Title: #5 Offering Choices
Arc: Sweeper Three
Author: Calic0cat
Story Completed: Apr. 2, 2003
Genre: Shonen Ai/Yaoi, Friendship
Pairings: None yet
Rated: PG
Warnings: Slightly AU, OOC, Swearing
Archives: Also at Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: The arc begins right after the war ends so the guys are all 16. Howard POV in this fic.

************ Time passing or scene change

Author's Notes: I'm not sure exactly where this is heading; it's totally open-ended at the moment. Pairings *will* eventually work their way in - but it'll be a while. Endless Waltz hasn't happened yet and *if* it does eventually, it won't follow the exact storyline from the movie because of the things that I've changed. Ratings will probably vary from fic to fic in the arc as will POV. Feedback is appreciated.


Howard groaned and shut off the alarm. Morning already. 'Damn. Have to get moving. Don't want the boys headin' down to the hold to work 'fore I talk to them.' Hell, he didn't much want them going down there *period* at the moment. Practically all the suits being hauled in bore clear signs of having faced Gundams. He didn't much like the thought of his kids helping cut bodies out of suits they'd destroyed. But he doubted he could keep them away. All three of them were too damn bound and determined to earn their keep. Ordering them to stay away would create a whole other set of problems and he wasn't too sure which lot would be worse.

Blearily blinking at his mirror, Howard tried to get his eyes to focus enough to shave without taking off more than just stubble. 'Gettin' too old for these late night, early morning, combinations...' he decided as a jaw-popping yawn interrupted his morning ablutions. Unfortunately, he hadn't had much choice. He'd had to do some hasty crew-juggling, shifting personnel between ships in order to cover all the necessary specialties to handle the cleanup from the final battle around Earth. A number of crew had requested transfer back to bases on Earth or in the colonies, unable to stomach salvaging suit after suit containing dead pilots. Inconvenient, but understandable.

The transfers that had him *really* pissed off were the *other* ones. The Sweepers who'd been less than happy that he'd gone after Duo with the intention of bringing him back. And who had been even *less* happy that he'd brought back *three* teenagers. 'Don't know whether that lot was more displeased at the thought of teenagers onboard or ex-Gundam pilots,' Howard thought, still distinctly disgruntled over the whole thing. Most of the discontented crew were new, men and women who'd joined fairly recently and hadn't met Duo or the others more than in passing on the _Peacemillion_ if at all. 'Whole damn bunch of them had distorted ideas of what the boys are like. Didn't want to have to live and work with the big bad scary Gundam pilots. No matter that those pilots were fightin' for *them*...'

Howard shook his head and sighed. He'd hoped for better behaviour from Sweepers, but, well, they were all only human. He just hoped that all the malcontents had stepped up and transferred out. His kids had enough to deal with without adding coworkers with bad attitudes to the list.

The majority didn't mind him bringing the ex-Gundam pilots back with him. Especially anybody who'd been around Duo very much. Him, they'd welcome with open arms. The other two, they'd reserve judgement on, though being Duo's friends would give them a pretty decent start. And the fact that they were all hard workers wouldn't go unnoticed either. He'd seen them come in exhausted and sore from battle and go right to work repairing their suits or taking their turn at routine ship maintenance both in space and on Earth. No, none of them were slackers by any stretch of the imagination.

Howard just wished that they didn't have to be back out here right now, helping clean up the mess from one of their own battles. But there were over a dozen ships out here right now, all of them running two twelve-hour shifts. All of them carrying double their normal crew complement in order to fully staff those shifts. And it would still be weeks if not months before this part of space - normally a major space travel corridor - would be safe for space travel. It wasn't so much the *big* debris that was the problem. Complete or near-complete suits were a nuisance to navigate around but too damn big to overlook. Though the ones too close to Earth needed to be picked up ASAP before they ended up getting dragged into the atmosphere by gravity and making a hell of a hole someplace when whatever survived atmospheric entry crashed down.

And the truly tiny stuff, while it certainly had the potential to become a hazard like any other particle in space, wasn't much of a danger to reasonably modern and well-maintained craft. The problem lay in the hundreds of millions of small to mid-range chunks of debris. Stuff that could do some serious damage to a small private ship or a standard commercial shuttle.

And then, of course, there were the other hazards. The undetonated ordnance floating around loose. The mines laid by White Fang. The battle might be over, but the danger was far from gone.

And Howard simply could not justify his own absence from the cleanup operation, however much he'd like to take those three kids and haul them off to a beach on some tropical island for a few weeks of serious stress relief. He'd considered leaving them on Earth, maybe with one of the married Sweepers at a base. It would probably have been the best thing to do.

But remembering the way Duo had clung to him promising he'd be good and knowing as much as he did about the Kid's background... he couldn't do it. 'Too damn close to abandonment. And after that scene at the mall, I'm not too sure Earth is a good place for them right now anyway. Tempers are runnin' high and the media circus that showed up at the port just before we lifted off for space is a pretty clear indication that it's gonna take a while for things to settle down. They're makin' those boys out to be everything from mass murderers to heroes. That poor Winner kid is in for a rough time of it for sure. He's the one out of this lot that can't just disappear for a few months or longer till people get distracted by other news.'

