Author: Sunhawk
Pairings: 1x2, 3x4, 5+S
Rating: R
Warnings: Yaoi of the 1x2x1 variety, angst/sap/romance/bits of violence/moments of citrus, OOC, language, Duo POV, unrepentant use of pet-names and anything else I forgot.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything in this series.


Andrew Franklin Simcoe, apparently, grew up listening to grand stories at his father's knee. Not so unlike a lot of other kids, hearing dear old Dad, and senile old Gramps swap tales of the good old days. Only the stories weren't really tall tales like most kids heard. The Simcoe family legends of derring-do and heroics... were pretty much true.

It seems that the Simcoes had a long standing history of serving their country. And their country just happened to be Sanc.

Andy Simcoe's Dad was the loyal family retainer who risked life and limb to fulfill the dying request of Zechs'... uh... Millardo Peacecraft's Dad. He was the unsung hero who spirited the Peacecraft children to safety while the castle burned to the ground around them.

And Andy grew up hearing all about the fine Prince Milliardo who would someday return and... set things right in some vague, undisclosed way.

Apparently, the wee little Princess, rescued on that same day, was the equivalent of chopped liver. Or maybe dear old Dad was just the world's biggest chauvinist pig. It was The Prince who would some day return in glory and lift the Kingdom of Sanc back to... something.

This, children, is what we call a recipe for hero worship.

And worship, Andy F. Simcoe did. With a fanatical passion so focused that Relena Peacecraft Darlian eventually became an obstacle to the return of the Glory Days. Nothing but an annoying deterrent to his own father's dream.

And any moderate to fair psychologist will tell you that children are always striving for their parent's approval. What better way to win Pop's approval than hand delivering to the man, the day he'd been talking about since Andy was old enough to remember?

Prince Peacecraft stepping into his father's grand mantle.

We'll gloss over the part about the son becoming a murderer, and assume that revealing that aspect to Dad wasn't in the plan.

If you could call Andy-boy's attempt at the world's strangest political coup, a plan. Years in the making, it had been the most haphazard damn thing ever, when he finally tossed it into motion. Not a plan, so much as a fantasy.

I do have to make one tiny little mental apology here; Zechs' security clearance procedures didn't turn out to be nearly as messed up as Heero and I had been assuming. There had been not a single sign in Simcoe's history that gave a hint to his feelings on the Peacecraft subject. He had not been a sudden, recent addition to the band of black suited security that Zechs surrounded himself with. After a childhood spent on L3 where the Simcoe family had fled from the implosion of Sanc, the guy had been spinning somewhere in Zechs' general orbit for years. Through his family history, serving in the same military branches, and then finally in his after-war capacity of loyal hound... uh... security member.

But apparently, simmering underneath that steadfast, faithful exterior had been an interior just seething with bitter resentment at the upstart little girl who had burst on the scene and gotten in the way of Daddy's dream.

Never mind that 'Vice Foreign Minister' was a far cry from 'King of Sanc'. And never mind that Zechs had not wanted a part of either one of those things.

Dad Simcoe was not to be disappointed. Or hell... probably, after all those years, the dream was as much a part of the son as it was of the father.

The Sons of Adam had quite a different dream, one that I couldn't agree with a hundred percent, but I could see some of their points.

Animal rights. It's a concept that required some thought. Yes, animals are living creatures with feelings and personalities all their own, that don't really have much of a way of speaking for themselves. So these guys have taken on the somewhat admirable job of speaking for them. I get that; that's cool enough. Though I don't always understand the part where the 'speaking up for' seems to happen more often for the cute animals than the ugly ones... but I digress. Anyway, my only real issue with the good ol' SoA boys is... how do you really know what the animals want to say? I've seen a good number of animals on the more affluent colonies and even heard of a ship's cat or two... and they always seemed just as happy and content as their Earth-bound counter-parts. Who are these guys to say? That ocelot I transported to L3? I did a little research on the girl; being one of only a handful on the entire colony, she went to one of the largest, most prestigious zoos on L3. She has a habitat roughly three times the size of anything she'd ever known on Earth, and a brand new, potential suitor. I'd watched vids of her romping through an environment that I would not have known was an enclosure if I hadn't read it. And I had no doubt that if she'd been given a choice between where she was now, and where she'd been... her new digs would have won hands down.

Yes, I did have a moment of guilt wondering if I'd had a hand in doing something less than ethical, and not like I could have undone it... but I'd wanted to know.

My conscience, thank you very much, is completely clean on the animal export subject.

But back to the Adam sons; I have no real beef with their basic gig. Up until their less than well thought out encounter with Simcoe, they'd been a pretty low-key group. They'd staged some sit-ins and a couple of their members had gotten fined a time or two for dumb-ass moves like throwing paint on models in fur coats. Not exactly on your average Most Wanted list. And, apparently, that was part of what our dear Andy had played on; nobody really took the SoA seriously. Hell... I'd never even heard of them before the kidnapping fiasco. Andy was going to get them noticed. Was going to make people take them seriously. Was going to get their message out there.

And all they had to do was follow his simple little plan. And he was going to be handling the really dangerous part anyway, right? The kidnapping of Relena Darlian right out from under her security's collective noses? And if anything at all tells how amateur those boys were... that right there did. That they bought into the whole kidnapping thing, and never realized that the real plan was assassination right from the start.

But Simcoe, they tell me, can be a smooth talker when he doesn't have bullet holes in him. He got their attention with the snub to their egos that they were just a two-bit operation. He fed their hopes and dreams on talk of Big Things. And when they were teetering right there on the edge of following through? He tipped them on over when he realized their ring-leader's views on life.

Dietcoke guy... Hardy, was an old school, card-carrying homophobe of the highest order. And when Simcoe had gotten down to the brass-tacks shove into a life of crime, he'd banked on the part where I was an old school, card-carrying homosexual. A match made in heaven. If you can't whip a zealot into a frenzy with their own agenda, whip them into a frenzy with their own hatred.

I'm sure it had all seemed like a dream set-up to Simcoe. All those years of resentment and yearning towards a better Sanc world, handed to him in a chance encounter with a group so delightfully easy to manipulate it wasn't even funny. It had been all it took to spur him into a previously only day-dreamed about action. It had probably seemed to him like some divine sign.

But it was the amateur issues all the way around that made the plan crumble under its own weight. The secret agendas, the lies, the timing... it all ended up falling apart, the plan failed, the principal conspirators were all in jail and in the end?

In the end I just kind of felt sorry for Andy Simcoe's Dad.

At least this time there wasn't going to be a three-ring circus of a trial. When the Sons had figured out they'd been used like cheap canon-fodder, they'd rolled on Simcoe to a man. Not that rolling was going to get them out of trouble, but better to face kidnapping charges than attempted murder charges. It was no guarantee that Heero and I wouldn't be seeing the inside of a courthouse at some point in the proceedings, but full confessions tended to make things go faster.

Thank God, because that court thing might make for compelling television, but it was seldom that interesting in real life.

But then, television made a lot of things look more interesting than they are in real life. Like remodeling. There are entire broadcasting stations devoted to this whole do-it-yourself crap. They make it look so easy too; people go to the super, has every cool kitchen gadget in the world store, things are ordered, some dust flies and... viola! Brand spanking, shiny new kitchen by the end of the episode.

What you don't see are the decisions that come down to a flipped coin just to avoid another argument. What you don't see are the endless delays when the important thing you needed for step two got back-ordered and nobody told you. What you don't see are the nightmare weeks of take-out because you went ahead with step one before finding out that step two was going to be delayed by two weeks.

And they don't show you how that flying dust settles freaking everywhere. Even after hanging plastic sheets in the kitchen doorways.

Oh yeah... we're talking first hand experience here, did I not mention that?

Which is why I really shouldn't have been surprised when I walked into the house with the pizza we'd decided on, to find Heero in the middle of our battleground of a kitchen staring down into a new box looking like he was trying to set it on fire with the power of his mind.

'Uh... is that the sink, finally?' I ventured, trying to keep the hopefulness out of my voice since the look on his face kind of hinted at bad news.

'Yes,' he replied, and didn't even look up at me. Maybe he was getting somewhere with his pyro act and didn't want to lose his focus.

'Is there... something wrong?' I asked, careful of his frame of mind. I was not looking at the visage of a happy man.

'You tell me,' he finally growled, and I stepped closer to peer down into the depths of the big packing box.

'That's... an under counter mount sink,' I said, blinking at the damn thing disbelievingly.

'That...' he said, with a gusty sigh that was just asking for patience, 'would be the problem.'

'You have got to be shitting me?' I couldn't help saying, even knowing it was not a joke Heero would make after the last few weeks. 'They're... they're going to have to reorder, aren't they?'

'Suppose so,' he replied, voice finding a calmness I was having trouble believing in.

'And that's going to delay things another two weeks?' I asked, though it was hardly a question. And God knows why I felt compelled to ask it anyway. Not like it wasn't something we both didn't know full freaking well. The counter was somewhere in the mists of that mysterious place where such things come from... being cut for a totally different type sink.

'Oh no,' he said, and I could hear the temper under the calm. 'They're going to expedite this.'

I waited for the 'or', but he didn't bother to deliver it. I can only assume his Preventer side didn't want to make it pre-meditated by confessing out loud. The whole remodeling gig had been a bit harder on him than it had been on me; you do not have to cook ration bars.

Not that having the place torn to hell wasn't getting on my nerves too, I just didn't have the added anxiety over the quality of our intake. Heero is something of a, shall we say, 'stickler' for the whole healthy nutrition deal. But despite my ration bars being packed with more vitamins, minerals, and easily consumed nutrients than just about anything he could think of serving; they bugged him on some fundamental level. They somehow had come to represent a... lack in my life after the war. Like a meal being hot made it better in some vague, indeterminate way in his mind. I really don't know what his deal was, but the things just drove him crazy.

