Traditions (cont)

‘You’re welcome,’ he said, hesitating just a moment before having to tell me, ‘I wish I could have the out-trip to do over. I feel so bad for the mistakes I made.’

‘I thought we decided to forget about that?’ I scolded.

‘I just wanted to apologize,’ he sighed and gave me a little squeeze with the arm that was around me.

‘Again?’ I teased, but then relented. ‘Heero; I understand what you meant to do. I understand that you only wanted to make things easier for me to deal with. I don’t blame you for how it ended up... we both made mistakes, but it’s done and over with. I’d rather forget about it.’

His fingers stroked up and down my arm and he said, ‘Doing that denial thing again?’ voice sounding almost amused.

‘Been talking to Trowa?’ I accused, poking at his ribs.

‘Like I have to talk to Trowa to know that’s how you deal with things,’ he snorted, sounding almost offended, but then his tone turned serious. ‘I just can’t believe how... calm you’re being,’ he told me and there was this strange quality to his voice that I had trouble identifying. ‘I saw on the way out here just what’s in your heart... what’s eating at you, and it amazes me how you’re handling it now. I just...’

I never did get to hear the end of that thought. I suppose he was just going to apologize again, or tell me something he thought I needed to hear even though I’d rather not. I don’t really know.

We all know that there is no sound in space. Sound requires air, or something damn like it, to travel. So, total vacuum equals no sound. There is, however, air inside a space ship. Sound travels quite nicely inside a ship. There is a veritable smorgasbord of sounds within a ship when it is ‘live’.

These sounds speak to anyone who has piloted a ship for more than a couple weeks. You hear them without even hearing them. They tell you things as easily as a heart monitor tells a doctor things about his patient. And they tell you when things are going wrong.

There was a vibration that was the unmistakable result of some kind of impact. Then there was a subtle change in the pulse of the shuttle. I was dragging Heero out of bed before my brain had completely finished registering the first stirrings of ‘wrong’.

‘A hit?’ Heero was asking me, a pilot as much as I, but a lot of years removed.

‘Yeah,’ I confirmed, appalled at how unsteady my voice was. ‘Sounds like.’ Our hands were scrabbling after discarded jeans even while we strained to hear more.

‘Nothing much,’ Heero soothed and I nodded sharply, not really trusting my voice.

I detected the difference in the feel of things even as I was jerking my pants over my hips. ‘A vane, I think,’ I told him.

Heero was just snapping and zipping when a chime began to sound. ‘What’s that tone?’ Heero asked, not being familiar with the codes.

‘It was a vane,’ I confirmed, eyes not seeing anything as I focused all my attention on what I could hear. I was vaguely aware that Heero had hold of me by the upper arms. ‘It’s no big deal this far out...’ But even as I was saying it, I felt the wrongness of the responses. Could feel that the pilot wasn’t following standard procedures, I frowned, not hearing the things I should be hearing and then it came to me.

‘Oh shit,’ I blurted, staring at Heero. ‘Spencer’s at the helm... he doesn’t know...’

We bolted for the door at the same moment.

You can not slam on the brakes on a shuttle, as nice as that prospect would be. But you do have to be able to arrest it’s momentum at certain times. If you take an object and flick it off into the wild blue yonder, the theory is that it will go forever or until it gets sucked into some gravity well. With a small ship, you simply use the maneuvering jets. But with a big ship, that equates to a hell of a lot of extra fuel and a hell of a cut out of the profits. So the bigger shuttles have deceleration vanes used to dump velocity.

When one of these is damaged in-flight, it’s a simple matter to isolate the vane, override the circuit, and remove it from the grid. But you can ‘hear’ when those procedures are being followed and I could tell they weren’t. The mere fact that Spencer had not cut off the ship-wide alarm told me that the kid didn’t have a clue what he should be doing and was panicking. If the vane was damaged badly enough, and it wasn’t isolated, it could overload the entire grid and then we’d be screwed; if you can not dump your velocity, your ship is pretty well doomed to visit the outer fringes of the galaxy, because you just aren’t going to get it stopped.

We were halfway through the main cabin, slowed by having to dodge distraught, confused passengers milling around the corridor, when I felt Spencer making his big mistake.

‘Spencer!’ I shouted, but figured I was probably too far away to be heard. ‘Don’t!’

The kid tried to hit the brake.

Guess he figured, if in doubt... stop. Or at least slow down. He activated the deceleration grid and I heard the ship protest. Felt that damaged piece of the whole fail completely.

