Author: Sunhawk

Obligations (cont)

We split up after we passed through the check-in process; the girls went their way and we went ours.

"Are you sure about this?" Heero growled when they were out of earshot.

"Me?" I complained. "I thought this was a bad idea the minute I saw Relena wearing my 'Hell-bound Beavers' shirt."

"You don't honestly think they'd go... bar-hopping do you?" He sincerely looked nervous.

"At this point," I sighed, "I am not about to rule out anything on this nightmare tour of hell."

His steps faltered and he looked at me sharply. I could see ages old instincts kicking in; protect the girl. Protect the Princess. Protect the Queen. Protect the peace. I had to squelch the strange little twist of... something that curled around in my belly.

Then I thought about the trip we were making to the med-lab and realized how it might be convenient if Heero weren't there to hear what the Doctor had to say. I was interrupted before I could act on the thought.

"Listen guys," Hayden suddenly rumbled quietly and we both stopped and looked up at him, "don't tell Torie I told on them... but she was only planning on taking them over to the L2 history museum and then out to lunch."

I grinned up at him. "You're kidding?"

He shook his head and returned the grin. "She is very aware of the responsibility she has taken on... she hardly slept at all last night."

We resumed our trek to the medical building and I stole a glance at Heero. He looked very much reassured.

I got x-rayed and examined. Heero got a complement on his field dressing. Then I got fitted with a removable, velcro fastened, plastic and metal brace; I did very much have a fractured wrist. Though they let me ditch the stupid sling.

Heero did not go into the examining room with me. I could not believe my luck. I felt a little bad when I thought about it too much, he obviously trusted me to tell him the truth. But then, I didn't really lie to him. The Doctor did not tell me I couldn't compete... of course, I never actually asked about it. But that doesn't count as a lie now, does it?

I came out to the waiting room with a grin plastered all over my face and found Heero sitting there looking irritated and Hayden looking... extremely uncomfortable. I wondered just what in the hell they had done to occupy themselves for the half hour I'd been gone.

"Come on, you guys!" I called cheerily. "We have some practicing to do!" Implying, of course, that I had been completely cleared for competition.

I managed to get them herded outside before it crossed anybody's mind to go speak with the Doctor on their own. We stood in the corridor for a minute; this is where we would be splitting up.

"You need to get the refueling request in the queue as quick as possible," I warned Heero, "L2 is notorious for taking forever; their scheduling sucks. And our flight plan needs to be refiled. Cancel the original one first before you put in the new request or they'll get it all screwed up. If you... "

"Duo," he cut me off, "I'll manage." He seemed upset and I wasn't exactly sure why. I met his gaze and tried to ask without asking but all I got was a heavy sigh. "You need to get going," was all he said.

He turned and made his way back into the bowels of in-station and I watched him walk away for a minute before turning to follow Hayden toward the more populated out-station. After a minute or two of walking, Hayden seemed to relax a little.

"How in the hell did you ever manage to hook up with someone like... him?" he suddenly asked.

I grinned up at him. "Uhmmm... just lucky, I guess?"

He snorted. "He's... scary, Duo."

The corridors were widening out and we were starting to encounter more foot traffic.

"Just what in the hell did you two talk about while I was getting checked out?" I asked, suddenly sure that was where this was coming from.

He looked down at me as we made our way toward the commercial section where we would have to hail a cab to take us where we were headed.

"He threatened me with bodily harm if I allowed you to hurt yourself," he said blandly, as though he had just commented on the weather.

"What?" I blurted and wasn't sure if I should be angry or... glowingly pleased.

"You never asked the Doctor about the tournament... did you?" he asked suddenly and I felt myself blush. Hayden chuckled. "Your... partner knows you too well. He told me you wouldn't."

"Then why in the hell didn't he just ask the guy himself?" I sputtered.

"He told me he knew you were going to do this no matter what he said and he knew better than to try and stop you." He chuckled gently. "I think he left you the out so the two of you wouldn't have to fight about it."

