Author: Sunhawk

Obligations (cont)

I slid an arm around him and drew him down to my chest. His muscles resisted for a moment and then he curled tight against me, his head pillowed over my heart and let me hold him.

"It's all over, love," I told him softly and brushed my knuckles over his hair. "We're going to be Ok now... "

A shudder ran through him and he held on tight. Emotion welled up in me; I suddenly had an overwhelming need to protect him, to keep him here safe beside me, to ease his pain.

"I'm here now... " I murmured over his head, "everything's all right... "

Is this what Heero felt? Is this what made him hover over me and worry about me? This wash of need? This clenching in the gut that demanded I do whatever in the hell it took to shelter him... shield him...

We were quiet for a time then, while we each thought our thoughts; I can only attest to my own.

This was the first time that Heero had allowed me to offer some of the support that he was constantly giving me and I was having a little trouble getting my head around it. But... it was nice.

I felt him take my hand and after a moment there was pressure against the palm. I looked down to find him gently kissing my scars and I shivered; I don't think he knew I couldn't really feel it.

"I've hurt you so many times," he sighed and his voice seemed thick.

"Heero... " I dropped my head back to the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. "We've talked about this... "

"It doesn't alter the fact that you had to do this to yourself... to cover my mistake," his voice was bitter, full of self-loathing.

"The mistake was mine... I used too much explosives," I told him gently. "I was the one who brought the damn ceiling down on Quatre to begin with."

"My fault... "

Where the hell was this coming from?

"Stop it!" I hissed at him, "Damnit, Heero... you can't keep dragging this up... "

He raised his head and turned bleak eyes on me. "I have so many things to make up for."

I pushed him up and off me, rolling us over to take the upper hand and it was my turn to hover over him while he blinked up at me. "Get past it; Goddamn it, I have! Just... let us be happy."

Something unreadable passed over his face and he opened his mouth to speak but then closed it.

"I love you," I told him with all the intensity I could muster. "I don't want all this... crap between us."

There was something more he wanted to say and I waited for it but it never came.

"Heero... please... " I sighed and wasn't even sure what I was asking for.

His hand came to cup my face. "I love you so much... and I'm so damn bad at it."

I snorted and grinned down at him. "You? Don't be ridiculous; you're the most attentive, caring partner I could ever have asked for." I lost the grin. "The past is the past... let it die."

He pulled my head down to lie on his shoulder and that seemed to end it because when he spoke again the subject was completely changed.

"We really should get up; we have a lot to do."

"Uhmmm?" I murmured, content where I was.

"Well, love;" he sighed, "Relena agreed to the trip last night."

I jerked my head up and stared down at him wide eyed. "What! Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

He chuckled softly. "I didn't think the news would help you sleep."

I considered decking him but decided the statement was probably the truth. You shouldn't deck people over the truth. No matter how tempting it was.

Shit. This was going to happen. This half-baked, insanely mutant plan had come to pass. What had I fucking gone and done?

My brain kicked over into high gear and I fairly threw myself out of the bunk. "Did you set a date yet? Shit... how long do I have? I'm going to need you to stock the galley... I can hardly feed the Queen of the World ration bars for God's sake. Do we know who she's bringing?" I was scrabbling for clothes as I talked, hopping on one foot as I struggled into my pants and turned to find him still lying there with the most damnable smirk on his face.

"What?" I snapped.

"Calm down," he said. "I told her it would take a couple of days."

"Days?" I gaped at him. "I only have a couple of days?"

His expression changed to mildly confused. "What do you need more time than that for?"

I rolled my eyes and jammed my hands on my hips. "God, Heero... we're not in the middle of a damn war anymore. You can't just go blasting off where ever you choose! It takes twenty-four hours just to log and get a flight plan cleared!"

That turned my thoughts back to the task at hand and I headed for the cockpit; time to get to work.

The flight plan was top priority and I sat down and keyed that request in first, sending it off to 'traffic control' before quickly putting a call through to the office. Never hurt to use a little personal touch to make sure things went smoothly.

I was vaguely aware of Heero settling into the co-pilot's seat.

