Traditions (cont)

‘I won’t look,’ I told him ruthlessly, and prodded the tool cask into the ship. I unhooked my tether-line, activated my magnetics, but refused to move into the open lock until it was clear he would go with me.

‘All right,’ he agreed, though he didn’t sound all that happy about it. I stayed in the hatchway until he’d touched down and locked to the deck beside me.

‘In,’ I growled and settled my hand over his tether-line until I was positive he would obey me. There are sensors that keep the exterior doors from closing as long as a line registers attached on the outside of a ship. Call me paranoid, but I just had this weird feeling, and I didn’t want to take any chances that he’d go all macho on me.

I waited until he was passed me, and then I undogged his and Hill’s lines myself. The hatch slid shut almost immediately and I damn near got caught in it. Heero’s cry of ‘Duo!’ harmonized my own yelp quite nicely.

‘Shit!’ I blurted and was left holding the severed end of Avery Hill’s tether-line in my hand and could only imagine the body drifting off the port bow.

‘Son of a bitch!’ Heero snarled and began punching at the controls, trying to get the hatch to reopen before the body was too far gone.

The hatch refused to budge and even as Heero was getting angry, I was becoming very afraid, and suddenly understood what had been nagging at me for the last ten minutes. I saw Heero turn and look in the general direction of the cockpit, just as though he could see the Captain right through the bulkhead. I saw him open his mouth and knew that Captain Gray was about to get an earful. But before the words could come out of his mouth, I drug him to me, touching our helmets together to put us into private conversation.

Captain Yancy Gray had been entirely too damn quiet.

‘He means to space us!’ I blurted and saw Heero blink at me.

‘What?’ he queried, sounding unsure, but his anger was bleeding away in the face of my certainty.

‘Think about it,’ I hissed, keeping my voice down despite the fact that it wasn’t necessary. ‘No one else aboard this ship really knows what’s happened except for people who stand to be in almost as much trouble as he is. If we happen to have an accident... Captain Gray and his son are off the hook.’

He hesitated a moment, not really wanting to believe it, I think. ‘But why would he even let us back in the ship?’

‘He couldn’t close the exterior hatch until we’d unhooked,’ I reasoned, suddenly just very damn positive of my theory. ‘He couldn’t risk re-entry with an open hatch.’

I saw Heero believe it between one blink and the next. ‘What the hell is he waiting for then?’ he said, but it wasn’t a question of doubt, but simple confusion.

‘I don’t know,’ I told him, starting to feel frantic. My eyes were ranging around us as best I could, and I couldn’t find a damn think to hook to. Nothing to hang on to. ‘Maybe working up the nerve to commit his first murder?’ I had little doubt it wouldn’t take him forever. ‘We have to get the fuck out of this air lock!’

And then a look came over Heero’s face that damn near had me flinching away from him. If we survived this, I would not want to be in Gray’s shoes.

Heero wrenched away from me and went straight to the control panel for the interior doors, his commands did nothing to gain us entrance to the ship though, and the panel itself was recessed and totally inaccessible. All repairs were meant to be done from the other side of the bulkhead. No way in hell could we pull the panel for manual override. A sound escaped him and I shivered; it was almost the sound of a really pissed off, trapped animal. He left the control panel and turned to the hatch itself. There wasn’t much there, but there were a couple of places where the shape of the metal afforded some sort of place to grip. He turned to me and gave me the old military ‘be ready’ hand sign, and then settled his hands on that door. I thought I would laugh at him out right, but knew it for the hysterical urge it was and just let it go. This was Heero and he couldn’t just stand here and do nothing, no matter that the effort was less than futile; he had to try.

I forgot him, left him to his straining, knowing he couldn’t possibly force a ship’s hatch open with nothing but his hands. I turned away, looking at the panel for the outside doors and wondering if I could jam the controls somehow, when I was buffeted with a rush of air. I whirled as best I could in zero-gravity, shocked as hell, and found Heero had the inside hatch pulled open almost a whole damn hand-span. I wasted almost ten seconds staring at him in open disbelief, before the sounds of his almost groaning breath shook me into motion. I kicked over to his side, intent on helping him, but he caught my attention with a look, making me touch his suit so he could impart something to me without Gray overhearing. I was half afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear him over the pounding of the blood in my ears.

‘Can’t... hold,’ he said tersely, and I could see him shaking with effort. ‘Jumper... controls.’

It was all he could impart and that little bit came out in gasping pants. I wanted to argue, I wanted to wail and demand that I couldn’t leave him in there, but we didn’t have the time for the hysterics. I broke away without a sound and gathered what I could from the cask as fast as I could manage it. It was then I discovered that I was still holding both Hill’s severed line and Heero’s as well. Without a thought, I hooked Heero’s line to my suit, shoved the tools in my pouch and went back to where the door was cracked open. Adding my own effort to Heero’s, we managed to pry the hatch open enough that I was able to squirm through, and then he couldn’t hold it any longer. I heard him give it up with a near moan of frustration. I almost screamed when the door slid shut behind me. I would have called out to him, but was afraid of spurring Gray into action if he realized we’d figured out what he was up to. What he was contemplating.

