Author: Sunhawk

Warnings : Yaoi, angst/sap/romance, citrusy moments, OOC, language, Duo POV, unrepentant use of pet-names.

Thanks to Christy, the beta reader I have not been able to break. ^__~

Thanks also to Kitana for artistic technical suggestions, Kracken for opinions rendered, and Plaiddragon for the loan of the Zechs plot-bunny.

Feed-back is a dream I have.

And I don't own anything in this series, either.

Connections

Connections

Why do things keep taking me by surprise? Why did it never once cross my mind that Captain Yancy 'meet my son the illegal co-pilot' Gray would attempt to dispute the charges Heero made against him? Why, once that stupid return trip from L2 was over and my sleep-deprived bout of paranoia had eased, did I not realize that we were somewhat out-numbered in the 'their word against ours' department?

Gray, his son, the two flight-attendants and even the damn bar-tender were attempting to claim that the whole fiasco was the fault of two 'hot-shot' ex-Gundam pilots with some sort of twisted need to 'play the hero' even if they had to manufacture a crisis to rush into the middle of.

Heero's and my... delay in reporting to the head of security might have turned into a tactical error on our parts. Ms. Kasten, who had been somewhat on the fence in her opinion of us, was rather unsympathetic after that. I think she took our attitude as... well, attitude that lent credence to Gray's hot-shot accusations without us even realizing what was going on.

Somehow, while we'd taken our sweet time getting back to the shuttle port security office, Gray's son Spencer had managed to get in to see his father. I wouldn't have taken Ms. Kasten for a chief with holes that big in her policy... but who knows how the kid managed it. Captain Gray hadn't wasted the opportunity though, because not long after that, the crew of flight fourteen-ten suddenly had a united front and a story they were sticking to. I imagine all that time locked in his cabin during re-entry had given the good Captain plenty of time to think his situation through and he used it to get his shit together.

It got kind of ugly after that. What we had assumed was going to be a miserable day or two filing paperwork and giving statements had turned into more. A lot more. Gray had opted to take the thing to trial, claiming his innocence. He was going to make us work to prove our allegations, the son of a bitch. And the first smoke-screen he'd thrown up was mucking with the shuttle's black box recorder. While Heero and I had been outside his ship, saving his ass... saving his son's ass... saving the asses of his passengers and crew, Yancy-boy had been in the cock-pit applying enough current to the ship's recorder to assure that the thing was wiped and useless. He was claiming it must have happened during the initial impact that had taken out the deceleration vane. It was... an unbelievable story and nobody in their right mind bought it. Unfortunately, Heero and I were alone in that cockpit just as much as Gray was. We'd had just as much opportunity to 'destroy the evidence' as he had. The question hadn't been so much that the evidence had been tampered with, but more... evidence against whom?

That act had utterly crushed whatever spark of sympathy I might have had left for Captain Yancy Gray. It had turned his impromptu panicked embracing of the opportunity to save his career, into something a hell of a lot more... arranged.

In the Preventor business, they call it pre-meditated murder.

Heero hadn't had any damn sympathy for Gray to start with, but finding out about the black-box had sent him into a seething rage. In his mind, somehow, it had all become about me. Gray had tried to murder me. Gray was lying about me. And I don't suppose by now I have to tell you that Heero has a protective streak wider than a four-lane highway?

The result was his using his standing with Une to turn the case into Preventors' business. With all the scrutiny that entailed. Scrutiny that Heero and Wufei were right in the thick off. Not that he'd had to apply a lot of pressure, Commander Une had not been happy with what was being implied about one of her top agents.

My partner was doing his best to keep me the hell out of it, for which I was eternally grateful, but when it was all said and done, two weeks after our Christmas trip to L2 found me pretty much living the life of a bachelor. Heero and Wufei were out of town, dealing with interviews and trial preparations and I was just trying to maintain 'normal' while great chunks of my life were being turned upside down. Again.

Ever wonder just what it is about me that rubs God the wrong way?