My vid-screen flared and I grinned up at the bored image of the scrawny man who blinked at me for a moment before whooping, "Maxwell!"

"Hey Smitty!" I beamed and he turned his chair away from the screen.

"You guys! Look! Duo's back!"

There were instantly three faces clustered around the monitor.

"Hey! Welcome back asshole!" grinned Smitty's shorter co-worker, Bernstein.

"Watch it, Bernie!" I chuckled and waggled my fingers at the monitor.

"Good to see you, Duo," smiled Havers, the restrained one of their little group.

"You guys didn't go out of business without me around to keep you busy?" I had made the acquaintance of the three musketeers when I had, on a boring run, added the line 'Two day lay-over in Never-Never Land' at the end of my itinerary. The approved flight plan had come back with the line removed and the note that 'Never-Never Land' was closed for the season but I could reroute to either Eldorado or Atlantis if I didn't mind an extra day. Most of my flight plans after that had included some silly destination or another. It became a game that we played until we couldn't help but meet face to face. They were a great bunch of guys and I had to admit it helped having friends in the 'traffic control' office.

"You heading out on a job, Maxwell?" Smitty asked and I shook my head.

"Not yet... " I told them with a slight blush that I hoped they didn't catch. "Still a little early for that," I smirked then and reached to pat the bulkhead beside me lovingly. "The old girl's just getting jealous of my hospital bed! Taking her out for a ride."

There were a couple of rude snickers and Smitty muttered something that made Bernstein smack him in the back of the head. I grinned at them.

"So... can you push it through for me?"

Bernie grinned back. "We might be able to manage." He glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to wink at me. "Duty calls... gotta go. Good to see you Duo."

We signed off. My hands were already moving to login and send through the request for a complete refuel when I heard Heero sigh beside me. I glanced up and found him smiling oddly at me.

"Well... I feel utterly useless," his smile quirked into a half-grin. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Actually," I told him, looking away and feeling awkward, "I can deal with the ship preparations... but I don't know how to deal with Relena."

"What do you mean?" he asked softly.

"She's not a... spacer, Heero." I sighed. "She is going to have a cow shipping out on something that is going to be very much less than the first class she is used to."

He grunted and quirked me a tight little grin. "Isn't that part of this... show her how the other half lives?"

I shook my head. "The point is to prove to her that children like Becca and Eel exist." My fingers were working over the console even as we talked and I started a download of the area weather patterns for the next four days. "She hates me. She is going to be convinced that anything she 'suffers with' while she's onboard is my fault. She will expect from me what she would dish out in my place."

He watched me intently for a few minutes, digesting that. "She's truly not a bad person."

"I... know that," I told him, sparing a glance up from my workstation. "But if there had ever been a chance that we would learn to get along, I think that mural killed it."

He looked vaguely guilty and I suppose he should when you got right down to it. If he had stayed out of things, I'm pretty sure I would have eventually told Ms. Angie Masters to bugger off and Relena would never have even seen the damn painting.

That reminded me of the stupid interview and I pulled out the journalist's card; considering it for a moment. Did I grant the interview or not? She wouldn't get the pictures she wanted. Maybe she wouldn't be interested without them? I settled for sticking the business card in the top of my keyboard; I'd decide later.

When I focused on Heero again, he was out of the co-pilot's chair and standing over me. I grinned up at him. "I'm putting you in charge of the care and feeding of our passengers."

He leaned down to kiss me. "Aye, Captain," he murmured against my lips and made me laugh.

"She's gonna have to share the accommodations with her chaperone, too!" I hollered after him as he left the cockpit. "There's only one guest cabin!"

He didn't respond and I'm glad I didn't have to argue the point. I queued up my music as soon as he was gone.

It took me every bit of the three days to get the ship fueled, supplied and ready to go. She'd been in dock for months and everything had to be inspected and gone over. It was tedious, time-consuming work but oddly... soothing. It was familiar. I was exhausted each night when I crawled into my bunk but I felt good. I simply had to put out of my mind the reason for the trip and just concentrate on the job. I felt, for the first time, like I might actually get my life back someday.

