Author: Sunhawk

Obligations (cont)

I woke to Heero's gentle touch and found him squatting beside me smiling tenderly. "Dinner's ready."

"Wha?" I muttered thickly, struggling against the siren call of sleep, blinking owlishly at him and feeling like I was only about half there.

He leaned in and kissed me softly. "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty," he chuckled.

"Where's Chezarina?" I murmured, feeling the blood rise to my face.

He kissed me lightly again, completely unrepentant and then leaned back to pull my arm down from where it had lain across my chest while I slept. "She went to wake Relena."

I winced as he checked my wrist. "I'm almost positive it's fractured," I told him with a sigh.

"It wouldn't take much," he agreed. "The doctors said it would be months before your bone density came back to normal."

Something seemed to settle over my shoulders of a sudden and I looked up at him, feeling utterly unable to muster up even the ghost of a grin. "God Heero... I'm so tired of being so... scattered."

He reached to cup my face, looking me in the eyes with a bright intensity. "I know, love," he told me gently, "but you're getting better... you have to see that. Just remember those early days when you couldn't even walk. It's getting better."

I gave him a somewhat drawn smile and laid my good hand over his. "I know... I guess I'm just tired."

His eyes flicked toward my hand and his face darkened in a frown. "Duo... why in the hell are you wearing... "

I cut him off. "It's common courtesy," I told him as firmly as I could, "I used to wear them for Quatre's sake... I can wear them for Relena's."

"Damn it," He frowned even harder, though I wouldn't have thought it was possible. "There is nothing wrong with... "

I sighed in exasperation. "Heero, don't be an idiot. The scars obviously bother her... that's all that matters." I made an effort to steady my voice. "She almost busted her ass in the corridor just trying to keep from touching them."

"I won't have her making you feel... " I could see that protective streak rearing its head again and I resisted the urge to reach out and smack him.

"What? Disfigured?" I snapped before I could quite stop myself. "Damn it, Heero... I am. My hands are... " I glanced down at them, though I couldn't see the scars on either one at the moment, "not... ugly, I guess... not since the surgeries. But they sure as hell aren't normal! I don't care... they're my hands and I've lived with them for so damn long I barely remember what they were like before. But God damn, can you please face the fact that I make some people uncomfortable? It's nobody's fault... it's just a fact."

I thought he was going to choke to death on whatever the hell it was that was struggling to come out of his mouth but then his eyes told me that Chezarina was back with her charge. Without turning, I put the grin into my voice and said, "There you are! Come on... it's going to get cold, let's eat!"

Heero stood and went to help Chezarina dish things up. Relena sat down but she only sat staring at her plate. I stifled a heavy sigh and made the damn leap; I really was just getting too tired for this shit.

"Miss Peacecraft... " I ventured into the uncomfortable silence; "I can't feasibly pressurize the cargo bay while we're in transit... but if you are still interested when we get to L2 I'll make sure to open it up."

I didn't think she would answer me for the longest moment but then I got a very quiet, "Thank you... I would appreciate it."

Well, damn. Ok... almost civil. Should I pursue a conversation or quit while I was ahead? I could see her gnawing at something that she couldn't quite seem to get spit out but couldn't seem to completely forget either.

Supper came to the table then and I decided to just leave things go for a bit. We did the standard compliment the cook thing and it really was very good. I had an inkling why Dusty didn't like his wife's meatloaf by the time the meal was over. I'd never had fried potatoes before and found them oddly addictive; I had to force myself to stop eating before I made a total pig of myself.

"God, 'Zarina;" I beamed at her at last, shoving my plate away, "it's a good thing you aren't going to be onboard very long or I'd end up so fat I wouldn't be able to get in my damn vacuum suit!"

She laughed easily with me though I thought I saw Relena stiffen a little bit and wondered idly what in the hell I had said now.

I insisted when dinner was over that Heero and I clean up the mess and, with a little prompting, they took themselves off to their cabin. Heero did most of the cleanup, of course, though I did what I could one handed. I found I was able to dry the dishes if I laid them down on the counter and wiped one side, then turned them over to dry the other side. When Heero finished with the sanitizer, he dried his hands and informed me he was going to shower before bed and left me to finish putting things away.