I sighed and just walked for a little bit looking at the ground. Guess I should have realized there was a reason Heero hadn't gone in to see the Doctor with me. He never trusts that I won't push myself too far. On the one hand I was rather pleased that he had backed off and was going to let me try this without interfering. On the other hand I felt guilty as hell that he was obviously tied up in knots about it if he'd actually threatened Hayden.

"Hey... Brannigan to Maxwell... come in Maxwell." I glanced up into Hayden's laughing eyes and realized that he'd called me more than once. I grinned sheepishly.

"This is Maxwell," I responded to that ages old banter and watched his smile fade.

"Duo... are you sure you're up to this?" he asked, suddenly as serious as I think I'd ever seen him, "Heero seems... damned worried."

I shrugged, uncomfortable. "Won't know until we try."

He stopped our forward progress with a hand on my shoulder, making me look up at him in surprise. "Just how the hell bad are you?" he blurted.

I squirmed under his scrutiny. "Look... it's not as bad as it was... I'm getting better."

He wouldn't let us resume walking. "How bad was it?" I didn't answer immediately and he glared at me. "We're going into this together... I need to know what your condition is."

I resisted the urge to jerk away from his restraining hand. "Damn it," I growled, "I was a month in the hospital and another month in a Goddamn wheel chair. I just... tire easily, Ok?"

He blinked at me but the frown faded a little. "You glossed over a hell of a lot when you told this little story, huh?"

I snorted and he finally moved his hand and started us walking again. "Nobody wants to hear the gory details," I muttered.

"Well... " he grinned after a moment, "since my life is riding on not letting anything happen to you, I'd kind of like a clue."

I snapped a glance in his direction. "He didn't really threaten to hurt you, did he?"

His grin turned wry. "Not in so many words... but he has a glare that can make your damn balls retract."

I had to laugh. We caught that cab not long after and finally found ourselves where this whole bloody day had been leading. We were lucky enough to find one of the rattier little arenas that still had time available and I rented the thing for the next three hours.

I spent the first hour just trying to get a feel for how much my body was going to be able to take at one end of the dome while Hayden ran through his part of the routine at the other. I was appalled at how quickly I felt the drain and had to stop for a break after only a half an hour. Hayden saw me leave the null gravity field and kited over with a worried frown on his face.

"Duo?" he asked when he was close enough, "are you all right?"

I grinned at him and waved him off. "I've learned my limits... and not to push them. I'm fine. I just have to take breaks."

He sat with me while I took my five minutes and then I decided we'd best run through the routine together while I was still able.

It was like we'd never stopped. I have to tell you, much as I had fallen in love with Hayden's Toria... I adored the woman... I had felt strangely abandoned when they had gone and gotten married. I had truly enjoyed competing in the expo and we'd been pretty damn good together. It just wouldn't have been the same entering the contest on my own. Sure, there were events for solo athletes but it just wouldn't have been... hell, it just wouldn't have been any damn fun. I had to admit to myself that I had kind of missed this.

We ran through the routine once, laughing our asses off, teasing each other about being sloppy, making jokes about the stupid costumes. I was enjoying myself so much that I almost pushed it too far and wound up having to go lie on the bench for almost fifteen minutes. Hayden hovered over me, watching my hands shake and looking like he'd just swallowed something bitter.

"I'm calling this off," he blurted at one point.

"Can't," I drawled, grinning up at him, "we're already registered."

"What?" He glared. "When... ?"

"Modern technology," I smirked. "You can do that on-line now."

"We'll withdraw," he growled.

"We're passed the time-limit," I informed him. "We'll lose the registration fee."

He just sat and frowned at me. I finally fished in my pocket for some change. "Here... you wanna do something; go get me a soda from the vending machines."

He took the money and stalked off to fetch the requested drink. I managed to get myself sitting up before he got back and I engaged him quickly in a technical discussion of the routine. The worry in his eyes slowly faded as he warmed to the topic and by the time I had drunk half the can of soda we were ready to give it another go.

The realization that our practice time was limited to my stamina kicked us in the ass a little bit and made us buckle down and get serious. We ran through the routine again without all the horseplay and it was much, much better. Except for the part where I almost passed out. I was able to keep Hayden from seeing it; let him think that I had misjudged a kick-off and gotten stranded in mid arena. It let me hang there and drift getting my breath and sight back while he rebounded to my end of the gym and nudged me into motion again. I called a time-out and went to finish the other half of my can of soda.

