Disclaimers: Gundam Wing not mine. The End. The characters Ray and Steve do not belong to me. All other original characters are mine.

Special thanks to Stormy of GWAddiction for her gracious permission to use Ray and Steve here. This is an ongoing series about Duo's time among the sweepers leading up to before he ended up on the ship that would lead to his meeting of Dr. G and subsequent choice to become a Gundam pilot. It's a sorely overlooked (at least in my opinion) part of Duo's history.

Comments are always welcome.

Life Lessons

By, Nicole Silverwolf

"I know I heard something Steve. Twenty bucks if I'm wrong alright?"

Distractedly Ray went back to sweeping the cargo bay of the ship with the beam of the flashlight. The other mechanic considered this for a long while and then shrugged. Ray wasn't likely to be deterred anyways. He was their most stubborn rookie yet. Maybe he'd be twenty dollars richer by the end of this little jaunt. Who knew?

They were sweeping the final bowels of the ship and soon they could get back to the repairs they were sorely neglecting. Ray was the newest addition to the Sweeper group--a skilled mechanic just out of school who had wanted nothing but to be a sweeper since he started college. Now with a degree in mechanical engineering and a wealth of experience already under his belt he was rapidly working his way up the ladder in the group. Howard had taken a liking to him as well, which had made it much easier to assimilate him into their pseudo family.

Steve's own assent through the ranks was not as quick, yet he truly enjoyed his position. Helping the rookies get adjusted was one of the best things about his job. He was good at what he did and enjoyed helping direct the newbies to the right room, parts bin or area.

Ray swung the beam left and then right, letting his eyes scan in its wake for anything that would be out of the ordinary. Maybe it had been just a trick of an overactive imagination. But there was something pulling him to stay...something important.

And then they heard it.

A cough.

The gross, wet and scientifically icky variety.

Two sets of eyebrows raised in surprise.

So Ray hadn't been mistaken at all. The sound, though it echoed and was distorted by the nature of such a room was localized somewhere off to their right. Picking up another flashlight Steve followed much more cautiously, flicking the beam on to join the other in the search.

Slinking from box to box found them soon near the far corner of the north end of the ship. A few packing crates--loaded on as some of their first cargo--were stacked neatly against the wall, two high and three across. Another weak cough radiated again, definitely coming from behind the crates and was now accompanied by a quiet sickly wheezing. It hadn't been audible from the distance they had originally been at.

Steve took the lead, pulling a large wrench from his overall pockets and brandishing it like a bat. There was a real good chance there was some sort of violent creature back there, though he wasn't sure what kind of threat it would pose if its lungs sounded like that. Still in his mind it was a better idea to be safe than sorry.

It was freezing down here, probably somewhere around fifty degrees. Fine if you were wearing a jacket and warmish, thick clothes. Not fine if you were wearing nothing but overalls and a thin shirt like the two mechanics were. The air was almost to the point where it made puffs of condensed air.

The light swung over the bundle on the first round. On the second one it didn't miss it.

"Ray?"

"Yeah? Sup?"

"Go get Howard and tell him to get down here." There was a stressed and worried air in the tone, one that gave pause to Ray.

"Why? What'd you find?" The younger man's curiosity piqued, he leaned on the older mechanic's shoulder and peered down at the object of their search. His eyebrows drew together in a hedge of worry and confused anger. At who it was directed was uncertain.

"Shit..."

Curled up on the floor in the space between the boxes was a kid. A little boy who couldn't be older than eleven if one was generous. The little bit of face they could see was gaunt and stunted from obvious malnutrition. A messy chestnut braid was wrapped around too thin shoulders and the boy was dressed in clothes that--had he be fed properly--would have probably been too small for him.

Wrapped into the tightest ball he could possibly get himself into Steve could see white skin protruding around his ankles, indicating pants too short for him. The little one shivered and shook miserably and hacked another cough out before moaning slightly and trying to bury himself even further. He did not awaken. His face was sallow, the obvious color of a sick person's and it was apparent he was in some form of respiratory distress.

Ray stepped back, slowly at first, still too stunned to really do much of anything. Then common sense kicked in and he turned, sprinting for stairs and catwalk that would lead him back to the main sector of the ship.

Steve stayed there, crouching down between the wall and the first of the crates, his eyes on the child sleeping.

A stowaway.

