Noin smiled weakly. "You're good at this, Maxwell."
He shrugged. "Wasn't the best piloting I've ever done. Sorry 'bout that. How're you doing back there?"
She couldn't seem to stop rubbing her belly with her hand, as if reassuring herself that the curve was still there, solid and smooth as ever. If there was something wrong, it wasn't anything she'd be able to do anything about until they got back to civilization. At least she wasn't leaking fluids herself. No pain, just some nausea. "I'd be better if you'd tie up that wound of yours. You're floating blood."
He looked up in surprise, fingers reaching out to catch a drop of it. "Why, so I am."
After programming the parameters of the computer's proximity alert, Heero unbuckled his harness and nudged himself free of his chair and into the freedom of zero-g. A first aid kit was standard in the rear of the cockpit. At least that hadn't been diverted to the beam weapon somehow. "Can I get you anything, Noin?"
"That's probably not the best idea right now," she answered, too weary to think about which drugs would be safe for her at the moment. "No, wait. Is there any water in there?"
Heero handed her a bottle as Duo floated to his side. "Any booze in there?"
"Isopropyl. Of course, it causes blindness, but hey, if you're desperate..."
"Yeah, well they say masturbation causes blindness, too."
"But if you're desperate?"
"Okay," Noin groaned, unbuckling herself from her seat right next to them in the rear. "I'm going to be sitting up there. You are now free to continue acting like little boys now that we're not in immediate danger." She reveled in the joy of weightlessness as she moved towards the front and settled into Duo's seat. "Ah. Pilots always get the cushiest chairs."
"We deserve it," Duo piped up, but Noin wasn't paying attention to him anymore. She closed her eyes and started to doze off.
"And she deserves that," Heero murmured. "Hang on to the wall. I'll clean."
Duo was distracted enough to do as he was told. "I hope the kid's okay. I tried..."
"You did your best."
"I know I kill 'em young, Heero, but this is ridiculoussow~!" he broke off with a gasp, remembering at the last moment to be quiet. He cuffed Heero lightly on the head for blithely scrubbing at his shallow graze wound with a povidone-iodine swab, sending the two of them rebounding slightly. Duo's grip on the handhold prevented him from going too far.
Heero just hooked a leg around Duo's ankle to use as an anchor. "You're right, Duo. That is quite ridiculous."
"You're annoying, you know that?"
Since Heero's eyes were on the wound, Duo allowed himself a slightest quirk of the lips. It was a strange thing, having Yuy tending him like this. A little reminiscent, too. Other than the deliberate sting of having an open wound cleansed, Heero was being gently meticulous. That was strange even without the fact that Heero Yuy was curled around his leg. His fingers twitched with the disturbing urge to lay a hand on that lowered head, to try and smooth down the floating strands of dark brown hair. He looked away and focused instead on the list of repairs they might consider doing on the shuttle during their period of enforced idleness.
"Want me to bind it?" Heero asked him.
He made the mild mistake of looking down -- falling down, really -- into a pair of blue eyes blinking calmly up at him. He averted his eyes again and thought about the answer to that question. "Sure, why not. Never know when we might need to go crawling through a sewer or something."
"Over or under?" Heero inquired further, foregoing a comment on the likelihood of encountering a sewer in orbit of the Earth.
It took a moment's thought to figure out what he was talking about. Another day, he might have requested the bandages to go under the leg of his pants, just for the joy of playing with Heero. But he just wasn't in the mood today, and predicted minimal activity. He glanced over at the sleeping Noin and used that as an excuse. "Over."
Heero pulled himself up to reach the first aid kit using Duo's shoulder as a handhold, keeping a leg between Duo's to bring his ascent to a halt. Duo stared over Heero's shoulder, wondering why he was suddenly so shy. Any other day would have had him shamelessly taking advantage of the situation. Tired, he told himself. He was just... tired. He let the fingers of his free hand ghost experimentally up the line of Heero's spine, just barely brushing it at points.
