Author: Sunhawk

Obligations (cont)

"Still with me?" Heero asked and I almost laughed.

"More like, back with you." I muttered, trying to look behind us to reassure myself where in the hell we were and almost fell.

He caught at me. "Steady."

"I have to sit down," I gritted out, completely humiliated and he quickly found a bench.

"Will you be all right sitting here while I go find a cab?" he asked from where he was kneeling in front of me. I blinked at him, trying to remember how he had gotten down there. I started to nod and thought better of it, holding my head perfectly still.

"Sure." I told him.

I was two seconds away from stretching out on the damn bench and going to sleep when he finally came back. I have a feeling the cab driver thought I was drunk. I really didn't care; it was somehow less embarrassing than the stupid truth. I remember very little of the drive back, only a vague irritation caused by the lingering odor of the cab drivers lunch. Things came back into sharp focus as we disembarked and I had to walk again. Heero put up with my weak-kneed staggering until we were off the streets and back in the dock area. There was only a skeleton crew working; the expo is practically a colonies-wide holiday after all. We passed almost no one and he finally growled, "Enough!" and picked me up in his arms, carrying me the rest of the way to the ship.

By that time I didn't even argue. After that is a confused jumble of memories that ended with me in my own bed, clothes gone, blankets applied and kiss delivered. I slept for almost fifteen hours.

I'm not positive if it was the throb in my arm or my bladder that finally shoved me up out of sleep. I blinked awake with only one thought; that was the stupidest fucking idea I have had in years.

I twisted my head to look up at the chrono and almost groaned.

"You're awake," Heero's sleepy voice accused. "Why?"

"Uhmmm... " I grinned. "Eminent self-destruction of bladder?"

He snorted and moved out of the way so I could climb out and make the trip to the head. The majority of my key muscles complained uproariously, explaining to me with no delicacy what-so-ever that they were pissed as hell at me and intended to stay that way for some time.

I relieved myself first thing, and then hunted up a couple of the pain pills. I slipped back into the cabin to stand for a second looking down at Heero; his open eyes looked back at me. I might have known he wouldn't go back to sleep until he saw me settled. Trouble was, after fifteen hours I was pretty much wide awake despite it's being oh-five hundred hours.

"Are you all right?" he questioned.

"Fine." I smiled. "Can you get back to sleep if I go shower?"

He pushed up on one elbow and looked at me more closely. "Are you sure you're ok?"

I sighed and stuck my hands out between us in the dim, night-cycle lighting; they held steady. "I'm much better; see?"

I could see his drowsy smile even in the dim light. "Ok... but you'll call me if you need me?"

I snorted and raised my right hand in the air. "I swear to God... if I drop the damn soap, I will yell for help."

"Asshole," he muttered, but he burrowed back into the blankets. I laughed at him and then went to take a nice, long, hot soak. I had gotten over that fifteen minutes in the shower thing once I had gotten out on my own and there hadn't been anyone to annoy. I took the full thirty minutes and just dared anybody to come and say something to me about it. By the time I got out, the pain pills had kicked in and I actually felt like I might live. I towel dried, combed, braided, brushed teeth, dressed and generally got ready for the general viewing public. I had been pretty rank when I got back yesterday. If we stuck anywhere near to the original schedule, I'd be spending a lot more time with Miss Relena than I had since I'd pulled the Brannigan's out of the jaws of death. Certainly didn't need to offend the Queen of all she surveys at this stage of the game.

I padded out of the head and was surprised as hell to find Heero really and truly asleep again; I had expected to find him lying there listening for me. I crept out of the cabin and made my way to the cockpit to check for messages and to go over the arrangements Heero had made the day before. Don't start with me; of course I trust him. But I'm the damn Captain. This is my ship. It's my job to check and double-check everything.

The only message was to Heero from Wufei requesting that he give him a call at his convenience. I left it queued as new to remind myself to show it to Heero. Then I took myself off to the galley where I intended to indulge myself with a damn soda and a nice, familiar ration bar for breakfast.

Needless to say I was surprised and quite honestly, a little disappointed to find Relena sitting in there already, sipping at a cup of coffee and leafing through my sketchpad.

I have to admit, I hesitated in the door for a split second and if she had shown no signs of having seen me, I probably would have ducked away and gone somewhere else. But she did see me. Not only saw me but blushed in embarrassment and flipped the pad closed with a stammered, "Oh! You're awake! I... I'm sorry... "

I went on into the room; there wasn't much point in trying to pretend I was headed somewhere else at that point. "It's all right." I waved dismissively at my sketchbook, "I keep the really erotic pictures locked up."

