Conclusions (cont.)

'Hey, old man... bizarre question; was there anything recovered from the destruction of L5?'

Because if anybody would know that, it would be the Sweepers. Not that I had a clue why it mattered, but I guess me and the hamsters had just been thinking on the subject quite a bit lately, and I think we've already established that I'm a weirdly curious kind of guy.

Or maybe that's curiously weird.

I'm not sure if it was that idle curiosity or just plain boredom that led me to do what I did next.

It was early enough that the work crew was still there, but getting close enough to quitting time that they seemed to just be packing up for the day, when I wandered into the kitchen.

'Hey, Mr. Maxwell,' Larry greeted me, grinning broadly. 'I think one more day is going to do it!'

'No shit?' I said, and looking around, was delighted to realize he was probably right.

'Down to the trim work and hooking the plumbing up,' he agreed. 'We should be out of your hair tomorrow afternoon.'

The whoop of joy was purely internal. 'Well, before I lose my captive audience then,' I said, 'can I ask you guys a question?'

Darryl looked intrigued, though his brother kind of looked like he thought he was about to be quizzed on his work. 'Sure,' Larry replied for them all, and waited expectantly.

'This is kind of like an opinion poll sort of thing,' I confessed, starting to feel a little dumb. 'I've got this project, and I'm curious... you're all ground... uh... you've all lived Earth-side a long time, right?'

'Ground-bounders,' Darryl grinned. 'Yep. Lived here our whole lives.'

'Ok,' I grinned back, 'good... so if I said L5, what's the first thing that comes to mind?'

For a moment, they just kind of stood there looking at me, like it really was a quiz and I was just the meanest teacher they'd ever had. Darryl was the first one to give it a go.

'Well,' he said kind of hesitantly, 'the self-destruct, I guess.'

I didn't say anything, just waited to see what else they would come up with. Larry kind of nodded sagely.

'Yeah, you can't really think about L5 without thinking about that,' he said, and then he and Darryl sort of turned to the brother to see what he would add. The kid was a pretty quiet one, and I wasn't sure he was going to say anything at first, but then he kind of got this light in his eyes.

'Shenlong,' he chimed in, and Larry cringed, like he was a little bit embarrassed.

'Not that Gundam crap again,' he muttered, and the kid... what was his name... frowned defensively.

'They was cool,' he grumbled, and went back to picking up tools. 'And Shenlong was the coolest.'

I blinked at him, opened my mouth to say... I wasn't even sure what... and then closed it again. Surely he had to know? Well, he certainly didn't act like he knew. I glanced at the other two and wasn't getting any knowing looks. What the hell, maybe being a Gundam fan didn't necessarily make you a pilot fan? It would just be a tidbit of information that would derail my topic anyway, so I let it go.

'Uh, yeah... cool,' I said. 'But what about before that? What do you know about the colony itself?'

'Chinese, right?' Larry said, bending down to pick up a bent nail that had been dropped on the floor, and turning to toss it in the trash.

'Yeah,' Darryl said and there was a hint of 'duh' in his tone, but not enough that Larry picked up on it. 'They were Buddhists and...'

'They all knew Kung Fu,' his brother supplied, finishing the sentence in a way, judging from the look on Darryl's face, not intended. I was starting to see where the brother was coming from. And it had more to do with television than it did history.

Darryl was kind of glaring at his brother's back, as his sibling had gone back to preparing to go home. 'They did not all...'

'I read once that they duplicated some of the biggest Chinese temples there,' Larry chimed in and I'd seen Giles derail Dave enough to know the technique when I saw it. It worked; Darryl stopped glaring and dropped the Kung Fu thing.

'Yeah,' he said instead, 'it was supposed to be real pretty there.'

Larry agreed and the talk turned to architecture while they finished getting their stuff together and I walked them out. I suppose it wasn't too surprising, considering they were a bunch of builders, but... it was kind of strange. I realized that really... they just didn't know squat about L5. Or... probably not much of anything about any of the colonies, really. I stood on the porch and watched them load up their truck, chewing on that lack of education and wondering. I'd grown up a relatively uneducated child of the colonies, and I don't suppose I'd know a ton of crap about the history of Earth, but I'd known the key points. I'd known the history of Sanc. Had known who the Winners were. Would have been able to point out the major continents on a map. It was kind of... disappointing somehow.

Out by the truck, Darryl's brother (I really ought to learn the guy's name), was looking around in a way that, quite frankly, seemed a little bit theatric. Then he made that classic 'hold on a minute' gesture and jogged back up the steps to the porch.

'Forgot my watch,' he mumbled, looking a little embarrassed. 'Had to take it off to get my arm behind the counter.'

I made that 'ah' sound you make to indicate you understood, and followed him back in the house in case he needed help looking for it. Not that I figured he would. Sure enough, he snagged it off the counter right away and then turned around all red in the face, but with a kind of... rebellious look on his face.

'Shenlong wasn't just cool,' he blurted out, looking at his watch more than he was me. 'It was like... a symbol. And they were proud people, you know? Larry thinks they was dumb for blowin' up a whole colony, but... they wouldn't be used, you know?'

It was a strange kind of moment, and the thing that struck me first was... he really wasn't a kid; he probably wasn't any younger than I was. The second thing was... he wasn't quite as dense as I'd thought he was. He was the quiet one; didn't talk much, and I'm afraid I'd made the judgment that he was kind of a big, dumb grunt. But maybe not so much?

'Yeah,' I agreed. 'I know.'

He looked up at me, kind of smiled and then ducked his head. 'See ya tomorrow, Mr. Maxwell.' And he was out the door.

I walked over and watched through the front screen as they pulled away. After a few minutes, when the taillights had disappeared, I pulled out my cell phone and called Aleyah's number.

She must have checked the caller id, because she picked up with, 'Darling, I hope you aren't in the throes of another tizzy?'

'No Ma'am,' I reassured, 'I just had a question; just how high tech can I get with this job?'

There was a quiet moment while she made me wait, more than she hesitated. You see the distinction there? 'Pet, this is to be a sculpture, you understand that... yes?'

'Yes,' I replied. 'But I have some... ideas. Accents, really. And it might end up being pretty...' over the top didn't seem like a good choice of words, but I guess Aleyah knows me well enough that she didn't bother to let me finish.

'Darling boy,' she said, her tone one of high amusement, 'this is the single most important work the gallery has ever sponsored. You have the complete backing of three of the wealthiest people in the Earth Sphere... money, is not really an issue.'

'Perfect,' I grinned. She even managed to sign off without asking me how much longer I was going to take. Which was good, because I couldn't have told her.

But I had the germ of an idea.

When Heero got home from work, it was to find me sitting on the counter in my studio, pencil in teeth, papers scattered everywhere, and laptop balanced on one knee. On the other end of the counter, I'd set up a sort of collage of the paintings and sketches I'd managed to accumulate so far, and Master Long the frog, Meilan, and the flowers of L5 were keeping me company.

There was something missing from that grouping, but I would have to figure that out later.

I heard Heero coming down the hall before I could see him, and his step was... not hurried, but pretty purposeful.

'Duo?' he called before he came into view. 'You back there? We've only got about fifteen minutes to get going to make the game...' he stopped when he got to the doorway, his expression flitting through about half a dozen emotions so fast I'm not sure I got them all. There was a second of disappointment though, I know I saw that, before he got just a little bit excited.

'This looks promising,' he smiled. 'You have a break through?'

'Got some solid thoughts at least,' I admitted, and began putting things away. Heero frowned and came across the room.

'Hey, don't do that,' he chided, putting a hand over mine where I was gathering papers. 'This is much more important than some silly ball game.'

I tilted my head, offering him a welcome home kiss and he took it. I snagged his tie while I had him that close. 'I'm just fiddling at the moment anyway,' I told him, and then more firmly, 'besides... nothing's more important than you are.'

The smile he got was quite despite himself, and it came with the hint of a blush of pleasure. He kissed me again, in an effort to hide it, but I still had hold of his tie and when he drew away, I wouldn't let go. 'Nothing,' I told him again, giving him a little shake. His eyes were telling me that the game was starting to fade from his thoughts, so I nudged him back, climbing down from the counter. 'Now go change.'

He sighed, his soft smile turning to a rueful grin. Another quick kiss and he went as directed. I shuffled my papers together, put my laptop to sleep and went to find my shoes.

Sure, it was just a ballgame, and sure, if I'd been in the middle of some serious creativity it might have been a different story. But I'd seen that flash of disappointment, and that was not a look I wanted on Heero's face if I could help it.

Is it sad that the whole 'ball game' thing was already sort of... old hat? Kind of made me feel stupid, to be honest. But hey, I've always been an over-achiever... why have mole hills when you can make mountains out of them?

Since I was with Heero, I didn't need to check the posting, and we by-passed the concession stand all together, heading straight for the diamond of the evening. I recognized some faces and assumed that they were spouses and kids of players; probably showed up for every game. There were some missing as well, Giles didn't appear to have come out, but Dave was there again sitting with Bobby, and they'd saved me a seat.

At least they didn't make me sit between them, so I was able to dismiss that notion I'd had from the previous game about being 'protected'. Maybe it had just been my imagination.

The umpire guy had already called the game to start, and the first few batters had done their swing and miss thing, when Quatre appeared and plopped himself down beside me.

'Did I miss anything?' he asked the bleachers in general, and Dave was right there with a blow by blow.

'Nothing yet,' he reported. 'We won the toss, and we're still in the first half of the first inning. Two up and two down.'

'Who are we playing?' Quatre asked, squinting across at the other team's bench, but then answered his own question. 'Oh... Claret Heights. They beat us last time, didn't they?'

'Yeah,' Bobby replied, grinning broadly, 'but their regular pitcher transferred and I heard the guy replaced him ain't so hot.'

There was a bit more back and forth on the roster of the other team and it kind of struck me as funny; leave it to Quatre to be strategizing something he really didn't have any control over. And there was that 'we' thing again. I'd have mocked them over it, but I'm pretty sure I'd done it myself since that first game. It was just too easy to do, despite everything.

'Trowa coming?' I asked, when they ran out of locker room gossip, and Quatre gave me a look that was just a little bit hesitant around the edges.

'No,' he said kind of carefully, 'he was helping Abdul change out an oil pump.'

Took me just a second to realize that he thought I might be disappointed, or otherwise bothered by the fact that it was just him, and that Trowa wasn't going to be there. I suppose, looking back over the past year or so, I could hardly blame him. But it still made me want to cringe inside. I really needed to put some effort into the relationship. And not just thinking about it.

'Jeez, Winner...' I teased, 'too damn cheap to hire a mechanic?'

'As if,' he drawled, 'they find it fun.' Then he took his eyes off the field long enough to give me a speculative look. 'But then, you used to find it fun too.'

'Before I was doing it for a living,' I muttered and it made Bobby laugh.

'No shit,' he agreed, and it gave me a moment of wondering if trying to turn this art thing into a living wasn't going to be a mistake in the long run. What if being told I had to paint and draw dried up the ability? Wouldn't that just be a bitch?

Out on the field, the third out was made and the teams switched.

'So what have you been up too lately?' I asked Quatre, mindful of my inner pledge to reconnect with the guy. 'Heard you've been globetrotting?'