Worse than that...a kid stowaway. And it didn't look like a runaway either, Steve decided as he looked the boy over as critically as he could from his position. The tattered clothes, too short and too old, along with the incredibly skinniness spoke of a very hard life. Probably an orphan's. L2--their last stop was a poverty stricken place as that whole colony had traditionally been. They had probably picked the kid up there. He was either sick when he got on or got sick sleeping with the thin clothes on down in the bowels of the ship for a week.

He worried a little about the severity of whatever the kid had caught. They had a doctor and adequate medical supplies on board--on Howard's express orders--but there was no way they could handle a breakout of this on the ship. They'd have to dock somewhere to get assistance and would definitely be late in their shipment route.

It was a complication they just did not need at this point.

But as he continued to watch the youngster, breathing thickly and shivering, he found it harder and harder to blame him for it. The child looked so lost. 'Looked!' he scoffed, 'The kid is lost.'

And something pulled at his heart deeply as he waited. He didn't even realize he was becoming attached to the nameless bundle already.

Blueprints were layered haphazardly on the desk of Howard's office. Scattered in between were beer bottles, dark brown paperweights crowding the uncovered portions of the desk. A battered lamp illuminated the table, but cast odd shadows over the rest of the room, which was lit adequately at best. And in the middle of it all was one near asleep mechanic.

Short, bristled gray hair only sparsely covered the older man's head. Tell him he was old and you'd more than likely find yourself floating without a helmet in vacuum. Howard considered himself anything but old.

The Hawaiian shirt he usually was found in was wrinkled and in need of a replacement. But for arguably one of the most brilliant mechanics of the day, clothing and appearance took second precedence to electronics. Dozing over a less than interesting log of their last dock he was startled awake by a near frantic pounding on the cabin door.

Only years of experience allowed him to catch the half-full bottle before it tipped and spilled over. Expertly he brought it up and tipped it back-keeping the foam from spilling over the lip of the bottle.

'Damn excitable kids...' flitted with only half-hearted anger through his mind.

"Come in!" He barked with the required easygoing gruffness he was well known for.

The person, whoever it was took a moment to compose themself before keying the door open. Howard wasn't really surprised when a thoroughly nervous Ray stepped into the room. He liked the new kid, he was obviously intelligent and was a quick study--having picked up half the stuff in half the time it should normally have taken him.

The kid was still intimidated by the great Howard however and he felt like a high school teacher or college professor. The student caught somewhere between awe and fear during those first few meetings. 'Still got that touch.' He smiled to himself.

"What's up Ray?"

"There's something you gotta see boss. Right now."

There was a serious air in his tone and demeanor that Howard caught instantly. Something was wrong then. He stood and drew his eyebrows together in contemplation all matters of a too-cool-to-be-bothered captain gone.

"Where?"

"Down in the cargo bay sir. Steve said I needed to get you."

Howard headed out the door with him, palming it shut and locking it as he went. The cargo bay? What the hell would be wrong down there? They weren't shipping anything dangerous at the moment. Unless...

"We have a stowaway." He concluded correctly. That would explain why he would be needed. He was in charge of this particular cargo vessel.

"Yeah sir..." Ray replied quietly. Howard didn't stop though he heard a very strange quality in the young man's voice. There were complications then. They continued to climb down through the levels without another word.

Within moments they had made it back to the single white beam of light that spread from the floor to the ceiling at the far end of the bay. Steve was crouching near the crate in question, but turned waving them silently forward. Instinctively Howard stepped forward followed closely by Ray. They both lowered their movements to make as little noise as possible.

"What have we got?"

Howard took the flashlight offered to him and flashed it carefully to the side, letting light fall behind the crate, but diffusely so that it illuminated but did not indicate there was a flashlight there.

"Looks like an orphan...too sickly to be a runaway." Steve gestured to the gaunt features and the worn, too short clothes.

Outwardly Howard only tightened his lip in something that the casual observer might guess as anger or impatience. Inside however nothing but shock was all he could register for a few moments.

By far this was the youngest stowaway Howard had ever seen before. Normally getting caught stowed away on a ship was grounds to be shoved out a port hole or onto the next colony if the captain was in a very generous mood. But this kid couldn't be younger than eleven. And it was obvious he was sick, maybe pneumonia or worse.

No one on the ship knew exactly how much of a soft spot Howard had for kids. If they found out it was likely that he might never live it down. Perhaps it had come from the fact that he had been an only child or the fascination he loved seeing in their faces. No one really knew the reason and Howard himself would barely admit it to himself.

