Conclusions (cont.)

'You're forgiven,' Toria offered magnanimously. 'We'll be back through again month after. We can wait until then for you to find something out.'

Had I been eating, I might have choked on it.

'I'll... see what I can do,' I finally managed, and they both beamed at me, just as though I'd already handed them a job. I was still waiting for the hysterical laughter of the virtual Mr. Lee to stop echoing in my head.

'Jess!' Toria called out happily, waving the woman over. 'We need a bottle of champagne!'

'You never drank champagne in your life, Brannigan!' Jess called back from three tables over, and it made Toria laugh so hard I thought she was going to fall out of her chair.

'You're right!' she hollered, and I winced, glancing around to judge how much we were annoying other people. 'Make it a bottle of whiskey!'

'Uh... don't forget you have to be able to pilot in less than twelve hours,' I muttered, trying not to meet the curious stares coming from the salt and pepper siege couple. Since I'd last looked, the salt had out maneuvered the pepper and there was a barricade of flatware between the remains of what looked like a very odd pizza. Who put pineapple on pizza? I smiled sheepishly and turned back to my salad.

'You're killing my joy, buddy-boy,' Toria grumbled. 'When did you become such a party-poop?' She dinged her fork off my glass of soda and I picked it up to make sure she didn't spill it, taking a couple of big swallows defiantly.

'I would not poop on your joy,' I zinged back, stabbing at my salad and just trying to avoid the whole potential situation.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her shift as she unwound from her perch and put her feet back on the floor, I sighed to myself; would have been nice if I hadn't had to have the whole weird alcohol conversation I could feel coming on.

'I can drive home, if you'd like,' Heero suddenly offered into the middle of the weird, and I glanced up at him.

'Nah,' I said, with a wry grin. 'I don't much want to be painting the kitchen with a hang-over.'

I turned back to my salad and caught the strangest look on Toria's face. She started to say something, but Jess interrupted again, bringing the rest of our meal to the table. 'So what'd you settle on Toria?' she asked. 'Champagne? Whiskey? Rum?'

'Oh, never mind,' Toria told her with an odd tone. 'I'll save it until this asshole actually comes through.'

Jess laughed and tugged on my braid as she left. 'Oh, you know Duo always does what he says he will,' she said, even though she couldn't have even known what we were talking about. Toria didn't seem to be paying any attention though, she was just regarding Heero with an expression I would have called calculating. While she was distracted, I decided to try to steer the conversation back to safer ground.

'So just what's the job you guys are on, anyway?' I asked Hayden and he looked up from his dinner with some relief. I was feeling kind of sorry for the guy; he kept getting caught in the middle of the awkward.

'We stuck with running cargo,' he told me around a mouthful of whatever he was eating. 'Salvage work is just too lean, unless you're an operation big enough to compete with the Sweepers. Or,' he amended with a twinkle in his eye, 'suicidal.'

'Hey,' I grinned, 'you go where the money is.'

He ignored me and went on. 'We've managed to score two runs this month for one of the big corporations moving building supplies out to L3. We're kind of hoping to get picked up on retainer.'

I digested that, looking for any hint that they weren't being completely forthcoming. I'd been pretty appalled when I'd discovered that they'd run things so close to the bone last time, without telling me. 'But you're doing ok?'

'Insurance all paid up and current,' Toria said dryly. 'And the bank only owns about half our ship.'

I tucked into my steak so I didn't have to meet the look that I expected was on her face. I hadn't meant to sound like I was checking up on them like some meddling busy-body uncle or something.

'We're fine,' Hayden chuckled, just as though Toria hadn't spoken. 'We've even banked enough to cover a couple of months in case we have some down-time. Would just be nice if we didn't have any down-time.'

I could remember those days of lining jobs up and trying to make sure you didn't have any long gaps with nothing on the schedule. Owning a ship isn't like owning a house... ships don't just sit there doing nothing if you aren't running a job. It still cost you in fuel or docking fees in between. Any time you weren't working, your ship was chewing away at your savings like a mouse in the grain... nibble, nibble, nibble.

'We're running lumber to L3 this week and then making the L4 loop,' Toria suddenly said, and it was the predatory cock to her head that warned me we were headed for another topic I probably wasn't going to be happy with. 'But then we'll be back through for a turn-around job. Just be off dirt-side for a couple of days. You should come with us and you can paint my babies.'

Or... back around to an already avoided topic. Ouch. Probably the worst one. I'd rather she'd bounced back to why I owed them an apology over an art gallery showing.

I had a bite of steak in my mouth and just focused on chewing it, trying to think of something that would throw her off track without actually having to get all dramatic about it. It had been days since I'd had any major drama and I rather liked the trend.

George appeared on one side of my plate, shuffling between a 'fuck off' and an 'oh shit' banner, but Francis appeared on the other with one of those red circle 'no' banners... but I couldn't tell what he was advocating against. No melodrama? No wank? No arguing? No whining? None of the above?

I reflected, as they tussled through the dregs of my salad, that the little rodents really weren't all that helpful most of the time. The thought made them vanish in a huff.

I was trying to decide if I would get further with Toria by teasing, or by making puppy eyes at her, when Heero took the decision out of my hands. Guess he'd gotten pushed too far.

'I think,' he said very carefully, 'that you are crossing the line here. We're all very aware of why that would be a... bad idea. Duo can work on your paintings while you're docked. He doesn't need...'

'Maybe he does need,' Toria said, cutting him off and glaring at him coldly. 'Maybe he needs to get back out there. The Duo Maxwell I know wouldn't let this thing beat him.'