If anything, Quatre was probably going to be in the public eye even more than necessary. Howard was pretty sure from the way Quatre's sisters had talked that they intended to do a whitewash job in order to placate shareholders. Take advantage of the boy's youth and cute, innocent look. Make him out to have been nothing but a sweet, misunderstood child driven by outside forces to be mixed up in something he really didn't understand. And with the kind of money they had and the kind of media coverage that money could buy, they'd probably pull it off too. They'd even had the sense to "allow" the Maganacs to join the Winner employ as Quatre's bodyguards. 'Not only will that lot protect the kid, the fact that they all tower over him just makes him look even more young and defenceless...'

Sound strategy, really, and going along with it at least while he was a minor would be equally sound strategy on Quatre's part, much as Howard suspected doing so would chafe the youngster's pride and integrity. Quatre wasn't the sort to duck responsibility for his actions; none of the boys were. But they'd been in a damn war, just following orders most of the time like any other soldier. It wasn't right that a lot of people wanted to blame them personally for things that were simply part of war.

The pilots had all seen and experienced things that no one should have to, let alone a kid. The people protesting that they should all be locked up, punished for their involvement, had no way of understanding that they'd already pay the price for the rest of their lives, punished by their own memories and guilt. He'd rousted one of the bunch out of bed to go tend to a comrade having nightmares bad enough to scare people walking through the corridor outside on more than one occasion. He couldn't undo all the things that had happened to them; couldn't make everything magically better; he knew that damn well. But he hoped that he *could* at least give them a chance to actually be kids now from time to time. Give them some of the things they'd never had.

He'd had to work hard to restrain himself at the mall. To keep from buying every single thing he saw that he thought one of them might like. But he didn't want to make them feel too beholden to him. Too guilty over the money he'd spent. So while he'd bought each of them a portable music player and the accessories to go with it, he'd only bought a relatively small, eclectic collection of music, and no more than one copy of anything. He knew they were used to sharing. And knowing how much they all seemed to enjoy reading, he'd picked up a few new manga issues, a couple of dozen "classic" novels in hard copy, and three of the latest model of ebook reader with a decent selection of preloaded material and more downloads prepaid.

There was some basic sports equipment in the gym onboard ship, so he'd forced himself not to pick any new things up. No new computer games either, or movies for that matter. Though he *had* picked up a stack of board games, all old classics that had been reissued yet again. Things like Monopoly and Life, checkers and chess. A few card games like Uno and Wizard, a couple of standard card decks, and that was it for non-essentials. And he still suspected he'd overdone it.

But they didn't have *anything* of their own to start with, really. Just those weapons he'd reclaimed for them, their somewhat battered laptops, a few books, maybe a tattered deck of cards, and a few changes of clothing. Even that he'd been cautious about supplementing. Once he'd finished picking up jeans and workout clothes, T-shirts and sweatshirts, underwear and socks and sneakers, he'd added coveralls, steel-toed work boots, safety helmets and glasses, and work gloves. Then he'd moved on to another store to select plain dark navy dress pants and ties to match, white button-front shirts, dark coloured pullover sweaters that could be worn over said shirts or alone, and black dress shoes. And one of those three-in-one coats apiece to do them through most types of weather.

Nothing too fancy - just one good outfit in case they needed it - and not too many of anything, but enough clothes to get them through a week or so without having to do laundry. And tempted though he'd been to pick up a gag outfit each, consisting of a nice, loud print shirt and wild coloured pants, he hadn't. They weren't sure enough of their place with him yet to just accept it as him poking fun at his own flamboyant tastes and might actually *wear* the damn stuff, uncomfortable though it would make them. And that was the *last* thing he wanted.

Finally ready for the day, Howard headed out of his room and over to the small galley next door. He wasn't surprised to discover the boys there ahead of him, already in the midst of fixing their breakfast. He wasn't too sure any of them knew how to sleep in late.

"Morning, Howie," Duo greeted him, sliding off his chair and looking a bit uncertain.

On a hunch, Howard held his arms out slightly and immediately Duo darted forward to hug him. "Mornin' Kid," he said, hugging Duo back.

"Thanks for the clothes, Howard. But you shouldn't have bought all that other stuff! We didn't need all those games and music and everything..." Duo protested.

"Well, *I* think you *do*," Howard said firmly. He ruffled Duo's bangs teasingly. "So no trying to return it behind my back, got it?"

Duo flushed and muttered, "Got it."

Howard laughed, slightly startled. 'Leave it to the Kid. Figured I was just joking around with him, but he must've really been going to try sendin' at least some of it back...' Looking over at the other two, he shook a finger at each and ordered, "That goes for you two as well. If there's anything that none of you like or want, you can send it back as long as you get something else of equal value in exchange. But no just returnin' stuff because you think I spent too much. Okay?"

