Conclusions (cont.)

All the talk of previous years and games had conjured up visions of a ball field. Singular. What I was confronted with once I'd managed to find a place to park my car next to the other cars that were rather haphazardly lined up in the grass along the edge of what turned out to be an access road... was a bunch of ball fields. Interlocked in a weird way that had them pointing away from each other, presumably so that the balls would generally be going in not the same directions. It all seemed very chancy. And confusing.

There appeared to be a main area at the center of it all, with a couple of little cinder block buildings where the majority of the people were milling around, so I headed that way.

I figured out that the cinder block building was a restroom when I got close enough to see the 'men' sign on the side facing me, but I could see people going up to the left side and... consulting something, before wandering off with purpose. There was some sort of information to be found there, obviously, so I turned my feet that way.

What I found was a bulletin board that very handily informed me that the Preventers were playing the 8th District Fire and Rescue on 'diamond 3'. But even better, I found that the other side of the building was some sort of food stand thing. And there were people walking away from it with nifty bottles of sports drinks and soda. I went around to that side of the building, keeping my distance and trying to look like I hadn't just disembarked from the 'noob' boat, to get the lay of the land. The ordering process seemed to be rather chaotic until I realized there were different people for ordering different things. A man in a red ball cap seemed to be the go to guy if you just wanted a drink. A burly man with a ridiculous handlebar mustache seemed to be all about paper plates piled with chips covered in what appeared to be a... liquid cheese? Cheese sauce? A yellow cousin to the Blob? But he seemed fine with handing out drinks with the chips. There was a girl on the end in a Batman and Robin t-shirt who wasn't all that busy looking, so I couldn't quite figure out what her station was. Maybe she just backed up the other guys? Or maybe she was in charge? Whatever her focus was, she caught me looking, and waved me over with a wide grin.

'Don't be shy,' I was told. 'come on up here where you can see this wonderful cuisine better!'

There was a snort from Red, though he didn't even look her way. 'Erin, you know it's better if you don't look too close.'

She laughed, but didn't reply, just giving me another wave. I sighed and went; so much for easing in under the radar.

'I was just after a drink,' I explained, though damned if I know why I felt compelled to do so, 'and I wasn't sure of your system.'

She laughed out right. 'Like we have one!' There were chuckles all around, some from my side of the counter, like it was all some huge inside joke. I tried not to sigh again; there just didn't seem to be any help for pretending to not be out of my element.

'So,' I began, 'can I get a...'

'Wait!' she jumped in, cutting me off with up-raised hands. 'Let me guess! I'm good at this!'

There were a couple of chuckles, though the guy with the mustache rolled his eyes even while he was squirting yellow goop on another plate of chips. She ignored them and looked me up and down.

'You're certainly not over-weight,' she observed and I could feel a blush wanting to creep up the back of my neck. This... was weird. 'But I can tell you're a working man; not one of those exercise fanatics. Not a sports drink kind of guy, I don't think.'

'There's nothing wrong with Gatorade!' some guy tossed in to the middle of her spiel as he passed cash across to Red for a bottle of the same, but it seemed more amused than pissed. Erin gave him a wave as he walked away, but didn't respond. Just cocked her head the other way, as though the gesture would show her a different angle of my drink preferences.

'You strike me as particular about what you drink,' she continued and since there was a break on my side of the counter for a moment, Red and Mustache-guy were just standing there listening. Like they were really interested.

'Hey,' Red interjected suddenly. 'You get this one, and I'll stop messing up your candy bar arrangement.'

'Really?' Erin grinned, looking excited by the prospect.

'She likes them alphabetized,' Mustache explained.

'She's nuts,' Red added.

'Mt. Dew!' Erin blurted, jabbing a finger in the air in my general direction. 'And no fair ordering something else just to mess me up!'

I blinked at them and wondered just how damn boring it must get behind that counter. 'Uh... right?' I admitted.

'Well damn,' Red grumbled, managing to look annoyed and impressed all at once. 'That's five in a row, Prof. You win.'

'And a hot dog!' she added gleefully.

'Ah Jeez...' Red grumbled, looking embarrassed and suddenly seemed to have something he needed to do in the back of the little kitcheny thing. Mustache just snickered, but then he got another chip customer and went back to work.

'Huh?' I said brightly, starting to feel like my head was spinning.

'Obviously,' I was informed, 'this is your first ballgame. You have to have a hot dog. It's like... tradition. Everybody should eat a ballgame hotdog at least once in their life and so you might as well get it over with, see?'

'Over with?' I parroted. That sounded like it was akin to getting an immunization or something. Though most of my brain was stuck on the part where she could tell I'd never been to a game before. Was there a damn sign stuck on my shirt, or what?

'Good selling technique there...' Mustache muttered, but she ignored him.

'But what style?' she mused, giving me that up and down look again.

'Uh... I don't know?' I confessed, and wondered if a tone was getting set for the whole damn evening.

Her eyes kind of lit up and I realized I'd just admitted I'd never eaten a hot dog before either. Maybe there really was a sign, but it just wasn't on my shirt.

'Where are you from?' she wanted to know.

'L2... I guess?' I blurted and wanted to wince.

'Simple then...' she mused and was off to work. I wondered what this stop was going to end up costing me. And then I wondered why it had never dawned on me to argue.

Mustache gave me a sympathetic grin and handed me my bottle of Dew. I briefly considering just paying him and taking off, but... it seemed rude. And besides, Erin was back before I could do more than consider it anyway. I was handed something that I assumed was a hot dog wrapped up in a paper wrapper, charged ten freaking bucks, and just ended up feeling patted on the head.

'Oh, Preventers are on three!' Erin told me as I was turning away. 'That's to the right and down one. If you want something else, we're always busiest between games, so come back about the sixth inning!'

'Yeah,' Red called out. 'And we sell Alka-Seltzer too!'

Well, that was reassuring.

I smiled and I waved and I went to the right. I had a feeling it was going to be a long damn evening.

There was no sign of Heero or Wufei yet when I found the ball diamond with the big number three on it, but there were other people wandering about in Preventer's colors. I hung back until I figured out which bench the Preventer team was going to occupy and then went to stake a claim on the bleachers on that side. The stupid things were made out of aluminum and vibrated unpleasantly every time somebody walked across them. Which, of course, they were constantly doing as people climbed up to take seats.

There were a few people setting up gear for both teams, but it didn't look like many of the players for either side had shown up yet, so I settled down and unwrapped my hot dog while I waited for something to happen. I'm not a complete idiot, I've heard of hot dogs and I knew darn well they weren't made out of dogs, but the one sitting in my lap did appear to be hot, so it was at least half as advertized. Erin had covered the thing with ketchup and mustard and sprinkled it liberally with onions and cheese. I had to wonder what in the hell else you could put on the damn things if this was her idea of 'simple'.

Frankly, the thing didn't look all that appealing, but it was there, and I'd paid a good chunk of money for it, and it would have looked really stupid to buy it just to throw it away, so... I tried to figure out how to take a bite. There was just no good way to eat the darn thing without dumping cheese and onions all over the place and I had a feeling I was going to be doing good if I didn't end up wearing half of it.

In the end, I had to tilt my head at a weird angle and just hope for the best. For the record, it was not the worst thing I've ever tasted. Most of that list belongs to McMurphy.

'I see you fell victim to Ms Erin,' somebody chuckled and I looked up to find Giles standing beside the bleachers with a plate full of those weird chips.

'She's a serial hot-dogger?' I asked in mock surprise and Giles laughed a little louder than the joke warranted before climbing up to plop down next to me.

'All the proceeds from the concession stand go toward charity,' he explained. 'And she's good at it.'

Made me feel a little bit better about the money. The jury was still out on how I felt about the hot dog.

'Here,' Giles said, and handed me a napkin from the wad he had in his hand, 'you're going to need this.'

'Thanks,' I muttered and quickly wiped my mouth, just in case.

Out on the field, some guy in a white shirt was putting the bases in place and I couldn't help watching with interest. The things weren't at all what I had thought they'd be, and it surprised me to realize they were removable.

'Aww, you got a hot dog?' another familiar voice said, and I turned to find Dave standing in front of us, two plates of chips in his hands and a bottle of soda shoved under his arm. 'I got us chips!'

'Dude!' Giles chided, 'Without even checking first?'

'Well, it's his first game,' Dave grumbled. 'Ya gotta get the full experience!'

I totally had not known that food... or this close proximity to it... was so much a part of the baseball 'experience'.

Dave juggled the extra plate of chips onto my knees and took a seat in the row below us, setting his bottle between his feet and digging into his chips with a kind of twisted glee. 'I love these things!' he told nobody in particular.

Giles chuckled and rolled his eyes, but leaned over to warn me. 'If you're going to eat them, do it while they're still hot or they're just disgusting.'

I didn't have the heart to tell him they already looked pretty disgusting.

Over on the other team's bench a couple of big-ass looking guys showed up, and there was a good natured cheer from three or four people on the other end of the bleachers. The ball players mugged and hollered out some offers to sign autographs, which was met with some raspberries and mocking that led me to believe they were all related to one another. There's a certain tone of mocking that people will only take from people they grew up living with.

'Shove over,' I heard, and somebody poked me in the side. The burst of irritation vanished when I turned to poke back and found Trowa preparing to climb up the side of the bleachers. Giles and I dutifully slid over, and Trowa made himself a spot where there hadn't been one, and promptly divested me of my plate of chips.

'Where's Quatre?' I asked, noting that he hadn't made me move over far enough to make room for two.

'India, I think,' he said and popped a chip into his mouth just before he dripped blobby stuff all over his chin. I watched him chew with the vague sense of a guilty pleasure being indulged in, finally said the hell with it, and took one of the stupid chips for myself.

It was kind of like... something pretending to be cheese with a side of salt. Only crunchy.

'You think?' Giles asked, leaning around me to look at Trowa funny, and I could tell they kind of knew each other. Which was a whole new type of weird. But then, I suppose it stood to reason, there had been a vague understanding that all of these people made a habit of coming out to the ball games. I'd just never stopped to think about the implications before.

'Or China, I can't remember if he said,' Trowa explained without really explaining.

Dave twisted around to look at us, his chips already mostly gone. 'Isn't that kind of... an important thing to know?'

Trowa just smiled that Mona Lisa smile he has sometimes, the one that sort of makes you feel like you're being his personal straight man on purpose. 'Not really. Either way, he'll be home in time for a late supper.'

Giles snorted derisively and turned back to his own paper plate with a shake of his head. 'You guys are from an entirely different walk of life.'

There was a lull for a minute while we all sat around and munched on various things. There were a couple of guys in Preventers gear out on the field tossing a ball back and forth. I wondered if they were agents or office staff or just what.

I kind of wanted to feel guilty about not knowing, but it wouldn't really solidify into a real feeling. Kind of... the ghost of a feeling I vaguely thought I ought to feel.

Or something. Guess it's just as well; there really wasn't any room on the bleachers for a guilt beast.

Though every hamster I owned was lined up against the fence, little furry faces pressed between the wires, watching everything with avid interest. Guess I needed to get them out more often... they were obviously getting bored. George waved a 'damn' banner and pointed toward the 8th's bench, and I glanced over to see a couple more of their players show up.