I snugged the last of the plates down and latched the cabinet a few minutes after he left. I probably shouldn't have, that close to sleep cycle, but I grabbed another soda out of the fridge and sat down at the table to sip at it.

It still kind of gave me a shiver up the spine when I thought about how close Relena and I had come. The cargo bay is not open to empty space; we would not have been sucked out of the ship. We would, however, have impacted rather heavily on the far wall. I might very well have survived that with my experience in zero-g maneuvering but that would have left me in a vast, airless room as cold as the depths of space. Suffocation, flash-frozen, or splattered all over the wall... take your pick. Yuck.

My wrist was starting to throb again and I raised it across my chest to get it above heart level. This was going to suck; though Heero hadn't said it out loud, the bone density thing was going to mean I would heal slower than normal. Yep... an absolutely perfect start to this hair-brained trip.

"Does it... hurt... a lot?"

I just about jumped out of my skin. I'd been so lost in thought I hadn't heard her coming. I looked up to find Relena in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb as though afraid to come all the way into the galley.

"It's... not so bad," I reassured her and subdued the urge to blurt out that if she were looking for Heero, he wasn't around right now.

"I never thanked you... for saving me," she said, not taking her eyes off some point behind me.

"You don't need to," I told her and found myself fiddling uncomfortably with my soda.

"You could have stayed in the galley and not gotten hurt," she stated and it came out a little... odd. "You didn't have to come after me."

"Yes," I told her evenly, "I did."

She didn't say anything right away but her eyes left the middle-distance and she really looked at me for a minute. But just for a minute and then she was looking passed me again.

"I was... just a toddler when the Sanc kingdom fell and my real parents were killed." She hesitated but I didn't speak. "They burned the manor... I don't remember anything else, not even my parents... but I remember that. I remember seeing... a man... and the burns. I don't even know who he was."

I'm sure my eyes were wide as I listened, absolutely appalled and shocked as hell that she was telling me this. Her voice was as calm as anything I have ever heard but there was something in those eyes that wouldn't look right at me.

"I'm... so sorry," I breathed, inadequate words at best but all I could manage.

"I am sorry that I react the way I do... to your scars. I just wanted to tell you that it wasn't you."

"It's all right," I said, "it doesn't matter."

She nodded and turned her back but then hesitated, "Thank you for... the gloves," she said softly. "Good night... Duo."

"Good night, Relena," I called after her and then she was gone.

Well fuck. She was making it real damn hard to hate her guts.

I finished the soda and made a final walk-through of my ship, making sure everything was battened down and nothing left lying out. I verified our course, checked for messages and took my tired ass off to my cabin. I touched Solo's shoulder as I went by, "Night, king-rat." I murmured and let my mind hear his quiet reply.

I hesitated in the corridor, looking on toward Relena and Chezarina's doorway, feeling like I should let them know we were going to bed or something. I was just standing in the doorway of our cabin gnawing on my lip, not sure what I should do when Heero wandered out of the shower. He smiled when he saw me and came toward me, toweling his hair dry.

"What are you doing?" he asked, seeming amused.

"Think they'll be all right?" I couldn't help but whisper. "Think we should check on them?"

He chuckled as he stepped up to me. "Good night ladies!" he called down the corridor and Chezarina called cheerfully back. Then he took my arm and led me into the cabin, palming the door shut behind us.

I stripped to my shorts, then there was an awkward moment while we sorted out who slept where. "Heero... I'm the pilot, I need to be on the outside where I can get up in a hurry if I have to." He had slept on the outside when I had been so sick and when we had been docked. It hadn't bothered me then but out here... it made me uncomfortable. He finally acquiesced and crawled in, sliding to the back edge and holding the blanket back for me with a soft smile. There was another strange moment while we tried to arrange ourselves; I tried lying with my head on his shoulder but then couldn't find anyplace to put my arm that didn't put pressure on my wrist. I ended up on my left side so that the wrist could lie flat and then Heero came to spoon against my back.

We were quiet for a bit but I couldn't get Relena's little confession out of my head and found myself shifting this way and that, trying to force sleep to come.

Heero leaned in after enduring my fidgeting for a while and nuzzled my shoulder. "What's wrong, love?"