Before Heero really noticed what caused the reaction, he shivered. Closing the door on the medkit gently, bandage in hand, he turned his head to face a Duo he somehow seemed more familiar with.
They stayed suspended in that moment for several heartbeats before Duo popped a smile. "My Heero-groping timer's way overdue."
Heero blinked once before the reference registered. "Ah." Well, the timed gropes had been accepted by the establishment, right? Even though that hadn't quite qualified as a grope. He shook off the odd feeling that had overtaken him for those few seconds and slithered back down the length of Duo's body to wrap the wound. "How long should we wait, do you think?"
"Huh?" His thoughts had been somewhere else entirely.
Patting the self-adhesive end of the bandage in place, Heero let go of his hold on Duo's leg and let himself drift away a little. "The long range sensors on base used to be pretty powerful, but I wonder how much of the computer systems was removed before the base was sold. We couldn't really tell running through there. Maybe Noin will be able to tell us something when she wakes."
Oh, that 'wait'. "We left our trail on a predictable flight path. If they're smart, they should be able to figure out that we're not actually on that path pretty easily. But we could have, hmm, depending on when they figure it out, we could have diverted to any number of outer L1 colonies. Could have veered off to hide in that little cloud they have out there. They have to know how much fuel we started out with. They should be able to figure out how much we have left after that lame excuse for a dogfight we just had. We can't have altered course for re-entry. We'd never make it. If... if Trowa is still doing their thinking for them, then we probably have about thirty minutes before they come down on us. If not, I'd say maybe twenty-four hours, plus or minus."
"I don't think Trowa will be thinking for them anymore."
His expression darkened. "I don't have nearly the same faith in the guy that you do."
"You never spent much time with him."
"What quality time I did spend with him mostly consisted of him being a jerk."
"Can't you say the same about me? And Chang, for that matter? And maybe even Zechs now, too?"
Shit, Gundam pilots were really a crusty lot, weren't they? Apparently only Quatre got away with any level of polished charm. "Yeah, but he's... he's just different, okay? Like, you were just an ass, but it was okay because you were just like that. He was an ass, and you couldn't be sure if he was just like that, or if he was doing that as part of some role he was playing, or if he was just amusing himself, or what. You just can't tell with him. He's unpredictable."
"So are you."
Alright, so obviously Gundam pilots were more than only collectively crusty. "Yeah, but that's bad for my enemies, not for my allies. I don't know what you see in the guy. Yeah, he took care of you after your big boom, but you don't really seem the kind to be a slave to debt without good cause."
"No. Then I would be Zechs."
He chuckled without meaning to. "Man, I don't see what she sees in him, either," he said, jabbing his thumb in Noin's direction.
"Trowa's not any different from you and me. He's been through the same stuff that we have. I don't think he really had a strong sense of purpose to begin with. The government program probably just magnified that. And then took advantage of that. He said that they recruited him."
"I don't see you and me doing that sort of shit."
"Don't forget Wufei. He did the same thing."
"Yeah, well, Wufei's a whole other boatload of shit. He's the reason we were--"
"He was a catalyst, an excuse. I wouldn't blame it all on him."
"You're such an apologist."
"I'd rather blame the government."
"Oh. Well, okay, I guess I can do that, too."
Yeah, he'd thought so. He propelled himself slowly towards the rear hatch, intending to take a look at the systems that had been damaged during the attack.
Duo followed. "You really think you'll end up saving the world this time around?"
"I'll end up doing whatever I end up doing."
"So not an answer."
Heero drew himself to a halt on one of the wall holds, pivoting to face him. "It's not my intention, if that's what you mean. Why? You not interested in saving the world?"
He caught another of the wall holds, turning to a stop with a spacer's grace. "If it can't be avoided, then fine. But in case you haven't noticed, and you probably haven't because you're completely oblivious like that, the world kinda screwed us over."