Two slightly embarrassed nods confirmed that Duo hadn't been the only one figuring on returning some of his purchases. 'Don't want to freeload and I don't blame them. But that's not what they're doing. They're my kids now and I've got a right to spoil'em rotten if I want to. Guess I'd better make that clear...'

Howard reached over and tousled Heero's hair, then gave Wufei's ponytail a light tug, before saying, "You lot are *my* kids now and I'll spoil you rotten whether you like it or not." He couldn't help but guffaw at the startled expressions that flickered across the two Asian boys' faces at his teasing. Duo's eyes were pretty wide too. Howard suspected that nobody - well, other than one of the other pilots - ever dared be quite so bold with those two. And he certainly wouldn't try to catch them by surprise and do something like that. It'd be a hell of a good way to get hurt. But then, he wouldn't surprise Duo either. Kids though they were, they were soldiers too, highly trained ones. Something he'd reminded the night shift crew of at break time last night and would have to remind the day crew of today. Remind them that they couldn't treat the boys exactly like they would anybody else. Not when it came to back-slapping and grabbing hold of a shoulder and so on. Not without being damn sure that the kid knew they were there and what they were going to do.

"But Howie, we don't want to be a burden. We can pull our own weight, honest..."

"I know you can, Duo. And I don't expect you three to just sit around doing nothing." Howard grabbed a plate and started helping himself to some of the food on the table. They'd obviously fixed enough for him too and *he* sure wasn't about to turn down bacon and eggs, let alone the toast and fruit that was set out ready for eating. "*But*," he continued, "I also don't want you working yourselves into the ground. I know we're on twelve-hour shifts right now, but I don't want any of you puttin' in more than eight, tops, and I'd rather you worked less. The balance of the shift you can spend on study, either for school or just your own interest, I don't care which. The other twelve is totally your own, spend it as you choose - with the provision that you can't 'choose' to spend it doing salvage work. Once the twelve-hour shifts are over, we'll renegotiate."

He let them think about that for a while, giving him a chance to eat a few bites, then told them, "You're getting paid standard starting wage, be sure you clock in and out just like everyone else. Your pay will go straight into your own bank account. That's yours, save it or spend it, it's your choice. Sound fair?" Howard pretended to be oblivious to all the finger-flicking going on. Evidently, he'd generated quite the discussion between them.

Howard was surprised when it was Wufei, not Duo, who finally answered him. "More than fair, Sir."

Rolling his eyes in exasperation, Howard reached over and tugged Wufei's ponytail, warning him, "I'm gonna do that every time you call me 'Sir', ya know. It's just plain Howard. *Not* Howie, despite anything the Kid there might try to tell you." He winked at Duo, wanting to be sure he knew he *was* just teasing. The Kid was a little sensitive at the moment, he suspected. Feeling a little guilty that Howard had taken the others on and bought all that stuff for the three of them. He just hoped Duo didn't hear too much about the crew hassles their presence had created or he'd be feeling even guiltier.

Howard waited till they'd all finished breakfast and cleaned up the galley before turning serious and motioning them to sit back down. "Alright. Now, I've already told you that I *will* let you work. But I'm not altogether happy about it right now. It's - pretty ugly in the holds at the moment. These aren't the empty, hosed down, suits you've helped salvage before, Kid. These ones are just as they got dragged in from the battle site, bodies, blood, and all." He waited a moment for that to sink in, noting the thinned lips and pale cheeks caused by that statement.

"You've got a few choices here. I'd rather not have you three down in the hold where the suits are being brought in and cut open, but I'll leave it up to you. You can take suits out and help bring salvage in instead. Or..." Howard took a deep breath and forced himself to make the offer, "Or you can help clear the mines and ordnance. I don't really want you doing that, but I know you've got the skills and experience to handle it. The choice is yours.

"You can also choose to just spend the next while getting that whole diploma thing handled and out of the way, maybe take over responsibility for stocking the galleys and other supplies, handle general ship maintenance, that sort of thing. None of you *have* to work on the actual salvage. There *are* other ways you can, as Duo put it, 'pull your own weight' around here."

Looking around the table at the sombre faces, Howard told them, "Just take a while to think about this, okay? Talk it over with each other, come find me and talk to me if you need to. I will *never* be too busy for any of you, understood?" He gave them a stern look, waiting till he had three nods of acknowledgement before continuing, "Finish getting settled in this morning, then when I come back for lunch you can let me know if you've decided what you want to do." He stood wearily, tugged Duo's braid and Wufei's ponytail, tousled Heero's unruly mop, and headed off to work, leaving a room with three very thoughtful boys behind.

'Damn, I hated that. I'd sooner just tell'em that they're not even allowed near the damn holds *or* out in space in the battlezone; make'em go work on their studies for the next while. But I promised'em some say in their lives and I can't wrap'em up in cotton wool.' No matter how much he'd like to.


- tbc -