Conclusions (cont.)

I wondered suddenly, just how close the relationship was between Wufei's Master Long, and Wufei's Meilan. Might the man actually have been his father in law? Or... perhaps grandfather in law?

Definitely none of my damn business, and brushing too close to a second painful topic, and I really didn't need to bring up another one.

The juice bottles were empty, and my head was full of words that were drifting around and trying to connect, when Beowulf came ambling out of the back of the apartment, looking weirdly annoyed... like he'd been trying to sleep and all the talking had disturbed him. He made a noise that was like a chirp of complaint and then sauntered over to hop up on the corner of the coffee table, giving me the 'who the hell are you' eye, and sniffing the air.

'Mangy beast,' Wufei muttered, reaching out to ruffle the cat's head. 'You know Duo.'

Hearing Wufei talk to the animal was something that would never get old. It made me want to laugh with delight, but I knew it would only embarrass him if he realized how amusing I found it, and then he'd stop. I held out a hand, but Beowulf was well and truly miffed, and all I got was a murr of a sound that felt like a dressing down. Then he forgot about me, turning his attention to the front door, aiming his ears and his whiskers that way. I had not really known that he could angle his whiskers like that.

It took a minute, but the front door opened and in walked Sally. It was kind of weird to realize that the darn cat had heard/smelled/sensed her arrival probably while she'd still been on the front walk. Beowulf made a noise that seemed to come more out of his chest than his mouth, a deep, growly kind of noise, and then he took off for the back bedroom like he'd been shot.

'Rotten cat,' Sally muttered, frowning after him as though it were a ritual. Wufei chuckled and it really made me wonder about my earlier co-habitation theory.

But then Beowulf was forgotten, and the lady in question was smiling at me broadly. 'Duo! It's good to see you,' she said. 'What brings you in from the sticks?'

'We live in the burbs,' I corrected with feigned disdain. 'Two blocks up from the sticks, thank you very much.'

'Rumor has it you have a possum living in your yard,' she countered, walking into the living room area and dumping her bag on the end of the couch. 'That's close enough to the sticks for me.'

'I'm hoping the possum was just passing through,' I muttered, but was watching as she noticed the odd mood of the room, and gave Wufei a raised eyebrow look. He returned a small, almost imperceptible shake of his head and she let it go.

'That's not what Trowa told me,' she grinned at me cheekily, even while her hand trailed across Wufei's shoulder as she walked behind his chair.

'So Barton is the one spreading malicious wildlife rumors?' I asked, mostly just to keep the conversational ball in the air, because really... the communication going on in the room was of the non-verbal variety and I really didn't think anybody was paying any attention to the banter.

Wufei reached up and caught her fingers in his for a moment, and she paused to drop a kiss on the top of his head. 'I'm borrowing your shower before we go,' she informed him in a way that felt all kinds of comfortable. 'I just came from the gym.'

'You know where things are,' Wufei replied, and they traded a look... that couples look... before she turned back to me.

'I'm afraid it's been my experience that possums are seldom just passing through, Duo,' she said, gracing me with a wide grin that bordered on maliciously gleeful. 'I'll bet a cat would be just the thing to run it off.'

I snorted, just managing to keep it from being of the explosive variety. 'I'm not taking your devil cat, Po. Heero's told me stories.'

She was already on her way toward the bathroom and just tossed a laugh over her shoulder. 'I wasn't talking about mine... I was talking about Wufei's.'

'Leave Beowulf out of this, woman,' Wufei responded, saving me the trouble.

She didn't bother to reply, but after a moment we heard a muffled, 'Stop growling at me, you stupid animal!' from the back of the apartment.

Wufei chuckled in a way that almost made me wonder if he'd trained the darn cat to do that.

It left an awkward moment though, as we tried to shift gears. Or back into the gear we'd been in. Though... maybe it was just a sign that it was time to let things go. It made a good breaking point, and I already felt like my head was stuffed with more thoughts than I could keep wrangled.

'I hope I haven't messed up your whole day,' I had to tell Wufei, and he shook his head in denial of... something, his expression dancing around a cast that wanted to be melancholy.

'Not at all,' he told me, the line only sounding a little bit like politeness. 'Though I should probably get that oil change done while she's showering if we're going to get out of here on time.'

Not the most subtle dismissal I'd ever had delivered, but pretty plain to read. We stood at the same time and there was an awkward, fumbling kind of moment that ended with me throwing my arms around him in an impulsive hug.

'I'm really sorry,' I said, not even bothering to try to catalog all the things I was apologizing for. Dredging up bad memories, running barefoot through his childhood, starting his weekend off on a crap note, throwing his schedule off, the bruising on his neck. Or maybe just making him make my decisions for me.

'I know,' he said quietly, and it was better than one of those insincere lines about it being all right, when we both knew it wasn't.

The hug didn't last long, Wufei just isn't the type. At least... not that I'd ever seen. He'll offer the support to others, but wasn't much of one for parading his own pain around; he's just uncomfortable with the whole thing. I kind of hoped that wasn't the case when he was alone with Sally, because I had a feeling he was going to need a little understanding after all the crap I'd dredged up. I had to stop myself from apologizing a second time as we were making the walk to the front door. I told him to have fun on his ride, and he wished me luck on my kitchen painting and that was that.

Guilt beast was waiting in the car, sprawled across the back seat and drooling on the upholstery.

Once away from Wufei's apartment, I wasn't all that surprised to find that I shared his melancholy. Guess I should have known that stirring that pot of memories wasn't going to bring just Wufei's to the surface. It's all interlaced no matter how you look at it.

I couldn't help comparing and contrasting. I wondered where I was when Wufei had been going to school in that place. Running with Solo, I supposed. And while he was having a bride presented to him, I was probably living with the Sweepers.

Is it normal to do that? Try to put everything in perspective within the framework of your own life? I find I do that a lot and I'm not really sure why... not like it really had a thing to do with me. Both L5 and L2 were colonies, sure, but after that the similarities were pretty much done.

I admired Wufei a great deal, and while I could see how he was a product of the environment he was raised in, when I tried to imagine myself in that same environment... well, the picture just didn't come clear. I doubt the stubborn rebelliousness that had seen me through on L2, would have translated well to life on L5.

Though... then again, to hear Wufei talk about her, my stubborn wouldn't have held a candle to the stubborn of Long Meilan, so who knew?