But this boy...

No. There was no way they could take on this kind of responsibility. No way he could take on this responsibility. And it was stupid of him to even consider it. Another mouth to feed, air to provide for and clothes to put on. And the kid would most definitely need new clothes. He'd need a place to sleep and he'd just be a burden to the rest of the crew. They couldn't afford a deadweight.

Still, no one should have to suffer like that. And there was that soft spot. Oh who was he trying to kid...the mere sight of the kid had him hooked.

Steve didn't miss the conflict in his bosses facial features. He also had the sensibility to hold his tongue about such matters.

"Let's get him outta there. We can keep him in my quarters till we can get Kerry to look at him." After the two very odd looks the two men could not conceal Howard explained.

"We don't have the resources or time to get the whole ship sick and my quarters will be the most isolated place where he can recover...at least until we get to the next colony. And we can't go back and just leave the kid somewhere."

Ray just barely contained his surprise. Steve stood up and slid to the back of the crates, behind where the boy was situated.

"Help me out here Ray. I ain't your age anymore." Steve grumbled as he reached down to pull the boy out from the corner he had scrunched himself in. Ray slid forward--slight of build and thin in the shoulders--gave him the advantage in crouching between the boxes.

Ray put his hand forward. "Hey kid, c'mon wake up. You don't gotta sleep there now. We're not gonna hurt you."

His fingers brushed the top of the boy's wrist, which was the closest part of the ball that was the child's body. No one expected anything to happen.

But the child apparently never got that memo. With that faint brush of hand against his the boy was hypersensitively awake. Even as sick as he was his breathing sped up, endorphins rushing through his system and giving him a strength born of terror and desperation. A strength that was there though he shouldn't have been able to stand.

His eyes widened in terror and he did the first thing that came instinctively to his mind. He lashed out as hard and as fast as he possibly could.

The fist, small though it was, carried the entire weight of the boy behind it. Physics did the rest and Ray was on the floor rather unceremoniously, holding his jaw and staring at the blur of black and dirty golden brown as it dashed for the exit.

Duo was panicked to say the least. Terrified if he really wanted to get technical about it. The briefest of touches was enough to rocket him from feeling like he was dying to full battle mode. He didn't expect to be staring at a pair of eyes less than a foot from him.

Dread within an instant seeped into him. He had hoped to make it at least another week before anyone would take notice of him. Maybe even enough to get wherever this ship was headed and sneak off. But he was sick and hadn't heard the guy poking around until he was right there in front of him. Duo's mind was already reeling with other places he just might be able to stash himself until the next stop.

All this passed through the boy's mind in the space of the firing of a few synapses. He was already punching the stranger in the face by the time the thought ended. And as he swayed--far too unsteadily on his feet for his taste--he took off for the rest of the hangar. The further the distance the better.

What he hadn't counted on was the guy he ran headlong into. His shoulders were grabbed and Duo faintly recognized a bright Hawaiian print before he was fighting with every ounce of strength and skill he possessed.

"Steve!" an older voice growled. The one who was holding his shoulders. Then the voice was directed back down to him. "Hey kid, stop! I'm not gonna hurt ya kid. Take it easy!"

"Lemme go! Let go!" The boy let out a string of curses as another set of arms grabbed at his flailing hands which were balled into fists.

Ray had recovered himself and grabbed at the boys thin legs which were pounding rather mercilessly into Steve's shins.

"Geez this kid's strong!"

"I thought he was sick!"

"Yeah well he definitely knows how to fight!"

Howard continued to hold onto the boy's shoulders as he fought to free himself. Repeating the litany over and over he reassured the boy they weren't here to harm him and that he needed to calm down.

Endorphins and terror only worked for a short period of time. Duo was very aware that he was at a definite disadvantage. Three people were holding him as far as he could tell. They were bigger and older and a lot stronger than him. But there wasn't a chance in hell that he was going to go down without a fight.

His head was swimming and felt fuzzy as if stuffed with cotton. He was alternately burning and freezing. Everything felt heavy and his vision was getting gray at the edges.

He started to protest more feebly. "Please, just let me go...I'm just trying to survive. I didn't steal anything. I just had to get away from there. Please let me go. Please..."