And I think it was causing him physical pain to admit that they were probably better for us than any of the fast food we'd ended up consuming over the past long weeks of renovation joy. The occasional bag of bucket chicken was one thing, every night was something else. But between work and the remodeling itself, we really didn't have time for fancier sit down places that had things on the menu that didn't involve grease in some form or other.

Deciding that nothing much else was going to come of staring dejectedly into the big box at the sink that was not ours, I maneuvered around it to get into the refrigerator sitting in the middle of the room, out of the way. Or... more in the way, depending on your outlook. Out of the way of the workers, I suppose, would be more accurate. Thing was in our way most of the time. The door would only open half way with the box sitting there, and I almost dropped the pizza box trying to juggle out my soda and Heero's pitcher of tea.

There was a sigh behind me that I wasn't entirely sure about. The sink? The pizza? The soda? All of the above? I decided to let it go in case it deteriorated into an argument that really didn't have any sides.

'So, other than the obvious ordering mistake there,' I asked, 'how did the day go?'

The sigh was deeper, as though he thought I couldn't hear him with my back turned 'Not... well,' he said, taking the pitcher and leading the way into the dining room, pushing the plastic aside for me, since my hands were full. I waited to see if he'd elaborate, and he made me wait while he rummaged through the box on the table that contained the dishes, looking for a drinking glass. I opened the pizza box while he poured his tea and when we sat down across from each other, I found that same dejected stare on his face, only directed at the pizza box.

'Not well?' I finally prompted and got yet another sigh.

'Nobody showed up until almost two o'clock,' he informed me, watching the pizza like he expected to see it crawl out of the box and attack our cholesterol. 'And then all he did was sand the drywall seams, patch a couple of spots and tell me he'd see me tomorrow. He wasn't here an hour.'

I opened my mouth to blurt something out about him wasting a whole vacation day for nothing more than that, but realized it was kind of a... 'no duh' sort of statement, and just shut my mouth again.

'Yeah,' he agreed anyway, and finally took a slice of pizza, looking like he'd almost prefer grilled iguanas.

'But he's definitely coming back tomorrow?'

'That's what he said,' Heero replied and for a second, I thought he might actually throw his slice of pizza back in the box. 'Though when I... pressed for a time, he got rather... vague.'

I wondered just what 'pressed' meant and hoped Heero hadn't given the poor guy a heart attack. If all that happened was a little drywall sanding, I'm sure it had just been Darryl and not the crew leader. Kid was pretty quiet and I had little doubt one of Heero's serious glares would have made him wet himself.

'I didn't traumatize him,' Heero grumped and made me have to hide a grin behind a bite of dinner. 'I'm saving my irritation for a phone call to the damn store manager tomorrow.'

'You still planning on taking off work?' I asked, feeling vaguely guilty about that part. Preventers' agents have a slightly better benefits package than Preventers' mechanics, and Heero'd been doing the lion's share of the babysitting.

'Don't see how I can't,' he replied, 'as long as they're scheduled to work. I don't want to be responsible for any more delays.'

I picked up my second slice of dinner and watched Heero take his first bite, chewing it like he was eating cardboard. 'I've been thinking about the schedule and had an idea today,' I ventured, pretty sure Heero would jump all over anything that would make this mess in our house go away.

'What?' he asked, expression somewhere between skeptical and hopeful.

'Darryl was telling me why they're in and out so much, the other day...' I began, but hesitated when Heero gave me a weird look.

'He... talks to you?' he said, the skepticism winning out.

'I'm not the scary one,' I grinned and it made him snort.

'Anyway,' I continued pointedly, 'he was telling me that a lot of the off time is while they wait for stuff to dry. It'll take them several work days to do the painting and I doubt if they'll even start until next week now. If we did the painting ourselves, we could have it all done over the weekend. Then they can start right in next week on the cabinets and stuff.'

'I'm not paying somebody else to do the work, just to do it myself,' he groused.

'So negotiate it off the bill,' I soothed. 'If they do it, it'll be Wednesday before they're done. If we do it, we could have both coats on and be ready for them by Monday morning.'

He had to think about it, chewing slowly while he mulled it over. I'd stated my case and just let him; I knew the only thing keeping him from agreeing immediately was his irritation, and he was rather good at setting that aside given half a chance.

He must have been really irritated though, because we'd finished dinner before he finally gusted another of those heavy sighs. 'Fine. You're right. I'll bring it up when I call the manager tomorrow.'

I hadn't really meant for it to be an 'I'm right/you're wrong' sort of thing, so I just gave him a smile and dropped it. 'Hey, if it makes you feel any better, we have that dinner planned at McMurphy's tomorrow night, so at least once this week we will not be eating fast food.'

The comment didn't serve to lighten his mood as I had hoped though, in fact... there was a second where I swear he looked even more irritated. He covered it quickly, but there really wasn't any mistaking his... lack of enthusiasm.

'I promise to eat a salad?' I tried, fishing for some sort of reaction that didn't involve sighs and frowns, and I finally won a smile.

'Sorry,' he muttered, glancing down into the dregs of his tea, 'but you have to admit I'm not Victoria Brannigan's favorite human being.'

'Well, Hayden likes you,' I soothed. 'Toria will come around. Eventually.'

Heero just snorted and gulped the last of his tea. 'Assuming she doesn't just kill me first.'

'She would never...' I began and then grinned. 'Ok, maybe she would, but Hayden wouldn't let her.'

It got me a dry chuckle and a rueful shake of his head. 'So I don't need to take my gun?'

'Hey, she's not that bad!'

'You were passed out when she threatened to... remove my balls from my person with a dull butter knife, I believe was the line,' he dead-panned, 'and something about making jewelry out of them.'

I could imagine that. Well, not Toria actually doing so, but I could imagine her delivering a line like that. At full volume. Looking back, I realized when he was talking about; that overly ambitious turn I took at the L2 Expo. Just from the little bit of yelling I'd overheard, it's a wonder we hadn't had security breaking the door down.

'You just confuse her,' I grinned, thinking about Toria's strange reaction to Heero. He raised an eyebrow, begging for clarification of a theory he obviously thought was bullshit. 'She's half afraid of you,' I explained. 'And that pisses her off at herself, so she has to go all bluster and attitude.'

He just blinked at me, looking like he doubted my sanity. 'Afraid? Of me? Victoria 'don't make me kick your ass' Brannigan?'

'Yeah, but when you get pissed... she pays attention,' I informed him and watched him think about it. 'She doesn't back down from much of anything, but she backs down from you. And if I know Toria, that just drives her all kinds of crazy.'

'So,' he said hesitantly, 'she has to get in my face to prove to herself that she's not intimidated by me?'

'Bingo,' I grinned and was surprised when his answering grin was a little bit smug.

'You two really are a lot alike.'

'You do not intimidate me, Yuy,' I grumbled, deliberately ignoring the point. He grinned wider, but let it go with that. It wasn't an argument I stood any real chance of winning and we both knew it, but at least he let me leave the field with my dignity intact. Mostly.

I was actually kind of relieved when my phone rang and I was assured the subject would be dropped. So relieved, that I didn't even bother to check the number when I pulled it out of my pocket. 'Maxwell here.'

'Mr. Maxwell, this is Aleyah Winner's secretary Ms. Tartan, can you be available tomorrow for a short business meeting?' said a strange voice in my ear, and I hesitated for a second trying to process several bits of information at once. Aleyah had a secretary? And since when did Aleyah ask me anything? I was usually just summoned. When I, apparently, took too long to formulate a reply, the curt voice grew... amused, and continued. 'I work for the gallery as well, Mr. Maxwell, the call for a meeting is being coordinated through me at Mr. Lee's request.'

'Ah,' I managed, brain jumping beyond the 'who knew' aspect. 'I uh... have work tomorrow.'

'Ms. Winner mentioned your 'unfortunate state of employ',' the voice replied genially and I couldn't judge if the humor was at Aleyah's wording or at my unfortunate state. 'Might I suggest an early lunch? Ms Winner won't be available until after ten, and Mr. Kirby has a three o'clock flight to catch. It shouldn't take long, Mr. Maxwell.'

Yeah, I'd heard that lunch hour thing before, but I didn't express that. 'Sure... pencil me in for eleven. At the gallery?'

'Perfect, Mr. Maxwell,' I was praised, and there was something in the tone that made me think of Aleyah; I couldn't decide if it was the 'good boy' feel, or just the crisp efficiency. 'Present yourself at the front desk tomorrow at eleven. We'll see you then.' She didn't waste time on pleasantries, disconnecting the call after my grudging acceptance.

'What was that all about?' Heero wanted to know after I'd hung up, and I echoed one of his earlier heavy sighs.

'I... think I'm about to find out the results of Jack Lee's popularity poll,' I hedged, and it took him a minute to make the connection. It had been weeks since I'd finished Lee's mural, after all.

'I'm sure you got it,' he told me, smiling that weird little smile I've come to identify as... faith.

I couldn't help a slightly self-deprecating chuckle. 'I'm not even sure if I should say I hope so, or I hope not. '

'As much as you've been stewing over it?' he teased, and since I didn't want to have to admit he was right about something else, I rose to start clearing the table. If he got the smug look again, I didn't have to see it.

Thursday night is usually laundry night, but when I headed that way, I discovered that having the whole day stuck at the house, Heero had pretty much taken care of all of the Thursday chores, the Friday chores and most of the weekend stuff too. There wasn't a thing that needed doing, so after I'd showered and cleaned up, I wandered out to my studio to putter around while Heero settled to catch the news.

I had not been able to resist doing some sketches of Relena after I'd realized she was interested. I tried to tell myself it wasn't blatant sucking up, but come on... our relationship was best described as 'tentative' and anything that might improve it needed to be given half a chance. For Heero's sake, of course.

Of all the doodles and half-assed attempts to find an image of her that wouldn't offend, irritate, or upset anybody involved... the one that had stuck in my head was the picture of her with the borrowed security headset held to her ear, her head cocked to the side with that faraway look in her eye.