"I'm not going out of my way not to save it. That would be ridiculous." Duo glared at him with a critical eye, and Heero responded. "I don't know what you're looking for, Duo. I don't know what to tell you. What do you want from me? You want me to say I don't give a shit about the world anymore? You're right, it did screw us over. Is that anyone's fault but ours? We agreed to this miserable existence. Maybe it was the only choice, or maybe it was just na´vetÚ and an idiotic faith, but we agreed to it."
"Don't you think I know that?" Duo hissed, grabbing the front of his shirt. They bobbed roughly in the zero-gravity, controlled only by their two firm grips on the handholds. "I believe in swallowing the consequences just as much as you do, Yuy. Don't you think that just makes it that much worse?"
"So you're going to take that out on the world? It is what it is, Maxwell. Take it or leave it."
"So you take it?"
"I'd find it mighty inconvenient if something were to happen to it. Where would I put all my stuff?"
"Where would you--? You...?" Duo spluttered, trying to hold the edge of his anger, but it choked in the face of such a statement. "What stuff?"
"Just as an example," Heero said defensively. It was the first thing that came to mind. Now that he thought about it, he could think of a few more valid arguments.
Duo shook him a little, the action magnified in freefall. "You know... argh. Just never mind, Yuy. Just never mind."
Heero's voice was muffled from being inside a control panel, but since this was the fourth time he had given the command, Duo had no trouble interpreting it. He opened the computer interface and tried to reinitialize the system again. The process got through the first few seconds before failing the fourth safety check. "Nope."
"Damn." It wasn't really a statement of frustration so much as an acknowledgment of failure. Heero Yuy did not do 'frustration'. "You know, it's possible that we need to be running with more power before it reads as having sufficient charge."
"Possible." He exited out of the interface, only to have his attention caught by another indicator. "Our communications array seems to be... fuck!" He released the interface panel and flew towards the cockpit.
"You don't worry 'bout a thing, little lady. We'll have you out of there in no time at all." The short burst of transmission ended with a crackle-pop of static.
"Much obliged, sir," Noin responded briskly. "I'll be waiting."
"What the hell are you doing, Noin?" Duo demanded, checking the shuttle's main controls.
"Getting us out of here," she answered calmly, plugging the microphone back into its jack. She became a little more testy with him when it looked like he was about to retort. "What do you take me for? Some sort of stupid helpless pregnant woman? I'll have you know I've got two brains inside this body right now. I know what I'm doing."
"Shit," Duo muttered, identifying the signal of the inbound ship.
"What's the fuss?" Heero asked from the door leading to the rear.
Noin spoke to him, hoping he would be the more reasonable of the pair. "Your proximity alarm woke me. This ship was out there."
"The alarm? Hn. I expected to be able to hear it in the back. My apologies."
Duo swore again. "This is so not good."
Heero kicked off to close in and put a hand on Duo's shoulder. "What is it?"
"Sweepers," Duo answered tersely.
"Since when is that a bad thing?" Noin asked. "They thought we were junked, were thinking of salvaging of us. I told them please, go ahead. They'll pick us up along with some of the other flotsam out here, and no one will know any better. I checked the local area. We aren't the remains of the only craft out here. There's plenty of reason for them to be here and pick us up."
"Fuck," Duo said again. It would have to serve in lieu of there being enough gravity around for him to fling himself into a chair. "Why the fuck did it have to be the Sweepers?"
"Has something changed in the last five years that I should know about?" Heero knew he had been disconnected from the world for quite a while, but he could not imagine the Sweepers changing significantly.
When it became clear that Duo was in no mood to answer, Noin shrugged. "Not that I know of. I've dealt with them off and on over the years. They can sometimes find us the things we need that are difficult for us to get through other means. They've proven themselves to be good, hardworking people, even if they sometimes indulge in a loose interpretation of a rule or two. Certainly nothing to contradict what I learned from Howard and the crew of the Peacemillion."
Heero cast a glance at Duo to look for signs of disagreement or derision. There were none. Only a solid pout. "Is this personal, Duo?"
Duo didn't answer.
"Because if it is," he continued. "Get over it. This is a much better, safer, and faster plan than we had."
"We had a plan?" Noin asked.
