"Ode To Leather Pants"
by Seras Serenity
Author's Note: This story is ultimately from Max's point of view, and I had entirely too much fun writing his charming brand of intelligence and sarcasm. I do not own Crusade and its characters. That honor goes to J. Michael Straczynski and Babylonian Productions. Special thanks to Dekri, who was kind enough to beta for me while writing her own awesome Crusade fanfic. And thank you to the readers kind enough to review my last fic. You are all much appreciated!
"Trace. How many fingers am I holding up?"
In the neon atmosphere of "Su Casa Cantina", he could see the pilot scrunch his features in concentration.
"I can't tell", Trace finally said. The man's breath was mingled with alcohol, his voice laced with a sulk, and only barely audible over the cacophony of drunks on their third go round of the song, 'Livin' La Vida Loca'. "Stop moving your hand."
He looked at his hand. It was surgeon still, and with two digits raised like some sort of peace symbol he'd seen people modeling in textbooks of Earth history. He shook his head. Trace was hammered. Tanked. Wasted. And getting on his last nerve- the one that stubbornly remained sober despite his valiant efforts to desensitize by drinking in stereo for a good portion of the night. Trace made a motion to grab his drink, but he seized his wrist.
"Any more of a buzz,' he warned, 'and you'll be flying out of here. And if you lose consciousness before we make it back to the Excalibur, don't think I won't leave you where you land."
"Maxie, Maxie,' he said, slapping him on the shoulder, 'is that anyway to treat your 'ol buddy Trace?"
Something deep within him flinched, and not just from the contact. There were more people in the world- scratch that, universe- than he could count, people would readily call him any number of things. Bad, naughty things, that were only somewhat true. But 'buddy'? Friend? He could lose a few fingers and still count those people on one hand. He propped his elbows on the bar and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Rare and momentous was the occasion that the crew had the opportunity for any true down-time. It wasn't as if they weren't given time for relaxation or recreation, just that it was done within the confines of the ship. Visiting dead worlds, investigating decaying ruins- it was all part and parcel to serving aboard the Excalibur. Routine. So when the opportunity for anything remotely resembling shore-leave came along, it was often accompanied by profuse gratitude; to the captain, to God, sometimes both. The chance to go planet-side, to have your feet rooted in something besides artificial gravity, fill your lungs with something besides stale, recycled air. See something beyond the stark, grey walls of the ship's hull, and take in the sights and sounds of an environment that wasn't so… sterile. Given the chance, it wasn't a difficult decision for him to make- sit in his quarters reading Canterbury Tales for the millionth time, or go explore a few drinking establishments, and maybe a few women.
That's how he'd wound up here: on some back-water Earth colony, in a seedy night club, sitting next to Trace Miller, the only man he knew who managed to get wasted off of shots that contained more water than alcohol.
The younger man continued on as if he hadn't even heard him.
"A buddy…don't have too many of those," he said, echoing the depressing thoughts that had run through his own mind moments before. An air of gloom seemed to take hold of the pilot. "I thought she liked me," he said quietly.
He had to curb the sudden urge to bang his head against the bar- better yet, slam Trace's head against the bar. He'd be more than happy to beat some much needed sense into the younger man. Someone had to. Wasn't that what 'buddies' were for? Before he could react, Trace reached over and grabbed his shirt like a drunken barbarian, bunching the expensive fabric into his hands, and shaking his head back and forth the way he remembered his great uncle Hendrick doing when the nurse gave him rice pudding rather than tapioca.
"I don't get it. It doesn't make any sense."
"Hey!" He uncurled Trace's fingers, ripping them away from the expensive material, irritation turning his protest into an enraged reprimand. "This shirt is a Miltov exclusive, the threads were spun from Azure Butterflies. Do you realize how rare they are?'
Trace looked startled for a moment.
"The butterflies, or the shirt?"
"Both, you idiot!"
His outburst seemed to sober the other momentarily, as his face fell into apology.
