Author: Sunhawk

Directions (cont.)

The rest of the guys did better once they got started, and it made me wonder. Was that a grounder thing? In space, stupid didn't usually survive accidents like Mickey's. If you couldn't learn to listen, if you couldn't learn, the results were usually pretty damn fatal, and spacers seldom found themselves in a position to be making that kind of chit-chat. Sure, we had our fair share of accidents, but they were seldom the result of pig-headed dumb-assedness.

And that's all I found I wanted to say to the kid. Man. I had to keep reminding myself of that fact. I'd had it confirmed after the accident when somebody had mentioned his age. He was a good four years older than I was. Or older than Dr. G had estimated I was. Not a boy any more by a long damn shot. Looking at him, sitting there in his wheelchair, some part of my head wanted to feel sorry for him. I wasn't very damn long from being that helpless myself, and there was a part of me that said I should sympathize. But the rest of me looked at him and saw his... attitude, still intact and sneaking distasteful glances my way even while he talked to the others, answering questions and telling his tale.

He was a dumb-ass, and deep down inside somewhere, the shard of guilt that I guess I'd never quite let go of, melted away.

He was not a person that was worth Heero's suffering.

The guy I'd seen in Griff's office had come out to join the crowd, and he was suddenly right there in my personal space, and before I could do more than blink in surprise, he was pumping my hand enthusiastically.

'You're the one who saved my boy's life!' he said, not waiting for any kind of confirmation. 'I can't thank you enough! Griff told us how near a thing it was; when I think about what could have happened...'

I could still see Mickey just past dear old Dad's arm and his expression could only be described as a glower. I heard him growl 'Dad,' in a warning tone, but it wasn't loud enough to deter his father. Though it got him looks from the two mechanics standing closest to him.

It was kind of sad, really, to think that Mickey could have lived through a mistake like that and not even have learned anything from it. Not that I wanted the kid slobbering all over me and begging my forgiveness... his Dad starting to look watery-eyed was bad enough. But it just sort of made me feel bad for the father, and I found myself wanting to apologize to him. Sorry your kid is a dumb-ass...

'... if there's ever anything you need,' the man was telling me, while his son looked horrified, 'anything at all, all you have to do is ask.'

'That's really not necessary,' I demurred, trying to get my hand back from the guy, and trying to spread his over-whelming gratitude around a little. 'We'd have done the same thing for any one of us.'

It made him turn his attention to the rest of the group, and more importantly... let go of my hand. 'My son's damn lucky to have friends like you guys,' he said, almost beaming with pride, while Mickey just sort of sat in a hunched silence, looking pretty damn uncomfortable. 'In a couple of months, when Mickey is up to it, me and the missus are going to have a big cook-out and invite the whole garage.'

Tears were practically running down the guy's face, and Mickey just looked like he wanted to melt into the floor. There was a kind of stunned moment that Dad pretty much missed while he pulled out a handkerchief and unabashedly wiped at his eyes, talking about hog roasts and potato salad. I can not express the utter horror of the idea of spending a day trapped in a place where Mickey lived, making small talk with his grateful parents. I was hoping somebody else would say something, so that I wouldn't have to, when Griff finally stepped in and put an end to the whole display.

'You're embarrassing the crap out of your boy, Hank,' he laughed, clapping the guy on the shoulder and steering him into motion. 'Let's go get that tool box.'

Hank managed to look shamefaced and said something in return about kids and old men, sounding pretty darn friendly with Griff. Made me wonder if Mickey got the job from Dad's connections. Not that I could fault him, since I was pretty sure I had the job from Heero's connections, but... well, it explained a lot.

There was an awkward silence then that one of the guys tried to fill by asking Mickey how long before he was coming back to work.

'I'm on disability now,' Mickey told him, at least having enough sense to blush over the statement. I couldn't help thinking about Kurt, and maybe it showed on my face, because he turned his glare back in my direction, not bothering to hide it with Dad out of the way. 'You got something you want to say?' he suddenly snapped.

Francis helped me keep the 'grow up' behind my teeth, and I just shook my head. Maybe he'd been expecting the 'I told you so' thing from me.

'Just wanted to say good luck,' I told him, and stuck my hand out, knowing he'd shake it rather than look like an ungrateful little prick in front of all the guys, and especially in front of his old man. I have no doubt if it had been just the two of us, he'd have spit on me as soon as look at me. I have no idea what made me do something that petty, but he was just really... irritating me.

He did take my hand, though he made me wait just a second longer than was polite, but I just waited him out, not letting hand or smile waver. Hank and Griff walked back just then, and Hank looked just about to bust something, grinning at 'his boy'. Made me wonder if he understood just a bit that I was not his son's favorite person, and if he thought something had just been settled between us. Made me kind of sad for him; he seemed like a nice guy.

A nice guy that seemed to understand a whole lot better than Mickey, just how much he owed to karma, or the Gods, or a garage full of mechanics.

He had to thank me one more time, shaking hands all around, and his grip was a firm one compared to the reluctant thing Mickey's had been. Giles and Bobby were quick to volunteer to help take the tool box out front and load it up, while Hank took the handles of Mickey's wheelchair and they were finally leaving.

We stood around like a damn herd of sheep and watched them go, nobody quite sure what to think, and once they were all outside, Dave very quietly said, 'Does anybody else feel kinda bad about wanting to smack him in the back of the head?'

Nobody else would fess up, but there were a number of snickers.

Then we scattered for lunch before Griff came back in and yelled at us for standing around.

I grabbed my jacket and slipped it on while I jogged across the street, heading for the Andover deli. I tossed a cocky grin and a wave at Giles where he and Bobby were still wrestling Mickey's tool box into the van parked in front of the building. Giles managed to flip me off behind his back and I had to bite back a laugh, lest it echo too loud in the entrance to the alley.

