Traditions (cont)

Then it was the stripping to the skivvies part, and suiting up. Joy.

God... putting that damn suit on turned into a more difficult part than I had anticipated. I’d been thinking so hard about actually having to leave the ship, that I hadn’t let myself think too hard about the suiting up. There was a stage a couple of days into my little vacation in the belt when I would have sold my soul to just be able to take that damn vacuum suit off. I can still remember the itchy, crawly feel of my skin... of nerves in hyper drive. I can still smell that sour, stale stink of my own body locked in a place it should not have stayed for a tenth of the time it had.

My hands were shaking before I had the seals half done up. Well, this sure as hell wasn’t how I’d intended to start out. It didn’t exactly bode well.

Heero’s hands closed over mine, making me jump in surprise; I had not known he was that close. He took over sealing the suit, double checking what I’d already done. ‘Wyle Coyote or the Road Runner?’ he asked and I swear I heard something in my head grind as I tried to change mental gears.

‘What?’ I blurted.

He quirked a grin, though his eyes never left what he was doing. ‘Which do you prefer? The Coyote or the Road Runner?’

‘The Coyote,’ I told him, grasping after what he was offering.

‘Why?’ he prompted, finishing with my suit and handing me my helmet, understanding that I had to put that final piece on myself. Couldn’t have stood that until I was ready.

‘Come on,’ I stammered. ‘You have to feel for the poor guy.’

Heero snorted, lifting his own helmet in his gloved hands. ‘The bird was smarter.’

I stood and watched him dog his helmet in place, and had to take a second to work on my breathing. ‘No... the damn Road Runner had divine intervention, that’s all. He was dumber than a rock but he always got away; had to be some deity on his side,’ I told him when I could.

‘So you like the underdog,’ he teased and just stood waiting for me to finish working up my nerve. The gentle smile on his face somehow made me feel like an idiot and I got irritated enough with myself that I just slapped it in place.

‘Let’s just say I have an affinity for characters that God seems to hate that much,’ I grinned ruthlessly. He grinned back, checked my helmet seals and stepped toward the lock.

‘Ready, Maxwell?’ he asked me and it rather took me by surprise; that he seemed to understand that the coddling couldn’t happen here. That it wasn’t what I needed.

‘Just a minute, Yuy,’ I told him, and made him stand there while I checked all his seals too. He looked, for two seconds, like he was going to take offense, but then only smiled at me. When I had gone over his suit as thoroughly as he had gone over mine, I nodded sharply and he keyed the inner lock door open.

‘Are you there, Captain Gray?’ Heero called and I felt the heat creeping into my face as I realized we were on open mike.

‘Here,’ came the Captain’s voice, sounding tinny and not altogether happy.

‘We’re in the lock and ready to exit the ship,’ Heero reported.

‘Roger,’ Gray said tersely and I hoped that we wouldn’t be relying on the man for anything major. I’m pretty sure he was not our biggest fan.

We stepped side-by-side to the outer door and keyed our magnetics. Heero leaned over and touched his helmet to mine to gain that private contact.

‘Ready, love?’ he asked gently.

‘Yeah,’ I told him, getting a good solid grip on my quivering nerves. ‘Let’s just do it.’

He keyed the decompression cycle and we stood there while the air was pumped out, then the outside door was sliding back. We each did the duck walk thing, moving forward with the magnetic boots until we could reach the tether hooks just outside the lock. It took me two tries to get my line attached, but Heero didn’t mention it. I wasn’t sure if he’d somehow purposely managed to make sure that I wasn’t on the side where Avery Hill’s corpse was tied off like an errant helium balloon, or not. But I was grateful all the same. It still took all my will power not to look ‘up’ at it. Him. Look up at him.

I shivered and killed the boots, kicking free of the lock, kind of intent on getting free of the shadow of that corpse too. Heero was not a heartbeat behind me.

While zero-gravity will always hold a special place in my heart, out-ship does not. I can do it. I have done it. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it, but even before the accident, I was not wildly thrilled with working outside the ship.

After the accident... I would have to place it somewhere after frontal lobotomy on my list of fun things to do.

Space is just a very damn big place. Vaster than the human imagination. Deeper than eternity and just as dark. Falling is a feeling you just have to learn to live with, because your gut is convinced you are doing just that, the entire time you’re out there.