'Yeah!' Dave chimed in. 'Was it India or China... Barton couldn't remember!'

Quatre chuckled and rolled his eyes, 'Vancouver.'

I suspected that Trowa had just been yanking chains, because I was pretty sure he wouldn't have been that far off. Now that I really stopped to think about it, no way in hell he hadn't known which country. Which city, which hotel/convention center, and probably the entire itinerary. I started to say as much, but Dave elbowed me about then.

'Yuy's up,' he told me, just as though I hadn't noticed. I thought about yelling something... a lot of the other partner's did, but... well... maybe this ball game thing wasn't quite as old hat as I'd thought.

'What were you doing in Vancouver?' I said instead, just to kind of make sure nothing else came out of my mouth.

At the plate, Heero swung at a pitch that I'm sure he could have hit with his eyes closed, and missed. There were some jeers from the other team's bench and I knew in that moment that I'd never be able to play the game; even without my weird non-intrusion issues... my inner street brat reared his head at the sound of those taunts and wanted to smack that ball into the next county just so he could smirk.

'Lumber,' Quatre was saying. 'Nail it, Heero!' he called, and I wondered if he had an inner brat too. 'I need a new supplier to meet the needs of Winner Enterprise's reconstruction division.'

Dave, weirdly, decided to home in on one word... new. 'What happened to the old one?'

A frown crossed Quatre's face for a second at the question, though it was quickly replaced by a wide grin when Heero turned the second pitch into a double. I half expected Quatre to stick his tongue out at the other team. 'They weren't concerned enough about sustainability,' he told Dave, and Dave gave a sage nod.

The cheer that went up from our side of the bleachers gave me a twinge and I realized I was developing a dull headache. I wondered if I should dig out a ball cap or something before the next game.

At least the wave thing seemed to have been forgotten... that was something. Though that might have more to do with the fact that Sally and her entourage hadn't made it to the game.

'What are you reconstructing?' Bobby wanted to know, and it made me grimace. Winner Enterprises had been heavily involved since the war, with all manner of reconstruction. There had been some trash talk when Quatre had first launched the new division, about blood money and all that crap and I knew he was a little touchy about it. But he didn't bat an eye.

'At the moment?' he said. 'L3.'

'All of it?' Dave wanted to know, all wide-eyed, and it made the rest of us laugh.

'A colony?' Bobby chuckled. 'With wood? Hardly.'

'Oh yeah...' Dave muttered, looking a little embarrassed, and we all sat and watched that guy from the last game, Thorpe, get the base hit that let Heero score.

'We're currently building five new hospitals,' Quatre explained, and for a second I saw the fire of a new project in his eyes. 'It's phase one of a four stage...' but then he kind of shook himself, maybe realizing where he was and let it go.

'Damn,' Bobby muttered to himself. 'And I can't even get my bathroom remodeled.'

We chuckled, but I wasn't really paying attention; something in my head had just fallen into place with a loud clicking sound.

'Wait...' I said, turning to look at Quatre. 'L3? Lumber supplier? You're shipping lumber to L3?'

Quatre raised an eyebrow. 'No... I'm hoarding it in my basement.'

'Smartass,' I grumbled. 'No, seriously... you're shipping lumber to L3? With independent cargo ships?'

'Well it made more sense than the long haul truckers...' he smirked at me.

I hooked an arm around his neck and made a mental note not to strangle him with it. 'Baby brother, we need to have a talk about...'

'What?' Dave interrupted, staring at us wide-eyed. 'You two are... brothers?!'

I sighed, but before I could set him straight, Quatre shushed him somewhat theatrically. 'Not so loud! Nobody's supposed to know! The family disowned him!'

I blinked at him stupidly and we all four missed something on the field that had most of the bleachers on their feet.

'Duo?!' Bobby wanted to know, looking from one of us to the other and taking the hook right along with Dave. Only Quatre Winner... wide-eyed, angelic, innocent looking Quatre Winner could have delivered that line and not been laughed at.

'Uh...' I managed. 'I uh... don't like to talk about it.'

It got me an elbow from Quatre, I suppose, for not doing a better job of playing along.

'He is the only one in the entire line with brown hair...' he said, letting it hang there, and letting them draw their own conclusions. I think I choked.

The guys just sat and gaped at him.

Well, I had been thinking we needed to work on the relationship, but this wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind.

'No, really,' Quatre was telling Dave and Bobby in lowered tones, 'you can't tell anybody. The family doesn't realize he's changed his name and is even in the country...'

'Wow,' Dave whispered, staring at me. 'We work with a Winner?'

'No, you work with a Maxwell,' I muttered, trying to make it sound bitter. Quatre patted my arm sympathetically.

I put my attention on the game and found Heero sitting on the bench watching us. I gave him a smile and a faint roll of my eyes in Quatre's direction to allay any concerns he might have, because God only knew what we looked like all huddled together and whispering so seriously. Heero did look a little relieved, but equal measures confused. I wanted to welcome him to the club.

'... real name?' I heard Dave ask and Quatre looked around in the most theatrically dramatic way possible before leaning in and whispering, 'Waldo.'

'Waldo Winner?' Dave said, kind of horrified and I saw the moment when Bobby finally realized they were being played.

'Oh bullshit,' he said. I thought for a minute that Dave was going to jump to my defense but Quatre finally lost it and started laughing.

Dave, God love the guy, is the butt of enough jokes because of his innate gullibility, that he at least takes it well. There was a moment of confusion while he caught up, but then he was laughing along with the rest of us.

Somewhere in there, the Preventers had scored three runs and the sides were changing again. I had already put mental money down that our team would be winning this one. Playing to not win every single game was one thing; losing to the same team twice was something else.

'Hey,' Bobby suddenly said, 'I'm gonna go get something to drink; you guys want anything?'

'Yeah,' I heard myself say, 'Bring me a Mt. Dew.' But then I had to kick myself; wasn't I giving that stuff up? 'Uh... make that a water.'

Quatre gave me a funny look, but let it go.

'So anyway,' I said, just to keep anybody from giving me a hard time about my addictions, 'About this cargo ship thing...'

Quatre smirked at me, 'are you actually trying to schmooze... Waldo?'

Jeez, but I sure hoped this was not a nick-name that was going to stick.

'Well, people keep telling me I have connections,' I grumbled, seeing the heat in my face reflected in his amused grin. 'And being strong-armed into talking to you is way easier than being strong armed into talking to Jack Lee.'

He snorted, turning his attention back to the field as a Claret Heights player stepped up to the plate. 'Have anything to do with a ship with the unlikely name of Buddy's Gift?'

I stared at him for a long minute trying to figure out just how in the bloody hell he'd figured that out, and he chuckled.

He didn't make me ask, maybe even preening a little bit over being one up on me. 'We watched the Expo, Duo... Maxwell and Brannigan? I have background checks run on all the independents working for Winner Enterprises. The two and two was pretty easy.'

I let that bit of information percolate for a minute while we watched Wufei practically do a high jump to snag a ball out of the air, then turn to shotgun the thing to Heero and another out was won at second. Our half of the crowd went nuts and I winced again. Should have asked Bobby to see if the concession stand had aspirin as well as that stomach stuff.

'So,' I finally ventured, feeling like I was starting to catch up, 'you actually going to make me ask... or do you already have plans?'

He smiled his eerie little board room smile, the one that doesn't give much away, and it made me wonder how a game of poker would come out. Maybe not quite the way they used to in our lost youth. 'We'll see,' he finally allowed. 'I have my eye on them. But connections or not... they have to prove they can handle the job.'

It was in me to wax all poetic on my friend's piloting abilities; complete with stories and examples, but decided that Quatre Winner would probably be more impressed with statistics and flow charts, which I didn't have on me. He was right; they'd have to prove themselves. It was enough that I knew the job was theirs if they didn't do something colossally stupid like buzzing a Winner flight tower, or landing on L3 drunk in their underwear. Or... out.

'Thanks,' I said instead, more for the fact that he'd recognized my connections before I had, than the actual job offer-to-be.

'You're welcome,' he said, and lost the smug look in favor of a warm smile.

Bobby arrived back and handed around the drinks. I took my water but couldn't help being kind of sorry I hadn't gone ahead with the soda. This really was turning out to be a bitch of a habit to break.

Quatre watched me uncap the bottle and take a swallow, trying to convince myself it was hitting the spot and failing miserably. I wondered why I just couldn't quite reach the zen of intake when it came to drinking.

'You finally giving up the soda habit?' he asked, seeming to find my lack of enthusiasm amusing.

'Yeah,' I muttered, a little bit embarrassed about how difficult a task it had become.

'Cold turkey, I assume?' he guessed, turning his attention back to the field again.

'I guess so,' I replied, capping the water and setting it on the bleachers between us. 'I ODed myself into insomnia the other night.'

'Certainly explains the headache,' he said, turning his gaze back to me long enough to deliver a kind of smug-asshole grin.

'What?' I said brightly. 'How did you know...?' Did my headaches come with glowing neon signs or some damn thing?

'You've been flinching at every loud noise since I got here,' he laughed, and punched me lightly in the arm. 'Never heard of caffeine withdrawal?'

Well fuck. Heard of it, yeah... thought about it, not so much.

'That would kind of explain a lot...' I mumbled, and knew I was blushing again from his burst of laughter.

But then he just kind of deflated, the laugh trailing off and his weird perpetual look of hesitation was back. I glanced up at him and found his eyes on the bench where the Preventers were trailing in off the field. Or, more specifically, on Heero who was standing there watching us like a hawk about to pick off a baby bunny and make hors d'oeuvres out of it.

Was there no end to the man's over-protective nonsense?

'Stick your tongue out at him,' I blurted in aggravation.

'What?' Quatre said, his voice rising into a tone that wanted to be a squeak and it was his turn to turn beet red.

'He's being a dick,' I said. 'I'd tell you to flip him off, but figured you'd be more likely to stick your tongue out.'

There was a spark of his natural rebelliousness and with a quick look around, he turned back and carefully flipped Heero off. It was fast, and he was still so red you'd have thought he'd been pantsed, but we at least got a laugh out of Wufei.

'Now come on,' I said, elbowing him in the ribs. 'I'm going for a damn soda and kill this headache. Walk with me.'

Bobby and Dave gave me a hard time about not being able to make up my damn mind as we climbed off the bleachers, but I just waved as we walked away. Maybe it was the dull headache that really wasn't all that bad, but just would not fade... I don't know, but I was annoyed. And nothing seems to loosen my tongue quite like being peeved.

'You know,' I told him as we walked. 'You and I have enough issues of our own... don't let him add to them.'

The ghost of that hesitation was still there, but he still managed to ask, 'why... why do you suppose that is?'

'I dunno,' I had to admit. 'Background? Time?' I couldn't help a glance over my shoulder at the diamond we were walking away from. 'Interference?'

And a whole damn laundry list of other things, starting with my burn scars and ending with his sister, but some things were maybe best left unspoken.

'I do get... coached at lot,' he said, giving his own glance back.

'They need to back off now,' I grumbled, including Trowa in the mix, though I didn't say so, letting him decide just who they included.

A look came into his eyes then that seemed a little bit sad. 'That isn't all of it though...'

