Author: Sunhawk

Obligations (cont)

Heero was leading the women in through the open cargo hatch; I slowed my pace to match Paragon's so the old guy wasn't trailing behind on his own. He surprised me again when we passed through the cargo bay. He stopped to look up at the mural and I felt myself standing there, red as a beet waiting to hear what he had to say.

"So that's the... 'infernal thing'?" he grinned and I choked on a laugh. "Master Yuy was right; you are a very talented young man." He stared up at it for another long moment before looking back at me with an utterly inscrutable expression. "I wish you luck Mr. Maxwell."

I sighed and couldn't help myself, "I think I'm gonna need it."

He chuckled and we followed after the others.

I came into the guest cabin door just in time to hear the tail end of a conversation, "... hardly what I would call spartan, Relena," Heero was saying and his tone was one you would use with a five year old throwing a temper tantrum.

"Boy, am I gonna need it," I muttered under my breath and moved into the cabin to set the luggage down with a bright smile.

"Welcome aboard my home, Rel... Miss Peacecraft." I beamed at her, deliberately ignoring the ice that was forming on everything within a mile of the woman. I turned to the second woman and gave her one of my patented grins. "I don't believe we've met?"

She was a middle-aged woman, shorter than anyone in the room, dark hair shot with silver and a face that looked like it was more used to smiling than wearing the frown that now covered it. I'm sure she'd been told I was the devil incarnate.

"I'm... Chezarina." the woman said, reluctantly taking my hand when I extended it.

"Greek?" I asked with a smile and saw that I had surprised her. She smiled almost shyly and nodded.

"Welcome aboard, Chezarina," I said warmly and turned to include Relena again. "Have you ladies settled on bunks? We launch in an hour; your things will need to be stowed."

I could see Relena grinding her teeth and looked passed her at Heero's amused expression. "Heero... would you mind getting them started while I see Paragon out and start locking down?"

A strange grin played around his lips but never really came out full strength. "Aye Captain."

I flashed him a smile and left the cabin.

Paragon didn't speak again until we were walking down the ramp and were mostly outside. "She's a good girl, Mr. Maxwell," he said softly. "I could only wish that the Darliens hadn't spoiled her so much."

We stopped and stood looking at each other for a moment, I finally let out a sigh. "I have to tell you that I have no real clear idea how this mess came about. I was fully intending on turning down the interview... " I grinned at him sheepishly; I had no doubt he knew the whole story.

He smiled wryly. "I don't think it matters how it happened, Mr. Maxwell... I just hope that you and Mr. Yuy can open my little Relena's eyes a bit."

He walked away and I just stood and blinked after him in surprise for a minute. Good God... the man loved her like a Grandfather and she treated him like a damned servant. I shook my head, walked back aboard and started the lock-down procedures.

I had everything sealed up and ready to go within twenty minutes but kept double-checking things that didn't need it, until I finally admitted to myself that I was avoiding going back to that cabin. It was my guilt for leaving Heero there alone with them that finally drove me to it.

I hesitated as I approached the open doorway, hearing Relena's irritated voice, "I still can't believe you are endorsing this... kidnapping!"

Heero's voice was the epitome of patience. "Relena, it's hardly kidnapping; you agreed to this trip yourself."

"Under duress!" she snapped.

I heard the sound of Heero stowing luggage and there was a pause before I heard him say, "Why can't you give Duo a chance?"

She didn't have a ready answer and Chezarina interjected softly, "He seems like a nice young man, Miss Relena."

"Don't let that... that suave exterior fool you!" Relena snapped. "He's nothing but a common criminal!"

Heero's voice was taking on an edge. "Relena," he reprimanded, "Duo didn't have the luxuries you had growing up... yes; he may have stolen to survive but that hardly makes him a criminal."

"Where I come from," Relena said haughtily, "stealing is a crime."