It still qualified as afternoon when I pulled up in front of the house and parked, but I found Heero settled on the porch swing, swaying idly with a glass of ice water in his hand. He looked only slightly smug and I assumed the painting was done for the day.

'How'd it go?' he wanted to know, pausing the swing while I settled onto it with him.

'Weird,' was the only word I could find for it, though it didn't take long before more occurred to me so I added, 'painfully awkward,' after a moment of swinging in silence.

Heero passed over his glass of water to share and I took a long drink. 'I assume the kitchen is done?'

'Yeah,' he confirmed, the ghost of a sigh in his voice. 'Though you were right... it's definitely going to take a second coat.'

I had kind of suspected he'd had hopes of getting the job done in one coat, but I'd known that yellow wasn't going to go down without a fight. I didn't bother to tell him I wasn't a hundred percent sure that it wasn't going to take a third.

It took him a few minutes before he worked the words around to something he was happy with and asked, 'Is Wufei... ok?'

'Sally showed up,' I said. 'Not that he was breaking out the wine or anything.' I glanced at him side-long, and he gave me a little smile to acknowledge the reference.

'And you?'

I sighed and pulled my legs up, letting him do the work of keeping the swing moving. 'Head's so full of stuff I'm surprised it's not leaking out my ears.'

He made a sympathetic noise and took his glass back when I handed it over.

Still on that comparison track, I couldn't help asking, 'Hey... where were you when it happened?'

It took him a long moment, and he turned away to look out across the porch while he thought about it. 'Getting my head messed with by Treize Khushrenada and the Epyon.'

I repressed a shudder; I was not a big fan of either. Treize, as far as I was concerned, had been a card carrying nut job, and the Epyon just a product of that nut jobbery.

'Busy times,' I muttered and it made him laugh, quite despite himself. He raised the glass in a mock salute and took a drink.

'So,' he said, and I wasn't sure if he was just changing the topic or not, 'you going to take the job?'

'Wufei says I have to,' I replied, grinning so he wouldn't think I was really serious in a bad sense. 'Just as well, since my head doesn't seem to want to let go of the idea.'

'I noticed,' he said blandly, a pointed little poke over my artistic paint roller musings, and I winced.

'Did it brush out ok?' I asked.

His smile was kind of weird; had a hint of some strange, almost amused affection to it that somehow just left me more embarrassed. 'Mostly. I think the second coat will finish it off.'

I would have apologized again, but he would have either laughed or tried to reassure. Either would have made me uncomfortable, so I just skipped it and decided to go on in the house to see how things looked.

It was kind of amazing what a difference a change of color made, though our green was a little bit more 'grass' than it was supposed to be, but I knew that was the yellow showing through. It wasn't too bad though, so I felt a little more confident that one more day would see the job done. The trim would wait until everything else was finished, mostly because we hadn't decided exactly what we were doing there.

'Nice job, Yuy,' I teased. 'If you ever decide to give up that Preventer gig, you can go into house painting.'

'Thanks, but I think I'll pass,' he said dryly, and gestured me to follow him out of the room, wrinkling his nose to tell me we were fleeing the smell. He was right; the fumes weren't quite so bad once we were out of the kitchen. The plastic wasn't going to completely block it, of course, but it was a little better.

'You could be missing a huge opportunity,' I continued, 'you could be passing up a glorious career in interior design. Reality TV even! When Ex-terrorists Decorate!'

'Sometimes it scares me how your mind works,' he said and it made me grin.

'Only sometimes?'

He snorted and shook his head, leaving the line alone so he didn't have to confirm or deny, and headed for the couch. 'I want to catch the weather...' he began, but then hesitated when he reached for the remote. 'Oh hey... we forgot these.'

I looked where his attention had gone, and there sat the brightly wrapped packages from Hayden and Toria, right where we'd left them the night before. 'Oh yeah...' I said and Heero glanced at me.

'Should I be nervous that you sound nervous?'

I sighed and couldn't help the almost embarrassed grin. 'Toria's sense of humor is sometimes... more crude than humorous.'

'I'm so shocked,' he muttered under his breath and sat down before picking up the packages. I sat down beside him and he handed me mine. 'You first?'

'Chicken,' I jibed, and began picking at the tape. Toria likes tape.

'I prefer the term prudent,' he said, but relented and started unwrapping his own. He turned out to be a picker... meticulously slitting the tape and folding the paper back out of his way. We both got down to our plain, unmarked boxes at about the same time and I had to resist the urge to hold my breath as I worked the tab loose and lifted the lid. It was a mug, and when I pulled mine out and looked at the grinning face under the yellow elf hat on the front, I didn't even have to look to know what was on Heero's.

He snorted and held out his Grumpy mug next to my matching Happy mug.

'In the grand scheme of things,' I said, 'not nearly as bad as I was expecting.'

'Easy for you to say,' he chuckled. 'You didn't get the pissy dwarf.'

'Did I never mention the vinyl blow-up sex doll I got from Toria as a ship-launch gift?' I asked, and his expression did this slow fade from slightly amused to horrified, as he considered the possibilities.

'Toria named her 'Bunny' and she came with three different outfits, including a wedding veil.'

'She?' he couldn't quite help asking and I snickered, remembering the day and the extra level of awkwardness that had been all in my head.

'Oh yeah... they didn't know I was gay back then, if you will recall,' I said, turning my Happy mug in my hands and looking it over. 'So not only did I get a crass gift, it was inappropriate in more ways than one.'

Heero looked back at his own mug with a deeper appreciation of Toria's restraint. 'Guess I'll take a Grumpy over a Bunny.'

'Probably a Bruno, at this point,' I corrected, and had a moment of wandering down a mental path of 'what if' that made me shudder. What-ifing Toria Brannigan never works out; there's just no telling what the woman will do next. Before the loss of their ship, Toria'd had her own t-shirt collection, and her favorite read 'No fear, no class, no filters' and it was definitely truth in advertizing.

Maybe someday I would confess to the rest of the Bunny story... she'd had a long and sordid history before she met her fate... but today was not that day. I took Grumpy and Happy and put them on the mantel for safe-keeping until the kitchen was done.

'I'm going to go clean up while you watch the news,' I told Heero and he settled onto the couch while I hied off to change out of my paint clothes.

