Author: Sunhawk

Obligations (cont)

"Shhh... " he soothed. "That's what having a partner is all about." The smile on his face was... beauteous. Relena had been right about that much; my reaching out for him like this was answering... some deep need of his own. "Come on," he coaxed gently. "Let's go get you settled."

I just gave in to it and let go; let him take me to the cockpit and settle me in the co-pilots seat with Fuzzy-butt. Let him strap me in and I just... drifted and watched him get my ship ready to launch. I had a small moment of panic; some deep part of my mind waking up and wanting to know just what in the hell I was doing. I'd never sat through launch in the co-pilots seat before. But I didn't have the damn strength to really care and the little voice just threw up its hands in defeat and went away. I was too lost in the past to listen to it. Too full of old memories and old pain; too consumed with... remembering.

I thought with a pang, as Heero was checking the seal report, that I'd forgotten to punch Solo's shoulder. "Sorry, rat-king," I murmured and it got me a glance from Heero.

"S'ok, baby-rat," Solo whispered in my ear, sitting on the arm of the co-pilot's seat with a cocky grin. "You just take it easy. New guy looks like he's doin' ok." He would have ruffled my hair if he hadn't been imaginary. I smiled at him anyway.

Heero smiled back. I let my eyes close and when they blinked open again I heard Relena and Chezarina's voices behind me and knew they were belted into the jump seats.

"Zarina get her patch?" I mumbled to Heero and he smiled across at me.

"I took care of it," he assured me and a strange glint came into his eyes. "Bear in the co-pilot's seat?" he asked as though he were going over a checklist.

I reached to rub the ear of my second. "Bear is in place."

"Got your cross?" he asked gently.

"Of course," I responded to the familiar banter coming from this unfamiliar quarter.

"You want to queue the music?" he asked, his own hands flicking across my boards, bringing my engines to life.

I couldn't help but grin when I heard the almost exasperated sigh behind me, if I were a real shit I would have queued up 'Planet Zydeco' or 'Domino Death'. Instead, after a moments thought I made my choice. "Take her out, partner." I smiled and closed my eyes.

"Aye, Captain," came the warm reply. The music began and I felt the ship lift at almost the exact same time.

"Don't tell a Gypsy she has no home
For the land is mine where ever I roam.
To a single place I need not return
For a Gypsy's home is where the heart will burn.

For the road is wide and the sky is tall
And before I die I will see it all
Yes, the road is wide and the sky is tall
And before I die I will see it all... "

He headed us back to Earth. It would take us two days to get there but it didn't really matter to me, I was already home. Home was sitting across from me, deftly maneuvering my 'Demon' out of the docking bay and into space. This trip had not ended up being at all what I had thought it would be. I had grossly over-taxed my still healing body and over the next couple of weeks I would curse this trip to hell and back while I struggled to regain the ground I had cost myself. But I wouldn't have changed a whole hell of a lot even if I could have. I would not have gone back and sacrificed Relena to save my wrist anymore than I would have denied Toria their shot at the expo prize money. I had a couple of regrets but very little that I was ashamed of. I had done what I had to when the time had come. You can't ask for more than that.

I suppose, when you thought about the reason I had come out here to begin with, you could say this trip was something of a flop. I honestly don't think I made a bit of difference in how Relena saw anything. But somehow, that mission looked a little... unimportant next to the loss the Brannigan's had taken. I had managed, despite all my own problems, to be there when my friends had needed me. That was nothing to sneer at. And maybe, if I hadn't managed to make Relena dislike me any less... maybe Toria had managed to make her see the colonies in a different light. Relena had honestly seemed to like the woman, something I never would have freakin' predicted.

I dozed off again wondering idly if I would ever get my t-shirt and jeans back from her Highness.

I woke to the feel of hands undoing my harness and my 'ship sense' told me we were clear of the station and underway.

"Wake up, love," Heero was saying gently and I blinked open blurry eyes.

"Everything all right?" I murmured and he smiled at me lovingly.

"Everything is just fine," he told me, "let's get you to bed."

I opened my mouth to protest and then closed it again. Why the hell not? I was exhausted; why couldn't I just go back and sleep some more? Heero was here and taking care of things. I could trust him to handle anything that came up... hell, he'd handled the launch and nothing else was going to happen until we got to our destination.