'No,' I sighed as we took our place in line at the concession stand, 'I guess I'm kind of a dick sometimes too.'

He snorted, but kept his peace while I ordered my soda, declined another hot dog, and paid for my purchase. But he was using the time to think about things, and when we turned to head back toward the game, he'd gotten his thoughts in order.

'You can be,' he said, and it took me a minute to catch back up with the conversation. I gave him a look, but he just grinned. 'But I don't think you have been in this case. Just... over-whelmed. And then the intervening started. And now... here we are.'

I stopped walking for a second to uncap my bottle and take two or three big gulps, and damn did it taste good going down. I realized that given half the chance, I could make excuses for continuing to drink the crap forever, and it made me a little bit mad at myself.

'And here we are,' I agreed, putting the cap back on the bottle and continuing our walk. 'So let's just forget all that crap and decide where we're going from here, ok?'

He smiled. 'I think I can manage that. Kid gloves off?'

'Kid gloves off,' I granted, and just hoped I wouldn't be sorry.

There was a picnic table just off to the side of the bleachers and we ended up there for just a little bit of faux privacy. Quatre appropriated my relatively untouched water and we spent the rest of the game with half our attention on the field, just talking about nothing in particular. Not that the weirdness was completely gone, but it felt a whole hell of a lot like it could be gone someday, for the first time in a long time. It was nice.

And I'd been right... Preventers won the game with a rather firm score of ten to one. Maybe the entire team had inner brats?

They had to go do that huddle thing around the pitcher's mound (see how I'm picking up all the sports jargon?), before they finally broke up and headed out. Quatre was saying something about Trowa and cars, when I looked up to watch Heero walk across the field toward us, Wufei by his side.

They were both looking kind of smug, and kind of sweaty and dusty around the edges. Heero said something and Wufei's smile took on an edge.

And it suddenly hit me that I was looking at the spirit of L5 in flesh and very human blood right in front of me. What Darryl's brother had said; Shenlong had been a symbol, and there was her pilot walking toward us. The bat in his hand was suddenly a weapon, and the shine of victory in his eyes was suddenly a much larger victory.

That feeling I'd had when looking at my meager array of L5 art, that something was missing... well, there it was. I wondered if that huge-ass blind-spot had been generated by the knowledge that he would fucking kill me for what I was thinking.

But damned if I wouldn't have just about given a kidney for a sketch pad right that moment.

There was some sort of exchange, one I think I even took part in, while my head ran off with thoughts of L5 and Gundams and pilots and spirits and peace and messages and... just how dead would I be if I actually took this notion and ran with it?

Like... zombie sort of dead? Or obliterated sort of dead?

We said our goodbyes and we went our separate ways and I might or might not have given Quatre a sloppy kiss on the cheek and ruffled his hair until he looked like he'd just gotten out of bed.

I think we were half way home before it finally registered that Heero was trying to talk to me and getting more upset by the moment.

'What?' I asked, coming out of the ballroom in my head long enough to notice that there had been some sort of apology for something or other.

'I said I'm sorry,' he blurted, seeing he'd gained my attention.

'For what?' I asked, somewhat confused.

'For...' he began and actually bit his lip for a second. 'Ok; I'm not entirely sure. Whatever I did that made you so mad you forced Quatre to flip me the bird.'

Why did that seem like that happened days ago?

'Oh yeah,' I said, catching up. 'That. Stop stifling Quatre. We were just talking, and you need to stop acting like I'm still made out of cotton candy and will melt if I get wet.'

'All right...' he said slowly, his own confusion kind of evident. 'But if you're not still mad about that... what's wrong?'

I sighed, maybe I needed a mood ring or something so the poor guy could tell 'pissed off' from 'out to lunch'.

'Sorry,' I muttered. 'I think I got hit by a design idea like... with a two by four.'

He took his eyes off the road long enough to glance over at me quizzically. 'Is that good... or bad? I'm having trouble telling.'

It made me chuckle. 'Damned if I know, but if we drive through someplace for dinner, I'll need some extra mashed potatoes.'

He didn't get the movie reference so I got a double order of potatoes from Mr. Bucket and I didn't bother to tell him it was a joke.

Though those damn things are stiff enough you probably could sculpt with them if you wanted to. If you left the gravy off.

I didn't try; I'm not a sculptor, I just sucked them down and took myself off to my studio with the intentions of not coming out again until me and my idea had gone two falls out of three.

The war of the blank page. Ideas are a weird damn thing... worse than hamsters. More like ninja butterflies; all bright and exotic and pretty and always dancing at the edge of your vision. And this wanna-be idea was just sort of squatting there in the corner of the room waiting to pummel my ass.

Wufei. Chang Wufei. Pilot 05. The last of his clan. The man who ended the command of Treize Khushrenada. The man who would fucking rip me in half if I made him the subject of the memorial of the destruction of L5.

But...

Damn it; he was the pilot of Shenlog. Of Altron. Of... Nataku. One fifth of Operation Meteor. It was kind of all about him. He was the heir of all that L5 had been. The student of the man who pushed the biggest self-destruct button of all time. The recipient of that same man's last, living words.

So I sketched Wufei. And then I sketched Wufei some more. I caught that walk across the ball diamond, and I stood him next to his Master Long. I studied that little wisp of hair that sometimes escapes that ridiculously tight ponytail, and I put a sword in his hand. I imagined him in the cockpit of his Gundam, and imagined him on his training ground. I nestled a white flower in the palm of his hand and then put his dragon fang in that hand.

And by three in the morning I felt like I'd been rummaging in his underwear drawer without his consent, but didn't feel any closer to having my shit together. It was aggravating... like I'd had an epiphany with no real piph. Was it just because I couldn't get passed knowing how Wufei would react? He'd said he trusted me, but somehow... I don't think he'd meant he trusted me to use his good side.

Heero had, obviously, long since gone to bed and I wondered if this art thing was going to end up impacting our relationship. Was I going to turn into one of those eccentric artists that only worked at night? Would Heero just feel like he was living with a ghost that he never saw? Would he get tired of it? Was being a mechanic really all that bad a thing?

I decided about then that I probably needed some sleep, but it was so close to time for Heero to get up, that it hardly seemed fair. I'd just end up disturbing him and he'd never get back to sleep again. So I put my sketch pad away and pulled out my laptop instead. Figured I'd kill an hour or so checking email and reading the news before going on upstairs.

There wasn't anything from Toria yet, but they were probably still in transit. I was kind of glad, because I didn't figure she'd take the terseness of my last message well, and I didn't really feel up to a Brannigan chewing out, virtual or otherwise. There was, however, a reply from Howard.

Not even a hello first? I don't hear from you for weeks and all I get is a single question? Is that any way to treat an old man? I thought I at least managed to teach you some manners when you were still wet behind the ears. Next time I hear from you, there better be some kind of news update or I'll be down there knocking on your door. As for the question... yes; we did recover some scraps of the colony hull. Still got it in storage; can't seem to bring ourselves to do anything with it. Why?

Good damn question. And the answer fell into my head with a crash and a thump that sent hamsters running for the hills. The sound of the piph of my epiphany finally arriving.

I love you too, old man. I replied. Don't let anything happen to it. I'll be in touch.

I forgot the rest of my email, I forgot reading the news, and I pretty much stopped caring about going to bed. Kind of wished there was a door on my studio though; I'd have closed it and put a do not disturb sign on it for good measure. The construction crew would be there at eight and despite knowing that it should be for the last time, and that when they left, our kitchen would be functional... I didn't care, and kind of wished I could cancel them for the day.

But epiphany or not... Heero would kill me for even considering it.

I saw my design in my head and I knew what I was doing, and yeah... Wufei was going to kill me, but it would be a worthy death because sometimes you had to be true to the art. He'd said he trusted me to handle this job, and I could feel that I'd finally got it. This was right.

Hard as Wufei had not wanted to influence me, he had been... just not in the way he'd feared. I had to stop worrying about what he was going to think, and I had to just do the job. And the thing that was flowing out of the pencil in my hand was the job. The damn creative block I'd been struggling with all week was gone, and it was like fresh water after an age of subsisting off canteen water.

I built my monument and I revealed it from every angle. I studied the strong face because I wanted to make sure the sculptors who got this job got that expression just right. I'd read up on how this process worked and after I did my 'artistic' take on it, I got down to building the thing from the bones out; there wouldn't be any part of the thing that I didn't show in minute detail. I wouldn't do the three dimensional job, but it would be to my exact specifications.

Heero came into the room about the time the sun came up and there was the sound of an indulgent sigh that announced his presence. I looked up to find him in the doorway, leaning against the jam and giving me this look that was... well, it matched the indulgent sigh, but it mixed in some pride and it mixed in some love and there was that damn faith again.

'This is getting to be a habit,' he said when he saw I wasn't completely off in la-la land. I laid the sketch pad down and went to pin his ass to the wall long enough to kiss him breathless.

'I know,' I told him, 'and I'd be sorry if things weren't going so damn well. I'll cut you in on the commission if you deal with the kitchen crew today.'

He laughed, nuzzling my neck, though I could tell he could tell we weren't really going anywhere. 'If I handle the kitchen crew, do I get to see the design?'

'Nope,' I replied, because... well, I wasn't really sure. But nobody was going to see this thing until I gave it to Aleyah. Hell... maybe I wouldn't let anybody see it until it was real and solid the way I saw it in my head. The sketches were the framework of it, but the whole was going to be so much more. And I wasn't sure I wanted to have that spoiled by anybody looking at it all... flat.

Standing there with Heero's arms hooked loosely around my waist, nose to nose, with him wearing that damn fine-to-see proud expression... I was a little surprised to realize I was getting kind of excited about this project. It didn't just make me want to hide under the bed until it was over. I really wanted to deliver the finished work and explain to Aleyah all the nuances and just how it needed to be.

Almost excited enough to forget about the part where I was going to have to show it to Wufei at some point.

'Are you going to be able to love a weird, eccentric, erratic artist type guy?' I asked, because I really wanted to make sure of that part. Kind of wanted to make sure he'd thought that part through.

He just smiled. 'I married you, didn't I?'

'Guess you're stuck with me then,' I said and reflected that it was really too bad that there were people due on our front porch any time.

He caught my face between his hands and gave me a softer kiss. 'That I am,' he said, before letting me go and taking himself off to find breakfast. He even brought me a ration bar, tossing it to me from the doorway to make sure he didn't see anything he wasn't supposed to. It made me laugh.

I heard him let the crew in and they went right to work, but somehow their voices didn't bother me knowing that Heero was keeping an eye on things. If there were questions, or conversation that needed to be made, I didn't have to care.

It took me the rest of the morning and then there was a nap. After that came a quick lunch with Heero before I headed back to the studio. I wanted it all down while the image still burned behind my retina like I'd really seen it. I saw this damn thing like it was a memory, and while I certainly wasn't going to lose the picture as well documented as it already was, I was afraid of losing the spark of it. I've read that the creative process is very much a 'use it or lose it' kind of thing. When your inner muse or hamster or butterfly offers up an idea, if you don't do something with it, all you're doing is training the muse not to bother making offers.