"Doin' ok?" he asked when we got settled on the bench and I laughed boldly at him.

"You're starting to sound like Heero!"

"I'm starting to understand Heero," he deadpanned and there was warning in it. I just kept my hands moving to hide the shaking.

"I'm fine," I told him firmly.

"My ass," he growled back and made me laugh again.

We sat for a bit and contemplated the empty arena in front of us and I finally ventured, "I think we should have a plan B."

He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. "Going back to the war days, are you? We need a contingency plan for a dance routine?"

I snorted. "Well; it does sound kind of stupid when you put it like that."

He just waited for me to elaborate and I sighed, knowing he wasn't going to like it. "In case I can't manage to finish the damn thing."

He looked at me rather sharply and I cut him off with a raised hand. "You know it's going to be more... strenuous tomorrow with all the gear and props. If I can't make it... I'd rather cover it up than humiliate myself in front of the whole damn colony, Ok?"

I won a small chuckle and he finally agreed. We spent our last hour working on plan B. When we were done, I was damned glad we weren't having to walk all the way back to the ship; I'm sure I wouldn't have made it. I didn't think I'd make the short walk from where the cab dumped us out to the docking bay. I swallowed a little of my pride and made Hayden stop to let me rest when we were within sight of the docks. I'd scare the crap out of Heero if I walked aboard ship in the state I was in at that point. He'd probably sedate me on the spot and haul my ass back to Earth.

"I need to ask you a small favor," I said to Hayden while we sat on the metal bench and I got my trembling under control.

He gave me a funny look and a sardonic smile. "I owe you my life and the clothes on my damn back... I think I can do you a small favor."

I flushed and ducked my head. "Could you just... not say anything to Toria about how much trouble I had today?" I sighed, studying my hands and realizing suddenly that I had forgotten to put my glove back on. "I don't think I can deal with the both of them... hovering over me."

He laughed rather abruptly. "Both of them? That would be rather cruel and unusual punishment, don't you think?"

When I could hold my hands out and they seemed almost steady, we resumed our walk.

"You're makin' me feel like shit, Duo," he grumbled as we went.

"I know," I grinned up at his scowling visage, "but, damnit, Hayden I wish you guys would put this in perspective; we're not going on a salvage run. We're not going on a life or death mission. What's the worst that could happen?"

"You could make yourself sick from the competition," he intoned, "at which point Heero could castrate me and feed my balls to my wife since this was all her idea."

I thought I would choke to death laughing my ass off all the way up the ramp.

We found the girls still out and Heero alone on the ship. I know he had more than enough to keep him busy but he still managed to look like he'd done nothing but chew on something distasteful all afternoon.

He greeted us with a guarded, "How'd it go?"

"Not too bad," I grinned, "for a couple of old, out of shape, salvage guys!"

Hayden snorted and headed for the galley, muttering something about getting some juice. I'm pretty sure he was just giving us a little privacy.

"How'd your day go?" I asked lightly, hoping to keep things from getting too intense.

He actually gave me a small grin. "Life was easier with a war on," he chuckled. "How do you deal with all the damn red tape?"

"It's an art form," I laughed at him. "So, you have a little bit more appreciation for my skills?"

He reached out and snagged my good wrist suddenly and pulled me forward with an odd smile. "Oh... I appreciated your skills already. All of them."

I would have laughed if my mouth had not suddenly found something else to occupy itself with.

When he drew back, the worried look was dancing around his eyes again. "You're trembling," he accused and I opened my mouth to wade into the familiar argument but he didn't give me the chance. "And you stink. Shower... then nap. I'll call you for dinner."

I wanted to glare. I wanted to argue. But, you know, when you got right down to it, it really sounded damn nice. So instead of getting into it all over again, I just smiled and nodded and walked away. See? Sometimes I do know when to just accept things.

But I did take the liberty of using my own cabin and my own shower. Hayden hadn't gotten all that damn sweaty, the show off; if he wanted a shower he could wait until after dinner.