Heero was instantly a very unhappy boy. I feared for the fork he had in his hand. His mouth was opening and I could tell from the look in his eyes that he was about to nuke the playing field. I reached out and touched his hand, buying his restraint.

'Whoa there, guys,' I chided. 'Let's not be throwing the cutlery here... it just pisses McMurphy off.'

There was a weird moment where they tried to glare each other down, and I wanted to wave my hand between them to see if I could actually feel some heat or electricity or something, because it sure seemed like it was there.

'So...' Hayden tossed out into the moment, 'anybody want dessert?' but it fell flat and everybody ignored him.

I tried to poke at Toria's notion, tried to slip the idea on for size, but just needed more than the moment between conversational lines. I needed to get past the initial hit to the blood pressure to really contemplate it. 'Lemme think about it,' I blurted, and it brought Heero's attention around to me. He opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it, just turning his hand under mine to squeeze my fingers for a moment.

'I think I want dessert,' Hayden continued, ignoring our ignoring him. 'What do you think? The chocolate cake or that apple thing?'

'Oh, I love the apple thing!' Toria gushed, dropping the whole issue in my lap just like that, and moving on. I watched them for a second, as they perused the dessert menu, and wondered if that had been her backing down from Heero, or her accepting my word that I would seriously consider her request.

Or her confidence that I couldn't say no to her.

I had one of those moments where I stepped outside and watched the world go by. Like it all had nothing to do with me. There was a drone around us, the conversations of dozens of other people making a background noise where words surfaced now and again. Somewhere across the room, somebody laughed loudly. Somebody else was calling for another round of drinks. The television over the bar was playing some obnoxious commercial jingle. I heard somebody call out 'Cut across, shorty!' and knew the joke being told. The couple behind us had left off arranging condiments and I heard a snippet of something that had to do with Jedi Knights and pirates.

It made me want to turn around and join their conversation. It sounded much more entertaining than my own.

And that thought gave me a pang of melancholy regret that I couldn't quite get my head around.

It was good to see my friends again, I wouldn't try to deny that. But the whole dinner had been more like a chess match than a normal conversation. So many topics that were just plain awkward. So many things that weren't comfortable to talk about. Suppose I couldn't really blame anybody but myself... I was the one with all the excess baggage after all.

There was a touch on the back of my hand and I gave Heero a reassuring smile to let him know I wasn't completely off in la-la land. His return smile held a hint of understanding.

'You've changed, Buddy-boy,' Toria suddenly said and I looked over to find her gazing at me with a sad sort of look in her eyes.

'I'm sorry,' I told her, because I kind of was. 'But... it's not really surprising, is it? After everything that's happened?'

She just shook her head and stared at me for another long moment before turning back to the dessert menu. 'The apple thing,' she decided firmly. 'But you get your own, Hayden Brannigan because I'm not sharing!'

I could feel Heero watching me, so I turned to him and smiled, 'You want to try one of these apple what'sits?'

He snorted and then shrugged, letting me know his focus was elsewhere, but there wasn't much he could do about it in the middle of a crowded bar. Made me wonder if I shouldn't have just let him stay at home; he couldn't be getting much out of the evening beyond a decent meal and a headache. At least I could say I'd gotten to see some old friends.

I became aware that there was some couple communication going on across the table too, though after a minute Toria huffed in a way that was communicated quite well beyond the couple, and then she excused herself to the restroom with an air that felt a lot like she was taking a breather so she didn't deck Hayden. Or Heero. Or maybe me.

Hayden sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, smiling sheepishly across at us. 'I'm really sorry...' he began, but I just waved it away.

'Nobody's fault, buddy-boy,' I told him. 'It's just going to be... awkward for awhile. I'm probably not trying hard enough to be... normal?' It was as close as I could manage to what I was thinking, but it just made Heero frown and I sighed too. 'You know what I mean?'

I think Heero wanted to say something, but didn't, and Hayden filled the pause with his own observation, not noticing that Heero was working on words. 'As adaptable as Torie is, she's having a hard time with things changing like this,' he said. 'She's half convinced that... well... that you're not dirt-side by choice, you know?'

'Do I look locked up?' I chuckled, remembering a couple of Toria's emails. 'You're not seriously telling me she thinks that?'

'What?' Heero wanted to know, looking from one of us to the other in shock. Hayden and I shared a laugh.

'My wife has a somewhat over active imagination,' Hayden confessed, as though it was a big secret. 'And sometimes she over thinks things and makes some... interesting leaps of logic.'

'Where have I seen that before?' Heero said wryly, and I kicked half-heartedly at his foot, but just bumped his chair.

'I'm not quite that bad!' I informed them, but neither of them looked convinced. I dropped it, since there was no telling how long before Toria came back from the bathroom. 'Seriously, Hayden... what the hell is her problem with Heero? She doesn't really think that he's got me... whatever the hell she thinks?'

He took a long swallow of his beer and set the empty bottle down, obviously collecting his thoughts. 'All Torie is seeing are the changes in you, Duo... and for some damn reason, she can't seem to accept that there isn't somebody to blame.'

'There is;' I drawled, 'me. But that's beside the point. What the hell's it going to take to make her get off Heero's case?'

'Time,' he said, smiling that smile he has that can make him look twice his age, and twice as smart. 'Heero's already thrown her a little tonight. Give her time and she'll come around.'

'Before or after she poisons my tea?' Heero muttered, but I don't think Hayden caught it.

I glanced toward the bathrooms, but didn't see her coming back yet. 'Should I... should I maybe talk to her alone or something?'

'Not if she's just going to use the time to pressure you,' Heero growled, and I kind of wish Hayden hadn't caught that line either.