I made the trip almost on auto-pilot, slipping through the alley and dodging across the street, mind going back over the weird little encounter. I wondered that Griff hadn't warned us that Mickey was coming in. Or maybe he just hadn't known. Or hell... maybe he'd realized that half of us would have fled the damn building rather than have to suffer the discomfort of making nice with the guy.

It's funny how some people acted like the world owed them some sort of... politeness, just because something bad had happened to them. I'm as human as the next guy, so I'll confess to feeling vaguely guilty for thinking it, but Mickey was a jerk. Always had been, and probably always would be. The fact that he'd lost a leg, did not mean that he was owed a damn thing from any of the people he routinely treated like crap.

Again, I couldn't help but think of Kurt and his own loss, and how differently he'd handled it. Mickey's comment about disability pretty much told the story of his future... the kid would probably still be living in his parent's basement, living off his disability checks when his folks were dead and gone. He'd never try to adjust, never try to go back to school or learn a new trade. Or even attempt to come back to his current one. Something that Kurt was living proof wasn't impossible. If you didn't know about Kurt, you'd never even realize; he was just a guy with a funny little limp. Well, unless he was drunk enough to pull the wooden leg joke; he never seemed to tire of freaking out the ladies.

By the time I'd gotten to the deli, I was pretty well wishing I could forget the whole topic, and if Heero had been in the building, I'd have poked at him to come have lunch with me, just to give me somebody to talk to, and get my mind off wheelchairs, and invalids, and pissy mechanics.

Because the next logical step in the mental musings was, naturally, comparisons and other shit that were just a little bit too close to home and not really conducive to a relaxing lunch hour.

I got my sandwich, letting the girl at the cash register flirt with me, before settling in my usual spot by the window. I really wished I had company.

I suppose when it's all said and done, I have to fess up to a little bit of an attitude of my own. I've been given to understand that a good patient, I do not make.

I really do not remember a whole hell of a lot of the time after the accident. The first few days after the rescue are... vaguely there, but once the infection took hold, and the fever tried to melt my poor little brain, it all gets kind of hazy. And the more time passes, the more dream-like a lot of it seems.

The guys swear to God, for instance, that Sally had come out to the hospital to see me and I don't remember a bit of it. But I have flashes of... things, that just make me want to cringe. I have a moment that I remember quite distinctly, of telling somebody... a nurse, I think, to get the fuck away from me and demanding Heero. I can't recall what she'd been trying to do, and I can't recall how it ended. But I can remember the sharp panic, and I remember yelling, and looking back, I can admit that I was being totally unreasonable about whatever it was. I'm sure that poor nurse went home that night and told her family all about the jerk she had to deal with at work.

There's nothing quite like seeing echoes of yourself in the actions of someone you really can't stand. Like a reflection in a shattered mirror... distorted and incomplete, and disturbing.

I took a bite of my sandwich and pulled out my cell phone while I chewed. Heero could very well be at lunch too, but I wouldn't risk calling him in case he wasn't. Knowing him, he'd answer no matter what he was in the middle of, just because it was me, so I settled for texting him. If I've ever been a jerk, I apologize, I told him, and had to smile thinking of him reading the message in the middle of a room full of stuffy delegates. I left the phone lying on the table in front of me while I ate, just in case Heero was able to reply, but there wasn't any return. Made me wonder what he was in the middle of. Made me wonder if it had anything to do with Representative Rackham.

Sipping my drink and looking around, I realized the lunch crowd was pretty sparse and wondered if it had to do with the conference somehow. The convention center wasn't all that close to the Preventer building, and it hadn't occurred to me there'd be an impact, but maybe people had been afraid the traffic would be bad. Where there were usually a good dozen people in the place, if I stopped in at the true lunch hour, there wasn't half that. A couple with a kid, three secretary looking types, and another guy using his time to text too. Or maybe he was playing Tetris. It was oddly depressing that something that was affecting the whole city wouldn't even be a blip on my day... until it came time to go home. I mentally cursed Mickey's timing; seeing that damn wheelchair was making me remember all kinds of things that I'd really rather not. Being wheelchair bound and being alone, waiting for Heero to come home from work, was kind of right there at the top of the list. Not my finest hour by a long damn shot.

There are days that I suspect I had a crap-load of karma to balance out where that recovery period was concerned. Especially with Heero. While I was more than well aware of the monetary debt I owed Quatre for that rescue, I think there was a much more emotional one that I owed Heero. Kind of a 'no duh' thing, I suppose, but... more than the obvious, I think. I have glimmers that I demanded a whole hell of a lot while I wasn't completely in control of my own thinking processes. Demands that I think Heero more than met at every turn, no matter the cost to himself.

Not that anybody will freaking just tell me what went on. I would pretty much sell a major body part to have video footage of that time period, though I suspect viewing it would just about make me want to jump off a cliff. It's just a very freaky thing to know that you did things and you said things, but you're not quite sure what.

By the time I'd finished my sandwich, I'd dwelled enough that I was right on the edge of memories that were bordering the accident itself, and since I kind of really didn't want to be spending time fishing those waters on a day when I'd be spending the night alone... I decided to just go the hell back to work. Surely Mickey and Hank were long gone.

Slipping my phone back in my pocket and pulling my jacket back on, I took my trash to toss and headed out the door. I got a cheery little 'have a good day' from the cashier and I waved as I stepped out into the afternoon sun. It was kind of a weird contrast to my mood. It made me sigh as I fished in my pocket for my soda change; my mood hadn't been all that bad prior to Mickey darkening the door.

