Author: Sunhawk

Obligations (cont)

"Children!" came the sudden stern voice of Mrs. Octavia from the door of the Home, "get down off the poor man before you break him in half!"

There was more giggling and I sat them on the ground.

Impertinent little Zinia peeked around me and pointed. "Who's she?"

I tapped the top of the child's head with a knuckle. "What did I tell you about pointing?" I told her grimly.

She dropped her hand instantly and her eyes went wide. "It's not polite and the next time I did it you were gonna bite my finger," she said gravely and then burst out in giggles as I gnashed my teeth at her.

"This is... " I turned toward Relena and she stepped forward a little, the oddest almost-amused smile on her face, "a friend of mine. This is Lena. Can you monsters say a polite hello?"

There was more laughter and a chorus of, "Hello Miss Lena."

Relena managed a demure little "Hello."

"You look like a parade out there!" Octavia called with her usual good humor. "Bring our guests in the house!"

They scrambled at the sound of her voice, David hanging back to bring up the rear, bag of candy still carefully unopened under his watchful care.

I ushered Relena up the steps onto the porch and we had to wait while the children all tried to fight their way through the door at the same time. Octavia let out a long-suffering sigh and rolled her eyes heavenward as if to ask for strength.

"Works better single-file, monsters," I called and they strung themselves out and finally managed to get their excited selves into the house. I had to stop and get a smothering hug from Octavia and introduce her formally to 'Lena Pierce' before we could follow the kids inside.

The place was as sad and shabby as ever, clean as a surgical bay; you could have eaten off the damn floor but... worn.

The kids were already in the front room, thrown down on the hardwood floor around the single couch where I usually sat while I visited. David passed the bag of candy back to me with a great deal of grown-up dignity, as though discharging some sacred duty. I swept a hand fondly through his hair and made him grin. I saw Relena settled in the corner of the couch and then took my place. Octavia sat in her chair across the room with her sewing in her lap, her glasses on the end of her nose and just let us play.

"Now... " I looked around at them in confusion, "I seem to have forgotten which one of you pups is the youngest... "

"I am!" shouted Sarah and bounced to her feet. She's all of about four, has some kind of Asian descent with black eyes that can bore right through you when she's pissed. They were sparkling with glee at the moment though.

"And what do you have to show me since I was here last?" I prompted and she flushed sweetly.

"I can do my ABC's," she stated proudly, eyes glittering with mischief.

I frowned darkly and played the straight man for her. "Sarah, you showed me that last time."

"Backward!" she fairly shouted and then proceeded to show me. I was suitably impressed and let her dig into the candy bag when she was done.

I didn't have to call for the next oldest, when Sarah sat down with her candy, Zinia scrambled to her feet and launched without preamble into a song that she had apparently been practicing for me. Her voice is high and piping and broke on the really high notes, "Look what followed me home, Mom; look what followed me home. Can I keep him... " I laughed until the tears ran down my face and almost fell off the damn couch. She was giggling so hard at the sight of me that she almost couldn't finish the song. When she was done, she threw her arms around my neck and gave me a big sloppy kiss before delving into the candy bag.

We had to wait for a minute while six year old Allison ran out of the room to retrieve a piece of treasured refrigerator art. It was a rather fanciful portrait of a little girl astride a flying horse with wings that wouldn't have hefted half the weight of a horse that size; but other than aerodynamics, it was really rather good. I imagined that she might want to study art one day. It brought the faintest echo of the sting of a long dead desire. I shook it out of my head and exclaimed delightedly over the horse and explained about the legend of Pegasus. She took her candy with a happy smile and carefully returned the picture to the kitchen.

Devon was next up and showed me a pretty darn good back flip, though Octavia wouldn't let him do the cartwheel in the house. He was about seven and his current ambition was to join the circus. Last year he had wanted to grow up to be an archeologist. He deliberated over his candy choice with great precision, selecting by some totally unfathomable criteria, finally sitting down with the 'perfect' piece.

Ethan is also seven and came shyly forward with his eyes on the toes of his scuffed sneakers, finally raising his head and pushing his mop of blond hair back to reveal a still healing red scar across his forehead. I whistled appreciatively and tilted his head to the light to look it over. "Ethan, dude! What did you do?" He preened and flushed.