I kept my eyes on the ship and not the stars, as we made our way out to the vane array.

‘Really though,’ Heero said, his voice reaching out to me when his hands couldn’t. ‘How smart could the Coyote have been to keep driving into painted tunnels?’

‘But that’s my whole point!’ I blurted, more than happy with the distraction. ‘How could the Road Runner keep running through those same non-tunnels?’

‘Divine intervention?’ Heero asked and I had to imagine the smirk.

‘Exactly!’ I confirmed, keying my magnetics again as we arrived at the work site. I dropped solidly down to the hull and felt the faint vibration a moment later, when Heero did the same. ‘That bird did all manner of things that should have been impossible. Somebody, somewhere was pulling strings in his favor.’

‘The writer, maybe?’ Heero teased and waited patiently while I pulled the power meter out of my utility pouch.

‘For the sake of the argument,’ I told him with an exasperated sigh. ‘There is no writer... there is merely a pissy God with a bad attitude and supreme power; always a bad combination.’

I’m not sure what his answer to that would have been, because I muttered, ‘Shit’ somewhat out of turn.

‘What is it?’ he asked me and I turned the meter so he could see it.

‘Damn,’ he agreed.

‘What’s going on out there?’ Captain Gray called then, his voice making me jump. I wondered why I could not keep it in my head that the man was listening in.

‘The array is still live,’ I informed him. ‘The overrides... didn’t override.’

He didn’t laugh at the little joke, only muttering his own expletives.

Avery Hill never stood a chance, since he’d opted to toss the rule book. You live by your instruments and you die by your instruments, but you never trust the damn things because they will always fail you at the worst possible times.

‘Ok,’ I asked Heero. ‘You ever change out a vane with a high-v charge?’

‘First time for everything,’ he told me drolly. ‘How about you?’

‘Nothing with this much kick,’ I sighed, wishing I could rub a hand over my eyes. ‘But the principal’s the same... right?’

He chuckled for me and we moved carefully forward to take stock of the tool cask. ‘Looks like we’ve got everything we need,’ Heero said. ‘You want two, or four?’

I had a moment where I almost asked if he would mind overly much if we did them one at time and just worked together, but I knew that was stupid and told him, ‘Two,’ in a very tight voice. ‘I’m already on this side.’

I think he nodded, but I’m not sure. There was a long moment’s hesitation and I knew that he was thinking all kinds of thoughts that involved reaching out and touching me, but that just wasn’t possible. He finally did touch his helmet to mine so that he could ask me one more time if I was alright.

‘We came out here to do a job, love,’ I replied with a sigh. ‘Let’s do it and get out of here.’

We were close enough that I could see his smile. I gathered my set of tools and moved off.

Think of it as switching the rails on a train track. We needed the little train called ‘power’ to take the high track and stay the hell off our low one. It’s not a particularly complicated thing, but a very delicate one, you want to be real damn careful what you touch with what or you could end up like... like Avery Hill.

Crouched over the section junction, I had a moment of quiet panic, looking at the small space I was getting ready to work in, and watching my hands tremble. I took my sweet time working my lock wrench out of my pouch, and concentrated on breathing. By the time I had the cover off, I’d managed to steady my hands to the point that death by electrocution was more like a fifty-fifty chance and not so much a fore-gone conclusion.

‘Duo,’ Heero’s voice suddenly called. ‘Maybe... maybe you should wait for me to do that.’

Guess he’d gotten his own cover worked free and just figured out what kind of tight space we had to work with.

I... probably should have said ok. I probably should have agreed. But, and I know this is getting back to a lot of macho issues that I thought I’d worked out, but I knew Captain Gray was sitting in the cockpit listening to us, and I just could not make myself back down in front of the man.

‘I’m fine, Yuy,’ I told him blandly, and bent to work.

Don’t mock me, I know it was stupid.

I could almost feel Heero’s frustration crackling through the ether. ‘Watch your own fingers over there, mother-hen,’ I told him before he could speak again, and he gave out with a little snort, but shut up.

‘Is there a problem?’ Gray spoke up and I had to fight not to flinch. I really needed to keep the man’s presence more solidly in mind.

‘No,’ Heero told him shortly, and I could practically hear him grinding his teeth. My partner was not all that enamored with the good Captain Gray.