The flight attendant wasn’t the one who knew me, and might have tried to stop our mad dash into the cockpit, but she looked as scared as I felt and seemed inclined to let anybody by who looked like they thought they knew what they were doing.

I have no idea what it did to Spencer’s status as ‘my biggest fan’ when I grabbed his ass and bodily removed him from the pilot’s seat, practically throwing him into Heero’s waiting arms. I trusted my partner to keep the kid the hell out of my way.

Shuttle controls do not vary overly much. The big ships just have a lot more in the way of bells, whistles and fancy gages. It was a matter of only a few minutes to abort the hair-brained maneuver our arrant ‘pilot’ had attempted, but it was far too late to stop the damage, though I think I kept the whole damn grid from fusing to the hull.

Behind me, I was aware of raised voices, but had more important things to worry about. I let Heero handle it, keeping an ear tuned to his voice for any hint that he might need me, and let the rest of it wash by.

I was pulling up status reports and telemetry as fast as my fingers could type, scanning screens full of data, looking for telltale red flags and cross-referencing them to the ships schematics. Trying to figure out just how screwed we were.

The idea of overshooting Earth and kiting off into uncharted territory was speaking to me in ways I wasn’t all that thrilled to be listening to.

I was vaguely aware that our good Captain was in the cockpit, and he was not a happy man. Spencer was scared shitless and there was another presence, I assumed it was the ‘real’ co-pilot, but couldn’t be sure. The conversation broke through my concentration when I heard Heero growl darkly, ‘Touch him and I will break your fucking arm.’

My guess that he was talking to the Captain was confirmed when the man snapped, ‘I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but I’m the Captain aboard this ship and...’

Spencer broke in then, and I could almost picture him wringing his hands. ‘Dad! Please! Captain Maxwell is trying to help... I think I did something wrong...’

‘Shut up Spencer!’ The Captain barked and I could feel the kid cringing.

Then I became aware of someone climbing into the other chair and I glanced across to see a man sitting there who looked like he’d just seen his career go down the tubes. I’m pretty sure my guess about him being the co-pilot was right.

I quirked the guy a sympathetic half-grin and hit the by-pass that let the co-pilot’s screens mirror the ones at the pilot’s station. Without speaking, I high-lighted the logs that clearly showed what had just happened, and watched the poor guy rub a hand over his face. ‘Shit,’ he muttered almost to himself and gave out with a resigned little sigh.

‘I want the two of you the hell out of my cockpit right now,’ Captain Gray was demanding and seemed to be trying to intimidate Heero into giving ground. I almost laughed.

But then the co-pilot surprised me by turning around and saying, ‘Drop it, Yancy. The cat’s out of the bag and there’s no putting it back now. You owe this man your whole damn deceleration network. We were about five seconds away from a complete system failure.’

‘Shit,’ was the best the Captain could manage. I wasn’t sure if it was over the vane thing or the cat thing. Then he rounded on Spencer.

‘Just what the hell did you do?’ he snapped, his anger looking for a new target.

‘I... I tried to slow us down,’ the kid stammered, and I could see, now that I was turned around, that he was indeed wringing his hands.

‘Spencer!’ Gray bellowed. ‘Are you out of your mind? That’s the last thing you do when you lose a vane! What in the hell were you thinking?’

‘Perhaps,’ Heero suddenly said, voice that icy one that even made me want to shiver, ‘that is why there are regulations against unlicensed personnel sitting watch unattended?’

And damned if that little comment didn’t just leave everybody with nothing much to say.

Into that silence, I decided to insert myself; the disaster had been aborted and this was, after all, not my ship. I climbed out of the pilot’s seat and moved to flank Heero, relinquishing the chair to the ship’s rightful Captain. ‘You lost the number three vane,’ I told the man calmly. ‘But the rest is intact. And you really need to make an announcement to your passengers before somebody has a heart attack.’

Gray looked stricken, maybe realizing how close he’d just come ship-wise. Maybe realizing that he’d done more than that career-wise. Then he blew out a breath and turned to take his station, suddenly seeming to realize that he had a job to do no matter how he’d arrived where he was. It actually made me feel better about leaving things in his hands. I’d begun to think the guy was a total screw-off.

I had a moment’s unease for Spencer’s sake, his father seemed to have a damn volatile temper, but the kid didn’t seem to fear staying in the cockpit with the man, so Heero and I faded towards the door. Behind us, I finally heard Gray and his co-pilot starting to get their heads out of their respective asses.