"I was climbing that tree in the back yard," he explained, his face suffused with a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment. "And I fell out."

I grinned and ruffled his hair. "Bet it bled all over the place."

"Made Mrs. Octavia scream," he whispered low, like it was a secret and Zinia and Sarah giggled. "I had to get stitches."

"No way!" I looked aghast. "How many?"

"Five," he said and there was a little swagger in it.

"Did ya cry?" I whispered and he ducked his head. I grinned. "First time I had stitches I bawled like a baby and they had to chase me half way down the sidewalk in front of the clinic!"

His eyes came up to meet mine and he grinned fit to make your heart take flight. He threw his arms around my neck for a split second and then dug into the candy sack.

"You gonna tell us what happened to your arm, Mr. Duo?" Zinia asked then and they all crept up to get a closer look. Even David, who had been maintaining his 'grown up' distance from the show and tell game we always played.

I ended up on the floor surrounded by laughing kids while I told the story of the asteroid belt, altered enough so that it's own mother wouldn't have recognized it and managed to blame my broken arm on a space alien encounter. Ethan and Devon and Allison became space aliens then and tried to wrestle me to the ground; it didn't take long before I surrendered to their greater number and agreed to be assimilated and taken back to their home planet.

I ended up flat on my back on the hard floor wondering how in the hell I had been brought so low that I couldn't play with the kids without feeling like I was going to pass out. I was questioning how in the world I was going to get up again without them seeing that my hands were shaking when Octavia came to my rescue.

"That's enough, you hellions," she called. "He'll stop coming back if you kill him. Go get yourselves washed up for lunch."

The little ones came and each gave me a peck on the cheek, the two middle boys settling for a handshake. David came last and I indicated with a jerk of my head that he was to sit down beside me. I figured we could talk and I could get my shit back together at the same time.

"You think much about what we talked about, Davey-boy?" I asked, looking up at him.

He sat down cross-legged next to me and fiddled with the frayed threads on the hem of his pants. He nodded.

"How old are you now?" I asked.

"Thirteen," he said and there was a little chutzpah in it. I snorted at him and reached into the candy bag and pulled out a couple of pieces, handing him one and popped the other one in my mouth. Thirteen; I'd been piloting mobile suits by that time.

"Time you ought to be thinking what you want to do with yourself," I told him, working the candy around with my tongue and looking up at the ceiling. "You gotten to that point we talked about yet?" The point where an orphan kid stopped dreaming about a family coming to make him their own and decided where he was going to take himself.

"Aw... " he grumbled, "what difference does it make? What the hell am I going to do?"

I jabbed his arm without really looking at him. "Watch your language," I scolded almost automatically and went on, "you got yourself a dream yet?"

He chewed on it, had probably been chewing on it since he'd seen me in front of the house, knowing that I would get around to this conversation. So he didn't make me wait forever. "I was thinkin' maybe I should join the military... "

But I could hear in his voice that wasn't at all what he wanted. "I didn't ask you what you thought would be the practical thing to do," I glared at him. "I asked you if you had any dreams yet."

He glared back. "Octavia says that if wishes was horses, we'd all ride to town."

I laughed. "Well; that's just Octavia showing her age."

From her armchair, Octavia snorted loudly.

"Come on, Davey... " I wheedled and gave him a conspiratorial grin.

He sighed and rolled his eyes at me but then something finally came clear and I knew that I was about to hear what I wanted to hear. "I want to... make music. I want to learn to play the... violin." He was beet red and staring at the floor, little threads coming off the edge of his pants in a fall like rain.

"There," I told him, "that didn't kill you, did it?"

"You're not going to laugh at me?" he said petulantly and I grinned at him.

"Not unless you play like shit," I smiled and watched his face do a strange little dance between confusion and fear and hope. I tilted my head around where I could see Octavia. "Would it be too much trouble for your over-worked self, Mrs. Octavia, Ma'am," I grinned at her, "to take this poor, sad child to violin lessons a couple of times a week?"