Oddly, the man’s question kind of twisted my perceptions around just a touch. Made me stop and realize that the job I was doing at that moment was really not all that big a deal. I wasn’t even working on the real job yet; changing the vane. If I couldn’t manage a simple power shunt, what in the hell made me think I could do the rest of it?

I found some of my old concentration squirreled away somewhere, and set to work. Squatted on my haunches in a vacuum suit was not an all that unfamiliar position, and maybe because it was familiar in ways that had nothing to do with the asteroid belt, I felt my mind slipping back into route and procedure, remembering the training, remembering the rules. Multiple feed lines... drydex conduit... shielding barriers... Simple operation. Crack the coupling, access the line, jumper the...

‘Duo?’ Heero’s voice was careful; calling quietly so as not to startle me, but it was the hesitant tone to it that got my attention instantly, making me completely leave off what I was doing.

‘What’s wrong?’ I demanded.

‘I think we have a problem over here,’ he told me, and I didn’t even think about it. I killed my magnetics and kicked off; making the leap to his side almost before he’d finished speaking.

‘What is it?’ I asked, looking him over for any signs of suit breach or other damage. ‘Are you all right?’

I could see him blinking at me almost owlishly for a second before he managed, ‘I’m fine, but I think I found why the section isolation failed.’

We hunkered down together over the number four section junction and he showed me what looked like an impact site. ‘Whatever hit the vane broke up?’ I speculated and he would have nodded if he could have.

‘Looks like it,’ he agreed. ‘It’s fused the whole unit.’

‘Damn,’ I muttered, reaching to rub a hand over my face before I remembered that I couldn’t.

‘What is going on out there?’ Gray demanded, and I flinched again. The man was either going to have to shut the fuck up all together or be a more active participant in the conversation. I couldn’t keep taking his little surprise comments.

‘Shunt isn’t going to work,’ I told him.

‘Then we’re screwed,’ he said, voice sounding utterly defeated even over the tinny connection.

‘Not necessarily,’ I told him. ‘Just because the book says you don’t change out a vane while it’s hot, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.’

‘You’re crazy,’ he told me and I had to laugh.

‘So I’ve been told,’ I muttered. ‘You find me a better alternative and I’ll be more than happy to give it a try.’

That got me a long moment of silence and I resisted the urge to say I thought not, and forgot about him.

‘Let’s put the covers back on and get to it,’ I told Heero. ‘We don’t have much choice about what comes next.’ He didn’t speak immediately and I leaned in to touch helmets. ‘Heero? Is everything ok?’

‘I just...’ he began, but then stopped. ‘You sure about this?’ he finally asked, and I wondered briefly what he had been going to say.

‘We really don’t have any choice, love,’ I said, wishing I could touch him. ‘We get this array back on-line or we’re going to discover for ourselves what lies outside this solar system.’

He sighed, and nodded the tiny little nod you can manage in a helmet and we broke apart. I cut my cleats again and made the hop back to where I’d been working, undoing what I’d done. When I had the cover back in place, I turned and found Heero waiting for me by the work cask, tools already put away. I went to join him.

‘You ever actually done this?’ he asked when I got there, and I gave him a cheeky little grin that he probably didn’t see.

‘Not on this scale,’ I drawled carelessly. ‘So when I made my mistake, my arm was only numb for about an hour. Kurt won’t let me hear the end of it, either.’

He didn’t know whether to laugh or be appalled, so he didn’t respond.

‘You make a mistake out there, and you’ll be a whole lot more than numb,’ the voice of Captain Gray suddenly said, and this time I was in a position to see Heero flinch as well.

‘Oddly enough, Yancy,’ I chuckled. ‘I am very much aware of that.’

I think the man might have growled at me.

Heero ignored him. ‘It’s your show then, Duo. I’ve never worked with an array like this before.’

So I dug out the tools we’d need and parceled them out according to who I planned doing what. ‘Simple as hell, really,’ I grinned at him. ‘Old vane out; new vane in. The trick is not getting fried.’

He gave me a dry chuckle, following my ungainly duck walk over to the equipment in question. ‘What do I do?’