"Ok," I said meekly and I let go of the last threads of control, giving over to him completely. His gentle smile became a grin. "Don't get too used to this," I warned him with a growl and he chuckled at me.

"Oh, I know better." He said, "but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it while I can."

I snorted and allowed him to pull me to my feet. Relena and Chezarina were already unbelted and gone. He steered me toward the door.

"Let's keep the cargo bay pressurized this time," I murmured, feeling a twinge from my wrist.

Heero chuckled, his hands on my shoulders, steering me through the door. "It is."

I hesitated in the corridor and with my cheeks flaming, reached to touch Solo's arm. I'm just a tiny bit superstitious, ok? Heero's one hand left my shoulder, covering my fingers where they rested on the wall and he whispered close to my ear, "I took care of that too." The very fact that he had noticed made me smile at him. The fact that he had maintained that silly tradition for me warmed me to the core.

Then he put me to bed and I slept like I'd been pole-axed until dinnertime. Even then, he had to call me. Emotional turmoil is damn wearing stuff. For two cents I would have rolled over and told him to leave me the fuck alone but I got the fuel/heal lecture and I gave it up. Crawling out of the bunk with only the minimum of muttered curses. I refused to leave the cabin until I had redone my hair and washed my face and by the time I wandered into the galley, yawning and stretching, the others were already eating.

"Well," Chezarina observed brightly, "you look much better than you did the last time we saw you."

"Yeah," I grumbled, "the jury's still out but I think I might live." I went to the fridge and dug out a soda and returned to the table with it. I was greeted with an unhappy frown from Heero and I raised the bulb to him in salute and said, "Deal with it."

Somebody dished up a plate of something that involved pasta and tomato sauce and I dutifully ate it. It wasn't bad but to this day I can't tell you what it was.

"Relena was telling me about the children at the Home," Chezarina prodded gently. "They sound adorable."

I snorted. "I don't think there's a one of them that would thank you for that description."

She chuckled. "Do you know any child who would?"

"I suppose not." I grinned at her, thinking about how pissed off I would have been at that age if someone had called me 'adorable'.

"So what is all this about music lessons?" she asked gently, keeping the verbal ball in the air and I wondered, not for the first time, if the woman had some formal training in 'conversation'. "Do all the children attend special classes?"

I sighed. "No... only the ones who end up not being adopted. That's a little rarer than it used to be. I usually wait until they turn twelve."

Heero was giving me an unreadable look and I had a feeling when we got the hell back to Earth we were going to end up having a nice long talk.

"But... violin lessons?" Chezarina questioned and I had to wonder just how in the hell Relena had told this story. I started to feel defensive and tried to tamp down on it.

I traced designs in the tomato sauce on my plate. "When you're an orphan and you get to be... twelve, thirteen years old... you can pretty well bet that your dream family isn't coming to whisk you away." That came out a little more... bitter than I had intended and I gave her a small smile in an effort to temper it. "When the kids get to be twelve, I tell them that they get one shot at their dreams. They get a couple of months between my trips to L2 to decide just what in the hell they want to do... and I do my best to see they get a shot at it." I shrugged. "Davey wants to be a musician." As far as I was concerned, that was all there was to say about it. Davey wanted to be a musician. Davey got to try for it. Period. End of story.

She blinked across the table at me, perhaps seeing this amusing story Relena had told her in a different light, "Heavens, Duo... how can you afford... " she stopped, looking vaguely uncomfortable with what she had just said and I grinned at her.

"Prior to my fracturing the hell out of my reputation," I told her lightly, "I pretty much commanded my own price in the salvage business; there aren't... weren't a lot of people who do what I do."

Relena looked confused, her eyes darting around the room. "Then why in the world do you... "

I laughed out loud. "Why don't I live like a... an Arabian prince? To an old street rat... this is the lap of luxury. I don't need any more than this."

She didn't look convinced, only frowning at me in confusion. "No... why do you live such a... dangerous lifestyle?"

I was starting to suspect that little Miss Relena had a touch of space-phobia. Probably hadn't been helped by the two little 'incidents' we'd had on the way in to L2. "I live out here because I choose to... I love space. I always have. I was born out here in the colonies and to me this is no more dangerous than things that you don't think twice about."

She raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Statistically, more people die every day behind the wheel of a car than at the controls of a space shuttle. This isn't all that dangerous if you know what you're doing."

She looked at me with the strangest appraising look. "And you know what you're doing?" There was a certain amount of challenge in that little comment.

"Yeah," I asserted and I suppose there was a certain amount of pride in that, "I pretty much know what I'm doing."

"Then how did you end up stranded in the asteroid belt?" She had glanced back down at her dinner and her face was flaming red but she asked it all the same.

Well wasn't this just her day for hitting below the belt? I heard Heero... growl but I ignored him. "I took a calculated risk and I lost," I said flatly. "It's part of my job. It's what my business is based on... taking the risks that nobody else will."

The room was just fucking dead still. Chezarina was working her jaw like she was desperate to find a way to change the subject and didn't know how. Guess 'Conversation 101' didn't cover this kind of verbal battlefield. Heero was... fairly vibrating with tension. I was a little surprised that Relena was still in one piece.

"It seems to me... " she said very softly, "that it was kind of selfish of you to take that job."

I blinked at her. "Selfish?" I prompted and was really pleased that I was able to say it with a steady voice. She was really starting to piss me off.

"A lot of people endangered themselves to come out there and save you." My God, I'd never seen anyone turn quite that shade of red before. I'm surprised she wasn't on the verge of passing out.

I reached across the table and gently lay my hand over Heero's white-knuckled fist without having to look. He was on the verge of delivering a verbal attack that was going to amount to decimating the combat zone. He bit back on it when my fingers touched the back of his hand. It would have to remember to thank him for his restraint later.

"It was a fluke that I survived the initial accident," I told her calmly. "You do not generally get second chances in the salvage business. There wasn't suppose to be anything left to rescue." All eyes in the room were on me but I bulled forward. "Nobody was supposed to come after me."

"Why in the world did you take a job like that to begin with?" she blurted, totally oblivious to how close she was to getting her head bit off.

"It was too lucrative an offer to turn down," I said softly.

"So you can be bought," she said and her jaw tightened. I had to give Heero's hand a little squeeze to keep him in his chair.

"I guess I can," I smiled at her but she missed it, as she was still staring at her plate. "My price is the need of my friends."

Her head came up and she took in my smile, my restraining hand and the livid expression on Heero's face all at the same time. Damn shocking to look up and realize you've wandered into the middle of a minefield.

Heero's clenched fist suddenly opened and turned under my hand. He laced our fingers together and I looked up to meet his eyes.

"He took the job in partnership with the Sweepers not because he needed the work but because his friends were in danger of losing their business." He was talking to Relena but he was looking only at me. "And when the job went sour and we mounted the rescue mission... he begged us not to come. He threatened to kill himself to keep us from taking the risk. But... we told him we were coming anyway... alive or dead." His expression went gently wistful. "And while he may be stubborn... he's never been stupid."

She was bright enough to keep her mouth shut. Heero was still gazing at me and I could see he was reliving that trip. Remembering how close it had all been. Abruptly, he squeezed my fingers and then let go, standing to leave the room without another word.

I watched him go and then turned back to Relena. "You don't do your cause any good when you attack me in front of him," I told her bluntly and could have laughed at the totally confused look I got from her. God, she was clueless sometimes. I sighed and scrubbed my good hand over my face, searching for words to get through to her. "Relena... he loves me. I almost died out there... think about it." And I got up to go find Heero.

He was in our cabin, just standing in the middle of the room with his back to the door. I know he heard me coming but he didn't turn, let me slide my arms around him from behind and he dropped his head backward to rest on my shoulder. "It's all right, love," I whispered.

His body was almost trembling with repressed anger. "I'm going to kill her," he grated.

"No you're not," I soothed, pulling him tight against me.

"Who the hell does she think she is, attacking you like that?" His hand sought out my good one where it rested on his waist and held on.

"She's your best friend," I murmured against the side of his neck and waited for the explosion.

He didn't disappoint me. He pulled free and whirled around to face me, drawing me close against his chest. "The hell!" he snapped, "I won't fucking have anything to do with her if she doesn't learn to respect you!"

