sequence while I waited for the tow-truck to come and haul
me back to the hangers. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Neo discover
the bear clutched tight in his arms and flush darkly, his eyes flying
wide in near-horror. I pretended not to notice, keeping my eyes on my
boards while he hastily stuffed poor Fuzzy back down into the seat beside
It was Harrison on the truck this morning, who's not overly fond of me
so we passed little in the way of conversation. He just latched on and
began the haul. I ended up in the same slot I'd been in before I left.
Neo left the cockpit and went to get his coat. He came back counting out
his credits but I stopped him with an upraised hand.
"Forget it," I told him.
He frowned. "Don't need any charity."
"Not givin' it," I responded. "But... you had a point.
I really did manipulate you into taking passage with me without giving
you all the details. That voids the deal. I won't take your money."
He looked at me skeptically, but I could see in his eyes that he really
didn't have the money to spare. His common sense was telling him to take
the turn of luck and run, even while his pride was insisting that he pay
for his passage.
I grinned at him. "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth... it might
He laughed and slipped the credits back into his pocket. "All right
kid," he finally agreed, then looked at me searchingly. "And
"Welcome," I replied and turned back to my boards as Harrison
settled my ship into the hanger. He disengaged and pulled his truck away
without so much as a goodbye. I chuckled and began a total lock-down,
preparing to disembark. I felt Neo's absence when he wandered out of the
I wanted to kick myself for the need that ran through me, but I couldn't
resist the urge to make linking with the dock-net top priority. I called
up my e-mail with my heart in my throat and hated myself for the utter
despair I felt when there was nothing there. Damn, but I am a somewhat
pathetic little sucker.
I finished the lock-down, leaving only the cargo bay door to seal behind
me after we were off the ship, and left the cockpit. I found Neo in the
galley, staring at the whirlwind of butterflies with an odd little smile
on his face.
"You ready to go?" I called and he nodded, moving to follow
me out through the empty cargo bay. When we were both out on the concrete
floor of the hanger, I turned and keyed the big doors closed.
"Thanks for the ride, kid!" Neo called and I turned to find
that he was already walking away.
"Anytime... " I started to say and then stopped at the thought.
He turned at the odd tone of my voice and we grinned wryly at each other
in complete understanding. He waved and walked away. I waved at his retreating
back and started out of the hanger, beginning the long trek to the main
building where I could catch a cab. And found Trowa and Quatre standing
next to their car waiting for me out in the dockyard.
I don't know why I didn't just think that they'd been kind enough to come
down and offer me a ride. But the moment that I saw them, before I even
had a chance to register the solemn looks on their faces, I knew something
was wrong. The early morning sun should have been warm on my back, but
I suddenly felt as cold as the dead of winter. I stopped walking and just
stared at them. I couldn't move. My brain was telling my legs to get my
ass over there and find out what in the hell was going on, but my body
refused to obey, insisted that it was going to stay right here, thank
you very much, and not have to find out.
They took the decision away from me by walking toward me.
"What's... wrong?" I gasped when they were close enough and
I saw Quatre's face go all pained.
"Duo," he said gently. "There's been an accident... "
I was rather surprised to suddenly find that they had somehow teleported
the last five or six feet and Quatre had me by one arm and Trowa by the
other. I was even more surprised to find us on our knees in the dirt.
I don't remember my legs giving out at all.
"He's going to be all right!" Quatre was telling me, his eyes
all wide and scared, the grip he had on my upper arm, just a little too
My brain was having a little trouble making the connections necessary
to produce speech. All the voices in my head were in concert for a change;
calling Heero's name in desperate fear. He's all I had left; I could not
lose him too. Could not... absolutely could not bear it. My ship...
my business... my life... whatever in the hell you want from me, God;
but not Heero.
"Where?" I finally managed to blurt out and that seemed to be
the cue for them to lever me to my feet.
"He's in the hospital," Trowa soothed. "Come on... we came
to pick you up."
I nodded, making the effort to help them get me there. My knees hurt.