There was a guy at the vending machine ahead of me, and just as I came up behind him, he straightened with a muttered, 'God damn it', brandishing a bottle of Mt. Dew like the machine had just dispensed a frog. He saw me then and chuckled ruefully, looking slightly embarrassed. 'Pushed the wrong button,' he explained and glanced around for a trash can. 'I hate this stuff.'

I echoed his chuckle and reached past him to drop my own coins into the machine. 'It's your lucky day then, because that's what I came for,' and I gestured for him to have another try at button pushing.

'Really?' he grinned widely and handed over the Dew as I dropped the last coin. 'Thanks, man!'

'No sweat,' I replied and stepped back as he made his selection. 'No point in throwing away a perfectly good bottle of soda.'

He bent to retrieve his Diet Pepsi and stood up smiling widely. 'Not sure you can call that crap perfectly good,' he laughed good naturedly, 'but I'll agree it's my lucky day.' I uncapped my bottle just as he did his and he raised the bottle in toast. 'Here's to good fortune!'

I snorted, but raised my bottle in answer and we each took a swig. I turned to walk away then, but found him moving like he was thinking of following me. 'Oh hey,' he said, looking almost embarrassed again. 'You know this area very well?'

I stopped and tried not to sigh. Just my luck to get tangled up with some tourist lost in downtown. I guessed it didn't matter; I had been going back to work early anyway. 'Fairly well,' I confessed, and hoped it wasn't going to end up being anything too complicated.

'I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch down here,' he explained. 'And I thought she meant the deli, but... well...' and he shrugged, indicating no friend. I wondered briefly if the guy had just been stood up, but decided that was his problem to figure out if it was so. He was a short, stocky kind of guy, not all that good looking but I suppose it takes all kinds, so maybe his lady friend found him more attractive than I did.

'Well, there is a sandwich shop a couple of streets over,' I told him, gesturing toward the alley. 'I'm headed that way if you want to follow me? Or do you have a car?'

He took a step toward the alley and I fell in with him, taking another long swallow from my bottle. 'I'm parked down this way anyway. If you could just point me in the right direction?'

I was actually kind of relieved not to have to make two blocks worth of small talk with a virtual stranger, but just smiled. 'It's really not all that far, though my... coworker thinks it is.'

'I really appreciate it,' he said. 'I really don't want her to think I stood her up or something. I probably shouldn't have hung around here so long...' he went on, stuff about his friend and time and... I just couldn't find it in me to care. I nodded in what I hoped were appropriate places and found myself standing next to his car with him, trying to think of a way to politely excuse myself. God, but some people liked to talk; my mouth felt dry just listening to him, and I tipped my bottle up again.

'... she's nice and all, but just not very understanding, if you know what I mean,' he said, his weird little smirk making me try to focus on the thread of conversation. Guy looked kind of vaguely familiar when he wasn't grinning like a loon.

'Yeah, sure,' I replied, nodding in what I hoped was a thoughtful manner, and wondered if it would be too obvious to say I had to get back to work when it was still twenty minutes to the hour.

'Why don't I just drive us?' he suddenly offered. 'Since we're both going that way?'

It left me blinking. I really just wanted to go, but didn't want to be impolite to the guy. 'I should...' I began, and stopped as the words seemed suddenly very darn hard to push out with a tongue that felt thick. I cleared my throat and tried again. 'Should be going...' I managed and took a step away.

Or tried to. I heard a car door open somewhere behind me and all of a sudden the guy I was talking to didn't seem much like a tourist anymore. His entire expression changed as my soda fell from fingers that just couldn't seem to grip.

'Say goodnight, fag,' he hissed, and with a quick glance to his right and left, tossed his own soda, and gave me a shove in the chest.

It clicked in my head then, as I stumbled backward, and I wanted to groan at my own stupidity. I'd fallen for the most lame ass set-up, and I remember thinking that Heero was going to kill me.

Assuming, of course, that there was anything left for him to kill.

I tried to shout, to raise a fuss, but my throat just didn't want to produce any sound. I think that was the moment when it filtered down to my poor addled brain that I was in serious fucking trouble.

My heart gave a lurch as adrenaline hit it, and I tried to lash out at the son of a bitch, but it was like I was moving in molasses. Then hands had me from behind and I was being dragged through an open car door, my head bashing the frame and further disorienting me. I managed to land one solid kick at the original guy, not even able to see the new one, but after that there was a cloth that smelled sickly-sweet, and despite my best efforts not to breathe...very soon after, there was just nothing at all.

My last coherent thought was about Heero... and how pissed off he was going to be.

Nothing eventually gave way to darkness. And cold. And I couldn't seem to... move. Tethered, my brain said, the feel of the word somehow filling me with dread. My thoughts felt... thick. I couldn't see, and when that fact trickled down through awakening senses, I began to strain to do so.

Dark, a voice in my head hissed, as though it was a secret. Dark. Darkdarkdark, and dark was bad. Dark was bad and cold was bad, and dark and cold together were very bad and it was cold and it was dark and why the fuck couldn't I move, and suddenly I couldn't seem to catch my breath and...

I am very ashamed to confess that I screamed. Like a God damn baby, I screamed.

It had all been a lie. There was no Heero and no house and no garage and no... life. I was still there, still trapped, still in the belt and no one was coming for me and I was going to die alone in the cold and silence. Was going to die in the most horrible way, sucking for air that was just not there.

And the ghosts of the Londonderry would come pick over my bones.

The scream bubbled up, born of terror and twisting round with the utter anguish of losing the dream, of losing Heero, until it was echoing hollowly around me and that was what finally pulled me back from the edge of something that was threatening to fracture my mind.

The sound should have been contained in my suit. Should have been stunted, and dull. Should not have been echoing around me with hints of stone and wood and open space. The cry stuttered and stumbled away to a whimper, almost of its own accord, leaving me with nothing but the sound of my own gasping breath.