'Jeez,' I muttered, agreeing with the assessment of my expletive hamster. 'They've got some damn big guys.'

'Size ain't everything,' Dave grumbled, and every guy within hearing range snickered like a twelve year old.

Dave, rather predictably, took offense. 'Hey!' he said, turning around to glare at the lot of us. 'Our guys may not be as big, but they're fast!'

'Dude!' Giles chortled, damn near falling over in his efforts to ridicule, 'you're not makin' it better!'

Dave just got red in the face and looked like he was really working up to a rant that would probably have just ended up giving Giles more fodder, but there was suddenly a group of women in front of our boy's party, and everybody kind of shut up.

And right in the middle of that group stood Sally Po, looking somehow like the ring-leader or the team captain. She gave me a grin that was decidedly wicked and snapped out a completely imaginary, but otherwise quite ornate lady's fan.

'Do my eyes deceive me?' she said, all thick southern drawl, fanning herself lazily. 'Duo Maxwell? Why... I thought I'd never live to see the day!'

I opened my mouth to meet the attack with a parry and quick riposte... you have to keep Ms Po on her toes to survive a verbal match... but before I could utter a sound, Dave blundered into the middle of the Salle.

'Hey!' he said, voice full of indignation, 'Don't be picking on Duo!'

It was like one of those cartoon moments where the needle jerks across the record and everything freezes. There's usually an audible blink from somebody? Yeah... like that. Even Sally's fan stilled.

Trowa deftly derailed the awkward before it had a chance to get too weird.

'Yeah, you big bully,' he grinned and very deliberately popped a chip into his mouth.

'Oh God,' Sally said, all theatrically aghast. 'I gave you more chip credit than to eat that crap, Barton!'

But that just poked Dave again and he gave up defending me in order to defend his favorite snack. It ended with Sally's second in command, a lady with weird horns fastened on her hat, patting Dave on the head and heading up the bleachers. The rest of the entourage followed suit, all of them having to pat Dave as they finally trouped by us to climb up and line up along the top row.

I had apparently been the owner of the audible blink though, and continued to just sit there staring at the back of Dave's head, thinking about the seating arrangements and how I was ringed about on all sides. Was that... on purpose? Were the guys deliberately trying to... what? Protect me? Buffer me? And what did that imply? Had I really come off like I was afraid to come out to the stupid ball game?

Somewhere in the back of my head that thought tried to connect with my conversation with Griff, but Giles elbowed me about then and the link didn't happen.

'Yuy and Chang are here,' he grunted and I turned to see the guys setting up their stuff on an open spot on the bench. Heero had been looking for me, and he smiled widely when I met his eyes, giving me a nod. He said something that made Wufei turn and look my way as well. Despite all Heero's reassurances, I still found myself almost holding my breath and watching him intently for any sign he was unhappy to see me, but the broad grin was instant. He even waved. I spent a couple of minutes feeling stupid before I let myself just feel relieved.

Funny how some things can grow inside your head until your mole hills are not just mountains, they're mountains of such epic proportions they can crush reality like last week's stale crackers under their ponderous weight.

Or maybe that's just me.

I waved back.

'You going to eat that hot dog, or just sit there holding it?' Trowa wanted to know, and it brought my attention back from the edge of thinking about things that were probably best left unthought. Like the state I'd been in last season.

'I suppose I probably should,' I said, looking down at the thing. 'Considering what I paid for it.'

Trowa just laughed at me in a way that made me sure he'd met Ms Erin before. Around me, everybody was passing their trash down to Dave, so I took the last few bites, passing mine off too. He dutifully trekked it over to the trash barrel, stopping to exchange a few words with Heero through the fence. I'll be honest and admit it made me a little bit nervous, wondering what the topic was.

Somewhere in the distance behind us, there was a cheer and I assumed one of the other pairs of teams had started to play. I caught Giles checking his watch with a faint frown and realized the game should have started. I was just opening my mouth to ask, when a guy in a black polo shirt came jogging up carrying a weird face mask and there was a good natured cheer from just about everybody in the area, both on the bench and on the bleachers. The guy grinned widely and sketched a theatric bow before pulling a little duster thing out of his hip pocket, giving the home plate a quick brushing, and then loudly proclaiming, 'Let's play ball!'

There was another rousing cheer and a good portion of the people on the bleachers stamped their feet in rhythm on the steps, causing that creepy vibration up through my butt. I certainly hoped that wasn't going to be an ongoing thing through the whole game.

And then they proceeded to play ball. I'm not going to go into a play-by-play, I'm sure most everybody who isn't me knows how it works and has probably seen their fair share of games. Though I have to admit it was half way through the second inning before I realized that Heero and Wufei were both holding back. Wufei had hit one that went by the second baseman and bounced out into right field, easily making it to first base. But if you were paying any attention at all, you could see how he'd choked back on his swing; the hit could have been a home run, easily. I opened my mouth to say something to Trowa about it, but then remembered my lost piloting days and faking the use of a computer for course calculations when other people were around. Guess there wasn't any point in asking a question I already knew the answer to. Trowa could see the aborted comment though, and just grinned.

'Wouldn't take long before nobody would play against them,' he said softly and I smiled back, perfectly able to imagine it. If every hit they made was a home run, and every ball that came to their side of the field was caught? Not to mention it can kind of demoralize the people on your side... make them feel a whole lot of superfluous, and that just builds resentment. Oh yeah; been there, lived through that.

Out on the field, something happened with the ball and Wufei suddenly took off running for second base. People were yelling and pointing, the ball was hurled that way, and Wufei did that slide thing that Dave had taught me. The guy in the black shirt was running across the field, presumably to be close enough to see what was going on, and when the dust cleared he hollered, 'Safe!' Wufei got up, dusting himself off and looking smug.

Behind us, horn girl screamed, 'Go, Chang!' at the top of her lungs. Turning to look back at her, I was just in time to see the whole row of them do this weird thing where they stood up and sat down one after the other along the line. It gave this really weird rippling affect that was kind of cool, though they were all laughing so hard I don't know how they got it coordinated. I turned back to find Wufei, and couldn't make up my mind from the expression on his face if he was mortified or pleased. He seemed to be grinning in a way that kind of said he was ok with the display, but I have to say... I'd never seen him quite that shade of red before.

'What the hell just happened?' I asked nobody in particular and Trowa chuckled.

'Which part?'

'Chang just stole second,' Giles explained.

'You can do that?' It seemed like a strange concept. Sort of invited chaos, if you asked me.

'Only under certain circumstances,' Trowa supplied.

'And that thing the ladies did... what the hell was that all about?'

'It's called a wave,' Dave said, turning around to join the conversation. 'It kinda looks more impressive when a whole stadium does it.'

I tried to imagine that and wondered how you got that many people to cooperate. It would be kind of neat looking, almost like wind across water if you could...

'That ain't fair,' Dave said, kind of cutting across my thoughts and leaving me doing that blinking thing again.

'What?' Giles asked before anybody else had to, and Dave turned completely around to look back at us rather earnestly.

'They're just trying to influence the vote,' he said, keeping his voice low like it was some sort of conspiracy and nobody else had realized whatever it was he thought he had realized.

'Huh?' I said brightly, and Trowa leaned in to whisper to me.

'That Most Valuable Player thing,' he said, and I realized he was just messing with Dave, because that was kind of a 'no duh?' sort of epiphany. A non-epiphany, if you will.

'So?' Giles asked, just to see where Dave would go with it, I think.

Sure as hell didn't go anywhere near where I thought he was going.

'We gotta match that for Yuy!' he proclaimed. At least I wasn't the only one left blinking that time.

'Uh, Dave,' Giles said gently, as though he were talking to a very young child. 'There's four of us... that will look beyond stupid.'

Before I had a chance to object, or leave, or crawl under the bleachers, Dave had turned to another group of Preventer people on down the bleachers and somehow managed to convince them to come sit with us. And damned if the next time Heero was up at bat, I participated in my very first ever sports venue 'wave'. It helped that Trowa was laughing so hard I thought he was going to choke.

Helped too that Heero ended up wearing that same expression Wufei had worn. Beet red, but grinning, so I hoped to God he wasn't pissed.

But you know, along about then was when I started to 'get it'. Sure as hell wasn't anything I was going to do just sitting there, that was going to be any more embarrassing than that had been. So I guess I kind of forgot about being up-tight, and somehow it got to be more fun after that.

And along about the fifth inning, when one of the other Preventer guys hit a triple, we got our whole end of the bleachers to do the wave again.

I had never gotten that whole 'we' thing before when anybody had talked about the ball season. 'When do we play next?' and 'We won last night!' had always seemed kind of... presumptuous. Almost like whoever was talking was implying they were actually on the team themselves. I had always kind of felt like correcting them and pointing out that 'they' hadn't done jack shit, but... I felt it then. I understood it then.

There was an energy on that ball field that somehow we were a part of. Like... the louder and more vocal we were, the harder the guys played. In fact, that next time Heero's turn came around again, he hit a home run and when he got back to the bench after running the bases, there was a funny little exchange with Wufei that made me think he hadn't meant to do that.

Or maybe they were just commiserating with each other over the new 'wave' thing, because you know damn well Dave made us do it again.

We ended up winning six to three. The last catch was made, a whoop went up from the bleachers, and we did the wave one last time. Out on the field the two teams lined up and did this weird thing where the two rows walked past each other and they all shook hands. Our team went and clustered around the pitcher's mound afterward while the couch said a few words of some sort. Then there was a group high five and it was all over.

The crowd dispersed pretty quickly the minute the umpire had called the winner, and I found myself standing by the fence contemplating a long drive home alone. It was oddly unattractive after the time spent with the group. But then one of the guy's from the team walked by on his way to the concession stand and said, 'Hey, you're Duo, right?'

'Yeah?' I replied and he grinned.

'Yuy says not to leave without him, he needs a ride.'

I thanked him and he went on his way, message delivered. I really needed to make an effort to learn who these people were. They were all Heero's teammates after all, which implied a certain amount of friendship. I wondered if it was a workplace sort of friendship, or if it was a cook-out at Bob's house on Sunday sort of friendship. Should we be buying a grill?

I glanced after the messenger guy with a sudden pang of guilt. I should have asked for his name. Should have done a proper introduction. I'd missed an opportunity there, and it made me feel foolish. I had some social graces; where the hell had they all gone? This was a decently big part of Heero's life. I was pretty much married to the guy. I really should make more of an effort. Made me wonder... had all that time shying away from being an intrusion created a blind spot? Was I still shying?

Or... maybe just one game was a little soon to make that call.

When Heero had his gear gathered together and finally came walking across the diamond, I fell into step with him and we headed for the car. 'How did you get here if you didn't drive?' I had to ask, and I couldn't tell if the look I got was maybe a little bit sheepish.

'Wufei came by the house and picked me up,' he said, though I couldn't imagine why Wufei would have been in our neck of the woods in the first place. It made me wonder if Heero had called him out just so we could drive home together, so I ended up not asking.

'Nice homer, fly-boy. You mean to do that?' I asked him instead.