They didn't let go of me even after we were moving and it was probably
just as well, my legs felt like they were made out of rubber. I could
feel Quatre and Trowa exchanging glances and unspoken communication, but
I couldn't make myself care.
Quatre sat in the back seat with me while Trowa drove and once we were
finally moving I repressed the hysterical voices in my head enough to
ask, "What happened?"
"They were on a case," Quatre said gently and I knew that 'they'
meant Heero and Wufei. "Some sort of weapons dealer thing... there
was a hostage situation and Heero... got shot."
My mouth was as dry as sand. "How bad?"
"He's going to be fine," he smiled at me a little sadly. "He's
already trying to check himself out of the hospital."
It was meant to reassure, but it only hit me with another shiver of fear.
"He can't do that... " I began and from the front seat,
Trowa chuckled lightly.
"Not with Wufei sitting on him, he can't."
I sighed, feeling some of the electrical traffic in my brain beginning
to sort itself out. "Wufei's all right?"
"Fine," Quatre told me gently and I suddenly realized he was
holding my hand. I flushed and tried to untangle myself but only got a
squeeze of his fingers.
"I'm sorry," I muttered and started to tell them that it had
been a bad couple of days to start with. But, in retrospect, that didn't
seem to be the best thing to bring up right now, so I just shut up.
I glanced out the window, surprised to find that we were already nearing
downtown. My head seemed to be clearing a little bit, that first clutch
of fear and its mutant child, adrenaline rush, were easing. I was really
going to have to talk to Quatre about how to deliver bad news. "Can
I get some details, Qat?" I finally managed to ask in a relatively
steady voice, and saw Trowa glance up into the rear view mirror at one
of the two of us.
"Of course," Quatre smiled at me. Just happy, I think, that
I was starting to not look like I was going to pass out. "He was
hit twice... in the abdomen. It was... pretty nasty," he told me
hesitantly. Then, more firmly, "But he's fine now. He just needs
I wanted to growl at him, one is not 'fine' when one has two bullet holes
in one's stomach. I swallowed convulsively and found my eyesight oddly
obscured for a second. I blinked and turned my face back toward the window.
Quatre reached to pat my arm, offering some comfort. My bad arm. I hadn't
seen it coming and the breath hissed sharply through my teeth. I flinched
away from him and his eyes went wide.
"Duo?" he yelped. "What's wrong?"
"Sorry," I gritted, the pain serving to intensify the damn tears
I'd been fighting. My arm curled automatically in toward my chest and
I hunched forward protectively, closing my eyes and struggling with control.
Ok, God... I give up. Did I not already say that? I quit. Uncle. Stop
now. Little ol' Duo's had all he can take... go pick on somebody else
"Duo?" Quatre's voice was rising in concern and I tried hard
to care. Really I did.
"Something's wrong with his arm," Trowa called tersely from
the front seat and suddenly, there were gentle fingers unbuttoning my
cuff. I sighed and straightened, blinked my eyes open and tried vainly
to push Quatre's hand away.
"It's all right," I appeased, but it was too late to stop him
now that he was on the trail of something that he deemed might need his
attention. He would not leave it go until he had my shirt sleeve carefully
pushed up and was able to see the gauze wrapped around my arm.
"What happened, Duo?" Quatre asked and his voice had a hint
of the old command mode I remembered from so long ago.
"I cut it," I told him, trying to sound reasonable and hoping
he would just let it drop.
"How bad?" was, of course, the next question.
I heaved a sigh. "Twenty-one stitches," I told him a little
"Damn!" Trowa blurted and looked in the rear view mirror again
to catch my eye. He looked, oddly, a little confused. "Did you call
and tell Heero?"
"No," I frowned. "There wasn't any point in scaring him."
Trowa just looked more puzzled. "Heero's been... upset about you.
Worried to death. That's why we come down to get you, to try and appease
him. How in the hell did he know?"
I thought about it and realized pretty quick that the only possibility
was that he had some kind of watch maintained on the Ship's Services reports.
I swore softly. "It happened on the way out,' I answered Trowa, though
I think he had thought it was a rhetorical question and had not expected
either of us would answer. "I had to get docking assistance... Heero
must have tagged the L3 emergency net somehow."