'I'm really sorry about that,' Hayden said, ducking his head and fiddling with his silverware. 'You have to realize she's ship-born, she just flat can't understand... well... you know.'

'Vacuum phobia?' I supplied for him and he nodded guiltily. Hayden himself is a transplanted ground-bounder and I'm sure he had an entirely different perspective on the topic.

'I can understand that,' I told him, and found myself reaching across the table for one of their empty beer bottles since my glass of soda didn't have a label on it. 'Hell... it wasn't something I was particularly understanding about myself, until I found myself living with it.'

It made me wonder if Toria would have come out of the asteroid belt with a more intact psyche. Made me feel like a wimp because I hadn't. Maybe I had given up too soon? Maybe I should have tried again. And again, until I'd just gotten the hell over it, like Toria seemed to think I would.

'Maybe I didn't try hard enough,' I heard myself say and knew it was a mistake before the words were quite out of my mouth.

'If you'd tried any harder,' Heero rumbled, his voice thick with emotion he wouldn't quite let out in the middle of a crowded restaurant, 'you wouldn't damn well be here.'

'Heero...' I began, looking for something that would soothe, but he just shook his head and let it go. Hayden cleared his throat uncomfortably.

'You know Torie,' he said with a strangely affectionate smile, 'Never met a fear that shouldn't be steam rolled over.' The remark came with an odd glance in Heero's direction, and it made me want to jump up and declare that I'd known it all along, but I refrained. I just gave him a snort of a laugh that went a little more self-deprecating than I'd intended.

'I'll try to be less wimp-like in her presence,' I promised, but it didn't win me a laugh from anybody at the table. I sighed and thought again that I'd rather join the debate on pirates versus ninjas that was going on behind us.

From Heero, all I was getting was a mounting frustration, but Hayden just seemed like he was bordering on depressed. It made me want to pull at my hair, or maybe smack around my repress hamster. Damn thing never seemed to be around when I really needed him the most.

Francis popped into the middle of my plate, waved his earlier red anti banner at me rather pointedly, then scowled and flipped me off before vanishing back to wherever thought hamsters go when they're off stage. I sighed.

'You guys are a tough damn crowd,' I muttered, and settled for rubbing a hand over my face.

'You know,' Hayden mused, not really paying any attention to me, his thoughts turned inward to whatever was playing out behind unfocused eyes, 'I think some of it's guilt.'

I'd learned my lesson about rushing into apologies before one has heard all the details, so I just waited for him to finish the thought before deciding what I should be apologizing for. Surprised me where the thought ended up going.

'It took her months to stop obsessing over asking you to compete in the expo,' he explained, and then gave me a quirk of a grin. 'You scared the holy crap out of her when she realized you really passed out.'

'I thought we went over that,' I grumbled, embarrassed and hoping we weren't going to get into that crap again. It hadn't been my finest moment.

'Well,' he chuckled and I couldn't help notice that he was keeping his eyes somewhat averted from Heero's general direction, 'you didn't go over it so much as you dismissed it. Didn't stop her from...'

Obsessing, I assumed, but I would never know, because we noticed Toria coming back across the room, and he dropped it. She arrived back at our table in rendezvous with our desserts and the conversation turned to apples and ice cream and why things that are not good for you taste so damn good.

Somehow the entire table had come to some unspoken resolution to play nice after all, and the conversation from that point on revolved around our new house and their new ship. Various jobs and hobbies on both sides. The latest issue of the Hell Bound Beavers. Stuff that friends talk about when they aren't really talking about anything important. Or sensitive. Or likely to cause a scene.

Behind us, the pirate couple paid their bill and rose to leave, donning a pair of the strangest knit caps I'd ever seen. It made me realize just how long we'd been sitting there and I traded a look with Heero that Toria misread and she snickered, nudging me under the table while giving the couple a thumbs up.

'Popular culture, Buddy-boy,' she said. 'You wouldn't get it.'

'And you're not going to explain it, I suppose,' I replied, though I hardly had to.

'Inside jokes aren't funny if you have to explain them,' she said, pretty much as expected.

Hayden said something teasing, giving her a hard time about just how fine the line is between 'geek' and 'dork' and they bantered for a bit, but somehow I could feel the evening was winding down. I just couldn't decide if I was sorry for that, or relieved.

Toria seemed to sense that the party was over about the same time, and all of a sudden had some kind of fit that required her to windmill her arms and go 'Oh! Oh! Wait!' several times.

She about fell out of her chair trying to lean over and dig around under the table while not completely unwinding herself from her typical... unconventional sitting position. Hayden reached out, almost unconsciously, and steadied her chair until she came up again. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the gift-wrapped boxes she was brandishing. She rolled her eyes at our confused expressions and huffed, 'House warming presents! Duh!'

'You guys didn't need to do that...' I began, and felt a pang of vague guilt that I hadn't thought to get something for them in return. A Spacer's ship is their home, after all.

Hayden waved aside my objections with a smile that was almost embarrassed, and I knew without doubt just who had picked out whatever was in the packages. I hesitated, not sure of the etiquette... open now, or open later? Remembering what I'd gotten from Toria when I'd bought my own Demon, I wasn't sure I even wanted to open them in a public place.

'Take them home,' she told us, and it made Heero raise an eyebrow.

'So there won't be any witnesses when they blow up?' he said dryly, but I wasn't at all sure he was kidding.

Toria just smiled her cold raptor smile and said, 'Just yours.'

Heero snorted and couldn't help glancing down at the innocent, brightly wrapped box with the over-sized bow. I could tell it pleased Toria that she'd maybe made him nervous.