We were scheduled for departure on Thursday morning. Tuesday evening I e-mailed Ms. Masters and told her that she could have her damn interview if she shut the fuck up about the pictures and could just deal with only taking the shots that I outlined. Without argument or I would throw her off my damn ship.

I had a reply from her within five minutes and she agreed instantly. We squeezed the interview in on Wednesday morning because she couldn't afford to wait until I returned from L2. I insisted that Heero hang around for it just to make sure the wily Ms. Masters didn't try anything cute. There would be two of them; she and her photographer, and this would assure that there was someone to watch the both of them. I didn't want her outflanking me.

She was true to her word when she came onboard that morning, her pony-tailed photographer in tow, not asking once to shoot anything I didn't authorize. I let them take pictures of the other murals in the docking bay, the galley and my cabin. Turns out it was the painting of the Maxwell church that had impressed her brother's friend and that was the one she was most interested in anyway. Go figure. She wanted pictures of me, something I hadn't anticipated but should have, and I had to endure being posed in the middle of my star-field cabin. Turns out Dirk, the photographer, was something of an amateur stargazer and recognized that the midnight walls, floor and ceiling of my cabin were an accurate configuration of the heavens as seen from the moon. From the only vantage point and at the only time that all the colonies are visible at the same time. I had gone so far as to put L5 back in my own personal night sky. It took me by surprise; no one had ever noticed before.

He and I chatted about it for a few minutes and it did serve to put me a little more at ease while he snapped his damned pictures.

I caught Heero looking at me with that Mona Lisa smile a couple of times.

I made to lead them to the galley when they were done in the cabin, the only place we could really all sit comfortably. Angie... yes, damn it, I had finally broken down and started calling her Angie; shut up all ready. Angie hesitated in the corridor, looking at the odd rendering there of the line of people.

"Not to overstep my boundaries," she smiled, "but what about these? You haven't mentioned this one."

I had to turn and look at it while I mulled it over. My gut instinct was "Hell no!" These were my dead; I didn't much want to have to get into it. But for a second, I could see in my mind's eye Solo turn toward me with a wink.

"Glory hog," he would have smirked. "Maybe we woulda liked to get our pi'tures took too."

I was probably the last living soul to remember these people. I let my eyes travel down the line; all the ones who had been mine to protect... and I had failed. All the ones that I had let die. It would be a kind of... immortality. Not that the people seeing their faces staring back at them from some magazines pages would ever really know them... but... well, I think Solo really would have gotten a kick out of it.

"All right," I found myself saying and Angie had Dirk move in fast before I changed my mind.

"May I ask who they are?" she said softly.

"Were," I corrected without thinking.

"Pardon?" she questioned, confused.

"They're my dead," I told her, turning to look at her at last and realizing that the interview had started while I wasn't paying any attention. I sighed; oh joy.

"Your family?" she asked gently.

I shook my head. "Not... in the sense you mean," I found myself saying. "I'm an orphan."

I pointedly turned my back until Dirk was finished and then led them to the galley. I had learned my lesson about the camouflaging use of drinks and offered them around. Heero and Angie declined but Dirk accepted and I fetched squeeze bulbs of juice for the two of us.

As I had half expected, Angie questioned the use of the bulbs and I had to explain to her the effects of zero gravity on things like liquid. That led me around to explaining the fact that everything on a ship has to be bolted down.

"Most of us in the space trades spend a great deal of time on our ships if we don't actually live on them. We can't decorate the way you ground... " I caught myself but not in time.

"Ground-bounders?" she smirked.

What could I do but smirk back? "You've done your homework."

"You spacers seem kind of elitist," she prodded.

I shrugged. "Not really. It's just a language. Slang. It grows up in any culture that has to find words for things that never existed before."

She didn't look convinced, raising one of those carefully lined eyebrows. I grinned at her. "Tell me there aren't a dozen words that you use around the office that wouldn't make a bit of sense to me."

She opened her mouth and had the decency to blush. "Ok... Ok... I'll give you the ground-bounders remark."