I chuckled at him and I think I was starting to get on his nerves with my... calmness. "Heero... " I asked softly, "what was your relationship with Relena like six months ago?"

He drew back to look at me, anger making his eyes dark. "What the hell are you... "

I touched his lips with the back of a knuckle. "Just answer the question." And grinned, "Plain speaking."

He just stood and blinked at me for a few minutes, trying to settle his temper. "I don't know," he finally sighed. "We... were friends. Good friends. We got together probably once a week or so and went out. I used to be able to talk to her." He was frowning slightly as he thought it through. "She wasn't like she is now... I don't know what happened."

"And that changed... when?" I smiled lovingly at him and I must have really looked like a condescending little shit.

He opened his mouth, shut it and then opened it again with a touch of that temper showing, seeing exactly when things had changed. "You needed me," he said defensively.

"Is it any wonder she hates me so much, Heero?" I chided gently, "I stole her best friend away from her. The last person who she had dared to count on through thick and thin."

The anger seemed to seep out of him and he sighed heavily. "You can't deny that I had other priorities," he said, not quite ready to give up the argument.

"At first," I agreed, brushing at a lock of his hair, "but after the first month or so it wouldn't have killed me to spend an evening alone now and again."

His arms tightened around me and he frowned. "You weren't ready... " he growled and then stopped. We had never spoken out loud about my anxiety attacks, about my near inability to stay alone. I had sort of known that he knew about what I had been going through. But I wouldn't admit to it and he wouldn't bring it up for fear of upsetting me.

"Look," I told him, ignoring what I didn't want to talk about, "I told you I didn't want how she and I feel about each other to effect how you felt about either one of us... and I meant it."

"I won't sit by and listen to her try to hurt you," he said and the anger was welling back to the surface.

"She's only trying to hurt back," I told him and wondered where all this deep psychological shit was coming from. If you dug very far below my surface, all I wanted to do was go kick her ass. "I took you away from her. I blackmailed her into doing something she didn't want to do. Then I dragged her out here and rubbed her nose in 'us' as a couple for a solid damn week." I grinned. "We're actually pretty damn lucky she hasn't snuck in and knifed me in my sleep."

His eyes flew wide for a second like he was actually considering the possibility and his arms tightened protectively around me. I knew without a doubt that he'd be sleeping on the outside edge tonight. I laughed out right, partly from the mental image of psycho Relena stalking around my ship in a white, billowing nightgown with a butcher knife clutched in her hand and partly from the warm, almost giddy feeling it gave me to have that protectiveness directed at me.

I dared to slip my fingers into the hair at the back of his neck and as carefully as though I were holding eggs, drew him to me. His lips met mine with an almost electric shock and though I was the one who had initiated it, he quickly took control. Sometimes his love is so fierce, it almost frightens me.

When he let me go I whispered, "You have a life apart from me. You can't ignore it."

We held each other in silence until he seemed to settle down and then I led him back to the galley. Chezarina was there alone, cleaning up the dinner mess.

"Where... ?" I asked and she inclined her head in the direction of the cargo bay. Ah. We had pressurized the bay and I had deliberately left the door to it open. Guess it was time to get this last thing out of the way. I found my soda still sitting on the table and took a long drink.

"Heero, can you give Chezarina a hand with the clean-up?" He hesitated and I smiled reassuringly at him.

She was right where I knew she would be. Standing in the cargo bay looking up at that thrice-damned painting; the one that had started this whole thing. I stood in the doorway and watched her looking at it for a minute. I suppose it was kind of inevitable that we would come full circle to this place. It crossed my mind that I wish I had never painted the damn thing. But then it crossed my mind that if I hadn't made that trip to L2, it was entirely probable that the Brannigan's would be dead. I shrugged to myself and walked over to join her.

"You know," I said conversationally, "I painted this the night you threw me out of your house for something I didn't do."

She frowned darkly but didn't speak.

"For Heero's sake, we're going to have to learn to get along," I told her, wondering a little bit at my sudden nerve. "It's just you and me in here... how about we knock off the bullshit and just talk to each other?"

Her head jerked around and she looked at me rather sharply. "I thought we had been talking?" she said frostily.

I sighed. "No, Relena. We've been sniping at each other. There's something of a difference."