And I could cheerfully kick my own ass for starting the whole Winner sister art gallery ball rolling when I had. If I'd had a clue what we were going to be facing in the days and weeks after that stupid trip, I'd have never in a million years made that call to Trowa. But I hadn't, and I had, and I'd been right to equate the woman with a rat terrier, who had been held on a short leash for far too long, and when she'd been given the ok to approach me... no time had been wasted. Had she not been out of town at the time of the initial call, I have little doubt she'd have been on my doorstep that same night.

And somehow, on the day that I ended up going to meet her for the first time, and Heero was gone because of that stupid trial and not able to be with me... I found a whole new reason to hate Captain Gray.

I can't tell you what I expected Aleyah Winner to be like, I really can't. I'd felt somewhat like the woman had been stalking me ever since she'd first been mentioned. Back before she'd been more than 'the watercolor Winner sister'.

I forget sometimes just how damn many of them there are, and by virtue of that fact, the spread in their ages. Not that I think that Daddy Winner didn't cook them up more than one at a time, but when you've got a brood of thirty children... they aren't all going to be from the same decade. I sometimes have trouble getting my head around the fact that 'Quatre's sister' does not necessarily mean of the same damn generation. Half of them were old enough to be his mother.

Aleyah Winner was one of those, probably in her early to mid forties? not that she would dream of telling you her age, and a damn imposing woman.

A scary woman. A woman with a family name that lent her a certain amount of power that she had parleyed into a social circle that she used like clothing, if that makes any sense. I had this feeling that if you took the woman out of that circle; she would just cease to exist.

She was tall for a Winner, her blond hair darker than Quatre's, but shot with gray that she wore with some amount of... I dunno, not quite pride, but almost like a banner, as though making sure that people knew she was of an age to be taken seriously.

I had little doubt that nothing in her wardrobe cost less than one of my paychecks, and I also doubted she bothered to wear any of it more than once. And that included her shoes and ridiculous hats.

She was the polar opposite of everything I was. The classic, clichéd single rich woman. Right down to her little dog.

Her little dog that was keeping me from truly concentrating on the woman's words. The little dog that was wandering about Quatre's sitting room just as though it owned the place. The little dog that Trowa was currently trailing quite unobtrusively.

Maybe it was Trowa to whom I owed the distraction, and not so much the dog, Cocotte. Because it was damn surreal and kind of amusing to watch the doggy dance he was doing. Cocotte sniffed and wandered, sniffed and wandered. Trowa shifted and trailed, shifted and trailed. Cocotte wandered and... squatted. Trowa nudged and then they started all over again.

And while the corner of Quatre's mouth twitched just slightly whenever Cocotte was thwarted, Aleyah seemed to be totally oblivious to the entire Dog Piss Ballet that her own dog was leading.

The whole bizarre thing at least gave me something else to think about besides the kind of sick tightness in my chest as the woman leafed through my portfolio with a detached aloofness that I couldn't read for the life of me.

I'd about given myself an ulcer picking through sketches and trying to decide what to present for her... God, for her interview, I guess you would call it. Because it sure as hell felt like I was interviewing for a job. A lot of my art is... a little too personal to be showing to anybody, much less to be contemplating showing to a lot of anybodies. It had taken me every second of time between Trowa calling to tell me when to be at their house and actually leaving for the appointment, to pick out a set of sketches that didn't leave me cringing. I'd settled on some from the time period right around when Hayden had met Toria, back in the days when he and I had been hanging around together and contemplating a partnership in the trade. Those had been... not bad days. Most of the sketches from then were studies and portraits, some memories and some fanciful stuff. But there wasn't a lot of the darker crap that started surfacing after I'd been out on my own for awhile.

But it was still my art, it was still bits and pieces of... me that she was carefully leafing through with those exquisitely painted nails.

'And where did you say you studied, dear?' she asked as she turned a page to look closer at a portrait of Hayden in free-fall.