I squatted ‘down’ and bade him with a gesture to join me. ‘You see where the vane connects?’ I pointed, and when he grunted his affirmative, I launched into a detailed description of how the connection was made, how the covers came of and how the disconnect worked. He stopped me before I could get to the ‘new vane in’ part.

‘Why are you telling me this?’ he asked flatly.

‘That’s going to be your job,’ I said calmly.

‘And just what are you going to be doing?’ he pressed, voice just as calm, though I could see he was starting to understand how things were.

‘I have to pull the vane,’ I explained, though I’m sure I didn’t have to.

‘No,’ he told me, and he was using his command voice, which kind of pissed me off.

‘My show, remember?’ I grinned.

‘Don’t be an ass, Maxwell,’ he growled and I could tell he was getting irritated with me.

‘Heero,’ I sighed, putting on a placating tone. ‘It only makes sense; I’m the one with the... eye-hand coordination handicap.’

‘And I’m the one whose never even seen one of these networks up close,’ he countered. He was making me nervous, he’d lapsed into his somewhat flat, stubborn tone of voice, and I seldom got anywhere in arguments with him when he dropped back to his ‘immovable object’ stance.

‘Look Yuy,’ I began, but then he really got angry with me.

‘I’m not an idiot,’ he snapped. ‘I know the man pulling the vane is going to be the dead one if the other guy screws up. I’m not taking that chance. You are doing the disconnect.’

‘But I’m supposed to take that God damn chance?’ I snapped back and somewhere in the distance I thought I heard a heavy sigh.

‘You have the experience,’ Heero reasoned. ‘It’s less of a chance.’

‘My damn hands have been shaking since we picked up the stinking vacuum suits!’ I yelled, feeling my face flaming at the admission. I only hoped that I had no more witnesses to this than Captain Gray; though that was bad enough. ‘It’s going to take a steady hand to do that job without crossing something up!’

There was a long quiet moment while we stared at each other through all the layers of suit and vacuum and fear, and then he said softly, ‘hold your hands out.’

‘What?’ I barked, still riding the crest of my fear-born anger.

‘Hold your hands out,’ he insisted, and when I just stared at him, he continued gently, ‘You found your center somehow, Duo, when you started working. You stopped panting, you stopped babbling about nothing, and I’d be willing to bet your hands are as steady as they’ve ever been.’

I completely refused to hold my damn hands out, but I found myself focusing on them and had to admit that he was right. While I still felt far from steady, I wasn’t shaking like a leaf anymore. I thought to wonder about it, but honestly didn’t want to dwell on it too much, afraid of jinxing it.

‘I trust you,’ Heero said then and took the wind right the hell out of my sails.

‘Damn you,’ I muttered and he couldn’t stop from chuckling, seeing as how he’d won.

‘Let’s do it,’ he said, and the ‘love’ was implied.

It took us another couple of minutes to trade tools, as I’d doled them out according to my original plans. Then there was nothing for it but to settle into place and get started.

My job was to open the housing and unwire the old vane; being damn careful not to cross the wires or let them come into contact with anything else. Not a hideously difficult task until you had to do the second one.

Heero’s job amounted to something akin to playing ‘Operation’; once I had the vane loose, he had to lift it free of its mounting without touching anything. Only, if we screwed up, it wasn’t going to be a buzzer that went off.

‘Captain Gray?’ Heero called, just before we began. ‘Are you there?’

There was a quiet little, ‘Roger,’ in reply and I wondered what the man was thinking.

‘I’m going to have to ask you to refrain from speaking to us for the duration,’ he requested, and it rather surprised me. ‘We can’t afford to be startled in the middle of this.’

‘I understand,’ the guy said, and he sounded odd, almost subdued. It made me feel really uncomfortable.

Then it was just hunker down and do it. ‘You don’t touch shit until I clear it,’ I grumbled and Heero actually chuckled at me.

‘Aye, sir,’ he murmured, and had we been anywhere else, I might well have reached out and smacked him in the back of the head.

The next part was tedious as all hell; getting inside the housing and baring the connections without coming in contact with the actual vane. ‘I’d give a weeks pay for a cold soda right now,’ I muttered at some point and got little more than a snort from Heero; I think he was afraid of distracting me. I found, as I crouched there, that I was able to achieve some level of forgetfulness. That some part of my head still had access to the memories from before the accident. Not all my abilities and knowledge had been eaten by the black hole that was that trip to the belt.