Her frown deepened and for a minute I thought she was fucking going to burst into tears. "Everything I say to you just seems to make Heero even madder!"

I resisted the urge to bury my hands in my hair and start jerking it out by the roots. I'm getting rather good at that resisting urges thing. "Well... Heero's not here right now. You can say what you want."

She chose to say nothing. Ok... guess I'd start. I moved a little away from her, we seemed to do better when we weren't looking at each other.

"You know... that night we first met... the night I shot Heero," I said in that conversational tone again, "I thought you were probably the prettiest girl I had ever seen." I chuckled at the memory but she didn't comment. "I was rather proud of myself for arriving in the nick of time and saving the damsel in distress."

"I wasn't 'in distress'," she said and her voice fairly dripped with disdain.

I chuckled. "That would be the part where a terrorist on a mission had a gun leveled at your head." I wished I could cross my arms but couldn't manage it with the brace on. "Even in the colonies that constitutes in distress."

I glanced back at her and was greeted with a dark scowl. "He wouldn't have shot me," she said with conviction.

"In your dreams," I said.

"And I suppose he would have fallen into your arms if I hadn't been there?" She was perfectly capable of crossing her arms and did so, taking an aggressive stance.

"No," I turned back to the painting to hide my grin. "He would have killed both of us that night. Fresh off the colony at the start of the biggest mission any of us had ever been assigned, with orders to kill anyone who set eyes on him? You bet your ass he would have drilled us both right between the eyes."

"What?" Her voice squeaked a little. "Orders to kill... ?"

I had to indulge my newfound skill of urge repressing again, squelching a smirk. "Yep. We all had standing orders to... eliminate witnesses."

"But, you didn't... " she stammered and I found it somewhat telling that she obviously remembered that night as clearly as I did. "You blinded me with that flare and... and told me to run?"

"I never could follow orders," I grinned. "I was a little bit... older before I started my pilot training. There were some things that they just couldn't train out of me."

I didn't say anything for a minute, just looked up at the painting and let that soak in.

"He really would have,' she breathed almost to herself and I didn't let myself shake my head or roll my eyes; proud of me? "You... you really did save my life."

No shit? No duh? Get a clue? I passed over them all and settled for a quiet, "I like to think so."

She had to chew on that and I let her. It was a long hand full of minutes before she murmured a grudging, "Thank you."

"You're entirely welcome," I said solemnly and dared a glance at her, she was chewing on it all right... and looking like she was about to choke. "You know... I didn't steal him away from you. After the war I went off and tried to make my own life. He was the one who came after me."

"Oh, I know that!" she snapped angrily. "It's just... " She stopped cold and looked up at the painting completely changing the subject. "Is that really the way you see me?"

I sighed and looked hard at the damn thing. "I think I did... that night." I stepped back and moved in behind her, taking her by the shoulders and moving her to the right a half a dozen steps. She resisted for a moment and then followed. "Here;" I directed, holding my hand up in example, "block that half of the picture out... just look at the ball room."

She flicked me an angry glare and then sighed melodramatically before doing as she was directed. I followed suit and looked again at the picture above us. "Is that the way I see you? Beautiful? Poised? Elegant? Yeah... I guess I do."

She dropped her hand and spun around to stare up at me, wide eyed, disbelieving. "Then... then why am I dancing with Heero?" she blurted.

I dropped my hand as well and sighed a little sadly. "Because... you both fit in that world." I cocked my head and frowned up at the painting, thinking about it. "Like two fish in the sea of politics and intrigue... Quatre can swim in that sea too; you understand the currents and the tides of it... " I found my hands working helplessly in the air in front of me as I tried to grasp the meanings and give them form. I gave it up and raised my other hand. "Now block out that half," I instructed and waited while she rolled her eyes before finally turning around and complying. "That's my world... I don't fit in yours. But... " I was struggling again, "my world is... is cold sometimes but it's where I came from... where I belong. There's nothing wrong with it." I dropped my hand to reveal the picture as a whole and she followed suit, oddly quiet. "The mural is about... contrast. About perceptions... and... " I was really not getting this across well, "And... obligations."

I stepped away from her and moved closer to the wall, looking at my cluster of children, "You're champagne and caviar," I chuckled lightly. "And I'm watered apple juice and ration bars."