It was all adrenaline overdrive then. I spared the minute it took to rip my helmet off and jerk the suit open so that my hands were free. I hated losing the time, but knew I would more than make it up not trying to work with the clumsy gloves on.

I don’t think I really had any conscious thought at all. There might have been a frantic hamster with a banner that read ‘Hurry!’ in there somewhere, but I didn’t have the attention to spare. Tools came out of my pouch as fast as I could jerk them. I utterly destroyed the panel cover getting it off, my imagination making me hear the sound of the outside hatch opening every other second.

When Gray got up the nerve to carry through with what had obviously occurred to him while he’d listened to us saving his ship, he would open the outside hatch, then open the inside, blasting us out into space on a plume of explosive decompression. Then he could calmly close it all back up and claim we’d had an accident. So sad. Too bad. But they died heroes, isn’t that nice?’

I wanted to pray, but was afraid to.

I wanted to cry, but couldn’t afford to.

I wanted Heero, and had to do that for myself.

I let myself find my voice, because without the helmet, nobody could hear me anyway, and I cussed until I ran out of English curses, then switched to Japanese.

I couldn’t even begin to let myself imagine Heero standing there in that air lock, all alone and trusting me to get him out. I would freeze up if I let myself even start to think about failing him. If I let myself think about losing him.

I clung to the knowledge that his tether line was still attached to me, and that if the doors opened before I could free him, I still stood a chance of pulling him to safety.

Don’t be stupid. I know. But I couldn’t let myself feel that slack line. Couldn’t let myself know that it had been cut when the door slid shut. I couldn’t know that or I would start shaking and wouldn’t be able to stop.

‘Bastard son of a bitch is dead... so damn dead. I will kill him with my own hands. Then I will piss on his corpse and space what’s left...’

Because when you’re so scared you can’t see straight... you have to get mad.

Then it all came together under my hands and the door was sliding open and Heero was lunging through and grabbing me and taking us both to the wall. He had hold of me and he had hold of the first solid thing that came to hand and then we were being battered by hurricane winds and I was taken back with a jolt to that near disaster with Relena aboard my ship.

Somewhere in there, I was aware of the fact that I’d almost not made it. Aware of the fact that the good Captain Gray had finally worked up the courage, hit the button and I’d gotten the door open mere seconds ahead of the outside doors opening. Plastered against Heero, I heard him screaming inside his suit and for two damn seconds almost panicked completely before I realized it was for the benefit of our audience.

I had no mike and since there was no one to really hear me, I let myself give vent to a sobbing cry and held on to Heero as tight as I could with one hand, scrabbling with the other to help him hold to the wall.

The bastard left the hatches open for almost a full three minutes. It was the longest three minutes of my life.

By the time the winds stopped tearing at us, stopped trying to make us go outside to play with poor Avery, I was starting to get lightheaded from the thinning air.

We fell to the floor in a heap, and I don’t know about Heero, but I was panting like an asthmatic. Some distant part of my brain felt the ship thrumming beneath us in an effort to make up for the lost air. Felt the bite of the cold that’s always left behind by sudden decompression. Wondered idly what Gray was telling the passengers.

But then I got enough air that only one damn thing mattered, and my hands were ripping at Heero’s suit. I knew he was all right, knew he’d probably come through in better shape than I had, because he was still sealed and protected inside his vacuum suit. But there was nothing in my brain but the need to touch him. To strip him out of that thing that part of my head would always think of as a coffin, and touch him. I almost threw the helmet across the room when it finally came free in my hands, then just bent to kissing him. Cheek, nose, chin... whatever the hell part came within reach.

I’d hit that aftershock part.

‘Oh God, Heero...’ I panted, clutching at him, pulling at his suit. ‘Are you all right? Oh God... talk to me!’

‘It’s all right now,’ he told me, and I was a little pleased that he was panting some too. ‘We’re ok... you did it... we’re ok...’

His nonsense rambling thing. I didn’t care; he could have been speaking to me in some dead aborigine language, just as long as he was talking to me. As long as he was all right.

He didn’t let us lie there for long, before he was pushing up and peeling the rest of the way out of his suit. Helping me peel out of mine. I was shaking so damn bad I don’t know that I could have done it myself.

‘That fucking bastard is so going to regret this flight,’ I muttered at one point, just trying to bolster my own flagging nerves. It might have sounded more impressive if half of it hadn’t been stammered through chattering teeth.

‘He’ll be lucky if he lives long enough to regret much of anything,’ Heero hissed, and I glanced up to see that look on his face again, the one that made my gut run cold.