So I ended up telling him about the strange conversation I'd had in the galley with the Queen of the world.

"I never realized," he murmured softly when I was done.

"I suppose it makes sense," I told him thoughtfully. "I've seen the old news reports on the fall of the Sanc kingdom... I just wouldn't have thought she was old enough to remember anything at all."

He snorted mirthlessly. "I think the two of us should certainly understand how the traumatic things are the ones eternally etched in memory."

I couldn't answer that, could only lie and repress a shiver. He pulled me closer against him. I knew he wanted to ask me about the massacre but I also knew he wouldn't push it until I was ready. I was a long damn way from ready.

He stroked his hand up and down my arm and I could feel the soft warmth of his breath against my back as he spoke, "I swore to myself... when I took this ship across the system to find you... that I would never sit by while you were in pain again."

I couldn't see him, couldn't read his expression but there was something in his voice that made me almost hold my breath in anticipation. "I... don't understand," I whispered when he didn't immediately continue.

His fingers slid down my arm and he caught my hand in his, his thumb stroking gently over my scars. I repressed a shiver at the odd, tingly almost-not-there feel of it.

"On that mission... with Jensen and the suit factory... " I squeezed his fingers to tell him there was no reason to elaborate more; I knew which mission he was talking about, "I... I used that listening device even... even when you weren't... "

I blinked at that implication. "You spied on me?" I murmured, not sure whether to feel amused, pissed or horrified. I found my mind trying to race back through the years; trying to dredge up conversations, trying to remember where that very listening device had been at just what times.

He pressed his forehead against my back. "Yeah... I did. I... I'm sorry. It was too much of a temptation, to be able to hear you. To hear your voice when you weren't being so... defensive. To check on you and make sure you were all right... It was wrong and I'm sorry."

I wanted to laugh at him, to have carried the guilt all these years for such a trivial thing amongst all the other things. But it had obviously been eating at him and I couldn't bring myself to make light of it. "So that night, after I was jumped... when you came out to check my status?"

"I was listening and could hear you tossing and turning... I couldn't stand thinking that you were in pain and hiding it. You hide so many things. I had to know... " His voice was very soft and almost timid. I knew he feared my getting angry with him.

"I knew I wasn't making that God damn much noise!" I said with just a touch of triumph.

"No," he agreed, "you were very quiet... so very damn quiet while you... cried yourself to sleep."

I felt my face flame and was glad he couldn't see it.

"I ached to come out and comfort you," he whispered against my shoulder blade, "but... I couldn't... I didn't dare."

The remembered pain of that night came rushing back to me, only slightly dispelled by the reality of his arms around me; his presence in my bed. "Oh Heero... you don't know how bad I wanted you to."

I felt his fingers tremble where they held mine. "I know... I'm so sorry. I couldn't... I just couldn't."

"Why?" I blurted, asking the thing that had plagued me through all the years since the war.

"I didn't dare," he told me, his voice tight. "I wanted to... I was so twisted up. I almost... I would have done anything to protect you." I felt the tension in his arm, could feel his fingers clutching at mine as though he were afraid I might pull away. "I couldn't even think straight when you were in the damn room. I would have compromised the whole stupid mission to keep you from having to do what you did. None of the decisions I made on that whole assignment were based on logic. I was dealing from my gut and making stupid choices... wanting to protect you, trying not to let myself... "

His voice was rising and I twisted in his arms. "Hush, love," I whispered, "it's long over... " I carefully wrapped my arms around him and he buried his face against me taking the reassurance that I wasn't angry.

"And when that son of a bitch was touching you... " His voice twisted with remembered anger. "I wanted to kill him... I wanted to break cover and run over there and blow the bastard's head off. But you wouldn't give the signal... you wouldn't call for help... "

"I was all right," I told him, not wanting to have to think about Jensen after all this time. Not on top of everything else. "It all worked out."

"No thanks to me," he said; voice pained.

"Heero... where is this coming from?" I asked softly. "What's making you think about this after all these years?"