'You could tell?'

I snorted. 'It didn't take long to see you and Wufei were both holding back.'

He chuckled softly and damned if a faint blush didn't rise to his face. 'I got a little bit carried away. It was... nice having you here.'

I hadn't been expecting the comment, and it was my turn to blush. Kind of derailed the conversation too, but when I missed my turn, Heero picked up the slack.

'So, what do you want to do about dinner?'

'Uh... skip it?' I tried, feeling a little guilty for all the crap I'd just ingested. 'I somehow got coerced into a concession stand feeding frenzy.'

I got the raised eyebrow look for a second, but then he just smiled. 'Erin got you?'

'It was for charity,' I deadpanned and he laughed out right.

'Might as well get one for myself then, and we'll call it a night.' He gave me a nudge and we altered course for the concession stand. I couldn't help the double take and he grinned at me.

'We're here already,' he explained, but then added, 'and it's for charity... right?'

'I was railroaded,' I muttered as we walked up to the counter. Heero never answered because Erin greeted him as soon as she set eyes on us.

'Great hit, Heero!' she enthused. 'You want your usual?'

'Yes, please,' he replied, looking just a touch uncomfortable. 'And thanks.'

Erin bustled off and I took the moment to stare at Heero. 'You have a usual at a ball field concession stand?'

Heero's vaguely uncomfortable look eased over into something flirting with embarrassment. 'Well, we're here a lot...' he began, but allowed Red handing him a bottle of water to interrupt the thought. I just grinned at him and waited to see what was 'usual' for Heero Yuy. Who would have thought? I started to say something addressed to the nutrition nazi in him, but then thought better of it. If this was something he enjoyed, I certainly didn't want to make him feel funny about it.

Erin arrived back with a familiar object wrapped in paper and happily took Heero's money. He was carrying his glove, bat and bottle of water, so when she handed over the hot dog, I reached for it and she seemed to notice for the first time that we were together.

'Hey!' she grinned at me, 'so what did you think of your first ball game hot dog?'

'It was... interesting,' I hedged, cringing inwardly at the less than stellar wording, but she only grinned wider.

'Heero,' she suddenly admonished, looking from me, to the hot dog in my hand, to him. 'You are a rotten date! Aren't you even going to feed him?'

I'd have blushed furiously if she'd have given me the time, but she was already gone after my non-order. I felt kind of dumb just blinking at empty air, so I turned to blink at Heero instead. 'Uh... she did it again.'

He sighed and gave a little one shouldered shrug of apology. 'Well... it is supposed to be our dinner...'

I had to just about bite my tongue off, trying not to object strenuously, when she came back with a freaking sack. The look on my face must have been enough to convey the thought though, because I got pished and laughed at.

'This is on the house, sweetie,' she told me, leaning across the counter to pluck Heero's hot dog out of my hand and bag it with the rest of our dinner before handing me the whole thing. 'For being such a good sport before.' Then her smile took on this weird kind of maternal thing and I got a little wink. 'You know... everybody has to have a first ball game or a first hot dog at some point. No reason at all to feel embarrassed about it.'

I wasn't sure whether to thank her or scuff my feet in the dirt, but another victim crossed her line of sight and I was forgotten as she and Red began a tag-team effort to sell some poor sap a plate of those chips and a hot dog to boot. We used the moment to exit, stage right.

'So what'd you think?' Heero asked as we made our way toward the car.

'Weird?' I blurted before I had much chance to think about it. I kind of understand how that word association thing can trip you up.

But Heero just laughed. 'Is that your favorite word, or what?'

It made me stop and think, kind of detouring the topic onto a completely different track. 'I do use it a lot, don't I? At least... since coming to live dirtside.'

Because, you know, everything about dirtside was kind of weird. Weather and bugs and timetables and neighbor kids and possums and just all of it. I was getting used to a lot, but that didn't make it any less weird.

Several people called out to Heero to congratulate him on the win as we made our way across the field, and we were in the car doling out the eats before I quite realized it. Erin had packed another Mt. Dew in with the hot dogs, along with a couple of little bags of chips and a candy bar. A full meal, I suppose, if you squinted and kind of looked at it sideways. Probably not any worse than some of the other meals we'd had since starting down the road of kitchen renovation. Another thing to add to the list of weirdness; you certainly couldn't remodel a ship. Repaint, maybe, or add amenities, but a bulk head was a bulk head and you just didn't go around making major structural changes.

'Duo,' Heero said, a kind of careful gentleness to his tone, 'did you really have that bad a time?'

'What?' I said, looking up at him sharply. 'No! It was fun! Well... most of it. That wave thing was kind of embarrassing at first, but the rest was good. Why? What makes you think I had a bad time?'

I realized he'd been sitting there kind of watching me, and I think he realized that I realized, so he went back to unwrapping his dinner. 'You're awfully quiet.'

The line of cars trying to get the hell out of Dodge meant there was no real hurry; we weren't going anywhere for a bit, so I unwrapped my hot dog too. I was surprised to find it plain, and thought that might actually make the thing more palatable.

'I'm sorry; just thinking I guess,' I told him, and kind of felt like that needed more clarification. Thinking could mean a lot, and not necessarily in a good way. 'That guy you sent to tell me not to leave... who was that?'

'Thorpe,' he told me, looking at me quizzically. 'Plays left field.'

'He another agent?' I asked, trying to fit the guy into the framework of our work life. Heero's work life.

'Janitorial staff,' he corrected and I took a moment to peer over at his hot dog to find out what his 'usual' was. Just a dusting of shredded cheese and lettuce of all things. Should have known Heero would try to make it somehow nutritionally balanced.

'Are there team... things?' I asked, catching him in mid bite, and I had to wait while he chewed and swallowed.

'Things?' he prompted.

'You know... cookouts and group stuff?'

I could see him struggling to follow my leap-frog thinking, but he finally sighed and admitted, 'You've lost me.'

I studiously bent to opening my bag of chips so I didn't have to meet his gaze while I confessed. 'Ok... look, I'm worried that you're skipping out on some of the team social stuff because of me. You guys are a team, aren't there... group things?'

He actually snorted derisively, 'God, no!' he blurted and then managed to look a little embarrassed. 'I mean, they're great guys and all, but we get more than enough togetherness during the season. There might be a pizza party or something if we win the league, but... no.'

'Oh,' I said and couldn't decide if that was a relief or if that was maybe a little sad. Kind of tarnished the whole 'team' image, quite frankly.

There was a beep of a horn and I glanced up to see that the line of exiting traffic had paused because somebody was letting us out. I popped the car into gear and let Heero wave our thanks, pulling quickly out into the stream.

We drove in silence for a bit, inching along with the other cars down the access road waiting our turn to pull out onto the actual road. I quickly finished my dinner while we were still creeping along at a walking pace, deciding that if I were to have a 'usual' at a hot dog stand, it would be plain. Thing was actually not all that bad without all the crap on it.

But my thoughts were still chasing after each other and I couldn't quite let go of a couple of them. 'Heero?' I heard myself suddenly ask, 'why in the hell am I still working in the motor pool?'

From Heero's side of the car there was a lack of response that was more quiet than silent. I risked a glance that way and found a funny little look on his face that was kind of melancholy and kind of pleased and kind of... not so much.

He took a slow drink from his water while, I suspect, he formulated some response, so I reached for the soda I hadn't really intended to drink and did the same.

Yeah; a whole lot of not much being said there. Guess he didn't have a clue either. I decided to save him from having to work through the etiquette of that kind of reply.

'Am I really just hiding out?' I asked, taking a swallow of my drink and capping the bottle before settling it back between my thighs.

Beside me there was the sound of a slowly let out breath. 'Duo... what brought this all on?'

I opened my mouth to tell him about the conversation with Griff, but then thought that was perhaps not the brightest thing I could do for the health of my boss. One thing for Heero to think his little fledgling had climbed up on the side of the nest all by himself, quite another for him to realize I'd had the edge of the nest pointed out to me. And was about to be kicked off it.

'Lot of things,' I lied, and then thought again and realized I wasn't really lying. That moment on the bleachers when I'd had the weird feeling (I really do just love that word, don't I?) that the guys were arranged around me as a buffer, was kind of part of it.

Heero was doing his own deliberating I think, from the time it was taking him to form his answers, so I was kind of expecting one of those carefully worded nothing lines. One of those ones that just tosses back at you things you'd already said, only in a slightly different format? Surprised me when he said, 'You needed some time and some stability to find your ground again.'

Kind of cemented in my mind the theory that he'd strong-armed the Preventers into giving me that job. I knew how Heero was about things he felt I needed. Not that I was going to ask. But getting around that point and on to a point that could be verbalized must have taken me too long.

'Duo,' he asked carefully, 'Are you thinking about quitting?'

I mulled at that, and supposed it was the obvious conclusion after the previous epiphanic realization. I did manage to bite my tongue on the 'two steps ahead of being fired' comment. 'Maybe?' I hedged, but then had to admit to being a little bit more on the positive side of that. 'I guess... maybe it's getting to be time?'

'You don't sound like you want to,' he was quick to point out, and I stalled with another swallow of my soda because I had to kind of think about that. Well, think about that some more. Sort of what I'd been doing all afternoon, and pretty much why we were having this conversation in the first place.

'I guess I'm just having trouble visualizing the what comes next part, is all,' I said, and he appeared to be doing his own stalling, because he suddenly decided he needed to gather together all the dinner trash and stuff it in the now empty sack.

'You know I'll support whatever you decide,' he finally told me, though he certainly didn't have to... it was a thing he'd told me before. On several occasions.

'That would probably be easier if I'd actually decide something, huh?' I grinned and he let out with a dry little chuckle.

'There's no rush,' he soothed and I left him that fantasy. He didn't need to know I was on Griff's timetable now.

Was that part of what was eating at me? I always have had problems with being told what to do; been a rebel since day one. Maybe it was just some knee jerk habit that was making me resist taking a step that was probably in my best interest just because somebody else had presented the idea to me, instead of me making the decision on my own.

It's not like my mechanic's salary was so screamingly awesome that I couldn't afford to walk away from it. Mr. Lee had demonstrated with that last job, that I had other options that would compensate me better than busting my knuckles all day. Though that art gig wasn't exactly what you'd call steady. Maybe it was more the lure of the reliable paycheck?

Now that I thought about it, art commissions were a damn lot like running salvage had been; you had your windfalls, and you had your lean times. The trick had always been working the angles and stacking the jobs; bringing in the most profit while minimizing the expenses. Sometimes it had been exciting and sometimes it had been nerve wracking and I guess maybe, looking back, I could kind of admit that I really didn't miss the nerve wracking parts.

Funny though... Heero had said I needed stability. But that's not really something I'd ever had before. There wasn't any aspect of my childhood that could exactly be called constant. And I'd moved straight from there into that whole Gundam pilot thing, which was probably the heart and soul of instability. And then on to salvage work. Maybe by the time Heero'd plopped me down in the motor pool, I'd been more than ready for something that required a little less fancy footwork. A little less adrenaline.

And maybe that's what was making this jump so hard to take; I think I kind of liked stable.