I let out a sigh and tried not to let myself rub at the back of my neck. 'Ah... I've never actually been to art school,' I confessed, cringing inwardly and waiting for her to dismiss the whole thing, but her eyes flicked up from the page and she graced me with a look that made me feel decidedly like a side-dish.

'Oh,' she purred thoughtfully. 'Raw talent? I like that.'

I felt the heat rising into my cheeks and I glanced toward Trowa the second she turned her attention back to the sketches, trying to catch some clue from him. When he finished suggesting to Cocotte that she not pee on the floor for the tenth time, he met my gaze and gave me a small smile.

I tried to be reassured by it. Beside me, Quatre delicately cleared his throat. 'Would you care for more tea, Duo?'

I glanced from my full cup to meet his eyes and got a wink that was designed to tell me his support was behind me and not his sister. Or something like that. I honestly wasn't real sure. It was kind of hard to tell, because my 'baby brother' was so damn busy being happy as a little gilded clam over my 'breaking into the art world', that he couldn't stop beaming at me. It made for some damn mixed signals.

'No thanks,' I mumbled, just for appearances sake, because there was certainly no room in the little china cup for more tea. Though it served to make me remember the stuff and I took a sip. I'm not a big fan of tea, I'd have rather had a bottle of soda, and not just for the label I could have been peeling into confetti. But today seemed to be all about appearances. And of course, that thought only served to remind me of how tight my damn collar felt and I found myself reaching to tug at it and made myself stop.

Somewhere in there, I realized I'd missed something and I blinked up to find Aleyah looking at me expectantly.

'Pardon?' I managed.

'Pay attention, dear,' she smiled bemusedly and I felt my face flame. She laughed a dainty little laugh that still managed to chill my blood and said, 'I am so going to enjoy you.'

I fell back on my carp imitation and beside me Quatre sighed with a hint of resignation in it, chiding, 'Aleyah... be nice.'

The woman actually pouted in an almost elegant way... don't ask me how that's done because I couldn't have reproduced the expression if I'd tried, and brushed aside Quatre's warning with a wave of her hand. 'Quatre-pet you are simply no fun at all.'

Quatre didn't bother to reply, and she didn't seem to expect him to. I suspected it was a scene they played out quite often and it made me wonder about her... habits.

'I said,' Aleyah turned her attention back to me. 'If you are paying attention now, darling, that this piece is very interesting. What do you call it?'

I blinked down at the sketch she had it tilted for me to see, showing me a study I'd done of a downed Leo. It was quite detailed in the damage that could be done to metal by a beam scythe. That was the whole focus of the picture actually; how the metal curled just so.

Ok... maybe one or two of the sketches had been a little darker than the others. I did say that some of them were memories, didn't I?

'Call it?' I stammered, looking between her and the sketch.

She gave out with an exasperated little sigh. 'I must have titles, dear,' she informed me somewhat dismissively, as though she had just delegated some task. 'The Frenchman brought an artist in just last month that couldn't title worth diddly. Sweet girl, but absolutely no imagination. We simply can not do the 'untitled-101' thing again so soon. You will have to title.'

She was already turning the page while I was still dealing with the fact that she had just informed me in her non-informative way, that she was going to sponsor me. Quatre made a noise and I glanced at him to see him doing that beaming thing again. Guess he'd gotten the same message I had.

Aleyah was pausing over a study I had done of Toria's hands. It had struck me one day, how different her hands were from some of the women I had happened to meet near the end of the war. Women like Relena with their porcelain skin and manicured nails. Toria had a spacer's hands; calloused and scarred. Blunt-nailed and strong. But no less beautiful in their own way.

I felt my own hands curl around my tea cup.

Suddenly Aleyah turned the page toward me and commanded. 'Name this one.'

I blinked at her in surprise and finally faltered out with, 'Uh? 'Victoria's Hands'?'

The woman actually rolled her eyes at me. 'Oh darling... you suck at this,' I was told in a rather resigned little tone. She turned the sketch back around and swept her gaze over it again. 'Competence,' she said after a moment's consideration. 'We shall title this one 'Competence'.'