I hadn't the heart to tell Heero that the Grumpy reference was probably going to be one of those things that never went away. Toria has a way of driving a joke into the ground and beyond. Not that he should complain; at least Grumpy had been the smart one, I was pretty sure Happy had just been on something. Nobody, dwarf or not, is that damn happy all the time.

I lost a couple of minutes in there somewhere, trying to decide if I could correlate all five of us guys to a dwarf, but it sort of fell apart when I admitted that really... if anybody was Grumpy, it was Wufei, not Heero.

Solo muttering 'Y're weird,' from somewhere in the ether, prodded me to move on. I left my paint clothes folded on top of my dresser for reuse the next day, and went down the hall to the spare room where we had the main computer set up.

If Meilan and her folks had been in the census records... Master Long would be there too.

Wizened was probably the first word to spring to mind when I set eyes on the man. Though, I had to admit, if Wufei hadn't actually said Master Long was a guy, I'm not sure I'd have known. He was aged past the point of gender. Hell... he could have been an alien. I wondered about his age, but when I went to that field to look it up, the birth date was empty. Ancient, I had no doubt. I could image that the man had been there when the colony had been in the planning stages.

Since it was just me inside my own head, and nobody listening to my observations, I could say it... the guy was funny looking. Wizened, I'd said, and it was true. He was wrinkled and hunched and just... the very face of Old.

But there was something about him. After a few minutes of studying the images, 'wizened' gave way to 'venerable'. He wasn't old because time had made him that way; he was old because he'd lived himself that way. I was filled with an immense sense of loss over what had died with the man. The knowledge, the memories. What all had been stored in that mind that had existed nowhere else? The scope of the things he would have seen... the things he would have experienced... was just too great to comprehend. I would bet money he had been more than a hundred years old, and I just couldn't fathom the lives he would have touched. The minds he would have sparked to life through his teaching. How many students had passed through his hands? The connections, when I tried to imagine them, made a grand spoke of golden lines out from Master Long like...

'He looks like a frog,' Solo said inside my ear, and the picture I'd been building in my head shattered, thankfully, right before it morphed into something that looked creepily like a spider-web.

'I know,' I replied and knew he was right. There was no damn way I could make a monument with Master Long as the subject, and not have most people see... nothing but the wizened, stooped old man who looked like a frog.

Another idea shot to hell before it half formed.

'Good thing,' Solo informed me, deigning to appear beside me, leaning down to peer at the screen. 'Cause it was a total suck idea.'

'Everybody's a critic,' I hissed at him, and he laughed before drifting out through the wall.

I spent the next hour randomly scrolling through the record archives, trying to make eye contact with pixels. Trying to meet 'the people of L5'. Trying to figure out what in the hell I was doing. But mostly just trying to convince myself I really was going to say yes to the job, and wasn't going to panic and bail out at the last minute.

I gave up when I heard Heero rummaging around in the bedroom, shutdown and went to see what he was doing. I had a slow-blink moment when I found him standing at the foot of the bed, shaking out his ball shirt.

'The weather looks good for most of the week,' Heero commented when I came into the room, and there was a hint to his tone of voice that was a little too casual. 'Shouldn't be any danger of a rain out.'

I went and sprawled out across the bed to watch as he checked the shirt over, though I'm sure he knew just what shape it was in from when he put it away the previous season. 'Opening game's this week, right?' For the record, I think I did a better job of sounding casual.

'Monday night,' he confirmed, his attention on the shirt as he found a hanger and hung it on the bedroom doorknob.

'Are we having dinner first,' I asked, just getting things out on the table before we got any weirder on the topic. 'Or will we eat after?'

He snorted and turned to give me a smile, 'Eat after, or nobody's going to feel like running around a ball field.'

'Makes sense,' I said, and rolled over to make room for him on the bed. 'Guess I won't starve for a couple of hours.'

His smile grew just a little bit, and he came to join me. 'So you're going?'

I couldn't deny the signs that told me he was pleased, but I still couldn't help asking, 'if you're sure it's not intruding...'

'Never,' he murmured, and I got a little bit of ear nuzzling.

'And you're sure it's ok with Wufei?' I pressed, and did a little of my own nibbling, only partly so I didn't have to meet his eyes and feel even more lame than I did for my own weird insecurities.

I think there was a bit of a sigh, but I wasn't entirely sure, so I opted to pretend it was a sound of appreciation for what my fingers were doing just under the hem of his shirt. 'I promise,' he assured me, 'Wufei will be thrilled to see you there.'

And then we dropped the subject for another that didn't require as much talk.

We ended up just sort of staying there for the night, even though it was a little bit early, but somehow neither of us felt much like getting back up. The result was my waking at a hideously early hour, and with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling or stare at Heero, I opted to slip out of bed and go on down to start round two of the paint job. I owed Heero a couple of hours of work, after all. And while watching him sleep wasn't all that painful, it was also kind of creepy if you thought about it too hard.

Painting is so damn dull. Especially after the first coat where there isn't even any real color change. I broke the job up by focusing on one wall at a time, doing the edges with the brush and then going back to roll the rest. Sure as hell didn't want to get off track again and find myself painting frog faced old men on the appliances or something. With the masking already done, things were going much faster and I was almost half way done before Heero woke and came down to find me.

'What the hell time did you get up?' he wanted to know, looking around him at a room that was much less 'grass' and much more the settled on 'Appalachian Morning Dew'.

'Didn't notice,' I hedged, and grinned. 'Not my fault somebody's a lay a'bed.'

'Not my fault somebody's incapable of sleeping more than six hours at a time,' he grumbled, and grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl that was currently living on top of the fridge, making it his breakfast before starting in to help me finish.

It only took us until lunch time, once we were working together, to finish the whole job. It was a high-five kind of moment, knowing we'd accomplished what we'd set out to, and effectively moved the job schedule ahead by two days. I had hopes that we'd have our kitchen back before we saw the end of another week. Which would be good before Heero gave himself a coronary fussing over our nutritional intake. I had thought to myself that he probably wasn't going to stand for one more pizza or bucket of chicken, and I had that notion confirmed that day when I grabbed a ration bar and soda for my lunch. There was the sound a long, kind of resigned sounding sigh, and when I looked over at Heero, found a look on his face to match. Wordlessly, he held out his hand and I tried not to grin as I gave him one for himself. Took him long enough to admit there was merit to my eating habits.