I glanced across at Heero and couldn't help a smile. If there was any steadiness in my life, it was sitting right next to me.

'There's no rush,' I agreed, 'but I think I'm ready to start thinking about it.'

The comment got me that strange little smile again, the one that couldn't seem to decide if it was pleased, or if it was sad.

'Guess it's time I figured out what I want to be when I grow up,' I chuckled, and tried on a couple of titles in my head. If I wasn't going to be a mechanic, and the whole Sketch Artist thing wouldn't have been a full time gig anyway, did that leave me with Artist by default? Not steady, but potentially profitable. Though that brought on another thought and I glanced across at Heero again, catching him with that faint line between his brows that he gets sometimes, and his mouth open working with words. I didn't figure it was going to be anything that really needed to be said, so went ahead with my thought; 'Crap, Heero... will you be able to carry me on your insurance?'

It made him blink, the faint line getting more pronounced and driving off whatever he'd been about to say. 'I think so. Though... we'll have to do something a little bit more official.'

That would be good, because if there was anybody in the Earth Sphere who needed health insurance, it was yours truly. Though... half my damn wardrobe was full of crap with the Preventer logo on it; guess I'd be turning all that in. But wow... I could stop living life based entirely on what time the clock said, that would be kind of nice. Though, I'd miss the drive in to work with Heero; it had sort of grown into a companionable time.

Beside me, there was the sound of a heavy, slightly frustrated sigh.

'What?' I asked, though traffic had picked up and I couldn't really look at him to gage what was going on in his head.

'Could you slow down a little, please?' he asked, his tone giving me another hint of frustration. My foot came off the gas, but when I glanced down at the speedometer, I was only doing the speed limit.

'Not your driving,' Heero corrected, 'your thinking.'

I flashed a grin that I hoped he caught in profile. 'Sorry.'

'You just went from maybe to plotting your resignation letter in less than two seconds.'

Resignation letter? I wondered if I actually had to produce one since I'd sort of been told I was going to resign. That would suck. Maybe I'd make Griff write it for me.

'I guess I just accepted the inevitable,' I said, trying to follow my leap-frog thinking back to the moment when I had done so, and not really being able to see it. We'd left the highway and with the lightened traffic, I took the opportunity for another swallow of soda and was surprised to find it was the last of it. I held the empty bottle out so that Heero could stuff it in the sack with the rest of the trash. There was a sigh of a different tone than I'd been getting.

'Duo,' he asked carefully, 'just how many of these have you had to drink today?'

'Huh?' I said brightly. 'Uhm... I dunno? Three, I guess?' Though it was more like three and a half since my lunch had come with a drink. I don't really like the Coke products that the Andover carries, but I usually drank some of it before getting my own drink afterward. So yeah... half a cup of Coke, a can and two bottles of Mt. Dew. Oooops?

'Certainly explains your... level of twitchiness,' he said drily.

'Sorry,' I muttered, feeling just a little bit embarrassed by the excess. 'I really didn't mean to drink that last one.'

He let it go; I suspect he'd finally picked up on how his tendency to nag at my vices firmly poked my tendency to get rebellious about it. 'So,' he said instead, 'you're really planning on quitting?'

Driving through a residential area, I was able to look over at him, worried that he was upset by the notion, but all I could see was a thoughtful expression. 'Unless you mind?'

He snorted. 'Of course not.'

Under the 'shit or get off the pot' circumstances... that was good.

'It's just kind of scary,' I admitted to the both of us. 'I still have trouble believing this whole 'art' thing can really pan out. I can't help feeling like I need a day job.'

I was kind of caught by surprise when he burst out with a laugh. He cut it off pretty quickly, and I don't think he'd intended it at all. 'After that check you got from Mr. Lee? Duo, that job didn't take you more than a week and you brought in more money than you could have made in months at that day job. I cannot believe that you still do not understand how talented you are.'

The comment just made me squirm, and since we had arrived in front of our house, I was able to ignore it while we parked and got out of the car.

I gathered the trash, Heero gathered his gear and we went in the house with the subject pretty much dropped. Especially once we were inside and I remembered that there had been workers in our house all day and that (hopefully) progress had been made.

'Oh wow,' I said, when the lights had been flipped on, 'it's actually starting to look like a kitchen again!'

And even better, the refrigerator was no longer sitting in the middle of the room, but was in its new home. Most of the cabinets were actually in place, though they still looked almost skeletal without the countertop to hide the guts and framework. But the form of the whole thing was really starting to show. I was pleased to decide that the new layout was not going to suck.

'The manager said the counters should be here tomorrow and the sink will be ready before the end of the week,' Heero informed me with just the vaguest hint of a self-satisfied tone. I wondered again just what he'd threatened them with, but wasn't sure I wanted to know.

'They could actually be done and the hell out of here this week,' I said, probably pretty unnecessarily. But it was a thought that was really damned attractive and I couldn't quite help voicing it. No more Larry and Darryl in my house all day. No more burnt vacation days for Heero. No more sawdust and paint fumes. No more clutter of tools and crap everywhere.

Normal again. Which would be like... Nirvana. Homeowner Nirvana.

'I can not wait,' Heero muttered and we just stood there looking around at our 'getting there' kitchen for a minute, basking in the glow of almost there.

Heero broke the moment first, seeming to shake it off like he didn't want to get too used to the idea in case something else went wrong. 'I'm going to start a load of laundry; I'm going to need my ball clothes again before the end of the week.'

'Hang on and let me grab what's up in the laundry basket,' I said and headed up to do just that. I shucked what I was wearing into the pile and then tossed it all down the stairs to Heero. He'd already done his own shucking and while the laundry did get started, what came after was probably pretty predictable.

And probably just as predictable, but somehow I hadn't... was finding myself wide awake and staring at the ceiling afterward. Heero'd dropped off almost immediately and was sleeping the sleep of the dead beside me, but I was suffering the consequences of partaking in excess from the caffeine pool. There was certainly no danger, but I definitely had a buzz.

I gave it up for a lost cause pretty quickly and slipped back out of bed, taking the clothes I'd laid out for the next day, and padding silently out of the room.

I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.

I briefly considered soaking in a hot bath, but really... nothing was going to cure my current state other than time. Besides, my running bathwater at that hour would probably have disturbed Heero. So instead I went down to see if there was anything worth watching on late night television with the sound turned off. I managed about twenty minutes of something that involved dragging what appeared to be vampires out into the sunlight where they combusted in an impressive manner, before I couldn't sit still anymore.

It crossed my mind to go for a jog, but... well, we'd already demonstrated that physical activity wasn't going to burn this twitchiness off. And it probably would have just alarmed the neighbors if anybody noticed me.

I wandered into the kitchen, having to turn the light on to make sure I didn't plow into anything, and found myself standing in front of the fridge suddenly aware I was pretty damn thirsty.

The bottle of soda was uncapped and I'd actually taken a swallow before it trickled up to my conscious brain that it was probably a pretty bad idea.

'Ya think?' Solo snorted, sitting somewhere behind me on a counter that wasn't there yet. 'Really?'

'Shut up, smartass,' I muttered and put the bottle back, trading it for a couple of gulps from the water pitcher.

'And here I thought ya was a bright kid, back in the day,' he drawled, slipping off the counter-that-wasn't to follow me as I stalked back out of the room. 'Who'da thought you'd grow up all stupid?'

I ignored him, making my way out to my studio, turning the lights out behind me as I went, so that I could sit on the counter in the dark and look out into the back yard. Wasn't much to see; a few faint stars and the shadowy fronds of the willow blowing gently in the night air. I just sat for a bit, feeling the slightly increased thump of my heart, trying vaguely to slow it down, and of course not being able to.

So, ok... maybe it was time to admit that the soda thing might be something of an addiction. And maybe it was time I stopped being stubborn for the sake of stubbornness and started thinking about giving the crap up. There was certainly enough evidence that it wasn't exactly a health food.

'No shit, Sherlock,' Solo laughed, having settled on the couch with his feet up on the arm, his own arms behind his head, annoying smirk firmly in place. 'Hey, Rat-boy? Who the hell is Sherlock anyway?'

I blinked at the change of topic, kind of surprised that he wasn't going to harp on the soda thing more, but then I guess he should understand my rebellious streak even better than Heero, since I'd probably learned it from him.

'Really old character from a book,' I told him absently. 'Sherlock Holmes. Detective type of stuff.'

'How come you never read it to me?' he asked and I began to make a retort about how I never read him shit, but I suppose anything I read, he read by default. Living, the way he did, in my head.

'Maybe I will,' I said, reflecting that it would probably be just the sort of thing to send off to the kids when I was done. I needed to do some research on bookstores in the area; most of the ones I used to frequent were on various colonies. On-line ordering is fine, but I kind of like to get my hands on certain things before I bought. Feel the heft. Riffle the pages. Peek inside. Toria had tried to talk me into electronic reading more than once, but it's just not the same thing at all.

I got up to go get my laptop, wondering about book stores and the differences between second hand and antiques. Collectible and just old. But I was pretty sure I'd left it in the study, and the thought of making the trek back up the stairs without disturbing Heero wasn't all that attractive. That left me standing in the middle of the room in the dark.

'Wish ya'd settle the hell down,' Solo muttered. 'Yer wearin' me out.'

It made me start to apologize, which was just stupid, so I went and turned on the lights, grabbed a sketch pad and threw myself down on the couch, making him disappear.

'Jerk,' he said from nowhere.

'Asshole,' I replied.

Really, if I was going to be sitting up half the night coming down off a caffeine high, there were other things besides pre-colony fiction that needed my attention, fractured as it was.

I had agreed to a commission that I still had not a clue how to go about filling, and if I was contemplating leaving that stable mechanic's paycheck behind... I could not afford to screw this up.

Not to even mention letting Wufei down.

Or failing Aleyah.

I flipped to a blank page and put a pencil against it, waiting with bated breath for something to happen.

Or... you know... having to hear Stan Kirby say 'I told you so' in that God damn disdainful tone of voice of his.

'He's a jerk too,' Solo supplied from the ether, sounding like he was yawning around the words.

I just snorted, staring at the blank sheet until I was seeing the grain of the damn paper. And not much else.

I wondered if there existed anywhere in the known universe, a list of the names of the people who died on that colony?

I decided that I would sketch Master Long, since nothing else was coming to mind, just to completely exorcise the idea. I'd recognized it as a bad one, Solo had agreed with me, but it somehow still occupied that place in my brain where ideas were born. I needed to kick it out and move on. Because there needed to be an idea here that didn't suck. And soon.

I kept thinking about the notion of a list of names. Could there possibly be one somewhere? And how the hell long could it be? I don't think I could get my head around the numbers even if I knew them. And it shouldn't be numbers. L5 was not about statistics. That was the whole point here. My job was to make this human. To help other people get their heads around a thing so huge I couldn't get my own head around it. Sure... no problem.

I really, really wanted to go back to the kitchen and get that bottle of soda.

On the page under my hand Master Long stared up at me, looking confused by that thought. Stared up with his little froggy eyes, his little webbed hands sticking out of robes that were pooled around his squat little froggy body, sitting on his little froggy lily pad.