"We were starting one. But the Sweepers can get us out of this debris field without raising suspicions. If the Moon Base people have been doing salvaging of their own, then I wouldn't be surprised if relations between them and the Sweepers are strained. I highly doubt they've come to some sort of agreement. The Sweepers were fairly territorial, last time I heard. This'll serve as a good cover for tensions later if something comes up. Then they'll probably be able to get us somewhere. Maybe even bring us back to Zechs. I don't see any problems."
"Two against one, Maxwell. You lose."
Duo didn't answer.
The lady of the house picked up. "Noin here."
"Noin, eh? This here is Jean, captain of the Sparrow, at your service, ma'am." They hadn't been introduced before. The man she had spoken to earlier had served as liaison for the two since he just happened to be the one manning the comm at the time. "If you'll just wait 'bout five more minutes or so, we can get you out of there. There anything we can do for you? Food? Medical?"
"No, not immediately, thank you. I'd like the opportunity to speak face to face with you, though, if you've the time."
"We'd like to see you face to face, too. We had your credentials checked out. Seems you weren't kiddin' about knowing people. We got us someone here that can't wait to have a chat with you."
"Anyone I know?"
"He's worked with you in the past before, he says. You'll know him. Now, I'm curious to know just what you were doing a'floating in that field out there."
"Just minding my own business, Captain, and wouldn't you just know it, but my port thrusters blew out."
"Really." The man's voice dripped with more dry amusement than doubt. "And one of them old weapons round-about here. Must have accidentally discharged across your belly, eh?"
"Yes, a terrible accident."
"And more terrible luck, just managing to drift up into this here field. Why, I bet maybe no one'd be able to find you up here."
"Guess we're lucky you happened to come looking this way, then."
"Sure are. There's a bit of the unsavory sorts in this area, you know. Right nasty buggers they are. We've got a mite bit of this tendency to squish the vermin good when we find them. Now, you wouldn't happen to have seen any of them around here, would you?"
"Not recently, no."
"You sure? It can be hard to tell them apart from the good folks, sometimes. Though there is one good test, tried and true: these vermin are always lying."
"I've noticed. I assure you, there's no room for vermin in my nest, either."
"Eh? Tell me, little lady. How many of you did you say there were?"
She'd implied she was the only one earlier, but a simple scan at this range would have revealed the presence of her companions easily. Continuation of the sham would mean a messy end. "I would be the primary passenger upon this charmingly quaint shuttle. There would also be my two fine escorts on this journey with me. Old friends."
"I see. I think maybe we'd like to have a bit of a chat with these fellows as well."
"I'm sure they'd be happy to oblige."
"Says you," Duo muttered grumpily.
When it was finally safe to disembark, they were asked to open the hatch and present themselves before a mounting platform would be brought to them. Noin showed herself first, and after her identity had been confirmed by this old comrade of hers, staying out of sight at the present, the captain stepped forward with a bit of mad hand gesturing. "By the gods, woman, you should have let us know you were with child! We'd've been more gentle with your ship."
"Next time," Duo muttered behind her. "Next time I go anywhere, I'm so masquerading as a pregnant chick. You get all the perks."
"You could hide a lot of weapons inside a fake belly," Heero observed.
"Whoa, you're right. And Noin's not even that fat yet. Could you imagine--?"
"I think you two are missing the point of pregnancy," she cut in wryly.
"Noin!" A familiar voice cut through the noise of the salvage men going about their business.
She leaned out the hatch for a better look. "Howard?"
Duo swore vigorously under his breath and tried a little harder to fade into the shadows.
The bright hawaiian shirt was unmistakable, as were the sunglasses. His hair seemed a little thinner than it had five or six years ago, but other than that, it was still Howard. "Noin, what are you doing out here? And my, look at you! Blondie finally got you knocked up, huh?"
"Why wouldn't Howard be captain on this ship?" Heero whispered to his skulking companion as the greetings continued, but Duo didn't answer. Heero poked him in the side. "Duo. Is there going to be a problem?"