I decided that it was time I put a stop to this before she seriously pissed Heero off. Though it still amazed me, I had discovered that he was extremely protective of me and as much as I might have enjoyed listening to Relena get her ass chewed out; I knew that Heero would be sorry for it later.

I retreated several yards and proceeded to approach the cabin again, this time deliberately making myself heard. The conversation in the cabin stopped. I popped my head in and grinned happily at them. "Everything all stowed? Great! We should get up front and get belted down. Lift off is in twenty minutes, they're just about to come and tow us out to the field."

I let Relena's glare deflect off the armor of my smile and offered my arm to Chezarina. "Milady? This way please?"

If I stood little chance of charming Relena then I would turn my attention to the chaperone.

Chezarina took my arm and I led her down the corridor toward the cockpit. She gave me a small smile after she was out from under Relena's gaze and I rewarded her with my 100-watt grin. She stared openly at the portraits of my dead, stopping for a second to look at little Becca's tear stained face.

"Poor little poppet," she murmured but didn't ask. The pause gave me the chance to punch Solo lightly on the shoulder. It was part of my launch ritual and it comforted me to be able to squeeze it in without making a big deal out of it.

I settled Chezarina in one of the three jump seats in the rear of the cockpit and made sure she knew how to strap herself in. "Ever been in space?" I asked her gently and she blushed a little.

"Enough to know I really don't like launches," she said wryly and I looked at her a little harder, seeing the slight strain around the eyes and the faint sheen of sweat on her forehead. I squatted down in front of her with a frown.

"What the hell... " I murmured. Heero and Relena must have continued their conversation because they hadn't followed us yet. "Why in the world would Relena have picked you to come along if you have a problem with space travel?"

She patted my hand where it lay on the armrest. "I doubt she even knows," she said softly. "Don't worry about it. I just find lift-off a little... unsettling. I'm usually fine after that."

I growled in irritation; that woman had to be the most insensitive human being I had ever met... right next to Commander Une before she got therapy.

"Hang on a minute," I told her and moved to fetch the med-kit. I took out one of the anti-nausea patches and returned to kneel in front of her.

"These are standard issue in med-kits," I reassured her. "A lot of people have trouble with the heavy gee-force of launch and with zero gravity. This has a very mild sedative and something for nausea. Not enough to put you to sleep but enough to help you relax. A lot of the problems that people experience stems from nerves."

"Oh... thank you," she beamed at me and I helped her apply the thing to her arm.

We were just finishing with her belts when Heero led Relena in. I left him to get her settled and took myself off to the pilot's seat to answer the beep of the comm.

I checked the security feed and found that my 'tug boat' was here. I hit the acknowledge and waited to see who was in that tow truck out there.

"Maxwell!" I heard the booming voice of Dusty come across the speakers. "You gonna leave me sit out here all day?"

I laughed and hit the open mike. "I damn near fell asleep waitin' for you to get here, old man!"

He chuckled back at me. "None the worse for wear, I see."

"Take more than a little asteroid to put me out of business," I teased him and glanced up to see Heero settling into the co-pilots' seat. He was smiling at me and I grinned back.

"Good to have you back, kid," Dusty said then and rather took me by surprise. I glanced back at the vid pickup that showed him just sitting out there.

"Hey... " I ventured after a moments thought, "I didn't think you worked on Thursdays?"

"Didn't think I'd let anybody else haul your rust bucket out for its first flight in almost five months, did you?"

I grunted, "Damn, Dusty... " I began but he cut me off with a chuckle.

"Though you might want to avoid my wife for a couple of days. She had plans to clean out the garage today. She's a little pissed at you."

I threw my head back and laughed. "That's just great!" I scolded him, "she won't invite me to dinner ever again and I love her damn meatloaf!"

He snorted and muttered something about me and the dog being the only ones.

"Dusty, man," I ventured after a minute, "much as I'd love to sit here and talk... you planning on hooking up or what? I'm kind of on a schedule."

There was the strangest silence and then he said hesitantly, "Duo... is everything all right in there?"