I didn’t reply, and he continued to prod us into action, seeming to suddenly decide we needed out of that room. I suppose he was right; if Gray figured out that he hadn’t gotten the job done the first time, there was nothing to keep him from trying again. We took the clothes we’d shed to get into the suits and retreated to the corridor before stopping long enough to dress. Even having the section sealed behind us wasn’t enough to make me breathe any easier. Heero didn’t seem to settle until we’d gotten completely out of the main hall and had gained the first cross-corridor.

There, he finally stopped and pulled me into his arms, and it was a damn surreal thing, feeling his hands on my back and remembering what he’d just done. How could someone so strong manage to be so gentle? I forget sometimes, that unbelievable, adrenaline-bred strength of his. Though, in that moment, I thanked God for it, because I had no doubt we’d have been drifting out in the middle of nowhere, without it.

I let myself fall into that strength, wrapping my arms around him and hanging on tight. ‘God damn,’ I croaked out, voice sounding shaky and a little high. ‘This is like some really, really bad movie.’

He choked on a laugh that I could tell he hadn’t intended to let pass his lips, and his arms tightened convulsively, though he didn’t speak.

‘I swear, Heero,’ I told him vehemently. ‘This is our last vacation. I’m never leaving the damn house again.’

He gave in to the laugh that time, though it was strained. I’ll never be positive, but I think that moment may have saved Yancy Gray’s life. You can never be real sure about these things, but there was something in the set of Heero’s shoulders after that, that was subtly different. Some feral light that was eased from his eyes.

Not that he wasn’t still seriously put-out, but up until that moment, I think he had been perfectly ready to rip Captain Moron’s head off and punt his cranium from one end of the ship to the other and back again.

I couldn’t decide if I was happy I might have been the instrument of the man’s salvation, or not. At that second... not. Later... maybe.

‘You’re trembling,’ Heero pointed out to me, quite unnecessarily, I thought. ‘So hard... are you ok? Really ok?’

‘Too much time on this roller coaster,’ I quipped. ‘I just want off now. But I’m good through what we have coming up next.’

‘We can’t leave that... lunatic at the controls,’ he told me, not that I’d needed him to tell me that either.

‘I know,’ I agreed. ‘Which means we’re going to have to bring this ship down ourselves. I know.’

It took a concerted effort between the two of us to get ourselves untangled.

He looked at me long and hard when he could see me again, and reached to gently brush at my sweat-soaked bangs. ‘I’d rather have you at my back for this,’ he said. ‘But if you’re not up to it, we’ll take you back to the...’

I snorted, though my heart was doing something exceedingly strange in my chest. ‘Don’t even go there,’ I growled. ‘Unless there’s no other choice, you and I aren’t getting two feet away from each other for the duration of this nightmare.’

He grinned at me then, but there was an edge to it. ‘Let’s go give Gray the surprise of his life.’

I grinned back and felt the stirrings of something old. Something that was pushing down the shakes and the desire to go find a dark corner and crawl into it.

We heard the elevated buzz of voices from the main cabin before we ever got there. The kind of buzz that only happens when a group of people has something juicy to dissect verbally. I was looking forward to wading through there even less than I was looking forward to the confrontation with Captain Gray.

Suffice it to say the room went silent as a tomb when we made our entrance. And I don’t think it was just from how scruffy and disheveled we appeared. Heero looked around the room, as though evaluating each and every passenger as a potential threat and then quietly said, ‘You may return to your cabins. The repairs to the ship have been completed.’ It was testament to the scary properties he can bring into his voice, that the hubbub didn’t erupt until we’d moved for the cockpit. Heero gave Bobbi, the girl I had come to think of as the head flight attendant, a rather imperious gesture, and she followed him into the short corridor that linked the main cabin with the cockpit without hesitation.

‘I am an agent of the Preventors,’ he told her grimly. ‘I will be placing your Captain under arrest for violation of several inter-colony laws. Captain Maxwell will be taking over the piloting of this vessel. You may inform the crew, but do not alarm the passengers with the information.’

I’ll give the girl credit; she managed to school her expression enough that I couldn’t tell you if she’d been taken by surprise. I had a feeling, whether she’d been a party to the original... unorthodox pilot’s training sessions or not, she was probably going to come through this mess all right. I was kind of glad; she’d been nice enough to us. I gave her a wan little smile that was meant to be somewhat comforting, and she nodded. Then it was time to follow Heero into the cockpit.

He went first, only because you couldn’t get through the hatch in anything but single file formation, but I was hot on his heels and we split the moment we could, he going to the right and me to the left. Ready to engage in whatever it took to take the big guy down. Not sure if we would be facing a weapon or not; though they were illegal to carry, we’d already seen how much Captain Gray cared for the rules. We were both crouched and ready, wound like cheap springs and itching for an excuse to pound the man to hamburger.

We needn’t have bothered. The Captain was sitting in the pilot’s seat, his head in his hands, weeping quietly. Guess the asshole had a conscience after all. Too bad it had engaged too late to have done us any good, had we not taken care of our own rescue.