I had been trying to maintain the... tone of some of the conversations I had listened to her have with Toria and Hayden but she only blushed all the harder and stared down into her coffee mug. I sighed and went on around the table to the fridge to get my breakfast. God, but I hoped somebody else woke up soon. This was going to be miserable.

I sat down at the table, not quite directly across from her, sitting sideways with my legs propped up in the next seat over so that I wasn't looking right at her.

"So... " I ventured after a moment, "did you have a good time with the Brannigan's?"

She perked up a little. "Oh yes; Toria is so much fun."

She wasn't giving me a whole lot of help here. I thought about asking what time they had gotten back in but cringed; that sounded too much like some kind of overprotective parent. I found my fingers fiddling with the end of my braid and I had to force myself to stop.

"You... " she said softly and dared a flick of a glance in my direction. "Did anyone tell you that you came in second?"

"No shit?" I burst out, grinning widely. "Ha! They really didn't realize I fucking passed out in the middle of the damn thing!" I shook my head in amazement and then noticed Relena seemed to be flushing all the way to her toes. I thought about what I had just said and sighed. Language. Good Lord, I was cussing like a... salvage man. But then I thought about it a little harder. No way in hell was I cussing any more than Toria did and she didn't seem to bother little Miss Priss-ass one bit. I sighed again. "Sorry," I murmured.

There was an uncomfortable silence while I desperately tried to think of an excuse to get up and leave.

"I... didn't expect you to wake up so early," she blurted and I realized she was as anxious to make conversation as I was.

I snorted. "Fifteen hours was more than enough," I chuckled, sipping at my soda. "What are you doing up at this hour?"

"Just a morning person, I guess." She shrugged and fiddled with her coffee mug. I reached to unwrap my ration bar and she cringed. "How can you stand to eat those things? They taste like... like Styrofoam."

"It's not about taste, it's about nutritional value," I told her.

"But there are other things that you could eat that would be just as good for you," she frowned. "But didn't taste so... vile."

I nibbled at the thing and considered it. "They're not really all that bad," I shrugged, thinking back. "There's a lot of things in the world that taste a whole lot worse."

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Worse than that? I can't imagine what it would be."

I opened my mouth to tell her and then closed it again, thinking better of it.

There was another of those ringing silences.

"What?" she said and sounded irritated. "You keep doing that."

"Doing what?" I frowned.

"Starting to say something and then... not." Her gaze came up to meet mine for a moment.

I sighed heavily and found myself looking away first; my fingers began picking at the label on my bulb of soda. "You don't really want to know what's worse than military issue ration bars."

She glared and opened her mouth but this time she was the one to think better of it. I snickered and she flushed.

"We don't have much of a middle ground, do we?" I said.

"Not really," she said flatly.

Let's see... can I think of another word of silence? Stillness? Quiet? All too mild to describe the utter lack of communication going on in that room. I picked relentlessly at my soda label, creating a little mound of paper on the table and wondering when I had developed this habit. I could see her eyes flicking toward me and then away again. What in the hell was her problem with looking at me? Had I grown a second damn head? And then I suddenly remembered my hands.

"Shit," I growled; I had forgotten my glove. I snatched the uncovered hand below table level and felt the heat rise to my face. "I... I'm sorry. I forgot," I muttered.

She only looked more uncomfortable, though I hardly saw how that was possible. "How can you possibly forget... ?" she blurted and bit it off a little too late, her eyes flying wide at what she had let slip.

I snorted. "They've been this way a long time." They say you can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.

"How... ?" she dared in a mere whisper. Like a small child asking questions they knew they could get in trouble for.

"Old war injury," I grinned, not really in the mood to talk about it and took a sip of my soda.

She frowned, something changing in her eyes. "Everybody keeps telling me to give you a chance... but how can I, when you won't even talk to me seriously?"

I blinked at her, a little taken aback. "Relena... you're asking about some fairly personal things." I leaned toward her. "You and I do not have a great track record talking on a personal basis."

I was surprised when she didn't lean back or look away. "I believe you are the one who coerced me out here."