I can’t tell you how long it took me, working the connections free, I’m sure it was more than a half an hour, but the only reason I can tell you it was less than six was because that’s all the air we had. Not that I came close to that, but I honestly would have believed you if you’d told me it had been five hours and fifty minutes. It felt like a damn year.

Slow and careful as hell is the only damn way to manage something like that. I couldn’t help remembering getting knocked on my ass the first time I’d tried this kind of repair. Kurt had laughed his ass off and told me it was a lesson that would stick with me forever. It had. It loomed rather large in my thoughts at that moment.

Then the vane was finally free, sitting in its mounting with nothing keeping it there but inertia. I took a minute to just breathe and then went in for the difficult part. I had nothing to use but my hands to keep all those wires apart, and away from the vane. Nothing could touch. Both sides, simultaneously. I hooked my fingers over wires and pulled them back, careful not to touch the bare part, careful not to cross them, careful not to let them contact metal, careful as bleeding damn hell. And then I had to hold it all steady while Heero did his part.

‘Meter it, Yuy,’ I commanded, and got no argument. He pulled the power meter out of his pouch and did a full scan, which pleased me; I’d been afraid he would cut corners in his hurry.

‘Clear,’ he told me tersely.

‘Ok,’ I said. ‘Pull it. Slow and steady and straight out. I make the slightest damn noise and you let go, you hear me?’

‘Got it,’ he replied and I wondered at the strange, almost bemused sound to his voice.

Despite all the reassurances and the caution, I still found that I was holding my breath when he finally reached out and took hold of the damn thing. I couldn’t look up at him, having to keep all my attention on my little rat’s nest of wires and making sure I kept his route clear. All I could do was watch the two pieces of metal as they slid apart, and try not to whimper.

I almost gasped for that breath when he finally told me, ‘It’s clear.’

Not that it gave me much respite, I still had to crouch there and keep the way clear for the new vane. Had to hold myself as steady as a stone. I couldn’t even look away to watch Heero make his way to the tool case where the replacement vane was anchored. I had to assume he detached the new and replaced it with the old, but hell... he might have chucked the bad one off into the night for the added two seconds it would have bought him.

I was starting to feel the strain. I knew my heart rate was up... way up, and I would have sold my first born child to be able to wipe away the trickle of sweat that was teasing it’s way down the side of my face. I did my best to stop what was getting darn close to a pant, and just spent all my concentration on my hands. My hands and what they held. The slightest deviation would mean Heero’s life.

If it came down to it, I’d put my hand between him and the power, but I knew I might not have that chance. If we slipped up...it would be too sudden for me to do a damn thing about it.

A bubble of memory wormed its way through my concentration and I heard the voice of a grizzled old spacer telling me, ‘I panicked and I froze and I got the other guy killed.’ I would have shivered if I could have afforded it.

I ruthlessly shoved those thoughts back in the box, the last damn thing on Earth I needed to be thinking about at that moment, was Neo. Bad timing all the way around.

Francis appeared in front of me, between my spread arms, wearing a tiny little vacuum suit and looking scared. He half-heartedly waved his little repress banner in front of my nose, but couldn’t seem to stand out-ship at all and faded quickly away.

I blinked as it crossed my mind that a brigade of little tool wielding hamsters would have been real damn helpful about then. Hell, a tool chest with more supplies than we had, would have been nice, with or without the hamsters. But then I had to put the little buggers out of my mind as Heero’s legs reappeared in my line of sight.

‘Doing ok?’ he asked me, sounding truly concerned.

‘So far so good,’ I grunted. ‘You ready?’

‘As I’ll ever be,’ he replied. ‘I’m going to have to crouch down in front of you so I can see what I’m doing.’

‘I know,’ I told him, feeling bad because my voice sounded terse even to me, so I added, ‘you just damn well be careful.’

He snorted and then hunkered down with me, lining the vane up and starting to lower it into place. ‘Guide me on that side,’ he told me, and his voice had that calm quality that spoke to me of years long past.

‘You’re just a centimeter too far my way,’ I told him, and even though I knew he was settling it into place almost slower than the eye could follow, I felt like he was moving way too fast. ‘Easy,’ I couldn’t help telling him. Sweat was making my eyes sting, but I couldn’t afford to blink it away. ‘You’re committed,’ I told him unnecessarily; I’m sure he knew as well as I did when he’d gotten that far, but the fear was waking in my gut and making me want to fill the silence.

