I ran up and down the beach until my legs turned to rubber and I collapsed on the sand. Then I stood up and ran some more. Then fell again.
I laid there, belly-down on the ground. The sand still held the warmth of the daytime sunlight even though the night itself was cool. I was just close enough to the water to feel it brushing against my outstretched hand with each ebb and flow.
I think I almost fell asleep but a happy bark rang out and I felt a warm tongue on my face and smelled doggy breath. With a sigh I pushed myself up into a sitting position and tried to dust myself off the best I could, which wasn't easy with an ecstatic Osmar trying to help.
"Are you okay? I got here as fast as I could."
I considered his question for a minute as Jaf sat down next to me on the beach.
"No. I will be, though." I said at last.
I had given him the Cliff Notes version of what had happened when I called him. Now I gave him the full version. He listened quietly as I finished with bringing Linra back to the house and my father ordering me to go home and let him handle it.
"Okay. Now tell me the rest of it." He said when I was done, his eyes looking right through me.
"We fought. My father and I. I guess that's not the right term for it." I licked my lips. "I tried to fight him. He wouldn't fight back. He kept putting me out of commission without even raising his hand."
"Sounds to me." Jaf said thoughtfully. "That he may not have hit you, but he sure beat the hell out of your pride."
"Yeah." I nodded; glad the darkness hid the red in my cheeks.
He tilted his head, studying me for a moment, and I felt strange. Uncomfortable. It was like he was looking for something, or trying to see something in me. He nodded very slightly, more to himself than to me.
"Jazz... I'm willing to help you. I don't like going against your father like this, though. I don't like it at all. We could both end up in serious trouble."
"No one will ever know you were involved. I'll say I carried everything out on my own." I promised.
Jaf tossed a stick for Osmar to chase. "He may never trust you again after this. Are you willing to take that chance?"
"He doesn't trust me now anyway. If he did..." I fought back a familiar ache. "He doesn't take me seriously. Everything I say he just dismisses like I'm some cute, dumb little kid. He didn't even take me seriously enough to sock me one when I deserved it. I can imagine them lying there now telling each other that I was just angry and didn't mean anything I said. It's not like I can't take a punch."
"I used to fight all the time. People used to say things about my dad back on the Colony. Well, here they wouldn't be considered bad things, but there they were considered pretty bad. I got away from it when I came here but then the other Earth and Colony kids came and it started up again. That was when I was smaller, though. Ever since I got big no one messes with me much any more."
"You fought to defend your father's good name." Jaf noted. "Did you ever fight for what anyone said about you?"
I considered. "No... no one's ever said much about me. Nothing I thought was worth getting into a fight about, anyway."
Again, the searching look. Another nod. I felt like I was taking a test or something. Something else was nagging at me, something half remembered. It felt like the remains of a paper tag on a shirt. Too far gone to dig out, but still sharp enough to irritate me.
"What are you going to do when you leave school?" He asked suddenly.
"Farming. I've got my own fields back home and I'm studying new techniques."
I could have sworn the look in his eyes then was displeasure but it passed quickly. I mentally deducted 5 points from my test score.
"What is your plan for tomorrow? They're going to be watching you pretty closely."
"Easy. There's another door near the back of the shuttle mostly for crew usage and emergencies. I noticed it last time I was there. Right before take-off it's deserted. So I say I have to go back to the bathroom, and then sneak out the rear of the shuttle. Then I double back to the teleporter and to your place. I stay with you and do my own investigation into what's grabbing the girls and what tried to get my Linra." My hands clench in the sand.
"And you know the minute the shuttle lands Chang Wufei is going to be on the communicator to your father and Heero telling them that a certain someone did not return to Dera with them."
I shrugged. "And what are they going to do about it? Rant and rave, but what else can they do?"
He still did not look convinced. "Look." I sighed. "I've got money. I'll pay for all my own stuff."
Jaf laughed suddenly.
"And how long do you think it's going to take them to pull up your account record and see where you're getting your food sent to?"
I hadn't thought of that. I swore under my breath.
"Don't worry about it." Jaf waved his hand. "I've got enough money to keep one teenager fed for a week or so. But I can see that we have a lot we need to talk about."
"What do you mean?"
Jaf absently rubbed Osmar's belly and stared at the water for a minute. "Let's say that, hypothetically, there's a little more to me than meets the eye. Let's say that, also hypothetically, there's a few people out there who would very much like to have a heart-to-heart chat with me. And let's also say that it would not be very beneficial to my health, happiness, or well-being if this were to happen."
"So, hypothetically, you would have gotten very good at hiding from these someones. If this were the case." I added, intrigued.
"Exactly. I had a few close calls in the beginning." He was no longer speaking in "hypothetical" tense. "I just assumed my enemies would let me go on my merry way. That wasn't quite the case. But I have gotten good: I could hide in your house for months before you even knew I was there. And then you'd find out because I decided to let you, not because I got careless."
"I guess it's none of my business what you did that ticked everyone off so badly."
"I did... my job. Maybe it doesn't make it right, but at the time I did what I believed I had to do. Hindsight is 20/20."
"You don't like who you used to be." I observed.
"No." He shook his head. "I'm always who I was. I just take a different approach to handling my problems now."
"What changed you?"