And then we were down to the hugging and the back-slapping and the paying of the bills. Hayden was staying close to Toria, and she only managed to work in one pointed, 'I'll be waiting to hear from you,' before we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

Heero ended up driving home anyway, because while I hadn't been drinking, I still felt supremely distracted. I think he managed to contain himself for three blocks before he finally had to ask, 'Are you serious? Toria thinks I've... kidnapped you or something?'

It felt good to laugh without all the awkwardness. 'More like... brain washed or something, I suspect,' I told him, not really even sure what her thought processes were.

'That takes more than just an over-active imagination...' he muttered.

'I think it probably takes a powerful will to justify her... uh... dislike of you,' I said, and got a snort that might have been agreement.

'She doesn't strike me as the type who bothers to justify much of anything.'

'Not to anybody else,' I grinned, 'but to herself? Yeah.'

He just drove in silence while he thought about that one for a bit, finally dismissing the topic as just too weird. 'I suppose she'll get over it eventually.'

'She better,' I chuckled, 'because I'm kind of attached to you.'

It made him smile, but it was in a tired sort of way. 'You know I wouldn't ask you to choose...'

'I know,' I interrupted, seeing where he was going with the comment. 'But eventually this crap is going to stop being amusing.'

'Eventually?' he said, and I didn't even have to see the raised eyebrow to know it was there.

I managed a dry little chuckle, and didn't actually admit he was right... it had gotten unamusing a long time ago. 'I'm really sorry about the evening,' I told him instead. 'I wouldn't have dragged you along if I'd known things were going to end up that... uncomfortable.'

'I was glad I was there,' he said, and again, I didn't need to look to see the frown. 'I suspect it toned her down a little.'

I suspected he was right, though that thought just left me wondering how bad things would have gotten. Would she have actually ranted about Heero's hold on me? Lectured me about 'getting back on the horse'? Hauled me off to L3 with them?

'Well,' I chuckled darkly, 'as dumb as it sounds to say about a dinner date... I'm glad you were there to back me up.'

We refrained from carrying the conversation any further, because there just wasn't much else to say on the topic that wasn't going to end up in a rant. As annoying as Toria can be, I love her like a sister, and I think Heero realized there was a line there that could be crossed if he started bitching too much. Not that I could have found the damn line right then, but I'm sure it was there somewhere.

The notion of sister types gave me pause though, and I had to cast a guilty glance in Heero's direction, thinking about my own relationship with Relena. I resolved to try to dial back on sharing my uncensored thoughts concerning the good Princess.

The rest of the drive was quietly companionable, while we thought our own thoughts on the weird evening, but refrained from beating the dead horse. Eventually, I was sure we'd end up having a talk about Toria's little proposition, but I needed to have some time to think about it first, and I think Heero just flat didn't want to risk getting my stubborn streak going by bringing it up first. For the moment, I'd set the idea off to the side, not quite ready to turn it into a real possibility by delving into it too deeply. I had a kitchen to get painted and a commission that I needed to be thinking about.

In fact, there was an information packet waiting for me when we got home, and when we finally got there, I bit the bullet and stopped avoiding it.

It was mostly just pages and pages on technical aspects that I never would have thought about. Sizes and weights and transportability. In the grand scheme of things, most of it probably wasn't going to impact my part in the project. It was going to be somebody else's problem, the way I understood it, to translate my idea into actual form. The part that was intended to be helpful, but I couldn't say actually was, was the 'mission statement'. Funding, apparently, was coming from some non-profit group and I had to read their blurb more than once.

'Our goal is to create a monument to the great sacrifice of the scholars and elders of the L5 colony A0200. We wish to honor their bravery and acknowledge their great contribution to ending the war of 195. We want to bring an embodiment of the spirit of the people of L5 to the people of the Earth Sphere. To foster an understanding of the power of free choice when combined with a code of honor and justice.'

A lot of pretty words, but it didn't exactly coalesce my waffling feelings into something solid.

'That's... a tall order,' Heero ventured, leaning over to read it with me.

'No shit,' I muttered, going over it for the third time and then flipping the paper to see if there was more, but that was pretty much it. No more than ten feet tall, less than a ton and embody all the ethical values of an entire people. No problem. You want fries with that?

I only knew one person from L5 and when that thought occurred to me, I damn near tripped over my first stumbling block.

'You going to do it?' Heero asked about that time, and I sat back with a gust of a sigh, surrendering the paper to him and sinking into the couch cushions.

'I... gotta talk to Wufei,' I said, telling myself in the same breath as telling Heero. No way could I even decide until I knew his thoughts on the whole damn thing. What if the very idea appalled him? I remembered my vague feelings of... almost disdain when I'd heard about the memorial to the Maxwell church. Though I suppose most of that had been because the money would have been better spent on improvements to the community, not on a big-ass rock. Wasn't exactly anything left to improve when it came to L5. Might that make it less something to be disdainful about?

Or maybe Wufei would just rather forget the whole thing?

'Oh God,' I groaned, really thinking about it. 'How in the hell am I even going to bring a topic like this up?'

Heero settled into the cushions with me, dropping an arm around me at the same time he dropped the paperwork into my lap.

'It's not something he talks about a lot,' he said thoughtfully. 'But he has talked about it before. It's not like a completely taboo subject.'

'But it's gotta be painful,' I sighed, thinking about how badly I hated talking about certain aspects of my own past. The destruction of L5 had to be like Maxwell Church, times... a million. How the hell would I even start a conversation like that? 'You think he even knows that they're planning some kind of anniversary thing?'