‘...call up the power level report and...’

‘...course and heading...’

‘...he isolated the number three...’

‘...damn fast work...’

I found Heero’s hand resting on my back and he guided me the hell out of there. The last thing I heard from the cockpit was the Captain telling Spencer to call for the flight attendant. We passed her right outside the door and she gave us a breathless ‘thank you’ as we went by.

I’m pretty sure every passenger onboard was standing around in the main cabin, looking nervous and staring at us as we started to walk through on our way back to our cabin. I was suddenly very damn aware of the fact that neither of us was wearing anything but pairs of jeans.

Something of Heero’s Preventors instincts seemed to kick in and he paused long enough to tell the room at large, ‘The shuttle is in no immediate danger. There was a minor mishap that has been dealt with. The Captain will be making an announcement momentarily.’ That set the room to buzzing, but there seemed to be a lessoning in the tension levels at least. Heero nudged me into motion again and we retreated to our room as fast as we could manage without running.

Heero’s hand never left my back the whole way, and the instant the cabin door slid shut behind us, I was in his arms. It was a mutual thing.

‘Are you all right?’ he needed to know and I gave him a shaky chuckle.

‘Be better if we could finish getting dressed... I’m freezing to death.’

So we dressed and I found I needed my sweatshirt over the t-shirt I started with, and it still didn’t quite quell the shivers. ‘Damn that was close,’ I said after we were sitting side by side on the bed and Heero pulled me in close against him.

‘Your reaction time is still... damned impressive,’ he told me, smiling gently and kissing the side of my head.

I snorted, letting my own arms wrap around his waist. ‘I couldn’t say; those first couple of minutes are kind of a blur.’

We just sat like that for a minute and then I had to sigh. ‘Well, at least we don’t have to feel guilty over turning Captain Gray in, anymore. It’s kind of a moot point; no hiding this mess.’

He sighed softly, but had no real answer to that. Neither Captain Gray, his co-pilot, nor Spencer were ever likely to see the pilot’s chair again after this trip. Out of all of them, I wasn’t sure which one to feel the sorriest for; naïve Spencer who had only wanted to dance, Gray who had only wanted to give his son an edge of experience, or the poor nameless co-pilot, who had only been doing his Captain a favor.

Or maybe the damn passengers who were nothing more than innocent bystanders.

Of which I was one.

Maybe I’d just feel sorry for myself and leave the rest of them to their own devices.

‘Do you fucking believe this?’ I found myself asking Heero, a little surprised at the strained sound of my own voice. ‘Do you think I’ve got some kind of curse on my head or something? This can not be happening.’

He turned more fully toward me, the better to shelter me in his arms. ‘It’s all right. It’s a simple repair; the shuttle’s mechanics should have everything in order before long at all. Spencer was the weak link and he’s been removed completely.’

‘I know,’ I grumbled. ‘But come on... what are the fucking odds? I’m started to feel a little persecuted here.’

He laughed gently, but mostly because I wanted him to. ‘Maybe we should just try to go back to bed?’

I snorted mirthlessly. ‘No way in hell can I go to sleep now.’

He didn’t look all that surprised, but he didn’t look all that happy either. ‘Duo...’ he began but I cut him off.

‘I’m sorry, Heero... maybe once the repairs are done, but that was too much of an adrenaline rush and too damn close to... to things I’d rather not be thinking about.’ My voice kind of cracked on that last and he let go of me long enough to climb across and straddle my lap, wrapping his arms around my shoulders to bring me in against his chest. Gave me the calm, steady sound of his heart and the warmth of his body next to mine.

‘I’m here,’ he told me and I would have been irritated if the bubble of anxiety in my stomach hadn’t been in the process of exploding. As it was, I just put my arms around his waist and shivered hard while my head told the rest of my body what Spencer had just almost done to us, and the whole of me had one of those ‘oh shit’ moments.

Heero just held me while I remembered how to breathe.

‘You know,’ he whispered against the top of my head, when I’d stopped clutching at him so much. ‘I think I’m going to need some kind of keyword to let me know when you’ve had enough. You’ve been too damn good at covering up.’

I drew back and looked up at him, a little taken aback, thinking he was mocking me, but the look on his face was genuine. I realized this had taken him a little bit by surprise. It kind of made me feel good at the same time that it made me nervous. While I was delighted to think that I might have spent part of the day not looking like a raving loon, enough so that Heero had let his guard down a little, it also made me fearful that I might reach for his support and not find it. I was a little appalled at how fast I had come to count on his being there.

