Author: Sunhawk
see part 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Connections (cont)

'Yeah,' I said, and dared reach to brush his hair back so that I could see his face. 'It is.'

He looked up at me, almost seeming to do so against his will, and our eyes locked for a long moment. It broke my heart to see steady, solid Trowa so off balance. When he spoke next, I'd almost swear it was as though something pulled the words from him against his consent.

'I... just feel so damn naive sometimes,' he whispered, and I couldn't help blinking at him, caught by surprise by the comment. I'm not sure what I had expected him to say... but that wasn't it.

'Tro?' I prompted, letting his hair fall back into place as he turned away from me again. He took a deep breath and it seemed a little shaky when he let it out. I was moved to tuck the blanket closer around him, but didn't. Setting my tea aside again, instead, giving myself something to do.

There was something in the air between us that made me hold my tongue, waiting for him to speak again, and when he did, his voice was little more than an echo of the Trowa I knew.

'I never thought he'd do it, Duo,' he said. 'I... didn't believe he'd really shoot.'

It's funny, but it took me a damn second to figure out what he was talking about. For some strange reason, my thoughts leapt first to Gray, until memory assured me that there had been no gun involved in that little incident. Then my thoughts turned to the sniper attack, as though my mind had to run backward through time to find the right reference point. I wondered that Trowa didn't hear my brain shift into gear when a disgusted hamster finally popped up and shoved a banner in my face that read, 'His nightmares; not yours!'

Ah. Quatre.

I forget sometimes, when thinking about Trowa's own swim out between the stars, just how he got there. I suppose it's because we just didn't dare talk about it all that much. Quatre had been... God, there are no words strong enough for what he'd felt, and none of us was really willing to broach the subject around him.

I doubt I'll ever forget the way he was afterward. Before Trowa turned up safe, if not altogether sound. I had thought more than once that Quatre wouldn't live past the end of the fighting. He'd narrowed his focus down to winning the war, and I don't think he'd planned on anything after that. Or? more precisely, he'd planned on going to join the man he thought he'd killed. The first real love of his life.

I wondered suddenly what kind of nightmares Quatre had at night, and if he was one of the quiet ones. Perversely, I hoped I wasn't the only thrasher in the group.

'You know that wasn't Quatre,' I told him, and let my arm settle across his shoulders the way I remembered his around mine more than once.

I felt more than heard him sigh. 'I was just so damn sure that he'd never hurt me. I thought I could stop him?'

'You did,' I said, knowing it was faint comfort.

'Too late,' he countered, though it was just a statement with no real heat to it.

'I know,' I whispered, and squeezed his shoulders. I was surprised when he leaned his head to rest against me. Was even more surprised when he chuckled softly.

'You know, Duo,' he told me, his voice tinged with the hint of fond memory. 'We owe you for inadvertently bringing us together.'

'Me?' I blurted, though I wondered if he wasn't just changing the subject.

'That mission,' he said, not looking up, but reaching out to catch at my free hand, turning the palm up and looking at my scars. 'When you were burned. Quatre was so upset. When I took him away to keep him from seeing Heero and Wufei working on you... things got said. A lot of things. On both our parts.'

I had to keep myself from snatching my hand away, but I think Trowa felt the tension in me, and he let go with a soft little sigh.

'Glad to be of service,' I murmured, feeling suddenly self-conscious and maybe he felt that too, because he straightened away from me. I felt... bad, like I'd spoiled something delicate, but my hands were already tucked under my elbows and the mood was gone.

He took a sip of his tea and glanced back out the window. False dawn was giving way to the real thing and the light made the frost outside glint and glitter almost harshly. We watched the sun come up, sharing a silence that was at once companionable and painful. I wanted to have the things to say that would make it better, but there just weren't enough words in the world to ease what he was feeling.

'Sucks, doesn't it?' he asked suddenly and I jumped, looking at him sharply, replaying the moment in my mind to make sure I hadn't spoken aloud.

'What?' I said, just to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding him. Just to make sure he really was practically reading my mind.

'Wanting to help... and not knowing how,' he replied gently, but then he looked up at me and frowned. 'God, Duo... you look like shit. Didn't you sleep at all?'

I blinked at the sudden change of subject lines, but then had to duck my head away from his scrutiny. 'Some,' I temporized and heard him sigh heavily.

'Could have fooled me,' he said, quirking me a wry little grin. 'You look like a damn raccoon.'

'Great,' I muttered, and he gave me a funny light snort of a laugh.

He suddenly seemed to have had enough of sitting there then, and uncurled to rise to his feet, letting the blanket fall away as he stood. I moved to step out of his way, but was caught by a hand on my shoulder and he pulled me into a one armed hug.

'This is one of those just between you and me things, Duo... ok?' he whispered against the top of my head and I nodded. 'I've never spoken of it... Quatre doesn't need to know.'

'Ok,' I replied, voice just as soft, as though someone might hear us. And just like that, he was done. He let me go, and gave me a playful little nudge toward the kitchen.

'Now, I can't make you sleep without employing questionable means, but let's at least get you fed.'