He got himself a glass of his iced green tea and we took our lunch outside to eat on the front porch in the fresh air.

Ration bars are... not even an acquired taste, they're a mind set. The zen of intake that abandons all flavor. Eating is not a thing that is meant to be about pleasure. It's a biological necessity that is best answered without muddying the waters with things like taste. Taste leads to over indulgence, and over indulgence leads to bad things all around.

And leave my soda out of it; that's an entirely different arena.

I tried not to be smug, sitting on the front steps and munching happily on my lunch, while Heero sat beside me and nibbled slowly on his, trying not to look like he wanted to gag.

'These things are awful,' he said, somewhat predictably.

'It's all in what you get used to,' I replied blandly, chewing with a little extra gusto, just to be a shit.

'There's something of the masochist in you,' he said and brushed at the crumbs that had fallen into his lap.

'Pragmatist,' I corrected, and turned to give him the full effect of my haughty look, but he wasn't watching, staring instead at the porch steps.

'Duo,' he said, 'the ants don't even want the crumbs...'

He chuckled when he made me look. 'Asshole,' I began, but the aimless conversation was interrupted by the shrill voice of the little girl who lived up the street. 'Mr. Duo! Mr. Heero!'

We turned to see the Rubins just cresting the hill and coming into sight. Or, at least, the missus and the kids. I had yet to meet a Mr. Rubin and only assumed he even existed.

I waved in reply and Ruthie broke into that strange little kid method of traveling that used twice as much energy as walking; the skip. Then Bobby took off running to out distance her, which made Ruthie holler something about 'fair' and she started running too, and they arrived on our bottom step way ahead of their mother, jostling and arguing about who had gotten there first.

'Afternoon,' I addressed them, just to stop the discussion on who had beaten who and the injustice of it all.

'Hi, Mr. Duo!' Ruthie was quick to reply, and I wondered if she hadn't been racing still when she gave her brother a sly little smirk. Guess when you were the younger sibling you took your moral victories where you could get them.

'Afternoon, Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Yuy,' Bobby said, going for a more grown up sound over the speed, his expression a smug echo of his sister's.

I'd bet good money that life at the Rubin place was never quiet. I was just relieved they hadn't brought the little dog, because we hadn't had a run in with Buffy since Heero had almost had a flash-back on our lawn over her.

Mrs. Rubin had picked up her pace, perhaps afraid of leaving the conversation in the hands of her vocal children for too long, and arrived before they resorted to shoving each other. She was just opening her mouth to do the greet and salutation thing, when Ruthie noticed our lunch.

'What are you eating, Mr. Duo?' she wanted to know, leaning in for a closer look. 'Is that a granola bar like Mom puts in my lunch?'

'Granola bars have more flavor,' Heero muttered and she looked at him with a wrinkled nose look, though I don't think he'd meant for her to hear.

'These are military rations, kiddo,' I informed her and Bobby perked up, leaning in for a closer look too.

'But why are you eating that?' She asked, looking vaguely like she was thinking about reaching out and taking a bite. 'Don't you have any bologna?'

'Ruthie...' Mrs. Rubin warned in a tone of voice that was both exasperated and tired, as though she sort of knew there wasn't any stifling the child, but she felt she had to at least appear to try.

I chuckled at the lot of them. 'We're having our kitchen remodeled,' I explained, 'and cooking is kind of hard right now.'

'You are?' Ruthie blurted, weird lunch forgotten. 'Can I see?'

'Ruthie!' Mrs. Rubin admonished, and managed to work up some real indignation.

'What?' Ruthie said, turning around to look at her Mom, all wide-eyed and confused about what was getting her yelled at. 'You said you wondered what all the trucks were for!'

Bobby elbowed his sister, with a theatric eye roll and I'm sure he thought he was making brownie points with Mom. 'Don't repeat things, you doofus.'

That, rather predictably, just riled Ruthie up and she whirled around to wail for support over the name calling. Poor Mrs. Rubin looked like she couldn't decide if she was going to combust on the spot or start wailing herself.

Or start whaling on a couple of kid's butts.

'Sure!' I exclaimed, jumping in to derail the whole thing, because there was just nowhere good it could go from there. I popped the last of my ration bar in my mouth, stood up, and dusted the crumbs off my pants. 'Right this way, ladies and gentleman... though the place is a mess and don't touch anything green; it's probably still wet.'

The line made the kids laugh and Mrs. Rubin look nervous. She had Ruthie by the hand before they finished getting through the front door.

'Oh heavens!' Mrs. Rubin exclaimed almost immediately, 'you closed the kitchen door off!'

It hit me kind of weirdly... I had forgotten that the woman was well acquainted with the place from being friends with the former owners. What had been meant as a distraction for Ruthie's sake, before the poor kid got herself into trouble, was suddenly making me feel... defensive? Guilty? Like I should be explaining all my decorating decisions?

'It made sense from a space stand point,' Heero supplied, and I couldn't tell if he realized the comment made me feel odd, or if the comment made him feel odd too.

'Trishie would be thrilled!' Mrs. Rubin replied, looking around in fascination, her irritation with Ruthie forgotten by the lure of getting to see what we'd done with a place she'd known before. 'She hated all the doorways in that room, but it was such a fight getting Les to close off the outside door, that she had let it go.'

'What outside door?' Ruthie wanted to know, moving at the limit of her and her mother's combined reach, to see everything she could see. It reminded me of the time she'd come by with her little dog pulling at the leash, and I had to stifle a chuckle.

'There was an old door over there,' I said, gesturing to the corner. 'It came out where that stone slab is outside.'

'It was a secret door!' Ruthie cried, looking exultant at the discovery. 'I knew it!'

'Dummy, it wasn't...' Bobby began, but I wasn't about to let the name calling thing get started again.

'I guess it was!' I agreed, ignoring his muttering. 'It was sure a surprise to us when we pulled the drywall down.'

Mrs. Rubin appeared to have missed the by-play, though Ruthie turned and stuck her tongue out at her older brother.

Bobby just rolled his eyes, as though he were above all that tongue stuff, and then got a smug look. 'Well, there really is a hidden room!'

'There is?' Ruthie and I both wanted to know and Bobby's smug look turned excited, that he knew something about our house that I, apparently, didn't know myself.