"Guess those shots are catching up with me", Trace ceded.
"You awe me with your powers of deductive reasoning", he bit out, straightening his shirt and smoothing away wrinkles. Then he folded his arms over his chest, speculating over the pilot's Neanderthal heritage, while said pilot intently studied the liquid residue in this empty glass, as if it contained the winning lottery numbers. Minutes passed, the sounds of drinkers and dancers coalescing into a pulsing vibration, beating out a chaotic rhythm that was beginning to give him a headache, while a million points of colored light spiraled around the room, across the bar, against the walls, over the odd hundred or so perspiring patrons. It made his eyes burn. At various times, he'd found sanctuary in this type of place. It was primal and physical, a respite from the intellectual arena from which he carried out his existence, willing servant to the twin gods money and knowledge. When had it gotten old? He studiously ignored the voice in his head, the one slyly suggesting he was the one getting old.
Which was a preposterous idea. Eilersons didn't get old, they aged. Like wine. Gracefully. Tastefully. Except, of course, for great Uncle Hendrick.
"Do you get it?" Trace's question stopped his mental journey from traveling any farther down the rails of obscurity. He was reasonably sure he knew what the pilot was asking. He wasn't so sure if the question had been directed at him, or the shot glass.
"Look, Trace,' he said, changing tracks effortlessly to lecture mode, 'ancient artifacts- I get. Esoteric languages and alien linguistics- I get. But your misguided and illogical infatuation with a certain pickpocket-"
"Dureena. She has a name."
"Yes, I'm sure she's been called a few," he said, knocking back his drink to finish it. The bartender appeared, eager to provide a refill, but he waved him away in agitation.
"Why do you have to be such a jerk about this?"
"Maybe because along with your sobriety, you've lost your common sense. She didn't show up. So what. Suck it up and quit acting like a teenager that's been stood up."
It was good advice for both of them.
When Trace had first asked him if he wanted to come along and 'scope out the local scenery', he'd also neglected to mention one little fact: he'd also invited Dureena. When or how that had transpired, he didn't say. What he did say was that she 'might'be coming. Probably. Hopefully. And that was precisely what Trace had been up until now. Hopeful. Like a puppy dog, faithfully watching the door, perking up when it opened, and slumping when it turned out to be another bar fly, and not the vertically challenged thief.
He'd been watching the door, too.
Although he'd expose himself to the Drakh Plague before admitting it. Because that would give Trace the impression that he cared, that he actually liked being around the temperamental woman. And he didn't. But when a song came on, something with the perfect tempo for a samba or tango, a tiny part of him (very, very tiny, and which he repeatedly tried to shut up), couldn't help but wonder: would she dance with him again? Of course he'd hoped she would- how often did he have the opportunity to refine his art? His tutor would be spinning in his grave if he knew his pupil was letting his skills atrophy. Dureena was light and agile, good sense of timing; he would dance with any woman as long as they could keep up with him, he told himself. He would.
"I just don't get it," Trace lamented, letting loose a sigh that contained entirely too much angst. The man was naturally upbeat, so much so that it frequently gave his cynical heart palpitations. It made his hands itch to smash a few dozen beer bottle over the idiot's head, but it wouldn't do to waste perfectly good liquor. So he began scrutinizing the bottles, looking for empty ones, while the pilot rambled on, oblivious. "I mean, not to toot my own horn or anything, but most women would be falling all over themselves trying to get my attention: I'm an ace in the pilot's seat, got boyish good looks and charm to boot, sense of humor-"
"Not to be cynical or anything, but Dureena doesn't seem to care."
"And that's the part I don't get!"
The poor kid really was dense. There were more oxygen molecules in the air than reasons in the world, why a woman wasn't interested in a man. In the end, they all amounted to the same thing- it was her fault. Her hang-ups, her unrealistic expectations. He closed his hand around his wine glass, and brought it close, like a patient lover. In contrast, Trace was nervously fingering his shot glass, the picture of inexperienced youth. He wondered if he'd ever looked like that.