I let him lead, let him alter the mood... some things, I guess, just can't remain in the light of day.

It was a very odd morning. We avoided the whole issue with the news. We avoided the whole issue of the gallery. There seemed to be a list of names that we both unconsciously just did not bring up. It included Captain Gray, Aleyah, Griff, Une, Heero and Wufei.

So we spent a lot of time talking about our breakfast, the weather, and bad movies. And though I felt a little bit odd about his presence when I let myself think about it too much, still... I was damn glad he was with me. I'm pretty sure I'd have been climbing the walls, painting the walls, or just plain throwing up, if he hadn't been.

I had very mixed feelings when, mid-afternoon, he finally had to leave. But Quatre was expecting him at the shuttle-port and I still had to shower and generally make myself presentable.

'We'll be there,' he said to me, standing in the doorway on his way out. 'Count on it.'

'Don't suppose you could stand in for me?' I tried, but it came out more pleading than teasing. He laughed anyway.

'Nope,' he returned, shooting me down unrepentantly. 'This is your moment, Duo... not mine.'

I snorted and shook my head. 'Why do my moments always come with nausea?'

'Because it is your nature to over-think everything, and to always expect the worst,' he said, though I had thought it was a rhetorical question.

'Guess that explains it,' I muttered, feeling the beginnings of a blush, and wondered how long he'd been waiting for an opening to deliver the line.

'Duo,' he said then, and I could tell from his tone of voice that he wasn't teasing any more. 'You know that Heero would be here...'

'I know,' I told him, and he only nodded once, message delivered, and then we said our goodbyes.

I have decided that in my next life I'd like to be something with no responsibilities, and the memory retention of a goldfish. A koala bear, maybe. Or a gecko. I think I'd make a good gecko.

I already felt kinda green.

Something kicked the day into high gear then, and there just suddenly didn't seem to be enough hours to get everything done that I needed to do. Maybe it was the half an hour I spent trying to scrub the faint traces of grease that always seem to be there, out from under my nails. Or the next half an hour while I dithered over my gloves. Or maybe the amount of time I spent trying to decide what in the hell to wear. It was the thought of Solo laughing his ass off at me, that finally spurred me into dressing. I went with the tux Heero'd gotten me when he'd dragged me to Relena's damn party. I had to think about it, while I was putting it on, and doubted I'd worn the thing since that most memorable of evenings.

'Used ta call 'em monkey suits,' Solo smirked from the more shadowed corner of the bedroom.

'Shut up, Solo,' I snapped, as I struggled with the tie I usually had help with.

'Such a hotshot,' he snickered and I just growled, leaving the room and leaving him behind. I didn't stop hearing the echo of his laughter though, until I'd left the damn house.

I had an eerie feeling while driving into town, that the night would turn into one of those capital letter things. The Church. The Accident. The Opening. Made me want to just keep driving, and not look the hell back.

As before, I parked well away from the place. My poor little used car just looked so hideously out of place in that neighborhood that it was embarrassing. I still felt strangely compelled to tell passing strangers that it was ok -- I really was supposed to be there.

I walked the few blocks to the gallery feeling the butterflies trying to curdle the remains of my breakfast in my stomach. I had tried to talk Trowa into tea and ration bars, but the guy had insisted on fixing us something 'more substantial'.

Can eggs go bad after the eating part? It felt like they had, though I doubted there could be a bit of breakfast left in my stomach after all those hours. Perhaps the skipping of lunch decision hadn't been the best idea? Though... at least this way, there wasn't anything down there to come up if I felt so inclined.

Not that I could have eaten lunch if my damn life had depended on it. But...

Ok. I'm rambling. I kind of do that when I'm getting ready to do something slightly less attractive than a frontal lobotomy.

The gallery somehow seemed even more imposing than it had the night before. It took me a moment to decide that it was the announcement on the front door, in tasteful lettering on elegant parchment paper, that stated that entry was by invitation only.

I had to stand there and blink at that for a moment. Or maybe it was my name right above that line. 'Expressions presents Duo Maxwell. By invitation only'.

George, my expletive hamster, tugged on my pant leg and showed me his 'Fuck' banner. But the lettering was rather plain and it was the simple white of all hamster message banners, and he quickly left me, looking slightly ashamed and terribly subdued.

I wanted to smack the little sucker. Of all the damn nights to be abandoned by the suppliers of what little wit I owned.

I was still standing there on the sidewalk, staring at that little sign, trying to decide what in the hell I should do, when the door was opened in front of me, taking the choice completely out of my hands. So much for the idea of turning around and going back home.

'Darling!' Aleyah enthused. 'You're prompt! I just knew you would be. Come in, come in -- mustn't stand around blocking the sidewalk.'

I felt myself blushing as I stepped through the doorway, and sighed. It was promising to be a long damn evening.

Aleyah was... in her element. Had she been thirty years younger, she'd have been laughing, flushed with excitement, dragging her friends around from place to place and gushing enthusiastically.

As it was, her enthusiasm was much more refined, evidenced mostly by a need to be in constant motion. Cocotte was at her heel, dancing about and trying not to get stepped on as her mistress shut the front door and turned to look me over.