Maybe Heero understood, because he said, ‘I’m still good on this side... how’s the back doing?’ a very pointless thing to say, because we didn’t have the leeway for anything other than ‘good’ at the moment.

‘Still clear,’ I told him. ‘Keep going.’

But then, quite suddenly, he stopped moving altogether and I wanted to look up at him, but couldn’t take my eyes off the weave of my wires. Couldn’t spare the attention to look up and see what was wrong. ‘Heero?’ I ventured cautiously, suddenly very afraid and not sure why.

‘Duo,’ he said, and his voice was very calm. Very damn calm. ‘Listen to me. Listen to me closely... you have to hold still, you hear me?’

‘No shit?’ I blurted, and hoped the bluster hid the note of panic. ‘What...?’

‘Listen, love,’ he said softly, and I could hear his unease, which told me just how strong it was. ‘Hill’s... suit, has drifted, ok? It’s right behind you... just off to your left.’

It. It, not him. The suit. Not the corpse. Right behind me. How close? Oh God... how close? Like the Londonderry. The corpses. Drifting. Toward me. Coming... for me. Captain Camden and the dead crew of the Londonderry. All my nightmares come to life. Oh God.

I think I made a small sound of distress.

‘I’m right here,’ Heero told me, voice very damn firm. ‘Duo... I need you. You said it yourself; we’re committed. We can’t stop now.’

‘I know,’ I opened my mouth to say, but I’m not entirely sure what came out.

‘I froze...’ that voice in my head said again, but it was kind of hard to hear over the sound of my own panting.

‘I need you,’ Heero said again, brooking no argument. ‘Now.’

I hung on those words, and held steady, even as my nerves were screaming for me to move, to get the hell away from what I couldn’t even look to see. Almost made it worse; like the shark in deep water, what you can’t see is immensely more frightening, sometimes, than what you can.

‘Just...’ I stammered out through a suddenly dry throat. ‘don’t let it touch me without warning me... ok?’

‘Ok,’ he agreed, and there was relief in the sound of his voice. ‘Ready?’

‘Let’s get this over with,’ I muttered and just blocked it out. Blocked it all out except for the part where Heero was putting his life in my hands. My poor, scarred, not altogether steady hands.

I would not be another Neo. Damn it to hell and back if I would be another Neo.

‘Guide me,’ he almost whispered, and the vane was moving again.

‘Less than a centimeter to my right,’ I managed and watched critically as he made his adjustment. ‘There,’ I called, when it was aligned again. ‘Steady on.’

It seemed to take an eternity and I thought my heart would hammer its way out of my chest. I swear to God, the damn thing wasn’t moving at all, and through all my determination to keep my attention on the job, I couldn’t help but feel the imminent brush with that thing behind me that I just didn’t want to think about.

Then it settled home and Heero was telling me, ‘Clear... I’m clear,’ and I was choking on a sob. Heero was gone from my line of sight almost before he’d finished speaking and I’m sure he was moving to remove that thing behind me. The... corpse, behind me. The vacuum suit clad corpse behind...

‘Breathing, Duo,’ Heero scolded and I almost laughed, but knew damn well where that would lead, and it wasn’t to a place I could afford out here. After a moment, he soothed me with a gentle, ‘It’s gone.’

I wanted to close my eyes and curl up somewhere, but we weren’t done yet and my fingers were still almost an integral part of the network. Still interwoven with those live wires and I had a sudden image of my hands holding little lightening bolts, like some Greek God looking to strike somebody down. Sparks dancing along my finger tips and shooting off into the dark. Sparks like little stars...

‘Duo?’ Heero’s voice broke through to me and I blinked against the stinging sweat in my eyes, surprised at the almost palpable fear in his voice. ‘Duo... get your hands out of there, now. Do you hear me?’

‘Ok,’ I told him, calm as could be, and began slipping my fingers free, untangling myself from my weird fantasy vision. When I was no longer in danger of turning myself into a light bulb, I found that all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around my knees and sit very quietly.