‘How about Holy fuck?’ I teased, pleasantly surprised to find my voice almost steady. Almost.

He snorted a little sigh and pulled me close again. ‘Got it,’ he murmured.

‘Do you think,’ I ventured after a minute or three of just being where I was. ‘That we could go back out to the cabin? I really think I’d feel better if I knew what the hell was going on. This is too... isolated.’

He readily agreed, and I had to suspect that he would much rather have stayed where ‘the action was’ himself. Had only come back to the cabin because he felt I needed some privacy. Well, and the clothes thing. But maybe he hadn’t been so taken by surprise by my moment of panic after all. He slipped off my lap and reached for my hand to draw me to my feet.

‘You sure you’re all right?’ he had to ask me and I repressed the urge to blow him a raspberry.

‘Yes, mother-hen,’ I grinned at him. ‘I am fine now. Anxiety attack all done.’

He caught me by the arm as I started to open the door and gave me a look as serious as a funeral. ‘Duo... I need you to be straight with me about how you’re feeling. I was only half joking about the code word; I need to know when you’re getting overwhelmed. I need for you to stop trying so hard to be fine.’

I flushed and looked away. ‘Heero... I don’t know what to tell you. Yes, I’m a little freaked out... but I’m coping, ok? That’s the best I can do.’

‘I’m with you,’ he told me, voice intense and hand tightening on my arm. Trying to impart to me all the reassurances he had to offer.

I leaned in and gently kissed his cheek. ‘And that’s part of the problem, love. As scary as it is to think about being... stranded out here; it’s even worse thinking about you being stranded out here.’

He didn’t have a clue how to answer that, so we just left the cabin.

I don’t know what Captain Gray had chosen to tell his passengers, but it seemed to have gotten mixed reactions, because while some of them had been reassured enough that they’d gone back to their cabins, the ones who had stayed seemed agitated.

The flirty flight attendant had joined the one who was on-duty and they were answering questions and attempting to keep people calm. I struggled for a minute, recalling that Spencer had told me her name and finally dredged it up; Leslie.

When she saw us, she smiled brightly and came straight away to greet me; I thought for a minute she was going to grab my damn arm. I didn’t register that I was retreating from her until I bumped into Heero.

‘Oh, Mr. Maxwell,’ she gushed. ‘You saved us all!’

I repressed a groan and tried to make more of an effort to hold my ground. ‘Uh, really Leslie... I didn’t do anything the Captain wouldn’t have done the minute he got there.’

Using her name was apparently a mistake because she blushed and giggled and actually did reach out to touch my arm, though she didn’t grab it, thank God. ‘But he would have been too late, Spencer said so.’

‘I don’t know about that...’ I began, but she wasn’t hearing me.

‘Spencer said you were there so fast he thought you flew!’ she was beaming at me and I jumped on the only thing I could think of to interrupt the flow of words that weren’t giving me any of the information I was looking for.

‘Is Spencer around?’

‘Oh yes!’ she was happy to report. ‘He’s in the cockpit with the Captain. I’ll tell him you came back.’

‘That would be... very kind,’ I managed and the woman finally let go of my arm and went away. I remembered to breathe again, and behind me Heero chuckled.

‘I think we need wedding rings,’ he whispered near my ear. ‘I’m getting a little tired of other people fawning all over my husband.’

I couldn’t help the sudden nervous laugh, but stifled it quickly when it made everyone left in the room turn to look at me.

‘If it’ll make them leave me alone,’ I whispered back. ‘I’m there.’

Then Spencer was coming out of the cockpit, and I was thankful as all hell that Leslie ended up rejoining the other flight attendant and didn’t come over with him.

The kid, at least, was a little more subdued than he had been so far this trip, but then I imagine he was having to do some heavy thinking about his next career choice. I wondered if he’d figured out that his father might well be up on charges when this was all over.

‘Duo,’ he greeted me, giving me a ragged little smile. ‘Leslie said you were looking for me?’

‘Just wondering how things were going,’ I told him. ‘Have your mechanics started repairs yet? How do things look?’

He sighed and his fingers found his class ring in a nervous gesture I’d not seen him use before, turning it around and around on his hand. ‘Avery just finished suiting up and is on his way out. Would you like to come into the cockpit to watch?’