'Yeah!' he enthused. 'Under the stairs!'

Ah; the cool closet. I wondered how many years it had been since he'd been in the house. Wondered how old he'd been. I could imagine Trishie playing the doting Grandma figure, showing the kid where the 'secret room' was with a twinkle in her eye.

'I wanna see!' Ruthie almost shouted, bouncing up and down and looking up at her mother imploringly.

'Do you remember the way?' Heero asked Bobby and I thought the kid was going to puff up like one of those fish with his own self importance. Especially when Heero gave him the nod to take his sister and go. It kind of surprised me that he didn't mind letting the kids run around the house unattended, though I supposed they weren't going far. Kinda made me nervous that Mrs. Rubin looked nervous though, and I was more than happy to follow her lead and step back into the living room a pace or two, just to keep the little buggers in sight.

Our previous meeting with Mrs. Rubin had been under some slightly awkward circumstances and she'd exhibited a lot of nervous fidgeting that, at the time, I had attributed to the situation. But without Ruthie there to keep them busy, I noticed her hands hunting for things to do with themselves. Her shirt needed to be smoothed, her hair needed to be tucked. I wondered if she was one of those people who had become a mother so much that she didn't know what to do with herself outside the role.

'It's amazing how different things look,' she said, her attention more on where the kids were and what they were up to than on us.

'You'll have to come by when it's done,' Heero chuckled, and gestured us in the general direction of the sitting area in the living room, though I'm sure Mrs. Rubin had to take it on faith that there was someplace to sit beyond the boxes and the partly assembled cabinetry.

There was a sudden giggle and the cry of 'Cool!' from down the hall and I couldn't help a grin.

'That closet is what sold the house,' I confessed, knowing nobody would believe me anyway, because the thing really was pretty damn cool.

Mrs. Rubin perched herself on the edge of one of the couches and Heero and I settled across the coffee table from her on the other one. She was trying to look around at everything, while not appearing to look around at everything at the same time she was digging in her purse, trying to find something by feel. When she pulled out an envelope, I couldn't help shifting forward myself, having an inkling of what it was from the look of it.

'I hunted up some pictures...' she began and I managed to exhibit enough patience that I didn't snatch them from her hand. I waited while she opened the envelope and sorted through them, handing one across.

I took it, turning it around and holding it where Heero could see it too.

'That's Bobby,' Mrs. Rubin explained, 'in the side yard in front of the roses.'

'Holy shit,' I muttered, without thinking. 'That's what the fence row is going to look like?'

Mrs. Rubin blushed, but couldn't help a funny grin. 'Any day now,' I was informed, and it was all I could do not to go look out the window to see if anything had happened yet.

It was... awesome. An explosion of golden color. The fence wasn't much, really, a decorative thing that only ran along the north side of the property, they call it a split rail, I understand. The rose bushes cover maybe three sections near the front, and in the picture, the poor fence looked like it was struggling to hold up the weight of the profusion of blooms.

'I'm not sure you'll get a display quite like that,' Mrs. Rubin was saying. 'They've grown wild for so many years. They were Trishie's pride and joy, but they did take a lot of work.'

I wondered at her using the rose picture as the opening one and remembered the kids mentioning their mother's affection for them on their first visit. Almost sounded like she was trying to sell us on them.

'Don't worry,' I reassured. 'I wouldn't dream of taking them out.'

She looked relieved at the same time she tried to sputter out something that sounded like her tongue couldn't figure out if she was supposed to be apologizing or thanking.

'What was Bobby?' Heero asked, kind of over-riding her embarrassment and giving her a second to regroup, 'about two?'

'Not quite two,' she said, going back to shuffling through the pictures, then just seemed to decide the hell with it and began lying them out on the coffee table, turned our way.

There was a picture of the front porch and there were hanging flower baskets all the hell over the place. There were shutters that weren't there now and I wondered what had happened to them. There was another picture of Bobby sitting in the grass beside the north flower garden, and you could see the edge of the door that was no longer there. There was another with Bobby and a dog that wasn't Buffy next to the apple tree before the tree had died. One of the dog with its nose stuck to the crack in the shed door, obviously sniffing after something it deemed fascinating, and I wondered just how many generations of possums had been dwelling in there.

From down the hall there came a weird, echoing little kid roaring noise and more giggling. Mrs. Rubin looked up, but didn't seem to be too alarmed.

'Les told Bobby that closet was a dragon cave once,' she explained. 'He used to go in there and make all kinds of funny growling noises because of that echo. Bobby thought it was great fun... until it was bedtime. I never had the heart to tell Les he gave him nightmares.'

I couldn't help laughing, and I wondered how old he'd been and then I wondered if the kid was just passing the nightmares on down to his sister. It was weird as hell to feel the weight of a history that wasn't ours. But then, I suppose that history is what had drawn me in the first place.

Heero was asking Mrs. Rubin something about the side yard and the vanishing kitchen door, but that was when I found the picture that had to have been of the former owner's themselves and I have to admit that I kind of stopped listening.

You know how you tend to build up mental pictures of people you never met? Like envisioning characters in a book you're reading? Trishie did not kill my notions overly much, but I'd missed Les by a mile.

I'd expected him to be a tiny, mousey little guy, but he looked the part of the handyman he'd tried to be, but hadn't been. Had I met the guy in the home improvement store and he'd offered me advice on whatever I was buying... I'd have accepted it without a thought. He just looked like he could have been a construction worker or something in his youth. Big guy with big hands, smiling at the camera while he filled Trishie's held out apron with apples from their tree.

Trishie herself... and how had I ever thought the woman went by Pat? The trim, laughing woman in the photo had an air of grace about her that just wouldn't have a thing to do with 'Pat'... was very much the neat, petite little white-haired lady I'd envisioned. Everybody's grandma because she got to send you home to your folks at the end of the day, full of homemade cookies and lemonade.

I found myself wondering what had happened to Les. Though seeing the adoring look on Trishie's face, I could guess what had happened to her. I almost asked, but then decided I didn't want to know.

Somebody said my name, and I didn't have to admit I hadn't been paying attention when there was suddenly the sound of somebody stomping up the stairs, and the previous conversation died in its tracks.

'Robert Jordan Rubin!' Mrs. Rubin snapped, shock and embarrassment written all over her face. 'What on earth are you doing? You stop that this instant!'

