by: Sunhawk

Deceptions (cont)

"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 about.

"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 air."

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... . Right.

"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 really don't."

He nodded and let his head drop back again. "You make me feel damn pathetic, kid."

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 and embarrassed.

"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 home.

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 him.

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 bite."

He laughed and slipped the credits back into his pocket. "All right kid," he finally agreed, then looked at me searchingly. "And thanks."

"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 cockpit.

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 tight.

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 to rest."

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 now.

"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 flatly.

"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 on it.

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 surrendered.

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 now."

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 one day.

"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 now."

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 all about?

"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 imploded.

"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 watch."

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