I couldn’t help glancing at Heero at the news, and saw a frown dancing around his face that told me he’d caught the odd part of that statement too, but I just gave Spencer a smile. ‘If you don’t think your Da... Captain Gray will mind.’

Spencer ducked his head and grinned, a little more like his old self. ‘He’s calmed way down. Come on.’

And just like that, he turned and led the way back toward the cockpit. We passed the flight attendants and Leslie looked... oddly upset, while the other one looked kind of smug and I had to wonder about it, but didn’t figure I’d ever know, so I forgot about it.

Captain Gray had indeed, calmed down, finally having gotten his shit together and taken control of the situation. His co-pilot was no longer in the room and I assumed he was down supervising the repair crew. Though... that ‘Avery’ remark kept nagging at me, insinuating, as it did, that only one person was going out.

Captain Gray spared a glance up as we came into the cabin, and I got to see the big man blush. He turned back to his boards, but cleared his throat and managed, ‘I guess I owe you two an apology. I’m just not used to having my cockpit invaded.’

It was a grudging apology at best, but an apology all the same, and I suppose in his place I’d have been a little territorial too. Though, when I stopped to think about it, there would have been no way in hell anybody would have beat me to my own pilot’s seat under an impact alarm. So I still couldn’t work up to feeling too much sympathy for the man.

‘No apology needed, sir,’ I told him anyway, just to get passed that two dogs pissing at the edges of their territory thing. ‘I guess we were just working on pure engrained instinct. Didn’t mean to... invade.’

He burst out with a scornful little snort. ‘Well... you’re polite, I’ll give you that.’

I was still trying to decipher just what he meant by that when the voice of the co-pilot came over the comm. unit. ‘You still awake up there, Gray?’

‘About damn time, slacker,’ the Captain said and his fingers began moving over his keyboard. ‘You going to give me live feed, or just tell me about it?’

There was a bit of tinny laughter and then one of the overhead screens flickered to life. The view was outside the ship from a suit’s camera. I blinked for a minute, the pieces starting to fall into place in my head, but my conscious mind refusing to believe the picture that was starting to form.

Heero’s hand fell on my shoulder as he leaned a little toward the pilot’s chair. ‘Avery is your co-pilot?’ he asked Gray in a deceptively quiet voice, and when he got a sharp little nod, asked, ‘Where is your ship’s mechanic?’

Spencer, perched on the edge of the co-pilot’s seat, looking as though he were trying to become very small, said, ‘We don’t have one.’

‘What?’ I blurted before Heero had a chance to.

Spencer ducked his head even further and his eyes flicked toward his father, as though he expected to get yelled at, but the good Captain seemed to have decided to fess up to all his sins and told us, ‘It’s how I managed a berth for Spencer.’

It’s rather amazing that Spencer wasn’t wearing a hole in his finger as much as he was turning that ring around and around. I found my eyes just watching him, trying to get my head around what the Captain was saying. He wasn’t telling me... He couldn’t be saying... Nobody is that... Nope. I had to have heard him wrong.

Heero seemed to be having the same problem with comprehension, because he pushed for clarification. ‘Captain Gray, are you telling me this ship has no maintenance crew and you just sent your co-pilot out-ship to do repairs as difficult as changing out a damper vane on his own?’

I could see Gray getting defensive, but I could also feel Heero nearing his idiot tolerance level and realized things were going to get pretty ugly in a minute. I was struggling with something to interject into the conversation, when the speaker crackled to life again. I’d forgotten the co-pilot was on.

‘Don’t worry about it, kid,’ the guy said, voice sounding almost bored with the whole thing, addressing Heero directly. ‘Yancy and I are old veterans. We did a lot of stuff during the war; you learn to make do with what you’ve got. I’ve done out-ship repairs a dozen times.’

I wanted to laugh, but figured the timing on that would have been a little bad. Heero’s hand was still on my shoulder, and I felt it tighten almost reflexively. I think my lover was getting a little bit pissed off.

On the overhead monitor, I could see that Avery hadn’t stopped his progress while he’d been talking to us, and was just arriving at the worksite. It crossed my mind that I didn’t even know the guy’s last name.

Captain Gray seemed to think that ended the conversation with Heero and gave his attention completely over to his boards. ‘How’s it look, Avery?’

There was a pause while we watched Avery squat ‘down’ next to the damaged vane. ‘Took a hit, alright,’ he confirmed. ‘Though I can’t tell from what.’ His hands reappeared and we could see him activate the magnetics in the equipment cask he had with him, attaching it to the hull near where he would be working.