He was quiet for a minute, mulling it over I guess and then he said, "I just can't ever seem to protect you... I want to keep you safe. I don't want to see you hurting... but somehow I can't... "

"I'm a big boy, Heero," I told him gently, "I don't always need protecting. I'm not Relena, I can take care of myself... "

The mural came to me then... the one in the cargo bay; Heero in his world protecting Relena and me on the outside in mine, protecting the children.

Maybe he felt me go still as I thought it through but he was quiet, waiting for me to speak again. "I'm not... Relena," I repeated softly and stared off into the darkness over his head, "I don't need you to protect me."

He pulled back a little so that he could look at me in the dim, night-cycle light. I could see the hurt in his eyes and suddenly realized how that must of sounded; like I didn't need him... maybe didn't want him.

"I need... other things from you," I assured him. "I need your love... your support... I need someone I can count on... I need... "

"A partner?" he said and his tone was wistful.

"Yes," I smiled. "Exactly. A partner."

"That's all I've ever wanted." He sighed and bent to kiss me.

His touch always goes through me like an electric shock, even after all this time. His kisses are warm and gentle, his lips soft, his breath sweet. His fingers stroked along my cheek, asking for more and I willingly gave it, letting my lips part and allowing him to deepen the kiss. It was slow and loving, a mutual exploration, a meeting of something more than just our mouths. I think, perhaps, something more might have happened that night if I hadn't forgotten myself, lost in his touch, and reached for him with my bad hand.

Pain lanced up my arm and I pulled away with a gasp. "Damn!" I growled, curling my arm almost automatically in against my chest.

He stroked his fingers across my forehead until the frown of pain eased some and then helped me turn back over where we could settle the damn arm out flat on the bed.

"Are you all right?" he asked softly and I had to chuckle at him.

"Fine," I told him. "I just keep forgetting the damn thing... "

It was his turn to chuckle lightly. "I don't see how you could forget it; as wrapped up as it is."

"I was distracted," I said with a petulant air and he laughed at me.

"Go to sleep, love," he murmured then and it didn't take me near as long as I thought it would.

I slept somewhat fitfully, the wrist waking me more than once with stabs of pain whenever I shifted it in my sleep. I dreamed of fire.

I woke early and just stayed in the warmth of our bed, not really ready to face another day of this damn trip. Heero was a comforting presence at my back, it was still such a shock sometimes that he was here with me; that we were... together. Whatever the hell that meant. I had to smile to myself thinking about the unlikelihood of us ending up like this. Six months ago I would have laughed until I ruptured something if anybody would have suggested it to me.

The smile faded as I remembered the day before. Remembered Heero rushing down that corridor to my side after Relena had almost turned the two of us into flash-frozen corpses. He'd barely given Relena a second glance. Even though she had been sitting there sobbing hysterically, something that used to send him into macho, protective over-drive. It had been me he was concerned with. Me that he had come running to. I was the one he had hovered over and taken care of. He had put me first.

And there it was, the last piece of the puzzle of the mural. Even though Heero had been telling me for the last four months that he loved me... I had still expected to come in second or even third to the rest of his life. Relena... his job... his partner... and then somewhere after that was where I assumed I ranked. Maybe... maybe that wasn't so?

That stupid mural has a lot of layers to it. It wasn't all about Heero and me; it was about people like Relena and people like us street rats. It was about having and not having. It was about life and death. It was about what I am on my own and what Heero is on his. What are we together? I'm not sure yet.

"You're thinking so hard I can hear the gears going around," a sleepy voice told me.

I turned to look over my shoulder at him and had to smile at the tousled, drowsy beauty of him "You really do love me," I whispered, feeling almost awed, as that fact seemed to filter down farther than it ever had before, to some deep recess that had been refusing to believe.

He blinked at me and something swept through his eyes just before he pushed himself up to look down at me intently, his expression serious as a funeral. "Yes. I do... more than anything."

You put me first, I wanted to tell him but knew just how insecure that would have sounded and so didn't.

"I know you've been hurt... " he ventured into the silence I had left, "but I want you to be able to count on me. I'm not going anywhere."

A chill breath of air swept out of my past and ran across my skin, making me shiver. His arm around my waist drew tight and he whispered low against my ear. "I'm here."