"Look, I could be way off base here, Trace, but have you considered that maybe you're just…not her type?"
For a moment, the pilot stared at him, moving his mouth, open, close, open, as if he wanted to be sure it worked. "What? Don't be ridiculous", he scoffed. "No!" he reinforced, when he only raised an eyebrow in silent mockery. It was obvious the thought had never entered his mind. .
"Okay, suppose you're right,-' Trace allowed, though his voice was colored with skepticism, '-then what do you think her type is?"
He laughed, a rough note that was more derision than humor. "Bald. Anti-social. Wears more black than a funeral procession."
His meaning was lost on Trace for a moment, his features tabula rasa as neurons fired against an alcoholic haze. He knew when it finally clicked, because the nothingness morphed seamlessly into disbelief.
"Galen?!" He spat the word out like it was dirtying his mouth. "You can't be serious."
He shrugged. "You think it's absurd, but is it really? Think about it. Haven't you ever noticed certain…commonalities? Dureena's a loner most of the time-"
"So? What does that have to do with anything?"
He shot the pilot a frosty glare. "Don't interrupt, Trace. It's rude. As I was saying…Dureena's a loner. She's lost not only her family, but her entire race to the Shadows. From Galen's lack of social graces, one can only conclude that he has no family either, nor does he seem to be in contact with his order. People love tales of tragedy, so they'd have plenty to talk about, not to mention sob stories are notorious catalysts for emotional bonding."
He held up another finger. "Second, Dureena disappears constantly, and the only one more difficult to find is Galen, both of them are generally useless and never around when you need them, and in terms of finding a cure for the plague, lets face it- the only thing more useless than the ability to pick a lock, is technomancy ju-ju."
Before he could bring up his third point for elaboration, Trace held up his hands.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Useless? Don't you think you're being overly harsh?' He shook his head. 'Besides, your whole argument is just speculation and personal opinion. It doesn't prove anything."
There were few things he disdained more than having his logic questioned, and definitely more to his argument than just his faultless opinion. Dureena and Galen were, to his analytical mind, two variables, and rather irksome ones at that. While it was true they shared several common attributes, the two of them together usually equated to nothing more than an annoyance. But if you took into account certain factors and added them, their equation, as well as it's implied answer, became exponentially more interesting.
Which would have brought him to his third point.
That if you took the seat in the council room typically reserved for Galen, Dureena would give you a glare that had probably killed lesser men, and maybe even a few greater. Similarly, if he sat in the seat next to the technomage (Dureena's, by unofficial consensus), than Galen would stare at him blankly, then slowly raise an eyebrow as if to question such utter presumptuousness. Sometimes he sat there just because it pissed him off, and because he could. It wasn't as if they were in kindergarten and had seating charts.
And while it was true that both the thief and the technomage were difficult to pin down at any given time, if you could find one, odds were favorable that the other would be close by. Like the time he'd found them both in the bullet car one evening, on his way back from the mess hall: Dureena on one side, legs draped over the seat, carefully picking her nails with a dagger; Galen on the other, statue-still, staring out the window across from him. His first thought was that he'd walked in on some kind of deranged contest to find out who could ignore the other longer. But when he'd taken a seat, they'd both looked at him, and he couldn't shake the inexplicable feeling that he'd just interrupted some type of carefully observed ritual.
Maybe he had.
Thinking about all his carefully collected and catalogued observations made him realize -he'd actually been paying attention to someone besides himself for a change. He shuddered at the thought of such a bad omen. When had he bothered to notice so many nuances concerning someone else's life? And why did he even care? They were disturbing questions to be pondered later. As for the current situation…he looked at Trace, the sad sack of a man, slowly being poisoned from unrequited affection, and he decided to help him. Not out of friendship, not because Eilerson's were humanitarians by nature, but for the truth; that at this point, he'd rather be tossed out an airlock than listen to the man whine one more nanosecond.