My stomach was starting to knot, just thinking about what he was getting ready to do. Changing out a vane is not a one man job.

‘Captain Gray...’ Heero began, and I watched the man in question lose his temper. He turned sharply in Spencer’s direction and snapped, ‘Shut them the hell up or get them out of my cockpit!’

Spencer was quick to leap to his feet, coming over to stand in front of us, a pleading look on his face and doing that hand wringing thing again. ‘Duo,’ he whispered. ‘Please...’

Heero’s hand tightened so much it was starting to hurt.

I was kind of ignoring all of them, eyes fastened on the screen. I watched Avery open the cask and immediately pull a spanner wrench out of its niche. I think my knees went weak. My hand rose of its own accord and settled over Heero’s where he gripped my shoulder. ‘Avery,’ I called, surprised at the calm quality of my own voice. ‘Where’s your power meter?’

I thought Gray was going to burst a blood vessel, but before he could speak, Avery answered me, laughing lightly. ‘What the hell do I need a meter for, kid? You isolated it yourself.’

I blinked for a second, not quite able to believe he’d said that. ‘Just because the ship says it’s isolated, doesn’t mean it’s isolated. You never trust the computer when handling something like the deceleration network.’

He chuckled at my fears. ‘Didn’t bring one, kid. Guess I’ll just have to wing it.’

‘Avery,’ I tried again, going for calm and reasonable. ‘Listen to me; you are trusting a faulty system to tell you...’ and that was where Captain Gray finally completely lost his temper.

‘Get the fuck out of here!’ he bellowed, turning away from his station to level a finger at us. ‘I’ve had all I’m going to take out of you...’

Since Spencer and his father where both facing us, Heero and I were the only ones to see Avery die.

I had known my words were useless even as I tried to convince the man, because I had been watching him continue to work through everything I’d said. And as I had worried, as I’d tried to tell them, the vane was still charged. I watched that grainy video screen and saw the wrench enter the frame. There was an aborted scream, a flash of white, and then the screen went dead as it lost its feed.

‘Avery?’ Gray was shouting at the comm. ‘Hill! Report!’

Later, I would very distinctly remember thinking that the man was dead before I even learned his last name.

Heero’s hand left my shoulder and suddenly had me around the waist. I think I sagged a little, but I refrained from the cursing, because quite honestly... I hadn’t been all that surprised. On some level, I’d known things weren’t good from the moment Spencer had told us that only one man was going out there. No qualified mechanic who knew his damn job would have gone alone to begin with.

I’ll give the Captain credit; he didn’t panic, though he was to the point where he should have been. He forgot about us completely, his fingers pounding on his keys to bring up the video feed from another angle, picking up first one and then another external camera until he finally found the right one.

Spencer screamed and began to sob brokenly.

Avery Hill was floating a good twenty feet from the ship, tethered by his anchor line. His magnetics cut out along with the rest of his suit’s systems, by the shock he took off the number three vane. Vacuum suits are speckled about with idiot lights and tell-tales under normal operation and there is nothing that will chill a spacer quite as fast, on an almost sub-conscious level, as seeing a suit out-ship as dark as the one we were looking at. I shivered convulsively and suddenly had both Heero’s arms around me tight and sure.

I was thankful as holy hell that that suit was totally immobile. It meant the charge had killed the man, and he had not had to suffer through the three minutes it takes to die in a suit that has shut down. We could not have gotten to him in time.

I was about two seconds away from delivering my ‘holy fuck’ to Heero when he turned us bodily away from the monitor. ‘Turn the damn thing off!’ he barked at Gray, but I didn’t look to see if he immediately obeyed.

There was nothing for a couple of long minutes but the sound of Spencer’s gasping sobs and Heero’s soft assurances.

‘What a fucking waste,’ I managed, after a couple of minutes and Heero eased off, but didn’t let go immediately. My head was absolutely pounding and I knew my blood-pressure was probably through the roof, but I couldn’t spare the attention to do anything about it. There was a hamster waiting in the wings needing to present me with a thought that I just did not want to think about, and it was taking all my concentration to avoid the little bugger.

Spencer was about to drive me mad with his hysterics, half from the pure irritation factor, and half from understanding the guilt that was eating him alive.