It was late by the time I closed the cover on that sketch pad and felt with a certainty that I was done. I became aware that I smelled something that awoke a beast in my belly and made it growl, and I wandered out to find Heero in the kitchen, christening our new stove. I was exhausted, but in a good way. An accomplished way.

'The artist emerges,' Heero quipped and I was apparently just in time for the serving up part. I felt bad... I'd only been vaguely aware of the crew finishing up and I hadn't even come out to say goodbye. I sat down at the table and looked around.

'I can't believe it's finally done,' I said and had my fork in my hand practically before he put my plate in front of me.

'The project or the kitchen,' he had to ask and I snorted.

'Both, I guess.' I couldn't stop looking around at the shiny new doneness.

'You know the suspense is killing me?' he grinned.

'Sorry,' I said, bringing my attention back to the table. 'I just don't want it spoiled... you know?'

'Spoiled?' Guess he didn't know.

'It's going to be so much more when it's sculpted,' I said, kind of groping around for words. 'The first sight is going to have this... impact. I hope. But knowing what to expect before hand is going to take that away, see?'

It took him a minute, but then he smiled. 'I think I understand.'

Then food was consumed and it was wonderful in that it was not bucket chicken and it was not pizza and... ok, I'll admit it... it was not a ration bar. It was hot and fresh and Heero had cooked it and it stilled the growl in my middle. But then all I cared about was bed.

Heero spooned at my back and I was vaguely aware that he was more than just a little interested, but all I could do was apologize as I was already dribbling the last of my brain cells away.

'It's ok,' he chuckled, all warm and throaty, kissing my shoulder. 'But if you get out of this bed in the morning without waking me, I will hunt you down wherever you are and have my wicked way with you.'

'S'deal,' I said. Or thought I said. Or meant to say.

I slept the sleep of the righteously exhausted, which felt really dumb considering all I'd done was sit on my ass and draw. How very grueling for me.

The night had not dulled Heero's interest any at all and there was some wicked ways indulged in before breakfast, so I at least managed to not call Aleyah until mid-morning. I had debated waiting, as it was technically the weekend, but as it turned out, Aleyah was every bit as excited to see it, as I was to present it. Or... excited in that breezy Aleyah kind of way. Not like she said Yippee or anything, but the fact that I found myself heading into the gallery on a Saturday for a lunch meeting, kind of indicated her impatience to see the goods.

Walking into the building with my sketch pad under my arm, I realized I probably needed something to carry crap in. What'd they call those things? Portfolios? Something besides my armpit anyway... I didn't feel particularly professional.

Whoever was working the front desk was in the side gallery talking to an art peruser, but I knew the way. On the ride up the elevator, still contemplating portfolios and the purchase of said, I realized... once again, we'd never talked payment. I wanted to feel lame and stupid; I had been a real honest-to-god businessman once upon a time, but... the money part was Aleyah's job. Guess I just trusted she was doing it.

Ms Tartan did not appear to work weekends, so I just headed to where I knew Aleyah's office was. From inside I heard a one-side conversation and realized my patron was on the phone.

'...be the first to know, Stanley dear,' she was saying, her voice tinged with just a hint of some sort of impatience. I hesitated, realizing I probably hadn't been announced. There was a silence while she listened and then an exasperated gust of breath. 'We discussed this... at great length, I might add. You agreed with Jacks' and my assessment. We're nowhere near the deadline...'

It dawned on me that the topic of conversation was probably my own little self and the project of the moment. And pretty damn obvious that the good Mr. Kirby was not being enlightened that the afore-mentioned project was about to be turned in.

Laugh if you will, but it took me a baffled moment to realize... Aleyah wasn't telling anybody anything until she'd seen and approved of the design personally. Yeah... I wasn't there so much to turn the project in, as I was to present the project.

I almost laughed out-loud at my presumptuous ego. It had never occurred to me that this part wasn't just automatic.

The conversation had ended while I'd had my moment and I hesitated; maybe I should go back downstairs and start over? Have the receptionist call up? But then Coquette trotted out, perhaps catching my scent, and cocked her head at me. Guess that was announcement enough. I paused to tap at the doorframe but Aleyah didn't look surprised to find me there.

'Darling, you're early!' she said, and I knew we weren't talking about my punctuality in the meeting department. Did I detect a bit of concern there?

'I could come back closer to the deadline,' I grinned, 'if you'd rather?'

'So impertinent!' she huffed, but gestured me to a seat in a manner that really did seem to have a tiny hint of impatience to it. I went in and grabbed one of the 'guest' chairs and pulled it around to her side of the desk... I wanted us both to have the same perspective while I gave my presentation. And yes, the eyebrow was arched, but there wasn't any reprimand.

Then I proceeded to present the fuck out of that sketch pad. With hand waving and grand gestures and maybe even a comic-booky sound effect or two. Because I wanted her to see the damn thing as clearly as I saw the damn thing, right down to the finest detail.

And no... I'm not going in to that detail; I said nobody was going to see the thing but the boss(es) until the unveiling, and I meant it.

But she did. Hell, she probably would have without all the kapow stuff... she'd certainly 'gotten' a lot of my other art when I wouldn't have expected it. And I was delighted to see her eyes shine with the image.

'You have out-done yourself, Pet,' she told me when I finally shut up. 'It is... everything I'd hoped for.'

It was weird to get that kind of total affirmation from Aleyah Winner; I had to bite my tongue on the 'Really?' that wanted to come out of my mouth.

Unfortunately, there weren't any better words set to come out in the absence of the knee-jerk one, and there was a pause that made her snort that little noise of derision.

'Have faith in yourself, my dear,' she said, patting my knee. 'This is some of your best work to date. It is exactly what we were looking for.'

I tried really hard not to grin at her like a five-year-old being given a cookie.

She laughed at me some more.

'So what happens now?'

'There are two other approvals that have to be given,' she informed me, kind of popping my bubble. 'And then the sculpting process. But your part, my Pet... is done for now.'

She'd kind of breezed over that approval thing like it was a non-issue, so I bit my tongue and didn't ask her what she thought her two cohorts would have to say. She probably wouldn't have told me anyway. Instead, I went where I don't think she was expecting.

'I'm going to need a small favor,' I said, and watched that eyebrow make the arch I'd come to recognize as a prompt to get on with it. 'I need access to the show before the unveiling. I can't let Wufei... I mean, he has to have some privacy when he sees this... you know?'

She gave me a smile then, unlike I'd ever seen from her before. Kind of soft, and almost motherly, and maybe just a little bit sad. And fleeting as the wind. 'Of course, dear,' was all she said. 'Now run along... I want to call Stanley and rub this little jewel in his face.'

At least... that's what I thought she said. I blinked at her for a second and said, 'Pardon?'

'Off with you, Pet,' she said, and it was a completely different smile.

So I put the chair back where I'd found it and 'ran along'.

I would say that the next couple of months were the longest of my life, but... well, with my sordid history, that just wouldn't be true. But it sure felt like it at the time.

On one level it was a series of events, mixed with the mundanity of day to day life. And on another level it was the anxiety of waiting for this Thing to come into being with excruciating slowness.

It must not have taken long for Aleyah to get the sign-off from her two partners because Monday morning I got a call from Ms Tartan asking for my banking information. Monday evening, it was a good thing Heero was there when I saw the deposit, because I suddenly felt the need to sit down, and I hadn't noticed the lack of a chair.

The career change was a keeper.

There were two long weeks of the old career in there, where I was the model of model employees, that ended with a send-off party in the bay. I kind of suspected it was the guys having a reason to get out of work for an afternoon, but there were balloons and a cake and I was presented with a hammer that Dave had gotten some buddy of his to electroplate in some manner so it looked gold. It had my name engraved on a little plate on the handle with my start date and my retirement date and I hated to tell them it kind of looked like I'd died. And the rest of the afternoon was full of 'hammer mechanic' jokes.

I haggled with Toria through a series of emails and we settled on a rendezvous two days after the show was scheduled to open. I'd ride along on the L3 loop, paint her babies, and hopefully put some of the woman's suspicions to rest. Heero wasn't thrilled, but we'd agreed to just not talk about it. I think he'd accepted it like you accepted company physicals; a thing that just needed to be gotten through. And there was enough else going on in my life, that I could just file it under 'later' in my head and not think about it at all.

I approached Wufei and tried to talk to him, but he intuitively 'got' the spoiling part that Heero had needed a moment to see... and he just flat refused to talk to me on the subject. I kind of felt like, on some deep down level, he had his fingers in his ears and was going 'la la la'. Maybe if he ignored it, it would all just go away. That Chang Wufei might have an inner child was a thing just too difficult to contemplate.

There were ballgames, and laundry, and yard work. I took a couple of hundred bucks from my latest commission windfall and finally bought myself a small little stereo for the studio so I could play my music without blasting Heero out of the house. We bought new curtains for the little kitchen window. The dead apple tree came the rest of the way down and we agreed that we would plant another in the same area.

But behind it all was this slow, anxiety-inducing tick-tick-tick down to the opening. It wasn't completely out of my hands; I did get to sign-off on the preliminary sculpt and make a few last minute adjustments. And the nail-biting part seemed to do something for my productivity, as I turned in four or five other pieces for the show.

But yeah... when I look back on that time, all I really remember is the waiting. And the wanting to throw up part.

You can thank me later for sparing you the blow by blow narrative of those two months and just getting the hell on with it. I think we can all agree it's taken long enough getting to this part in the tale.

So... the night before the big day, I picked Wufei up at his place and drove us down to the gallery. I'd been down there most of the day myself, helping with the setup and making sure everything was just the way I wanted it, and when all the other workers had gone home, Aleyah had pressed a key to the gallery into my hand, patted my cheek and said, 'Be prompt tomorrow, Pet. And please don't over-dress this time.'

There was not a lot of talking on that drive; I think Wufei was just trying to gear himself up for it, and I was afraid my mouth would run away and spout inappropriate crap like it tends to when I'm nervous. Because God damn was I nervous.

I wasn't about to make the guy walk three blocks to see this, so I parked right the hell out front and just dared anybody to look twice at my doofy car. Though it was late and most of the businesses in the area were closed for the night anyway, including Expressions.

I turned off the car and we just kind of sat there for a long minute, staring at the front doors and the light spilling out onto the sidewalk.

I don't know what he was thinking about, but I was remembering my first look at the thing after the foundry finished their part. It had looked exactly the way I 'remembered' seeing it in my head and I'd been... pleased.

'I'm proud of the damn thing,' I heard myself tell him. 'At the same time I'm terrified you're going to want to punch me.'

He stopped staring at the door then, and stared at me instead. 'That... is not reassuring,' he said.

'I know,' I replied and then we got out of the car and went in.

We'd left all the lights on, just the way it would be when the show opened the next day. The memorial was in the center of the gallery, so not immediately visible, and Wufei looked around in confusion as we walked through the first arch.

Aleyah had embraced my idea and the gallery was filled with hundreds of pieces of art... paintings and sketches. Photographs, pottery and fiber works. Metal works. If there was a medium unrepresented, I don't know what it was.

'I don't understand...' Wufei breathed, his voice as soft as if we were in a library. I made mine match his because it was that kind of moment.

'Artists of L5,' I told him. 'It's more than just the memorial... it's an entire show, put on by your people. And... well... me.'