"What?" I said stupidly. "What are you talking about?"

"Where's the music?" he asked. I sat and blinked for a minute, and had to resist the urge to turn around and look at Relena.

"Uhmmm... Dusty... I can't... " I began but he wouldn't move an inch.

"I been hauling your butt out to the field for goin' on three years, whenever you're in these parts," he said firmly. "We got a ritual, Maxwell... and I don't believe in messing with spacer luck."

I chuckled at him and felt my face flaming. I glanced across at Heero only to meet his mystified smile.

"Ok... Ok... I give," I conceded, "What do you want to hear?"

"How about 'Trip Across the Mountain'?" he suggested and I breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn't asked for some of the other things we had been known to play.

I reached to queue the song, a fiddle piece that starts slow but would speed up by the time we got out into the yard. I let it play on the external speakers at the normal blaring volume but turned it down in the cockpit, "Happy now, oh most exalted of drivers?"

"Got your cross?"

"Of course."

"Is the bear in the co-pilots seat?"

I had forgotten that one and looked across at Heero with a wicked smile. "Well... sort of."

"Maxwell," Dusty warned.

I rolled my eyes and was opening my mouth to lie to him when I saw Heero fish around beside his seat, coming up with the battered teddy bear that Dusty's kid had given me for Christmas one year, so that I would have a second. We had named him Co-pilot Fuzzy-butt and he rode in the co-pilots seat on all my Demon's runs.

"Bear is in place," I confirmed as I watched in utter disbelief as Heero tucked the bear in beside him. Behind us, I heard Chezarina giggle. "Can we go now?"

"Sure thing!" Dusty chuckled and I heard the clang as he connected up and we were finally moving.

"I meant to ask you about this," Heero murmured as Dusty towed us expertly out of the hanger.

"Dusty's son Denver thought I should have a co-pilot... so he bought me one." I grinned across at him, losing myself a little bit in the comforting familiarness, "Heero... meet Fuzzy-butt; Fuzzy-butt... meet your replacement."

There was a moments silence and then Heero murmured, "Wouldn't want to mess with spacer luck."

I lost the feed from the security cameras as we left the hanger and switched to my own external view. As we moved, I ran over my checklist one more time and wasn't really paying attention to the vid-screens so it rather took me by surprise when Dusty called quietly.

"Hey Maxwell... kick it up; we're an event."

"What?" I said and looked up to see pilots moving out of their hangers all down the line. "Shit," I murmured.

"Come on, Duo... we can do better than 'Trip Across the Mountain'... " he said and I could hear the grin in his voice.

"I... I... " I blinked up at the screen as spacers began to line the strip and I had to swallow the lump in my throat. "Got any suggestions, man?" I almost whispered.

"Hey... how about 'Rocket Ride'?"

He could have suggested 'The Coachman' and I probably would have agreed. Later I would look back and approve the choice. At that moment, my fingers just moved of their own accord.

"Nowhere to run... nowhere to hide, nothin' worth doin' that I haven't tried, there ain't no livin' on planet-side, come on with me baby on a rocket ride... ."

The change in music served to let the scattered pilots know that they had been noticed and they began to wave and applaud. My God damn eyes misted over. My face was so hot I wanted to fan it with my hand. I wished longingly for a stiff drink. Damn.

I jerked when Heero reached across and touched my hand. I turned toward him, tearing my eyes off the view screen and judging by the grin on his face I must have looked damn stupid with my eyes bugged out, my mouth hanging open and my face God only knew what color.

"Did I fail to mention that you were... missed?" Dusty chuckled at me.

"It... doesn't seem to have come up," I muttered and he laughed outright at my obvious consternation.

"Well, you were kid."

I felt a little bit like we were running a gauntlet. Heero squeezed my fingers after a minute and when it got him my attention again he murmured softly, "You planning on belting down?"

It served to bring me back to reality and I shook myself out of my shock. "I suppose that might not be a bad idea."