I saluted her with my bulb of juice.

"You do a lot of commission work,' she stated. "Tell me how that came about."

I saw Heero shift his stance where he leaned in the doorway like some kind of damn imperial guard.

I gusted a breath and thought back. "We can't hang pictures or... set out mementos the way you do," I explained as I wrestled with the words. "At first, I painted things... and people I was afraid I'd forget."

"Like in the corridor?" she asked very quietly and I nodded.

"Or... " I gestured with my juice at the blue sky around us, "like in here... just something to brighten things up. We spend a lot of time in these ships. It gets... " I hesitated, thinking about it.

"Lonely?" she ventured when I didn't finish the sentence right away.

I shrugged noncommittally. "And... quiet. And monotonous." I grinned at her, dispelling the melancholy mood. "Damned boring is what it gets; so we paint things like this!"

She sat and waited for me to get around to the original damned question and I had to retrace my mental steps for a second to see where in the hell I had been headed. "I seem to have a certain amount of... ability," I told her with a wry grin, "and when my friends started asking me to paint things for them... " I shrugged again. "How could I refuse?"

She looked at me, a little surprised. "You don't charge?"

I laughed. "I didn't, but it got to the point that I never had time to do anything else, so I started charging just to cut back on the number of requests I was getting. I have a salvage business to run after all."

She gave me an odd smile and said, "You are very talented... you know that don't you?"

I snorted and gave her a dismissive wave. "I can copy down the shit I see in my head... doesn't make me a Rembrandt or a Picasso."

She snorted in return. "You're a fairly humble guy Mr. Maxwell."

I fought against a rising blush and sipped at my juice.

When she didn't get a comment, she shook her head and went on. "What is it you paint for other people?"

"I thought you said you'd seen some of my work?"

"I have," she conceded. "I was just curious as to where it comes from. Do you choose? Do they make requests? What?"

I sighed and thought about it, tilting my head a little to look up at the 'sky'. "It varies. Sometimes they just give me vague ideas." I grinned, thinking about some of the things I had been asked to paint. "Sometimes it's very specific; there's a guy out of L3 who now has a portrait of his ex-girlfriend in freefall over his bunk."

Dirk almost spewed juice all over himself and I couldn't help laughing at him.

"Ex girlfriend?" Angie asked with a hint of disapproval in her voice.

"Oh she wasn't his ex when I painted it," I grinned remorselessly. "In fact, I have a request from him to come and redo it to look like his new girlfriend."

There was a tiny sound from Heero's direction that might have been a chuckle; I didn't catch it over the sound of Angie's sudden giggle.

"I paint whatever they ask... sometimes it's... " I waved my hand at the walls around us, "something simple like this. Sometimes it's something more... personal."

"You call this simple?" muttered Dirk and it garnered a look from Angie.

"More personal how?" she asked when he had subsided.

I thought about it for a minute. "Sometimes I paint other people's dead," I told her plainly and she just sat and blinked at me for a minute.

"Do you keep a log of what you've painted?" she asked suddenly, "Do you take photographs?"

"Sometimes," I said guardedly, I wasn't sure I liked where this was going.

"Could we borrow some of them for the article?" she asked then and it was pretty much what I had expected.

"No," I said flatly.

She gnawed her lip for a second. "Why not?" she ventured at last, maybe deciding that she had enough already to write the article if I threw her out.

"Those are other people's homes," I told her. "I can give you a list of people to contact but it's their decision if they want you to see their paintings. They don't belong to me."

"But you painted them," she pointed out.

"They were gifts... they never belonged to me." This was starting to get tedious.

"Gifts? I thought you started taking commissions?" she said sweetly.

"I don't charge my friends for painting portraits of their dead... their memories." I told her and it came out a little harshly. "I don't paint anything that personal for anybody but my friends."

She looked a little taken aback and murmured, "From what I've seen... you have a lot of friends."

"Do you have enough information yet?" I asked, suddenly sick of the whole game. She was really starting to tread around things that I didn't much want to talk about.