Not there. Can't be there. My own panting... echoed. It freaking echoed. I could not... was not... notnotnotnot. Where? Didn't matter. Not there. Not in that place. Not in that nightmare. Heero saved me. Heero fucking damn well saved me. He came for me and he took me out of that place and I was... not... there!

My mind kept trying to overlay what it expected to feel onto my... reality. I could feel a raging thirst, could feel the sting of suit burns. Felt a numbness in my hands and feet that my mind refused to believe wasn't there. The dark conspired against me with the cold and I wanted to doubt.

Not there, not there, not there, not damn well there. I'd made peace with Captain Camden, had left his ghost in the care of his widow and he was not going to come shambling after my air.

Then why is it so cold? a tiny voice in my head wanted to know. Why is it so dark? Why can't I move?

I didn't have answers, and I didn't have faith, and in the end I didn't have much in the way of focus and I sank back into the nothing.

My second rise to the surface of consciousness was only slightly less traumatic. Looking back later, I would realize that I'd still been throwing off the effects of the drugs, but at the time I'd just felt... scattered. Wits and memory and feeling, all just totally scattered. I remembered waiting for the sound of Quatre's voice to find me in my isolation and talk to me, but thoughts of him only brought memories of a conversation about... roses and politics, which didn't fit with what my brain was trying to convince me was my actuality.

'Quat?' I called out anyway, not sure if I should hope for a reply or not.

If he answered, it was going to confirm my worst nightmare, but if he didn't... it didn't really refute. What if I was trapped still and that whole part had been the dream? Where did the lie start? When did the hallucinations kick in? If I dreamed Heero, had I dreamed Quatre? Had I dreamed talking to Kurt and Howard? Maybe it was all a lie and Randy had been destroyed and I'd lost the signal home right from the first moment and I'd never talked to anyone at all and I had... wait, not was... am...

It took... time, to throttle the panic down to something that could be thought past. I like to blame it on the drugs in my system. Blame it on the disorientation. But for a while, all I could do was lie... where ever the hell I was, stare into the dark and suck air in ragged gasps.

No, damn it, I'd worked that part out. I was not in the damn belt.

'Think, Maxwell!' I growled at myself and just did my best to ignore all the things trying to tell me what was not true.

Eventually it registered that I could not move because of... something, at wrists and ankles. I was not simply trapped inside a suit, tethered to a bulkhead. I was much more literally trapped. Movement brought the sound of metal on metal and suddenly I remembered a man. A grinning man with a bottle of soda.

Well, bloody hell.

I was handcuffed. Handcuffed at wrist and ankle to... something. I was not completely uncomfortable. A bed, perhaps, or something very like it.

As I got my breathing under control I started to notice more. There was a musty smell to the air. The chill had a feel of dampness to it. And more importantly, at least to my gibbering inner child... the dark was not quite as complete as it had first seemed. The more I stared, the more my eyes were adjusting. Not enough to make out my surroundings, but enough. Enough to help quell the panic.

There is nothing in the universe as completely black as the dark that is found in the bowels of a dead ship at the fringes of nowhere.

This dark... was not that black. And I clung to that knowledge and tried not to laugh in relief. Because I was pretty sure there wasn't much to be relieved about.

It was probably pretty screwed up that I felt reassured anyway.

Not trapped; just abducted! So much better! Things were looking up!

I did laugh then. Or tried to. It was a sound anyway, that I knew was a bad idea, and I bit my tongue until I got it stopped.

Hysteria, I decided, would not be all that difficult a thing to fall into. But probably pretty damn ill advised.

I have not a clue how long I laid there struggling to separate shadow from shadow as hard as I could, and not doing much else. Like thinking. Thinking, at that point, was somewhat over-shadowed by the whole 'feeling' thing. And not much more to feel than the mad pounding of my heart against my breast bone.

'Oh God...' I whispered, and I think it was just to hear the sound of my own voice. To hear something besides the sick sound of my panting. To hear the echo that confirmed things I needed to have confirmed.

My therapist and I had sat down one session and tried to list out all my triggers. I had a nice little laundry list of the suckers. Guess what the top four are?

I think, if I were to ever actually wake up to find myself in a vacuum suit, all bets on my sanity would be off.

Eventually, I had a go at testing the bonds, but I'm not Heero... the cuffs held fast, only rattling metallically. I felt around the best I could and decided that I was cuffed to a metal bed frame of some sort. The actions somehow served to start my brain functioning again though, and I started to take notice of other things. Like the missing weight of keys, wallet and cell phone. Like my jacket was gone. Like the vague headache. And when I turned my head, trying vainly to see my own hands... a weird feeling of vertigo.

Drugged, abducted and trussed up like the veritable Christmas turkey. But to what end? Who the hell had those guys been? Assuming the second one had been a man. I thought so, but I suppose there was no real guarantee. I tried to conjure up some memory of the hands that had grabbed me, but that whole part was just... fuzzy. I couldn't believe I hadn't realized sooner that I'd been drugged. What the hell had they given me? Whatever it was, it had been damn fast acting.

The first guy somehow seemed vaguely familiar. At least, once he'd stopped playing his part and his true face had come out. But I couldn't dredge it up.

It was just utterly appalling that I had fallen for something like that. I wanted to kick my own ass. I'd obviously developed too much of a pattern in my day's routine, and given them an opening a mile and a half wide. I'd done everything just short of tying myself up for them.

'Damn it!' I growled, and jerked hard at one of the cuffs in a fit of irritation, but only bruised my wrist. God; I was just so furious with myself! How could I have been that stupid? I had seen what I had expected to see; accepting the whole setup at face value, taken that bottle of stupid soda, and done their damn work for them!