Ok... idea completely and totally exorcised.

Solo just about hurt himself laughing.

I flipped the page and moved on.

There was a monument in the distant past, for a war that America involved itself in. A tiny war, really, in the grand scheme of the history that man had made since then. At the time, though, it had been one of the most devastating, dragging out for decades. I'd seen pictures of the monument though, and it had stuck with me. Might still be there, for all I knew. If I remembered right, there had been over fifty thousand names on that wall, and I couldn't help wondering how that compared to the tragedy of L5.

I'd only seen photographs of The Wall, but... damn thing had moved me to tears anyway. It was a profound thing, doing what I wanted to do in the simplest of ways. Making it real. Giving it perspective. What if there was a list somewhere? What if the names were there for the finding?

On the paper, I did that vanishing point thing and made a wall that could have been a mile long. How many miles would it take to list all the names of all the people who died when that button was pushed?

And... just how portable would that be?

Oh yeah. I had guidelines here, didn't I? And something the size of a small town was not exactly portable. And this wasn't supposed to be a remembrance so much as a message. Keep on track here, Maxwell.

My eyes felt like they had sandpaper in them, but I could still feel the vague throb of my own pulse, and I wondered what the hell time it was. Stretching my memory a little, I called up the blurb from the paperwork Aleyah had given me from the gallery; '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.'

No... this wasn't a remembrance of the destruction of L5. This was a remembrance of the people of L5. The spirit of L5. Wufei's people. Somehow, I kept forgetting that; this wasn't about death, it was about life. About spirit. About... standing up for what you believe in. About peace and... and... I just wasn't quite sure. It felt like I had everything I needed to do this job, right there in front of me, but somehow just wasn't quite putting it all together.

I felt entirely too small to be entrusted with this message. Who in the hell was Duo Maxwell to attempt to stand up and speak for these people? It wasn't even my culture, and maybe that was going to make it so that I never really could understand. Hell... Wufei had never really understood the mind-set, how in the hell could I hope to?

Honor is a fine thing. A noble thing. But my own personal code of honor wasn't quite as regimented as, I suspect, Master Long's had been. I'd bet money that pick-pocketing, even for children on the verge of starvation, would have been severely frowned upon.

Made me think of Father Maxwell; the first time I'd met the man, I'd plowed him over running away from a fruit vender with pilfered fruit clutched in my hand. In my head, I substituted Master Long for Father Maxwell, and the incident played out completely differently. I ended up on my ass on the ground instead of the other way around, then I was taken by the ear and marched back to return the fruit and apologize. At the very least.

No, I somehow didn't think Wufei's people would have found my scrappy, scruffy self as endearing as Father and Sister Helen had.

What gave me the right?

Then I heard Wufei's voice in the back of my head; 'If it's going to happen, I want you to be the one to do it. I trust you.'

Oh, yeah... I was under orders. And if there was a soul alive who had the right to have that say... it was Chang Wufei.

The paper under my hands had turned into the sun rising over the curve of a colony zenith, light flaring outward but not enough to eclipse the stars. L5, apparently, in better days. I fiddled with it, but it wasn't going to be any help. Somehow, I didn't think that producing a replica of the actual colony was quite what my employers had in mind.

Though... what about a scale model? The surface engraved with the names of all the dead? Assuming those names existed? I'd heard of the Lord's prayer being engraved on the head of a pin, so surely you could...

Wait... I'd already decided that was the wrong track... hadn't I?

'Yer running in circles, kid,' Solo chuckled, not bothering to reappear. 'How 'bout ya shut off the damn lights and go the hell to bed. And get off mine.'

'You sleep here?' I asked, kind of stupefied. 'You sleep at all?' Ghosts slept? Wait... he was a figment of my imagination anyway. He should only sleep when I slept. Sort of.

'Exactly!' he pointed out triumphantly and I couldn't think of an argument.

'Oh shut up,' I grumbled, my exasperation with the project getting the best of me. 'I have to fucking figure this out. If you want to sleep, go use the other couch.'

He didn't reply in a rather pointed, dead silent manner, which really wasn't much like him, so I looked up to see if maybe he'd appeared somewhere to flip me off... and found Heero standing on the step at the door of the room, dressed for the day.

'The hell?' I muttered and turned to look at the windows beside me, suddenly aware that it was starting to get light out. 'Well crap,' was all I could think to say.

'Duo,' Heero asked in this wary kind of way, 'have you been down here all night?'

'Uh... apparently?' I ventured, not entirely sure how he was going to take that. There was the predictable sigh, but the vaguely cautious look didn't go away and I realized that he'd caught me sitting there talking to... myself.

I hoped the light wasn't good enough for him to see the blush, because it felt pretty spectacular. I heard Solo's snicker echo in the back of my head.

Heero didn't quite seem to know what to make of the admission and I tossed my sketch pad down on the couch. 'I couldn't sleep after all the stupid soda. I thought I'd just work on commission sketches for a little while until the caffeine wore off, but...' I shrugged helplessly; the rest seemed pretty obvious to me and probably didn't need further explanation.

He sighed again, shaking his head and seeming to decide to let the other go without comment, for which I was grateful. That was an introduction that I was not likely to ever make.

Heero, this is Solo. Solo.... Heero.

Duo, there's nobody here but you and me.

Solo says he's happy to finally officially meet you.

Duo... baby... why don't you just sit down here...

Solo, don't call me an idiot!

Oh God, Duo... you just sit here and I'll be right back...

No, not ever going to happen. No way in hell.

Heero did seem to be working around at words that he was having trouble with though, and on the off chance that he was going to address the one-sided conversations that I really, really needed to stop having... I jumped in first with a topic change.

'There is absolutely no way I'm going to work today,' I stated, remembering the last time I'd tried while sleep deprived. 'Would you mind calling me off sick or something?'

Heero looked relieved, and I realized that's probably what he'd been struggling with; fighting his instinct to tell me I wasn't going to work. Because we all know what happens when you tell Duo Maxwell to do something... the exact opposite is the more than likely out-come.

'No problem at all,' he said and then grinned. 'I'll just tell Griff it was something you ate.'

I wondered how my not showing up for work on the heels of the conversation I'd had with my boss the previous afternoon was going to fly, but what the hell? Not like he didn't have a garage full of other guys to pick up the slack, and he might as well get used to my not being around since that seemed to be the goal here.

Heero had wandered off to the kitchen to use the phone to make the call, and I could hear the murmur of his voice before long. Sort of came to me then that I had access to my laptop again, without the risk of waking Heero up, so I headed upstairs. I took a moment to stop off in the bathroom and had to note as I passed the mirror that I rather looked like a hung-over raccoon. A frazzled, hung-over raccoon.

I was getting entirely too old for this sort of crap.

I distinctly remember getting my laptop and sitting on the bed in the guest room with it, I remember discovering that the average population of a standard Lagrange colony was one and a half million people. I vaguely remember turning my searches to Chinese culture and then... it all gets beyond vague.

I woke up to find Long Meilan standing beside the bed, staring down at me imperiously, the ghosts of one and a half million of her people arranged behind her, all of them staring at me... waiting for me to get my head out of my ass and figure out what in the hell I was doing.

'Do somethin', Rat-boy... she's scary,' Solo whispered inside my ear and there was a sudden loud bang of a noise and I started awake to find myself curled up around a laptop that had long ago gone to sleep, and the room blessedly empty.

'Oh Jesus Christ,' I croaked to the nobody who was listening. 'I can not do this alone.'

There was another of those loud bangs and I figured out that a great deal of time had passed and there were people in my house, working in my kitchen.

My head was pounding, my mouth was pasty, and my eyes were full of the wisps of fading dreams.

I woke the laptop long enough to check the time, surprised as hell to find it was after noon. I wondered how in the hell I'd slept through the construction work and hoped that Heero hadn't been making the poor guys work quietly so as not to disturb me. I took the laptop to the desk to charge, then took myself off to the bathroom to make myself presentable before venturing downstairs.

I found Heero in the living room, ensconced with this own laptop, looking like he was in his work email. Made me feel kind of stupid; there was really no reason that we both needed to be home to mind the workers; since I'd ended up calling out, if I'd managed to stay awake, Heero could have gone in. I didn't bother to mention it, since it was obviously too damn late anyway, just smiled and gave him a wry 'good morning' as I shuffled through to the kitchen.

The hammering that had been happening came to a stop as I entered the room and all three of the guys stopped to stare at me a little bit apprehensively.

'Uh... hey, Mr. Maxwell,' Larry said, kind of looking like he wished he could step away from me. 'Mr. Yuy said you were sick?'

I snorted and made for the refrigerator. 'More like hung-over,' I assured him, and they did indeed all three look a little bit relieved that I was not harboring some hideous germ. 'Carry on,' I smiled, and went ahead and fetched that bottle of soda from the fridge, snagged a ration bar from the box on top while I was there, and shuffled back out of the room. The hammering resumed as soon as I was gone from the construction site.

I got the heavy sigh as I came back through the living room and I just held up a hand. 'Don't start, Yuy,' I grumbled. 'I've accepted that the stuff has got to go. Or at least got to be cut back on. But this day is not going to happen without. Hair of the dog, and all that.'

He couldn't seem to figure out if he should be grinning at me or lecturing me or just what, but I wasn't hanging around, I had a date with a pissy chick and didn't want to debate my dietary habits at the moment. Those wisps of dreams were trying to be something, and I didn't want to lose them.

Ms. Long was trying to tell me something, and since nobody else had been a shit ton of help on this project... I was inclined to listen.

I wasn't ready for paint just yet, but it seemed like something I should be on my feet to accomplish, so I set one of the biggest sketch pads I had on my easel and ate my breakfast while I laid out my pencils and thought about the young lady that had been staring at me this morning. Because it had been a young lady, and not that kid that I'd seen in the census database. When my hands were free, I put pencil to paper and the first thing that appeared were those piercing, judgmental, impatient eyes. Because the eyes would be the same. But the face would be more this way. And the hair more that. There was that trace of her mother, and there that hint of her father. And somehow or other, there was the spirit of Wufei in the expression.

'You are not my ghost,' I told the canvas, 'but you will speak to me.'

And she did. Through the pencil and through my hand. Through my head that was full of my dreams and Wufei's memories; she took over that piece of paper and I swear, in one moment between strokes of the line, I thought she drew breath. And when she was done, we stared at each other and the entire world was afraid to come into the room.

She was the persona of strength and stubbornness. Full of a beauty of spirit that out-shone anything of the flesh. She was imperious and impatient and demanding of action. She laughed at my doubts, and mocked my hesitation at the same time that she disdained my audacity. Who was I to do this thing?

And I remembered the message that had rung in my head when I'd first woken up... I could not do this thing alone. This needed more than just my voice.

When I turned away from the stare of those dark eyes, it was late enough that the remodeling crew had all gone home for the day. I have no idea what Heero thought when I stormed through the living room in search of my cell phone, but he seemed to be making an effort to stay out of my way. I wondered if he'd watched me while I'd worked, because I know he has some fascination with the process, but couldn't tell.

I dialed Aleyah's number and suddenly wasn't even sure if that number was a cell phone or office phone or just what. It only rang twice before she picked up.