She got an odd, rushed look on her face as though she realized she was almost out of time. "Well... I was curious about your relationship with Mr. Yuy here... "

My glance flicked to Heero and I saw the irritated glint that appeared in his eyes, "I thought you told me you wrote for 'The Rising Times', not 'True Tattler'," I told her rather coldly. "I fail to see what Mr. Yuy has to do with the interview you asked for."

She back-pedaled so fast I thought she was going to fall out of her seat. "I'm sorry Mr. Maxwell... You're right; it's none of my business."

Damn straight it's none of your business, I thought angrily and had to struggle to keep it off my face. I had no idea how Heero felt about having our relationship out in the open. He had a rather high-profile position with the Preventors and having it bandied about that he was in a... whatever the hell we were in... might not be a good idea for his career.

There wasn't much after that, she asked a few more fluff questions and then they finally left my ship. I didn't breathe freely until they were completely out of the hanger.

"I am so sorry I did that," I muttered almost to myself and Heero came to take me in his arms.

"You all right?" he asked softly and I let my head rest on his shoulder.

"I'm fine," I told him, "just... thinking that was an incredibly bad idea."

"I thought it went ok," he reassured me, his hands sliding up and down my back soothingly.

"I'm worried about what she's going to write," I confessed. "She threw me with that... question."

No need to tell him which question and he brought his hand around to raise my face where he could see me. "It was none of her damn business," he told me, echoing my earlier thought. "But I want you to know that... I don't mind. If you want... " he hesitated and I swear to God he blushed. "I don't have a problem with people knowing about us," he said in a rush.

I cocked my head and looked at him hard. "Heero, it couldn't be a good thing for your job... "

He cut me off. "My life is more important to me than my damn job," he said softly, not taking his eyes off mine, "and you are my life."

I could only stand and gape at him. I didn't know what to say, so we just stood and held each other. I really didn't trust my voice.

"You told me," he said softly; hesitantly and I knew we were talking about one of those things I had said that I didn't remember. "You felt you didn't deserve... love. Didn't deserve... me." He looked at me intently and I felt my face flaming. "I need you to know it's the other way around; I'm the one who is undeserving. You are... so alive... so talented and so beautiful... I... "

I buried my face in his shoulder to hide from that burning gaze. "Heero... " I whispered, wanting him to stop.

"You know this trip is going to be... rough," he said gently against my neck. "I don't want you to let her get to you. You're right; she's going to be bitchy because she resents this whole thing and is seeing herself as a victim. I don't want you doubting yourself. I won't have her making you feel... " he hesitated, looking for words.

"Like a filthy street rat?" I supplied with a grin, "like a disfigured, loathsome... "

"Stop it!" he snapped and his hands tightened almost painfully on my shoulders as he pushed me away where he could see my face.

"Chill, Heero!" I told him, shocked at his vehemence. "I was kidding!"

The emotions running behind his eyes were hard to read but he deflated quickly, "I... I'm sorry... "

"Heero," I smiled softly, "when are you gonna learn to just speak plainly to me?"

He gusted a sigh and eased his grip, ducking his head and it was his turn to blush. "I love you. I'm proud of you. It hurts me to see you in pain. I don't like the way she treats you. I like it even less that a part of you listens to what she says." He tilted his head up a bit to look at me through the veil of his bangs. "Is that plain enough for you?"

I chuckled. "Pretty damn plain... but it seems to me that she's the one that needs the talk."

He opened his mouth and then closed it with a slight smirk. "You're right... again."

"Good," I grinned, "now kiss me, damn it, we have to get back to work."

He smiled warmly and drew me back against him to do just that. Rather soundly, thank you very much.

No amount of back rubbing helped me sleep Wednesday night and by the time Thursday morning dawned, I felt like I was going to throw up.

Sometimes I truly am sorry about the messes that my mouth gets me into. I was looking forward to this trip about as much as one would look forward to a frontal lobotomy. Without anesthesia.