Bobby whirled around and it was almost comical to watch his expression change. There was a moment of rebellion while he thought about arguing, but his eyes flicked toward Heero and me and it quickly changed to a bright red look of sheer horror... like he'd forgotten where he was. And then he jumped at the only adult he apparently thought would back him up. Too bad that adult was long dead.

'But... but... Grandpa Dent used to do it!' he blurted out, just standing there on the fourth step up, one hand on the rail and not able to figure out who he should be talking to. 'He had me stand in the closet and then he'd stomp and... and...'

'I suppose it would sound pretty weird,' I tried, because the poor kid just looked like he was facing his doom and it kind of made me wonder why he seemed to have more manners than his sister. Or maybe it was just the age difference and it wasn't manners so much as filters. I'm not exactly a kid expert.

'I don't care, young man,' his mother all but growled at him. 'This is Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Yuy's house now and you know better than to act like that in somebody else's home.'

I wanted to ask if that implied it was ok to act that way in their own home, but it didn't seem politic, so I just let the thought go.

Ruthie chose that moment to come running down the hall, looking quizzically up at her brother. 'Why'd you quit?' she wanted to know. 'Nothing happened yet!'

'That will be enough, you two!' their mother declared, and apparently the visit was over. I started to do my own sputtering, but Mrs. Rubin was gathering her purse and her errant children, but leaving the pile of photos, and I guess I really didn't need to have any sort of narration anyway. Everything I'd seen so far was pretty self explanatory.

'It's all right,' Heero was trying to soothe, 'no harm done...'

But apparently, when Mrs. Rubin got poked in the Mommy piss off button, she forgot about being fidgety. 'No, it is not all right that my children,' and this was punctuated with a glare in the proper direction that made Bobby leave the stairs and the siblings kind of huddle together in an attempt at a united front, 'can not remember their manners in public. March, you two!'

And just like that, they were headed for the front door. Mrs. Rubin gathered her purse and her dignity and bid us good day.

'Do you care if I make copies of the pictures?' I managed to squeeze in, but was pooh-poohed breezily.

'Those are yours to keep,' she informed me, seeming relieved that she had a way of balancing out what she considered the unruly behavior of her off-spring. 'I printed copies from the computer.'

We just settled on a quiet thanks and saw them out. The lecturing started before they got down the hill.

We stood on the porch and watched them disappear down the street and then Heero couldn't contain a funny little chuckle any more. 'Kids... are kind of weird.'

'Not any weirder than Moms,' I said. 'I really didn't think they were all that bad.'

'The stomping was a bit much,' Heero replied, and turned to go back in the house. 'He could have at least explained himself first. Or asked.'

'I dunno,' I said, following after, 'it probably does sound pretty cool. And he seemed like he was having trouble remembering...'

And that was when we found the green fingerprints on the front door.

'I...' Heero said in that voice he has that just begs for patience, 'am going to kill somebody.'

'So you can do jail time and stick me with this mess? Forget it Yuy.'

We found the smear in the kitchen and traced it from there. My money was on Ruthie based on the height, but you never knew.

We spent most of the rest of the afternoon doing repair work on the smudges in the kitchen and then hunting through the house for fingerprints and cleaning them up. There were a surprising number of them. It somehow reminded me of Coquette, and I was just about ready to swear off visitors forever. I suppose I should just be glad they hadn't brought Buffy too.

We probably spent more time than we had to on the clean-up, but once we found the smear on the downstairs bathroom door, we started second guessing where all the little darlings had been poking around, and wanted to make doubly sure we found it all before it had a chance to really dry.

After that we had to clean up the general painting mess, to make way for the return of our construction crew the next day.

It was evening before we got to sit down with the pictures again.

The house had sat empty for several years before we'd bought it, so we'd never see anything but the bare bones. An empty canvas, if you will. When we had chosen where to put our furniture, when we'd picked our colors and fabrics, we weren't influenced at all by what had gone before. It was really kind of weird to see glimpses of how it had been. There were a lot more floral prints and light colors. More knick-knacks and frills. Trishie's hand was more than evident inside the house and out. It made me wonder what Les had done for a living. Maybe he was a traveling salesman or something, and was on the road a lot. Leaving Trishie with nothing to do but tend the yard.

I couldn't help going back to that picture of them picking apples, and it made me sad that the tree hadn't lived. Made me feel guilty for starting the job of cutting it down. Though I suppose there was evidence in the background in a picture or two, of things that weren't there any longer. So she'd done her own cutting down and digging out.

They looked to probably be in their seventies at least, in the apple picture, and still seemed to be as happy as little clams together. I wondered how long they'd lived in the house. Wondered if maybe they'd actually built it. Kind of made me wish Mrs. Rubin had brought the pictures down without the kids so that maybe she'd have hung around and I could have asked to see if she had any answers.

Heero was arranging some of the pictures in a line, trying to build a complete picture of the north side of the house, where most of the shots appeared to have been taken. I watched him for a minute, trying to imagine him old and gray, but I couldn't make the image come clear. He just looked like he did, only... gray.

'Hey,' I asked, finding my mood riding an edge that could go melancholy or could go sappy. 'You think we'll still be living here when we're old enough for that senior discount thing?'

Heero made a derisive noise, and shifted two of the pictures in his line. 'Sure as hell hope so, because that moving business sucks.'

I snorted and let it go... guess his mood wasn't sappy or melancholy. But then he glanced over at the picture I was looking at, and reached to take it. He studied it for a moment before looking up to meet my gaze and maybe he did get the mood.

'And if not... we'll still be together wherever we are, so it doesn't matter.'

I guess sappy beat the hell out of melancholy anyway, so I met his smile and went with that. We had a few more years yet before we had to start worrying about gray hair and cataracts. At least... I sure as hell hoped we did.

Heero laid the picture down with the others on the table, suddenly seeming done with them. 'Come on,' he said, 'we need to be getting cleaned up and ready for bed.'

Kind of surprised me how late it was.

We decided to do that 'conserve water' thing, and once we were actually in the shower under the spray of water, I got confirmation that Heero had, indeed, caught the mood.

'Wash your hair for you?' he wanted to know when I came out from under the shower head from wetting it down, though it was hardly a question since he already had a palm full of my shampoo. It's not something he does all that often, so I obligingly turned my back and tilted my head.