Once cleaned up, I fell into my bed and barely remember closing my damn eyes. Even the faint throbbing of my wrist didn't disturb me after the little amount of sleep I'd gotten the night before. I was totally dead to the world for the next couple of hours and when Heero came to wake me to tell me it was time to eat, it was a major struggle to convince myself that I needed to get the fuck up.

I made him go find my glove before I'd consent to go to dinner and then used the few minutes he was gone to throw cold water on my face and rinse my mouth. God; seemed like all I did anymore was sleep.

He came back with it and helped me pull it on even though I'm sure he was about to bite his tongue off to keep from objecting. I gave him a warm smile of appreciation and a small kiss. "Thanks, love," I murmured.

He only grunted.

I was relieved to hear the ladies' voices as we went toward the galley and I glanced up at Heero with a mischievous grin. "Relena didn't come back tattooed or... worse?"

"Not as near as I can tell," he answered and I honestly don't think he was kidding.

"Hey buddy-boy!" Toria crowed as we came into the room, "you're just in time... dinner should be here any minute!"

"Be here?" I questioned, confused.

"Lena here," she jabbed a thumb in the general direction of her Majesty, who was still wearing my clothes by the way, "has never had pizza! Can you believe that? So we ordered pizza."

I worked my way around the perimeter of the galley to the fridge and snagged a soda bulb, then thought better of it and grabbed a protein drink instead. I glanced up to see if Heero wanted anything while I was there and was graced with an approving smile. I was able to keep myself from flipping him off, just raised an eyebrow instead and he nodded. I brought him one of the protein drinks too; if it was good enough for me... it was good enough for him.

Two seats had been saved for us, side by side and I sank into mine, sitting across from Hayden, making sure that Heero got stuck with the chair next to Relena.

"So how did you ladies enjoy your trip?" I asked brightly, hoping to put off the part where Toria and Heero grilled us about our practice session. My sketchpad was still laying on the table and I leaned back, pulling it into my lap and went back to work on Jefty while we talked.

"Not bad; the beer at the 'Grotesque Carousel' is just as bad as I remember it and since when do you have to sign a waiver before you can get your damn belly button pierced on L2?"

I was actually reaching out a hand to make sure Heero didn't launch himself across the table at her when Hayden intervened by swatting his wife on the thigh with a warning growl. "Some things are not funny, my little flower.'

"Spoil sport," she groused, sticking her tongue out at him.

"We had a lovely time at the museum," Chezarina interjected smoothly, ignoring the by-play. "You don't think of the colonies as having separate histories. I've been to L4 and it's a very different... culture."

"I went to several of the colonies with my father," Relena said quietly and I was a little surprised to hear her enter the conversation at all, "but we were always taken right from the shuttle port to whatever embassy he was scheduled to go to. They all looked pretty much the same... I never imagined there was more than that."

I kept very still, thinking maybe she would forget I was there and would not get all weird again. I concentrated on blocking in the screwdriver clutched in Jefty's little hand and left it to the others to carry the conversation.

"All the colonies are very... individual," Hayden commented, sipping at a soda, "if you get out among the people." He chuckled lightly. "It's been my experience that government officials and executives don't vary much from colony to colony."

Well, that was subtle. I threw him a sharp glance but he ignored it, only smiling at Relena and raising his soda in mock toast. "Present company excepted... of course."

I held my breath for a minute, waiting for the searing comment that was sure to come next but Relena only chuckled darkly, "Of course," she accepted graciously and raised her own bulb in return. I almost fell out of my chair. It took some effort for me to get the pencil moving across the paper again.

"You certainly weren't acting much like a high-brow official when that blond was giving you the lap dance," Toria purred.

I was on to her game by now and didn't so much as flinch but I really did think Heero was going over the table after her that time, he actually sat forward like he was on the move.

"Kidding, Heero!" Toria chortled. "Good God man; shit that brick outta your ass, will ya? Lighten up!"

I had the most surreal urge to yell duck and cover!