It had gone from sketch to painting, and had been sporadically taking my attention for the last week. I found myself poking at it, trying to get the sweep of her hair to meet my satisfaction. I had yet to make up my mind if I would give the thing to her when it was done, and I think that was what was causing my problems with it; who it was going to belong to in the end. The idea of presenting it to Relena was doing odd things to my creativity.

I had, in fact, spent so much time dinking with details that did not matter, that I think the stupid painting had lost it's balance somewhere along the line. While Relena's expression was still only half-formed, the security ear-piece was so meticulously detailed it could have been used in a damn advertisement.

I ended up avoiding the issue by working on the hair.

Relena is a pretty girl. Woman. Not movie star material, I don't suppose, but more the wholesome girl-next-door kind of lovely that captures the imagination as much as the eye. I had been trying harder to set aside my resentment towards her of late; I was a bright enough boy to realize that a lot of it had been spawned by some bizarre, nebulous jealousy on... hell on both our parts, I suppose.

Or maybe she'd started out disliking me because I shot Heero, and not so much any sense of jealousy. I had a little trouble looking back on that night with any clarity; the whole thing is too shaded now by the horror of 'what might have been'. One of those moments in my life that my mind twinges away from thinking about.

My first impression of Relena was simply that of a pretty girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though I seem to recall quickly amended that to a pretty girl with a screw loose, when she threw herself in front of my gun to protect the guy that had been about to kill her.

It didn't get complicated until a bit later, when Heero went from random psycho on the beach, to... well, to be bluntly honest, non-random psycho in a Gundam.

Not bluntly honest enough? Fine... I don't know what the hell it was that made him go from psycho to obsession. I could make some quip about the spandex, but it was more than the handsome exterior. It was... his drive? His strength? His dedication? His skills? All of the above?

Hell, maybe it was just that mysterious 'hard to get' thing.

I don't know, but he drew me in like a damn magnet, and that was pretty much the final rites for any sort of relationship Relena and I might have managed back then.

Because Heero'd drawn her in like a magnet too, and I might not have done anything about my attraction, but if I had been as painfully obvious as Relena had been... well, it's no wonder we never really hit it off.

Funny how black and white the world can seem when you're that young. I had been able to tell that Heero cared for her, and it had seemed the perfect little fairy tale... never dawned on me that he could care for her in any way that wasn't romantic.

I heard the man in question come in to the room about then, and heard him hesitate in case I was 'in the zone', so as not to disturb me. When I turned, giving him a smile to acknowledge his presence, he came to join me in front of the easel.

'How's it coming?' he asked, settling his hands on my hips and dropped the ghost of a kiss on the side of my neck.

I couldn't help a grunt of frustration. 'It's not,' I informed him. 'I just keep stirring paint around.'

'It doesn't look a whole lot different than the last time I looked,' he agreed, a hint of amusement in his voice.

'What?' I grumbled, 'you don't see the three new hairs and the shadow on her elbow?'

He chuckled, and his hands slid on around my waist. 'You're just stressing because of who it is.'

'No shit?' popped out before I could catch the words, but he just chuckled again.

He kissed the spot he could reach again before he said, 'Maybe you should just pretend you're painting it for me?'

I mulled the idea over, turning it in my head like a crystal, looking for the flaw. I was kind of surprised to realize that he somehow knew what my problem was with the painting. I don't suppose I should have been, he was certainly well aware of the... 'tentative' nature of the non-relationship we had going on. And I suppose that right there was the flaw I was looking for. The rather big flaw. We stood there in silence for a few minutes, watching the brush twirling absently in a blob of paint on the palette.

Trying to imagine doing the painting for Relena was making things awkward, mostly because of the history. What I had seen in her in that moment with the security headset, might not necessarily be something she would be pleased to see in herself. Trying to imagine doing the painting for Heero was just as awkward, but in a vastly different way.

'Could you have loved her?' I heard myself ask, and was pleased that it came out sounding almost unconcerned. Blasé, I believe, is the word.

He didn't rush to answer, just rested his chin on my shoulder and really seemed to be looking at the painting. I got a squeeze of his arms when he finally said, 'I don't think so,' accepting the implied 'not gay' part of the hypothetical without making me spell the question out to the last letter. 'We have enough problem just being friends sometimes.'

'Yeah?' I had to prompt, surprised by the statement. I hadn't realized there was any sort of major friction between them.

He made a noise that was somewhere between wry amusement and indulgent frustration. 'I admire Relena's philosophies, but I'm afraid I won't ever be able to embrace them personally the way she wishes I could.'

The pacifist thing. Kind of a big part of who Relena was. What she was all about. And while Heero had a vested interest in maintaining that peace... he had a much more practical outlook on the 'how' part. Practical in my opinion, anyway. As long as there were such things as ambition, greed, and entitlement... peace was not something that would just maintain itself. There would always be a need for people... warriors... to stand up and defend it.

I guess I could understand where the difference in philosophies could maybe make pillow talk a little... uncomfortable.

Is it sad that actually getting to hear him confirm something that was really a non-issue, left me feeling weirdly relieved?

I didn't voice either thought. 'Guess I can see that,' was the best I came up with. Heero chuckled softly, mindful of his proximity to my left ear.

'I used to feel bad about it,' he confessed. 'When we were younger. She was always so... hopeful. I think she just thought if she was patient enough, I'd come around.'

'She always seemed pretty damn confident in you,' I said, remembering the doe-eyed look the girl would get sometimes. 'Hell... she had a lot of people convinced it was just a matter of time!'

He sighed a weary sort of sigh that spoke of a whole lot of patience, a little bit of youthful confusion, and maybe a touch of heartache. 'Yeah. I know.'

It crossed my mind to ask about the conversation that eventually had to have happened between the two of them, but then I decided it was maybe none of my business, and let it go. 'It's getting late and one of us has work tomorrow.'

'Yes, boss,' he chuckled, probably as ready as I was to drop the subject, and left me to cleaning up my paints while he made the rounds and closed up for the night.

I found myself feeling faintly embarrassed for having asked that question, at the same time that I couldn't quite let go of that weird relief. I think it was the history thing again; all those years that I'd been out trying to forge a life of my own, something apart from what I'd been, up to that point. I'd missed out on a lot of shared history, and while I felt like I was starting to fit in more comfortably, I knew there were forever going to be things come up that I just didn't share.

Like softball games, weird holiday traditions, and ex-almost-girlfriend melodrama.

Most of the time, the rest of the history that I did share, the whole mad scientist/war/Gundam/terrorist thing, was enough. But sometimes I just felt that gap a little more keenly than others.

Just sort of seemed to be one of those introspective nights, I guess.

Left me thinking about those old days, and I wondered if I'd ever apologized to Heero for shooting him. Seemed like something I should have done, so when I finished putting my paints away, I went upstairs and did just that.

For the record, I was forgiven.

The next morning, I wasn't sure whether to feel guilty or relieved as I headed out to work. I couldn't decide if I was being kept from the action, or escaping the battlefield. I didn't envy whoever showed up to finish prepping the kitchen for the painting; even if Heero was reserving his ire for the store manager, I'm sure the house was not going to be a warm and inviting place to be working in.

Though, between my lunch meeting and my dinner plans, I had more than enough to keep my mind off remodeling woes. Especially since I wasn't at home in the middle of them.

Ever wonder why I have so much drama that involves my meals? Funny how that had never occurred to me before. Wonder if it would do any good to swear off eating?

I've often thought that there is probably not a ton of difference between a garage full of mechanics and your average class-room full of ten year olds. Well, maybe the level of inappropriate jokes. Or... maybe not. Whichever, you'd think a group of grown men would act more like grown men, and less like they needed adult supervision.

Though... I wonder if that's why Griff sort of acts like a father figure? A kind of grumpy, cantankerous, somewhat merciless father figure?

At any rate, I can stand witness through several life experiences now, that grown men plus nice weather, equals grown men becoming unruly little boys who are bored in class. It had kind of been a long week of very little focus on the part of most of the guys, and I suppose I have to fess up that my own head hadn't exactly been on the job.

It had been one of those weeks that really drove home how much I'd adapted to life as a ground-bounder. At first I'd had trouble dealing with the time structure, sometimes having to be reminded of the days of the week, but I had truly embraced the concept of Friday. The whole 'thank God it's' part in particular.

Fridays are kind of cool for a lot of reasons. The obvious, primary one being that lead-in to the weekend thing. But even beyond that, it seems to get marked with special treats and rituals just for the sake of the day. Like the donuts that Griff brings in every Friday morning. Or how Giles usually meets his wife for lunch just on Fridays. And Dave told me once that his family eats out every Friday night.

Heero and I should really come up with something better than just finishing the laundry.

That particular Friday I knew was going to be a total waste of time when I arrived and heard Griff bellowing at somebody before I even got clocked in. Something about donuts and grease and being raised in a barn.

It's probably a good thing there was nothing worse on the docket than a windshield replacement. A gas tank repair might have ended up with the garage getting blown to kingdom come.

I got a broad grin and a good morning from Giles as I elbowed him away from the donut box. 'Leave some for the rest of us, buddy!'

'Hey, I didn't take the last glazed,' he said, licking a bit of chocolate frosting off his fingers. 'I know how grumpy you get if you don't get your Friday glazed donut.'

'Not my fault Heero doesn't believe in sugar and deep-frying,' I grumbled, scooping up the sticky treat. 'I never get them at home.'

'Sounds like my wife,' he sighed, eyeing the box like he was considering a second one. 'It's been nothing but oat bran ever since my last check-up and she found out my cholesterol is up.'

'Guess that's what happens when you get old,' I teased, taking my donut and heading for the job board.

Giles hesitated for another moment, before snatching up a cake donut and following me. 'Don't make fun of the aged,' he intoned solemnly. 'Your day's coming.'

'Only if I don't die of boredom first,' I muttered, looking over the offerings on the board.

'Dibs on the...' Giles began, but Bobby suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and whatever the job order had been, it was snatched from the board.