She moved up beside me. "What's Heero?" she asked softly.

I shrugged. "I don't know... champagne and ration bars? Caviar and apple juice?"

She smiled fondly up at Heero's figure above us. "He does seem to fit in where ever he pleases."

I sighed. "Something I can't do. I don't fit in your world... I never will. You have to realize that as soon as Heero gets it through his head that I'm not going to pass out every time he turns his back on me, he'll be back in your world."

"Oh... bullshit," she said and I think my jaw hit the floor.

"Nani!" I gaped and she gave me a rather wicked grin, pleased, I think to have shocked me.

"You fit in where ever you go too," she said and it came out a little... angry. "Everybody adores you! Every servant in my employ was ready to mutiny after that stupid party! I got the cold shoulder from every last one of them for weeks! Half the women there wanted to know who the 'guy with the braid and the hot... rear' was." She was blushing furiously and I found that I was too.

"Good God; Relena!" I blurted, "you have your own fucking fan club! There are people fawning over you every where you... "

"But none of them are friends!" she snapped and suddenly just shut up.

I was back around to feeling like pulling my hair out and was suddenly just very damn tired... again. I sighed and just sat down on the damn deck right where I was. "Look... you haven't lost him... I swear to God... they keep telling me this won't last forever; you just have to give it a little time... give him a little time." There was the sound of one of those frustrated sighs somewhere over my head. I was starting to wish she'd just go the hell away and leave me alone. This damn, constant upheaval was eating away at me. "Hell," I muttered, "there isn't even any guarantee that he and I will... " I bit that off before it got any further.

She squatted down beside me and was glaring at me really hard. "Guarantee of what, Duo Maxwell? So help me, if you hurt him... "

It wrenched a twisted laugh out of my throat. "Don't be ridiculous," I told her, "but look at our relationship... the whole damn thing is based on that stupid accident. What happens when he doesn't need to take care of me any more? What happens when I can stand completely on my own again?"

"Then," she said rather coldly, "you will have the relationship with him I would have sold my soul for a couple of years ago and if you screw it up I will personally come and smack you up the side of the head."

I blinked at her for a full five seconds before I burst into laughter. "Yes, ma'am," I acknowledged.

She sat down beside me. "It's that damn charm of yours that just makes me insane," she groused but wouldn't look at me. "Everybody falls prey to it sooner or later and I always swore that I wouldn't be one of the sheep that fell under your spell."

I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. "I can... be an insensitive cad if it will make things any better."

She snorted. "You're not making it any easier."

"Ok... Ok... " I murmured and gazed up at the painting, "I can paint over it... if you want." I offered and held my breath. I'd never tried to destroy one of these damn things and I wasn't sure if I could.

There was a moment's silence and then she said, "Don't worry about it... it's not like anybody who matters is ever going to see it."

"Hey!" I exclaimed before I realized she was teasing and then I grinned. "I suppose I could always throw my own party; kind of an open house."

"Who'd come?" she drawled. "Junk yard men and their dogs?"

I inclined my head her way with a smirk. "Score one for the Princess."

"So... " she ventured after another small silence, "are we going to be able to tolerate each other?"

"Maybe... " I turned the smirk into a smile. "I'm willing to try if you are?"

"For Heero's sake... I suppose we can make an effort." Her eyes flicked my way again. "Just promise me you won't put me in any more murals."

"Done," I readily agreed and held out my hand. We shook on it.

I somehow didn't think it would ever move beyond 'tolerate' but it had to beat the hell out of what we'd been doing.

"So... " I grinned after a little bit, "does this mean we can trade hair care secrets now?"

She snorted disdainfully. "Like I need tips from you."

"Hey;" I protested in mock hurt. "Some people consider my hair one of my most attractive features!"

She turned the most wicked Goddamn smirk in my direction and murmured, "Yours may be longer... but mine's thicker."

I feared my eyeballs were going to pop right out of my head. "Dear Lord... I left you alone with Toria way too fucking long!" I gasped and felt my face flaming that shade of red that amused afore mentioned Ms. Brannigan so much.

I wondered what Heero and Chezarina thought of the peals of laughter that echoed around the cargo bay then. They'd just have to wonder; I wasn't going to repeat that line in front of either one of them.


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