She gave me one of those martyr's sighs and rolled her eyes heavenward again, looking for that divine assistance. "I suppose I could manage to work it in to my schedule," she intoned with a sigh, "though God knows where."

First I thought the kid was going to cry. Then I thought he was going to choke me to death with the hug. "You mean it Mr. Duo?" he breathed and I laughed at him.

"You're getting big enough that 'mister' sounds stupid," I teased him. "Just make it Duo; you're not a kid any more."

He blinked at me and had to say it, "Duo."

I grinned and felt able to roll up on one side where I could prop myself up on an elbow. "You realize you couldn't have picked a harder way to make a living? You're going to have to work your tail off."

He nodded but I really don't think he trusted his voice because he didn't speak.

"Well; it's settled then," I told him. "Now go wash up for lunch."

He scrambled out of the room with a grin a mile wide on his face. I watched him go and then made a try for vertical. I managed it with only a little stagger at the end.

"Those space aliens really worked you over, huh?" Octavia observed with a small smirk.

I made my way back to the couch and let myself drop there, shaking my head sadly. "Evil space aliens can't be trusted."

She snorted, understanding that was all she was getting out of me. "Violin lessons," she said and rolled her eyes. "Not very damn practical."

I grinned, completely unrepentant. "I told him he got one shot at his dream as soon as he figured out what the hell it was."

"Language," she warned and I grinned at her. "I'm probably going to want to kill you after a couple of days of listening to him practice."

I laughed. "Yes; but if he makes it big you'll be right there to tell how you supported him from the start!"

She laughed but put her mending down to really look at me. "Devon!" she hollered in the general direction of the kitchen. "Bring a couple of glasses of juice for our guests!"

I ducked my head and muttered my thanks, surreptitiously raising a hand to judge the level of my... unsteadiness. I caught Relena staring at me and grinned, dropping the hand back in my lap. Devon came with the juice then, giving Relena the good Smurf glass and handing me the jelly jar. I drank it gratefully, hoping the hit of sugar would get me through the rest of this trip. I noticed that Relena just sat and toyed with her glass.

I felt a little guilty; I had put her right the hell out of my mind as soon as I had started playing with the kids. I'd had to in order to act... normal for them. If I'd been thinking about her sitting there watching our every move, I would have been uncomfortable as hell

"I'll transfer the funds to your account for the violin and lessons when I get back to my ship," I told Octavia. "I've done a little research and I'll e-mail you an address for a reputable place to go; they'll be able to help you out finding someplace to take lessons too."

She raised an eyebrow and I smirked, pleased to be one up on her. "Come on, Octavia... don't tell me you didn't guess it was going to be music. I knew that two years ago."

"Let's just say I held out hope that one of them would grow up sensible," she sighed.

"Something about the Maxwell legacy, I guess," I said and she gave me a little knowing smile in return.

I saw Relena starting to truly fidget out of the corner of my eye and glanced her way, realizing that she was looking for someplace to dump the juice without hurting anyone's feelings. I held out my empty glass and quietly said, "Here."

She flushed dark red, but gratefully swapped my empty glass for her full one. I drank it down, more than happy to have the replenishing liquid; I wanted to make it back to my ship under my own power.

We sat for a bit longer and exchanged pleasantries with Octavia, while I kept one eye on the clock. The longer I sat here the more likely I would walk out under my own power but we still had a launch to make.

Octavia talked a little bit about budget problems. Told me about the family that had adopted Beth Ann. Let me know that Davey had been in another fight, not long after a family had talked to him but had then decided they wanted a baby and gone elsewhere.

"Damn it, Octavia," I growled, "don't let them even talk to him anymore... you know it won't do any damn good!" I was feeling the sting of old wounds on the poor kids behalf and knew it but couldn't keep the irritation from my voice.

Beside me Relena made a funny little gasping noise.

It was an old argument between Octavia and me, though, and she took it in stride. "I'm supposed to deny him a chance?" she scolded but she was smiling gently at me.

"There isn't any chance by the time you get to be that age," I frowned. "It hurts too much to keep getting picked over... you should just let him be. It's easier."