'Mine!' he crowed victoriously and I thought he was going to get a donut shoved up his nose for his trouble.

'Stop stealing all the damn easy jobs!' Giles growled, and I snorted... there wasn't anything on the docket that didn't fall into the 'easy' category.

'You mean clean,' Bobby chortled, waving his scrap of paper in the air as he headed across the bay. 'You just don't want to have to get all cleaned up to meet Maureen for lunch!'

'That too,' Giles conceded under his breath, and while he was distracted, I took my pick of the remaining jobs. We do a million oil changes a day, I'd much rather take the oddball jobs we don't get all that often.

So I spent my morning removing the windshield from a car that had had an unfortunate run-in with a brick, while half listening to Dave and Giles argue about the best way to grill out. It was like listening to some sort of bizarre war game preparation... smoke point, flare-up, searing, propane? I kept waiting for them to whip out photos of their respective grills and start comparing sizes. I'd never known what a competitive thing outdoor cooking was before I worked in a garage. When Dave turned to me at the height of the discussion and suddenly demanded, 'Duo! Gas or charcoal?' it was a relief to be able to tell them,

'Sorry guys, I have to get going. I've got an appointment and I'm taking an early lunch today.'

'Lame, Maxwell,' Giles jeered. 'Cheap excuse for dodging an important public opinion poll about the quality of...'

Dave tossed a dirty shop rag in the general direction of Giles head with a roll of his eyes, ignoring the rambling attempt to lend legitimacy to their time wasting conversational topics. 'Where you going, Duo? Something for that remodeling job you were telling us about?'

'Appointment with my other boss,' I told him with a wry grin, while I wiped off my hands and prepared to take my leave. 'One of those brunch meeting things.'

Dave looked impressed, but Giles just laughed, tossing the dirty rag on in my direction. 'What you wanna bet the rest of us will be back from lunch before you are?'

'Not taking that bet!' I said, dodging the rag on my way to Griff's office. 'I've been down this road before.'

Which was precisely what prompted me to stop on my way out, to make sure Griff knew it might end up being a long lunch. 'Ok if I'm late getting back, boss-man?'

'Define late,' Griff wanted to know, not taking his eyes off whatever paperwork he had laid out in front of him.

'I have no idea,' I confessed, 'but Aleyah Winner is involved.'

He snorted and raised an eyebrow, giving me a glance over the top of his store bought reading glasses. 'If you ain't back by three, you can burn a vacation day.'

'If I'm not back by three, I'll have died of boredom by committee and you can keep the vacation day and just send flowers to my funeral,' I quipped, leaning against the doorjamb to his office.

He gave out with a weird little snort of a laugh that somehow didn't sound all that amused. He pulled his glasses off entirely and really looked at me before shaking his head. 'You sure don't strike me as the type to put up with all that high-brow crap, Maxwell. Never would'a thought I'd hear one of my mechanics use the word 'brunch' and not be making a joke.'

'Hey,' I grinned, 'that high-brow crap is paying for my kitchen renovation. And who says I wasn't joking?'

He just stared at me for a moment more in a weird way that made me think he was mulling over some comment he ended up not making. Putting his glasses back on, he bent back to his forms and just gave me a wave that was clear dismissal.

I headed for my car just as Giles and Dave made the leap from gas to lighter fluid, and the last I heard, Dave was calling Giles a pyromaniac. I rather hoped they weren't still at it by the time I got back.

The drive from the Preventer building to the gallery wasn't long, but I had time to pull out my new cell and make a quick call to check on Heero. I'd hate to have to admit it to the guy, but the darn phone had ended up being pretty easy to get used to having around once I'd let myself get over being irritated. I'd been pissed when the old one had become a casualty of the kidnapping, but Heero had replaced it practically before the dust settled.

'Do we still have a contract?' I teased him, after we'd gotten past the hello part. 'Or did you fire them all?'

'Hardly,' he snorted. 'I'm not planning on taking up cabinetry any time soon. But I do have all three workers here, and the manager will be out for a visit after lunch.'

'No shit?' I asked, impressed despite myself. 'I didn't think he ever left the store. Did you talk to him about the painting thing?'

'Yeah,' Heero admitted, a slightly feral tone coming into his voice. 'And he jumped all over it. He's promised they'll have everything prepped by the end of today and ready to go. He's personally coming out to pick up the bad sink, and he swore he'll have the new one in by the time we need it, even if he has to drive out to the factory to pick it up himself.'

I couldn't help but laugh at the notion. 'And what the hell are the guys doing that is taking all three of them?' I asked, imaging three construction workers madly taping, mudding and sanding drywall, while sneaking furtive glances at my partner, waiting for him to explode.

'Uh... about that,' he said, and I could imagine him making the hand through the hair gesture. 'That kid...'

He hesitated and I supplied, 'Darryl?'

'Yeah,' he agreed. 'He's doing the last touchups on the drywall, and the other two are getting the cabinets ready to go in.'

'But, they can't...' I began, and got one of those sighs I don't much like over the phone.

'They're doing the assembly work in the living room,' he said in a rush, cutting me off and leaving me blinking at the car in front of me.

And there goes another room to the mess, I thought, but decided not to sound unhappy about it. 'Well,' I ventured, looking for the positive spin. 'I guess that'll speed things up next week...'

'That was the plan,' he replied, sounding a little bit relieved. 'I know it's going to be more inconvenience, but I just want this done. It seemed like a reasonable compromise.'

'It's a plan,' I agreed, because when your home is turned upside down, what's one less room in the long run? 'And I am at the gallery, so I have to go.'

'Good luck,' he told me warmly, and we signed off as I parked my car. I swear he was more excited about the whole weird deal than I was. Mostly.

The gallery display had switched out since my show, and was currently some sort of abstract thing by some single name artist whose gender seemed to be indeterminate. I wondered what the idea was... trying to be mysterious? I was drawn to take a look, but the moment I was through the front door, the girl working the desk was announcing me over the phone to somebody, and pointing me toward the back. I dutifully followed the mimed directions; perhaps another day.

I passed through the arch, and was momentarily disoriented by the latest layout of the gallery. It looked nothing at all like it had the last time I'd been there. 'Rain' was apparently a much more prolific artist than I was, and the space they filled was probably three times what had been opened up for my show. But I had to stop gawking at the cavernous room before me, when I was greeted by the voice I recognized from the previous day's phone call. 'Mr. Maxwell, right this way.'

Ms. Tartan was not at all what I had been expecting. I'm not sure what I had envisioned, but it hadn't been the tall woman with the purple streak in her hair, that I found waiting for me. There was the hint of an amused smile at my momentary double-take, as though she liked throwing people off their stride. Standing in a doorway that would otherwise have been invisible, she was a flare of color against a neutral, office-type background.

'This way,' she prompted again, and I felt like I had been summoned by a teacher for being unruly in class. I fought the faint blush and followed where I was directed.

'This shouldn't take long, Mr. Maxwell,' she assured me as she ushered me through the door and led the way down a rather utilitarian looking hallway. I felt like I was getting a peek behind the curtain at the real Great and Powerful Oz.

Woman was nothing like anybody I could imagine in the company of the prim and proper Aleyah Winner. From the bottom of her practical Reeboks to the purple streaked hair with - I swear to God - a knitting needle jammed through the back, I was just not seeing it.

'Ms. Tartan, I presume?' I said, trying not to wince at the lame line, but she graced me with a chuckle of appreciation for the attempt.

'The same,' she replied, taking us around a corner and deeper into the building than I would have thought possible.

'You... uh... work for the gallery?' I ventured, trying to make polite conversation, but slightly distracted by the vague disconcerting surrealness of the whole thing.

'Hard to believe, isn't it?' she returned, leading me to an elevator that fell more into the 'freight' category than I would have expected.

'What?' I blurted, looking up at her, slightly aghast as I realized how that must have sounded. 'No... I just wondered who... I mean... Uh...' Perhaps it was not politic to ask who had actually hired her? I tried to change conversational direction, but just couldn't find a direction that wasn't just as bad.

Her grin took on a wicked cast that was kind of frightening. 'Oh, Miss Winner and I get along just fine, Mr. Maxwell. We have an understanding; she doesn't critique my fashion sense, and I don't eat her little dog for lunch.'

The rest of the ride was... pretty quiet.

The elevator only took us up one floor, but the difference was like night and day. I was finally in the area that screamed all the pompous, high-brow, over-indulgence that I had been expecting.

Ms. Tartan abandoned me with a certain sense of glee, in a meeting room that was more living room, to the tender mercies of her employers. 'Have a good day, Mr. Maxwell,' she told me on her way out, and I wanted to ask exactly how she meant that, but she was already shutting the door behind me. And Aleyah was right there to continue screwing with my balance anyway.

'You're late, pet,' she informed me, despite the fact that it was still at least five minutes to the hour, but I've come to understand that Aleyah operates on Aleyah time. Aleyah time is pretty much whenever she's ready for whatever, and the hell with what you thought you were supposed to be doing when.

'Sorry,' I told her in an airy sort of way that probably didn't sound all that convincing. 'Traffic was a bear.'

She gave me a scornful little sound that indicated she wasn't buying it, but it didn't seem to matter, because she was moving on in the very next breath. 'Come in, dear! Don't just stand there... have a seat; you don't want to keep Stanley waiting.'

'Heavens, no!' Mr. Lee laughed from where he sprawled in the biggest, comfiest looking chair in the room. 'God forbid Stanley has to cool his heels for two minutes. Can't have that, now can we?'

Stanley himself just snorted, ignoring them both as though they had this sort of conversation all the time, and hell... maybe they did. I took a seat in the chair nearest the door, and there we all sat around a coffee-like table with a lunch spread of finger sandwiches and fruit that surprised me. Mr. Lee was settled back with a plate, appearing to have a sample of everything on the menu, while Mr. Kirby was nibbling distractedly at some sort of sandwich that, I swear, looked green. Aleyah occasionally reached out and delicately plucked the random grape or strawberry from the artfully arranged plate, but nobody offered me anything, so I just sat and waited for them to get to the point.