"What's the best part about being a pilot?"
At the question, the young man's face was consumed by a wide grin. "The excitement. It can be completely unpredictable. One mistake, one misstep, and you crash and burn."
"Exactly! It's the same with Dureena- totally unpredictable. Say the wrong thing, move the wrong way, and BAM! You wake up with a concussion and your wallet missing. Don't you see Trace?' he said, warming to his subject. 'You think you're attracted to Dureena, but the real attraction is the danger. It's the excitement of the chase. The pursuit of the unattainable. The possibility of bodily harm. Men are naturally hard-wired for it."
"Then why aren't you attracted to her?"
"Because even more than risk, I'm hard wired for self-preservation." He raised his drink to his lips, only to realize the glass was empty. He set it back down. "Only make bets on things you're confident you can win. That's my advice."
Trace was silent. Then he began to nod, first slowly, then vigorously, and he was reminded of an artifact a co-worker had given him one Christmas, something ghastly, called a 'bobble head'. "Yeah, yeah, I think you're right. It makes sense, doesn't it?,' he said, laughing. 'God, why else would I go after the only woman who doesn't know I exist? Besides...what could Galen possibly have that I don't?"
He'd learned two things tonight, he thought sourly.
One: Spending an evening with the English classics wasn't so terrible.
Two: Being tossed out an airlock was infinitely less painful than being anyone's buddy.
And definitely less repugnant, he thought, the smell of alcohol wafting off Trace as he supported the younger man. After having another drink to celebrate his "liberation from dangerous women", the pilot was too drunk to support himself, and had to be practically carried back to the Excalibur.
He waited, cursing the slowness of the seconds it was taking for the lift doors to open. When they finally did, his urge to curse became nearly ten-fold.
Galen was inside.
His hesitation only lasted a split-second before he hauled Trace into the lift with him. He gave the computer the deck level for the crew's quarters, and then all was silent. Trace picked his head off his shoulder and studied Galen. Then he leaned toward the technomage, as if he was about to divulge a great secret.
"You're a man."
Galen didn't even blink. "Last time I checked."
"Yeah, but did you know that we're, like, hard-wired for risk? Except for Max- he's wired hard for perversion. Or was it…hard-wired for preservatives?"
Galen turned to face the pilot.
"Mr. Miller, were you dropped on your head as a small child?"
Trace stared at Galen. After a moment, his eyes widened and his features arranged themselves into a display of deep concentration. Whether said concentration was focused on the technomage's question, or on remaining upright and conscious, who could say. Most people would choose to pray, to begin bargaining with whatever higher power they believed in, for the lift doors to miraculously open. Being an atheist, he began formulating plausible excuses rather than prayers. Logical, believable reasons he could give the captain for why Trace was drunk off his ass, and Galen had suddenly snapped and blasted a hole in the turbo lift.
But Galen didn't snap. Instead, he acted like he was the only one in the lift. It was both a relief and an irritation. Then he suddenly felt heat at his ear, and the smell of booze nearly overwhelmed him.
"I figured it out", Trace whispered loudly into his ear.
He pushed the pilot's face away in disgust, wondering if his present situation was due to bad karma, or just poor choices. When the lift doors opened, he began dragging the young man out the doors. But Trace wouldn't move. Instead, he straightened himself up (as well as he could, given his present state) and turned around. He looked directly at Galen.
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
He held his breath, fighting the urge to leave Trace to his fate. But the only acknowledgment the technomage gave of having heard the question, was the ever so slow rising of an eyebrow. It was all the encouragement Trace needed.
"Where do you get your leather pants?"
Please review if you've enjoyed this! I'm considering writing a multi-chapter Crusade fic, and although I'll probably write it anyway, it's nice to know there's still a hungry audience. (Personally, barring the miraculous resurrection of the show, I'll probably always be hungry for new material :) )