Shuttle Limits

"Let us watch well our beginnings, and results will manage themselves." Alexander Clark


Up and down. Up - and down. Up . . . and down, again. Up, bounce off her knee, up, and back into the palm of her hand. Up . . .

Lucrezia Noin was, obviously, tossing a ball up and down into the air. She wasn't completely sure why she was doing it. She was pretty sure she shouldn't have been doing it at all. But it was a choice between either this or taking that same ball and introducing it to her partner's head.

Silence. Nothing but silence since they started this ride into space. Oh, sure, they'd had a few brief conversations since they left Earth, mostly having to do with particulars about the terra-forming project, a quick couple of chess games to pass the time. Nothing profound.

She didn't dare say what she wanted to say. Like, "Where the hell have you been the last year? Don't you have any consideration for your friends' feelings?" Things like that.

But she couldn't. Because, if she knew Zechs Merquise at all, he wasn't going to answer. He didn't make excuses, and he wouldn't try to explain himself. Most likely, he would only glance at her and not respond at all. That was just the way he was.

At the moment, he was half-asleep in the seat beside her, arms crossed over his chest, eyes closed.

Zechs wasn't likely to fall completely asleep at a console. If she so much as poked him he would open his eyes and lock his alert, ice-blue gaze on her, wordlessly asking, 'What is it? What's wrong? Are we under attack?'

That was all she ever saw in his gaze for years now. It made her so angry, and increasingly sad, too. Because it seemed war was his essence.

Maybe she shouldn't have come . . .

No. Lucrezia narrowed her eyes at her ball as it took longer than it should have to come down to her hand because of the lesser gravity on the shuttle. She had known it was best to follow Zechs wherever the hell he went. She'd had enough with waiting. Friends or more than that or even less, she was sticking with him until every word unspoken, every action unexplained, was reconciled between them.

She looked at him, knowing that he was probably aware of her gaze. Platinum strands of hair fell into his face, partially obscuring the elegant, aristocratic features and closed eyes from her view. The rest of his uncut mane fell past his broad shoulders, which were uncharacteristically relaxed.

Lucrezia didn't let her eyes linger too long on him. She didn't feel like remembering a face similar to this mature one, only younger, softer, bearing a slight, rare smile just for her. The smile she would kill to see again.

Who says growing up is worth it? she thought wryly, finally tossing the ball over her shoulder and letting it bounce away.

She sat staring out at the empty blackness of the space beyond the fiberglass windows. Her eyes drifted to the console clock of the shuttle. There were still forty minutes before they reached Mars, going on automatic pilot. Would she survive that long?

You're awake, she thought acidly in her companion's general direction. I know you're awake, I always know, open your eyes.

Nothing. She could feel his awareness, knew he knew she could sense it, but he didn't so much as skip a breath.

Turning slightly in her seat, she focused fully on him. Crossed her arms over her chest. Narrowed her violet-dark eyes. She was practically burning a hole through his invisible armor of well-acted indifference.

Thirty-seven minutes. She had nothing better to do.

Lucrezia waited, wondering who would break first.

His eyebrow twitched. She smiled.

He shifted slightly, rearranging the way his arms were crossed. She didn't break her gaze.

The minutes crept by like molasses on a cold day. Out of the corner of her eye, Lucrezia saw the time lessen by four minutes in the span of what felt like an hour.

Actually, it was almost fun. If she paid really good attention, Lucrezia could pick out little changes in his features that she'd missed before. The scars through his left eyebrow, on the back of his hand. The perfect height and curve of his cheekbones. The contrast of his dark lashes to his blonde hair.

So many years in a mask, she thought. I wonder if he even realizes just how he looks. I wonder how many women he's -

She was so occupied with these thoughts that she didn't detect the slight change in his breathing that would have warned her of what he was about to do next.

Zechs's eyes snapped open in a flash of arctic blue. In the next half a second, Lucrezia found her chin in his strong hand, her face inches from his, facing the curious, bemused, and warning glare of a wild white wolf.

"Why are you watching me?" he demanded, never one to beat around the bush.

Temporarily thrown off-kilter by the sudden close proximities and the connection of his eyes, Lucrezia hesitated, unsure, wondering if she should be as straightforward. She decided against it.

"Trying to unlock the secrets of your soul," she replied with a sarcastic undertone. She pried his fingers from her chin and added, "Half an hour to go. I trust you slept well."

He decided to respond to the latter statement. "As well as can be expected. What are we looking for?"

Lucrezia shrugged. "A small base. Maybe a couple of orbiting satellites or shuttles. I have no idea. For all we know the entire project could be in the belly of some ancient Martian."

Zechs looked at her sideways. She shrugged again. "It's a possibility."

"I don't remember you being so sarcastic."

"I'm surprised you remember me at all, oh-wandering-one." Lucrezia absently swiped at her ebony bangs, trying to get them out of her eyes and, as usual, not succeeding. "I've been spending too much time around Sally."

No response. But then, Zechs didn't really know Sally Po, did he? Lucrezia was somewhat glad of that. Sally was generous with her opinions of Zechs. In her words, he was a "solitary rebel with too many issues and not enough sense."

Sally used much more colorful words, though.

The thought reminded Lucrezia to get on Sally about the way she had been sending Wufei strange looks ever since they'd been on Peacemillion at the Eve Wars. The term "cradle-robber" would suffice.

The thought made Lucrezia smile to herself, but a sudden beeping from the console distracted her.

She glanced at Zechs. "Approaching Mars. Saddle up, cowboy, we're going in."

He stared at her. "I'm glad I have an entire year to try and understand you all over again," he said wryly.

Lucrezia Noin smiled. "That's the friendliest thing you've said all day."