Heero was there, not able to do much in the way of physical touch, but he brought himself close and touched our suits together so that he could tell me, unheard by listening ears, ‘It’s all right, baby. I’ve got you. I’ll take it from here and then...’

But that sent a shiver of fear lancing through my gut and I found myself trying to clutch at him. ‘No!’ I exclaimed, hearing stark terror and kind of surprised by it. So, ‘No,’ I said again, trying for a little more calm and not really getting it. ‘You stay the hell away from it. I’ll get it; I just need a minute, that’s all.’

‘You’re too spooked,’ he soothed, and had we not been in vacuum suits, sitting on the skin of a ship, floating in the middle of no damn where, he would have been holding me close and stroking his hand over my hair. ‘I watched how you did it... I can...’

‘No,’ I said again, flat and as forceful as I could make it. ‘I can’t do that again. It’d be too much like pissing at the Gods. I won’t have you near it again. God hates me too much.’

He didn’t know how to answer that and we just crouched there together, locked to the ship with our magnetics engaged, while I got my breath back.

‘Duo-love,’ he began again, still trying for that reasonable tone, but I wasn’t going to listen to it. Was not. Would not. That had been too damn close and I wouldn’t risk him again. It was too much like tempting the fates, and I knew the usual results of that little practice.

‘My show,’ I growled, my anger gaining me a little bit of my equilibrium back. ‘You won the last one. You’re not winning this one. No fucking way in hell, so just back off now. You said it yourself; I have the experience. I just need a damn minute is all.’

‘All right,’ he soothed, managing somehow to make his voice into the caress he couldn’t give me. ‘All right... calm down.’

When I’d managed to get my heart rate down to a rhythm that didn’t sound like something a Gaelic rock band would produce, I straightened and he let me draw away. Mindful of the fact that we had an audience again, I told him, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m getting kind of tired of being out here. Let’s get this done.’

I didn’t get the chuckle I was hoping for, but he settled on his haunches next to me and said, ‘Tell me what to do?’

We were close enough that I could see his face and I knew he could see mine, so I smiled for him. ‘Just talk to me... ok?’

Which didn’t make him happy, but was really all I needed from him. Just a voice to drive back the memories and help me remember where I was.

I bent to work wondering just what in the hell Captain Gray was making of all of this.

‘If you’re such a big cartoon fan’ Heero said, ‘why don’t you watch them anymore?’

‘They don’t make decent cartoons now a days,’ I told him absently, taking my tools and my nerves in hand. ‘I’ve seen all the old stuff already.’

‘Everything?’ he asked, trying to sound flippant and failing. I could feel his eyes on me, watching my every move. It oddly didn’t make me feel nervous, like I would have thought it would. It was... comforting, somehow, to know there was a second pair of eyes guarding my safety.

‘You know,’ I replied. ‘This really isn’t fair. Why do we keep talking about my obsessions? What the hell did you used to watch?’

He took the cue, understanding that I wasn’t asking to be drawn out. That when I’d told him to talk to me, I’d truly meant it. I needed him to do most of the talking this time. ‘I read more than I watched videos,’ he told me and I wasn’t surprised. But then his voice got a little wry. ‘Though I have to confess to a small addiction to the Discovery channel when I first found it.’

I had to snort a little laugh, imagining Heero parked in front of the television every night, watching some dry as dust documentary on... what, I wondered? ‘Fess up; what was it? Flight documentaries? The history of colony construction? What?’

He managed, somehow, to sound sheepish even over a suit radio. ‘They ran ‘Junkyard Wars’ reruns on late night ‘Classic Discovery’ every Sunday.’

I would have rolled on the deck and howled if it wouldn’t have been an extremely bad idea under the present circumstances. ‘You have to be kidding me,’ I said instead, and wished I could grin at him, but I was back around to that place where I couldn’t turn my eyes away from what my hands were doing.

‘Hey,’ he said in mock indignation. ‘I didn’t make fun of your cartoons.’

‘I watched more than that, you know,’ I groused. ‘And I read too.’

‘I saw,’ he agreed, but then he seemed to lose the conversation for a moment as I made the second connection. The one that guaranteed that even if there hadn’t been enough wires touching before to power the vane, there were now. ‘Though... you have an odd reading method,’ he managed after I’d drawn my hands back and was switching to the next connection. ‘Most people read a little more randomly than you do.’