Duo stiffened. "No. No problem at all."
"So it's nothing at all that's got you swearing like a Sweeper?"
Already stiff, more stiffening on top of it just made it seem like a full-body flinch. "I am *not* a Sweeper."
Heero blinked at him. "I didn't say you were. Perhaps they didn't teach you what a simile is at Gundam Academy."
He glared back. "If you're trying to be funny, that's just pathetic. If you're not, that's still pathetic."
"Hey!" Noin's voice floated up from where she was already on the ground and by Howard's side. "Knock it off, you two!"
"Christ," Duo moaned. "She's definitely got a mother's ears."
"And come on out!"
Correctly assuming that Duo wouldn't be coming out by his own choice, Heero rolled his eyes and emerged from the interior of the shuttle. Howard was standing at the bottom of the stairs. "Well, well, well. If it ain't Heero Yuy. I shoulda known you might be in the thick of things."
Then apparently Howard knew better than he did. He used a shrug as his greeting and disembarked. Halfway down, he could tell from the suddenly frozen expression on Howard's face that Duo must have finally come out behind him.
"Well," Howard breathed. His face shifted into something harder. "The prodigal son comes home."
Duo averted his eyes uncomfortably before he settled into a cold nonchalance. "Not quite," he murmured, though just loudly enough for it to reach Howard's ears. Reaching ground level, he looked past his old friend and barely acknowledged him.
Noin broke the frigid silence. "Can we talk, Howard?"
The old man stared at Duo a few moments longer before nodding. "Yeah. Follow me."
He led them out of the hangar and down a few corridors in a silence that Heero decided to break with a question he really did want answered. "Is this your ship, Howard?"
A pained look passed briefly over the Sweeper's face. "No, I don't really have a ship of my own these days. The last ship I captained was the Peacemillion."
He snorted derisively. "I saw the way they gobbled up you boys. Even ol' Noin here got shipped off to Mars. Me? I'm not letting them get their hands on me."
"They don't know you're out here?"
"They know I'm out here somewhere. I just make sure I don't make the search worth the trip. I'm just an old geezer, after all, and me, well, I didn't do much during the wars compared to you guys. It was really Barton's thingamajigger that got their panties all up in a knot, and I wasn't around for that one." He slid open a door to a conference room and gestured them in.
"The Sweeps have gone all corporate, I see," Duo murmured disparagingly.
Howard ignored him as they seated themselves. "So, what terrible thing's happening in the world that brings all of you out of hiding?"
Noin started them off. "Do you come by Moon Base often?"
He shrugged. "No more or less than usual. Those crazy guys that bought that place don't take kindly to us here. Naturally we make it a point to come out here every once in a while. Damn good thing we did, too. Even if it weren't you, we'd be happy to do something to irritate those blasted hyenas. What's their name... Jurgensen? Them and the EUW and some others've been trying to pass legislation to put us out of business up here, thinking salvaging ought to be some sort of public enterprise. Bah, they just want all the salvage for themselves."
"Yeah, they're some sort of special interest, business consortium thing."
"Would that 'special interest' of theirs involve weapons and arms somehow?"
He scratched at his chin. "Nothing I haven't thought of before. But damned if we can prove anything. They look like they're on the up and up. Hell, those Jurgensen people are all big and Sanq-y, up to and including marrying in to the Peacecrafts, though I s'pose that could just be for show. Yeah, you'd probably know 'em, right, Noin? On account of Blondie and all. That why you're in this sector?"
"Zechs was going to visit with them. We stopped by here, the Moon Base, to take a look at some of the things they're developing. They sounded like they might be useful investments out on Mars. While we were looking around the base, we got ourselves a little unsupervised thinking we might check out the old lines, make sure all the war stuff got cleared safely out of here. Turns out there's new war stuff going on."
She shook her head. "No, couldn't tell what, exactly, but not mobile suits. Nothing off the assembly line. But they're using the welders and such to piece something together, something big. Maybe... satellite sized? About the size of the observatory that's out at L1."
"Then what's this about weapons?"