I was caught in a strange vortex, swinging between guilt and anger. That one had taken me by surprise. "I'm not kidding; it happened during the war. Mission went... sour." I leaned back and felt the sharp teeth of memory nip at my ass. I couldn't help flexing my right hand where it still lay hidden in my lap. "Stealth assignment. We got caught during the retreat and I had to... set off some explosives to get us clear. It was a... split second decision. I had to decide between letting our asses get shot or... " I shrugged and let it drop.

She looked suitable horrified and just stared at me for a moment. I took full advantage. "You tell me something now; the night we met... you sided with the guy who had threatened to shoot you against the guy who saved your life... that's bugged the crap out of me for years. Why?"

I got to see echoed on her face the expression that must have been on mine not two minutes before. A flash of hot anger tempered quickly by chagrin and finally evened out with a strange resignation. She turned herself sideways and mimicked my position so that we just flat did not have to look at each other at all. "Heero... frightened me," she murmured. "I'd never encountered anyone before who didn't think I was... wonderful because my name was 'Darlien'." She sat and swirled her coffee in the bottom of her cup, staring down into it as if she could read something there. "He made me feel things I'd never felt before... it was exciting. Dangerous."

I saw her eyes flick my way, gauging my reaction. "The dark, brooding rebel is more attractive than the white knight, huh?" I grinned and she snorted but then her face took on a hard set. She seemed to have decided that there were rules to the game we were suddenly playing and it was her turn.

"Those people in the corridor... they aren't real, are they?" Her face was guarded.

"Very real," I told her flatly, a little irritated that she could still ask a question like that after living on my ship this long. "Every last one of them."

"Like Toria's 'babies'?" She pounced like a cat on my words.

I shook my head and resisted the urge to roll my eyes, "No. Toria made up her children and I painted them for her. We made them together to... help ease her pain over the loss of not being able to actually have them." I paused and took a drink, holding the bulb awkwardly in my bad hand, thinking about my words. "Those are my... ghosts in the corridor. My dead."

She didn't look convinced but took a moment to sip at her coffee. "I don't understand why you would want to be reminded of things like... that church." She was talking about the painting in the cargo bay.

The label from my soda bulb was disintegrating under my fingers and I had to chew on that one a bit. She glanced sidelong at me a couple of times. Trying to decide, I think, if I was going to answer her.

"Penance?" I whispered at long last, feeling my shoulders hunch in remembered pain. I swallowed a couple of times but couldn't manage more than that.

Technically, if we continued with this bizarre game of truth or... truth; it was my turn. I only had one question left that I really wanted to ask her; why do you hate me so much? But I just didn't think we were to the place where I could work up to that one, so I stayed silent.

"When are we leaving?" she suddenly blurted and when I glanced her way, her face was set in some kind of strange resolution.

"Not until this afternoon," I told her and wondered what she was thinking about.

"Take me to the site of that... " Her fingers flicked in the direction of the cargo bay, the direction of the picture of the aftermath of my own personal hell, "Of that church. Do we have time?"

I thought about it and realized that we could manage it if we didn't mess around about it. "Yes,' I said guardedly.

She sat up and turned to face me. "I want you to take me there."

She thought she was calling my bluff; I could see it in her eyes. After all this... she still thought I was just making this shit up. I was suddenly very angry. Angry in that cold as ice, total control way I remembered so well but had not felt in a long time.

"Fine," I heard myself say. "You should go out as 'Lena', the way you did yesterday. Can you manage that without Toria?"

Her eyes narrowed but she inclined her head. "I can do it; I'll need a few minutes."

"Of course," I said. "I'll meet you by the air lock."

She rose from her seat and walked calmly out of the room. I resisted the urge to flip her off behind her back. I had to wait until my hands stopped shaking before I pulled my sketchpad over, pulled a blank piece of paper out and left a note for Heero and Chezarina. I slipped back into my cabin and found my damn glove while I was at it.

It ended up taking her ten minutes and when she came down the corridor wearing my clothes again, I had to repress my irritation. Even though it was what I had told her to do, it still bugged me.

I cycled us through the lock with a twinge of guilt; Heero was going to be pissed when he woke up and found us gone. But this just felt like something she and I needed to do by ourselves somehow. I couldn't have explained it to him if I'd tried. I couldn't explain it to myself.

She hadn't attempted the French braid that Toria had put her hair in yesterday but had opted for one of those high ponytails, and it swung jauntily as she walked. We stayed quiet as we made our way through the docks and out to the street. I hailed a cab as soon as possible, held the door for her while she climbed in and gave the driver the address for a candy store I knew of just a couple of blocks from the orphanage.