We had reached the hospital and the conversation died as Trowa pulled
the car into the parking garage. Quatre finally let me have my arm back
and I was only glad that he hadn't tried to unwrap my damn dressing. I
rolled my sleeve back down and carefully rebuttoned my cuff.
They flanked me as we walked to the elevators, riding up to the walkway
that led over the street to the main hospital. I couldn't seem to get
my head together and was appalled to realize fairly quickly, that I was
lost. I tried to make an effort to pay more attention to my surroundings,
but couldn't stop the cacophony of wild thoughts running around my head
like a pack of slavering, mad hamsters. Between them and the sobbing little
boy who, I had lately discovered, lived in the back of my head, I didn't
have enough concentration left to do more than grunt mono-syllable answers
to the occasional question I was getting from Quatre. He finally just
shut the hell up. I could feel them doing that exchanging glances thing
again, but I couldn't care about that either.
There was another elevator ride and more corridors. A seemingly endless
hall with that pervading 'sick' smell that all hospitals have. That mix
of medicine and antiseptic and human misery, with that underlying hint
of floor wax thrown in for good measure. It was a scent I was more than
familiar with, and more than slightly... phobic is a little too strong
a word for it, but I can't think of another one... more than slightly
phobic about the scent and what it meant. I shivered almost violently
and there were suddenly hands on my shoulders and on my back. Quatre murmured
something soothing and I nodded, not really hearing him.
But then I heard another voice; a very familiar voice and I heard what
it was saying loud and clear.
"Let me up, Chang. Now."
"Not on your life, Yuy. You are being a total asshole."
I made no conscious effort, but my legs suddenly decided all on their
own to take off running for the room the voices were coming from. Maybe
they'd been subverted by the damn hamsters.
"Wufei... please. He's hurt... I have to go... " Heero's
voice was so... wan. So full of pleading. Had I been in Wufei's place
I would have picked him up and carried him wherever in the damn hell he
wanted to go. I could not have denied that voice if my very life had depended
Chang Wufei is not nearly as easily moved as I am. "Lie the hell
back down or I will have your stubborn ass sedated!" His voice was
rising steadily in obvious anger and frustration and I had no doubt that
if Heero didn't relent soon... Wufei would administer the drugs himself.
Then I found the door and darted in, coming up short just inside the room
at the scene playing out in front of me.
They were literally arm wrestling over Heero's IV's. Heero, trying almost
feebly to pull them out, and Wufei gently, but firmly, intercepting his
every move. There was enough tension in the room that there should have
been some tangible sign of it... like a creeping black fog or blood-red
glowing light or... something.
Heero looked pale and almost groggy, his face twisted in anguished frustration
as he fought against Wufei, making no headway in getting free. I'd never
seen him like this... he was never the one to get hurt. Never the one
in the hospital bed, but always the one hovering over mine. It...
rocked the foundation of what was left of my world. I heard Trowa and
Quatre coming into the room behind me, and it served to kick my ass out
of its state of shock.
"Heero!" I snapped. "Stop it!" And strode across the
room to flank Wufei.
Heero froze at the sound of my voice and it was like watching a puppet
with its strings cut. He just stopped fighting his partner and almost...
collapsed back onto the bed. Wufei straightened, casting a glance my way,
but stayed hovering there, as though afraid to trust that Heero had really
Heero was so muddled with the pain and the drugs, his eyes met mine and
they looked... fevered. "Duo?" he breathed softly, as though
afraid I wasn't real.
"Right here, love," I murmured, as I got close enough, catching
the hand he stretched out toward me and squeezed it tight. "I'm here
I was drawn in by the horrid fear still shining in those deep blue eyes
of his and for a moment I forgot that we weren't alone in the room, leaning
down to kiss him gently.
"You're all right?" he sighed, his eyes roaming over my face,
blinking owlishly as he struggled against a body that'd had enough for
"I'm fine," I smiled reassuringly and reached to brush the sweaty
hair from his eyes. "I'm here... everything is fine. You just rest
I was only vaguely aware that Wufei had moved off a pace, was conversing
in quiet tones with someone, probably Quatre or Trowa.