‘Captain Gray,’ Heero intoned menacingly. ‘I am placing you under arrest in the name of the Preventors. Please step away from the shuttle controls.’

When Gray jerked his head up to stare at Heero, I tried really hard to gage his reaction, but I just wasn’t sure. All I saw for sure was shock, but I couldn’t clearly tell if the underlying emotion was relief or regret. It might have made things easier if I could have honestly believed the man was truly sorry for what he’d tried to do.

Oddly, in that moment, all I can really remember thinking was ‘poor Spencer’, which was probably pretty stupid since the kid wasn’t exactly innocent in all this. If anyone should have had my sympathy, it should have been Hill, who was no more innocent than the rest of them, but had already paid a price that was way too high.

What a fucked up trip.

Gray was wise enough not to try for denial. Wise enough not to argue, only nodded shortly and left the pilot’s seat. I had to repress a shiver, seeing a man removing himself from the command chair for the last time. Too many parallels. Too many memories.

It probably wasn’t necessary, but we ended up binding his wrists with electricians tape and confining him to his cabin. I pulled the inside door control panel with my own hands and saw to it that he couldn’t open that door without several hours and repair tools he didn’t have. We would have simply duct-taped him to a seat in the main cabin if that wouldn’t have required a great deal of explaining to the passengers that we didn’t care to have to make. The man was more than subdued and I think Heero got across without actually saying it, just what a mercy we were showing him by not simply spacing him on the spot.

Heero returned with me to the cockpit to check the shuttle course and status. I think it bothered him to leave Gray unguarded, but he seemed to have that same fear of us being out of each other’s sight that I had. The remaining crew didn’t seem too sympathetic to their former Captain’s plight, but you never knew. It was still hours till we gained atmosphere again, and I didn’t much feel like challenging the already overworked powers of worse.

I was almost surprised to find that the shuttle had not been set on some suicide course into the sun or something. It would just about have been the expected capper to the whole mess.

Heero sat quietly in the co-pilot’s seat and watched me while I went over course and heading, verifying that our repairs were adequate to the job, checking all the fuel levels and energy readings. Things I needed to familiarize myself with if I was going to be landing an unfamiliar ship.

‘You know,’ I told him after a bit. ‘The aliens should be arriving any minute.’

‘Aliens?’ he asked, quizzical eyebrow raised and a hint of tired amusement in his voice.

‘Yeah,’ I grinned. ‘Isn’t that the only thing this B movie is lacking?’

‘I don’t know,’ he smiled, letting his head fall back. ‘There hasn’t been a shoot out yet... unless I missed it.’

‘Bite your tongue, fool!’ I snapped, only half kidding. ‘Do not tempt fate; she’s bitchy!’

He snorted and rolled his head until he could look across at me. ‘You know... there hasn’t been much romance in this movie of yours yet. How about you come over here and sit with me?’

I smiled warmly at the very idea of dragging my ass across the cockpit and climbing into his lap, but had to decline. ‘Besides the unlikelihood of my doing that in front of a shuttle full of people... if I let myself lie down in your arms right now, I’m going to completely shut down and you’ll be piloting this bucket back by yourself.’

He didn’t chuckle, though on running the line through my head again, I guess I can kind of see why, but he did get up and come across to me, since I wouldn’t go to him. He leaned down and kissed me gently, drawing back to look at me and then leaned down to do it again. ‘Have I told you today that I love you,’ he asked simply.

‘Since it’s the wee hours of the morning, I don’t think so,’ I smiled up at him. ‘Not in so many words, at least. But I think I got it somewhere in amongst all the cursing and grabbing hold of, parts.’

‘Tell me?’ he whispered and the teasing tone was gone.

‘I love you,’ I obliged, and thinking about those moments that had had us with an airlock hatch between us, ‘so much that it scares me sometimes.’

He kissed me one more time, and then went back to the co-pilot’s seat, settling in to sit watch with me.

Judging from the sounds coming from the main cabin, most of the passengers had followed Heero’s suggestion and returned to their quarters. It didn’t take long at all before things quieted. Heero and I both seemed to have more than enough to occupy our minds and for a while, we were quiet ourselves, just sitting together and thinking.

It was hard to get my head wrapped around it all. Hard to think back and remember that just a couple of days ago I’d been worrying about simply making this trip. If someone had told me I’d have to put on a vacuum suit and go out-ship before it was all over, I’d have crawled into the back of my closet-cave back home and never come out. And now, here I was getting ready to land a commercial shuttle.

But you know; it all kind of lent credence to my whole ‘suck it up’ method of coping with things. Though I wasn’t about to speculate about how well I’d have done without Heero with me, I had to admit to myself that I’d managed it. Managed whatever hurdle the fates had seen fit to throw in my path. Maybe I hadn’t handled it with what you would exactly call grace, but I’d done what needed doing when it came right down to it.

I wondered if that fact would make people stop telling me I needed therapy? I turned toward Heero to ask him just that, and found him with his head leaned back against the head rest, sound asleep.