God... I'd talked about that whole... abandonment thing. I thought about the line of my dead out in the corridor and in my head I saw Heero's portrait added to the end of the row. The shiver turned into something harder and I was suddenly wracked with a shudder I couldn't seem to get stopped. He turned me in his arms and pulled me close, tucking my head under his chin and just holding on tight. "The war is over, love. We made it through... nothing is going to happen to me. I'm here to stay."

I clung to him as best I could with my one good hand and fought against suddenly roiling emotions. "I'm scared... " I blurted before I even knew I was going to and saw for the first time just what it was that had kept him at arms length from me. What had kept us from moving any farther forward in this strange relationship we were in.

It was all me... my own fears of losing yet another person who meant something to me. These last few years, out here between the stars with nothing but a battered stuffed bear and a ship full of ghosts... I'd been hiding. Hiding from the fear of remembered pain. Hiding from my inability to open up and believe that I was worth loving. Afraid that I didn't have the strength to learn to trust again. Something inside my head unwound a little bit... and it hurt; like old scar tissue giving way.

I clutched him to me, forgetting the wrist, forgetting everything, "Heero... Oh God... Heero, it hurts ... "

He seemed to understand I wasn't talking physical pain, because he ignored my arm and held me tight, cradled in his arms. "Everything's going to be all right," he told me in that soft comforting tone he can have, "I'm here... I'm right here with you... forever."

I listened to the steady beat of his heart and found my own heart settling and evening out. The shivering eased and I was finally able to relax the death grip I had on him. "I'm... so messed up," I whispered to him.

"No more than the rest of us," he soothed, his voice calm and his tone affectionate. He ghosted kisses across my brow and along my cheekbone until I turned to catch his lips with mine. "Don't doubt me, my love," he said when the kiss broke, "you are the most important thing in the universe to me. Don't ever doubt that."

It was both the easiest and the hardest thing to believe in, lying there in my star painted night sky. He was leaning in for another kiss, his eyes heavy-lidded and glimmering intensely in the dim light when the emergency signal alarm began to chime.

I was out of the bunk, through the door and half way to the cockpit before Heero had a chance to do more than curse.

Incoming emergency signal. My heart was thudding in my ears and I wondered idly just who in the hell had put the voodoo curse on this trip even as I was throwing myself into the pilot's seat and pulling up the message, killing the chime. Standard, canned mayday message, ship's id number was attached but I didn't immediately recognize it; I'm better with names. I pulled the coordinates and patched them into a vector map, displaying it on the main screen. It was very near our position.

I vaguely heard panicky, questioning voices behind me and then Heero's reassuring reply. They were coming into the cockpit even as I was breaking out of autopilot and changing our course.

"What is it, Duo?" Heero asked me when he saw what I was doing. I grunted and glanced up at him, surprised that he hadn't recognized the tone of the alarm. Then I shook my head and had to grin at my own foolishness... he wasn't a spacer any more than the rest of them were. Just because he could pilot and knew how to handle himself in space did not mean that he knew the standards of those in the trade.

I turned to address the room in general as they were all going to need to know. "There's a ship in distress out here, I'm changing course to intercept. We have... " I checked our course and speed, "probably ten minutes before we get there. Everybody should be in the cockpit and belted down before we arrive."

Heero was looking at my consoles, reading the message and looking over my maps but Relena was gaping at me like a carp.

"Don't... don't they have... services for this kind of thing?" she asked, her eyes wide. "Shouldn't we be contacting someone... ?"

I chuckled. "This isn't like breaking down on the freeway," I grinned at her. "You can't just call a tow truck."

She wanted to say more but Chezarina took her by the arm and drew her back toward their cabin; they were still in their nightgowns. I glanced at Heero and saw that he had slipped on a pair of pants before following me. Making me the only one in the room who was only in their damned underwear.

"Mind making sure everything's latched down while I pull some clothes on?" I asked and he gave me a quick nod. Our course was locked in and I had something like eight minutes left. We dashed off on our separate missions.

I only took the time to pee and throw on a ships jumpsuit, the lightweight, stretchy clothes designed to go on under a vacuum suit. It's what I wore most of the time aboard ship, had only been dressing in a more 'traditional' manner to try to help put Relena at ease. Then I hastened my ass back to the cockpit and took my station. "Ok, Demon-girl," I muttered, "let's see what we've got here."