He let go of my hand with a chuckle and I settled down to get my head out of my ass. I strapped down and took a deep breath trying to calm scattered nerves; it had been damn touching but that little display had only managed to tip me a little further off my balance. I licked dry lips as we made the turn out to the field. At least we were away from the hangers. I couldn't believe the butterflies I had in my stomach; I had to keep wiping sweaty palms on my thighs.

It seemed to come to Heero all at once that this was my first time at the yoke since the accident and his voice came to me low and full of concern, "Duo; are you all right? Do you need me to... "

I flashed him a smile that I hoped wasn't as wan as it felt. "I'm fine, love," I whispered back and began to bring my ship to life.

Dusty maneuvered us with practiced ease onto the slingshot launch track and I initiated the latching process.

"See ya on the return, Maxwell!" Dusty yelled as he hauled his truck out of the way at top speed. We were running a little behind schedule.

"Apologize to your wife, you asshole!" I hollered back. We never said goodbye; it was part of the ritual.

Then it was just me and my Demon. I let the music play; the hell with Relena. I let it fill me and wash over me and I found that while my stomach was turning somersaults, my hands and my head knew what they were doing. I synched with the tower and we commenced the countdown. I brought the engines on-line and checked the temperature gauges for any fluctuations.

"Ok, Demon-girl... " I murmured, "you remember how this is done, right?"

The tower called the final all clear on the minute mark and I scanned through the seal report one last time, getting green lights all around. I felt the thrum as the drive chain locked in at thirty seconds.

"Please put your drink trays in the docked position and refrain from leaving your seats; ladies and gentlemen we are about to leave the atmosphere," I said without really hearing myself.

The chain engaged at fifteen seconds and we were moving. There was a tiny sound from behind me but I couldn't really spare the attention to feel bad for Chezarina, I was too busy wishing I could wipe the sweat off the palms of my hands again. Slingshot launches are... damn fast. We hit the end of the vertical ramp and I hit the thrusters. There was the familiar roar of the engines and crush of the invisible hand of God on my chest, Tom Smith was still belting out 'Rocket Ride; "... I want a bubble helmet matting down my hair, the ground giving way to the open air, the joy and wonder as I head out there and I know I can have it if I only dare... "

The yoke vibrated like a thing alive in my hands and I held her tight as we fought our way clear of those clinging bonds of gravity. "Come on, Demon-girl... the stars are callin'," I whispered to my lady, as much to calm my own hammering heart as hers. I had not taken into consideration the strain on still-weak muscles that the gee forces of launch would have; I had a horrified minute when I thought I was going to have to have Heero take over from the co-pilot's seat, then we were out and free, the flash glare gone from the view screens and I cut the thrusters back. The pressure eased from my chest and I heard an audible sigh of relief behind me. "Everybody all right back there?" I called out and Chezarina actually chuckled lightly.

"I believe that we survived, Mr. Maxwell." Her voice was fairly steady and I spared a moment to turn and grin at her.

"Make you a deal," I told her. "You call me Duo instead of Mr. Maxwell and I won't call you Ma'am."

She managed a laugh. "A... all right; it's a deal."

"Can you turn that incessant song off now?" Relena interjected.

"Sure thing, Miss Peacecraft." I grinned at her as well and reached to kill the music. The sudden quiet hit me like a blow and I sighed; it really was going to be a long fucking week.

I had the course programmed in already but had to call it up and initiate it, I busied myself with that while my passengers unbelted and began to move around. "There're drinks in the galley if anyone would like anything," I called absently as my hands and most of my attention worked over my boards. As twisted up as my gut was over this flight... I had still missed this.

I let the programming and the minor adjustments consume me. The familiar activities took me over and for a small space I almost forgot that this flight was any different than any other of my thousands of flights. When I became aware again some time later, I glanced across at the co-pilots chair and only found Fuzzy-butt staring back at me. For the space of a heartbeat, fear welled up in my chest that I had dreamed the whole damn thing... that it was just me and Fuzzy-butt and my ghosts aboard my Demon again.