The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach wasn't entirely left over from what ever they'd put in my drink.

Heero was going to freaking... oh hell; who was I kidding? Heero was going to freak. Later, if there was a later, he'd freaking kill me. I wondered if he even knew I was missing yet. And that made me wonder how long I'd been out, and I reached for the only time-piece I had; my own body. Having to make the effort to take a physical inventory made me realize that my thinking wasn't completely clear yet. Noticing things like aches and pains should not have taken such conscious effort.

I could tell from a general dull stiffness in my joints, that I'd been lying in the same position for awhile. My bladder was full, but wasn't really screaming at me yet, so it probably hadn't been a huge amount of time. Most definitely more than just a few hours, but probably less than... eight?

Beyond the aches and stiffness, there were a few sharper pains that spoke of rough handling. Bruises mostly, and the sting of a scrape or two. Nothing that felt debilitating, but they definitely hadn't given a shit about my comfort when they dragged my ass... where ever I was. I vaguely remember hitting my head on... something. The door frame of that car I realized, trying to remember what the car had looked like; old training telling me that every scrap of information could be a lead But then I had to snort; who the hell was I going to freaking tell? I was on the wrong damn side of the investigation.

What was that thing Heero said? Who what when where why and how? Some investigation thing. I knew how and that was about it. I suppose I technically knew the when of the crime, but had lost my hold on the when of the now. Though I suppose I kinda knew the what. Except for knowing what the what actually was.

'Fucking hell,' I muttered to the dark and had to squelch the urge to start snickering. Again. I really, really did not have myself together. My thoughts were just all over the map. It struck me for the first time to be afraid of what they'd given me. Was it safe to assume it had simply been some knock-out drug? And that it was wearing off? Because I just could not seem to keep my thoughts headed in anything that resembled a straight line. What if there was some sort of permanent damage done? Or... would it even matter in the long run? They might just end up killing me. No way to know that until I knew the why.

I never liked mystery novels. I usually was too tempted to read the last chapter first, and that sort of killed the suspense. Really wished I could jump ahead to my own last chapter.

Ok... maybe that wasn't the best wording.

Focus, Maxwell.

I took a couple of deep breaths and then just held it, willing my heart rate down, forcing myself to pay attention to my own breathing. Had to calm the hell down and start thinking, damn it. The cavalry wasn't going to come charging over the hill any time soon. Sure, it was a pretty safe bet that I'd been missed, but so what? I couldn't remember seeing anyone else on the street when Mr. Dietcoke and I had walked into the alley. Nobody would have seen a thing. So what would happen? The guys would miss me when I didn't come back from lunch. Eventually, maybe somebody would walk over to the deli to see if something was wrong. They might be able to verify that I'd been there, and maybe what time I left. And then what?

I suppose that depended on what this was all about. Ransom? I suppose that was possible. People assume that if they see your face on television enough that you have to have money. That 'fame' equaled 'rich' somehow. If that's what was going on, I suppose there would be contact and then... what? Not like Heero could pay it. Though, I suppose Quatre could. And Heero wouldn't hesitate to ask him.

So maybe the cavalry would come charging over the hill, but I guess I couldn't really count on that being the deal. And even if it was... I'm not a moron, despite that the present situation kind of indicated otherwise... I've seen the crime shows. No guarantee that I'd get turned back over. If the kidnappers managed to actually get the money and get away... I had seen at least one of them. I was really their only witness. Why would they care, at that point?

And if they didn't get away with the money? If they actually got caught? Again... I was the only witness. If there was no other evidence, it might work out better for them if I was never found.

They might just end up leaving me to rot no matter what the hell it all turned out to be about.

I had a mental image of a bed full of moldering bones lying there in the dark, the empty eye-sockets in the skull looking wide-eyed and horrified. One of the arm bones finally giving way, letting the metal cuff fall and chime eerily off the metal bedpost.

I shivered so hard the bed rattled, and I felt the ache of adrenaline in my throat again.

'God,' I muttered, 'I am so screwed.'

Is it terribly, terribly pathetic that my poor inner child just wanted to curl up and weep?

With a little effort, I remembered the feel of Trowa pressing my ear to his chest, making me listen to his heartbeat. Helping me get my own under control.

Breathe in through the nose, and... hold it. Out through the mouth and... pause.

Breathe in through the nose, and... hold it. Out through the mouth and... pause.

Breathe in...

I wondered idly if all my hamsters had hyperventilated and passed out, because I was not getting a lot of help in the thinking process.

Somewhere over my head, I heard the sound of... something, and that whole breathing exercise thing went right out the window.

It's probably pretty damn sad that my first impulse was to yell for help, before some voice in my head that sounded a lot like Solo, metaphysically smacked me in the back of the head and told me to shut the fuck up.

Oh yeah... probably not the cavalry.

So I shut up and listened, straining to hear, every bit as hard as I'd been straining to see.

Basement, I realized, as the sounds resolved themselves into footsteps. They were not making any real effort to be quiet and it struck me in that moment that I was probably pretty damn far from anything resembling civilization, or I would be gagged. Which I was not.

The sounds slowed and a door opened on squeaky, rusted sounding hinges. The steps resumed, sounding louder as they passed almost directly over my head. There was a hint of grit in the air then, and I imagined dust filtering down from the floorboards above me.

My brain grabbed after the stimulus of the sudden wash of information. A house of some sort. Wooden floors. Old and dusty and probably standing unused. I'd seen that quiet fall of dust motes in our own house when we'd first moved in and before we'd started cleaning. I was definitely in a basement, and I could imagine cinder block walls and concrete floor. Understood the cold

It was unreal how much it helped to feel even that faint bit of orientation again.