Relena gave me a strange look when the cab pulled up there and I couldn't help grinning, "We can't show up empty handed."

The self-satisfied spark in her eye faded slightly and she trailed behind me into the store. I didn't waste a lot of time in there; I generally bought the same thing and didn't have to agonize over the choices. I probably made L2 twice a year and never failed to stop off at the orphanage while I was docked here. I always took the kids candy, but they weren't used to eating a lot of it, so I had long ago come up with a mix of carob chocolate substitutes and sugarless hard candies. And before you start in on me about being a cheap-ass; the stuff is actually more expensive but it's much less likely to rot teeth or cause sugar induced fits of wall climbing. The kids still loved it and it didn't get me evil looks from matronly Mrs. Octavia who ran the place.

I thought about re-hailing a cab when we left the candy store but it was only three lousy blocks and Relena walked at a rather leisurely pace, so I risked it.

We walked slowly down the street, side by side. I thought about offering her my arm; Heero would have but I didn't think she'd accept and I really didn't want to set myself up for that kind of smack in the face right now.

It was always strange coming here. It was... very different than it was when I was a child growing up. The area... hell, all of L2 was cleaned up a little bit from those days. Though it sometimes put me in mind of braiding silk ribbons in the tail of a shit-wagon horse; you could dress it up all you wanted... but it was still L2.

That wasn't quite fair, I suppose. I would not be walking Relena Peacecraft down this street if things were still the way they had been when I'd been growing up here. The Maxwell church had been far removed from the meaner streets and alleys that I had spent the beginning of my life in but it still wasn't a place I would have taken her.

The candy store and the liquor store next to it are the last two businesses on that street before things pass into slightly less... esthetically pleasing surroundings. I found myself slipping into ages old 'watch' mode as my eyes scanned and explored automatically.

"Are... we in danger?" Relena suddenly whispered in a very small voice.

I looked down at her and found her gazing at me with wide eyes.

"Why?" I asked on sudden alert. Had she seen something?

"You... " she flushed, "Your eyes changed."

I chuckled lightly for her and went ahead and offered my arm. I was surprised as hell when she took it, moving a little closer. "No, we're fine. It's just that this area... wasn't always like it is now. Just being here makes me remember."

I tried to look around us with her perspective in mind. Had she ever seen a boarded up building before? I realized that we had passed a couple of winos a half a block back, sharing a bottle in a brown paper bag. They had barely registered in my mind because I had automatically dismissed them as something that didn't need my attention. I'm sure they had scared her though, with their unshaven, dirt smudged faces and ratty clothes.

The memorial was within sight, a block ahead of us and I felt that old, familiar tightening in my gut. I had only come to see the thing itself one time. After that, when I went to the orphanage, I made a point of circumventing it. There was a little girl selling flowers from a basket on her arm, positioned between us and the big rock with the plaque on it.

She curtsied prettily as we drew abreast of her. "G'day m'sir... buy a flower for your lady?"

I'm not sure whether it was me or Relena who snorted first; it came out in a confused, combined mixture of amusement and disdain. The little girl blinked at us in bewilderment and sidled closer. "I am sorry if I have offended... "

An ages old instinct kicked in and I caught the quick little hand, camouflaged by the basket, as it moved for my pocket, "Bad form to cop from a customer," I chided gently and allowed her to jerk her hand away.

"I'll scream rape if'n ya... " the girl started but I laughed out loud at her, making her stop and glare up at me. Relena was looking back and forth between us in bewilderment, having missed the attempted picking of my pocket. She was mostly baffled by the sudden change in the girl's manner.

"Save it fer the rubes, kid," I chuckled and watched her eyes turn calculating. "Neat bit; 'at basket. Can I see?"

"If'n ya buy a flower," she demanded. I laughed again and pulled two bills out of a completely different pocket than the one she'd been going after. It was four times what she was charging for the things. Her eyes narrowed but she took the bills without comment, making them disappear inside her patched together dress. She handed me one of the yellow daffodils and then turned the basket, careful not to spill the flowers and let me see the bottom side.

"Sweet," I complimented. It looked as though her left hand were completely engaged holding the basket when in reality it was supported on her upper arm with a cleverly hidden strap that left her arm free from the elbow down. "Though ya ought ter make a breakaway... case ya ever gotta run quick. That be damn awkward if ya tryin' to get over a fence in a hurry."