He looked at me with his eyes all wide and his inner little boy was right there behind them. It was that kid I took by the wrist and lead unresisting into the main room.

Eventually, the memorial would be in an outdoor venue, but for the unveiling, the gallery had been opened up into a vaulted ceiling for the most space. The sculpture sat dead center and I brought Wufei to it, letting go of his wrist when I had him where I wanted him and then I just let him look.

The base is an actual piece of the colony hull, and when Howard had found out what I wanted it for, he didn't even charge Aleyah for it. Just kind of seemed relieved to find out that he'd been keeping it all that time for a real purpose.

It's scorched and it's ragged on one edge with part of the designation barely visible if you know where to look. The statue is life-sized and mounted to the skin of that hull. It is down on one knee and the curved sword in its hand pierces the hull in a rent we didn't have to entirely put there.

The expression on her face is... fierce.

Nataku.

Who else to embody the spirit of a people but their guardian?

And who else to model Nataku after, than the girl who had taken the name?

She was no child now; no pig tails and no unfocused temper. She was everything Long Meilan would have grown to be... strong, rebellious, beautiful, determined, proud. The heart of a people who would not be used.

I can't tell you how long we stood there staring at her before Wufei, his voice thin and utterly unsteady, said, '...Duo....'

'Wait,' I answered and pulled the remote out of my pocket that would trigger the rest of it. 'You have to see it all first. Once a day, at the exact moment of the... anniversary... it will be dusk in Sanc... this will activate.' And I pressed the button.

The lights in the gallery dimmed and light flooded up from the gash in the hull at the feet of the statue. Around her, in perfect mimic of her pose, the ghost of the Shenlong appeared. I heard Wufei gasp. But then the Gundam shivered and broke apart and thousands of tiny white birds flew into the heavens of the gallery leaving only that pillar of light. Where it washed across the features of Nataku, the expression of fierce purpose became one of... joy.

I was... damn proud of her.

I stole a glance across at Wufei and was surprised and yet... not, to find his face awash with tears. I'm not even sure he was aware of it; he was just staring, completely rapt.

I tried really hard to keep my mouth shut, but I eventually couldn't help it. 'Please tell me it's ok?'

The expression of surprise that came over him then pretty much gave me my answer, but he tried to reassure me anyway. 'Duo...' he said, but it made his voice crack so he stopped. There was a tight nod, and he tried to speak again, but then his breath hitched and he started to turn away.

I couldn't quite handle the sight of him hiding from what was bubbling up inside him and I reached out in remembrance of all the times this man had been there for me. We ended up in a heap on the floor in front the glow of the funeral pyre I'd given him, and I held him while he mourned losses so deep and so old, they'd shaped his soul. The kind of losses I understood intimately well. The ones that there had never quite been the time, in the middle of a war, to grieve over.

Later, sitting on the floor against the gallery wall, shoulder to shoulder and with the ghost of his wife there in front of us... he told me how she died. It chilled me and made me glad that around the curve of the gallery, my portrait of his field of flowers was already tagged as being from the private collection of Chang Wufei.

We talked for hours. He told me more about his childhood and I confessed that I'd looked up the census records. He seemed taken aback, but not shocked. Perhaps he had remembered they were there. He asked about the creative process and I told him some of the amusing stories, but never admitted how close I'd come to making him the subject. Didn't tell him that his dead wife was such a force of nature that she'd given me bad dreams.

At length, after he'd taken the remote and run the cycle a second time, watching that 'kapow' moment, he shut it all down, to contemplate the statue without the bells and whistles. I was surprised when he let out with a tiny sound that held a touch of wry amusement.

'She would be so smug right now,' he said. I had to agree, though I didn't say so because... I'd never actually met the girl. Not for real.

He got pensive then, and it took him a few minutes to work out just what he wanted to say before he blurted, 'Duo... could I have a few minutes...?'

'Absolutely,' I replied and removed myself to another part of the gallery to give him some space. I heard him get to his feet before I was around the bend into the exit chamber.

There were probably fifty artists represented in that gallery show, and Aleyah had grouped each one's work with little biography placards. I'm almost embarrassed to admit how disappointed I'd been not to see a single Chang. The entire show, quite frankly... had been for Wufei. If I could have tied a bow to it and handed it to him in a box, it could not have been any more the gift it was. And somewhere in my heart of hearts, I'd been keeping the secret fantasy that the call Aleyah had sent out would shake up some long lost relative for him. Some great uncle or distant cousin. There were one or two Longs, but among the Chens and the Hsus... there were no Changs.

Well... just the one, because I'd have been damned if Wufei wasn't going to be represented here. His photography was as much an art as anyone else's, and his portrait of the five of us... the pieces of Operation Meteor... was as much a part of the history we were currently surrounded with as any of it.

His little 'area' was dead center behind the memorial. Mine was in the exit chamber, because I hadn't quite felt right having my pieces mixed in with the rest. I was, no matter the job I'd done or not done... an outsider. That's where I stood, waiting for him to make his peace, and looking around... well, I felt good. I was happy with what I'd accomplished. Most of the works there were the property of Chang Wufei, as far as I was concerned. Assuming he wanted any of them. All my preliminary pieces were there with the exception of the highly inappropriate Long Frog. That piece would never see the light of day. Wufei's field of flowers... the colony study... Meilan's portrait... all there. Matted and framed under Aleyah's careful direction and looking so damn professional it made me want to laugh. There were several pieces depicting Wufei as well; the cream of the crop from my night of creative insanity. Wufei meditating in the palm of the hand of his Gundam; a white flower in the palm of his own hand. And the piece I hoped would meet part of his burning desire to create his own art... a portrait of Wufei and his wife Meilan. I had thought to draw their wedding picture, but when pencil had met paper, what had bled into form were two warriors standing firm, back to back. They were as they had been... Wufei's picture had been in that census database too. Faces young, and yet wise. She dark, he light. Bracing and guarding. Determination and strength in every line. Not what I had intended, but another work that rang true when I awoke from the creative dream and stepped away.

In the distance I heard the soft sigh of a voice and tried hard not to hear what words a man would have to say to one he has lost.

It was a somber damn night, and yet inside I was... almost giddy with the knowledge that Wufei approved my design and my choices. That when the gallery opened the next day... uh... make that later that day, and the memorial was unveiled for all to see... Wufei wouldn't want to kick it the way I'd kicked that stupid rock on L2.

I stayed in the side room until I heard the sounds of Wufei walking around and knew he was done, and was looking at the rest of the display. I intended to let him stay as long as he wanted, even if we saw the sun come up from there. I went and found him, and for a time we just wandered the gallery, looking at the unbelievable array of art... all of it touched in some way, by a moment so profound that it defied rational thought. You couldn't understand it until you stopped trying and just... felt it.

That show... that gallery thrummed with it. A message that had needed a chorus of voices.

Wufei didn't say a word when we passed in front of his section of wall, but paused and managed to look embarrassed and proud all at the same time. And that one was tagged from the private collection of Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell.

I waited until he'd looked his fill before I led him into the exit room, and found I was kind of holding my breath while I watched him take it all in.

Somewhere in there, he had regained his poise and gotten his wide-eyed inner child well in hand. Neat trick that I wished I could emulate with as much grace, but my own inner child wasn't raised as well.

'Duo,' he said, in that library voice again, 'this is... over-whelming. Your talent is unbelievable. I don't understand how you can see so clearly what can't be seen.'

It made me duck my head and I felt the heat creeping up the back of my neck. I raised a hand and rubbed there, trying to hide it. I hated this part; I wanted the attention on the art, not on me. Though it was the field of daises he was staring at anyway, so I dropped my hand again and tried to find a little of his grace.

'Thank you,' I said, just to prove I had some manners. 'The collection is yours... if you want it, I mean.'

'What?' he said, and did turn to me then, looking kind of... less poised. 'Of course I... but I can't accept... I mean...' he staggered to a halt and just stared at me. His eyes had a shine that was making me not sure if I should feel bad, and before I quite knew what he was about, he'd grabbed me up in a bear hug.

'Doh je,' he said, or something very like it. 'Thank you. I... my trust was not misplaced.'

Made my damn knees go weak with relief. Once the show opened, there would be reviews and there would be talk but it wouldn't matter one damn bit how it went. Because the person I'd done it all for was pleased with the results. That's all that counted.

And he hadn't wanted to deck me.

Thankfully, he let go before the moment made me do something stupid, like kiss his cheek or something that would have made the rest of the evening awkward as hell.

'I'm glad,' I said, though that hardly seemed an adequate adjective. 'Ok... maybe ecstatic. Damn relived, at least.'

He chuckled and with a last look around, told me, 'We should go... it's extremely late.'

'Or early,' I grinned, 'depending on how you look at it.'

We kept it to that sort of mindless conversation then, the mood ending when I shut the lights out and locked the door. I think he'd had all the vulnerability he could deal with for one day, and I could hardly blame him.

Funny how I could look at him and see that getting some of that out of his system had been good for him, while knowing I'd have been mortified in his place.

I drove him home and never quite worked up the nerve to ask him if he'd be coming out to the unveiling or not. I hoped he would, but I could understand where it might not be attractive.

When I stopped in front of his apartment, he hesitated before getting out and I could feel him hunting for words. In the end, he seemed to give it up and just said, 'Thank you,' again.

'You are most welcome,' was all I could think to say in return, and then he was gone. The drive home was somehow longer than normal, and kind of weirdly lonely. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour.

Heero had gone to bed, but was wide-awake and had obviously been waiting on pins and needles. 'Well?' he asked, as I undressed and climbed into bed beside him.

'He didn't deck me,' I grinned, seeking out my spot and settling my head on his shoulder.

'Was there... doubt of that?' he said, trying not to sound concerned.

'Maybe?' I said, and chuckled to lighten it. I really didn't think so... not after Wufei's and my last round of decking incidents.

'Is he all right?' he asked, and it made me think maybe I was being a bit of a tease with the information.

'Yeah,' I replied. 'I think so. He approves. He does not hate it. But... it was still kind of a rough evening.'

There was a moment of quiet, while he trailed a hand up and down my arm. 'Are you all right?'

'I am,' I told him, and wanted to feel guilty about it after the grinder I'd just run Wufei through. Though... it wasn't really my fault; the memorial hadn't been my idea in the first place, I suppose. 'I think I got it, Heero. He said that he was glad he trusted me with it.'

There is this moment, when a piece of art is first completed, where you can look at it for what it is and feel... accomplished. It's like this shiny 'new' moment before you start noticing all the little things you could have done better.

Somehow, that moment was spinning out for me... I kept waiting for it to fade, but it lingered on. Maybe because this show wasn't all my hand; there were other artists involved, and an entire foundry crew. I didn't feel quite so much like it was all on my shoulders.

Or maybe it was because this time, it was not my own nightmares and demons spattered across the metaphorical canvas. Which was kind of a twisted thing to think, but there you go.

'I can't wait for you to see it, Heero,' I told him, and could kind of tell that it pleased him. I levered up so I could see the kind of smile he was wearing and got a little lost in the look on his face.

Pride. It still shocks me and thrills me to see that in his eyes. Does something almost painful in the center of my chest.