I honest to God was surprised that she got that part. I glanced up to meet her eyes and was graced with a tasteful little smirk. 'I shall do the titling, I think,' she said, and there was such an air of command about her that I found myself nodding, still trying to get my brain around the fact that the prim Ms. Winner had just used the word 'suck'.

Then she shut the portfolio with a certain finality. 'These are lovely, pet, but I will need more current work from you.'

It startled me, that she had known somehow that the sketches weren't new. 'I can manage that... I think,' I replied, trying to figure out if I had anything current that was... audience friendly.

'Quatre-love,' she said, almost as though my answer hadn't mattered. 'I want to display that portrait of your charming lover. It is exquisite; you must let me have it.'

I missed the look on Quatre's face, because my attention leapt in Trowa's direction to catch his reaction to the comment. He finished his step in the doggy ballet and looked up to meet not mine, but Quatre's gaze, and he shrugged unconcernedly.

'It's not for sale,' Quatre replied firmly, once he had confirmation that his 'charming lover' didn't mind having his picture trotted out for the art world to see.

'Of course it isn't dear,' Aleyah reassured. 'It's a must to have several pieces labeled as part of a 'private collection'.' She tossed a small wink in her brother's direction. 'I wouldn't sell your precious Trowa.'

Then she was pulling out a massive day-planner and was all business. 'I have a block scheduled in my name at the gallery in two weeks. My potter canceled on me... something to do with her job. I deplore artists with day jobs. You don't have a day job, do you dear?' She never glanced up as she busily made notations and so missed my patented deer-in-headlights routine.

'Aleyah,' Quatre warned, his tone implying a certain amount of exasperation. 'You know he does? I told you about it.'

'Quite right, pet,' she replied, topic already forgotten, or dismissed, or some damn thing. 'No matter... his work is exquisite. I won't miss the opportunity to make him one of mine.'

Whatever look came over my face then was enough that Trowa actually gave in to a snicker. I was lost in visions of Aleyah Winner in a house full of pet artists... all dressed in collars and not much else. Oh God... what had I gotten myself into?

'I just have time to have the pamphlets printed, dear,' she was saying and I tried to focus on the meaning behind her words. Pamphlets? What fucking pamphlets? 'If we get you to the photographer immediately.' She pulled out a business card, jotted something on the back and handed it to me. 'Have yourself at the studio on Monday. I'll handle everything else.'

'But...' I stammered, and stopped, disgusted with myself. Was I going to stammer every damn line I delivered to the woman? 'I have to work, I can't possibly?'

She laughed lightly. 'You do get a lunch hour, don't you darling?' she reached across and tapped delicately at the card in my hand. 'Note the time on the back of the card. Don't worry... Jacques is a wonderful photographer. He'll have you done and back playing with your silly little cars in plenty of time.'

It dawned on me in there somewhere, just how Aleyah Winner got her way in everything, and I had no doubt that she did... she simply kept everyone around her so damn off-balance that they never thought to object to anything.

'Now that that's settled,' she said breezily, making a couple more notes before closing the planner. 'I'm going to need some more pieces from you by the end of the week. Your sketch work is extraordinary, but I would prefer at least two paintings as well; I don't want your scope to seem too... narrow.'

'Paintings?' I queried, refusing to stammer again.

'You do have paintings, don't you?' she pressed. 'I've seen your terribly unorthodox? ship's work, pet, and I simply must have paintings.'

Two paintings by the end of the week? 'That? shouldn't be a problem,' I heard myself saying; suddenly loathe to admit that I didn't have a thing that could be gotten into a gallery, unless she wanted to have the show in a damn hanger somewhere.

'Good,' she smiled, actually looking at me for the first time in a bit. 'And more recent sketches than this; you mustn't hold out on your sponsor.'

I found myself blushing again for some damn reason and all I could do was nod.