'He's not mentioned it,' Heero said, pulling me in closer, and I sighed and leaned my head against him. 'Though he keeps his eye on the news feeds.'

Kind of like I sometimes morbidly searched for references to L2 during certain historical periods of the not so distant past. It would sure as hell help if he at least had a clue.

'Would you like me to talk to him?' Heero offered. 'I could at least tell him about the memorial...'

'No time,' I sighed. 'I have to let them know by Monday if I'm going to take the job or not.'

And wow, didn't 'job' seem like not the right word? Job sounded so... mundane. So simple. A paint job, a clerical job, a scut job. This wasn't a job, this was...

I didn't even know, but way bigger than a simple job.

'For what it's worth,' Heero said, sounding unsure about voicing his thoughts. 'I think you should do it.'

'I think...' I said, working it out in my head, 'I think that's going to be entirely up to Wufei.'

Or was that just being a chicken-shit? Trying to make it somebody else's decision?

'I'm not so sure...' Heero began, possibly agreeing with my chicken-shit assessment, but being far too polite to just come out and say so.

'Well,' I cut in, saving him the hunt for wording. 'Either way, I have to at least talk to him first.'

And having a full day planned for Saturday already, we left it at that and took ourselves off to bed.

The former owner of our house had been something of a self-proclaimed, and likely self-taught, Mr. Fixit. If I could believe the neighbors, Les had been a heck of a great guy of the 'shirt off his back' variety. He had not, however, been a master decorator/carpenter/plumber. His knowledge of certain standards, like the hot water goes on the left, was... lacking. Sometimes we found evidence of little repair jobs that were kind of inspired, and sometimes I was left wondering if the guy's wife had just shaken her head fondly, or if they'd fought over his... lack of concern for esthetics.

The kitchen, I suspect, had been the guy's grand, big project. And all I can really say about it was it had damn near been the deal breaker for Heero when we'd bought the house. I'd had to swear on a stack of Beaver comics that a full remodel would be our own first big project.

There were four doorways in that room, one leading into the front dining room, one opening into the living room, one on that same wall leading into the hall to the back of the house, and then the basement door. We were rather shocked to discover, once our crew began tearing things apart, that there had at one time been a fifth. An outside door directly across from the basement door. It made us feel a little better about our decision to close off the hall entrance, since we obviously weren't the first ones to make that kind of major structural change. It also explained the weird stone block outside the house on that side. I'd always thought it looked like a misplaced step; turns out it wasn't as misplaced as it had appeared.

The room had been a monument to inconvenience, and a horrible combination of white and yellow that had probably once been bright and sunny and trendy, but hadn't aged well. The white had gone dingy and the yellow sort of putrid, and I'd never been a huge fan of that pre-colony retro look anyway. Though... I found I kind of missed the silly little decals. Not that I would ever say that out loud to Heero. Or anybody else, for that matter.

After the initial 'holy shit' moment, the tear-out had almost been kind of fun to watch happen. The doodles on the inside of the drywall where Les and Tricie had closed off the mystery door, for instance, had been like finding a treasure. Heero didn't know I'd squirreled away one of the bigger pieces in my studio, though he did notice me staring contemplatively at other random walls, wondering what might be behind them. I couldn't quite decide if my curiosity amused him, or made him nervous.

The next part, the building back up part, had been way less entertaining. It had been, in a word... slow. So while I couldn't say that I was wildly excited to be spending my day off slathering paint all over my newly dry-walled kitchen, I was a little bit excited to be making progress. Our doing the job ourselves would move the schedule up a good two or three days. And since we were already a week or two behind schedule, every day trimmed off was a good thing.

The guys from the home improvement store were all nice enough, but I was a little bit tired of them being in my house.

Having already repainted the master bedroom, I knew one end of a paint roller from the other and Heero, despite his protests, turned out to be as precise with his taping as he was with anything else he turned his hand too. We settled in to a system pretty easily that morning, him masking and doing the trim work, and me rolling the big stuff. I hadn't really made up my mind if I wanted to do any embellishment in the kitchen, but we had decided to leave it until after all the rest of the work was out of the way. The current goal was to just, as they say, get her done.

Not that painting is exactly what you'd call a hard job. Tedious, maybe. Time consuming. Mind-numbing, even. But not really all that hard. Might have helped if it actually was a job that took more effort, because it might have kept the hamsters in my head from spending the day running on the wheel. Little varmints were just having a field day with Aleyah's latest assignment.

Assignment. Commission. L5. Wufei. Aleyah. Suicide. Kaboom. War. Peace. Brain oil.

Uh... the hamster wheel kind of squeaks.

Part of my head wanted to put the whole commission thing on hold until I'd talked to Wufei, but there was another part that was quietly trying to do design work while I wasn't looking. Just how in the hell did you embody in one sculpture something that tragic? There were certainly enough symbols in the world for 'peace'. Olive branches? Doves? Peace signs? In the realm of make love, not war... I suppose you had to count the suicide of L5 right up there at the top. Talk about your refusal to play the game. What did the ultimate in peace gestures call for? An entire olive tree? Full of white doves? With peace signs carved on the trunk? Maybe some paper cranes hanging all over it?

Ok, maybe that was a bit much.

Was the olive tree itself a bad idea? I liked trees. Trees were cool. Symbolism was good, right? I mean... just making a sculptural likeness of the colony would be lame. It wasn't about the colony anyway; it was about the people. It needed to be humanized. We're all human... ground bounders, spacers, trade, and not. Wasn't that the point to the whole thing? Part of the point? It was about the people of L5. Wasn't there an elder? Some sort of leader? There had to have been... you don't just come to that kind of decision by popular vote. There had to be somebody calling the shots and making the plans. Somebody to throw the switch. Maybe that should be the subject of the piece?