'Aleyah, I've got to talk to you,' I blurted when she'd given me that breezy little hello. 'Where are you?'

I caught her, for the briefest moment, without an easy retort and it made me want to laugh. Or mark the air with a finger tip, tallying up the score, because I'm pretty sure it was a first for me. 'Pet,' she admonished gently, 'this had best not be bad news...'

'Nothing like that,' I cut her off, 'but I really want to talk to you about this project. Do you have time...?'

'So impertinent!' she huffed, managing to sound more amused than annoyed. It kind of made me want to hesitate; I probably was being pretty rude, but... you don't hesitate in the face of Aleyah Winner or all is lost.

'It shouldn't take too long,' I said, trying for a tone that was a little less impatient. It made her laugh.

'All right, my dear,' she said, 'come down to the gallery. I'll tell the front desk to send you up to my office.'

'Yes Ma'am,' I replied, making it sound like it was all her idea to begin with. She still sounded amused when we signed off, so I guess I hadn't pushed things too far.

Heero had been standing there listening to me, and when I finished and pocketed the phone, he gave me a lop-sided smile. 'Have some sort of break-through?'

'Or breakdown,' I quipped, and it made him come around the couch and take me in his arms.

'Going out,' he observed. 'Want me to come with?'

'This might end up taking awhile,' I had to tell him. 'I've got an idea I want to sell Aleyah on, and... well... you know Aleyah.'

I could tell he wanted to ask, but could sense I wasn't quite ready to share, so he just gave me a quick kiss and let me go.

The drive into town was uneventful, thankfully, because my thoughts were mostly turned inward and I don't remember much of it.

I didn't recognize the girl working the front desk, but she just verified I knew the way and waved me through, looking bored with the whole day. I didn't seem to make much of an impression, but then again... she hadn't had to ask my name.

When I got up to the second floor, I realized I didn't have a clue where Aleyah's actual office was. I'd only been there the one time, and had only been shown to the... whatever it had been. Conference room?

I took a leap of faith when I stepped out of the elevator and assumed it was the open doorway with the little dog sitting in front of it, giving me the cocked head look.

Coquette gave a little yip of a bark, as though warning her owner that someone was coming. I heard Aleyah's voice respond, just as though they were carrying on a conversation. 'Yes, darling... we're expecting Mr. Maxwell.'

It kind of made me want to laugh, but then... at least she wasn't talking to dead people, so I probably couldn't mock.

The darn dog stepped out of the way as I approached, just as though bowing me into the room, then following me in.

The office was kind of what I'd expected and... kind of not. The décor was an impeccable mix of old world and ultra modern. Tasteful to a fault. Form and function blended to a perfect balance. It made a pretty bizarre contrast with the half a dozen dog toys strewn across the floor and the doggie bed in the corner behind the desk with the somewhat well-used knitted doggie blanket.

'Come in, darling!' Aleyah called from her position behind the big ass desk in the middle of the room. There wasn't a trace of anything as mundane as paperwork on that desk, so God only knew what the woman was still doing in the office at that hour. 'Tell Aleyah what is so important it couldn't wait another moment.'

I hesitated on my side of the desk; she hadn't offered me a seat after all, and tried to figure out how to start this conversation. I guess presentation might have been something to work on during the drive, huh? 'It's about this project...'

She gave me an impatient wave toward the chairs facing her, and I took one while she said, 'I certainly hope you are not here to tell me you've changed your mind...'

'No!' I cut her off, and kind of wanted to wince. I sat back and took a breath, reflecting that doing this on four hours sleep was perhaps not the brightest idea I'd ever had. 'No, nothing like that at all.'

'Then what has you in such a tizzy, Pet?' she wanted to know, looking amused again, which was probably good. Rather amused than pissed.

I took another deep breath and tried to get my thoughts lined up into something resembling an order. 'This project is huge,' I informed her and did wince that time, at the total 'no duh?' of the line. All I got was a raised eyebrow, so I stumbled on. 'It's really too big for just one person...'

And that got me a narrow eyed look that was bordering on not happy. 'Darling, I explained that you will have a team of craftsman doing the actual sculpting and...'

'Not the nuts and bolts stuff,' I blurted, getting frustrated with my own lack of preparation for this meeting. I should have waited another day, gotten a decent night's sleep. Thought a little harder about just what I wanted to get across.

'Mr. Maxwell,' Aleyah said, 'just what is it you are trying to impart?'

I found myself on my feet and paced away a few steps; maybe not just sitting there under that unhappy gaze would make my brain function better. Something on the floor squeaked alarmingly, and I looked down to find a bright green dog bone. Coquette darted in to rescue her toy from under the feet of the big mean artist, and retreated with it to her bed, glaring at me the whole time.

'Sorry,' I muttered and then shook myself. 'Look, Aleyah, this... message is too big for just me. I'm not even from the right culture. And trying to say everything that needs to be said in just one sculpture is just... not gonna happen.'

There was a noise that I had never heard Aleyah make before that I took to be the throttling of utter frustration. 'Darling... Pet, are you quitting this project or not?'

'Not,' I said firmly, and whirled around to pace behind the chair I was supposed to be sitting in, mindful of the toys on the floor. 'Wufei already told me I have to. But... this is too big for just one guy. Wufei says I was a part of it, and that gives me the... the... duty to do this, but it doesn't give me the voice.'

I probably sounded like a raving lunatic, but oddly... Aleyah didn't question what in the hell I was talking about. 'And where are we to find this... voice?'

'L5,' I blurted and damned if that didn't get me two raised eyebrows. I rushed on before she could call me crazy. 'This needs to be bigger than just some statue. This needs to be a whole show.'

I wanted to take a moment and tally up another point, because I'd made the woman search for words twice in one day. 'Go on...' was all she ended up saying, something calculating going on behind her eyes.

'Think about it, Aleyah... people don't just pop into and out of existence in the spot they were born. People travel... people visit... people move.' I was pacing again, arms waving while I tried to encompass the entire universe. In her corner, Coquette gave her toy a couple of hard chews and it squeaked in defense. 'There are survivors out there. The original culture still exists in China; the entire nation didn't take to the stars when the migration happened.'

'And you think your voices are there?' she asked, sounding intrigued and I threw myself back down in the chair opposite hers, leaning in to go after that spark of interest.

'Damn straight!' I said. 'That colony was a center of learning; those were an artistic, proud people... and they've got a lot to say in this. It's not right that I'm doing all the talking here; this monument might end up being the centerpiece but it should be just a part of a much, much bigger message.'

I shut up then, seeing that the spark was flaring into real interest; didn't want to fan it so hard that I just blew it out.

'An intriguing idea, Pet,' she murmured in an absent sort of way that let me know she was thinking and thinking hard.

There was a part of me that wanted to drag the woman downstairs and make her show me just how big we could make that gallery space. Wanted to talk about color and form and music and layout, but... that wouldn't be my part anyway, even if this mad plan took flight.

When her eyes focused on me again, she gave me a tiny little smile and simply said, 'I like it.'

I couldn't help the grin, it felt like the moment you heard the reinforcements coming over the hill and knew you weren't in the fight alone anymore. Though I had to confess, 'I don't have a clue how to make it happen.'

The tiny smile turned just a little bit self-satisfied. 'That, Sweet, would be my job. You just go back to your studio and do yours.'

'Yes Ma'am,' I said, recognizing a dismissal when I heard one (I was getting really good at them). I stood back up, thinking that I could very well have brought Heero with me after all... the whole meeting hadn't taken a fraction of the time I'd feared it would. I'd been prepared to keep arguing until I'd won the day. Had somehow not occurred to me that it wasn't going to be a fight in the first place. I stopped in the doorway and glanced back at my patron.

'Where were you?' I asked, catching her by surprise once again. That self-satisfied smile faded away, and for the merest moment there was something in her eyes that seemed... steel sharp.

When she spoke, I somehow knew she wasn't going to tell me a damn thing. 'Heavens, Pet,' she said. 'So long ago... who remembers?'

I didn't bother to refute, just gave her an inclination of the head that I hoped clearly conveyed that I wasn't buying what she was selling, but I wasn't going to argue the point. The smile she gave me in return might have been grateful. Almost. I noticed though, that Coquette wasn't looking at me... she was watching Aleyah.

I took my leave.

There wasn't anything screamingly pressing waiting at home; just dinner and getting ready for work the next day. And maybe more angsting over the actual sculpture design that I had not yet managed to pull out of my ass. So I took a few extra minutes to take the long way out of the gallery, wandering through to look at the exhibit of the mysterious Rain.

I'd never paid much attention to abstract art; it just seemed kind of... haphazard to me. The slopping of paint in the general direction of canvas. Something any motivated monkey could do, but... well... there was something to the choices of color. Proportions and blending. The show was... odd. I was rather surprised to find that individual pieces made me feel emotion from nothing more than the use of certain colors together, or the sweep of a brush stroke. Some of the paintings were nothing but whorls of color, and some only appeared to be so on the surface, but if you looked harder, you could find fractured things within. If I hadn't known that Heero was waiting at home, I might have ended up spending a couple of hours looking over the show.

I picked up a card on the way out, just to see if I could look the artist up later. A glance at it while I walked to my car revealed a web site. The artist had a web site. I blinked at the notion, pocketing the card as I climbed in and pulled away.

There was a thought... should I have a web site? I didn't exactly have a huge body of work to post or anything, but... did all 'real' artists have web sites?

Maybe if I had my own web site, it would be a little less obvious that I was a fake? That I was just making shit up as I went along?

Probably something to put on the back burner after the current project and the leap of faith I was about to make in the job department. And the remodeling.

It was almost kind of funny how my head was just as full of thoughts on the drive home, just... different thoughts. Maybe I was just getting too damn introspective for my own good? Though, if I was actually going to do this thing, I suppose I really couldn't get too introspective. It was about to sort of be my career by default, after all, really needed to be thinking about it.

When I arrived home, I was a little surprised to find Heero in my studio. After you come through the front door of the house and step slightly to the right, it's a straight line of sight down the hall, so he didn't bother trying to pretend he hadn't been standing in front of my easel staring at what I'd produced that afternoon. Just gave me a sheepish little smile and waited for me to come and join him.

'Welcome home,' he said when I came up to stand beside him. 'How'd it go?'

'Surprisingly well,' I replied, dropping a kiss on his cheek and turning to look at the portrait with the fresh sense of not having seen it for awhile. Meilan had an arresting gaze. 'I had expected to have to sell the idea, but Aleyah liked it.'

'Liked... what?' Heero finally had to ask, and it was my turn with the sheepish grin.

'Sorry, I wasn't meaning to be all secretive,' I said, leaning slightly until he slipped an arm around me. 'Somewhere in the middle of the night I figured out that this needs to be more than just a one trick pony. It needs to be a full-blown gallery show.'

Heero was kind of quiet for a moment, and there was a hint of tension coming from him. 'A... whole show?'

I snorted, seeing what he thought I was saying. 'Not me. Hell, I'll be lucky if I manage to get my shit together enough to produce the main event.'