He was quiet for a long while. "A moment of compassion when I didn't deserve it, actually. Someone who had a very good reason for wanting to take my life asked for it to be spared. Funny how a few seconds can change your entire outlook on life."
"You're right. You're not quite who I thought you were." I had to admit.
"You don't know the half of it." He smiled then, like he was enjoying a private joke. "I've told you more than I've told anyone else. I'll keep your secret, you keep mine. Deal?"
"Deal." We shook hands.
I watched the boy head back toward the beach house, convinced that his plan would go off without a hitch, filled with the confidence of youth.
A farmer. I spat on the sand. That brilliant mind baked under a hot sun. All that potential regulated to growing dekorn. His parents needed to be beaten for allowing him to pursue such a future.
Yes, he was how I remembered. Intelligent, proud, stubborn. Unrefined. At the moment he was a solid lump of stone, rough and unchiseled. But I could see into it; I could see the work of art that he might become if sculpted correctly.
I stared down at my hands, wondering if I was up to it. But if not me, then who? He was my Choice, and now more than ever I was convinced I had made the right one. I had hoped to find him better prepared by now, although I knew it would still be years until he was ready. Long enough to do a little damage control, to steer him toward a more appropriate path.
I touched the sand under my hand. My world. A sense of fierce loyalty came over me and I almost wept. Mine. I alone knew the danger it was now in, I alone knew that we faced a far greater risk than the loss, tragic as it was, of a few young girls.
I had choices. I could speak up, tell them what was happening, warn them. I might even get a complete sentence out of my mouth before Duo Maxwell ripped me to shreds.
I could do nothing. Oh, excellent choice, that. How badly could being ripped to shreds be, after all?
Or I could help them discover the truth on their own, from the sidelines. My world protected, my own life protected, and everyone goes to sleep happy at the end of it all. I'd grown rather fond of living, the short time I'd actually been doing it. I was not willing to give that up.
Which brought me back around again to the boy. I hadn't expected him to actually move in with me, but fate had a sense of humor at times. I only wished that he was older. Ah well, fifteen was better than eight.
"Come on, lazy." I said to the dog, getting to my feet. I had a guest room to prepare.
She does not smell of perfume, this woman that I claimed as my own.
She smells like peanut butter, which Quatre sends us in bulk. She smells a little like crayons sometimes. Sometimes she smells like grass, after she and the children have been rolling about in it. Sometimes she smells like me, when she lays pressed against me, her skin damp and almost translucent. She smells like every good, wonderful, unpretentious thing I have ever known.
Sometimes she laughs at me when I bury my nose in her shoulder and sniff. But I know she likes it, for she understands full well the value of laughter and will not give it to something she detests. But she will laugh for me, and laugh for our children.
Those who think that I assume the bulk of responsibility for our offspring do not know my Denea. Yes, there are things that are more difficult for her to accomplish, and that she needs me for, but I in turn could not manage without her. She is a mother; she holds that sacred and is not about to let a small matter of eyesight stop her from being a mother. There is no self-pity in her, she will not allow it, nor will she allow others to pity her.
My woman. My heart. My life.
She reaches for me, her hand combing through my hair, tugging on it just slightly. I shiver as her mouth brushes against my ear. "Worn out yet?" she whispers.
"Woman, I've barely even broken a sweat."
"Oh, that sounds like a challenge."
"First one to collapse loses." I can't help adding "May the best man win."
She shoves me back against the pillows and straddles my waist. "The best WOMAN will."
There are no words to describe how much I love her.
"Where were you?" I asked as he snuck in the door.
He paused, obviously not expecting anyone to have been awake to catch him.
"Out." he muttered, and tried to walk past me. I blocked his path.
"Out walking on the beach." He said sullenly.
"At 3AM, after Linra was almost kidnapped, you decided to take a stroll along the beach."
"Yes, as a matter of fact I did. May I please go to bed now?"
We do a visual battle for a moment. "Go ahead. Who am I to stop you?" I didn't mean to let the hurt seep into my voice but the words came out before I could stop them. "I'm just the guy your father sleeps with." I turned to walk away.
"Wait. Ojisan, wait."
I turned around. "I'm... sorry." He shuffled his feet. "I shouldn't have said something like that. I was mad, and... you were there."
I was quiet for a moment. My mind knew all of this; my heart still stung.
"I'm sorry." he said again. "You've been... an awesome pledge-father. Please forgive me."
His body was a man's but his eyes were still a little boy's. I caved under that look. I always did. And I could no more turn away and leave him like that than I could have the person he learned it from.
"Of course I forgive you. I know you were upset about Linra. Don't worry about it."
He sagged in relief and I realized that he had truly been concerned that I'd stop loving him over this. Once again I was reminded of the little boy inside the man.
"Come over here." I snorted, and he gave me a sheepish look and complied. "What am I going to do with you?" I embraced him and rubbed my knuckles across the top of his head. He tried to squirm away and I finally let him go.
"I'm going to go relieve your father. We're taking turns staying awake watching over Linra."
"Don't tell him I snuck out tonight,okay? He won't take it as well as you did." He patted my hand.
And I agreed. That was the crux of it, actually. He was a born diplomat, able to charm me into agreeing to almost anything. Yes, there were plenty of times I should have been stronger, that I should have told him no, that I should have gone straight to his father over.
Damn Maxwell cuteness.