'Perfect!' she declared and I felt dismissed. 'I believe that is all I need for the moment. I will see you Monday at Jacques.' Then she was gathering her things and preparing to leave. Trowa looked mildly relieved. Quatre looked like he might bust something grinning. I'd graduated from a deer in headlights, to a bunny-rabbit with a bad leg on a shuttle-field.

But then she gathered up my sketches right along with the rest of her stuff and there was a funny little lurch in the pit of my stomach. 'Uh... what are you??' I began, and she gave me that weird amused little smile I had already decided I was going to be heartily sick of before very long at all.

'Darling,' she informed me in a tone that can only be described as condescending. 'I can't hang sketchpads in a gallery. Things must be matted and framed.'

Well. That certainly made sense, didn't it? Another one of those things that I should have thought of. Another one of those things that rather took me by surprise. Some part of my brain that hadn't been frazzled to death started doing math calculations but even that quickly ground to a halt. I'd never had anything matted and framed... I didn't have a clue. 'Oh,' was the best I could manage.

Somewhere in there, she had stood up and it was the sense of her towering over me that made me stand too. She laughed outright and stepped over to pat me gently on the cheek. 'My dear, you are too adorable for words!' she said and something in her voice wiped away the notion I'd had of her as a rat terrier and changed it to something more akin to a shark. 'You have a sponsor now; let Aleyah take care of everything.'

I was rather grateful that she turned away before I had a chance to actually say yes Ma'am.

Cocotte didn't even have to be called, leaving Trowa's company and darting to her mistress' heel as soon as Aleyah began walking. She gave Quatre one of those proper little hugs, admonishing him to 'take care of his acrobat', and then surprised me by stopping to give Trowa an identical little embrace, though I didn't quite catch what she told him. It made Trowa use his sardonic grin, and I decided I really didn't want to know.

Watching her walk out the door with my portfolio tucked under her arm kind of brought it all home though, and my knees decided I should sit back down on the settee. Trowa stayed with me while Quatre saw her out, and no longer being busy policing the dog, he turned and smiled bemusedly at me. 'So... you going to live?'

I looked up at him and didn't even try to school what must have been a shell-shocked expression. 'Dear God... what have I done?'

'She is rather... overwhelming, isn't she?' he smirked and came to sit in the chair closest to me.

'You did not warn me,' I accused, still staring at the door, still fighting the urge to run after them, snatch my sketches back and tell the scary woman to forget the whole thing. 'I thought we were friends.'

He chuckled and reached out to take one of the little shortbread cookies off the saucer in the middle of the coffee table before sitting back to nibble at it. 'Would you honestly have believed me if I'd tried to describe her?'

I looked his way and finally had to let out a snort. 'I suppose you have a point.'

He quirked me a grin that was meant to be reassuring. 'Duo, as odd as she seems sometimes... she really does know what she's doing.'

'I hope so,' I mumbled, giving in to the urge I'd had all afternoon to rub my hand over my face. 'Because I sure as hell don't.'

When I pulled my hand away from my eyes, I started at the green bottle that had suddenly appeared in front of me and looked up to find Quatre there, grinning down at me. I took the offered soda with a heart-felt sigh. 'Oh God, Quat; I love you!'

Trowa chuckled at me while I uncapped the thing and gulped down several nerve settling mouthfuls. Quatre came around the settee and sat back down beside me. 'Well... you didn't seem to be enjoying your tea.'

'I really don't like tea all that much,' I confessed sheepishly, 'but swilling Mt. Dew in front of your sister seemed... crass, somehow.'

Quatre snorted and shook his head, then surprised me by reaching out and before I knew it, he'd unbuttoned the top button on my band-collar shirt. 'You looked like you were about to strangle a couple of times.'

I gave in to the second urge I'd been having all day and rubbed at the back of my liberated neck. 'Little brother,' I intoned solemnly. 'We have a seriously weird family.'

He laughed with delight, his eyes fairly shining, and I had to work not to look Trowa's way, though I could feel his approving gaze. Making an effort to make Quatre happy was a fairly recent conscious decision of mine.