Though I kinda liked the tree idea. If an olive branch was a peace offering, did the whole tree mean the same? Or...

'Duo... what the heck are you doing?'

I blinked at the wall in front of me, surprised as all hell to find something that kind of resembled a tree. Done with the broad strokes of a paint roller. Apparently, if you sort of drag the roller sideways, you can get something of a narrowish line. Who knew?

'Would you believe me if I told you this is a new paint saving technique?' I tried, and it made Heero burst out with a laugh that I don't think he'd intended.

I turned away from the mess I'd made and found him standing in the middle of the kitchen, paint brush in hand, oddly adorable streak of pale green pain on his chin, and a slightly amused/confused expression on his face.

Why doesn't bemused mean amused/confused? It should, because there needs to be a word for that, and it sounds like it fits. Confused already means confused. Why can't bemused mean something else? There should be a place you can go to petition for changes like that.

I turned back to face the wall and sighed; damn thing was going to show through if I didn't brush it out pretty quickly.

'Do I even want to know?' Heero chuckled, coming over to stand next to me. 'Or is this one of those things that will just leave me even more confused than when I first asked?'

'I think when we're done here,' I confessed, 'I really need to go see Wufei.'

It made Heero look harder at the wanna-be mural, and while the little crease of confusion on his forehead only deepened, I could see he sort of got what it was my sub-conscious was playing games with. Then the frown cleared away and I guess he decided it didn't really matter just what I was working out in paint on the wall.

'We're well past half-way done,' he said. 'Why don't you go ahead and I'll finish up.'

'I'd feel like a slacker,' I grumbled, a little bit embarrassed by my inability to stay on-track.

'Wufei had plans this evening with Sally,' he informed me, giving my shoulder a nudge with his own. 'If you don't catch him before they take off, you won't be able to talk to him until tomorrow.'

I couldn't make up my mind if that was attractive or not; I still hadn't worked up any sort of opening line...

'So... about that whole death of your people thing...'

'Did you know they're planning on immortalizing the worst moment of your life?'

'Just how did you feel about that mass, group suicide game plan?'

While I had faced up to the fact that the conversation needed to happen, I hadn't yet figured out just how one went about it. When they'd put up the memorial on L2, nobody had felt the need to come and consult me on the subject one way or the other.

But standing there, staring at the mutant, roller-pad formed green tree thing, I couldn't say the idea of sucking on the notions in my head for the rest of the day, without being able to actually know if there was a point or not, was all that attractive either.

'Are you sure you don't care?' I heard myself ask, and Heero just kissed me on the temple, took the paint roller out of my hand, and smiled.

'Go, already,' he chuckled. 'Before we have to do the whole kitchen over again, instead of just this wall.'

I vowed to myself to do more than my share of the work on the second coat, kissed Heero back, and went.

Wufei and Sally have a somewhat odd relationship, in my humble opinion. They're together more often than not, grumble at each other like an old married couple half the time, appear to be each other's 'got your back' person in all things social... but don't seem to care to indulge in any sort of co-habitation.

Obviously, I'm not privy to what their arrangements are, but I did know that he had his place and she had hers, and they seemed more than happy to keep it that way. Though... maybe that had to do with Wufei's cat. My understanding was that it used to be Sally's cat. Maybe Beowulf just wouldn't tolerate living with the woman who tried to name him Muffin? Muffy? Buffy? Whatever the hell it had been.

The drive over to Wufei's place that day was one of those trips that felt both long and short. I was knocking on his apartment door long before I'd worked out just what in the hell I was going to say, and was just trusting that something non-offensive would come to mind. I wondered if my trepidation showed, and I tried to make it not, but when Wufei finally opened the door I got a funny little smile as he gestured me inside.

'Relax,' he told me almost before the hello part. 'Heero called and warned me.'

'He did?' I said, though it felt like one of those lines you use when you don't know what else to say. Like you're kidding, or you don't say. I couldn't decide if I was grateful or felt like a child who needed Daddy to speak for him. But since I never had figured out how to broach the subject, I guess I did need help and I should be grateful for getting it. A little embarrassment over a phone call was nothing in the face of the embarrassment if some of the lines in my head actually found their way out.

It made Wufei chuckle but it was in a soft, odd kind of way, and he just waved me to follow him through the apartment. We didn't say anything else for a moment and I wondered how long he'd had to digest the knowledge, because it sure seemed like he was still chewing on it pretty hard.

I'd caught him changing the oil on his motorcycle, and he led me out to his little patio where he had everything set up on a bed of spread newspaper.

I watched him squat down to finish the job of removing the drain plug, and blurted, 'Did you know about it?'

'No,' he replied thoughtfully, his tone kind of making me think that maybe he was a little chagrined to admit that. Like he'd fallen down on the job of keeping up with current events. He spent a moment turning the drain plug in his fingers while the oil ran into the battered looking drain pan. There was a rag lying across the seat of the bike and I picked it up, holding my hand out.

'You're making a mess,' I chided, letting him be the one to decide when we were going to talk about the other subject. He looked at the plug and his oil smeared fingers for a second before handing it over and letting me clean it. Of course, that just left him with nothing to do but watch the oil drain. So we did that while I polished every last smear of oil off that plug until it looked brand new, and he absently wiped his hands on his already stained jeans.

Standing over him, the angle and the sunlight gave me a good view of the remnants of the damage I'd done to his throat during my 'incident' with Simcoe and the Sons of Adam. The bruising faded to shades of green and yellow. It gave me something to brood on while he worked things out in his head. Never hurts to have multiple things on the table to feel guilty about at any given time.