"Things aren't the way they were when you were that age, Duo," she said softly and I marveled at how she could fucking make me feel like I was that age again.

I opened my mouth, saw her expression and just closed it again with a wry grin. This was ground that we had been over a time or two before now. We could both pretty much tell each other's lines.

"You survived," she said, not for the first time, "he'll survive too."

I called Davey in then and had him go call a cab for us. He looked wide-eyed; this was probably something he'd never done before but he ran off, eager to please me. I usually walked back to the main drag and hailed a cab on my own but I didn't think that I would make it that far today. That damn exposition had taken more out of me than I had realized.

We kept the talk to the weather and such crap until a horn blew out front to tell us the cab was there. The kids all came running to tell me goodbye. Davey had to call me Duo just once in front of the other kids with his chest all puffed out and I called him David and we shook hands gravely in the doorway. I ruffled his hair when the others weren't looking and he grinned and ducked his head. They all stood on the porch and waved while we climbed into the cab. I directed the driver to our berth at the docks and he took off.

We were back to that uncomfortable silence. It would have been pretty damn unbearable if I hadn't been so tangled up in thoughts and memory that I hardly remembered she was sitting there.

"I thought," she ventured after a little time, "they didn't know who you were."

I roused up and glanced over at her. "Octavia knows," I explained. "But the kids don't. I'm afraid it would make things... awkward."

"Afraid they'd think you were only there out of some sense of... obligation?" she asked, her tone light but regarding me intently out of the corner of her eye.

I resisted the urge to draw my knees together in a protective move; that had been a little below the belt. I had to think that one over for a minute before I could answer her civilly. "Obligation?" I repeated and stared out the front window, "isn't that what drives the whole world? If I hadn't grown up an orphan... if I didn't know what it was like to live on the street scrapping and scraping for every bite of food, would I be going down to that place and trying to help out with those kids? Probably not." I sighed and hesitated, thinking about my words but still not looking at her. "Growing up a... street rat and a thief is what made me what I am. It's what made me tough enough to survive what I went through later... and thinking about kids like that is where I found my purpose." I shut up and turned to look out my side window, watching the streets I grew up on slide by... they were so different from my memories.

"It seems... " she said rather hesitantly, "that your... money might be better spent on something more realistic than music lessons."

Well now, that just flaming pissed me off and I turned a cold eye in her direction. "I don't ignore the necessities," I told her flatly, "I know better than most people that those kids have to eat... have to have clothes. The home gets a portion of every paycheck I bring home. But this... this is extra because I also understand better than most people what it is to dream and to have to watch those dreams die still-born."

I only thought the silence had been uncomfortable before. Well, the hell with her, if she had the balls to ask the questions then she should have to balls to hear the God damn answers. I've been interrogated by professionals; I can take the silent treatment from the Queen of Happy-land.

We were getting close to the dock area and I glanced at my watch, we still had plenty of time. Though I should probably allow a little extra for Heero to rant at me about going off without telling him.

"I'm sorry," she suddenly said in a low voice and I about gave myself whiplash whirling around to look at her. "I should have realized that you weren't that... impractical."

I snorted. "Well... I suppose violin lessons do sound a little frivolous when you're drinking watered apple juice out of a mason jar."

She blushed darkly and began twisting the bottom button on my denim shirt. I squelched the urge to tell her to be careful with my clothes.

"You know... " she murmured after a minute, "we're a little bit alike... you and I."

I want points here for not laughing my ass off, ok? I managed, by biting down on the inside of my cheek to keep it to a merely interested smile. "How so?" I asked politely.

"We both seem to have grown up losing all the people we had come to rely on."

I blinked at her but she kept her eyes on the floor of the cab.

"My parents."

Father Maxwell and Sister Helen.

"My brother."

Solo.

"Heero."

Heero?

"You never lost Heero, Relena," I blurted and she raised an eyebrow and actually looked at me.

"Didn't I?" she said ironically.

I looked at her closely, trying to read what was in her eyes. "No," I said firmly. "You have from him what you always had from him; he'd throw himself in front of a bullet for you... you have to know that."

Her cheeks colored and she went back to looking at the floor of the cab. I wondered idly what in the hell the driver was making of this conversation.