Might have known that Jack Lee would be the one to get down to business. 'I assume you know why you're here, young man,' he told me, and while it was more a statement than a question, I agreed anyway, just to have something to say.

'Yes sir,' I said. 'I guess so, anyway. The mysterious project?'

'I told you he was a bright lad,' Aleyah murmured, her attention seemingly more on the plate of fruit in front of her than me.

I glanced at Stan Kirby, but the guy had something of a poker face and I couldn't read him. He was just sitting there with his green sandwich and letting the other two do the talking. They had a weird dynamic; they were all obviously rich and powerful people, and they had just as obviously known each other for a very long time. They seemed as comfortable as siblings, at the same time there was an odd friction under the surface. That strange rivalry I'd witnessed at the gallery, I suppose.

I had a feeling hanging out with the three of them for any extended period of time would give me a headache.

'So, am I finally allowed to ask?' I prodded the room in general, mindful of the fact that I was on my lunch hour, and things were starting to have a draggy kind of feel. Like... I could end up being there all afternoon.

If I was going to have to burn one of my precious few vacation days, it would be in relation to my kitchen remodeling, and not a 'brunch' meeting.

'Indeed, you are,' Mr. Lee chuckled and unsprawled just a bit to face me fully. There was a moment or two of silence that I took as my cue. Damn man was actually going to make me ask.

'And the mysterious project would be...?' I said dutifully, barely keeping the sigh behind my teeth.

Aleyah did it for me though, sighing in a disgusted sort of way. 'Jack, dear... do get on with it.'

Behind them, at his corner of the table, Stan Kirby suddenly sat his plate down and the conversation shifted focus. 'You may or may not be aware,' he informed me, 'that next year marks the sixth anniversary of the destruction of the L5 colony. They're finally erecting a memorial, and the gallery has been approached to produce it.'

I hate to have to admit to the momentary short-circuit that news produced in my brain. I just sort of sat and stared at him, and he just sort of sat and stared back. I'm pretty sure I was supposed to say something, but I was still working my way through some mental leaps in a strange slow motion.

L5? Wufei's L5? A memorial? Some sort of painting? Six years? Already?

'What?' I finally managed, and Mr. Kirby looked both aggravated and vindicated all at the same time. He picked his plate up and sat back with a huff.

'I hope you two know what the hell you're doing,' he muttered, and I felt my face go up like a flame.

'Stanley,' Aleyah chided. 'Don't be such a grump.' Then she turned to me and I was given a look that told me to get my shit together.

'Keep up, Mr. Maxwell,' Mr. Lee chuckled, not as politic as my patron. 'We've chosen you to design the new memorial... if you think you can handle the job.'

It was a question that I would have given a lot to know the answer to.

'What...' I began, trying to get my brain into the proper gear. 'What kind of memorial? Where's it going to go? What kind of dimensions are we talking...?'

Where would they put something like that? Was there a museum somewhere? Would I get a wall? Something bigger? What the hell kind of painting would do justice to... to... well, you know.

'Eventually,' Aleyah informed me, 'it will be housed in the Sanc kingdom Memorial Peace Gardens. After the tour. But darling Jack has negotiated the right to have the unveiling here at the gallery. Quite the coup.'

Mr. Lee grinned broadly, looking quite pleased with himself. I let them share their congratulatory looks while I stripped mental gears. Tour? The images I'd had of museum walls went out the window. 'Uhm... can we get back to what kind of memorial we're talking about here?' I ventured, and it drew Stan Kirby back into the conversation.

'A sculpture, Mr. Maxwell,' he told me, eyeing me with a bizarre intensity. 'Think you can handle it?'

'I'm not a sculptor,' I blurted, but Aleyah just gave me the pish-pish noise of disdainful dismissal.

'You don't need to be, pet,' she soothed. 'We have people for that. All you need to worry your pretty little head with, is a design.'

There were a whole lot of one-liners that wanted to come out of my mouth at that moment, and I didn't even get any help from my repress hamster... Francis found the room a little intimidating. All that was forming was starting to sound like Heero's litany of investigator words; what? Where? How? Are you out of your God damn mind?

Oh wait... wrong litany.

'I'm gonna go out on a limb,' I heard come out of my mouth, 'and guess that you have not a thing in mind, and I'm just supposed to pull some awesome idea out of my... out of thin air?'

I thought Jack Lee was going to hurt something laughing. 'Such a delight!' he crowed. 'Yes, Mr. Maxwell... pull something awesome out of your ass and amaze us all, if you please.'

'Jack!' Aleyah scolded, and did that thing where her expression was shocked at Mr. Lee and pleased with me all at the same time.

'How long do I have?' I had to ask, with a vague feeling of déjà vu.

'We're going to need the preliminary sketches in three weeks,' Mr. Kirby broke in, sounding like he was making a point he expected an argument over. I didn't hesitate to meet his gaze... wasn't going to contest the point. No way in hell was I going to be able to wing this one.

'Are there any guide-lines at all?' I tried, not sure whether to expect any help or not. Some part of the back of my head was trying to tell me to tell them to fuck off if this was going to be another one of those weird mystery projects.

'Of course, darling!' Aleyah said airily, waving the very notion away. 'This isn't another silly little project like Jack's commission. This is quite serious.'

'The reputation of the gallery is riding on it,' Mr. Kirby had to chime in and I kind of wanted to glare at him for feeling the need.

I managed to bite my tongue on the gee thanks part and toned it down to a mere, 'I understand.'

'Of course you do, pet,' Aleyah praised, 'As soon as you turn in your designs, we'll move forward with...'

'Assuming I accept the job,' I had to insert, seeing the whole process lining up in front of me like a row of dominos. Wasn't about to board an Aleyah Winner agenda train without at least knowing the destination.

She gave me a startled look and was opening her mouth to deliver what I can only assume would be a scathing tongue lashing when Mr. Kirby cut in with a chuckle.

'First sensible thing I've heard come out of your mouth yet, Mr. Maxwell,' he said dryly. 'Maybe this isn't as hare-brained an idea as I was starting to fear.'

It shut Aleyah up, at least for the moment, no doubt I would get my brunch performance critiqued later, but for the moment she was content to allow my small rebellion to win points with her buddy Stan. I think I was lacking in that quarter.

'Excellent!' Mr. Lee suddenly said, just sounding as pleased as a kid on Christmas morning. 'Our Ms. Tartan will have the information packet for you, Mr. Maxwell. If you could let us know by Monday morning if you're up to the challenge, we'll get this show on the road!'

It was dismissal, and an attempt at psychology, and some sort of weird smugness all rolled into one subtle ball. As if on cue, the door behind me opened and I was being taken in hand by the mentioned receptionist and I had to wonder if the woman had been listening at the door.

She came past me and deposited the missing Coquette into Aleyah's arms, handed some papers to Mr. Lee, and snagged a finger sandwich from the table. 'Your driver will be here in twenty minutes, Mr. Kirby,' she said in passing, and verbally scooped me up on her way out. 'This way, Mr. Maxwell.'

What could I do? I said my goodbyes and went 'this way'.

I was breezed off, handed a thick envelope marked 'private' and what appeared to be a boxed lunch. I barely had time to blink before I was deposited back on the freight elevator and told one last time to have a nice day.

I suppose that part would all depend on your definition of 'nice'.

There was nothing much between my ears but a vaguely hollow humming sound. The walk out of the gallery was done on autopilot and the drive back to work was something of a blur.

Sometimes crap just comes out of nowhere and leaves you feeling like you were caught with your virtual pants around your virtual ankles.

I will confess that I'd had several weeks for my somewhat over-active imagination to gnaw on the possibilities of the Great and Mysterious Project. And gnaw on it, I had. I won't even go into all the scenarios I'd run through the 'what if' paces, since they were all pretty moot at that point anyway. But I do have to say... a traveling memorial for the anniversary of the suicide of an entire colony had not even made the list.

I had to force myself to leave the information packet in the car when I got back to the Preventers building, or I knew I wouldn't get any work done for the rest of the day.

Not that, you know, productivity was likely to happen anyway.

My lunch hour hadn't turned into the afternoon I'd been afraid it would, and I arrived back in the garage before most of the other guys. Though Dave was there and just throwing away his take-out bag from RJ's, the grease-pit across the street.

'Hey, Duo!' he greeted, 'how'd your meeting go?'

'As bizarre as most meetings go with those people,' I told him, setting my box lunch down on the hood of the car I was supposed to be working on, and prepared to open it.

'What ya got?' Dave wanted to know, and came over to peer down into the thing with me.

'The receptionist took pity on me,' I said as I pulled out one of those green looking sandwiches. 'Uh... I think.'

'What the hell is that?' he asked, and kind of pulled back like he was afraid I was going to make him eat it.

'I have no damn idea,' I had to confess, and took a sniff.

'Guacamole, maybe?'

'I have no clue what guacamole smells like,' I said, but it didn't exactly smell bad, so I nibbled on a corner. It didn't taste a lot different than it smelled; nothing I wouldn't eat if offered, but nothing I would bother to seek out on my own. Dave looked like he was waiting to see if I would keel over. 'Want to try it? There's two.'

He gingerly took the offering and did the same tiny nibble thing I'd done, before grinning broadly. 'Not bad! Now I can tell my wife I had some kind of cultured lunch thing!'

I looked back down into the box at the tiny little triangles of sandwiches and the carefully segregated fruit. 'What makes it cultured?'

'Dude!' he scoffed, 'because they cut the crusts off the bread!'

He went to clock back in while I finished my lunch. The green stuff was a take it or leave it kind of thing, but I have to admit there was some sort of ham saladish stuff that I could have eaten all afternoon. And the strawberries were some of the biggest and juiciest I'd ever had. I'd had my doubts when the efficient Ms Tartan had handed it to me, but nothing went to waste.