I grinned at him like a loon for about thirty seconds before guilt beast loped through the doorway, toenails rattling on the deck-plates, and set to gnawing on my ankle. Heero would not be dozing in a situation like this one, if he weren’t already completely wiped out from dealing with my sorry ass. Heero is not prone to taking naps. So then I just sat and watched him sleep for a bit, and felt bad for putting him through so much turmoil. But then I thought about the fact that he felt safe enough in my presence to doze the hell off in the first place and I was back around to grinning at him.

His hair was as sweat-stiff as mine was, his eyes dark circled, his clothes rumbled and looking like he’d worn half of them under a vacuum suit and thrown the rest of them on while running for his life. But, you know, he was still a damn gorgeous man. And you know what else? He’s mine. Isn’t that a kick in the head? It is to me sometimes. Heero Yuy is a handsome, strong, fascinating man. Sexy and compassionate, gentle and patient, and damn it to hell... in love with me.

No, it’s not a surprise, but sometimes it just kind of blind-sides me.

Dear God but I wanted to go home. Wanted my bed and Heero’s shoulder to rest my head on.

Guess I was pretty tired too.

So I sat through the last hours of the night cycle alternating between watching Heero and getting familiar with the ship. The quiet bothered me a little bit, but I had only to look across to see Heero resting there, and things were all right. Not wonderful, but something I could deal with.

He was upset with himself when he roused some hours later, and gave me a look of reproach. ‘Duo, why didn’t you wake me up? What if there’d been trouble?’

I gave him a snort of a laugh and rolled my eyes. ‘Like you wouldn’t have been awake in a heartbeat if anyone else had come into the cockpit. You were tired... it didn’t hurt for you to sleep.’ I shrugged and figured the look I gave him should pretty much get across the idea that I didn’t feel bad about letting him rest.

He looked guilty then, and gave me a sad little frown. ‘I didn’t mean to leave you alone like that.’

‘I wasn’t alone,’ I told him, smiling warmly. ‘You were right here. That’s all I need.’

He looked only a little reassured, and I think he might have said more, perhaps another apology, but we began to hear voices out in the main cabin and before long Bobbi stuck her head in through the hatch and smiled at us. ‘Do you gentlemen need anything? Coffee? Some breakfast?’

I exchanged a look with Heero, both of us wondering if we could trust the woman. But then I had to grin and shake my head; Good God, I really was getting paranoid. ‘Coffee would be lovely, if you wouldn’t mind?’

‘Not a problem,’ she said with a perky little laugh. ‘Anything for you Mr. Yuy?’

He hesitated a moment, but then grudgingly said, ‘Tea would be most appreciated.’ When she was gone, Heero turned a critical eye my way. ‘You should eat.’

‘Probably,’ I chuckled. ‘But I really don’t know that I can stomach more shuttle food right now.’

In the end, we couldn’t stomach the drinks either. When Bobbi brought them to us, we thanked her politely and then sat and stared at the bulbs in our hands. The drink bulbs prepared for us by a woman who was likely to be facing charges with the rest of the shuttle crew based mostly on our testimony. No matter how hard I tried to tell myself I was being stupid, I just couldn’t make myself drink the damn thing.

‘This is ridiculous,’ I snarled, but went right ahead and chucked my coffee into the disposal chute by the door.

Heero only quirked me that sardonic little half-grin of his, handing me his tea as I went by.

We’d be on the ground in a couple of hours anyway; I could sure as hell wait.

‘You know,’ I told Heero after I’d settled back in the pilot’s seat. ‘Procedure dictates that we notify ground control of the... change in personnel.’

Heero only grunted, his expression letting me know that I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know, and that he wasn’t all that happy about it.

So I put the call through and yielded the floor to Heero as the official on board, to deal with the fairly pissed off sounding dispatcher that came on the line.

‘Who am I talking to?’ the guy snapped. ‘Where the hell is Captain Gray?’

‘This is Heero Yuy, agent first class with the Preventors,’ Heero informed him, sounding impersonal and professional and altogether not like himself. ‘Captain Gray is under arrest and has been confined to his cabin. I need to speak with your head of security.’

There was a pause and then the guy barked, ‘Where the hell is the co-pilot?’

There was an almost imperceptible sigh from Heero, but he maintained his almost clinical air, quite nicely, I thought. ‘Avery Hill lost his life attempting shuttle repairs. Now I need to speak with your head of security.’

There was a long damn pause then, before the guy came back on, sounding slightly more subdued. ‘Agent Yuy... just who is flying that shuttle?’

Heero glanced across at me, looking a touch apologetic, as though he wished for my sake he could leave my name out of this. ‘My partner, Captain Duo Maxwell, is a licensed pilot. Now I really need to speak with your head of security.’

While the guy was stammering, trying to figure out just what he had on his hands, I pulled up a search window so that when he told Heero that Mr. Carpenter would be right with him, I was able to shake my head in the negative.