"Hey," Heero's voice came softly from behind me, letting me know he was there and he walked over to stand beside me when he saw he had my attention. "How are you doing, love?" he asked softly.

I snorted up at him, feeling suddenly how tense my shoulders were, how tremulous my muscles felt. "I launched a space shuttle, Heero... I didn't have brain surgery."

He chuckled lightly but still reached to gently brush his fingers through my bangs. "You had me a little scared," he admitted gently. "You seemed to have trouble... finding your focus."

I let my head fall back against the headrest and my eyes fall shut. "Well... maybe a little bit."

"Are you done here?" he asked.

"Yep," I confirmed without opening my eyes. "On course and on our way. Auto-pilot takes care of things for the next couple of days."

I opened my eyes when I felt his hands take mine and tug gently. I let him pull me to my feet and into his arms. "You feel... shaky," he frowned at me.

"Shaky." I grinned. "Yeah... that kind of sums it up."

"Duo love," he whispered against my hair, trying to keep this private I think, "I'm sorry... I was so wrapped up in the whys and the wherefores that I didn't think about this being... your first time in space since... " He trailed off.

I straightened away from him a little bit and smiled. "What's with the word mincing? I thought we talked about this speaking plainly thing?"

He snorted and pulled me closer. "How are you doing mentally?" Then he quirked a grin, "And the plain speaking works both ways."

He surprised a laugh from me and I shook my head. "Shaky... describes it pretty well. A little off balance, a little nervous. It's makin' me... reflect a little bit... but I'm all right."

His hands slid up and down my back. "You're tense."

I chuckled. "That's about half launch jitters and half... Relena-itis."

He pulled me close again and I just let myself lean on his strength for a minute. Let his arms dispel the last of the heart wrenching terror that he hadn't been real... that I had dreamed him. Dreamed us.

"I'm here for you," he breathed next to my ear and I shivered.

"That means... everything," I murmured back.

We shared a final tight hug, then separated.

"Where are they?" I asked with a sardonic grin, which he returned with a roll of his eyes.

"In the galley." He sighed and we moved to head that way. "What made you think this was a good idea, again?"

I snorted and took a playful swing at him. "I believe you were the one who insisted."

"That's not how I remember it," he teased and we were close enough to the galley that all I could do was glare at him.

Relena and Chezarina were sitting at the table in the galley with bulbs of something in their hands. Relena was frowning and her companion was just looking uncomfortable.

"Ladies!" I beamed as we came into the room and I moved to fetch my own bulb. I briefly considered a soda but decided that a protein drink would probably be a better choice. "How are we doing?"

Chezarina fairly grinned back at me. "Oh, Mr.... . Duo... " she hesitated over the name with a faint flush, "I can't thank you enough for that patch! It made all the difference in the world! That's the first launch I've been through where I didn't think I was going to throw up!"

Relena looked at her sharply. "What patch, Chezarina?" she asked suspiciously.

"Just an anti-nausea patch," I informed her.

Chezarina seemed to have missed the look, busy pushing her sleeve up to look at the thing. "When should I take it off?" she asked me.

"They're twelve hour patches," I told her, "but if you normally don't have any trouble after launch, you can take it off whenever you want."

Relena was frowning at me and I kept my innocent smile firmly in place. "Mr. Maxwell," she began rather coldly, "you are not a Doctor, I don't know that... "

Heero cut her off rather smoothly before I had a chance to even think about it. "Relena, they're standard issue on any flight. It's an over-the-counter medication... they're safe for use on children."

She took it, because it came from him but I could see it rankled. It was killing her that he kept taking my side. I thought about that for a moment and realized that it wasn't going to do my cause any good if Relena started feeling picked on.

"I'm sorry, Miss Peacecraft," I murmured contritely. "I probably should have mentioned it to you first but they take several minutes to take affect... and we were a little short on time."