Didn't take him long to have a nice lather worked up and then he set to work. Heero doesn't just wash your hair, it's almost more like a complete massage of your head. Had made me feel a little weird the first time he'd done it, but I kind of categorized it in that gray area of 'almost foreplay' and had come to accept that he enjoyed doing it, so it made it all right for me to enjoy it too. Or, perhaps, luxuriate in it, would be a closer description.

Were it possible, I would probably purr.

The conditioning part is almost as decadent as he combs it through my hair with long strokes of his fingers. 'Where'd you get so good at this?' I asked idly and his answering chuckle held a hint of something that was flirting with nostalgia.

'I had to learn when...' he began and then hesitated, as though stopping to hear himself, questioning in his own mind if he should continue. It wasn't more than a pause before he went on, 'you were in the hospital. You wouldn't let anybody else touch it.'

I understood his faltering then, and gathered from his tone that it was one of those times he'd decided not to mince words.

'Oh,' was the best I could manage while I snuck around the memories best left lie, to get at the topic at hand. 'I... did?'

He chuckled again, his hands returning to my scalp to begin another slow, gentle trek the length of my hair. 'Rather forcefully. I think one of the nurses was dying to get your braid undone, just to see, because there was more than one... altercation.'

'There was?' I asked brightly. 'I don't remember any of them acting all that interested.'

'I believe she transferred to another ward,' he said so blandly that I could almost believe he had nothing at all to do with it. 'But I think she made you even more determined about it. It was early on.'

'I... don't really remember...' I said, though I wondered if maybe I did. A little. I could remember an incident that ended with me getting... demanding. I poked at the memory, but didn't get much more than shards.

'...really needs washed, Mr. Maxwell...'

'...don't care. Heero will do it...'

' need to get upset, we do this all the...'

'...No! Where's Heero? I want Heero...'

My hair? I'd thrown a hissy fit over... getting my hair washed?

Heero's fingers had gone from hair to neck and shoulders, and I think he was just judging the level of tension. I shook the memories away and turned at his prodding so we could get the conditioner rinsed out. We were at that warm and relaxed stage where kissing water off each other's skin was just too tempting to not indulge in.

We had to throw half the towels we owned down on the bed to keep from soaking the sheets.

There had been an intensity to Heero's love making since the kidnapping (waylayment? Personal hijacking?) that kind of made me feel bad, understanding what was driving it, but was kind of impossible not to enjoy. A lot.

Heero positively gloated the next morning while I was hauling ass to get ready for work on time, and he was able to just lie in bed and watch me.

At least there was no argument over the ration bar I grabbed on the way out of the house. Not that Heero would be lying around all day; the contractors were due within the hour. The decadent lazing had been purely for my benefit. I'm sure Heero had been up and dressed before I hit the freeway.

I sat in my car after I'd parked in the Preventer's lot and pulled out my cell. I debated which number to call before deciding that I really didn't want to risk actually having to talk to Aleyah at that hour, and called the gallery number instead. Mr. Lee had said my decision had to be made by Monday morning and I didn't want to appear to be indulging in divaish head games by making them call me. I'd been planning on leaving a message and getting on with my day, so it surprised the hell out of me when somebody picked the damn phone up. I'd thought it would be too early.

'Expressions,' the curt voice of Ms. Tartan said, 'how can I help you?'

There might have been a beat of delay there, while I switched gears, but I hoped it wasn't too obvious. 'Good morning, this is Duo Maxwell...'

'Good morning, Mr. Maxwell,' she replied. 'There's no problem with the assignment, I hope?'

'No,' I assured, though she didn't sound all that concerned. 'I just needed to leave a message for Aleyah. I've made my decision... I'm taking the job.'

There was another one of those moments of delay, but it was on her end this time. 'Oh,' she said finally, sounding just a little bit confused. 'I thought that was already settled. Well... no matter; I will let Miss Winner know.'

'Uh... thanks,' I said and tried to hide the tone of frustration while we signed off. It kind of pisses me off sometimes how sure Aleyah Winner is of me.

But then, I suppose if I didn't just go with the flow most of the time where she was concerned, things might be different.

The weekend appeared to have worked some of the 'lazy' out of the crew, or else Griff's dire warnings of docking pay had done it. Either way, Monday morning saw a much more focused garage. I myself finished the windshield installation and did two oil changes before lunch.

Though we still didn't get the tennis ball back, not that anybody dared ask for it.

Lunch. Now there's a thing that had become...awkward. I have to confess that trotting off for my usual sandwich at the Andover had become not all that attractive an idea. But I hate the grease pit across the street like a burning case of heart burn. There were not a lot of other options. I suppose I could have taken the car and driven somewhere outside the area, but that just seemed kind of... lame.

I'd been back to the deli once since the... imprisonment, mostly so that I could thank the clerk for her part in identifying the SoA crew, but hadn't quite been able to make myself return after that. Heero was not aware of it, but I'd been packing my lunch since. Usually a ration bar squirreled away in my glove box so that he didn't see it.

Guess what I hadn't remembered that morning? I'd have just skipped it if it had been any other day, but knowing we'd be out late at the ball game, and not knowing when dinner would actually happen, I had to admit that it was a stupid notion.

I had no problem justifying the change in routine under the guise of many different excuses, but really... I know when I'm being lame. And skipping lunch completely, because the idea of going back to the place where I'd gotten royally embarrassed, was uncomfortable... was pretty damn lame.

So I trotted off that day trying not to think about it too hard.

The deli was a little more crowded than it had been the day of the... event, which helped a little bit. The clerk really couldn't spare the time to try to engage me too much, I just got the extra perky hello and at some point during the investigation, she'd figured out my name, so I got addressed by it now. It had made me make the effort to learn hers in return, so I was able to wish her a good day by name before I took my sandwich and retreated to a table out of line of sight of the register. She was a nice girl and all, but I'd been a bit nervous that she was going to get up the nerve to ask for my number or some damn thing.

People watching isn't nearly as fun when some part of the back of your mind is playing the 'what are they up to' game. As weird as it probably sounds, the thing about the kidnapping that sticks in my craw the most is that I'd fallen for the dumb-ass drink switch ploy. That I hadn't been the slightest bit suspicious of Hardy even though there had been something niggling at me about the man. That I'd not even noticed Goddard following me out of the deli.