‘I said your head of security,’ Heero snapped, looking at me as I mouthed the proper name to him. ‘You find Ms. Kasten and tell her she has a level three emergency on shuttle flight fourteen-ten. Now.

That got us another long pause and Heero grinned at me wolfishly while we waited the guy out. It ended up taking them almost twenty minutes to find her. I wondered if they pulled the woman in from home, which brought on another thought and I snorted softly. ‘Well, I hope this woman loves her job,’ I told Heero. ‘You realize it’s Christmas morning?’

Heero blinked at me for a moment and then had to grin ruefully. ‘It is, isn’t it? I suppose it’s a safe bet we’re not going to be her favorite people before this day is out.’

I grinned and turned back to the controls, poking at the information I’d dredged up from the shuttle port’s public pages, looking to see if there was anything else there that might be useful, when I heard Heero climb out of the co-pilot’s seat. I looked up as he came to stand beside me, and he leaned down to deliver a gentle kiss. ‘Merry Christmas, love,’ he said softly, smiling with that little twist of irony in his voice.

I chuckled. ‘Merry Christmas,’ I agreed. ‘Damn good thing we don’t actually celebrate the holiday, or this whole thing might be kind of depressing.’

He laughed at my lame attempt at humor and might have replied, but the comm. finally chirped for our attention, announcing that they’d dredged up Ms. Kasten.

I was kind of surprised when Heero perched on the armrest of the pilot’s chair, staying by me while he dealt with the woman.

‘Ms. Kasten?’ he asked, and waited while she acknowledged herself before going on. ‘This is Agent Heero Yuy of the Preventors...’

She cut him off, though she managed to do it without sounding all that rude about it. ‘Forgive me Agent Yuy, but would you mind giving me your badge number as verification that you are who you say you are?’

Heero quirked a little appreciative grin at me and it was a bit of a relief to finally be talking to someone who seemed to know how to do their damn job. ‘Certainly,’ he told her and rattled the thing off from memory. We had to wait a few minutes while she, or more likely, someone on her staff, made contact with Preventors headquarters. When she came back on the line, there seemed to be a touch more respect in her voice.

‘All right, Agent Yuy,’ she told him brusquely. ‘Your people vouch for the badge number and the fact that you were booked on that flight. Now... my top propriety here is the safety of that shuttle. I understand that Captain Gray has been detained, I need to know who you have at the controls.’

‘Of course,’ Heero assured her. ‘My partner is an experienced and licensed pilot,’ and he looked to me to complete the sentence. To give the woman the information she wanted.

‘Duo Maxwell, Ma’am,’ I informed her and went ahead with my license number, knowing she’d be asking for it next. There was another bit of a wait while they ran my id.

‘Your status shows inactive, Captain Maxwell,’ she said when she came back to the mike. ‘You sure you can handle this?’

‘It’s like riding a bicycle,’ I quipped, not knowing what in the hell else to answer to that question. ‘You never really forget how it’s done. Besides... we don’t have a lot of other choices at the moment.’

She hesitated while she thought it over, I guess, and I wanted to ask her if she was perhaps going to teleport a replacement pilot into the cockpit. Heero settled a hand on my shoulder and the united front was kind of nice, even if the woman couldn’t see it.

‘All right, Agent Yuy,’ she said, obviously deciding that I was the best she had at the moment and dismissing whatever doubts she’d been dwelling on in favor of a new topic. ‘You mind telling me just what happened up there?’

‘I would prefer not discussing it on an open channel,’ Heero told her. ‘Suffice it to say that the lightest charge against Captain Gray will be gross negligence of duty.’

I almost snickered, but bit back on it. Heero squeezed my shoulder again and gave me a mock glare.

There was another pause and Security Chief Kasten did not sound happy when she spoke next. ‘Fair enough, Agent Yuy,’ she said crisply, and dismissed him this time, speaking to me again. ‘Captain Maxwell, we will be bringing you in under a standard level three emergency.’

I opened my mouth to protest, but then snapped it shut again. That rankled, but I suppose it was only procedure. So, ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ was all I said.

I’d never before had to land anything on the ‘ditch and burn’ strip, as pilots affectionately called it. The runway that was so far away from the terminal and all other traffic, that even if you were drunk off your ass and tried to land one-handed, you couldn’t screw up bad enough to damage anything that mattered. It affronted my spacer pride somehow.

There was the murmur of voices over the radio, as Ms. Kasten conferred with someone, then she was back. ‘We have you on the ground at twelve hundred hours, gentlemen. I will expect a full debriefing immediately.’

‘Of course,’ Heero told her, sounding just a bit disdainful, perhaps irritated that she had felt compelled to tell him something he already knew.

‘I’ll see you on the field then,’ she said, and if she heard his tone of voice, she ignored it. ‘Oh,’ she said suddenly, a hint of amusement suddenly coloring her voice. ‘Merry Christmas. You’ll make mine a lot brighter if you keep that ship in one piece.’

I could not contain the derisive snort that time. ‘I’ll see what I can manage,’ was all I told her, because most of the rest of the lines that popped into my head weren’t really appropriate.

She signed off then, and I imagined her turning around and ordering a room full of people into action. ‘Are you imagining a huge blond, Valkyrie woman?’ I asked Heero, only half kidding.

He chuckled. ‘Actually, I was envisioning a woman with black hair pulled back in a severely tight bun who answers to the name of Natasha.’

I couldn’t help laughing in return, and found my head leaning to rest against him since he was sitting right there anyway. ‘Well, Natasha or Brunhilde, I have a feeling we’re going to be heartily sick of her before the day is over.’

He sighed and rubbed his hand up and down my arm. ‘I’m sorry, but yes... we’re probably going to be in the security office for most of the day.’

I sighed in return, but couldn’t think of a thing to say in response. Whining about feeling like I was at the end of my rope wasn’t going to make all the red tape go away. It wasn’t going to make me exempt from having to testify.

He seemed to understand how I was feeling, because he lifted a gentle hand to trace along my cheek, but I had to catch it in my own, stilling it where I could look at it. His fingertips and the heel of his palm were bruised black, and I bent to carefully brush my lips over the undamaged flesh in the center of his hand. Acknowledging the price he’d paid in winning our freedom. His body, sometimes, has trouble bearing up to that strength of his.

Heero only smiled, but we didn’t speak of it.

‘Duo,’ he said softly. ‘We have a couple of hours... do you think you could get some sleep? You’ve been up all night after a couple of rough days...’ he just let it trail off, asking the question and not pushing. I thought about it; sleep sounded very damn heavenly. I was so very tired. Achy down in the bone tired, and if I was going to be taking this ship in, a little rest sure as hell wouldn’t hurt. But I had to be bluntly honest.

‘Not away from you,’ I told him. ‘If you’re asking me to go back to the cabin; I’m too edgy over that crap with Gray. I wouldn’t be able to relax without you there to watch my back. And at least one of us has to stay here.’

‘I’m not separating us for anything, until we’re off this damn ship,’ Heero said firmly. ‘But, do you think you could take a nap here in the cockpit?’

‘I can try,’ I conceded. ‘Just... don’t let me sleep too long. Give me a good half an hour to wake up before I have to do anything the matters.’

‘All right,’ he agreed, and I was absolutely appalled at how fast I was gone after I settled back in the chair and made the conscious effort to let go.

It was very much like falling into a black hole.

I think Heero was a little distressed by how much trouble he had waking me back up, and he’d given me the whole three hours; calling me a half an hour before our approach began, almost to the minute.

I had to get up and walk around the cabin to get the kinks out, I don’t think I so much as twitched a muscle the whole time I was asleep. I would cheerfully have drunk any damn think Bobbi would have brought me at that moment, and asked for seconds.

‘God, Duo,’ Heero told me, watching as I tried to stretch and bend in the awkward confines of the cockpit. ‘You’re exhausted; are you sure you can do this? I’ve never brought in anything this size before, but I can...’

‘I’m fine,’ I told him, putting a little more effort into waking up. ‘But I have to use the head so bad I’m going to pee the pilot’s seat if I try to land this sucker without going first.’

He didn’t look happy about it, but finally confessed, ‘Me too. I was hoping to get on the ground first, but it’s starting to get... distracting.’

I grinned at him. ‘Ok... this is beyond ridiculous. I’m going out into the main cabin to the damn head. You can see it from the cockpit door, if you want to stand watch. I’ll guard your potty break if you’ll guard mine.’

I swear, I think his face tinged just a touch pink. He nodded and we executed mission ‘Pee or Explode’.

It was almost painful to go, it had been so long. When I was done, I washed my face and sucked water out of my hands from the faucet. It felt like the best damn drink I’d had in years.

The worst part was enduring the curious stares from the passengers that were starting to filter into the cabin to belt down for reentry. I just tried not to make eye contact and walked briskly.

Then it was my turn to stand in the hatchway and watch while Heero made his own trip.

Nothing at all happened, other than Leslie giving him a polite ‘good morning’ as he made his way back. I wanted to laugh at our paranoia, but couldn’t quite forget the sound of air being sucked out an airlock. I shivered and decided that it wasn’t paranoia if they really were out to get you.

Then it was no more playing. Time to buckle down, belt down and get the hell to the job at hand.

‘You’re in charge,’ Heero told me as he settled himself into the co-pilot’s seat. ‘You just tell me what to do.’

I snorted and glanced across at him. ‘Of course I am... I’m the Captain,’ I quipped and got a grin out of him. ‘Pull up the second level status screens and keep an eye on my heat and energy outputs. My Demon wasn’t this large; don’t let me drift into the red. I’ll keep the first level on my screens. I don’t intend to so much as scuff the paint on this baby.’

Heero couldn’t help an odd little smirk. ‘Getting our pride up, are we?’

‘Damn straight,’ I grumbled. ‘Never had to land on the ‘ditch and burn’ in my entire life and I am professionally insulted that the woman is going to make me do it now.’

Heero laughed out right at me, looking... pleased with me, if that makes any sense at all. I just shook my head and got down to work. I buzzed the intercom and let Bobbi know to put on her ‘seats in the upright position’ speech. Then I called the tower to take my coordinates.

‘Don’t you break my shuttle, Captain Maxwell,’ Ms. Kasten told me, and I could freakin’ hear the smug grin in her voice.

‘I was landing ships while you were still doing your graduate thesis,’ I smirked right back at her, positive that her first name was Brunhilde. ‘Don’t you worry about your shuttle.’

‘You don’t sound that old, Captain,’ she said, amused.

‘I’m not,’ I informed her and killed the connection. ‘Five bucks says she’s blond and no less than five foot eight,’ I muttered to Heero and he chuckled.

‘You’re on,’ he said. ‘My five says she’s black-haired and wearing stiletto heels.’

Then it was time to plot my trajectory and get ready for the descent. I did it in my head, then verified it with the computer, finally calling to Heero, ‘Spec it one more time.’

He did, without question, but had to tell me, ‘You knew you had that.’

‘Not taking any chances as tired as we are,’ I informed him. ‘You see anything that so much as makes your nerves quiver, you call me on it. Check and double check. I’m not going to get pissed off if you question me.’

He was rather quiet, but as I’d just killed the autopilot, I really didn’t have the attention to spare to look across at him.

‘Aye, Captain,’ he finally said, and there was a hint of... respect in his voice that made me want to grin.

Commercial shuttles are... big. Really damn big, and not in a good way. I have to confess to a couple of ‘oh shit’ moments when I first took that yoke in my hands. It’s kind of like the difference between driving a car with power steering and suddenly finding yourself behind the wheel of a John Deer tractor. Salvage ships are designed for maximum maneuverability; you have to be able to take them any damn where and keep yourself in one piece while doing the job of salvaging. Commercial shuttles are... bricks with wings.

‘I’m getting uneven output on the engines,’ Heero told me calmly and I called up his screens, watching the levels as I made adjustments. ‘There,’ he told me when I had it, and I turned the watching back over to him.

‘Not going to have a lot of margin for error on this puppy, are we?’ I muttered and he grunted his agreement.

I didn’t have long to get the feel of the ship before we passed ‘zenith’ and were totally committed. The last hour, autopilot had engaged the vane array and we had dumped the prerequisite velocity, but it still felt very much like riding a flaming comet to Earth. But then... it always does.

I wished I could play my music.

‘Watch the number two,’ Heero said and I flicked my attention to that engine’s telemetry.

‘Runs hot, doesn’t she?’ I murmured back, and bumped the stabilizer just a hair.

‘It’s synched,’ Heero let me know and I forgot about it, trusting him to keep an eye on the recalcitrant thing. I split the main screen and put up a topography map next to a simulation of our trajectory.

I marked our path with a yellow flag and told Heero, ‘Landing gear down when we reach that point, ok?’

‘Affirm,’ he responded, acknowledging responsibility for the task.

I started to feel the buck in the yoke that told me the wrestling match was underway, and I couldn’t spare much thought to anything but holding her steady. The border of the simulation began to glow red, showing us the outside temperature as it rose.

Instincts and habit began to kick in, and it was like I had never left the trade. Like I’d never turned my back on this. I felt a bubble of panic, thinking that I had forgotten to slap Solo’s shoulder, until I remembered the ship was not mine.

‘Duo,’ Heero’s voice sounded just a bit hesitant. ‘A little shallow?’

‘Not with a passenger class,’ I told him, keeping my eyes on my boards. ‘Handles a lot different from a transport.’

‘Sorry,’ he said softly.

‘Don’t be,’ I told him gruffly. ‘I said to question.’

I couldn’t look to make sure the reassurance was enough.

I remember thinking that I really would have preferred to do this with a little bit more sleep to my credit.

They don’t name commercial passenger shuttles, just those stupid numbers. I always thought that was an insult to the ship and wondered idly if Gray had named the think in private. Fourteen-ten seemed so... impersonal.

‘Jinx,’ Solo whispered in the air beside my ear and I had to grin.

‘Thought you were watching my house, asshole?’ I murmured and he took his limited existence away with a dark chuckle.

‘Duo?’ Heero called. ‘Are you... all right?’

I let out with a laugh, and dared a flick of my eyes his way. ‘Oddly enough, going down in a flaming ball of disintegrating metal is not half as frightening as putting on a vacuum suit and going out-ship.’

There was a noise like a laugh that had been bludgeoned to death. I grinned in response, but don’t think he saw it.

It was quiet for a long couple of minutes while I just held on, feeling muscles bunch and knot. Damn, but commercial shuttles are fucking ungainly beasts.

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