‘Just working my way through the classics,’ I murmured, not able to spare a whole lot of attention his way.

‘I can’t believe you took the works of Edgar Allan Poe on a solo trip that long,’ he told me, warming to the topic a little. ‘Talk about depressing.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, managing to get the last wire in place on the first strut without frying myself. ‘Guess it was one of those seemed like a good idea at the time, things. I very distinctly remember regretting it.’

There was a pause and I think he just suddenly realized the ground we’d wandered onto. He floundered for a bit, while I shifted to the second strut, wished for the hundredth time that I could wipe my eyes, and set back to work. Despite my trying not to think about it, the notion of the belt and books had popped into my mind, and since I didn’t have enough brain cells left for anything else, brain wandered off and did some free form thinking. ‘Did you... read to me while I was out there?’ I blurted and I think I kind of scared him.

‘Yes,’ he answered after a quiet moment, no doubt contemplating the wisdom of the topic. ‘Once we got far enough out that our communication window with you was larger than Earth’s.’

‘Heero,’ I had to ask, it being the logical next question. One that had nagged at me mildly, more than once. ‘Why in the hell didn’t you guys talk to me?’

He hesitated so long I wasn’t sure he was going to answer. ‘You reacted so badly when Quatre told you who was piloting the rescue ship, and we didn’t understand why. We were... afraid.’

‘I thought I dreamed someone reading to me,’ I told him, skirting the other issue because it was upsetting him. ‘I thought it was Sister Helen.’

‘I thought it might help,’ he said softly. ‘Even if you were sleeping through it... I thought the sound of a voice might help.’

‘It did,’ I told him just as softly, and then had to pull my hands away from my work while I fought off a shiver. ‘Change of topic, I think.’

‘Sorry,’ he murmured contritely. ‘You don’t really want a cat, do you?’

I chuckled at his leap of subjects, took a steadying breath and went back to work. ‘Maybe someday,’ I had to confess. ‘But I’m pretty sure I don’t want anything to do with that animal that Sally keeps trying to foist off on us.’

‘No,’ he said ruefully. ‘The only time I was anywhere near it, the thing bit the crap out of me. I completely refuse to have that beast in my house.’

I got quiet while I finally made the last connection, then drew away with a shaky gasp after air. ‘Done,’ I told the general area somewhat unnecessarily.

‘Thank God,’ Heero breathed and I’m not at all sure he meant to say it out loud. The dangerous part done, he moved in and we made quick work of putting the housing back in place.

‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ I told him and was surprised at how shaky it came out.

‘If you can get the tool cask,’ Heero said. ‘I’ll get...’

The corpse.

‘Ok,’ I told him before he could decide just what to call it.

I moved back to the cask and went about mounting the tools where they belonged, just trying not to watch what Heero was doing. Though the weird-ass mental image I got of him skipping along, towing Hill like a kid with a balloon, might have actually been worse than reality. I know it took me awhile to shake it off.

Zero gravity is a wonderful thing. From the look of the tool chest, I’d be willing to bet in full Earth gravity it weighed twice what I did, but once I cut its magnetic locks, all I had to do was nudge it in the direction of the air-lock, kill my own magnetics and off we went. I wound up my tether line as I went.

Heero had quit talking to me when we’d separated and I suddenly found my gut twisting round itself, unhappy with the quiet. ‘Heero?’ I called, and wondered how long I could hold off the aftershocks from this little foray.

‘Right behind you,’ he soothed, and I can’t tell you how convinced I’d become the he wouldn’t answer me. That if I turned around to look for him, he wouldn’t have been there. ‘Why don’t you take the tools and cycle through the lock first and I’ll...’

‘We’ll both fit,’ I told him tightly, feeling panic overtaking me thinking about leaving him out-ship. I couldn’t have done it if the whole damn universe had depended on it. Could more easily have waited outside alone while he went through first. I can’t explain the sudden need I had not to be separated from him. He just suddenly seemed so... vulnerable. Precious. Important. Integral. I don’t know... I just couldn’t stand for him being out there without me.

‘Are you... sure?’ he asked and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that at some point, Trowa had told him about my panic attack over an empty vacuum suit. Knew that he was worried about how I’d react to being shut in such a tight space with, not just a suit, but a genuine body filled one.

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