The footfalls stopped once more and there was a rattle that spoke of a lock or latch. Then the sound of protesting hinges again and suddenly... light.

Almost, I let sound escape. Almost. But it was unclear just what form that sound would take, so I bit it back and just drank in the relief of being able to see.

It wasn't much, no flare of blinding light, just filtered, wan sunlight, but it was enough that I caught a glimpse of those block walls I'd imagined. Could see vague outlines of the wooden beams over my head.

And wooden stairs across the room down which that light was spilling. Then came the creak of footsteps as the...somebody began their descent, flashlight beams dancing ahead of them.

I shut my eyes and feigned sleep; not like I was going to be able to make out anything anyway, and much more likely to hear something if they didn't know I was listening.

Even through closed lids, I could see the play of the flashlight beams across my face and had to fight not to react.

'See?' I heard the voice of the poor lost tourist, sounding smug. 'I told you we had him.'

'Had to be sure,' snapped a second guy, voice deeper and completely unfamiliar. 'Hard to believe it was so damn easy.'

'Wasn't that damn easy,' grumbled the first. 'Or I wouldn't have a cracked rib.'

It was in me to grin like a loon at that news, but I didn't.

'All the same,' the new guy said, sounding somehow more... authoritative. 'Don't forget what he is; Gundam pilots should never be underestimated.'

There was a snort of... disdain. 'What he was. Now he's nothing but a fag artist. The plan went without a hitch.'

There was an answering snort of a laugh. 'And now we just sit back and wait for his boyfriend to panic on cue.'

'And hope that idiot Rackham continues to...'

'Act like an idiot?'

They shared a slightly louder laugh and I heard sound that indicated they were moving closer. I had to remind myself to keep my breathing steady. I thought I'd jump out of my skin when a hand landed heavily on my ankle, giving it a shake as though to test the cuff.

'Should he still be out?' new guy asked from entirely too close for my own personal comfort.

'He'll be under for hours yet,' Dietcoke guy said, the smirk plain in his voice. 'Still hard to believe a light-weight like him was ever a pilot.'

'They were all young,' his buddy replied, a really weird hint of some kind of nameless pride there. 'We raise them tougher in the colonies.'

Diet guy snorted mirthlessly. 'Don't look so damn tough now, does he?'

The guy chose to ignore the comment and I had this twisted moment of feeling vaguely bad that I'd let the reputation of L2 down. Or something.

The heat and glare of the flashlights left my face and when I heard them moving away, I dared crack my eyes open. There were indeed two of them; my tourist buddy and a taller guy with a short bob of a pony tail. The near darkness only told me that he wasn't blond, but I couldn't pick out colors at all, otherwise.

They started up the stairs and something was muttered that I couldn't make out, I heard the word 'plan' again, but just as they reached the top, I heard something more that almost made me yell after them, and I regretted my decision to play possum.

'Peacecraft...'

The door at the top of the stairs shut, the tumblers in the lock turned, and I was alone in the dark again.

I continued to hold as still as a stone, straining to catch anything else, but I couldn't make out more than the murmur of their voices as they reversed their trek. I heard a burst of more laughter, but then it was completely quiet and I realized they'd left the house. A few more minutes and I heard the distant sound of a car engine starting.

And that, apparently, was that.

I was actually kind of disappointed that there hadn't been any super villain gloating and posturing. Hell, they hadn't even been in my presence for more than ten minutes. I couldn't even have identified the new guy. It would have been nice to have gotten more of a clue as to what their plans were. Didn't they read the bad guy handbook? They were supposed to beat their chests in a macho way over the conquered hero and at least let him know if they were going to kill him in the end or not.

Though I suppose I might have heard more if I'd let them know I was awake and tried baiting them a little. Or maybe it would have just gotten me roughed up. Or maybe they'd have clamed up and not said anything at all.

At least I'd heard enough to piece together the 'what' and 'why' of the whole caper. And it was actually kind of depressing to realize it didn't even have anything to do with me. It was about... Relena.

I was trussed up somewhere in somebody's abandoned basement because I was... a decoy? Or, more specifically, a distraction? How... humiliating.

And while I hated to have to admit it... it just might work.

Heero had pretty much proven when he'd gotten his ass ventilated on the job because of worrying about me, that he could be very easily distracted when it came to my safety.

Just fucking great.

I didn't have much information, but I thought I could see the skeleton of their plan. Rackham had something to do with it, but it sounded like he was just a bit of unwitting camouflage. Probably all his ranting about security had everybody focused on him. And Heero and Wufei, instead of concentrating on the real picture, would be beside themselves over my disappearance.

Looked like me and this Rackham guy were partners in the decoy business. At least Rackham wasn't looking at a probable short future ending in fodder for an episode of CSI – AC.

But what the hell did they want with Relena? She was obviously the real target, but... what? Bribery? Kidnapping? Assassination?

I couldn't guess; I didn't know a thing about what their agenda was. Didn't really matter; any of the above fell into the 'bad thing' category. And as touchy as Relena and I were around each other, I still respected her and I didn't want to see anything happen to her.

Not to even think about what it would do to Heero if something befell her on his 'watch', so to speak. Especially if it was his own inattention that let it happen.

'God, this sucks,' I told the dark, and couldn't help rattling the cuffs again.

I hate being helpless. Always have. Probably has a lot to do with my childhood, but that feeling had only intensified since the damn accident. Helpless and... waiting, had to be the worst of all possible scenarios for my ass to find itself in.

It had been bad enough, lying there stuck before, but knowing that somewhere out there somebody was stalking Relena, and I was the only damn person who even knew it, was just sending my blood pressure through the roof.

And it just pissed me right off, knowing that Heero could have probably snapped the chains on those damn cuffs like they were tooth paste. It made me jerk at them again, and they rattled loudly, but pretty much went... nowhere.

