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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"Well; it's settled then," I told him. "Now go wash up
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,"
"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
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.
Father Maxwell and Sister Helen.
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"... 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
He blinked at me, shocked, I think by the need even I could hear in my
"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
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.
to Sunhawk's fic]