'But then, who...?' he asked, and I found my head resting on his shoulder, suddenly starting to feel the press of a long day.

'Don't have a clue,' I told him. 'Well... not really. That's Aleyah's problem. But you can't tell me there aren't L5 survivors out there with more artistic talent than I've got.'

He didn't reply to that, but boy could I feel the wheels going around. If I'd been less tired, I might have tried to read his mood. We just stood there for a minute or two looking at the page in front of us.

'Who is she?' he asked eventually.

'Who do you think it is?' I countered and it made him make a funny little noise of almost frustration.

'I thought I should know,' he confessed. 'She looks... almost familiar.'

'Long Meilan,' I said. 'All grown up. She kind of gave me nightmares last night. I guess she's just got a lot to do with this. Sort of.' I petered out, trying to figure out why I felt I needed to explain myself.

There was the sharp sound of Heero's indrawn breath, and I lifted my head to look at him. He was staring at the portrait like he was just seeing it for the first time, even though I knew he'd obviously already gone over every detail. It was a complete reevaluation with the new knowledge.

'I... can see it,' he breathed and there was something there in his voice that I couldn't quite figure out. It was an almost reverent tone. But there was something else underneath that I couldn't catalog. I watched him stare for a moment and decided I didn't really want to know right that moment.

'You eat?' I asked, breaking the mood, whatever in the hell it had been, and he shook himself, looking away from the sketch.

'Yeah,' he said, really looking at me for the first time since I'd walked in. His hand found its way up to brush across my cheek, and he smiled gently. 'You look tired. You want me to fix you something?'

'Nah,' I grinned. 'I'm just gonna do that thing you hate and eat a ration bar.'

He snorted and shook his head, but didn't argue the point.

It had somehow gotten to be late and we just settled into the evening rituals, showers and dinner and bed. Comfortable things that finished off the strange mood. I'm not even sure I remember crawling into bed that night. I only know it happened because that's where I found myself the next morning.

It was something of a shock to find that I really just didn't want to deal with going in to work. Somehow, the notion of quitting had settled into my brain somewhere, and made itself at home. What yesterday had felt like a stable haven, somehow just felt restricting in the light of a new day. How completely bizarre is that?

Heero had figured out how to scramble eggs in the microwave, and had insisted on getting up and making breakfast that morning. We were settled in the living room, eating off our laps, me gearing up to heading in to work, and him trying to turn the construction zone anteroom into a home office. My head was still full of the previous day's introspection junk though and I had a sudden thought.

'Do you think I ought to go to school?' I asked, and made Heero pause mid-bite.

'For what?' he wanted to know, looking a little confused.

'This art thing,' I explained. 'I mean, if I'm really going to try to make a go of it, shouldn't I have some... I dunno... art cred, or something?'

'Art cred?' he parroted and I could see he wasn't following me.

'Like... street cred, you know?' I tried to clarify. 'Before people figure out I'm just faking it?'

The expression on his face kind of made me think that he wished he could just bury his face in his hands, or maybe pull at his hair.

'Don't you think,' he said, fork full of eggs still poised in the air. 'That having Aleyah Winner's backing, and being a client of Jack Lee doesn't sort of give you... art cred?'

'I dunno,' I said, taking a bite of my toast while I thought about it. 'Maybe with your average person, but what about with real artists?'

He stared at me for a long moment before suddenly blurting, 'God, you're serious...'

The knock at the front door made us both jump. The construction crew was there, which meant...

'Shit! I am so running late!'

I gulped down the last of my orange juice and ran out the door with my toast in hand.

'Morning Mr. Mawell!' Darryl called as I ran down the front steps and I tossed a wave over my shoulder.

Oh yeah, I could definitely get used to the idea of being my own boss again. I entertained myself on the drive in by imaging not having to ever look at another time clock again as long as I lived.

I wondered sometimes if Griff didn't have a secret apartment somewhere in the Preventer building or something. The guy was just always there; the first one in and the last one out. I wondered if he had a home life, or if his job was the single most important thing in his world. I wondered if I should feel bad for him or not. Hell, maybe this was the job he'd dreamed about since he was a little kid, and spending God only knew how many hours a day hanging out in a garage, was just the best thing since ice cream to him.

But since he was making himself so conveniently available, I decided to just get this show on the road and be done with it. So the first thing I did after swiping my employee card through that damn time clock, was head straight to Griff's office. He looked up from his perpetual paperwork of doom and glared at me.

'You're late,' he grumbled. 'And whatever you were sick with, you better not have infected my whole crew. And what are you doing in my office?'

I pulled out the 'guest' chair and sat down across from him. 'I know, I didn't, and I'm quitting.'

It made him stare at me for a moment. Reminded me of my earlier conversation with Heero. I sure hoped the staring thing wasn't going to be the trend for the day.

'The hell?' he said, tossing his pencil down on his desk. 'I didn't mean right this damn minute, Maxwell!'

'Yeah, well... why waste time?' I asked, grinning at him somewhat unrepentantly. 'Not like you really need me anyway. I mean... you only hired me because Heero strong armed you... right?'

I was fishing, just a little bit, and I hadn't thought I really wanted to know, but I realized once I walked out of that place, I wasn't likely to ever find out the truth of the matter. Which somehow piqued my curiosity. Griff just snorted.

'The opening was there, kid,' he told me, obviously seeing the fishing for what it was. So opportunity knocked and Heero just took advantage? That was somehow better than thinking he'd forced somebody, somewhere to find a place for me.

'So what do I do?' I said, leaning forward and moving on. 'Never really quit a job before. I don't really have to write a damn letter and all that crap, do I?'

He shook his head and rolled his eyes, giving out with a long-suffering sigh. 'You givin' me two weeks' notice, at least?'

That sounded kind of standard; I'd heard the phrase before anyway. And I suppose that was only fair so you wouldn't leave an employer in the lurch, trying to hunt somebody up and train them. But damn; I had so much to do with this latest commission, that it would have been really nice to just say 'I quit', gather my tools, walk out and go home.

'I guess I can do that,' was what I said though. Griff had been good to me, even when I'd been a less than stellar person to be around. And even when I was randomly not showing up for work because I'd done something stupid like deciding to suddenly take off across country to return a journal, or gotten myself kidnapped. Sure, he'd yelled, but Griff yelled just saying good morning. It was expected.

He eyed me speculatively. 'But you'd rather not.'

Ouch. Being called on it made me squirm and I ducked my head. 'Well... I've got this huge ass commission that's giving me fits. But that's not your problem, and I'm not going to be a jerk about it.'

He just sat there for a couple of minutes, getting this look that made me think he wasn't even seeing me anymore. Then he sat forward all of a sudden and planted his elbows on his desk. 'How about this, kid,' he began. 'You got a little bit of vacation accrued so far this year; what say you take off the rest of this week and then come back and finish out your two weeks?'

I mulled that over and had to admit it was probably the best solution, though I could feel the weight of those two weeks tied to my ankle like a ball and chain. Or maybe that was just Guilt beast. Apparently I had moved from denial, to acceptance, and on to wallowing in the notion of quitting.

'Done,' I agreed and rose to leave.

'Hold on there, artist-boy!' he said, bringing me up short. 'This is gonna generate a bunch of paper-work and I ain't doin' it all myself. You're writing me that damn letter and it better be all professional and shit!'

I grimaced but then had to grin at him. 'Ok, you old fart... I'll write your damn letter. Now do I need to clock back out, or are you going to just void the last fifteen minutes?'

He snorted, giving me a half-hearted glare. 'I'll take care of it... just get your ass outta here.'

I gave him a little salute and took myself 'outta' there. He let me get almost to the bay doors before he hollered after me, 'And you damn well better be on time Monday, Maxwell!'

'Will do, Boss-man!' I hollered back and waved cheerfully at the guys as I exited stage left.

I whistled all the way to my car, but it kind of hit me while I was putting the keys in the ignition that I'd come real close to making it the last time I'd pull out of that parking lot. It made me stop and kind of look around; two weeks. Ten days. Ten more times of parking my car here and walking into that building. Ten more days of working next to those guys. Ten more times and it would be the last time and... I would not be back.

I would miss them, as weird as they could be sometimes.

Kind of like I had missed the Sweepers...

Kind of like I'd missed Solo and the gang...

It made me shiver, so I started the car and pulled out.

It felt beyond stupid that I'd driven all the way in just to spend less than twenty minutes in Griff's office, and then turn around and go home again. I tried to think of some other errand I needed to run while I was in the city, but there was just nothing. It was too early for lunch, and going back to the gallery to look at somebody else's work just seemed a bit self-indulgent at the moment. I'd just committed myself to my new career, and I had a job on my plate. There wasn't any time to be wasted.

Heero was completely taken by surprise when I walked back through the front door, his expression doing this dance that started out concerned before seeming to dismiss that and leap straight to... kind of shocked.

'Duo,' he asked, tone one that told me a wrong answer would be bad, 'you didn't just... quit, did you?' In a bad way, since he'd known quitting was on the agenda.

'Relax,' I grinned, going to flop down on the couch opposite where he'd set up his Preventer agenty annex. 'I guess my vacation days had added back up and Griff gave me three days off. The two week thing starts next week.'

He looked relieved and I realized he'd have been... professionally embarrassed? If I'd done something lame like just walked off the job. It made me really stop and think about the limb he'd crawled out on, when he'd gotten me that job. Even if he hadn't had to pressure Une or Griff or that nice lady in HR to make a position happen for me, he'd obviously at least pulled some strings. I could very easily have ended up being a humiliation to him. I had a twinge wondering if maybe I had been, but no... Griff had always assured me that he was more than happy with my work, and he's not the kind of guy to blow smoke up one's ass just for the hell of it. If he wasn't happy, nobody was happy. I'd have known it.

I suppose there might have been a bad moment for Heero that time he'd put out the APB on me, but I really didn't feel all that guilty about that one... that had been his own stupid choice.

I vowed to be a most excellent employee the next two weeks despite my short-timer's disease... I would make damn sure that there was nothing in the end of my career with the Preventers that could cause Heero to regret my having had it in the first place.

'You know,' I had to point out, 'If you want to go on in to the office now, there's really no reason for the both of us to be here.'

He had to think about it, and it made me feel a bit better about my own lack of motivation when I realized that he kind of had to work to change gears. 'I suppose it would be nice not to burn more of my vacation,' he mused. He was giving me a kind of speculative look that made me expect him to say something more, but he didn't, just suddenly seemed to make up his mind and started gathering his stuff. A quick change of clothes and he was out the door in less than fifteen minutes. Leaving me with a house full of construction workers and ghosts. Though the ghosts didn't seem to like all the hammering, and were being pretty scarce.

I had to resist the urge to go fetch a bottle of soda to take out to my studio with me, and kind of sighed to myself; this cutting back thing was not going to be fun. I hadn't really been aware of just what a habit it had become.

Meilan's portrait was still sitting on the easel being all haughty and scornful of all she surveyed. I wondered exactly how she had died, but knew that was a firm and solid 'none of my damn business' and didn't even consider pursuing it. Only one person alive could tell me those details and I wasn't about to ask just to assuage my vaguely morbid curiosity. I knew it had happened in a field of flowers and that Wufei had been there. I knew there had been a war on. More than that... I did not need to know.