'Aleyah is...' he said, when his laughter had faded. 'Very dedicated.'

It was my turn to laugh. 'Dedicated?' I asked, a little incredulous. 'That seems a little... tame, for a woman who makes you feel like you've been run over by a steam roller.'

'She gets the job done, Duo,' Trowa told me, then popped the last of his shortbread into his mouth.

'But,' I couldn't help saying, trying to decide which of them to address the question to. 'A photographer? What in the world does she need a... a pamphlet for?'

It was Quatre who answered me, reaching out to pat me gently on the knee, as though he was about to impart the news that I was to be executed at dawn. 'Duo, you do understand that there will be a reception at the opening? When people go to gallery shows, they want to know about the artists. There are usually little informational leaflets that are handed out...' the more he talked, the more I must have looked like I was staring down the barrel of a .45, and he finally petered out and stopped.

'Reception?' I stammered, suddenly understanding that this art world thing might be a hell of a lot more complicated than I'd ever dreamed. 'I don't know anything about...'

'That,' Trowa cut me off calmly. 'Is why you have a sponsor. It is Aleyah's job to know what to do for you. All you have to do is listen to her.'

'Oh God,' I told him, somewhat aghast. 'I'm supposed to trust a woman to handle everything who can't even remember my damn name?'

Quatre let out with a bark of laughter that he tried to stifle and finally managed, 'She does that to everyone, dear; it doesn't mean she can't remember your name.'

I couldn't help the double take and he grinned at me rather unrepentantly. 'I sure hope so,' I grumbled. 'I really don't want to end up with all those pictures labeled as 'by Pet'.'

Trowa chuckled and prodded my foot under the table in a companionable way. 'Stop worrying,' he commanded. 'Now tell us how this trial business is going. Are Heero and Wufei coming back soon?'

I sat back with a heavy sigh, taking the moment to up end my bottle for another couple of swallows. 'Not likely,' I told him. 'They're still in the interview stage. Heero hasn't given up the hope that they can keep this from actually going to any kind of trial.'

'Have they found anything promising?' he questioned, sitting forward to rest his forearms across his knees.

'Nothing he can tell me too much about over the phone,' I reported, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. It was rather eating at me to be side-lined on something that I had as big a stake in as Heero did. But, Heero was the agent. Mechanics, even Preventor mechanics, don't get to go out in the field and do research. 'They were going to get to interview Gray's wife today, I think.'

'I'm sure they'll be coming home soon,' Quatre assured me and I tried my best not to hear the sympathy in his tone.

'That would be nice,' I replied, taking another drink. 'Because that would mean this mess was over. As it stands now... they're likely going to be on-site until at least the end of the week.'

Quatre didn't respond and I glanced over to see him looking at me with that really bad poker face of his, struggling with words. I wanted to tell him not to bother... the words were pretty well written across his forehead. In glowing green script.

'I'm fine, you mother hen,' I told him firmly. 'I haven't had a psychotic episode in weeks.'

It was rather fun watching him change colors.

But it didn't stop him from jumping all over the subject since I'd technically been the one to broach it. 'You know you're welcome here, if you'd like to stay,' he told me almost breathlessly, afraid I think, that Trowa might shush him. Of the two of them, Trowa seems to have a better understanding of what makes me squirm. 'And if there's anything at all that you need?'

'Just two paintings by the end of the week,' I told him with a bit of a theatric sigh. 'You don't happen to have a couple I could borrow?'

That line made Trowa laugh right out loud, or maybe he was just helping me change the subject, because that had rather been the point to begin with.

Quatre looked a little wide-eyed. 'You mean you don't have...'

'Not unless I could get some old spacer friend to take an acetylene torch to their ship and loan me a section of bulkhead,' I said, and took another swig of soda.

'What are you going to do?' he asked, delivering me my straight line.

'Paint like hell?' I deadpanned, and finally got a laugh out of the both of them. It wasn't hard after that to plead an 'artist's dead-line' and I made my exit. Though I wasn't too surprised that I got walked out to my car by Quatre's 'charming lover'.