It made me even madder, made the frustration coil around in my gut, and I started pulling hard, straining against the damn things, my mind trying to will them to give way. I pulled and jerked and rattled and cursed and then pulled some more, muscles quivering with strain. 'You bastards!' somebody yelled, and I think I lost it for a bit there, because it gets a little fuzzy around that point. I think the frustration just mated with that lingering doubt about... things I was tired of thinking about. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong choice and here I was again back where I'd started, or just there again. Stuck. Trapped. Helpless. Waiting for... the end? Waiting for...

'Heero!' went echoing around the room, a sound of anguish and denial and pain and... brought no answer at all, of course.

I came back to... the right reality, panting harshly, my heart thudding sickly in my chest, head throbbing right along with it and... right where I'd started out. Though my wrists stung like hell and I thought I might be bleeding.

'Son of bitch,' I moaned and it was more of a croak, my throat sore from yelling. 'I really don't want to die like this... this sucks.'

I was not going anywhere. I was going to end up slowly starving to death and I'd be lucky if they at least found my damn body someday. Of all the fears I had and all the phobias I'd developed, I think I was hip deep in the big one.

I don't think I ask for a whole hell of a lot out of life; I'd learned that you kind of have to take what you were offered and make the best of it. But if the Blue Star Wish Fairy had come drifting down from on high and asked me for that one thing, that single solitary thing that I was allowed to ask for, it would be to not die alone in the dark.

Is that so very much to ask?

'Guess so,' Solo snorted from somewhere close by and I tried to meet his weird amusement, but found myself just too damn exhausted.

'You found me?' I whispered, just as though he were really sitting there with me.

His chuckle was a bit smug. 'Found ya half way across the damn solar system, didn't I?'

I started to point out that might have something to do with him living in my head, but didn't, because it might have made him leave and... and... I wanted him there. Wanted him to stay and talk to me even if some part of my head didn't believe in ghosts. Even if most of me was practical enough to know I was lying there talking to myself. I opened my mouth and closed it a couple of times, but nothing really came out.

'Ya know I'll always be here, Baby Rat,' he told me anyway, and I knew in that moment I was well and truly fucked, because Solo just does not go all soft on me otherwise.

'Yer Heero will show up, dumb ass,' he chuckled, and would have cuffed me in the head. 'Ya just gotta... have that faith thing.'

Faith was something Solo had always been a bit light on, it never having done him much good in his own life.

'Solo...' I said, ashamed of the vague quaver in my voice. 'God... Solo, what am I gonna do?' I felt suddenly drained and weak, all my strength spent on my futility. Another bad choice.

'Come on, kid,' he told me then, an echo from the past and another situation that had left me... unsettled. 'Just get some rest.'

I suppose it was the only comfort he had to offer, not being real and all. Not like he could run for help or phone home or any damn thing else.

Maybe it was the drugs still leaving my system, or maybe I'd just worn myself out beating myself against an immovable situation, but I did end up falling asleep again.

There was the breath of a distantly familiar hand stroking over my hair that was oddly comforting despite the dark omenish feel to it.

I dreamed weird things about medieval racks and ice floes, and woke to the feeling of goose flesh and... vague shame. It took a moment to orient myself again and I was relieved when I didn't have to wrestle with the wrenching twist of settling realities. I realized that I must finally be throwing off the affects of whatever I'd been given. My brain felt less like it was stuffed with cotton candy, and more like I could string three thoughts together in a row without getting lost. For the sake of verifying that things were still as I had left them, I gave a tug on my cuffs, wincing when I felt the bite at cuts and bruising.

It was hard to think about my tiny break with... control, without feeling the heat of embarrassment rising to my face. I could only thank God there hadn't been any witnesses to my display of temper and... fear. I'd accomplished nothing but causing myself more discomfort and pain. And on top of my self-inflicted wounds, I had a growing problem that was getting kind of hard to ignore.

I needed a bathroom break bad enough to cramp, and hoped I wasn't going to be forced to just go in my damn pants, but was not quite to that point yet. I estimated another few hours had elapsed and from the drop in temperature, had to guess it was somewhere in the middle of the night. Not being able to move much at all might very well make hypothermia an issue if I ended up trapped there for very long. I couldn't decide if that was a relief as opposed to the whole slow 'starving' thing.

I focused on listening for a bit, but heard no sound that I didn't make myself. It was unnerving. After a bit I couldn't quite help myself and called out, 'Hello? Can anybody hear me?'

It made me feel stupid, and somehow only made the quiet seem deeper. I shivered, the cold feeling like it was seeping into my damn bones. So many memories vying for attention, for center stage.

I wished Solo back but he didn't come. I wondered if it was hard for him to leave the house now that he had an actual place to haunt. That made me snort, wondering about my own damn mind, but somehow the sound was intimidating in that big empty nothingness and I found that panic welling up inside again.

It was not something I wanted to let get started again. It took three or four wheezing breaths to get it wrestled down though, having to lie and do the breathing chant for a bit.

In through the nose...

Kinda hoped I died before I peed myself... how embarrassing would it be to be found like that?

The thought popped into my head just like that, and it struck me as the most absurd damn thing and I started to snicker helplessly, and just like I'd been afraid of, it spiraled up out of control and I laughed until the tears were running for an entirely different reason.

Solo wouldn't come and stroke my hair when I was like that, because boys don't cry and he wouldn't deal with me when I did. It was a lesson he'd tried hard to teach me, but one I sometimes just couldn't stand up to.

I was scared, damn it. I didn't want to die like that... hell, I didn't fucking want to die at all. I didn't want to lose Heero. Didn't want to leave him blaming himself and hurting. Didn't want to leave him living alone in our house like Trishie had lived after her Les was gone. Wandering rooms that we'd barely had time to fill with memories.