"I don't know. There was a fusion reactor there, but it looked like it was still under development. It was hard to tell where it fit into this whole thing, and we didn't get the chance for a complete picture before they found us and locked us up."
"We saw a test site on the surface," Heero volunteered. "Weapons fire. Beam based. Didn't look like it was much stronger than the beam rifle on an Ares, but the beam was far more focused. The target didn't seem to have suffered much collateral damage. If you're really that interested, you can have a look at the shuttle we came in on. It seemed experimental, but it was in the maintenance bay and half its systems were fried, so I'd guess their experiment didn't go so well."
"A prototype, then. Alright. Well, that's not so bad, then. Though big enough to bring you two baddies out of retirement?" He directed the look mostly at Heero.
"No, not really," Heero answered blandly. He only continued when Howard somehow conveyed a patient glare through his sunglasses. "I decided Relena shouldn't marry this Karl of hers. I dragged him along for the ride." He tilted his head in Duo's direction.
Howard's mouth twisted into an ironic smile. "Ah, so that did the trick, did it?"
Duo refused to acknowledge the sly comment.
Noin seemed fazed by the simple answer. "That's... it?"
Yup, that was all there was to this. Heero didn't need to be reminded, so he brought the matter back to what he considered to be most important. "Noin, while you were there, did you run into a man, about one hundred eighty five centimeters tall, brown eyes, brown hair?"
It wasn't the most precise description since all he had seen was through a slot in the door, but it was sufficient. "Spieler," her mind identified immediately. Her words caught up after a moment's pause, still stumbling over Heero's confession of motive. It was unlike him to exaggerate. Not that her sister-in-law was nothing, but... that was the only reason the two of them were here? "Josef Spieler. Slimy little guy. He was the one that kept dropping in on me to 'make sure my needs were being met'."
That sounded about right. "Do you know what his connection is to this?"
Maybe he cared about this threat to world peace after all. "Sounds like a flunky of that EUW."
"I wonder if we could find some solid evidence of a connection to the Jurgensens," Heero mused. "That would bring them down."
Or maybe not.
"Aw, what the hell, Yuy?" Duo grumbled, reluctant to participate in the conversation, but drawn in nevertheless. "You want 'evidence'? You really think that's gonna work to make your princess call this thing off? Or were you just plannin' on calling the cops on the party or something?"
He was vaguely nonplussed for a few seconds before coming up with an intelligent answer. "I'll figure it out." He got a disdainful sound in return.
This, Noin understood. It was easier than trying to truly understand what motivated a Gundam pilot. She let the boys be boys and talked to the man in the room. "I'd really appreciate it if you could get me back to my husband. The kids left him on L1-X8790 after they sprang him from MO-18."
"L1, eh?" Howard squinted at the ceiling in thought. "We're bound for the L2 cluster right now, and it might seem suspicious if we altered our course now. We just came from there. D'you mind waiting?"
She'd have to, wouldn't she? "Can I make a secure transmission from here, then? I suspect these guys are already overdue for contact, and I don't want Zechs running off doing something hasty, thinking I'm still in danger."
He grinned. "But of course, madam. But if you don't mind my asking, how secure are these boys supposed to be?" He nodded in their direction. "You guys didn't get out on any day pass."
"Nope," Heero answered succinctly.
"That's interesting, then. I'm sure the government would have noticed by now."
Now there was something that hadn't occurred to him yet. "Running on what is perhaps an unsafe assumption that not all of the government is corrupt, we can say that the program governing us was run by the Jurgensens, EUW, or whoever else may have been interested in keeping us down, and that the chances are high that these are the same people that put a hit out on me. I got out because of that hit. Maybe they're trying to hide it."
"And you pried Duo loose from his niche, too. And Noin. And Zechs. Something tells me they aren't going to be happy with you."
"And Trowa, too," he added placidly. "Maybe."
"You've been a busy boy, Yuy. Guess we better make doubly sure to stay under the radar on this trip."
last modified : 1/14/2006 23:52:01 PST