‘Let me get him out of here,’ I whispered to Heero and he let me go almost reluctantly. I didn’t bother with Spencer myself, quite honestly not able to deal with him in the frame of mind I was in, and I simply went out into the main cabin to enlist some help. Leslie was not even a blip on my radar of useful people, and I looked to the other woman for aid, partially because between the two of them... she was the one not weeping and wringing her hands. For a totally surreal moment, I wondered if Spencer and Leslie were related.

She let me draw her aside, out of Leslie’s earshot. I figured if that girl was crying just from hearing Spencer scream, I didn’t want to be the one to announce that Avery had been... less than successful in his attempt to fix the ship.

‘I’m sorry, miss,’ I told her softly. ‘I need you to do a couple of things if you don’t mind?’

‘If you tell me what’s going on,’ she bargained, and I had to give her points for chutzpah. I spared a glance over her shoulder and then drew her a step further away from Leslie and other prying ears.

‘Mr. Hill just...’ I began, cringing internally, wrestling with wording. In that moment I felt a horrid sympathy for cops and doctors. I tried again. ‘He was killed trying to repair the ship.’

Her eyes flew wide and though she looked rather stricken, I could see her mind working and she finally said, ‘What do you need me to do?’

I ducked my head and sighed, finding my hands running through my bangs. ‘Can you take charge of Spencer? The poor kid is a mess and he’s just...’ in the way wasn’t polite. ‘He just doesn’t need to be seeing any more of this.’

She nodded understanding, of both my points I think, and let me lead her into the cockpit. I forgot about both her and Spencer when I realized that Heero and our stalwart Captain were in each other’s faces. But from the looks of things, Heero had the man on the ropes... he was white as a damn sheet and staring at my partner like he’d just suddenly announced he was a space alien here to tour the Earth and was looking for a guide.

‘...fully within my power to declare you unfit for duty,’ Heero was saying, and I knew just which trump card he’d pulled. I moved up to stand beside him, attempting to fill the position of the other cop, just not sure yet if my role would be the good one or the bad one. ‘So do not address me again as ‘you fucking asshole’ or I will have you locked in your quarters for the duration of this trip. You have to understand that you have essentially committed career suicide, and will be facing an inquiry when we return planet-side. Do not compound your problems by insulting an officer of the Preventors.’

Gray just sort of sank back down in his seat, looking very much like a puppet whose strings have been cut. I was afraid for a second that he might just pass out. I was distantly aware of Spencer leaving the immediate area. I hoped like hell that the attendant could get him out of here without panicking the entire shuttle full of passengers.

Captain Gray suddenly dropped his head into his hands and moaned, ‘It doesn’t matter now... we’re dead anyway. I can’t land this ship without the damper network. You two claim to be pilots... you should know that.’

It was apparently the cue that my little hamster had been waiting for, because he darted out, stopped dead in front of me, planted his banner pole, smoothed his fur and finally unfurled a sign that simply said. ‘You.’

I choked on a heavy sigh and figured out that I must be the good cop. ‘That’s not necessarily true, Yancy,’ I told him with a smile that managed not to turn into a smirk. ‘You see... we’re not just pilots. We’re...’ Ex-Gundam pilots who are perfectly capable of building a new shuttle out of Popsicle sticks and bubblegum given enough time. ‘We can do zero-g repairs.’

He jerked around to look at me, hope trying to catch light in eyes that suddenly seemed to be a hundred years old. I finally managed to work up just a tiny bit of sympathy for the man. ‘You can do it?’ he had to ask and I nodded.

‘If you have a pair of vacuum suits we can use,’ I told him, feeling Heero’s eyes on me. ‘Yeah... we can.’

In the end, the man relinquished the Captain’s chair to me because he really didn’t have much choice. The death of his co-pilot, a man he’d obviously been friends with, seemed to have finally taken the wind out of his sails. He went out into the cabin area, to make an announcement while I sat down and took over his boards.

While I called up all those telemetry reports again, verifying readings and going by the damn book, because the book exists for a fucking reason, damnit, Heero came to stand by my side, resting his hand on my back. For a while, he simply read over my shoulder, but when we both knew I’d gleaned all the information I was going to get out of those reports and logs, he quietly asked, ‘Are you sure you can do this?’

I turned to smile up at him, and knew it was a shadow of my normal grin. ‘I don’t really see that I have a lot of choice.’

‘I...’ he hesitated, knowing the reaction he was about to get, I’m sure. ‘I can try it alone, if...’

‘Do not make me deck you,’ I told him flatly. ‘Because we both just saw the results of somebody trying to do this job alone.’