Relena was struggling hard to suppress a giggle and failing miserably. "Victoria!" she admonished, trying to make it come out stern and then they were both laughing uproariously. Even Chezarina was hiding a wide smile behind her hand and I suddenly recognized all the earmarks of an inside joke. I glanced at Heero and stoic didn't come close to describing it. I bent my attention back to my sketchpad, managing to finish Jefty's portrait and flipping to a fresh page to start Helen's. Wasn't going to wade into the middle of this one... uh'uh; no thank you ma'am. No way in hell.

Chezarina did leap into the breach not long after, gamely trying to turn the two younger women back to a civil conversation. "Actually, we had lunch at a very nice little bistro. They had the most exotic sounding dishes."

"Where did you take them?" Hayden prodded Toria, teaming with Chezarina in an effort to curb his wife.

"We went down to the 'Ivy Cottage",' she reassured him with a haughty little smirk. I almost gouged a hole in the paper jerking my head up to look at her. Shit, that place was probably the most expensive restaurant in this whole damn sector. Who in the hell had paid for lunch? I saw Hayden asking Toria that same question with a widening of his eyes and then saw the almost imperceptible flick her fingers made in Relena's direction.

I didn't know whether to be relieved or appalled. Relieved that Toria hadn't done something stupid like charged their account; or appalled that one of my guests had been forced to shell out that kind of money to feed another of my guests a meal. I should have thought of making sure that Toria had money before they left the ship that morning but I had been so wrapped up thinking about that trip to the med-lab and then practicing, that it never crossed my mind. I vowed to get some money in their possession before we left the ship again.

Chezarina was describing their lunch with just a little too much detail and I was grateful. It was giving everybody the time to settle down. Relena and Toria were stifling their giggles and beside me, Heero seemed to be thawing back out.

I was lingering on Helen's picture a little too much, I realized and tried to stop it but she always had been my favorite. I know; Godfathers shouldn't play favorites but I couldn't help it. She was my little demon-child; had somehow picked up my penchant for jokes and had a laugh that would have rung off the walls. I felt eyes on me and glanced up to see Heero watching me work with an odd glint in his eyes. I guess when I thought about it; he'd never really seen me draw before. Just the little bit that might have been required for a mission back during the war, mapping sometimes. His scrutiny made me feel uncomfortable and... strangely pleased.

Just when I thought Chezarina was going to quote us the entire menu from memory, the in-coming call bell chimed and Toria grinned, rubbing her hands together in anticipation. "Dinner has arrived!"

I flipped the sketchpad closed on Helen's half finished face and practically leaped to my feet. "Great!" I grinned around. "You guys set the table and I'll go get it!"

I was out the door before anyone had a chance to do more than blink. Damned if Relena was paying for the pizza too.

I went out through the cargo bay, there's a comm. unit in there and I answered the call from it. The pizza and the delivery guy would be waiting at the check-in desk. Food deliveries were not allowed into the dock area.

I asked to verify the account number on the order before I would accept it and sure enough, it had been pre-paid. It took a small amount of arguing to get the guy to change the account to mine but I tipped him rather handsomely and in the end, he did what I wanted.

I took the pizza boxes and made my way back inside, stopping in the cargo bay to hit the lock-downs for the night-cycle.

"What the hell took so long, buddy-boy?" Toria greeted me when I walked back into the galley and I only smiled at her without comment. Then the pizza boxes were being spread across the table and opened, and she forgot about it.

I settled back in my seat unable to completely suppress a small grin of satisfaction but nobody seemed to notice.

I helped myself to a couple slices of pepperoni and sausage and sat back with my sketchbook in my lap, alternating between drawing and eating. I was more than happy to just let the world flow around me if it was content to leave me alone.

There was much teasing as Relena had to taste each of the four varieties of pizza that Toria and Hayden had selected. I let it go, only half listening, and lost myself in remembering just how we had decided that Helen would look, trying to capture that bright, devilish grin. She would have liked Fuzzy-butt and I sketched his bedraggled ear clutched in her little fingers, hinting at his shape with a few quick lines. She was the subject, after all and I only insinuated his presence. I put her in a t-shirt I had seen once that had a little dragon clasping a teddy bear to its chest. She would have liked that too.