'Should have known it was going to happen sooner or later,' he finally said, and I couldn't help a snort.

'Kind of a bitch, isn't it?' I commiserated. 'I remember when I first laid eyes on the memorial on L2. I think I kicked it.'

It made him laugh, as the comment had been intended to, and he stood up then to dig around his tool box. 'I kind of feel like kicking something... but I'm not even sure why.'

'Because it sucked?' I said and then winced at the line, but he nodded absently, taking the crack at face value, his attention on his tools.

'I am proud of my people,' he finally said, the air absolutely full of the huge 'but' that clung to the end of the line. When he didn't deliver it, I walked over and prodded at him, handing him the drain plug back and finding the filter wrench for him.

He really looked up and met my eyes then, and there was a depth in them that told me he was wandering around in memories painful enough to bleed.

'I'm not going to do it,' I heard myself say, feeling desperate to salve somehow. But the claim only made his eyes widen almost fearfully.

'No!' he burst out, 'You have to!'

It hadn't been at all what I was expecting, judging from his mood, and I just blinked at him for a minute. 'I do?' I asked doubtfully.

He'd shuttered that look away, retreating from the flash of emotion. He took the wrench from me and turned back to the bike before telling me, 'Look... that memorial is obviously going to happen. I can't stop it, and... I'm not even sure I would if I could.'

He had me there. If I called Aleyah and said 'hell no', they'd just go down their list of artists to the next one until somebody took the job. That idea, somehow, filled me with a weird sense of possessiveness despite my utter lack of solid ideas. But Wufei wasn't done. His hands might have been working at his oil filter, but his words showed that his attention was a million miles away.

'If it's going to happen,' he said, suddenly firm where he'd been somewhat uncertain, 'I want you to be the one to do it. I trust you.'

I about choked on a half a dozen lines, most of which probably would have made me sound nuts, but 'I'm not sure I do,' is what managed to come out.

He stood up, wrench dangling from his hand, forgotten, and stopped pretending to be paying attention to his motorcycle. 'If there is an artist out there that can do justice to this job, Duo... it's you.'

'No pressure,' I couldn't help saying, maybe because I'd never gotten to deliver the line to Stan Kirby. I kind of wished I could have retracted it almost before it had passed the tip of my tongue, but you know what they say about barn doors and wandering horses.

Wufei didn't even pretend to sympathize, giving me a wry little smile instead. 'Somehow, I think the pressure was there before I said anything.'

I just snorted a noise that signified agreement, and dropped it. 'I've got a couple of ideas, but...' I began, and he raised a hand to halt the comment, turning back to his bike and his oil filter.

'I don't want to know,' he said firmly. 'I don't want your vision blurred with my...' he hesitated, hands working the wrench around and around, while he hunted for what he wanted to say, finally settling on, 'perspective.'

'If I've got visions,' I said, 'they're already pretty damn blurry.'

He did get a look then that was maybe sympathetic. Or maybe calculating. Or maybe he was just still roving around the past inside his head and that expression he was showing wasn't even for me.

'You have questions,' he guessed, 'and you're afraid to ask them.'

It was my turn for the sardonic look, and I fulfilled the obligation. 'I have questions... and I don't even know what they are.'

He laughed, but at the same time he had to look away, eyes going skyward for a moment. I wasn't sure if I'd truly amused him, or if he was just covering up.

But I still didn't know the questions, and I still didn't know how to ask.

While I dithered, he seemed to remember the wrench in his hand and moved to squat beside his bike again, going back to removing the old filter.

'I had absolutely no warning,' he said quietly, voice measured in a way that told me he was choosing his words carefully. A mind to that perspective thing, maybe. Or just picking his way across the mine field in his head. 'It was obviously all part of Master Long's plan. He knew when he gave me Altron and sent me to fight. Strength is in the mind, he said, and the mind is a battle against oneself. He talked about history and justice in that final hour. Believing in yourself, and not lying to yourself... and never betraying yourself. He told me to decide what was evil; told me it was what they wanted. His last words to me were to keep fighting. Fight for my own justice.'

'Why?' I heard myself ask, the question having burned a hole in my chest and forced its way out. I really, honestly had not meant to ask him that one right out loud like that, but there it was, despite my best intentions. Why had they done it?

He made this funny little snort of a noise and set the filter on the edge of the oil pan to drain, then just hunching there, staring at something that I was pretty sure wasn't on the patio with us. It took him a couple of long minutes to work out his reply, and I about bit my own tongue off trying to decide if I should pull a 'never mind!', or apologize, or just offer to leave. 'I always thought it was to keep from becoming a hostage to the enemy. To keep me from surrendering Altron. But... I'm not so sure anymore. The more time passes... the older I get... the more I think about it... I'm not so sure it wasn't all part of the bigger plan. It all happened too fast, really... almost as the colony would have heard the demand for me to surrender. And Master Long talking to me about extinction and the colony failing. I... just don't know.'

He stopped talking then, and I'm not sure if maybe he'd just said more than he meant to, or maybe he'd forgotten that editing job he'd meant to be doing and was rethinking what he'd said.

Or, looking back on some of my own past confessions, maybe he just needed a minute to get some of that pain back under wraps. Though... the very idea of Chang Wufei bursting into tears just about broke something inside my head. I kind of wished he didn't have his back to me, at the same time I was kind of glad he did.

'I'm sorry,' I said, shoving my hands in my pockets and studying the hedgerow that ran along the edge of his tiny space of a yard. 'I didn't mean to just... you know... blurt that out like that.'