He turned the most startling pair of wide indigo-violet eyes up to beg the older man not to kill him. Those eyes were clouded with fever and delirium but still caught Howard with their gaze. Not much of a romantic he still was swept away by the strength of will and gentle grace found there.

But he didn't have time to dwell on it as those same eyes rolled up into the back of the child's skull and he became boneless.

"Shit..." Steve, who was best prepared to carry the boy caught the slight weight as it sank bonelessly to the floor. He was surprised at how easy it was to pick him up. The kid couldn't weigh more than fifty pounds...at the most. He was a waif.

"Alright stop standing there...let's get him up to the room. Ray, go wake Kerry up. Tell her it's an emergency and to bring anything she can to my quarters yesterday." Howard barked the orders in the fashion that had both earned him respect and fear from the members of his crew.

Ray was off like a shot the echo of pounded metal fading a moment later. Steve shifted the small bundle gently in his arms and stepped up to Howard.

"Do ya need any help?" he asked, casting a critically worried look at the small black bundle.

"No," he replied quietly the sadness leeching into his words. "The kid can't weigh more than forty five pounds...maybe less."

Howard looked troubled, but deigned to say nothing. He led the way in silence back out to the barracks and down a little used hallway to his quarters.

They walked in silence, the harsh sounds of the child's breathing and the echo of footfalls the only break.

He gestured to the bed with rumpled but plentiful covers at the other end of the room. They were monotone colors wrapped and scattered much like a male mechanic's room would typically look like. When the child was laid out on it, he looked even smaller than before. The bed dwarfed him, though it was small.

A few minutes later they were joined by Ray and the ship's lone physician...Kerry. She was tall, late twenties, nothing extraordinary in looks. Bright blue eyes and red hair--a seeming contradiction to the meaning of her name. She was one of the very few female members of the crew. Her unique background with a degree in chemical engineering had both well prepared her for medical school and for life among the Sweepers. Not having really planned to join them she had none the less been approached by Howard after her graduation from school and completion of residency.

Kerry liked to think that she accepted the job because Howard reminded her of her favorite teacher from high school. The one who had told her that she should pursue medicine if she really wanted to.

Ray's frantic pounding on the door to get up had her springing for the door and keying the lock without being actually awake. The simple words, "It's an emergency," all she needed to know. He had filled her in on what she asked as they hurried down the halls.

It was a long while before Kerry turned her now stormy blue eyes back to the group of three men who waited nearby, but sensibly out of her way.

"So..." Ray questioned without preamble. He was never one to be tactful, prudent or patient as she was coming to recognize. But they did all seem unusually nervous and she dared to think the word worried about the little boy curled on the bed. She had to confess that the feeling was mutual.

"He's severely malnourished. Probably has been suffering from near starvation most of his short life. Dehydrated and in desperate needs of a lot of vitamins. Unfortunately pretty common ailments if he's an orphan like I suspect he may be. He's got bronchitis which is borderline pneumonia--I wouldn't be surprised if it degenerates into that by the end of the night. Any longer down there and he probably would have died. As it is it'll be touch and go for a few days."

"Can you treat any of it?" That from Howard, practical and thinking as always.

"I've hooked him on a multiple drip IV to at least begin to combat some of it. Dosed him up on some rather high powered antibiotics too. He should probably get a bath to help keep that fever down a bit and to get that grime off of him. It'd probably relieve a lot of the discomfort. Other than that I can't tell you more to do."

"We'll take care of it."

"You can remove the IV line to clean him up, just be careful around the needle insert. I'll be back in a few hours to check on him. Is that alright?"

"Leave your com unit on in case things get out of hand."

"Fine."

Being a woman of few words Kerry rose quickly, snagging belongings and placing them back into their respective places. Nodding her approval to Steve, who was expertly removing the IV she headed for the door. What surprised her the most was the way she saw Howard expertly scoop up and cradle the form in his arms.

Howard wasn't that old persay but she had always assumed he had been a bachelor for his entire life. Watching the way he gently held the long-haired boy made her think twice.

Like a father.

And in a flashing instant the thought was gone and she was shaking her head. It wasn't her business and there were still four more hours before she needed to get up. If they needed her they would call, Kerry was sure of that. Closing the door behind her she stood just outside of it for a long moment.

Please don't let the kid die. she offered to whomever would listen without even knowing why she was doing so. With no more than that she walked back down the hall. There was no doubt that she would get little sleep tonight.

TBC

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Thanks for reading.