It was about the only thing I didn't waste that afternoon. Never did get the damn windshield put in place, I just pretty much ended up sitting on the hood of the car, mindlessly cleaning and prepping the track, and picking out broken glass while my focus took a vacation in the land of reminisce.

I hadn't been there when the leaders of Wufei's home colony had made the ultimate 'fuck you' gesture to the enemy. None of us had been. Well... except Wufei. Being a pertinent part of the proceedings. But it had been on all the news feeds, and I sure as hell hadn't missed it. It's one of the defining moments of an entire generation; isn't anybody over the age of about sixteen that can't tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment that button was pushed.

Me? I'd been at the circus - my first - spending a few hours trying to forget about Oz, Romefeller, Gundams, missions, and mad scientists. It hadn't worked out real well, since the resident lion taming clown had turned out to be an amnesia-suffering fellow pilot. I'd still been trying to muddle through what to do about my discovery, if anything, when the news had hit the feeds.

I can remember feeling shocked. And sick. And kind of pissed, and not really being sure at who. On the one hand, if there's anybody in this universe who understands the 'fuck you' mind set... it has to be little ol' Duo Maxwell. But on the other, there were a whole hell of a lot of people on that tin can, and I just couldn't believe they were all on board with the plan, down to the last mother's child, I don't care how damn honorable the act.

Though... I knew Wufei, and I was well acquainted with his pride and his stubbornness. If the rest of his people were even half as hard-assed, I could see them giving the one-finger salute in complete synchronization, down to their last breath.

But I'll never know for sure, which makes it damn hard to decide how I feel about the whole thing.

And I was just starting to understand that that fact was going to make this art job real freaking interesting.

How do you epitomize a thing that you still, six years later, weren't sure how to feel about?

I was so lost in my own thoughts that late afternoon, when Dave tossed a rag at me and suddenly asked, 'Hey Duo? You going to the opening game next week?' that it took me a long minute to figure out what in the hell he was talking about.

'Next week?' I finally asked, after blinking stupidly at him for a moment. 'That's next week already?'

'Dude,' Bobby jeered from where he was working on my other side, 'where have you been? They've been practicing for weeks!'

'Well we've been kind of busy with the remodel...' I hedged, bending back to work and hoping they'd tire of the topic.

'You still haven't gone out to watch a practice?' Dave wanted to know, and I realized it wasn't going to get dropped. Dave can be somewhat tenacious when he thinks you're ignoring his advice.

'We couldn't both be away,' I tried, hoping to imply workers and supervision and... stuff. I have to give Dave credit... he didn't actually laugh out loud. Not like Bobby.

'You're too much of a tight-wad to be payin' them guys over-time,' Giles chimed in from across the stupid bay and I glared over my shoulder at him, for all the good it did.

'Come on, Duo,' Dave cajoled. 'It ain't so hard. It's like...keep-away, only in reverse.'

That one made just about everybody in the garage stop and look at him, and I could have groaned... Dave hates it when people don't get what he's saying, and I knew there was a lengthy explanation coming. I turned and slid to the edge of the hood I was sitting on, propping my feet on the bumper and glanced toward Griff's office, hoping that 'Dad' would come out and tell his wayward mechanics to get back to work. Unfortunately, the boss had probably made a trip up to Accounting, and wasn't there. I bit down on a sigh and reflected that it was too bad I couldn't use my repress hamster on other people.

True to form, Dave scowled at the disbelieving looks he was getting all around. 'Well, how in the hell would you guys describe it to somebody who's never played?'

'It's a team sport,' Bobby said leaving the tire he was changing to come around to lean against my current project, and address Dave more directly. 'With nine players on a team. The object is to keep the other team from scoring runs...'

Giles chuckled and shook his head, he too stopping what he was doing. 'I think Dave is looking for the short answer, man.'

Somebody behind me called out, 'It's just stick-ball with a lot of rules!'

I resisted the urge to bury my face in my hands... it probably wouldn't have made them stop anyway. Remember what I said earlier about mechanics being a lot like a room full of unruly little boys?


The teacher had left the class room.

Somehow, and I swear to you, I really don't know how... the next thing I knew, a tennis ball and a broom handle had been dredged up from somewhere, and I was being acquainted with 'America's national pastime'. Like it or not.

We did not have nine guys, but Dave did the best he could with the six of us. Bobby was designated the 'pitcher', Giles was on 'first' which was somewhere between a Buick and his tool box. Duncan was on 'second', and John was playing 'third', which translated to standing in front of the soda machine. Dave seemed to be coaching, and I was handed the broom. Uh... the bat.

For the record, baseball is even squirrelier than the drunken spacesuit monkey game.

'Ok, now see,' Dave was telling me while Bobby and Giles tossed the tennis ball back and forth with exaggerated windmilling of their arms, 'Bobby throws the ball across home plate, which would be right here if... you know... we had more room and had a real diamond and stuff. You're gonna try to hit the ball as far as you can, and Bobby's gonna try to fake you out so you don't hit it.'

Giles laughed rather rudely, having to lean wide to catch the tennis ball. 'Dave, I think Bobby's going to be doing good just to get the damn ball across the plate.'

Bobby blew him a raspberry and then proceeded to stand there smacking his fist into his hand and for a second I thought he was pissed, but it just seemed to be more of the mugging.

'Ok,' I agreed, just to get the show on the road, 'so I hit the ball, and then what?'

'Well you kinda gotta pretend there's a base where the guys are all standing,' Dave said, waving in the general direction of our impromptu 'field'. 'You gotta get to a base before they can get the ball there.'

'That's it?' I asked dubiously. Surely there was more to it than that? All you'd have to do is make sure you hit the sucker far enough that you had plenty of time.

'No!' Dave responded, sounding put out that I was implying his game was kind of lame. 'There's more to it than that! I was just keeping it simple for your first at bat. There's all kinds of rules, like if they catch the ball, you're automatically out. And you have to keep the ball fair, and you have to tag all the bases as you run, in order and...'

'Come on, Dave!' John prodded. 'Give him the rule book later, let's do this already!'

'Give me something to aim at, Dave,' Bobby instructed, cutting to the chase and siding with John.

Dave sighed rather theatrically, but took a couple of steps back and squatted down in a line with me and Bobby. It seemed like a damn dangerous place to be, in a game that involved a guy swinging a big stick around. 'Now if you miss,' he was telling me, 'that's called a strike and you only get three of them before you're out.'

'We don't have another batter,' Giles informed him with another of those terribly amused chuckles. 'I think we can let him swing until he hits it.'

'Oh,' Dave muttered. 'Good idea...'

Bobby did the bizarre windmill thing with his arm again, and then tossed the ball to Dave. I had to lean a little, but my eye/hand is pretty decent, and I bounced the ball off the over-head doors in the back of the bay without any problem.

'Run, Duo!' Dave yelled and it kind of surprised me... the guy was really serious. So feeling like an idiot, I jogged over to where Giles was standing. But he was just waving at me frantically.

'Take second! Take second!' I glanced around and Duncan was off in the back of the bay chasing the bouncing ball. So I took off for roughly where he'd been standing. But when I got there, Dave started jumping up and down and waving his arms.

'Go! Go to third!'

John couldn't seem to decide if he should be coaching me or Duncan, and finally must have decided I already had enough people telling me what to do, so he turned his attention to Duncan. 'Throw it in, man!'

I kind of got the race part about then, and I'll be damned if some weird sort of competitive... thing reared its head somewhere inside, and I took off running for the soda machine.

'He's gotta touch you with the ball, Duo!' Dave was yelling, 'Slide! Slide!'

That kind of made sense in a weird sort of way. More than just a race then; it really was like keep-away in reverse. Doing my best to follow the almost-rules we seemed to be playing by, I aimed at the soda machine and hit the concrete bay floor in a long slide. John yelped and sort of danced out of the way, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tennis ball bounce off the 'P' in Pepsi and go flying over our heads. John cursed and Giles crowed, 'Go for home, Duo! Go for home!' even as he was scrambling after the ball.

What else could I do? Back on my feet, I aimed for Dave and ran. Couldn't let my team down, after all.

I assume you see what's coming? In all its 'holy crap', little-boys-caught-with-the-cookie-jar-in-a-dozen-pieces glory?

Oh yeah. Guess we all knew Griff wasn't going to stay gone forever.

God only knows what the man thought as he neared his domain and heard his best and brightest screaming 'Run! Run!' and 'Catch the damn thing!' at the tops of their lungs. But I'll tell you what; I'd give a hell of a lot of money for a video of it.

I'm pretty sure Giles and John just sort of faded into the corners trying to look like they weren't involved, but Duncan, Dave and I were sort of caught red-handed since I was charging across the bay, Duncan was hurling the tennis ball in, and Dave was doing his best to guard a non-existent home plate. Dave kind of lost his focus when the side door opened to reveal our awol boss. Consequently, he stopped watching both me and the ball. I'd been trying to duplicate the somewhat successful slide thing and once you start one of those... you're kind of committed. I slid, Dave didn't dodge like John had, since he was busy staring at our boss, I plowed into him and the ball sailed right on by, at speed, and bounced off the window to Griff's office with an alarming rattle that had all of us thanking our various deities the damn thing hadn't been a real baseball.

It ended with me and Dave sprawled on the floor, John trying to act like he'd been getting a soda the whole time, Duncan just standing in the middle of the garage with his mouth hanging open, and Giles... I swear... trying to hide behind his toolbox.

It was like a whole herd of deer in the biggest spotlight ever.

Then the tennis ball finished its ricochet and did a slow dribble across the floor, stopping almost at Griff's feet. There was a collective in-drawn breath as we waited for the explosion.

Griff bent down and picked the ball up, looking at it for a long moment while he seemed to be framing his tirade, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was a heavy, somewhat resigned sigh and, 'You yahoos are about as useless as tits on a bull today... just go the hell home.'