Heero tilted his face up, asking more from me and I settled on the side
of the bed so as not to be so far above him, so he didn't have to strain
so hard to reach me. "Easy, love,' I murmured and kissed him again.
The hell with the others... if it fucking bothered them, they could leave
the damn room.
I cupped his cheek in my free hand, careful as could be, and rained tiny
kisses on his upturned face until I saw the fear fading from his eyes.
"You're really all right?" he finally asked.
"I'm not the one in a hospital bed, husband-mine." I whispered
to him with a grin and watched as the stress, the drugs, or just pure
exhaustion finally took their toll and his eyes began to droop. "I'm
right here and I'm not going anywhere."
"Forever?" he whispered, trying on the ghost of a smile.
"Absolutely," I confirmed. "Not a minute less."
And with that, he stopped fighting it and let himself fall. Looking down
at his care worn face, finally relaxing in sleep, I knew what I had to
do. I had known it for a while, but hadn't wanted to face up to it, I
guess. I faced up to it now and only wanted to sit there and cry. I felt,
suddenly, like the weight of the heavens and the Earth had settled on
my shoulders. I felt old and worn. Tired beyond my ability to articulate.
Behind me, there was the sound of Wufei's frustrated growl. Full of irritation
and exhaustion, anger and guilt, and a dozen other things I couldn't name.
"About God damn time you got here!" he snapped and I couldn't
help but jerk my head around to stare at him. What in the hell was this
"What?" I blinked at him, meeting his dark and angry eyes in
bewilderment. I barely registered Quatre's shocked gasp.
"As much as he's given up for you... where the hell were you when
he needed you?" he grated and I wondered what kind of a horrendous
night he'd had, left here alone to struggle with his wounded partner.
He looked about ready to explode... and I seemed to be the ready target.
"Chang!" Trowa barked at him, his own temper flaring on my behalf.
Wufei didn't even look his way.
I gently lay Heero's hand back on the bed and slipped free to walk around
the bed to where Wufei stood, his fists clenched at his sides. I stood
toe to toe with him, staring him in the eye. He was wound as tight as
a cheap-ass watch. From what Trowa and Quatre had told me, Wufei had probably
been stuck in this room for close to twenty-four hours now. The only one
able to handle Heero's unreasoning stubbornness... in my absence. He looked
damn tired... and wicked pissed. Something needed to give before his head
"You are his partner," I told him levelly, "I'm only his
lover. It's your job to watch his back. Where the hell were you?"
It garnered the expected result and I ended up on the floor staring at
the ceiling... when my sight cleared enough to let me see it. I thought
my damn jaw was busted. There was the expected flurry of raised voices.
I listened only enough to make sure that none of the voices belonged to
Heero; he still slept. It took a minute of blinking the world back into
focus before I could make myself care enough to intervene.
"Stop." I commanded and the three of them fell silent. I pushed
up on one elbow and saw what I was looking for in Wufei's eyes. "Trowa.
Quatre. A moment, please?"
They looked at me as though I had gone insane, but when Wufei didn't move
to attack me again, only standing with his head hanging, they relented
and left the room. They both moved slowly, glancing back at me with hesitation
clear in their eyes. I had little doubt they didn't go far.
I probed gingerly at my jaw and quirked an eyebrow at Wufei. "You
gonna help me up?"
He came slowly forward, his face full of shame and I grinned at him, around
the busted lip. "Nice shot, Chang." I gave him my good arm and
he pulled me to my feet.
"Maxwell... " he stammered, his face as red as fire. "I...
I am so sorry... "
"Forget it," I smirked. "I asked for it. Feel better?"
He raised his eyes to meet mine, and I probably looked like a loon, grinning
like an idiot with blood smeared all over my chin. "You did that
on purpose." It wasn't a question, and since it wasn't, I didn't
deign to answer it.
"Tell me everything I need to know," I smiled gently. "And
then go the hell home and get some sleep. Your shift is over... it's my
[cont] [back to Sunhawk's