'It's a valid question,' he replied, choosing to take the line seriously. 'One I've asked myself a million times.'

'There are dozens of theories,' I said, kind of trying to edge the conversation back to more stable, less emotional ground. 'Everything from...'

He didn't seem to want to hear the laundry list though, and suddenly pushed himself to his feet. 'My people were not pacifists,' he said, turning to look at me. 'Nor were they cowards. And yes, it was quite deliberate.'

'Sorry,' I muttered, and it was my turn to look away.

'No,' he sighed after a moment, 'I'm the one who is sorry. I don't mean to be so prickly.'

'And I don't mean to be so inept at this,' I replied, cocking my head and looking at him askance. 'You'd think I'd be more of a new age, sensitive kind of guy.'

It made him laugh and the tension eased. 'Come on,' he said and setting the wrench back in his toolbox, turned to lead the way back inside. 'This has to drain anyway.'

I followed him into the apartment and he fetched a couple bottles of juice before we settled in the living room.

'I'm not making you late for your plans, am I?' I ended up asking, maybe because of fears of Sally being pissed at me, and maybe just some deep-seated inability of mine to not beat around the bush and avoid the topic at uncomfortable hand.

'No,' he assured me. 'We're just taking the bike out for a ride into the hills.'

I nodded sagely, at least... in my head I did. In reality I probably just looked like a doofus.

'Duo,' he said gently, sitting forward and rolling his juice bottle between his hands, 'there isn't any easy way to have this conversation and we both know it. Stop worrying about hurting my feelings.'

It was more hurting him that was worrying me, than hurting his feelings, but I suspected that was just semantics, and not so much the issue. 'I just feel like an ass, barging in here and making this your problem. I just didn't feel right, accepting the commission without your blessing.'

'You more than have my blessing,' he smiled. 'You're the perfect person for the job... you were a part of it all, and I don't think anyone who wasn't, could ever hope to understand.'

I didn't mention the part where neither he nor I either one seemed to really understand.

'I want to ask a million questions,' I confessed, 'but I can't get my head around where the line is between... artistic need and... none of my damn business.'

He'd uncapped his bottle and paused to take a drink before answering. 'I really don't want to talk too much about my feelings. It wouldn't be right if I were to influence you. I'd feel like I was trying to direct the project.'

I almost blurted something out about olive trees and flights of doves, but refrained. 'I think I understand, but... this is a tall damn order and I gotta tell you... I'm having trouble getting a handle on it.'

His smile took on a weird quirk that seemed almost pleased. 'I would hope so,' he said and it kind of reminded me of Jack Lee somehow.

He was not helping, and I sighed, taking a long swallow of my own juice while I thought about the things I needed to know to... what'd the blurb say? Embody the spirit of the people of L5? Did I really know the people of L5? Was Wufei typical? Could you call a Gundam pilot typical of anything except being a Gundam pilot?

'What was it like there?' I finally asked. 'Before, I mean.'

It was almost like watching him shift gears, getting over the hump and past the painful parts to a time that, hopefully, was less painful. It's a hard thing to do when you have something in your life that is that monumentally damaging. Hard to think about the whole without letting the memories become over-shadowed by that one thing. Hard to not let it become defining. It was something I'd let happen inside myself until fairly recently. I wasn't 'over' the Maxwell Church disaster by any means, but there had been a whole lot to the church before that one single night, and Heero had helped me see that.

I wondered if Wufei could manage that same outlook, and I wondered if he'd gotten there by himself or if someone had helped him. But I suppose that was pretty solidly in the 'none of my business' realm.

Judging from the softening of Wufei's expression... I'd have to guess he'd gotten there somehow.

'It was green,' he smiled, sitting back with his juice and stretching his legs out in front of him. 'It was a very old colony... one of the first, and was a center for learning and education. The founders had put a great deal of effort into creating an environment that was both self-sufficient and beautiful. There were fields and gardens... my clan produced more of our own food than any other colony cluster... but there were also meadows and trees as old as the colony itself.'

Didn't sound a thing like L2, that was for sure. There had been a park that I recalled from my youth, but it was more a playground for the more affluent families. We'd gone there once or twice when I was with Solo and the other homeless kids, but we'd snuck in after dark and hadn't been able to make heads or tails out of most of the stuff we'd found. Though the swings had been cool. Until Tank had just about killed himself jumping out of one. But no... I would never have described L2 as green.

'I spent a great deal of time there as a youth,' Wufei continued, oblivious to my mental comparisons. 'All the children from the higher ranking families took their training and education there; it's where the best schools were.'

It made me wonder all kinds of crap about children and the end of things, but that was a thing I really didn't want to ask about, and maybe didn't want to know.

Thankfully, Wufei wasn't making me drag things out of him, and I just let him reminisce, talking about his Master Long, a teacher he obviously held in high regard, and his fellow students. It kind of brought home how much more 'normal' Wufei's up-bringing had been than the rest of us. Well... if you could ignore the part where he'd obviously been the planned pilot of L5's contribution to Operation Meteor.

He painted a picture of a strong and proud people. Disciplined and educated. With a code of ethics that prized honor and justice above all things. A culture steeped in tradition.

And he told me as much with the things he didn't say. He didn't tell me how much he loved Master Long, he didn't wax poetic about those rolling meadows of wild flowers, he didn't talk about his feelings much at all. It was more about respect. About principles and duty. About purpose.

I imagined a place where love and affection where wrapped up with conduct and worth. Where many things went unsaid but were understood all the same.

It was a place where I doubted I would have flourished.

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