'Too formal for the Artiste, dear,' she informed me and reached to tug at my tie before I could so much as blink. I stood, feeling like a damn child, while she undid the tie I had worked so laboriously to get tied in the first place and then unbuttoned the top two buttons of my shirt just for good measure. She stepped back and cocked her head, giving me another once over that made me want to fidget. I saw her gaze linger on my gloved hands, but she didn't mention it. 'Hmmm... better,' she proclaimed. 'But it needs something?'

And then she was off in a swirl of skirts, with the promise that she would be right back and to wait, Cocotte flouncing after her. The movement of her dress drew my eye, reminding me of something, and it was with a sudden jolt that I realized the damn thing looked a hell of a lot like the one I'd painted her wearing. Not exactly; the one in the picture had been a summer dress after all, but the flowered fabric was the same and the cut of the skirt. I think it was the sound of my damn jaw hitting the floor that made me stop staring after her.

I had a hard time imaging just how much money one had to have in order to have a piece of clothing custom made right down to the fabric, in less than a week.

I shook my head and turned to look around, my curiosity getting past my consternation, but then wished I hadn't when I found the fan of little pamphlets on the table by the door. Oh yeah. I drifted that way, almost reluctant to see what they looked like.

I was rather... taken aback by the picture that stared up at me. Jacques had not spent a lot of time trying to do the 'smile at the birdy' thing, but I vaguely remember personally trying to at least manage 'pleasant'. I looked kind of... I'm not sure what. Belligerent was the first word that popped into my head, but that was pretty far off. Aggressive was a little closer, not carrying the pissy baggage of the other adjective, but still not quite what I was looking for. I picked one of the things up, feeling oddly guilty about disturbing the artful arrangement. I studied it a little closer and decided that there had been some filters on that camera, or else the portrait had been touched up.

The first clue was the fact that there wasn't a hair out of place. Now, I've had long hair for a very, very long time. There is never a time when it looks like those women in the shampoo and conditioner commercials. You know the ones I mean? The ones with silken waterfalls on their heads? The ones who look like their hair is made out of some synthetic? Because, trust me, you do not have hair down to your ass without having split ends and fly-aways. Never. No matter how damn well you take care of it.

The second hint was the weird spark of starry light from the edge of my cross. Then I noticed that all the hardware on the jacket, that I very distinctly remember being silver, was now gold to match that cross.

I met my own eyes, and realized that I was looking at the final shot that Jacques had taken, after the little incident over my hands. The word I was struggling for was... dangerous. I looked damned dangerous. The notion almost made me laugh out loud.

The sound of Aleyah's heels clicking on the tile made me jump like a little kid who'd gotten caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Without thinking, I jammed the stupid flyer into my jacket pocket, somehow feeling guilty for having picked it up. It was a stupid reaction, but once the thing was shoved out of sight, I was loathe to pull it back out and look like the moron I seemed to have become. I turned to face the archway and found Aleyah approaching with something in her hands. It took a moment, as she deftly folded it, to identify it as some sort of handkerchief. She got right back in my personal space and tucked it into my breast pocket, tugging and smoothing it into place. It was an odd shade of bluish-violet and I think I blushed when she stepped back and smiled. 'Perfect match! It brings out your eyes.'

Yeah, that was something to take into consideration. I tried not to shake my head in exasperation. It felt oddly like carrying 'M'Lady's' token into battle.

'Aleyah...' I began, but she cut me off.

'Not now, pet. I have entirely too much to attend to,' she waved me rather dismissively toward the gallery entrance. 'Why don't you look around? The caterers should be here by now and I have some calls to make.'

She was on her way before I had a chance to do more than work my jaw a time or two. Cocotte stayed a moment longer looking up at me with cocked-head, in a way that seemed? smug. She trotted off after Aleyah when I growled low in my throat and flipped her off.

Well... at least I was intimidating to the damn dog if nobody else.

Since I really didn't have much else to do, I wandered on in to the gallery.

I felt like I'd taken a step into the Twilight Zone. I glanced around, but didn't catch a glimpse of anybody who looked like Rod Serling and was slightly relieved. In fact, I didn't catch a glimpse of anybody at all. Though now that I was past the arched entrance, I could hear voices coming from the back of the gallery. Aleyah issuing orders and the murmured replies of God knows who. The afore-mentioned caterers, perhaps? And wasn't that just a serious kick? My gallery opening, the one I was having trouble getting my head around, had caterers.

I found myself wished that Trowa were there, just so I could have someone to share the goofy grin with, because I felt really stupid standing there grinning by myself.

The pictures were spaced differently than the ones from the previous show, since I didn't have nearly as many, and I found myself wondering how in the hell the things were hung up without there being any obvious nails. The whole gallery had a different feel than it had the previous evening. There had been a lot of greenery for Mrs. DeBoye, a lot of ferns and potted palms. All of that was gone and instead there were now artistic marble looking columns holding cut flower arrangements. I wondered if it wasn't to off-set the starkness of my mostly black and white show.

My show. My opening. