Traditions (cont)

Heero’s expression was a study in ephemeral; running the gambit from shocked clear through to something that looked suspiciously like delight, in fifteen seconds flat.

It made me feel warm inside and kind of embarrassed all at the same time.

So we did just that. Leaving our bag in the overhead for the moment, we made the walk down to the lounge area, along with about half the rest of the shuttle’s meager passenger list. The lounge looked very much like your average up-scale trendy bar/lounge anywhere you’d want to go. Small little tables and chairs dotted around the room and a bar along one side. The major differences being that all the furniture was bolted down and nothing behind the bar wasn’t in some sort of lock-down. Oh, and the drinks are served in bulbs and not open glasses. Heero made motions when we first walked into the room of settling me at a table, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sitting there alone, so I went with him to the bar while he ordered our drinks and then we found our way to a table as far from the big view port as we could get. I didn’t argue the point when Heero sat us so that my back was to that port. It helped me not feel the press of vacuum quite so much if I didn’t have it staring me in the face.

I took a long swallow of my drink and sighed in appreciation, then launched immediately into the last topic I could remember talking about. ‘So, are you serious? Do you honestly think that the guys will have Christmas presents for us when we get home?’

Heero took a more moderate sip of his tea before replying, ‘I don’t know. None of them has said a word to me about anything... it just wouldn’t surprise me.’

I gave him a look that I thought expressed my feelings on that, but followed it up with, ‘That would make me feel like a complete ass, if we don’t have something to give them in return,’ just to make sure he got the point.

He smiled, seeming amused by my attitude. ‘You know it wouldn’t matter to any of them.’

‘It would matter to me,’ I grumbled and started really thinking about it. What in the hell would one buy for someone like Quatre Raberba Winner, for instance? The man had everything he could possibly need, and could afford to buy anything he wanted. How do you top that?

‘Well, there’s no saying that there’s anything to worry about,’ he soothed. ‘You were the one who thought about it... they haven’t said a word.’

‘I thought about it, because Sally threatened me,’ I informed him haughtily, but then grimaced. ‘Damn Heero... what in the world could I give to someone like Quatre?’

Heero did that thing he does where he makes me feel like he’s been waiting all day for me to deliver a particular line, just so he could pounce on it. ‘Art,’ he said simply and left me blinking at him. When I didn’t comment, he elaborated. ‘Duo... the sketch you did of Trowa is one of Quatre’s most prized possessions. He spent hours having it matted and framed just so, and the thing is hanging in a place of honor in their bedroom.’

I damn near choked on a mouthful of soda.

I think he would have said more, but there was a sudden boisterous laugh over near the bar, and we both turned that way to see what was going on. It was the pilot and what I took to be our co-pilot, though he looked awfully young, getting drinks and obviously being teased by the bartender over the launch. The Captain, an older man with an easy laugh and shoulders damn near as wide as I was tall, was clapping his second on the shoulder in a damn familiar way. The kid looked uncomfortable as hell, as half the people in the room were openly staring at the three of them, the bartender making jokes about ‘scratching the paint’ and the Captain laughing.

I saw the kid get an embarrassed little frown and mutter low, making sure his voice didn’t carry. I can read lips, have I ever mentioned that?

‘Cut it out, Dad.’

I turned and exchanged a look with Heero, knowing that he would have picked up on it too, if he’d been looking. The funny little smirk told me he had been.

‘Poor damn kid,’ I murmured, and Heero chuckled his agreement. Would have to suck to be in a position where you answered to your own father on the job. But then... I had to wonder about the kind of policy that let that sort of thing happen in the first place.

The Three Caballeros act broke up when the Captain wandered off to mingle with the passengers a little, and I watched his boy drop himself onto a stool at the bar with a roll of his eyes. The bartender seemed to be commiserating with him and I turned back to Heero, giving the poor kid some privacy. ‘You’d think that would be against company policy,’ I said, lowering my voice.

‘It is,’ Heero said, trying to sound affronted, but only managing amused. ‘I’d have to guess that our good Captain is bending the hell out of the rules.’

‘Have to wonder what his angle is?’ I pondered, thinking about it. ‘Just trying to help the kid log some ‘yoke time’, or what?’

Heero opened his mouth to reply, but then hesitated, getting on odd look in his eye. ‘Well... I suppose you can ask him. It looks like he’s headed this way, and I’d dare say you have another fan among the crew.’

I couldn’t help the heavy sigh. ‘Tell me you’re kidding?’ I pleaded, but he wasn’t, and it was suddenly too late.

‘Captain Maxwell?’ a new voice said and I had to cringe. Hadn’t been called that in a long damn time. Despite the fact that I just wanted to run off to the cabin and hide, I couldn’t ignore the weird-ass little thread of... hopefulness running through the kid’s voice.

‘It’s just Mr. Maxwell, now,’ I said, grinning up at him. ‘But yes, I’m Duo Maxwell... how can I help you?’

He grinned back, his cheeks tinted pink and I wasn’t sure if it was from his little ‘blunder’ or if he’d looked like that when he first got here. ‘Hi, I’m Spencer Gray, I’m the... co-pilot. Leslie, the flight attendant, told me you were onboard. I’m a big fan of your work in the expo. Yours and Mr. Brannigan’s. I think you guys are just great!’

‘Thanks,’ I muttered, totally wishing I could crawl under the table. And wishing the table were a bit bigger while I was at it. ‘I’ll pass that along to Hayden.’

His smile widened and I took another long swallow of soda, willing him to go away. ‘It’s probably pretty silly, but I was totally blown away the first year you entered the expo with that Cherokee routine you did and have been following you ever since. I was really glad to see you enter again this last year.’

I raised an eyebrow, surprised as hell. ‘You recognized the tribe?’

He flushed and ducked his head, his grin threatening to take over his face. ‘My family has some Cherokee blood back about ten generations. Hardly enough to count for anything, but it’s made it something of a hobby for me. I could tell you did some extensive research.’

I couldn’t help grinning back at him, as much for the look on his face as his praise. ‘I told Hayden attention to detail pays off in the end.’

The kid laughed a little more than the joke warranted, and he was looking at me with this starry-eyed regard that was making me squirm like crazy. I glanced across at Heero, but knew I’d get no help from that quarter; he’s always had this vague idea that this sort of encounter was ‘good for me’, or something equally lame.

‘I want to be able to enter the expo one of these days,’ Spencer was saying and I turned my attention back to him, feeling my fingers beginning to worry with my soda bulb. ‘That’s the only reason I’ve let my Dad push me into piloting,’ he ducked his head and looked kind of sheepish. ‘I suppose you noticed the launch? That was me.’

‘Well,’ I soothed, feeling like I had to say something. ‘Everybody has trouble on their first couple of launches.’

He sighed a little heavily and I caught him glancing around to see where his father was. ‘That was my fourth launch,’ he confessed and I flat just didn’t know what to say to that. The first thing that popped into my mind wasn’t very polite, so I left it unsaid. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to need me to interject anything at that point, continuing to impart to me more personal information than I’d ever wanted to know. ‘I don’t think piloting is going to be my... forte, but Dad has his heart set on me following in his footsteps. But I can’t complain if it gets me in the trade so I can compete, which is what I really want to do.’

Across from me, Heero got a strange look on his face, and leaned forward to briefly interrupt Spencer’s monologue. ‘I’ll be right back; I’m going to get another tea. You need anything?’

I frowned at him, but he didn’t take the hint, so I just shook my head and he slipped from his seat.

The kid hardly registered Heero’s words, continuing to focus on me to the point that I was starting to sweat and consider feigning another bout of food-poisoning. ‘I was wondering... Leslie said you signed her autograph book for her, would it be too much to ask if you might autograph a copy of my expo program?’

I could feel my face heating up and took another gulp of soda, trying to tame it, mumbling, ‘Sure, I don’t see why not.’

You would have thought I’d announced Christmas was coming twice a year now. It made me feel decidedly weird. ‘Oh! That would be great! I can’t thank you enough, I know you probably get hounded all the time for this kind of thing, but I’m such a big fan, it would mean the world to me!’

‘It’s not really been an issue before this last expo,’ I had to tell him, wishing he’d stop the gushing. ‘We didn’t get a lot of attention before we ended up on the cover of ‘The Rising Times’.’

‘You should have taken first place this year,’ he suddenly declared, looking decidedly unhappy about the fact that we hadn’t.

‘Well,’ I mumbled, trying to look past him to see what was keeping Heero, without actually appearing to. ‘We were lucky we placed at all. Deciding to enter was kind of a last minute decision.’

His eyes got this kind of weird-ass awed look all of a sudden, and I realized the crap I’d just stepped in. What in the hell had possessed me to bring that damn subject up? It occurred to me in that moment, that I should, perhaps, be paying more attention to the conversation. I meant to interject something else, in an attempt to steer him somewhere other than where it looked like we might be heading, but the sudden feel of wetness on my knuckles broke my concentration for that crucial second.

‘Everyone was so surprised to see you two sign-up in the final hour after that horrible accident,’ he said while I forced my hand to unclench from my soda bulb. I thought I would weep when he suddenly sat down in the other chair, the better to have this more intimate conversation. Over his shoulder I could see that Heero had been waylaid in conversation by the Captain, and I tried sending him a little mental SOS for all the good it did me.

‘The Brannigan’s losing their ship?’ I tried. ‘Yeah... that was pretty rough. The ‘Ragged Gypsy’ was a fine ship, and it was a real shame what happened to her. They used the prize money from the expo to finance a...’

I don’t think he was hearing me. While he might have purported himself to be a fan of our act, it was pretty damn obvious he was my fan, which was just freaking me out no end. He cut me off in mid sentence, not all that interested in Hayden’s trials and tribulations. ‘Oh no! I meant your accident! I was just sick when I heard on the news that you’d been stranded out there in the belt.’ He gave an exaggerated little shiver. ‘I thought it was wonderful how your friends mounted that rescue! I could hardly sleep at night that whole time thinking about how awful it must have been for you out there.’

An odd little noise came out of my throat and I covered it with a lame little cough, taking another swallow of what was left of my soda. ‘Yeah, well,’ I managed. ‘I guess you could say it wasn’t the best time I’ve ever had.’

He laughed out loud, face flushed red, and I thought for two damn seconds he was going to reach out and thump me on the shoulder or something. I think I must have looked horror struck, or else Heero finally got my little mental plea for help, because I saw him heading our way, and there was a somewhat steely look in his eyes.

‘...just don’t know how you survived,’ Spencer was saying. ‘It was so impressive how you bounced right back and made it to the expo...’ I was looking right past him, desperately making eye contact with Heero, begging for rescue and I swear, the kid wasn’t even aware of it. A hamster appeared on Heero’s shoulder, I think it was George, wearing a fencer’s mask and carrying a foil with a little sign dangling from it that read ‘Hi-Ho Silver!’ I really didn’t think Heero needed to be spurred on; he’d gotten close enough to hear Spencer and looked decidedly not happy with the young man.

‘Duo,’ he interrupted the steady flow of Spencer’s words without a second’s hesitation. ‘We need to be going.’

I blinked at him stupidly for half a heartbeat, expecting him to give some sort of explanation, but he didn’t even bother, so I turned a smile in the stunned looking co-pilot’s direction. ‘I’ll get that autograph later, man. Maybe I’ll catch you at dinner.’

‘Oh... ok,’ he stammered, and I couldn’t help feeling kind of bad for the kid at the same time that I was practically throwing myself to my feet.

‘Nice talking to you,’ I managed, as I followed Heero out of the lounge. I’d already decided I wouldn’t be spending a lot of time in there, our room might have been cramped, but it was looking damn attractive right about then.

‘Jesus,’ I hissed to Heero as soon as we were in the corridor. ‘I think I have a damn stalker! The kid knows more about my life than my therapist and dentist put together!’

The almost tigerish look I got at that statement made me realize I’d probably just guaranteed that one Mr. Spencer Gray would be getting his background so thoroughly checked it wasn’t even funny. I tried to feel bad about it, but I was still feeling kind of freaked out. I’d never had a ‘biggest fan’ before. I mean... I’m a mechanic. What do I need with a fan club?

We were alone in the corridor and Heero reached out to gently rest a hand in the small of my back, guiding me toward the main cabin where we’d left our over-night bag. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, voice low. ‘I wouldn’t have left you alone with him if I’d realized how... forward he was going to be.’

‘Forward?’ I muttered under my breath. ‘There’s an understatement for you.’

‘Are you all right?’ he had to ask and I snorted softly.

‘Yeah, I just could have lived without his... topic of conversation.’

The hand on my back rubbed soothingly up and down for a moment. ‘I think we can manage to avoid him the rest of the trip.’

I sighed, wishing it were so. ‘I did promise him a stupid autograph, and I don’t feel right backing out on that.’

Heero smiled at me and shook his head ruefully. ‘Well, I promise not to leave you alone with him next time, how’s that?’

We had reached the main cabin and I waited to answer until he’d fetched our bag down from the overhead compartment. ‘That would be... very welcome,’ I said carefully and Heero chuckled. ‘How did you know to come and rescue me, anyway?’

All the mirth left Heero’s face and he seemed to be studying me intently. ‘You suddenly looked kind of... pale. I thought at first you were maybe feeling sick. Until I got close enough to hear the conversation.’

I snorted, leading the way down the next corridor, heading for our room. ‘I don’t know that that qualified as a conversation.’

‘It was... a little one-sided,’ he opined and I grinned.

‘Well, he wasn’t much interested in anything I had to say about Hayden, that’s for sure,’ I chuckled, shaking my head. ‘That was... decidedly creepy.’

Then we were there and Heero swiped our pass card to let us into the room. It was probably a sad little commentary on my mental state how much of a relief it was when the door slid shut behind us.

Cabins on commercial shuttles are nothing to write home about. I’d been incarcerated in bigger cells during the war. They aren’t meant for anything except to give passengers someplace to sleep. A bed, a bench/table sort of thing and a lavatory that doesn’t even include a shower. I was aiming my body at the bed before the door was even shut, but before I could take a step, Heero had me by the hand and started to pull me into an embrace, but then stopped. ‘You’re all... sticky,’ he said, blinking down at my hand.

I had to laugh, slipping free to look at my fingers. ‘I managed to spill my soda,’ I told him, and it got me an oddly intense look. He knows as well as I do the only way you can ‘spill’ something out of a zero-g drink bulb. He didn’t say anything though, just waited while I went in the little bathroom to wash my hands. When I came out, he’d settled himself on the bed, sitting on the far side, propped up against the wall. I couldn’t help smiling and went to join him, sitting on the side of the bed and lying back to pillow my head in his lap. His hand was instantly there, brushing through those wisps of hair at my temples, stroking over my cheek.

‘Doing all right?’ he asked.

‘Not so bad,’ I told him and tried to make myself relax.

His hand settled in the center of my chest and I quirked him a grin, knowing what he was doing and trying to make it better, because I knew what he was feeling.

‘You’re...’ he began, brow furrowing.

‘Coping,’ I finished with a smile.

His expression did something odd then and his arm was suddenly under my back, raising me up to meet his kiss. It was a gentle thing, demanding nothing, speaking of love, not need. When he drew back, he held me where I was, all my weight supported by his strong, sure arm, and dusted little kisses over my face. ‘You’re being amazing again,’ he murmured, making me snort.

‘You’re being ridiculous again.’

His free hand came to settle on my chest... again. ‘I can feel that... your heart, beating inside you like some terrified bird trying to escape its cage,’ his words didn’t slow his rain of butterfly kisses, only accented them. ‘And I can feel the iron control you have over it, can see you holding it all together. Tell me that’s not something to be impressed with.’

I rolled my eyes and tried to glare at him, but he was too close to see, nibbling gently along my jaw line. ‘More poetic bullshit, Heero?’ I grumbled.

‘Not bullshit,’ he said around my earlobe. ‘Truth.’

I shoved at him with an exasperated explosion of breath. ‘God, you’re so... weird sometimes!’

He laughed, catching at me before I was even entirely free, rolling us over and trapping me underneath him. But then his laugh faded to a wicked grin and he leaned down to bite ever so gently at my nipple, right through the fabric of my t-shirt. I gasped and jerked and moaned all at the same time, finding my hands rushing to cover the offended flesh. I was panting just that damn fast, and my body would have curled into a defensive ball if I’d been able. I was entirely too damn high-strung for that kind of horse-play and ended up staring at him, wide-eyed and not all that sure how one went about saying something like ‘not tonight’.

But then he was off on another tangent, settling his chin on my hands where they were folding across my chest, and looking at me intently. ‘Duo-love... what is it about being out here that gets to you so much?’ I’m pretty sure I just gaped at him for a minute while I considered doing my spontaneous combustion trick. God, talk about a subject change. His expression gentled and he asked, very softly, ‘can you talk about it?’

It kind of rankled and is probably what made it possible for me to blurt, ‘Just the whole ‘pushing your luck’ thing?’

He didn’t get it, frowning slightly and I sighed, wishing my hands were free to rub over my face, but they were busy guarding sensitive body parts. ‘I can just feel it... pressing on the ship, trying to get in, the whole time we’re out here. Like... it knows I cheated it once, and wants a second chance.’

‘It?’ he questioned, frowning at me in apparent confusion.

I heaved a sigh, wanting my hands again real bad. ‘Space? Vacuum? The ghosts of the Londonderry? The God of suffocation? Fate? Nothing that makes coherent sense?’ I was starting to feel trapped there under him and he suddenly seemed to feel something of it; rolling off to lie beside me, head propped up on an elbow so he could look down at me.

‘Sometimes,’ I told him, trying to make it clearer and not really able. ‘I’m just not... entirely sure I’m not still there... and hallucinating all this. I dreamed so many things there...’

I shut up when the pain came into his eyes. He pulled me close to him and kissed me again, but there was no more teasing in it, and I dared let my hands drop away from their defensive posture.

‘So,’ he ventured, sounding hesitant as hell. ‘It isn’t zero gravity that... bothers you?’

I blinked, caught by surprise again. ‘Not... really, though I suppose it can compound... the other things. I kind of miss it sometimes, to be honest.’

He smiled warmly then, seeming pleased with my answer. ‘Would you... like to go spend a little time in free fall?’

‘What?’ I squeaked out, not at all sure what he was saying.

‘I talked to the Captain,’ he told me, a happy little smile dancing around his lips. ‘He’s a very indulgent father. He runs with the cargo hold pressurized, but with the gravity turned off so that Spencer can... practice. I have the Captain’s permission to borrow the room.’

I grinned at him. ‘You’re shitting me!’

That smile broke full force and Heero fished a pass card out of his pocket and waved it in front of my face. ‘I shit you not,’ he dead-panned and I laughed out loud at him.

Then I hesitated, frowning at a sudden thought. ‘We’re not going to run into Spencer down there, are we?’

Heero’s smile became more of a grin then. ‘I checked his schedule with his father, and we should have several hours before that becomes a possibility.’

‘Come on, then, Yuy!’ I grinned and scrambled up, pulling him with me. He seemed... very pleased.

I couldn’t help grinning as we made our way down into the bowels of the shuttle, anticipating one of the things I had missed the most despite all it had done to me during the long haul. I used to fly my ship in null gravity more often than not; under normal conditions it isn’t dangerous as long as you adhere to the recommended time limits and a standard exercise program. It’s not really suggested that you couple it with severe dehydration, hypothermia, and malnutrition though. Your body will take what it needs under severe stress, no matter where it has to get it.

Heero couldn’t seem to keep himself from reaching out and taking my hand, once we’d gotten into sections where it was highly unlikely we were going to run into anyone else.

When we got to the cargo bay doors, he pulled the borrowed swipe card out with a flourish, and I half expected him to bow.

‘What made you think to do this?’ I was moved to ask at the last minute and he gave me a crooked little smile, a little bit of melancholy behind it.

‘I guess I just wanted for some part of this trip to be pleasant for you,’ he told me and it made me feel horribly guilty.

He didn’t wait for the apology that was trying to form, but suddenly gave me a shove through the open doors.

There’s an almost electric tingle when you cross through a null-gravity field, a heat on your skin that isn’t hot. A shiver that raises the hair on your arms, but isn’t cold.

And then I was weightless. Like a million pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. All the normal little aches and pains the human body has just from existing, sort of go away. Stresses you don’t even know are there, because they’ve been there your entire life, just lift away. It was an intense feeling because it had been so long. I made a sound that even I couldn’t have cataloged and didn’t bother trying.

Heero’s push had committed me to a slow, drifting path through the center of the empty cargo bay, and there was nothing I could do to direct myself until I came up against something solid.

I heard a chuckle and saw Heero kick his way into the bay, moving much faster than I was and at a cross path. He came up against the wall to my right before I’d halfway finished my languorous flight, kicking off again and heading right for me. He caught me with an arm and we repelled off each other, me toward the left hand wall, and him toward the ceiling. I finally found purchase and gained control of my own trajectory, laughing at Heero’s look of faint disappointment.

‘You won’t catch me again, Yuy!’ I taunted and watched him come after me.

‘We’ll see,’ was all he said.

After that, when he did catch me, it was because I let him.

It was... glorious. It was freedom on a stick. I don’t understand why it doesn’t fill me with terror like so many other things that used to bring me joy, do now. The scales of justice trying to balance just a tiny bit? Perhaps, simply, that I had loved it too much to start with?

Or maybe my phobia quotient had been filled, so I got to keep this one small thing.

We started out in a strange game of tag, but it turned into something more, something almost... intimate. Something damned nice.

You do not swim in zero gravity. If you try, you will look like a loon flailing about in mid-air and getting nowhere. It’s all about momentum and velocity. People compare the feeling to being under water, but it isn’t the same, you don’t have that resistance. But all the same... I felt like we were two strange, exotic sea creatures in some sort of mating dance. Because that’s what we were doing... dancing. And it sure as hell had never felt like it felt then, when I was dancing with Hayden.

For awhile, I thought it was just me and the strange mood I’d been in the last few days, until Heero snagged me out of the air, anchored to a ceiling handhold and pulled our bodies so tight together there was no denying his arousal.

‘God,’ he growled next to my ear. ‘If zero-g sex wasn’t so damned difficult I’d strip you right here... right now...’

I threw back my head and laughed out loud, grabbing hold of his shoulders for the leverage and grinding us together. ‘They say it’s not impossible, if you can get a third party to help with the anchoring.’

He laughed in turn, trying to keep us together, but the bane of the gravity club came into play; every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and we lost the contact. It’s what makes the while sordid thing next to impossible. It’s what makes it so tantalizing.

There have been songs written about the possibilities.

He kissed me then, like he was trying to turn me wrong-side out, and when he pulled back there was some emotion in his eyes that was so strong it was almost frightening. I saw him want to say something, and then I saw him unsure if he should. I kissed the end of his nose and pushed off, not sure it was something I wanted to hear.

‘Bet we could have done great at the expo,’ I told him, just to get the subject changed before it ever got started. He snorted and came after me.

‘I’m not the type,’ he told me. ‘I wouldn’t like all that attention.’

I laughed as I evaded him, hitting the wall and snagging a handhold. ‘Come on,’ I prodded. ‘Let’s see if we can manage a pass.’

He came up short on the opposite wall and turned to look at me. ‘A pass?’

‘Yeah,’ I called across to him. ‘Like Hayden and I did. The trapeze pass I call it.’

‘Didn’t you tell me that one of you ended up with a broken nose trying to perfect that move?’ he asked, but I could see him adjusting his position.

‘We’re ex-Gundam pilots,’ I teased. ‘Surely we can manage a little zero-gravity trick like that.’

He just grinned at me and it was a little feral. I called the count and we launched. It was the cleanest damn maneuver I’ve ever managed; we passed so close I felt his fingertips graze along my body, from hip all the way to ankle. I shivered and laughed and almost forgot to turn at the wall.

‘Damn!’ I crowed as I turned to face him, clinging to the handhold so I didn’t go kiting off in another direction. ‘We could have been so good together!’

It seemed to please him a very great deal, and I was surprised as hell that he indulged me for the next damn hour, trying some of the moves I’d done with Hayden, even making a couple of them up on the spot. I’d have probably taken advantage of him for longer than that, but the inevitable finally happened and I got kicked. It was an absolutely nothing hit, but it upset Heero enough that he called a halt and came to check on me. He’d only caught me on the shoulder, and though I knew it would bruise later, there was nothing there to see at that point. I think it was my panting and sweating that made him quit as much as anything.

‘I think that’s enough love,’ he scolded.

‘Spoil sport,’ I grumbled good-naturedly, but let him lead me back toward the doors.

‘Hey,’ he grinned at me. ‘You don’t want to still be here when your fan club arrives, do you?’

I grimaced and shook my head. ‘You win... let’s get out of here.’

‘Thought you’d see it that way,’ he said.

He was every bit as sweaty as I was, and I chuckled ruefully as we touched down by the doors preparing to exit into the world of weight again. ‘You know... seeing as we don’t have a cabin with a shower, this might not have been the best idea we’ve ever had.’

He turned a look my way that was totally unrepentant, his grin fading to something gentler. ‘But it was more than worth it,’ he told me.

Then the doors slid open and it was back to the real world. I stifled a groan as gravity settled on our bones again, and had to resist the urge to turn around and go back in. ‘Think we could con the Captain into letting us sleep in there?’ I quipped and got a sharp look from Heero.

‘You used to sleep in zero-g?’ he asked, obviously surprised.

‘It takes some getting used to,’ I sighed in remembrance. ‘But once you get the hang of it, it’s the best sleep you can have. No pressure points, nothing binds. You don’t wake up with body parts asleep. I miss it sometimes.’

He looked at me kind of oddly, something obviously on his mind, but then seemed to think better of saying anything. It made me think about the somewhat evident comparison to my stay aboard the Londonderry and I had to blink. ‘Oh,’ I mumbled. ‘I... suppose you’re right. That would probably bring on some kick-ass nightmares, wouldn’t it?’

There was the ghost of a sigh and I saw the faint disappointment shadowing his eyes, so I flashed him a grin and tried to recover the mood. ‘So... ever tried to take a bath in a sink the size of an ice-bucket?’

‘Not in a lot of years,’ he returned, working with me on that whole mood thing. ‘At least we should have hot water in that ice bucket... instead of melted snow.’

‘You’re more hygienically minded,’ I told him, shivering theatrically. ‘I’m afraid I’d have forgone the bath.’

I managed, in that way, to not let my dark thoughts spoil the afternoon for him. It had been a wonderful gift on his part and I was eternally grateful. Not only had he given me something that I had been missing a great deal, but he had helped me, if only for a few hours, forget where I was. Had let me stop existing on the edge of panic.

I didn’t want to taint the gift with more of my anxiety.

We cleaned up as best we could and changed into fresh clothes before deciding that there was no way around braving the lounge for dinner, unless we just weren’t going to eat. Which he wasn’t likely to let me do, despite the fact that I might have considered it on my own. Though I suppose there was still that promise to Spencer hanging over my head, and had I tried to blow that off, guilt beast would likely have nailed me anyway, so what was the point?

Like I said... no real way around braving the lounge for dinner.

As hard as I tried to maintain my state of almost-forgetfulness, it just couldn’t be done once we were out of the bay and I didn’t have the distraction of the physical activity anymore. Though I did my God damnedest to keep enough of a lid on my unease that Heero wouldn’t notice. Stop laughing; I tried, ok? Isn’t that what counts? And dealing with Mr. Super-sensitive was hardly what I call fair. He was on such fine tuning, I’m pretty sure he could have given you my temperature, pulse and blood-pressure at any given moment.

We had not even made it through the doorway into the lounge before Spencer was descending on us. Or should I say, descending on me. I managed, with Francis’ help, not to sigh heavily. George, however, seemed to have taken a severe dislike to Spencer and was sitting on Heero’s shoulder with a banner unfurled that read ‘Sick ‘em!’ in bold purple letters.

I had a damn surreal moment, watching Heero get this incredible attack-dog expression on his face, wondering if he could somehow see the hamsters, but decided that he just didn’t like Spencer any more than George did.

‘Captain Maxwell!’ Spencer called out as he walked toward us, beaming his ass off and holding a book in his arms like it was something precious. ‘I was afraid I was going to miss you!’

‘Uh... Hi, Spencer,’ I mumbled, wishing the kid would lower his voice; people were staring. ‘And really... you can call me Duo. Everybody does.’ He could call me Helio, if it would make him stop with that ‘Captain’ crap.

The comment made his smile spread even wider, though I wouldn’t have thought it possible. ‘Duo, then,’ he said, having to try it on for size. ‘I brought my copy of the expo souvenir book; you promised you’d autograph it?’

‘Sure thing,’ I told him, finding my voice lowering in an effort to temp him into following suit. Then he handed me the book, opened to a certain page, and I realized that he wasn’t talking this last expo.

Quite despite himself, Heero leaned in to look at the page I was preparing to scrawl my name on. I suppose it wasn’t as bad as the Gladiator thing, but still; I felt kind of stupid looking at the pictures of Hayden and myself all decked out in leather and feathers, beads and war-paint. I blushed furiously the entire time I signed the thing. On a weird impulse, remembering what I’d done for the flight attendant, I blocked in a quick sketch of a feather under my name and handed the book back to Spencer. I could tell from the look on his face that he’d been hoping for something along those lines. I would not have thought a human being could grin that wide and not tear something.

‘Oh thank you, Captain... Duo!’ he gushed, practically clutching the book to his chest. ‘I can’t tell you what this means to me! I’ll bet I’m one of your oldest fans!’ And as if I weren’t uncomfortable enough, things took a decidedly weird turn as the kid reached out and took hold of my arm. ‘You have to come and sit at the Captain’s table! I’m afraid the Captain isn’t eating right now, but it’s a place of honor and...’

He babbled more, as he tried to draw me across the room, but I didn’t really hear it as I realized we were heading for the big table right next to the floor to ceiling view port. I made a strangled little noise but managed to keep the ‘oh shit!’ behind my teeth. But then a very cold, very firm voice said, ‘Thank you, Spencer, but we’ll be fine over there.’

Even Spencer the magpie had sense enough to listen to that voice, his running monologue taking a hitch as he stuttered and turned to look at us, wide-eyed. It made me feel kind of bad. It also made me worry a little bit, that he’d figure it out and we’d end up talking about the damn accident again. So I tried on a little grin. ‘Favorite table,’ I told him with a self-deprecating shrug, following where Heero was leading me. ‘It’s a spacer luck thing.’

He gave out with a surprised little, ‘Oh!’ and then damned if he didn’t follow us. I got confirmation that Heero really didn’t see hamsters though, because he was completely not able to repress the heavy sigh. I seriously thought Heero was going to jump the kid’s shit when he sat down with us, and he probably would have if the first thing out of Spencer’s mouth hadn’t been, ‘I can’t stay long.’

I gave Heero a little smile that begged his indulgence and said to Spencer, ‘Why’s that?’ in a tone that I hoped sounded at least slightly interested.

He leaned across the table and finally lowered his voice. I had begun to think he didn’t know how. ‘Don’t say anything... but it’s my watch.’

I couldn’t help frowning at him. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Why do you need to keep that a secret?’

He actually turned completely around and scanned the room, and I could only imagine he was looking for his father. Then he leaned even closer to me and almost whispered. ‘I’m not really part of the crew, but Dad’s co-pilot lets me take his night shift for him, for the experience.’ He couldn’t help another glance over his shoulder and it was no damn wonder; that confession could cost his father more than just his job.

‘You’re not...’ I began in consternation, and got thoroughly shushed.

‘Please don’t say anything,’ he told me, seeming totally confident that he could trust me. ‘We’ve been doing it for a couple of months. Dad says all the flight time will help me pass the tests and get into school.’

I thought my open-mouthed expression would upset him, but I was able to get my face schooled a little bit while he looked sharply at Heero, who had a sudden coughing fit.

‘Well,’ Spencer said then. ‘I have to get going. Thanks again for the autograph Capta.... Duo.’

‘You’re welcome,’ I managed to tell him and then he was gone.

I met Heero’s eyes and couldn’t decide which of the two of us was the more pole-axed looking. ‘You know I have to report this, don’t you?’ he told me and I sighed quite despite myself.

‘I know,’ I agreed. ‘I really hate to do it... but if you don’t; I will. There’s bending the rules, and then there’s fucking them sideways.’

Heero snorted softly, shaking his head in what I took to be total disbelief. ‘The Captain didn’t sound like an idiot, when I spoke with him this morning. I can’t believe he’d jeopardize his job like this.’

I rubbed a hand over my face, thinking about it. ‘I feel like such a heel... but God, Heero; the kid isn’t even a licensed pilot?’

I think he would have said more, but the lounge attendant came then to ask us if we wanted the chicken or the beef, and by the time she’d left again, the subject had somehow become uncomfortable. I guess I just didn’t much like the idea of ratting out my ‘biggest fan’, at the same time that I was somewhat scandalized by the whole arrangement. I was mildly reminded of my own slightly unorthodox pilot training and the fact that I hadn’t had a license until I’d bought my own ship, but then... I wasn’t still ‘kissing’ the launch spars on my fourth launch either. It crossed my mind that I kind of wished the kid hadn’t been so damn stupid that he’d confessed this to what amounted to a total stranger. Stupid? Or trusting? But didn’t trusting a stranger amount to stupid? Damn the kid.

I blinked the lounge back into focus when a bottle of water was set on the table in front of me and was chagrined to find Heero staring at me with a look on his face that I could only describe as... upset. When the attendant walked away, he picked up his own bottle of water, but just held it, looking at it instead of me and quietly said, ‘If you want me to let this go... I will.’

‘What?’ I choked out, and couldn’t help the gap-mouthed thing I did for a minute. I got to watch him blush to the roots of his hair. I couldn’t get my head around what he’d just offered me. Had Heero Yuy... Heero ‘Mr. CodeOfEthics’ Yuy just offered to ignore such a blatant illegal activity, for my sake? Just like that? Just because I’d mentally wandered off and gotten introspective about reporting it? I couldn’t decide if I should be furious or giddy.

‘You asshole,’ I finally whispered, and when he looked up at me, I grinned and said, ‘I love the hell out of you for that... but don’t you ever, you understand me? Not for something as stupid as the fact that I feel bad for the kid.’

The relieved little smile he gave me then, told me just how much it would have torn him up to have followed through with the promise. He ducked his head again. ‘I’m sorry. I just...’

‘I know,’ I interrupted, and took a sip of my water. ‘But like I said... if you don’t; I will. We can’t just ignore this.’

He nodded and then our dinner arrived, breaking the conversation again. It was typical shuttle fair, I swear to God, I don’t know why they don’t just serve TV dinners; they’d have to taste better. But it was food and we ate it, not lingering over it. I was pretty sure that Spencer would be tied up for quite a while, sitting in the cockpit working cross-word puzzles or whatever he did during his turn on watch, but I didn’t want to chance his coming back. Anymore than I wanted to chance running into the Captain. So we ate quickly in unspoken agreement, and headed back to the cabin. It wasn’t really all that late, but I felt tired enough that I thought I could sleep, if I could manage to relax enough to doze off in the first place.

At least the whole stupid Spencer the not-quite-pilot thing had served to dampen the earlier somewhat romantic mood. I was not at all sure that attempting any sort of... intimate activity out here aboard a shuttle was a great idea, but if Heero had shown any serious interest I don’t think I could have said no. Not after that horse-play in the cargo bay. It would have been too much like blatant cock-teasing.

I was more than a little relieved when we simply stripped to our underwear and climbed into bed together. Though I won’t deny the thought was there in the back of my mind, I just honestly felt too vulnerable to relax enough to enjoy it. Hell... I didn’t think I could relax enough to manage it.

Heero pulled me down to rest against his shoulder, telling me that he wasn’t quite ready for sleep. Our typical sleep position is him spooned at my back, but when he wants to talk, he prefers me facing him.

I was a little nervous about what was on his mind until he told me, ‘This afternoon was... nice.’

I smiled to myself, both pleased and relieved. ‘It was very nice,’ I confirmed. ‘I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you for thinking of it.’

[back] [next] [back to Sunhawk's fic]