I took the sketch pad off the easel, closed it and set it aside. I would not risk waking a ghost that stood such a high chance of being restless to begin with. Solo would kill me if she ended up haunting our asses.

I got out a canvas and settled it in her place, having decided somehow that I just needed to stop thinking so damn much about this memorial. I needed to stop chasing my own tail, and maybe working on something besides frog sketches would help get my brain out of the rut it seemed to have fallen into. I doubted with all the power tools serenading me from the other room, that much of anything seriously creative was going to happen anyway, but maybe I could use the time to reboot.

And laugh if you will, but I didn't even know I was going to be painting the field of daises before the brush touched the canvas and the first petals were formed. But you know... what the hell? Maybe if Aleyah ran with my idea about an entire L5 show, I'd have more to contribute than the center piece.

Assuming, of course, that I actually contributed that most important of parts, but... I wasn't supposed to be thinking about that, now was I?

I kind of wanted to put some music on, but didn't figure the guys would appreciate the volume I'd have to set the stereo on in order to hear it in the back of the house. I really needed to get around to doing some of that wiring I kept talking about doing. Or... maybe I just needed to get my own little stereo system for the studio? Maybe that would be easier? Or was that just being self-indulgent?

I had to settle for listening to the music of construction; had a fairly steady back-beat, but I couldn't say much for the rhythm.

While I'd obviously spent time around the workers before, it hadn't been as much as Heero, and I found the snippets of conversation to be... weird. There is a similarity to the types of topics that you will find bandied about when you get any group of guys together, be they Sweepers, mechanics, or carpenters. So, on the surface it wasn't much different from being at work. Only now and again, words would drift by that kind of left me blinking.

'...Caulking! And on the inside...'

'Oh bull...'


'...biscuit join..?'

But then, I suppose somebody listening in on a random conversation at the garage would just end up scratching their heads too. The last one I really remember had been about the pros and cons of waxing a car that had somehow ended up being about Dave's wife waxing her legs. What would a passing stranger have made of that?

Hell, what had the couple at McMurphy's place made of my table full of screw-ball friends the other night? They had probably come away thinking that there had been a batch of people who could barely manage a civil conversation. Or... maybe we looked like we were related; people who were forced to see each other, like it or not? What would that make Toria? My sister in law? Wasn't that a kicky idea? But we sort of had been that close once upon a time.

Close enough that I'd practically mid-wifed their kids, and was about to do so again. One way or the other. Either Toria's way... on a round trip to L3, or Heero's way... in dock, firmly on the ground.

Out in the kitchen, things had gotten quiet, and Darryl called out, 'Hey, Mr. Maxwell! We're breaking for lunch, ok?'

I stepped over where I could look down the hallway and gave them a wave, watching as they filed out, arguing about the best place to go. It was almost too quiet once they were gone, which made me want to laugh; I'm apparently pretty damn hard to make happy.

But when I went back to work on my field of flowers, I was finally able to find the zone. My main focus went to the mating of paint with canvas, while the sub-conscious bits that were left over danced off with thoughts of family and friends and just what constituted the former when one was a poor orphan child from the streets. Sometimes I imagine the inside of my head is something like a giant, empty ballroom where my thoughts can mix and mingle and sometimes go off in dark corners for illicit trysts. I don't know what all goes on in there, and sometimes I'm glad of that, and sometimes I wish I could record it for later viewing.

I just know that not only did I manage to ignore the guys coming back from lunch, I managed to ignore them working the rest of the afternoon and didn't come up for air until Darryl called me, God only knows how many times, when he came to tell me they were leaving for the day.

I jerked back to reality feeling like my daises were fracturing and escaping me, and I hope I told him goodbye and not to fuck off. Really I do. I never heard them leave the house. Never heard Heero come back in it either, but when the painting was finally done with me, there he sat on the couch with that enthralled look on his face that he gets when artsy stuff is happening, and... it was dark outside.

One of the weirdest things for a colony brat to get used to when first stepping foot on old mother earth, is that the horizon curves the wrong way. Colonies are rings and we make our homes on the inside of those rings. The earth is not a ring; the earth is a ball. So it's just all kinds of wrong.

My field of... no; make that Wufei's field of flowers, curves the way it should. The daisies at the front of the canvas are so detailed and real looking, you could almost pluck them from the canvas, but as they recede into the distance they begin to subtly change... the green of the grass darkens, the white of the flowers becomes crystalline and then they start to break apart... and then the grass is so green it's black and the shards of flowers are mixing with the stars. It's impossible to tell just when that transition is made, it's such a gradual thing. Everything just... falls away into the depths of space.

Or... maybe the stars are coming down to form the flowers and my brain just had it backward? Who the hell knew?

'Hey,' I said and Heero came immediately to kiss my cheek and study the painting with me.

'It's beautiful,' he said softly, 'is it done?'

'Seems to be,' I smiled, leaning my head on his shoulder tiredly. 'It let go, at least.'

He kind of nuzzled my head up and kissed me, a tentative thing for all the heat I could feel behind it. 'Clean up?' he asked, and there was such a tone of carefully checked... wanting in his voice, that I damn near said the hell with the brushes and palette. But he moved off to close the house up for the night, and my brain told me I'd be needing those brushes again and would be pissed if I didn't take the two damn minutes I would need to clean them out.

But that was all I took the time for before we found our way upstairs and it was hours before he finally let me sleep. Somewhere in there I started to wonder if maybe it wasn't the artistic process that fascinated Heero so damn much. vI'm not sure just what to blame, the lack of consistent sleep the last few days, the missing of a couple of meals, or the marathon sex... but he woke before me the next morning. I roused up to find him propped up against the headboard, smiling down at me.

Things that had been floating around in my head about family and friends and life and relationships kind of settled into place and I'm afraid the first words out of my mouth didn't do much for that smile.

'I think I'm going to take Toria up on her offer,' I heard myself say, and regretted starting the day like that almost the moment the words were out of my mouth.

His expression went kind of still and I just felt like a jerk. I really wished that my brain could learn to sort this kind of crap out in the conscious part, instead of piecing it all together in my sleep and presenting me with decisions at oh dark thirty in the morning. Maybe then I could keep things to myself until the timing was a little better. It sucked to be able to see Heero's whole day get spoiled in the blink of an eye.

'I'm sorry,' I tried, wanting that other look to come back and not be ruined.

He sighed and then just shook his head, giving me the rueful smile, leaning down to kiss the top of my head. 'It's all right,' he said. 'I kind of expected it.'

Rueful wasn't as good as that other look, but it wasn't as bad as that closed off one, so I wriggled my way up a little higher to bestow a better good morning kiss.

'Wish you'd have gone ahead and told me how it was going to come out then,' I teased, hoping to salvage at least some of the mood. 'Would have saved me the trouble of stewing about it the last few days.'

He snorted a laugh and pulled me in to pillow my head on his chest.

'But if I'd told you, you'd have just done something different to be contrary,' he chuckled, and though it had been a joke, there was a moment where I could feel him turning the notion around in his head to see if it might actually have worked.

I gave him a good poke in the ribs. 'Do not attempt to reverse psychology me,' I warned, and it made him laugh.

'It probably wouldn't end well,' he agreed and then all of a sudden he was rolling me over with intention.

'Morning sex, Yuy?' I gasped out when his mouth began seeking sensitive spots.

'Not going to miss the chance,' he murmured against my skin. 'You don't usually hang around to give me the opportunity.'

I kept my wits just long enough to glance at the clock to verify we had the time, then just went with the flow.

After the previous evening, I had expected it to be one of those lazy, slow times, but Heero was having none of that. I found myself astride his hips in record time and we were down to the gasping, straining, needy parts before I knew it.

Maybe I should consider giving him the opportunity more often?

Then it was my turn to lie around lazily while Heero had to rush getting ready for work. Though, as in Heero's case, the lazing was mostly for affect as I had to rush in order to be showered and dressed before the work crew arrived for the day.

I was absolutely over the moon when the guys showed up with the new sink in tow. And it was actually the right style. The light at the end of the tunnel might not be a speeding train after all. I was starting to consider throwing a party when this renovation thing was all over. Because having these guys in my house was making me feel like a prisoner. They seemed like a nice enough bunch, but 'seemed like' was not enough of an endorsement to leave them alone while they worked. I kept thinking of things I wanted to go do... and then not being able to. I could have gotten the weekend's trip to the grocery out of the way. Could have run down to the city building for some of those yard waste tags. Could have stopped off at the garden center for that bag of grass seed I needed. Instead I changed the sheets, and ran loads of laundry, and dusted the bedroom, and completely understood Heero's fanatical chore doing of the previous week.

Babysitting was a damn boring job.

But to be honest, I was a little loath to possibly lose myself in my art with them in the house again. It had been a bit disconcerting the day before, to realize that the guys could probably just about had their family and friends come over for a party in my dining room, and I might not have noticed.

Besides, my preliminary sketches weren't due for three weeks, right? Well, more like two and a half now, but perhaps it would be best not to dwell on the deadline aspect.

By afternoon I'd run out of things that I could even pretend needed doing, and ended up on the couch with my laptop, trying to compose an email to Hayden and Toria.

Even though I'd already made the conscious, unconscious and official decision that I was going to make the jaunt to L3 and back... I was kind of reluctant to actually commit to that fact.

Not that I really had doubts, exactly, just... I knew Heero didn't want me to go.

I don't go out of my way to drive the guy crazy, though it probably seems that way. Setting Toria's somewhat tenacious nagging aside, it really was something that I probably ought to deal with. The universe was a wide and wonderful place, and I would hate to end up limited to the tiny corner of it that was Earth, just because I was a chicken-shit. I needed to make sure that I wasn't just doing more of that running and hiding. I had made a couple of decisions about my future; giving up the captaincy of my own ship had been one of them, and while there was regret there, there really wasn't any regret there. It had been the right choice. And not just because I'd lost my nerve... even if I could throw a switch and make it all not have happened... I wouldn't go back. My life now was with Heero, and that was right where I wanted to be. I loved him and I wanted to be with him. End of story.

But there was more to space and more to the Earth sphere than owning your own ship. I did not have the... whatever in the hell it was, that had made me the pilot I had once been. Kurt used to call me survival instinct challenged and maybe I'd just found that instinct. Maybe I hadn't lost something, so much as I had found something... something to care about.

But not being a pilot should not lock me to the ground.

That's what I needed to face down and get under control. If I wanted a thing, I should be able to have that thing, and I should not be kept from that thing by my own fears.


If I wanted to go to L2 for Christmas, the biggest concern should be 'can we afford it', not 'will Duo have a meltdown'.

I have no idea how long I sat staring at my inbox before I finally fired off an email that was probably a bit terser than it should have been. 'Only for you, Spacer-girl. Get me your flight plan and I'll see what I can do. I'll make no promises. And don't even think about making any plans for a drinking binge; it will not end well, and there will be no further discussion on the point or the whole thing is off. Love Duo.'

And then, on a crazy, hamster-induced whim I sent off a message to Howard too.

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