"It wasn't me he was worried about the other day when... " I could see the muscles in her jaw tensing till I thought she'd spit out something bitter, "we had that... accident."

"He's a soldier, Relena," I sighed. "We both are, and a part of us always will be. He knew before he ever got down that corridor that you weren't hurt."

Her eyes flicked up at me and away again, she frowned darkly. "He and I... talked... years ago. I knew that I would never... that he was... "

That Heero would never love her unless, maybe, she decided to get a sex change operation. I nodded to let her know that I got it, just so she would stop struggling with the damn words.

"But we've been... best friends for years, until... recently." The frown couldn't have gotten any darker.

So this was it; the answer to my last question. Why the hell she hated me so badly. She thought I was stealing Heero's friendship away from her. I dropped my head back on the headrest and sighed in frustration. "For God's sake Relena!" I blurted, "cut him some damn slack, there's only one of him. He's been a little preoccupied with... not letting me die. Things will get back to normal one of these days... I'm not trying to turn him against you!"

I thought she was going to worry the button right off the shirt. "You can't tell me you like me!" she snapped and I gave myself a minute to imagine throttling her right here in the back of the cab and paying the driver to take the body off somewhere and dump it.

I raised my head from the seat and turned toward her. "You and I are not likely to ever be close enough to... to... share hair care secrets," I told her in exasperation, "but you are important to Heero. That makes you important to me. I would throw myself in front of that God damn bullet if it came down to it."

That made her look up and she met my eyes for a long couple of minutes and I think she read the truth of that statement there, because she was the one who looked away first.

The rest of the ride was quiet as a freaking morgue.

When I paid the driver he gave me a sympathetic grin that almost made me laugh. I didn't think that would go over very well right then, so I pushed it down. He pulled away and I led Relena through the maze of in-station toward the ship. I kept the pace as unhurried as possible, conserving my strength but unfortunately lengthening my 'quality time' with the Queen of Tact. It would not have taken much more to convince me to bankrupt myself by buying a couple of shuttle tickets back to Earth and dumping the damn Queen and her entourage at the nearest port. Guess we were back around to the whole obligation thing again. I had trouble repressing a sigh.

"You know... " she said suddenly, "he just wants you to... need him a little bit."

"Nani?" I blinked and glanced at her. She had an odd, determined set to her jaw.

"You're so damn... tough all the time." She frowned, staring straight ahead. "He just wants you to... lean on him now and then."

I snorted. "I'm leaning so damn hard now, it's a wonder I haven't broken his back."

She spared me a disdainful flick of the eyes. "I thought I had issues with learning to rely on people again."

"What are you talking about?" I growled but she didn't back down this time.

"During the war, I had all these people that I counted on, that I leaned on... my Father, then Noin and my brother. Heero." She blew out a gust of air, mulling something over. "Then my father was... killed. My brother turned on me. Noin took off to be with him. Heero stood by me the longest but eventually even he had a life to get on with. It's made it very difficult for me to learn to count on people again. But... you are worse than I ever was."

Well, wasn't that quite the little speech? I glared at her but she only gave me a little smirk in return.

Thank God the ship came into view about then and we were walking across the dock to my open cargo bay doors. I was really tiring of this particular conversation. I glanced at her again, looking so unlike Relena Peacecraft in my 'Hell-bound Beavers' shirt with that bobbing ponytail. "You know," I said on a sudden thought, "you're forgetting somebody."

"What are you talking about?" she said and her voice was that guarded one.

"Paragon." I grinned, pleased to have this bit of insight to parry her verbal attack with. "The man loves you like a grand-child... and he's been with you as long as I can remember."

Her eyes flew wide and she looked up at me, it was her turn to squeak. "What? He's an employee... he... " She hesitated. Mere employees don't stick with your ass through mobile suit attacks and political maneuvering. They don't follow you from one end of the damn world to the other, driving pink cars without protest.

"That would explain why he refers to you as 'my little Relena' when he talks about you," I smirked and was delighted to watch her jaw drop open and her face turn two or three different shades of purple. Her mouth worked but nothing came out.