And Relena. I didn't want those bastards getting to her and doing... whatever in the hell they had planned. She was a good hearted girl and didn't deserve to be hurt over some asshole's political agenda.

I freaking hate being helpless.

I felt like a God damn gazelle staked out at the watering hole.

It struck me, all of a sudden, that it hadn't been all that long ago that I'd been eating my own stomach out over... a painting commission. I choked on a snort just thinking about it. What I wouldn't give to have what to paint for Jack Lee be my biggest problem again. Perspective, sometimes, gets delivered with a big stick.

And is it really twisted that I had a weirdly dark moment of wondering who would get that commission if I ended up becoming... unavailable?

Those assholes were toying with my life. With the lives of my friends. With my family, my... my husband, damn it. Joking and teasing aside, that's what he was to me and those mothers were messing with his head.

And that just pissed me right the fucking hell off.

Somewhere around where the foot of the bed should have been, something gold glinted in the light that wasn't there and the most buff hamster I have ever seen in my life turned his one-eyed gaze my way. His chain mail rattled as he turned to look at me and he swung a battle-ax up to rest on one muscled shoulder. Can an imaginary rodent give you a disgusted look? Sure felt like it.

His gaze said, 'Watcha gonna do about it?'

I was not bothered when he faded from my mind's eye; he was creepy. No wonder George and Francis had been so scarce.

What are you going to do about it?

There was someone out there trying to hurt what was mine, and why was I weeping into my own ears and waiting for the cavalry to come?

I do not have the brute strength that Heero has, but back in the day, I had a few skills that compensated quite nicely, and there was a time when my quick wit was one of those things. I blame the drugs for having kept me from thinking two feet past the 'oh shit!' part any sooner.

Of course I was not going to be able to break the damn handcuffs or pull the stupid headboard loose. But I had been thinking... or not thinking, as the case may be, too... straight line. I'm not as flexible by a long shot, as I had been when I was a kid in pilot training, but old Doc G had taught me a thing or two about getting out of places I did not want to be in.

When I started thinking and stopped reacting, I went at things at the less obvious angle. Obviously slipping the cuffs was not going to happen with my ankles, but if I could even get my hands free, I was going to up my odds of escape by a good margin. If I could just improve my range of motion I might be able to reach... something. Anything.

I started with my left hand because it was on the side of the bed that wasn't against the wall, but I quickly realized the skin was too swollen from my earlier... attempt. If I got that hand loose, it probably wouldn't be usable when I was done.

I turned my attention to my right hand. Somehow, the damage wasn't quite as bad there, or maybe the cuff just wasn't as tight. When slipping out of something around your wrist, it's your thumb that gets you. Everybody thinks the wide part is across the knuckles, but you can curl those in with a lot more flexibility than you'd think. But that thumb that makes our hands so delightfully useful, just doesn't want to give ground. I didn't much care how much skin I lost, but breaking bones was not really an option; wasn't going to do me much good if I couldn't move my hand after getting it free.

I tried to relax and began working at it; curling in and trying to slide rather than pull. Made me wish I'd kept up with some of the exercises I'd practiced in my misspent youth. I was feeling the bite fairly quickly, but continued to rock my hand back and forth, working skin into the cuff on first one side and then the other. It would have been a bit easier if I'd had the other hand to help with, but in the position I was in, I was reduced to brute pulling before very long at all.

For the record, brute pulling kinda hurts.

The metal of the cuff, cold and unforgiving, began to cut into my flesh as I forced the figurative square peg through the round hole, despite the laws of physics. I growled a curse and just continued the slow, steady pressure, feeling the blood start to trickle down my arm. I could almost hear Doctor G explaining the misnomer of 'double jointed' to me, lecturing me on hyperextension, bones and muscle. I had reached that point where I could not curl things in any more and was just starting to despair of not being able to manage it, when I felt that moment that told me it was doable. I gave a final jerk, just to get it the hell over with, and an incoherent cry of victory escaped me as my hand finally broke free, the cuff rattling loudly against the headboard.

I just laid there for a couple of long moments letting the pain settle before trying to flex and move my hand. Without being able to see, I couldn't be a hundred percent sure of the damage, but raising my arm up so I could feel things as best I could with my still trapped fingers... it didn't feel too bad. I'd made sure the cuff took the skin off on the back side of my hand, staying away from the major veins on the inside of my wrist. The bleeding wasn't gushing, and I wasn't in any huge danger from what I could tell.

Once I had my breath back, I just worked my shoulder and elbow, easing the ache of immobility. It made the rest of me ache even more somehow, but there wasn't much I could do about it.

I reached for my trapped wrist then, but even with both hands, that cuff was just too damn tight. I'd felt vaguely guilty for the previous damage, but once I was able to completely explore the area, I was fairly sure I would not have been able to slip out of it even if I hadn't caused the skin to swell and bruise.

Can I be forgiven for making the next priority the relief of my bladder? And is it just too damn stupid that I blushed like a school boy the whole damn time I was doing it? With one hand free, I was able to rock up on one hip and managed to fumble things around to pee pretty much off the side of the bed. Not the most perfect solution, but better than soaking my damn pants. My bladder still ached afterward, from holding it so long, but it wasn't the unholy distraction it had been.

The smell... I would get used to.

Then I began to explore everything I could reach. My own pockets had been stripped and I had nothing of use left on me. The bed, or whatever it was, was narrow and old in styling. I could feel the metal frame work, but could not find bolts or screws that I might work at to get the headboard loose from the under-frame. The thin mattress felt like nothing but old, deteriorating foam. I could feel the cinder block of the wall beside me, but could not stretch far enough to find any edges.

[back] [cont]