We continued to stare while he stalked over to his office, where he finally seemed to work up a little bit more energy. Turning in the doorway, he glared at us and yelled, 'And come Monday morning, you better have your heads out of your asses and give me some damn work, or I'm gonna start docking pay checks!' Then he slammed the door and we could see him muttering to himself while he threw himself down into his chair and went back to work.

Never did give the tennis ball back.

Off work an hour and a half early on a Friday night? We did not have to be told twice. I wasn't the first one out the door, but I sure as hell wasn't the last.

I debated calling Heero on the way home, to let him know I'd be there early, but then decided the explanation would be a lot better in person where I could make gestures to embellish the tale. It isn't all that often that I have anything more interesting to relate about my day than garage gossip and stories that involve oil.

Well... unless an engine has been dropped. Or, you know, there was a kidnapping involved. Or a bus explosion.

Ok, never mind.

Let's just amend that to amusing stories and forget the rest.

I apparently wasn't the only one getting off early on a Friday afternoon; when I pulled up in front of the house, it was just in time to wave goodbye to Darryl and his older brother as they pulled a u-turn at the end of our street.

'See you Monday, Mr. Maxwell!' he hollered as he pulled away, and I just waved again. Kid looked positively thrilled to be done for the week.

There was still one extra car in front the house, so I wasn't surprised to hear voices when I made the climb up to the front porch.

'...oh no, Mr. Yuy, if Tom says he'll have that replacement sink by next week, he'll have it,' was what I heard as I opened the front door, and from the tone of the crew boss's voice, he was probably damn glad to see me come through that door. I think I've mentioned that the lot of them seemed to find Heero a little bit... unnerving.

The conversation stalled when I walked into the middle of it, and I did indeed get a broad grin from Larry. Though I saw Heero give me a quick once over, and I'm sure if we'd been alone, he'd have been verifying I wasn't home early because of some problem.

'Looks like it's a day for playing hooky,' I commented to Larry genially, as much to put Heero's mind at ease, as anything. 'You guys all done for the day?'

'Got as far as we can until the painting is done,' Larry told me, jumping on the offer of a new conversation with both feet. He gestured around at the mess my living room was in, though he hardly had to; not like I'd missed it. There was mostly assembled cabinetry and empty boxes everywhere. At least they'd put drop cloths down first.

There was a weird, awkward moment where nobody could figure out whose turn it was in the conversational area and I wondered if Heero had been in the process of reading the guy the riot act over the sink order or something, and my arrival had derailed it completely. Larry gave out with a slightly over-enthusiastic laugh to fill the lapse.

'Well, I guess I'll be getting out of here too,' he said, and he seemed to be trying hard not to make eye contact with Heero. 'You guys have a good weekend, and we'll see you bright and early Monday!'

Poor guy couldn't get out the front door fast enough, and I had to chuckle as we stood on the porch and watched him pull away. 'Dude, you really have to stop scaring the hired help.'

Heero just snorted. 'Maybe the hired help shouldn't be so easy to intimidate.'

'They're pretty good guys,' I had to point out, and Heero smiled in a way that I'm sure those guys would have found scary.

'I just like to make sure they remember who's signing the checks,' he said, and turned on that note to go back into the house.

'I thought I was?' I retorted in mock indignation, but it didn't faze him.

'You may be supplying the funds, but I believe I made the down-payment,' he replied, holding the door open for me.

'Is that semantics, or a technicality?' I wanted to know, and just got laughed at.

'So why are you home early?' he asked, derailing my tangent before I could follow it too far. I caught him eyeing my manila envelope, but he didn't ask.

'Because I am a useless yahoo?' I quipped and then thought better of it... that rather sounded like I'd gotten fired. 'Or... I am part of a crew of useless yahoos.'

There was the implication of a slow blink in the quiet moment it took him to ask, 'Uh... pardon?'

I grinned, making my way through the maze of boxes and construction chaos. 'Griff gave us the afternoon off out of the sheer goodness of his heart?'

That drew a snort of disbelief. 'Somehow, I doubt that.'

I tossed the envelope from the art gallery on the table as I passed through the dining room, Heero trailing after me. 'Ok, so the guys were trying to explain the basics of baseball to me and Griff took exception to the lesson.'

'Why is it,' he wanted to know, as he watched me dig through the fridge for something cold to drink, 'that whenever you explain things, I usually end up more confused than when I first asked?'

Since we would be heading out for dinner in a few hours anyway, I really didn't want more than a few swallows of something, and opted not to open a bottle of soda. 'Just my effort to keep you entertained,' I grinned and took a drink straight from his pitcher of tea.

'Barbarian,' he grumbled good-naturedly, but took his own drink when I passed it over. Hell, I'd be more inclined to use a glass if I could freaking find them in less than ten minutes.

I ignored the comment, since it wasn't really relevant to the main conversation, skipping back to address his original point. 'Ok, so Griff threw us out of the garage for the rest of the day because he caught us playing stick ball in the bay with a broom handle and a tennis ball.'

He didn't even snort his tea, though I'd been trying hard for the effect. His look was pretty priceless though.

Since we had a place we had to be, I went about getting cleaned up and ready to go while Heero followed along after me, listening as I told the whole sordid story, complete with the windmilling hand gestures.

I do so love to make him laugh.

Sometimes though, I get a little caught up in that part, and sort of forget what all the amusing story is revealing. Somewhere between the showering and the dressing, his expression took on a thoughtful cast that, unfortunately, went right over my head at the time.

I spun the tale out to the confiscated tennis ball part while we were sitting on the side of the bed, and I was lacing up my shoes. Done with both things, I looked up expecting to find him grinning at me in that way he has when I have his undivided attention. And I suppose the look I found was focused, but not in quite the way I'd been expecting. Oops?

'Duo,' he asked in a kind of careful sort of way, like he was picking over his words with great deliberation, 'are you uncomfortable going to my softball games because... you've never played?'

I suspect 'because you don't understand the game' was what got edited out of that question, and I had to give him credit at the same time that I was kind of embarrassed anyway. Well, here we were having that conversation that I guess I'd known for months we were going to have to have, even though I'd rather been avoiding it. With a sigh I tried to cover up, I pulled a leg up on the bed so I could sit more facing him, and tried out a sheepish little grin. What the hell? If we were going to have the conversation, might as well have it.

'Actually,' I confessed, 'I'm kind of uncomfortable with it because I'm trying hard not to horn in on something that's a you and Wufei thing.'

For the record, you can tell when a person is biting the inside of their cheek so that they won't laugh out loud. He managed to contain it to a funny little noise that still conveyed large amounts of amusement. 'I wish I had known that, because Wufei has been hounding me since last season about why I won't invite you, but I didn't want you to feel obligated if you weren't interested.'

I didn't bother doing my own biting, and just about gave myself a hernia laughing my ass off. 'Oh God, but we suck at communication sometimes,' I blurted out, though if there was ever a comment that was stating the obvious, that was it.

Heero hooked an arm around my neck, and tried to pull me in for a kiss, but we were both chuckling too hard and he had to settle for just kind of rubbing his head against mine. 'We're getting better,' he said and it just made me laugh all the more.

'I've been stewing about it to for ages,' I heard myself say, though it was a bit more confessional than I'd been intending.

'Why didn't you...?' Heero began, but I just shrugged.

'I didn't want you to feel obligated to invite me if... you know...' I said, not quite wanting to convey that sense of outsiderness that I felt sometimes; that would definitely be venturing into a realm of confessionalism that I wasn't interested in sharing.

Heero sort of lost all the mirth then, getting kind of still and looking at me intently, his hand resting on the back of my neck. 'There is no aspect of my life that I don't want you a part of,' he told me softly.

Sort of made me feel all warm, and sort of made me feel like a dumbass, so I just kissed him to keep from having to answer.

And the next thing we knew we were running late, and had to dash out the door for our dinner date.

I could have wished for a quieter place to meet Toria and Hayden for dinner, because McMurphy's place on a Friday night was likely to be packed, but they were on a schedule, and Toria had given me my marching orders without consulting my hamsters, beasts and personal issues.

McMurphy's, I suspect, was going to be a deep-breath sort of place for... well, probably for the rest of my life. Unless my on-again/off-again shrink found a cure for the heartbreak of vacuum phobia and I somehow found myself in the trade again. But even in the land of what-if, that would require that Heero quit being a Preventer and take up as my co-pilot, and since I just couldn't envision that even in the fantasy version where we got to be pirates... yeah. Walking through the door of McMurphy's spacer bar and grill was going to forever be... somewhat awkward.

Though, making our way across that parking lot, I had to admit to myself, if to nobody else... at least I didn't feel nauseous this time. Sometimes you take your improvements where you could get them.

So I took that deep-breath and opened the door, and tried to look on the bright side... I wasn't walking into a wake.

The place wasn't as packed as I've seen it, probably wasn't even as packed as it had been at Jock's send off, but there was still a bit of a crowd. Jess was right there to welcome us, but didn't offer to lead us to a table.

'Duo!' she greeted warmly, giving me a big smile. 'Go on around; Haydan and Toria are already waiting.'

'Thanks, dear-heart,' I told her as she breezed by balancing a tray, and I led the way down the length of the bar, reaching out to tap fists with McMurphy as we went by.

'Hey Mac,' I grinned and he mock aimed his water nozzle at me, since it was in his hand.

'Hey stranger,' he replied, and went right on mixing his drinks.

About then Toria must have spotted us, because I suddenly heard her voice, loud enough to be heard clear in the back room; 'Maxwell, you louse! Where have you been... you promised to give me children!' There were a good number of snickers from those who knew us, though the couple at the next table over, looked a little bit shocked.

If Heero hadn't been at my elbow, I'd have probably bellowed something extremely crude about Hayden, but as it stood... there was a tiny bit of embarrassment involved.

'Kids Are Us was sold out!' was the best I could manage, but then I found myself enveloped in one of Toria's killer hugs and it didn't matter anyway. Woman is delighted by our height difference and loves to, somewhat literally, rub my face in it.