I flipped the page to begin the portrait of tiny Hayden Jr., pausing to work my cramping hand for a few minutes and suddenly became aware that the room had grown very quiet. I glanced up to find most of the eyes in the room on me. "What?" I asked, feeling like a pork chop on display at the market.

There were several stifled giggles/chuckles and I frowned. "Though I am more than happy to entertain my guests in whatever way I can, mind if I share in the joke?"

Chezarina took pity on me while most of the others just laughed. "Victoria has asked you a question three times now, dear."

I felt my face flush and turned my gaze in Toria's direction. "What can I help you with spacer-girl?" I grumbled.

"I said... for the fourth time," she couldn't resist ribbing, "may I go turn on some music? It's entirely too damn quiet in here."

"Knock yourself out," I growled and she leaped to her feet with a happy smile, going to the control panel there in the galley. She poked at buttons for a minute and I thought to add, "no Tom Smith... "

"You are no damn fun, buddy-boy," she tossed over her shoulder and I could see her scrolling through file names on the small screen.

"You are entirely too much fun, spacer-girl," I muttered and took another bite of pizza before bending back to my sketch.

"Ah!" Toria crowed and hit some buttons with a certain amount of decisiveness.

" ... make their yellow blood run cold, fight until you die or drop, a force like ours is hard to stop, close your mind to stress and pain, fight 'till you're no longer sane, let not one damn cur pass by, how many of them can we make die?" Was suddenly blaring across the speakers along with wailing bagpipes and pounding drums.

"Toria!" I bellowed and her fingers finally stabbed out and cut the fierce voices off in mid battle cry.

She turned slowly around and every damn eye in the room was on me again. "You listen to some truly weird shit, Duo," she said quietly and it made me a little mad.

"That's why it was in the folder labeled battle music. You wanna tell me how you mistook battle music for dinner music?"

"I was lookin' for something a little upbeat." She glared back at me.

"Try the folder labeled Helio," I ground out and didn't miss the odd stiffening from Heero's direction.

"Well now that makes much more sense!" she proclaimed with a roll of her eyes, but turned back to try again and thankfully remembering to adjust the volume. It was pure fluff and dance music this time, light and bright and apparently just what she was looking for because she turned back to the table with a smile, our near argument completely forgotten.

I scowled back down at my sketchpad and found I had to erase a dark line that had appeared when the music had kicked in. Jesus, there was a song I hadn't needed to listen to since the damn war. It took a minute or two before the conversation recovered and I noticed again that it was Chezarina who prodded it back to life. I sure as hell hoped that Relena realized what a gem she had in that woman. I trusted she was getting some kind of bonus over and above her regular salary for this little trip; she sure as hell deserved it.

Half way through the portrait of Hayden Jr.'s pudgy little face, Heero nudged me gently and admonished me to eat. I glanced up and smiled sheepishly, realizing that I had barely put away half a slice of the pizza. I stopped drawing long enough to finish the first slice, listening for a few minutes to the others talk about the history museum, then went back to work. I didn't miss the slight sigh from Heero's direction and spared him a quirk of a grin.

I put little Hay in one of those weird onesie things that snap in the crotch and with 'Daddy likes me best!' printed on the front. Finished, I flipped the pad closed and lay it aside, eating the second slice of pizza with a pointed glance in my partner's direction.

Heero's eyes were so full of questions it was not even funny. Generated by the sketches or the music or maybe just wondering about the practice that morning, I'm not sure which.

"... absolutely, positively every politician I've ever met has been prim and proper, perfectly fit and boring as wheat toast!" Toria was chortling and then she glanced at Hayden and they chorused, "Present company excepted... of course!"

I think I must have missed something, because everyone at the table was suddenly cackling like loons except for Heero and me, and even Heero was wearing a broad grin.

I resisted the urge to look down the table at Relena to judge her reaction. Of course, I really didn't have to see her... she was laughing right along with the rest of them. I reflected on the likelihood of pod-people again.

"Well; all the spacers I've ever met have been loud and obnoxious with terrible table manners." Relena suddenly said in an odd, stilted voice and then spoiled it by giggling out, "present company excepted... of course."

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