'So,' he ventured as we made our way down the front steps. 'You going to tell me what this sudden interest in entering the art circle is all about?'

It hadn't been what I'd been expecting, and he rather caught me by surprise. 'Just broadening my horizons,' I tried, and got a side-long glance for the line and nothing more.

I tried out lasting him, but he's got this way of making me feel guilty as sin when I don't tell him what he wants to know, and by the time we got to my car, I was squirming. 'Look,' I began, not sure just how to explain myself. 'One of my... one of the kids at the Maxwell home was bitten by a dog and she needs plastic surgery, but the insurance won't pay for it. Considers it 'cosmetic'.' I found my hand rubbing over my face and I leaned against the fender, figuring we were in for a long talk. 'When I started thinking about a second job... this seemed like a possibility.'

He regarded me quietly for a moment, and I tried to brace myself for what was coming next, but again he surprised me. 'I thought there was something pushing you into it,' he told me. 'You seem a little... reluctant. I just wanted to make sure that Heero wasn't pressuring you.'

I blinked up at him, grateful as hell that he somehow understood my need to handle this myself, and at the same time, surprised at his suspicions. I snorted. 'Are you kidding? Heero wouldn't pressure me to get out of bed in the morning if I didn't want to.'

Trowa grinned at me and shook his head. 'I should have realized.' Then he seemed to dismiss the topic all together, but finally got around to the one I had been anticipating. He reached out carefully and took hold of the base of my braid, giving me a tiny little shake. It was a gesture he had taken to using when he wanted to guarantee my undivided attention. 'You will call me if you need anything,' he commanded.

'Yes boss,' I replied and graced him with a roll of my eyes.

He didn't let go immediately, giving me that look he's got that makes me feel like he's twice my age, twice my experience, and more than the head taller than me than he actually is. 'I don't care if you just want someone to come and watch bad movies with you. Quatre and I will always have the time.'

I grinned slyly up at him. 'So; you get a 'watch out for Duo' speech from Heero before they left?'

He grinned right back at me, not so much as blushing. 'He didn't have to... it's a standing order.'

I chuckled ruefully and shook my head when he finally let go of me so that I could. 'Sorry Tro, but I don't think I'm going to have the time to be watching movies, good or bad. I wasn't kidding... I don't have a damn thing painted that doesn't come with some sort of structure attached.'

'And you seriously think you can have two paintings done before the end of the week?' he asked me, quirking his eyebrow and managing to look amused more than surprised.

'Don't have a clue,' I said, rather cheekily, I thought. 'Never painted on canvas before.'

He laughed and shook his head, stepping away so that I could open the car door. 'Then I suppose you'd best go find out.'

I climbed in my car, but then hesitated, and he noticed it enough that he didn't immediately shut the door he was holding onto. He didn't speak, only looking at me expectantly until I finally blurted, 'If I can't manage to come up with something, do you think...'

He snorted, not bothering to let me finish. 'Aleyah will have that gallery opening even if she does it with nothing more than what you've already given her. Trust me.'

It was about as disconcerting as it was comforting, but I nodded in acceptance of the information. He shut my car door, stepping back, and I gave him a little wave as I pulled away.

I had left home with a list of things to do a mile long that morning, but somehow my brain had been fried and I couldn't think of a damn one of them.

You know, at that stage of the game I couldn't even freakin' decide if I liked Aleyah Winner or not. She just... intimidated the hell out of me. She was so obviously used to getting her own way, that it grated with me just a bit. But, what she was preparing to do for me was damn generous and that fact was not lost on me. I may be a little uneducated when it comes to the kind of thing that I had just jumped into, but I'm not stupid. Photographers. Pamphlets. Matting and framing. Receptions. These 'gallery shows' were apparently not cheap. And she was rather off-handedly taking care of all of it. Paying for all of it. I guess I was just still having trouble understanding what the woman was getting out of the whole thing. And she was just so... pushy.


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