Carefully, I took a fingertip and ran it from the hollow of his throat, across his chest and down his stomach. His breath hitched and his eyelids fluttered closed. I watched carefully what I was doing, making sure I kept the pressure light. He loves it when I touch him with my hands and I'd been trying harder to not let it be such a big deal to me. When I nudged a knee between his legs and he immediately opened his thighs and invited me to lie there... I knew what kind of night it was going to be.

In the end, it was a good thing the show wasn't until the evening; I don't think we were out of bed before almost noon.

Mindful of Aleyah's fashion warning, I dithered that afternoon for a bit over what the hell to wear. So the tux was too much? Mechanic coveralls were probably too crass. Didn't leave a whole lot of variety. Came real damn close to pulling on the 'My inner child wants a cookie' t-shirt just because it had seemed like I should have been running a mental day care lately, but it was a little too impudent even for me. Settled on a dress shirt with a good pair of jeans and called it a day.

Knowing Aleyah, after last time, she was probably prepared with an outfit in the back of the gallery and would make me change if she totally hated what I was wearing anyway.

I needed to find a t-shirt that read 'Starving Artist' for next time.

Somewhere during the drive downtown I kind of lost the high, and started worrying just a little bit about the reception the thing was going to get. Just because Wufei had given her his stamp of approval didn't mean the rest of the world would get it.

'Man,' I muttered looking out the side window and watching the houses go by much, much too fast, 'sure hope this isn't a flop... Aleyah will kill me. And I'll have to listen to Stan Kirby tell everybody he told them so.'

Behind the wheel, Heero kind of chuckled. 'I wondered when your nerves were going to catch up to you.'

Made me snort a laugh. 'Somehow at midnight last night, the unveiling seemed like... I dunno... an anti-climax? A formality?'

'Last night you said it didn't really matter what anybody else thought of it,' He said reasonably.

'Funny how the light of day changes ones perspective.' And it was his turn to laugh. 'You think Wufei will come?'

'He wouldn't miss it for the world,' Heero said and I had to stop watching suburbia blur into downtown just to turn and see what that warmth in his voice was.

'Yeah?' I prompted.

'He's been gearing himself up for this since you first talked to him about it,' I was told. 'For awhile, I think he was half serious about fleeing the city until it was all over, but...' and here he hesitated a moment, as if not sure he should share the next part, 'he wants to be there in support of your work.'

A decision made before he'd even seen the damn thing.

Wow.

Sure hope he wasn't sorry about that choice now. Maybe I should have told him he didn't have to? Or... had I? It had been a long night; maybe I had.

'Wonder who all else is going to be there?' I mused and Heero laughed again.

'Easier to wonder who won't,' he teased.

And then it was show time.

We were, as I had been warned, 'prompt', and had to be let in by one of the black dress squad. There was the usual pre-opening hustle and bustle, the placing of the flowers... some kind of lush blue thing this time; something I didn't recognize but then I'm far from a horticulturist. This was always a last minute ritual, I had found, to make sure the flowers were as fresh as possible. The gallery was filled with the faint, sweet smell of them.

I pulled Heero through the dance they were making, around into the main gallery and brought him to a stop in front of the memorial, just as I'd done with Wufei, and kind of watched him look.

It didn't hit him the way it had Wufei, of course, but it hit him all the same.

'Damn, Duo...' he breathed, not quite able to look away from the face of L5 long enough to look at me.

'Is that a good damn?' I asked, keeping my voice low so that the half a dozen witnesses buzzing around us weren't also eavesdroppers.

'Yeah.' He said, and it was a word that was just full of other stuff that wanted saying, but would have to do in front of other people. He did tear his gaze away then, to look over at me. 'Yeah... it is.'

And really... what else could I ask for? In the grand scheme of things, there weren't a lot of opinions that mattered to me here; that Aleyah, Wufei, and Heero thought I'd done a good job was pretty much all that counted.

Well... and Stan Kirby. Because as either Aleyah had said, or I'd thought... I wanted to rub his nose in it.

'I better check in with Aleyah,' I told him then, and left him to look around while I hunted down the ringmaster of this circus.

It was a whirlwind opening, more so than my own, and dear lord but Heero had been right... when those doors opened, it was a who's who of our history; Wufei and Sally, Trowa and Quatre, Zechs and Noin, Relena escorted by good ol' Paragon. Even Lady Une. It was trippy.

There was the meeting and greeting stuff, of course, but in between, I just watched people.

Wufei had come in traditional garb; the white I remembered from the war. He and Sally drifted around the room together and I could see him telling her stories as they looked at some of the photographs. He seemed... I don't know... not as tense as I'd expected him to be. There was a peace in him that I hadn't thought to see on that day of all days. But I suppose he'd had the night to get his inner child in line. Wufei would have made a hell of a poker player; I knew him well enough to know that his composure would be iron clad for the duration. I hoped that peace was more than skin deep.

Quatre had to come and hug me and leak in my general direction a bit, the whole thing seeming to press on his sensitivity in another thing I hadn't anticipated.

'She's just beautiful, Duo,' he told me... the first person to speak to me of the memorial in a humanizing way.

Trowa was right there at his side, supplying a kind of gentle support. Quatre's state seeming to bring out his protective tendencies. Again, I was struck by how they had no problem presenting themselves to the world firmly as a couple.

'Excellent work,' he interjected and bent his head toward the statue. 'That base... is that what it looks like?'

I couldn't help grinning at him, the first to notice. 'Yeah; the Sweepers had salvage still; Howard was more than happy to donate it to the cause.'

He pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. 'It all came together perfectly.'

'And Wufei seems pleased?' Quatre said, and we all three glanced that way, watching Wufei and Sally as Noin joined them in front of Wufei's display.

'He is,' I confirmed. 'I brought him out last night for a... private viewing.'

They both seemed happy to hear it; almost relieved, really. They wandered off to talk with Wufei himself for a bit and I found myself with Lady Une standing at my elbow.

'I suppose,' she said by way of introduction, 'I can understand why a mechanic's position wasn't enough to keep your interest, Mr. Maxwell.'

I chuckled and gave her a nod of greeting. 'Not that it wasn't interesting, Ma'am,' I replied, 'but it was starting to interfere with what turned out to be my day job.'

She laughed out right, not bothering to even look like she was trying to stifle it. 'And a much more lucrative day job it is. Though I do believe you broke Mr. Jones' heart.'

Oh man... I'd kind of forgotten about the guy. I wondered if he was there or not, or... maybe opening night was a 'by invitation' only kind of thing. Wonder if he rated? To be honest... I kind of hoped not; he was something of a fan. He'd probably end up explaining the nuances of my own work to me.

'Well,' I quipped, 'I suppose you could call me in on consults, but... I'm afraid I'll be a little pricier than a mechanic's salary.'

She laughed again, not caring when several people looked our way, just saluted me with the champagne glass she was holding, said 'I'll keep that in mind,' and took her leave.

Weird damn evening.

It was quite the crowd, and I managed to lose myself in it for awhile, just wandering around and catching snippets of conversation, pleased that half of it was about the rest of the show, that unlike last time... the focus wasn't all on the artist of the moment. Made the whole affair easier to deal with. Across the gallery, I saw Wufei in conversation with someone who was obviously of Chinese decent, Trowa and Quatre standing with them. Might have been one of the other artists. I entertained a fantasy that it was one of the other photographers complementing his work and... I don't know, maybe they'd form a friendship or something. Something that would help ease the pain he'd laid bare in front of me just the night before. Sally wasn't with them, and when I looked around for her, I found her standing right in front of the memorial, regarding it thoughtfully. I went to join her.

She had one of the champagne glasses, sipping from it occasionally. The atmosphere around her was... strange. Strange enough that she had herself a little oasis of personal space. I stepped into it and though she didn't turn toward me, she instantly acknowledged my presence. Before I could speak, she gave out with a weird little sound that was trying for amusement.

'It's fantastic work, Duo,' she said. 'She's... beautiful. No damn wonder I could never quite compete.'

It was not anywhere in the realm of things I'd been expecting her to say. If I'd been asked to list out the top hundred possible things... I would not have even come close. So I floundered.

'Sorry,' she murmured, having the grace to look embarrassed, and glanced over at me. 'How about I try that again. Fantastic work, Duo. You did a beautiful job.'

Well damn. I remembered Wufei telling me that he'd not told Sally about his dead wife, or perhaps I'd misunderstood the part he hadn't shared?

Whatever, I couldn't just stand there and let that get swept under the rug. I moved in and slipped an arm around her in a hug.

'Come on, M'lady,' I told her. 'Like I'm going to ignore a line like that.'

She snorted, and she sighed, and then she kind of hung her head.

'You're getting as bad as the rest of them,' she said, taking another sip of her drink, but at least returning the hug.

'I don't think it's a competition,' I told her.

She sighed again. 'Feels like it,' she murmured. 'I love Wufei dearly, but... there's always been a shadow there. And seeing him here tonight... I know, somehow, that she's that shadow. That ghost.'

I didn't know what in the hell to say. Kind of bugged me, really, that I was in a position to give her information about her boyfriend that she didn't have. Shouldn't her relationship with Wufei have been closer than mine?

But then... looking back... I could remember a time of talking to Trowa about things I didn't feel I could share with Heero.

'Who is she, Duo?' she asked and I just flat choked. I wanted to tell her; wanted to give her the whole story and hand her the key to understanding a part of her partner she obviously didn't. But... it was not my story to tell and Wufei had specifically asked me to keep it to myself. I couldn't betray that trust no matter how much the confusion in her eyes begged me to. I was opening my mouth to say, 'Nataku' when another voice joined the conversation.

'My wife,' Wufei said, and Sally forgot I was there. That calm I'd seen in him earlier seemed to still be there, and his expression was for her and it was sad and it was loving and it was sorry, and I left them alone to have what would probably be a hard conversation. It was not my place.

Somehow Sally's champagne glass had ended up in my hand, and I took it with me as I walked on. Just a prop and I swirled the liquid for awhile, trying for a contemplative look, but soon found it a bother and dropped it off with the next tray carrying young lady who ventured by. Ahead of me, in the curve of the gallery, I caught a glimpse of platinum blond and realized I was about to cross paths with Zechs. Remembering my last meeting with the man, I reversed engines in a hard veer to port and almost ran Relena over.

'Whoa, Princess,' I blurted, 'sorry about that! Didn't see you there.'

'Mr. Maxwell,' she greeted with a funny little grin. 'Do I mistake what I'm seeing or are you running away from my brother?'

'I wouldn't call it running away,' I protested, feeling my face heat up. 'Just... a prudent delay in a conversation that could be... loud.'

She kind of giggled and then hooked my arm to lead me back down the gallery. I was relieved to see that Wufei and Sally had taken their conversation elsewhere.

'I suppose this isn't the place for him to apologize,' she said airily.

'Pardon me?' I had to ask, giving her my dumbfounded look. 'Are you serious? I'm the one who decked him, if you will recall? If there's an apology owed, it's probably me. I guess.'

'Such conviction there,' she teased, leading us back to stop in front of the sculpture. 'You saved my life, and from one of his own. He was a complete cad that day. If an apology is owed... he owes it.'

'Somehow I can't see that happening,' I muttered and then, 'Cad? Really? Is that the best you can do?'