"And Chezarina isn't exactly chopped liver," I continued, on further reflection. "It hasn't been my experience that simple personal assistants go around calling their bosses 'poppet' in a crisis."

It was fun watching her go from wanting to belt me to facing up to it.

On a sudden, careless impulse I dropped my arm around her shoulders.

"Listen... let's just agree that we both have issues and call it a draw, ok?"

She stiffened under my arm but she didn't pull away immediately, only glared at me out of the corner of her eye and grunted.

"You got that from Heero," I snickered. "It's his favorite line."

She actually unbent enough to giggle at the comment. I stopped pushing my luck and removed my arm as we walked into the cool shadows of the cargo bay.

Heero didn't run to meet us, ok? At least not while he was within our line of sight, but he was in the cargo bay waiting for us. Aw, fuck it. He was waiting for me. His eyes were on me. His agitation was born of concern for me. I suppose if Relena hadn't been walking beside me he would have asked about her and if I'd told him she'd been kidnapped by space aliens he would have torn off to her rescue. But in that first moment, the worry in his eyes was directed at me and the questions that he was biting back on, were about me and I was the one he was aching to come and grab hold of.

But you want to know the funniest thing? The look on his face was that same one he always wears; the one I used to think was the coldest God damn total lack of expression in the universe. But I could see passed it; could see his fear and concern as though it were written on his face in glowing letters. I wondered with a start if he could see passed my masks as easily. It was a sobering thought.

"Hey." I smiled at him and when I didn't immediately get my head ripped off I moved into his personal space, not touching, but close enough to make it an invitation. "Miss me?"

"Hell yes," he growled fiercely and pulled me into his arms.

"Get a room," Relena drawled and walked on past us toward the interior door where I saw, over Heero's shoulder, Chezarina waiting for her.

"... leave me alone with a caged tiger again and I'm going to demand a raise... " was all I caught of her comment but Relena laughed loudly and they went on into the ship together.

Heero looked vaguely embarrassed but it didn't stop him from kissing the hell out of me.

"If you don't stop disappearing on me... " he breathed in a voice that was taut with emotion but he left the threat unfinished.

"I left a note," I justified, just reveling in this... shelter; this place that I belonged. I was at home here in his arms. Sheltered and protected, cherished and loved. All my dreams come true in the circle of those strong, sure arms. I shivered.

"What's wrong, love?" He drew back to look at me.

"Absolutely nothing as long as you love me," I whispered on the sudden upwelling of raw emotion that was threatening to fill me until I burst.

He blinked at me, shocked, I think by the need even I could hear in my own voice.

"Duo?" he sighed, pulling me in close to kiss me again and his lips found mine hungrily searching for his. He kissed me until he was holding us both up; my legs had gone to shivering jelly.

"Stop... stop... " I panted, trying to push away, "or I'm gonna strip you right here in the damn bay."

My God, the look he gave me was this calculating thing; I could see him doing the math in his head, working a bout of lovemaking into the pre-launch schedule. Leave it to Heero to treat my arousal like something that had the same priority as locking the ship down for lift-off. It was absurd and the very idea wore the sharp edge of the feeling away, leaving me with only a dull ache instead of that sudden, all-consuming need that had washed through me. I started to laugh and he drew back, holding me at arms length while he looked me over with a worried frown.

"You're a mess," he observed dryly.

"Yep," I agreed companionably.

"What in the hell happened?"

"I took a walk down Memory Lane and damn near got run over by a Mack truck." I grinned at him and I could see true concern waking in his eyes. I snickered almost hysterically. "And then I was abducted by six and seven year old space aliens; little buggers were kind of rough... "

His hands were tightening on my arms.

"Relena says I don't know how to rely on anybody anymore... " And just like that the hilarity flooded out of me like water and I was left teetering on the verge of tears. "God... Heero, can I... dare I... ?"

He was looking at me with the most God awful scared expression on his face and his voice was as gentle as if he were talking to a wild animal. "Of course... forever; you know that, love."

"Take me home," I implored him, arm-wrestling with the torrent of emotions warring in me. "I'm done Heero... I can't take any more. Please... "

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