'Torie honey,' Hayden told her in that long suffering tone of voice, 'let the man breathe,' even as he was rising to share a handshake with Heero.

'Oh, how cute!' Toria gushed, letting me go, 'you brought Grumpy!'

'Play nice, Spacer girl' I warned her, but a glance at the table told me they'd been there long enough that she'd already downed a few beers. Nice wasn't likely to happen. Even if she wasn't drunk, and I knew she wouldn't get too sloshed since they were shipping back out the next morning, she'd use it as an excuse to say whatever the hell crossed her mind. Not that, to be honest, she ever really bothered with excuses.

'I always play nice...' she grinned at me. 'When I'm playing.'

I tried not to sigh, since it just tends to encourage her. Hayden tugged her back into her seat just as Jess came by to find out what we were drinking. We placed our order and when we settled at the table, I made sure that Heero wasn't sitting next to Toria. No sense inviting trouble.

'So this ship of yours,' I jumped in, hoping to reroute the conversation to safer ground, 'you seriously named it Buddy's Gift?'

'Well, we did,' Toria drawled, kicking her chair back on two legs and rocking back and forth while she grinned at me. 'But then we renamed it to Asshole Who Never Gets In Touch. It seemed a better fit.'

Hayden just shook his head sadly, adding, 'It was a pain getting that pushed through... there're length limits, you know.'

'As if,' I snorted, though there was a tiny part of me hoping they weren't serious.

'Guess you'll have to come and see it to know for sure,' Toria smirked at me, just daring me to doubt her refined sense of inappropriateness.

'Well, you need to dock for more than twelve hours and I will,' I returned, but that brought the chair down with a faint thump, as she leaned in with a predatory gleam in her eye.

'You just need to come with us for a joy ride,' she said, and it had the feel of a line she'd been looking for an opening to deliver.

I had a moment where, at least in my head, my mouth gaped open, but Jess appeared at Heero's elbow with our drinks, and broke the thread of conversation.

'Here we go, ladies and gentlemen,' she smiled as she set the drinks around, 'two more beers, a green tea, and a Mt. Dew. You ready to order dinner, or you just going to sit and gab?'

Toria was eyeing our drinks, and I would have felt apprehensive over the ribbing I was about to get, if I wasn't slightly relieved that it seemed to have derailed her earlier observation.

'I, for one, am starved!' I jumped in, gamely going for distraction. 'Let me have the top sirloin with a salad.'

Heero followed right on my heels with his own order, and I think he was aware of the dance I was doing. I spared him a smile, and he gave me a look that hinted at a roll of the eyes.

I was all set with my next line when Jess left the table, but before I could deliver it, Hayden slipped smoothly into the opening. Blindsiding me at a completely different angle. 'So... we got a note from Lena about your show. She said it seemed to go well?'

'What?' I blinked, staring at him, not sure if I wanted to be creeped out by the fact that they were still in contact with Relena, or creeped out that the good Princess had obviously been talking about me.

'Well it's good that somebody keeps us updated,' Toria informed me with an evil smirk. 'Since the artist himself is apparently too damn important now to tell his old friends little details like that.'

'I'm sorry...' I blurted, my guilt providing me with all the11x14 reasons I ought to be apologizing to them, before my brain informed me there was no way in hell they could know that they'd been in that show. I... hoped.

'You certainly should be sorry,' Toria began, but then gave me a shrewd kind of look. 'Wait... why are you apologizing? That wasn't the right kind of apology. That was a panic kind of apology. That was a... a...'

'Drank the last of the beer kind of apology?' Hayden supplied helpfully, giving me that same calculating look.

If I'd been in a cartoon, I would have grinned toothily and exited stage right to the bathroom or something. But that would have left Heero alone with the wolves. And you don't abandon your wingman to the wolves.

Unless you wanted to come back from the bathroom to a barroom brawl.

Though... a brawl would probably derail the latest topic, I suppose.

I never have a hedgehog when I actually need one.

'Look, guys...' I said, and hoped I didn't sound like I was whining. I hate to whine. Even though I seem to do it a lot. I was still formulating just what it was they should look 'at' when the salads arrived. I greeted Jess, and the food, with probably a bit too much enthusiasm.

'Looks great, Jess!' I gushed, just as though she'd grown the lettuce herself. 'Thanks!'

For her part, she just gave my glass of untouched soda a glance, as though wondering about my caffeine level. 'Welcome?' she replied, maybe leery of some practical joke coming her way, and went back to work.

Heero and I bent to sorting our salads out... he took my tomatoes while I fished his onions into my bowl. It bought me a moment for reflection, and I'd just about made up my mind that I needed to come clean, when Toria headed down an entirely different path.

'Ew,' she informed nobody in particular, 'that is disgustingly coupley.'

Heero and I kind of froze. He turned his focus toward me, but I found myself glancing around a little bit apprehensively. Not exactly like the last few months had left much of me in the closet, but I still get a little nervous waving banners in public places. The only people within earshot were the couple who'd seemed a little bit taken aback by the idea of buying kids in bulk. They were currently deep in a conversation that required moving items around their table like a siege reenactment though, and didn't seem to be paying us much attention.

'Victoria,' I heard Heero say in his quiet voice. The voice that wasn't quiet so much as it was... contained. 'It's not considered polite to assume gay people are out with their relationships without asking first.'

In the conversational arena it was rather like a splash of ice water. Though... sure as hell derailed any topic coming or going. I waited for the explosion, calculating its size by how long it seemed to be taking Toria to work up to it. Shocked the hell out of me when all she did was duck her head.

'Oh.' she said quietly. 'I...I'm sorry. I didn't even think about it.'

'No harm done,' Heero replied blandly, giving a pointed glance around, and we spent a moment with everybody noticing nobody noticing.

I suppose I need to just get over my unease with the whole thing, it never seemed to bother Heero all that much after all. But it just ran against any 'blend in' lesson I was ever taught, and usually just made my spine feel twitchy. Just easier not to advertize.

And then there was a longer moment while we all applied various flavors of salad dressing.

'So the show did go well?' Hayden finally ventured, and I couldn't decide if he was really that curious or if he was just trying for a semi-safe conversation.

'It did,' I responded quickly, hoping we wouldn't get back on that whole apology thing. 'At least... it seemed to. People showed up. Shit sold. I guess that's good.'

He snorted and shook his head. 'I'm told that just getting in that place is supposed to be pretty impressive.'

I grinned across the table at him. 'I heard that same thing,' I quipped. 'But they let me in, so there's no real accounting for taste.'

'It was impressive enough that it got you a commission from Jack Lee,' Heero tossed in, being his usual helpful self. I was preparing a glare to send his way, as soon as he looked up from his studious arrangement of his salad to receive it, but the comment drew Toria back into the conversation.

'Jack Lee?' she had to ask, voice hovering somewhere between incredulous and pissed. 'The Jack Lee? Are you shitting me?'

I bit back on the automatic, but somewhat crude line that leaped to the tip of my tongue. 'Uh... define 'The'?' I stalled instead.

'Has more money than God, Jack Lee?' she clarified, stabbing the air with her fork. 'Mr. Anti-gravity? King of colony imports? Moves more goods in a week than the average ship owner hauls in their lives, Jack Lee?'

I blinked at her for a second and had to confess, 'Uh... damned if I know what he does for a living. I thought he was just the art guy, Jack Lee.'

She and Hayden exchanged a look that was kind of odd, and I turned to Heero for some sort of clarification.

'When Mr. Lee isn't making your life miserable,' he smiled, 'he runs one of the biggest colony import/export businesses out there.'

'And when I was picking Quatre's brain for information on the guy,' I huffed, 'he didn't think that was pertinent information?'

'I imagine he didn't think it was relative to what you were researching,' Heero offered and since I didn't have Quatre there, I had to accept it. I suppose, in the long run, what the guy did for a living really hadn't mattered in respect to the commission. I took a second to fit the information into the framework of the new project and didn't really see that it mattered there either, and let it go.

Beside me, Toria just looked like she wanted to beat her head on the table. 'I hate you, Duo Maxwell,' she grumbled. 'I hate you, hate you, hate you.'

'What'd I do?' I exclaimed, I'd never taken Toria for a celebrity hound or some damn thing like that. She'd taken Relena Peacecraft in stride, after all.

'Hello?' she burst out, reaching out like she was going to smack me in the head, but somewhere between the drink delivery and the salad, she'd pulled her legs up to sit balanced on her chair cross-legged, and she couldn't reach me without unbalancing. 'Best friends here? Still in the freaking trade? You know... hauling shit for a living?'

I just sat and blinked at her, trying to follow her mental jumping around and wondering if maybe she'd had more beers than I'd thought. 'Uh... yeah?'

She made a frustrated little sound and turned to Hayden. 'Can I kill him? Can I, please?'

He reached out and gave her a sympathetic pat on the back, 'No, sweetie... he may be dense, but he still has his uses.'

They couldn't possibly be pissed at me for name dropping, I hadn't been the one to drop the name. That thought reminded me that I owed Heero a glare, but when I turned to impart it, he was smiling at me bemusedly. 'I think Victoria is a little envious of your connections, Duo,' he explained and I was a bit embarrassed to feel the light bulb go off in my head.

Wow. Connections. I keep forgetting that I have connections. It wasn't something that I would exploit for myself, but... wow. I tried to imagine myself approaching Jack Lee and asking him if maybe he needed to add the services of an independent cargo ship, and I felt the heat wanting to rise to my face.

'But...' I hedged while the blush faded and the Jack Lee in my head stopped laughing at my impudence, 'what are you doing now? I thought you had a contract?'

'We're just working job to job at the moment,' Hayden said, losing the teasing tone. 'We're doing ok; making all our payments, but something more long term would be... really nice.'

'Nice,' Toria snorted, and gave Hayden a roll of her eyes that just made the big guy grin.

'Well, you can't be pissed at me,' I reasoned. 'I just freaking found out the man was even in the business!'

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