She wasn't like Lady Une and made the effort to stifle the laugh. 'Please; we are in a public place.'

'That we are,' I agreed, and then dropped it. 'So... the little lady here is going to end up living at your place, I hear?'

She looked up at the statue with a little frown and I suddenly wondered if she approved of it. Wondered if she had a choice.

'Uh... is that ok with you?' Not like I could do anything about it at that point, other than maybe feel a little bad over it, but I was kind of interested in her opinion.

She gave me the raised eyebrow look that spoke of an understanding of the absurdity of the question. But she didn't say anything, turning back to the statue and kind of tiling her head to look at it, like it was going to give her a different perspective.

'It doesn't have a lot to say about peace,' is what she finally said.

I turned to gaze up at my creation. Funny how I'd never really stopped to think about what Relena would think. I'd been told that the final home for the thing would be in Sanc, but somehow she'd been so far off my radar, I hadn't even wondered about her thoughts on the matter. Guess I could understand why the Queen of Pacifists wasn't exactly thrilled with the L5 sacrifice being embodied by a warrior Goddess.

I didn't bother to explain that the project had not been about peace in the first place... it had taken me long enough to figure that out myself.

'It says that peace is hard won,' I said. 'And a fragile thing.'

She did not look convinced, and was just opening her mouth to argue her point when there was the sound of a chime. My patron and her two partners, all dressed to the nines with a bizarre kind of color coordinated thing going on, were moving front and center for the big show. I pulled Relena back a few paces and positioned her in what I knew was going to be best vantage. 'Wait here,' I told her, 'I have to go find Heero.'

Jack Lee was beginning a speech that I figured would take a few moments, and I took off in search of my missing lover... I didn't want him to miss the next part. I found him in the exit gallery, looking at my display with Trowa and Quatre. I waved to them and we joined the flow of people heading in to the main gallery. It was going to be impossible for everybody in there to be in a position to see the damn thing, so I knew that first night, after the initial display at the exact appointed time... it would run again, but I kind of wanted Heero and the guys to get to see it the first round. Don't know why it mattered, but somehow... it did. I was a little nervous about getting us back through the crowd, but then my Patron summoned me and the sea parted before us. I left the others with Relena and answered Aleyah's call.

I had a moment of fear that she was expecting me to make some damn speech or other, but apparently Mr. Lee had handled that part already and they just wanted to present me. There was a round of polite applause that made me blush to the roots of my hair. Then Aleyah handed me the magic remote control and said, 'Mr. Maxwell... if you would do the honor?'

So I got to stand there facing my little knot of family, and see their faces while the pyrotechnics went off. Made the whole stupid, complicated, uncomfortable, painful process kind of worth it. And I'd been right... I could not have cared less what any of the rest of those people thought.

Heero was just... enthralled. Quatre's face was flooded with tears. Trowa looked... awestruck. Even Relena seemed to be looking at it in a different way. Her somewhat dour expression had been traded for one that was more... contemplative.

I hoped wherever Wufei and Sally were, that they were really talking things out.

There was another round of applause, this one a little more enthusiastic. On a sudden thought, I snuck a glance at Mr. Kirby and found him with a somewhat smug and happy smile all over his face. I was not completely able to stop the roll of my eyes. I imagined that he would be telling everybody about his faith in my work.

And I supposed it would be in my best interest to smile and nod. Guess every business had its own politics.

I turned and handed the remote back to Aleyah and caught her smiling at me with a possessive air that was quickly gone when she saw me looking her way.

'Do not disappear, Pet,' she commanded. 'There will be photographs later. And we need to schedule a meeting.'

'Meeting?' I asked, confused. Weren't we kind of past all that part? What was to talk about? A debriefing?

'About the book, dear boy,' she said, patting my cheek. 'The Making of the L5 Memorial. There's always a book.'

Well, who knew? 'Yes Ma'am.'

She was done with me for the moment, and after hardy handshakes, so were Mr. Lee and Mr. Kirby. They went their way, and I went to join my group.

As I walked up, Trowa was carefully wiping at Quatre's face, a teasing smile on his own face. I was envious of their easiness... their comfort in their own skins.

I was moved to go and slip an arm around Heero's waist and before I had a chance to second guess myself... I just did it. His arm was instantly around me and the smile I got was pure and happy. It could not have been faked. Maybe it was time I stopped worrying so damn much about blending in.

Hell... I think I'd stopped blending a long time ago.

It still made me feel twitchy, but... at least in that place... nobody was giving us a second glance. In light of a couple of certain recent events... sure as hell wasn't much of me left in the closet anyway.

The rest of the evening was as expected. We wandered and we mingled and we watched the light show a second time. I answered questions and even signed a damn autograph which will never cease to make me feel weird as hell. Pretentiousness at its finest.

I was ready to be done ages before Aleyah was done with me. The other guys had long since gone, and the gallery was closed before she had all the photographs she wanted and I was allowed to leave too.

I settled into the car with a heavy sigh. 'I am so sorry this took so long,' I told Heero, but he just graced me with a warm smile while he went about the business of taking us home.

'I had a good time,' he told me and he wasn't just being polite, you could tell.

We were half way home before it hit me that I would be packing for a trip to L3 the next day, and the nausea kicked in. I refrained from mentioning it. I'm not a complete moron about spoiling moods. Sometimes I do know when to keep my mouth shut. And even better, I sometimes actually do it.

It's funny though, that the 'high' I'd had the night before didn't really follow the opening the way it had Wufei's preview. From everything I'd heard, the reception had overall been positive. People seemed to like the work. Seemed to get the work, which I hadn't been sure about.

It gave me hope that I'd be able to handle this job in the long term, because I'd been a little nervous about that... had wondered how I would handle it if someday I displayed something that flopped. But it really didn't seem to matter to me what the majority of the world thought; as long as my core fan club liked my work. The person I was creating for liked it.

'Hey Heero?' I said after we'd driven in companionable silence for awhile.

'Yeah?' he said, glancing my way.

'Promise me you'll always be up front with me about my art?' I asked and he kind of grunted. 'If you think something sucks, tell me it sucks, ok?'

I'd half expected him to sputter out a denial, but he actually took a moment to think through what I was saying before he said, 'I promise,' in a kind of solemn sort of way. And he didn't even ask me what had brought that on.

I grinned at him and we went on home.

Next day, I woke with a burning need to do copious amounts of yard work. Lots and lots of sweaty, tedious, time consuming yard work. I saw Heero come out on the back steps at some point, and he watched me mercilessly hacking at the weeds around the base of the storage shed for a while, and then he just went back in the house.

Guy was learning.

If there was grass on it, I mowed it. If there were weeds on it, I decimated it. If it had limbs, I pruned it. I went through five of our yard waste bags and didn't go back in the house until there wasn't time to do more than shower and go to bed.

Oh... and pack. Would squeeze that in there between the last two as quick as possible and just try really hard not to remember why.

Probably shouldn't have surprised me to come out of the bathroom from taking my shower to find my duffle bag sitting by the bedroom door, all neatly zippered up. I trusted that whatever clothes Heero had stuffed in there would be appropriate for painting in zero gravity.

'Thanks,' I told him sheepishly, and if the towel I was using on my hair kind of kept him from seeing the blush... it was pure coincidence. Really.

I had sort of assumed that the packing had meant he was working with me on the whole 'ignore it until it couldn't be ignored' thing, but... I realized pretty quick; not so much.

He was sitting on the edge of our bed and he had that look on his face that means he's thinking so hard it just has to show. Mostly in that little frown line. I sighed, dropped the towel in the pile we made for dirty clothes by the door and went to stand in front of him.

I made him blink when I used a knuckle to rub over that furrow in his brow. 'When we're old and that line is a permanent wrinkle... I'm going to be consumed with guilt.'

He quirked a half-grin and put his arms around my hips to pull me closer. 'And the gray hairs? Will those make you feel guilty too?'

'Nah,' I told him. 'Because it'll be more silver, and you'll look all Sean Connery hot.'

He opened his mouth to voice his incomprehension of the line, but I could see him dismiss it and change tracks. 'Are we going to talk about this now?'

So much for the idea of spending the evening introducing him to twentieth century spy movies. I sighed and hugged his head to my chest.

'Hear that?' I asked. 'I'm not completely freaked out. I'm not... entirely comfortable, but I'm not about to puke in the bed.'

He snorted a little sound that wasn't real amusement, more like... an acknowledgement that I'd made a joke. But he wrapped his arms on around me and kind of nuzzled his face more comfortably against my chest and... just listened to my heartbeat.

I played with his hair and tried to think about boring crap.

'Just tell me why you're doing this,' he finally said and it made me blink at the wall.

'Why?' I pressed and kind of knew I wasn't supposed to be going over the itinerary of what we'd be doing during the flight.

'I want to know you're going because you want to,' he said and drew back then to look up at me. 'And not because you feel like you have to.'

I couldn't help but grin. 'And not because Toria is making me?' I didn't get the laugh there either. 'Heero, I may feel an obligation to redo their paintings, but I do not feel like I have to do it while in route to L3.'

'And you want to do this?' he asked again, not really happy with the answer.

I moved away, climbing up on the bed beside him, presenting him with my back so he could braid my hair for me. 'Yeah, I kind of do,' I said, though I realized that didn't exactly sound all yeehaw, yippee-skippy thrilled.

It took a second before I felt his hands begin to comb through my wet hair, preparing to braid it out of the way for the night. He didn't say anything, so I figured the ball was still in my court.

'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I know you're not happy with my need to keep throwing myself at a horse suffering with rigor mortis, but... maybe Toria is just a little, tiny bit right?'

'Can we leave Victoria out of this?' he asked, almost interrupting me, because I hadn't quite been done with that thought. 'I think I'm just not convinced that this isn't...'

'All her fault?' I chuckled and he kind of huffed an unhappy sigh. One that sort of admitted to the irony of him thinking the woman who thought he had me brain-washed, had me brain-washed. It took a lot of work for me not to laugh.

'No,' I assured him. 'This is not all her fault. Yeah, she presented the opportunity, and yeah she may be pressuring me. But this is because I seriously don't like having this... hole in me.'

His hands on my hair were all... extra gentle. Made me want to tell him I wasn't fragile any more, but I didn't. I knew where his head was, and I suppose I really couldn't blame him. But he still didn't quite seem to be ready to take the stupid conversational ball.

'Look,' I finally said, 'when Quatre made that trip to Vancouver, nobody even sneezed. Last time Trowa took off to visit his sister, there wasn't any huge deal made out of it...'

'It's not the same thing,' he said, and his hand appeared in my line of sight, palm up, asking for the hair tie. I gave it to him. 'You know why it's different for you...'

'Of course I do,' I said, and bit my tongue on the 'no fucking duh' part. 'But it shouldn't be different for me.'

Done with my hair, he moved out from behind me and crawled up to his side of the bed; I followed and settled on his chest where I could look up at his face.

'Well,' I conceded after a moment's thought on that last line. 'Maybe not as different. I'm never going to be a pilot again, and I don't want that anyway... I just want to be able to go back out there if I want to, and not have my plans dictated to me by my own fears.'

And why did that finally seem to ease that little furrow of concern?

'I just worry,' he said, after thinking about it a minute. 'I can't help it... I was there...'