Hindsight made it all so obvious it was... it was just damned embarrassing. And I think we've already established just how well I handle embarrassment.

Would have been bad enough if I'd fallen prey to an actual paramilitary group or something, but knowing they were nothing but a bunch of amateurs just made it all the worse. Though, I suppose if they hadn't been so pathetic, the plot might not have unraveled quite the way it had, and I'd have ended up nothing but a casualty of hero worship.

It still causes me moments of reflection when I stop to think about those hours of lying in that dark basement in that old abandoned house... and add in the explosives I hadn't known were there.

For a brief moment I wondered if there might not be a place for me in the record books for most death defying moments, but then shook the notion away... probably most cops and firefighters could trump me.

I finished my lunch in short order and didn't hang around. Didn't stop for my soda either, and it had nothing to do with the teenaged kid who was standing there dropping coins into the machine.

I'd barely used twenty minutes of my lunch hour and when I arrived back at the garage, all the other guys were still gone, except for Griff. He seldom goes anywhere, usually just eating at his desk, using the time to go over reports or some damn thing. We all have our routines, and Griff is well aware of all of them. Hell, I think the guy probably knows what every individual in the employ of the Preventer agency does for lunch. And I was sure he'd noted my change in habits. The first couple of days of my fetching my ration bar and choosing to find someplace to sit and read instead of going out, I'd been holding my breath, waiting for him to say something, but he never had.

So I was a little surprised that day to come wandering back from a trip that was more normal than it had been in weeks, and notice Griff noticing me.

I'd gone to the soda machine there in the back of the bay and was feeding in my money, when Griff came out of his office and headed my way. He was fishing in his pocket, hunting for coins and for a moment I hoped he really was just getting himself a soda, and his getting his while I was getting mine was just a coincidence.

I picked up my can of Dew and stepped to the side to make way for him, trying to think of something witty to say, but he never gave me the chance.

'So, how you doin', kid?' he asked and I could tell from the tone it wasn't just soda machine chit-chat. I debating pretending I took it for the normal 'fine, fine' junk that people say to each other on a day to day basis. The stuff that's mostly just noise to fill in the blank spots that nobody is really listening to. But I knew Griff, and I knew he wouldn't let me get away with it, so figured I might as well cut to the chase.

I opened my can and took a swallow, thinking about it. 'Over most of it but the embarrassment part,' I finally said and he couldn't help a snort.

'Only you, Maxwell,' he said with a shake of his head, 'would react to being taken hostage by getting embarrassed.'

Oh, I liked that one... hostage? Had I tried that one on for size yet? It was way less cheap romance novel sounding than 'kidnapped'.

'I'm mostly embarrassed by falling for their lame set up,' I grumbled, and ducked my head, thinking about another covering drink, but being just a can, it wasn't going to last long anyway.

He made a noise that was kind of a laugh, and kind of a dismissal, and then he turned toward his office. 'You know,' he said conversationally, sort of making me follow him since we obviously weren't done. 'I've been thinking I might have to fire you.'

I laughed. 'Who in the hell would you get to do your body work...' I began, but then felt something in the air, or saw something in his face that made me realize he wasn't really kidding. 'Wait... what?'

We stopped then, in the middle of the bay and he made me wait while he used the rag in his back pocket to clean the top of his soda. He stuffed the rag away, popped the top on the can and took a swallow. I just stood and stared at him, trying to think if I'd done anything overly stupid lately.

'Come on, Maxwell,' he finally said, looking me square in the face. 'This wasn't ever supposed to be anything but a stop gap for you; we both know that. What are you still doing here?'

I blinked at him and he just stood there looking at me. I blinked at him some more and he took a swallow from his can and I noted it was a Dr. Pepper. I thought about that perpetual rag in his back pocket and wondered about it... the man didn't work on anything but papers and a computer. He sighed heavily, obviously getting tired of waiting for me to think of something to say.

'Kid,' he said, parking his hands on his hips, can dangling precariously, 'You got more damn options than any one man should have... and changing oil all day ought to be the bottom of the list.'

I thought about making a joke about him giving me something to do that was more interesting, but I knew that wasn't what he meant. And he knew I knew that wasn't what he meant. I started to say something about loyalty, but it wouldn't quite come clear in my head, and seemed kind of lame anyway.

Griff finally got tired of my carp routine and just snorted in this way that was kind of disgusted and kind of amused. 'Look, Duo,' he said, and him using my name just made me shut my mouth and listen. 'You're a good employee. Hard worker. Conscientious as hell. Your work has been top notch since day one. And if you was a mechanic, I'd be offering you a raise to keep your ass here. But you're not. You don't belong here any more than Yuy would, or Commander Une.'

I think I managed to stutter out a couple of 'buts', and he just made that noise again, that sounded like he thought I didn't have two brain cells to rub together and then he walked back to his office. He stopped in the door and hollered back across the bay at me. 'Shit or get off the pot, Maxwell! Don't make me have to fire you!'

'Uh... sure thing, Boss-man,' I managed, but I barely heard it myself so I doubted even Mr. Superhearing caught it.

I took my soda and went back to work even though it was a half hour early.

Well then. On the plus side, it sure as hell gave me something else to think about besides a stupid ball game.

I wanted to be aggravated with him, but I wasn't sure if that was just because I'd rather that than admit to any trepidation.

It's a fine line between comfortable and a rut, and I guess I could see what the man was trying to tell me. Well ok, I suppose there wasn't any 'try' about it; Griff doesn't exactly mince words.

Shit or get off the pot... not a lot of ways to interpret that. I tried to look back at my short, illustrious career with the Preventer organization and make up my mind if I'd really just been sitting here, or if there were valid reasons why I was still changing oil for a living.

The implication, of course, wasn't just that I was spinning my wheels going nowhere in particular, but that I was... hiding out. And that was the part I couldn't quite make up my mind about. It might have been true... I wasn't sure.

I run, I hide, but I never tell a lie.

I'd gotten over the not lying thing pretty early, and I was working on getting over the run thing. Had I not quite given up the hiding?

I was still chewing on it when it was time to go meet Heero at the ball field.

To be honest, I had wanted to run back home and pick him up, but it hadn't made a lot of sense for me to make the journey all the way out to our place and then all the way back in again. The Preventer building wasn't that darn far from the field.

Kind of wish I hadn't gotten there ahead of him though.

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