I pulled up the recorded message again and detached the ship's id and ran it against the registry database; I about shit myself when the search finished and flashed the ship's registered name on my screen; 'The Ragged Gypsy'.

"Damn it!" I growled and pulled the vector map up to check my distance to the site of whatever the hell was going on with a pair of my best friends. I judged I was within sensor range and replaced the map on the main screen with an exterior view of space in front of me. I jacked the magnification a couple of times and was finally able to make out the Gypsy floating in space in front of us. "Tell me something I don't know here, Demon,' I told my lady and let my hands fly over the keyboard in front of me. I pulled up heat and radiation readings, looking for hot spots and hull breaches even as I keyed on the comm.

"Gypsy this is Demon," I called into the open mike, "You guys awake over there?"

I was only vaguely aware of the sound of movement behind me and the murmur of hushed voices; I trusted Heero to get our passengers belted down. There was nothing from the ship I was rapidly closing on.

"Hayden? Toria? Come on you guys; rise and shine!" I called again and could tell my voice was a little bit high. I felt Heero moving to the co-pilot's seat and he said something as he sat down but I didn't catch it.

"Ragged Gypsy this is Maxwell's Demon... " I hollered, "Do you fucking read me?"

The scan report in front of me chose that moment to divulge to me the problem that was plaguing that ship out there. Engine core overload. "Son of a bitch!" I growled and looked back at the main screen.

"Duo," Heero was warning me off and I glanced up at him briefly to see that he had mirrored my screen on his console.

"What is going on?" Relena demanded and I ignored her too.

"Hayden?" I called again, for lack of a better plan, slowing my ship as I did, "Toria? Can you... "

"Duo!" exploded at me over my speakers and I almost laughed out loud. They were still alive.

"What the hell is going on over there?" I demanded.

"We had a breach!" came Hayden's familiar voice. "We're trapped in mid-ship and the engines are going critical!"

"Critical?" I heard Relena saying. "What does that mean?"

"What's your status?" I called to Hayden.

"We're both unhurt... but we can't get to our suits." came Toria's voice, sounding a little calmer than her husband.

"Heero?" Relena demanded behind me, "what does that mean?"

"The ships engines are going to critical mass and are about to explode," Heero told her and he, at least, was making an effort to keep his voice down.

"Duo," Toria was saying, "can you bring your ship in and mate with ours?"

They had an extendable pressure tube and a docking ring on their ship that we could 'mate' as it was called, between our two hatches. I opened my mouth to reply and there was a horrified gasp behind me.

"You can't go any closer if their ship is going to explode!"

"Miss Relena," Chezarina whispered, "please... they know what they're doing. They wouldn't put us in any danger."

"Duo?" Toria's voice was rising, "Hurry up, buddy-boy... we're running out of time!"

I could see Heero refreshing the scan reading on the co-pilot's station. "There isn't much time... " he warned me.

"Heero?" Relena said again from her jump seat and I could hear panic in her voice.

I was just about ready to howl with frustration. "Shut the fuck up!" I shouted and reached and hit my music. The sudden blare of 'Battle Mountain Breakdown' washed away all the bloody noise.

Damn. Damn. Damn! I had to get Hayden and Victoria out of there; they were counting on me. I had passengers to think about now; I couldn't endanger them. I was fucking running out of time. They didn't have suits; if they'd had access to their damn suits they could just 'walk' across to the Demon and we'd be on our damn way. They needed suits. I had suits.

Mind made up, I hit the maneuvering jets until I had the alignment I wanted. "Heero!" I yelled over the music, "take the helm and fucking hold her right here!"

I unbelted and tore out of the cockpit before he had a chance to object or say a word. I slapped Solo's shoulder as I ran passed him and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Heero sliding into the pilot's seat as I had bade him.

The vacuum suits are in their re-gen niches just next to the cargo bay door. I stopped my head-long dash there and pulled mine down, slapping on the open mike on the console by the cargo bay door as I began pulling the thing on. My wrist was screaming and I pushed the pain aside just hoping I wouldn't further damage it to the point I couldn't use it at all. "Toria! Can you hear me?"

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