She cocked her head and looked up at me. "Ya don' look like no street rat," she proclaimed.

I smirked and etched her a faint bow. "Looks, my dear, can be very deceiving." I tapped her on the end of the nose with the flower, garnering myself a mini-death glare. "And I meant what I said; it's very poor form to steal from a paying customer."

She opened her mouth with what looked like the beginnings of a flippant remark, then seemed to think better of it; answered my bow with another of those curtsies and smiled a feral smile. "Thank you, m'sir. M'lady. G'day."

I moved Relena on, not quite able to keep the grin off my face; some things never changed. Relena had relinquished my arm during my exchange with the flower girl and didn't move to take it back. I could see her chewing on something and waited for her to get it spit out.

"Shouldn't we report that?" she finally whispered and frowned at me when I chuckled.

"Report what?" I smiled at her. "Nothing happened."

"She tried to rob you!" she flared.

"The authorities would laugh you out of the precinct," I informed her gently. "If they tried to chase down every pick-pocket wanna-be around here they'd never get anything else done." She continued to frown at me and I sighed heavily. "Look, Relena... the kid's got to eat."

"She's selling flowers," she snapped. "She shouldn't be allowed to rob people blind!"

I snorted. "You think she can make a damn living selling flowers on the street corner? That's just her cover... her gimmick."

She looked up at me, agog. "You mean she's... "

"A professional pick-pocket," I confirmed and had to fight not to roll my eyes.

"But she can't be any good at it;" she blurted. "You caught her in a matter of seconds!"

I laughed and leaned a little closer. "Oh, she's not bad. I caught her because I'm better." We were at the memorial and I ended the conversation by stepping around her to lay the daffodil at the base of the great piece of granite directly under the plaque. The kid would probably retrieve it to resell as soon as we walked away but what the hell, it was the thought that counts, right?

Relena turned to follow my movements and things were kind of still after that for a few moments.

The chunk of rock is fucking massive. Taller than I am and just as wide, a strange pinkish gray color with black veining. The plaque is a flat metal of some sort, has the look of pewter but has to be something else. On the top half is a delicate etching of the Maxwell church as it looked when it was intact. Underneath that, in big bold letters is the date of the massacre itself. Below that is a listing of all the names of the known dead. Across the bottom, under the names is a single line "and fourteen unknown children'. It crossed my mind, just as it had the only other time I had come here, that it should have read fifteen. But one, out of all those orphans, had lived. My little yellow flower looked pathetic lying on the cement in front of it.

My eyes were drawn, just like last time, to look at the etching. None of my paintings show the church in one piece, as I remembered it from the all to brief period of time I had lived there. Before... before it had all gone to hell. Before a war not of my making had swept me under and damned near drowned me. Looking at that little etching, I could almost remember Sister Helen standing on the front steps, calling us in for supper or for bed. Calling us away from our games. I hadn't known how to play games before I had come to live there. I could almost hear her voice... almost...

The stupid thing swam in my vision and I had to blink. What the fuck. I looked up at the sky and blinked again. Oh, Solo would be all over my ass for this; boys don't cry. Especially not in front of the Queen of the fucking world.

I stepped away, intending to resume our walk to the orphanage but Relena caught at my arm and her voice was... odd. "Duo?"

I was pretty sure if I answered, I was going to snap at her. I ended up just turning my fucking back on her. It was probably pretty rude but I honest to God didn't know what else to do. It took me a couple of minutes and I was surprised as hell that she just stood there and waited. When I thought I could open my mouth without biting her head off or bursting into tears, I turned around and offered her my arm but she got this stubborn look on her face.

"I didn't come all the way down here just to look at the damn thing and walk away." She went over to the stone and stood reading the plaque; I didn't follow. "This is what it looked like? Before... " she said and it seemed a banal, stupid thing to ask but I realized she was in that uncomfortable place again, trying to make conversation.

"Yeah," I answered, turned mostly away but able to see her out of the corner of my eye. She glanced at me and her face still had that stubborn set to it.