His eyes got a little bit hard and he said, ‘But I’m not idiot enough to take short-cuts.’

I blew out a breath and found my hand reaching for his. ‘Love, going out is going to be bad enough. Sitting in here and watching you would be... more than I could handle.’

It seemed to please him and distress him all at the same time and he leaned in to give me an almost harsh kiss. ‘I love you,’ he whispered, all tight voiced.

‘Forever, husband-mine,’ I whispered back. ‘Now let’s go try on some vacuum suits. I hope they have something in my size... I hate when they don’t fit in the crotch.’

He smiled for me, but didn’t back off to let me stand. ‘Status?’ he asked me, and pulled my fingers up to kiss the back of my knuckles.

I wanted to be irritated, I wanted to force him to just let me out of the stupid chair so we could get the hell on with this, but damn it... he was going out there with me and he had a right to know as much as I could tell him. I sighed and dropped my head back against the head rest, closing my eyes and looking inward.

George had all the appropriate expletive banners sorted and ready to go, Guilt beast seemed to be off spending the evening with Spencer, and the kid in the back of my head had been given a drink of water and was currently being entertained watching old cartoon reruns on the wide-screen that is my imagination. Yep. Ready as I’d ever be.

‘I’m scared shitless,’ I told him bluntly. ‘But I’ve done this before. I... think I can do it again.’ I opened my eyes and looked at him. ‘Because you’ll be with me.’

The kiss I got for that was much gentler.

I was doing this by the books, so the first thing on the agenda was a trip down to engineering where I killed the entire deceleration network with the manual overrides. I’d seen it quite obviously demonstrated that the section isolation hadn’t worked. I don’t play with live-wires. While we were there, I dug up and tested a couple of power meters, and a replacement spanner wrench, I figured the one from the tool kit outside was probably long gone. My motto when working with shit that can kill you, is always error on the side of caution.

I would have made a good boy scout.

Heero shadowed my every step, helping where he could, but mostly just being with me. This seemed to be my show, not that he wasn’t perfectly capable, but this was shit I’d done for so long I could practically do it with my eyes closed, and he was letting me lead.

I noticed as we had to pass through the passenger sections, that people were starting to look at us as though we were crew. Turning to us with questions on the tips of their tongues, and faith in their eyes. It made me shiver. Bad enough to be doing this, but having all those other lives hanging over my head wasn’t making it any easier. I had to force myself not to really look at people or I started wondering if they had families. If that guy with the graying hair had a wife. If that woman in the green blouse had kids. I wondered if there was a Mrs. Gray somewhere and if she’d known about all the rules her husband was breaking in order to get Spencer into a good flight school. I wondered if she’d support him, or rip his head off when she found out about this trip.

But that just led me around to thinking about the fact that Spencer and his Dad might not actually make it back to tell her, if I couldn’t do what I’d said I could, so I just did my best to think about something else.

When there was nothing more to be done inside the ship, it was the level-headed flight attendant who led us down to the airlocks. Thinking about Avery, as we walked those cold corridors, I blurted, ‘What’s your name?’

‘Bobbi,’ she told me, seeming a little bemused and trying to hide it.

‘I’m Duo,’ I told her, not that she’d asked. But then, maybe Leslie had already told her. ‘And this is Heero.’

She chuckled and said, ‘Pleased to meet you.’

It did seem kind of stupid, but I couldn’t have explained it if I’d tried, so I didn’t bother. ‘What’d you do with Spencer?’ I asked by way of subject change.

She lost her smile as she ducked through another section seal. ‘Put him to bed,’ she said shortly. ‘You were right; he’s a mess. Guy... the bartender, is sitting with him.’

I nodded, though I doubt she saw, and then we were there. I had to take a deep breath looking at the row of vacuum suits hanging in their re-gen niches on the wall. I shivered when my eyes swept over the one empty slot.

‘Thank you, Bobbi,’ I heard Heero say. ‘I think we can get it from here. Would you ask Captain Gray if he could stand by in the cockpit?’

She said something affirmative, gave us an odd little look that was somewhere between grateful and sympathetic and then finally left.

Warm hands settled on my shoulders.

‘Holy fuck?’ Heero asked gently.

I snorted, shivering again. ‘Not quite.’

‘Are you...’ he began, but I cut him off.

‘In full denial.’

He turned me around and looked me in the eyes. ‘We’ll be together the whole way.’

‘I know,’ I smiled.

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