I slipped from the bed early, leaving Heero sleeping while I went and showered to a fault. Yes, damn it; I never quite got over that whole 'you smell bad' thing from my days at the Maxwell Church, ok? It never really mattered what Sister Helen had said, it was just something that had gotten under my skin and most likely would be there until I died. I always worried about it, especially when I was going to be around someone like Relena who would probably have that assistant of hers rush her to the hospital if she ever broke into a sweat.

God, this was such a bad idea on just so many different levels. I was, apparently, a masochistic, moronic little bastard. But it was too damn late now.

I spent the time waiting for Heero to wake up doing a last walk through, checking gages and seals, double-checking the vacuum suits. I hadn't told Heero I'd had to shell out the cash for two more; I'd only owned two. That had hurt; those things aren't cheap.

I ended up in the cockpit, running over the checklist and going over the weather reports one last time.

Truth be told, it was more than just Relena that was bugging me. This was going to be my first flight since the accident, my first time back in the saddle. I guess that was eating at me too. Wouldn't confess it to anybody, not even under torture but I was nervous as hell. You'd think it was my first time in the pilot's seat. I was scared to death that I'd lost my nerve. I could kiss my business goodbye if that happened. Heero had tried to tell me how messed up I was on the trip back from the belt, before I'd fallen so ill. But if I have any one, true talent it's denial. I think I had denied it for so long that even Heero had bought into the 'I'm fine' lie.

I was sitting there staring at my view screen, watching nothing happen in the hanger and debating if I should tell him that I maybe wasn't so damn fine after all, when he came wandering out of the cabin.

"Duo?" he called, a hint of concern in his voice. That tone made up my mind for me; if I even suggested that I wasn't sure I was ready for this, he would call a halt to the whole thing.

"In here," I called and he followed the sound of my voice to the cockpit. He leaned down to kiss me good morning.

"How long have you been up?" he asked suspiciously, eyes noting my damp hair.

"Couple of hours," I admitted sheepishly and watched the concern turn to a full-fledged mother-hen frown.

"Duo love," he murmured softly, "if this is going to upset you so damn much you can't even sleep, then I'm calling this whole thing off right now."

I grinned for him, "Heero, I always get up early on launch day." I noted movement in the monitor in front of me as that ugly pink car pulled up to the hanger. "Besides, it's a little late now," and I nodded at the image.

He turned and looked, his frown changing subtly until it contained more irritation than concern. It surprised me, as we spent more time together how I was slowly becoming able to read his expressions. I remembered a time when I had thought he had no damn expressions.

"Heero," I said softly, feeling a faint frown of my own, "Relena is your friend... please don't let the fact that she and I don't get along affect that. How she and I feel about each other should not change how you feel about either one of us."

He turned from the monitor to look at me with a bemused smile. "What the hell are you doing," he said, "applying for sainthood?"

I snorted and flushed. "Shall we go greet our passengers?"

He headed out and I followed, dropping back just a little so I had a moment to reach and touch Solo's shoulder as I passed his portrait on the wall. It was one of my habits before any launch, to touch Solo for luck.

"Thought ya forgot me, rat-boy," he would have drawled.

"Maybe I'll give the habit up, King-rat," I whispered. "Didn't bring me a lot of luck last time."

He would have laughed out loud.

Relena was standing next to the ugly car with another woman while her assistant... what was his name? Paragon? I think that was it. While Paragon unloaded their luggage from the trunk. My first thought was; Holy Lord, did she bring everything she owned? My second thought was; why the hell is the sixty year-old guy the one manhandling that heavy luggage out of the car? I sighed and moved past the women with a cordial, "Good morning."

"Here, Paragon," I told the man, "let me get that."

He gave me a surprised look but stepped back to let me do it. I'm sure some strapping young porter had loaded the crap into the trunk back at the Peacecraft estate but no one had thought about the poor old guy giving himself a heart attack trying to get it out again.

"Thank you, young man," he said softly and I swear to God I saw Relena's back stiffen.

Heero was taking her and her chaperone in hand, for which I was eternally grateful, though he came to take a couple of the bags to save us from having to make two trips. Heero had two bags, I had two bags and Paragon was carrying several small cases. I shook my head with a wry grin; how many changes of clothes did a Queen need for a five-day trip?

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