"Father Maxwell... " she read softly, "Sister Helen... "

"Jacob O'Shea. Allisa Rose. Rafe Duncan." I quoted along with her and she trailed off, turning to stare at me. I wasn't looking at the damn memorial. There are fifty names on that God forsaken thing and I gave them all to her from memory. I hadn't known all of them. They were not all painted along the corridor in my ship, though I thought of all of them as 'my' dead; people who were no longer alive because I had failed to protect them. I got to the end of the names etched into the metal and kept going. I knew the names of those fourteen children even if nobody else did. But I hadn't been consulted when the thing had been erected. "Allie. Sam. Red. Robin. Mikel. Rory. Jo-jo. Pigpen. Ivy. Blade. Sandy. Jock. Tommy. Liz."

Neither of us spoke for a long, still-as-death moment and then I turned toward her, toward where the church used to be. I looked passed her, over her head at the place in the air where the stained glass window used to be. It had been Father Maxwell's pride and joy.

"What do you want to know?" I asked softly.

She didn't answer me immediately, glancing where I was looking and seeing nothing. I saw her working through it, trying to decide which of the dozen questions warring around in her head to ask. The memorial pretty much proved the existence of the church and the actuality of the heinous crime that had happened here all those years ago. I saw her consider those questions and dismiss them. "How did you survive?"

I flinched like she'd slapped me but kept my eyes on Father's glowing window. "I... wasn't where I should have been that night." I was not going to tell her the whole damn story. That was a too-private thing that not a living soul knew but me. I might tell Heero one day, because he wanted to know, wanted to share my nightmares with me. But I would not tell Relena Peacecraft just to satisfy her morbid curiosity.

Above our heads, in my minds eye, the beautiful window exploded; raining shards of brightly colored glass all around us. Flames licked mercilessly at the empty window frame.

"We should be going," I told her and was rather proud of how steady my voice was.

She frowned slightly. "I... " she began.

"Please," I said and knew that my voice was tight and on the edge of my control.

She glanced where I was staring again and of course didn't see the flames or the black smoke. I knew if we stood here much longer I was going to start smelling the stench of burning flesh. She finally gave me a little nod and I couldn't turn away fast enough. We resumed our walk.

It's just about three more blocks to the orphanage and the silence was uncomfortable before we'd gotten half a block. I tried, a little desperately, after a bit to think of something light to say; some small normal conversation to white wash over the tension with but nothing came. We were damn near there and I could hear the faint sounds of laughing children before I managed to get my tongue unlocked. "Look, Relena; I'm sorry... I really thought I'd be able to deal with this better. If you truly want to know more about it, look it up. There was a huge amount of publicity about it at the time."

She gave me a look that was absolutely unreadable and I sighed. I shut up, because this was obviously just making things worse. I can not describe for you the total and complete shock I felt when she reached out and hooked her hand in the crook of my elbow again. She didn't look at me and we walked the rest of the block in silence.

The orphanage isn't much to look at, just a renovated old house. There's a little well-kept wooden sign out front that says "Maxwell Memorial Home'. They don't call them orphanages nowadays, at least not in front of the kids. I looked down at her on a sudden thought. "Listen... Lena," she looked up at me sharply at the use of her 'pretend' name. "Don't... please don't use my last name here, ok?"

Her gaze became calculating and I looked away. Either she would abide by my wishes or she wouldn't; I wasn't going to argue the point with her.

Then we were right in front of the place and all thought was washed away by the first piping cry of, "It's Mr. Duo! It's Mr. Duo!" The cry became a chorus and they came running at us like a pack of wild dogs. Relena moved slightly behind me and her eyes were kind of wide, like wild animals really were attacking us. I had to laugh.

There were only a half a dozen of them; not quite so many homeless children now that the war was over. I pulled out my bag of candy and tossed it to the oldest boy, David, for safe keeping while the littlest ones tried to climb me like I was a tree. This was what got me through the nightmares some nights, seeing these kids and knowing that every last one of them knew what their given name was. Knew when their birthday was. Their parents might be gone, but by God it wasn't the war that had done that. They were not nameless. And there were only six of them. I counted again with a grin wide enough to split my lip. Before the plague there had been scores of us. At the Maxwell orphanage there had still been more than a dozen. There were only six of them... and they all had names.

"Where's Beth Ann?" I laughed down at them as I found myself with a child on each hip.

The excited voices quieted in hushed tones of near awe. They left the telling to David, the oldest.

"She was adopted a month ago," he told me gravely and I gave him a companionable grin just between the two of us. He was the only one old enough to really remember the war and he gave me his brave little nod, letting me know that he was watching out for the little ones. I felt for that one; I'd been in his shoes. A little too old, a little too wild. His prospects of adoption were slim at best.

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