'I know,' I soothed, 'But you know why it was so bad last time.' I didn't want to rub salt in that wound, but... yeah; we both knew why that had been such an epic fail. Or what had exacerbated it so bad.

He couldn't help the pained look, but all he said was, 'I know.' In a tone that was full of the I'm sorry he didn't voice out loud.

'I just want to get over this enough to be able to go to L2 for Christmas if we decide we want to,' I told him, just leaving that other stuff behind. 'Or what if I end up having shows somewhere off-planet? I can hardly tell Aleyah Winner I can't make it because I have issues.'

There was that ease of tensions again. Nothing huge, just something in his eyes that truly did look... soothed.

'Heero,' I asked, going with some kind of gut-instinct. 'You're not... you're not worried that I'm going to get out there and decide... what? What's going on in that head of yours?'

He kind of huffed a sigh, like he hadn't thought I was picking up on the roil of anxiety that was different than his normal anxiety he seemed to have over me. He dropped his had back so that he was looking up at the ceiling instead of at me and just kind of came out with it. 'I guess I'm just nervous that you're... that if you...'

Well, he kind of came out with it. But then he kind of stalled and all the pieces sort of fell into place in my head.

'Heero Yuy,' I demanded, 'are you afraid I'm going to get over this, and go back to salvage work? That I'm going to take off and... leave?'

He couldn't answer immediately, but when he met my eyes, you could pretty much see it right there. Maybe not that exact scenario, but close enough. Afraid of losing me... one way or the other.

Should probably not have given me a warm fuzzy in the center of my chest like it did.

'Asshole,' I grumbled, and kissed him. 'I'm not going anywhere. I'm not here because I need you... I'm here because I love you.'

He quirked this sappy little effort of a grin that tried valiantly to cover up what a relief that had been for him to hear. 'Oh, that sounds so very reassuring...'

'You know what I mean,' I said and then... well, words didn't seem like a very good method of communication right then anyway.

He was asleep very soon after, though it took me quite awhile to shut my brain off enough to sleep too. Was kind of surprised to make it through the night without dreams though. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised all the same.

I didn't even offer to drive myself the next morning, because I knew he'd need to see me off. And while I wasn't exactly having to give cookies to my inner child, I was glad it was an early morning launch and not an evening one... there wasn't much yard work left to do.

Dressing the next morning, I was standing in front of the closet debating between the 'chew through the restraints' shirt and the 'flying monkeys' shirt when Heero came in to the room with probably the bizarrest expression I have ever seen on his face. Embarrassed and smug rolled into something I don't think I'd ever seen there before.

'Will you do me a favor?' he asked, and that was about when I noticed he had one hand behind his back. I will never tell him how my heart dropped into my boots... because that was almost the exact wording he'd used last time when he'd displayed the meds he'd gotten for the L2 trip.

'What?' I asked cautiously, half of me not wanting to deny him anything, since he so rarely asked, and half of me spoiling for a fight if a bottle of pills was coming into play in a second.

'Would you... mind wearing this?' and he handed me a shirt. It was so not what I'd been expecting that I kind of froze for a minute. 'If... if you don't mind.'

'Heero,' I had to ask, 'where in the hell did you even find a 'I heart Grumpy' t-shirt?'

'Ebay,' he said sheepishly. 'You can find anything on the internet if you search long enough.'

I took it from his hands and shook it out and couldn't help the laugh. 'Oh dear God... this is so perfect. When did I infect you with my twisted sense of humor?'

'Maybe I have a twisted sense of humor of my own?' he replied, and the smug was back.

'When the hell...?' I asked as I pulled it on, and when my head emerged from the neck hole, he was closer than he had been and helped me smooth it down.

'Same night we opened the mugs,' he said, delivering a kiss with the line that was pretty damn possessive. 'Same night I knew you were making this trip.'

'You are just so sure of me,' I grumbled in his ear, and he kind of sighed.

'Most of the time.'

'Never doubt me,' I told him, ignoring the teasing that had been in his voice for what I knew was underneath. 'This is where I belong and I'll always come back here.'

'See you do,' he commanded, though what was behind his eyes wasn't nearly as cocky. 'Now come on... wouldn't want to start off this trip with Victoria accusing me of trying to make you late.'

There wasn't much to grab, just my duffle and my paintbox, and Heero assured me that he'd make sure to let Wufei know that I'd used his gift for one of those 'on site' deals the guy had been on about.

The drive was only a little bit awkward; Heero did his best to keep the distracting conversational ball in the air, a little too hard sometimes. But I suppose I kept kind of fumbling it on my side, so I was probably throwing him off his game.

'You sure you're all right?' he finally had to ask, after he'd parked and we were sitting in the car staring at a docking field.

'It's weird,' I told him. 'It's kind of not as bad being on the commercial side instead of the public side.' And I wasn't even lying to make him feel better.

'More familiar?' he asked, always trying to delve into my screwy psyche.

'I don't know,' I confessed. 'That's part of it, and I think the other part is that I know who's piloting this time and... it's somebody I trust.'

But that kind of left me wondering... I'd been the fool piloting the first time. Did that mean I didn't trust myself? When I tried to make that mental shift, imaging myself at the helm, damned if the anxiety level didn't kick up a little bit. I could do it, I knew I could do it, I'd proved it more than once now. But I didn't really have any faith in being able to handle a crisis. Even though... I guess I'd managed that a couple of times now too. But I was never going to know just which crisis would be the trigger that I finally couldn't handle. Or... maybe I did know, since there'd been a thing or two I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I would not have gotten through without Heero there to shore me up and shove my ass in gear. A lot of no-duh crap there, I guess. Just kind of weird to have it all served up at once on a platter with 'Buddy's Gift' scrawled on the side of it.

I became aware of the fact that Heero was holding my hand probably a little tight. I squeezed back and smiled across at him.

'I'm never going to be able to pilot again,' I told him. 'At least not for a living. But... I think I can learn to deal with the rest of it, given enough time.'

He pulled my hand up and kissed the back of my knuckles. 'You just tell me what you need.'

'All I need,' I smiled, 'is for you to be here when I get back. And not get tired of waiting for me to get my shit together.'

He was probably going to say something equally sappy in return, but the sudden loud slap of a pair of hands on the hood of his car had us both jumping a foot in the air.

'I'm on a schedule, love-birds!' Toria hollered at us with a malicious grin plastered across her face. Let's move it, buddy-boy!'

I think we both glared at her, but she just laughed and flipped us off before turning to saunter back toward their ramp where Hayden stood waiting. He just grinned and waved.

'She does not seem the slightest bit intimidated to me,' Heero grumbled and I had to laugh.

'Come on,' I said, since the moment was pretty much shot anyway. 'There is a schedule and I wouldn't want her having that heap hauled to the field over your car.'

He snorted, but we got out and took my stuff up toward the ramp.

'Hey,' Hayden greeted us, shaking Heero's hand and taking the duffle that he'd been carrying.

'You need to restrain your wife, man,' I teased, but he just grinned.

'Restrain Torie?' he laughed. 'You know how well that works!'

And well I did. Probably a lot like trying to restrain Duo Maxwell. Which, looking back, was probably where a whole lot of spacer myths had been born.

'Well here, my good man,' I said haughtily, and handed him my artbox to go with the duffle. 'See this to my cabin, and I expect a mint on the pillow when I get there.'

'You don't want to know what's on your pillow, Maxwell!' Toria's voice boomed over the speaker from the ship and the tone of Hayden's laugh made me nervous.

But he bowed anyway and took my stuff in to give me a moment of obviously not real privacy to say goodbye to Heero. I ignored the invisible audience and turned to watch Heero watching my gear disappear inside with a strange... wistful look.

He wanted to go with me. I could see it in his face as plain as if he'd asked. But... he wouldn't ask. He understood that this was something I needed to do for myself. Maybe my piloting days were over, but my life did not need to be limited to Earth. I could get myself straightened around that much, I was sure of it. Maybe I couldn't get back on the horse that had thrown me, but the pony rides were pretty cool too... right?

'You'll call when you get in, won't you?' he asked, hooking a belt loop and applying just enough pull to let me know what he'd like, but not so much it wasn't my choice. So I stepped in for the embrace he wanted and damned Toria to say anything.

The 'Ewwwwwww!' that resounded over the speaker only made Heero kiss the hell out of me. I grinned at him.

'I will call,' I assured him. 'And I will let you know when we head out.'

But it gave me a funny feeling in my chest when I said it and I thought about my inner child and wondered.

I didn't really need Heero in order to do this thing. I could turn around and I could walk up that ramp and I could strap myself in and make the launch.

'Oh gag me, Hayden!' Toria hollered, making the appropriate sound to go with the line. 'Now they're making goo-goo eyes at each other!'

And I could do this because these were my screwy friends and despite that... I trusted them at the helm. We were not heading off for the belt. We were not going out on a suicidal scavenger run. We were just doing the equivalent of driving across state. Just... in a grander scale.

Heero kissed me again, and I would not have bet money that he wasn't flipping off the camera behind my back.

I did not need Heero in order to do this thing.

But...

What if I wanted Heero? Was that not an all together different thing?

'You be careful out there,' he told me softly, gave me a smile and turned to head back down the ramp.

There was a feeling in my chest but it wasn't fear. I kind of groped that feeling and felt it all the hell up, but... I wasn't afraid of walking into that ship without Heero there with me. I was going to miss him. I was going to want to share it with him. I was going to regret not being able to dance with him and introduce him to Hayden and Toria's kids, to give him a chance to know my friends.

Maybe it was time I stopped shoving him away, just to prove I could stand on my own? Maybe I really didn't need to prove anything to anybody at this point... especially not to myself.

'Hey!' I hollered, and he stopped at the bottom of the ramp to look back at me and maybe I imagined the spark of hope in his eyes. Or maybe I didn't. But it cemented my decision in my mind. 'Would you... like to come along?'

His answering grin was enough, but he said, 'I have to go park the car. How long do I have?'

I glanced at my watch, but Toria hollered, 'Thirty seconds!' over the speaker behind me. Then Hayden came on and said, 'Twenty minutes. Plenty of time... I'll find a second mint. Welcome aboard, Mr. Yuy.'

Heero saluted the ship and headed for the car at a decently fast pace.

I leaned against a strut to wait for him to come back. Figured I'd give Hayden a few minutes to talk to his pissy wife in private. Plus... I didn't think they'd call for the tow with me still standing on the ramp.

Heero would have to park the car at long term, and was probably calling Wufei already. I wondered what he'd tell him. I wondered if he'd had a contingency plan, just in case. I wondered if there was a second toothbrush and a change of clothes that weren't mine, in my bag.

When I saw Heero jogging back from the parking lot, his own duffle over his shoulder, I called up the ramp.

'Queue the music, Spacer-girl, and let's get this heap of junk moving.'

It took a moment, and I wondered if they were still arguing back there. Well... I'd sweeten Toria's mood once we got underway and I explained that she was working for my kid brother. She'd learn to like Heero, or I'd know the damn reason why.

I grinned when the music began to play and held out my hand to take Heero's when he started the climb.

'You got to go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do, with whoever you wanna do it with....'

This... could maybe even be fun.

OWARI

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