Chezarina seemed to notice for the first time that something was going on here and she looked first at me and then at Relena. "Miss Relena, please don't be angry with him... it was really rather sweet that he noticed my discomfort with everything else he had to take care of."

I saw the annoyed look on Relena's face falter and realized that this woman had some pull on the young Queen's emotions. She couldn't quite make herself look me in the eye but she quietly said, "I... understand. Thank you, Mr. Maxwell, for taking care of it."

I gave her a mega-watt grin. "No problem. You ladies need anything at all... just let me know."

I decided that I would make myself scarce for a little bit; that was the closest thing to a civil sentence that I had gotten out of the woman in... well, ever. I decided not to push my luck and excused myself. Behind me I heard Relena murmur softly, "Chezarina, why didn't you ever tell me that space travel bothered you?" She actually sounded a little hurt.

The older woman spoke warmly. "Don't worry about it, Miss Relena... it isn't that bad."

I shook my head; what was it about that girl that won her such loyalty? She certainly didn't inspire anything in me outside of irritation.

I passed most of the morning keeping busy with mundane things that really didn't need to be done, mostly just avoiding Relena until she had a change to settle in a little bit. I was hoping that she wouldn't be able to maintain that level of pissed for the whole five days. I wasn't about to bet money on it... but I was hoping. I spent most of my time either in the cockpit or in my cabin, giving Heero a chance to maybe put them at ease. I was standing in the cockpit holding Fuzzy-butt, trying to figure out what to do with him now that there was somebody who's place was going to be in the co-pilot's seat, when Chezarina came looking for me.

"Mr. Maxwell?" she called from the doorway and I turned and grinned at her maliciously.

"Yes... Ma'am?"

She laughed lightly. "I'm sorry... Duo. The 'mister' is hard to lose when you're in my line of work."

I plopped Fuzzy-butt back in his seat. "Well; in my line of work, you're not a 'mister' until you're too old to pilot and you have to take a dirt-side job."

"I came to tell you that lunch is ready," she told me then and I grinned appreciatively; I hadn't been able to stomach breakfast and I was getting a little hungry.

"Great!" I smiled broadly. "Lead on!"

We stepped out into the corridor and she started to head back for the galley but then stopped. I caught her looking at the mural on the wall again.

"Duo... " she said after a moments hesitation, "why is this little girl crying? It gets to me every time I see it."

I stopped and let my eye travel down the line of my dead. "That's Becca," I told her softly. "She was one of the few of us orphans who knew what her given name was. She even knew her birthday... we all thought that was amazing." I gave Becca a melancholy smile. "She remembered her parents, so it was harder for her. She cried a lot." I shrugged. "I guess that was just how I remembered her."

Her eyes were wide and she was trying to decide whether to look at me or at Becca. "Oh Heavens... that's so sad. What... what happened to her?"

"She died in the plague," I told her simply and tried to get her to move on toward the galley. But she wasn't quite done with the questions.

"You mean that Duo Maxwell isn't your given name?" She blinked up at me and I swear for a second I thought she was going to cry.

I flashed her a grin. "Nope. They called me Dodger before I was Duo and before that, for the longest time, I thought my name was 'Heyyou'."

I made it breezy and I made it funny and she laughed when I did, though it was fairly weak.

"Come along, Milady," I urged, "I'm starving!"

She took the arm I offered and when we turned toward the galley, I saw Heero standing in the doorway with an unreadable expression on his face.

It was such a totally alien thing to walk into my galley... with my blue sky and green grass... and smell real food. The table was set with the real dishes and everything. I looked up at Heero and grinned. "Hey, oh grand chef... if you can cook, how come I get stuck doing it all the time?"

He chuckled with me as I handed Chezarina into a seat. "I had some help," he said and I looked to try to catch which one of the two of them he was looking at.

"Heero," I reprimanded lightly, "these ladies are our guests... you can't make them cook and clean."

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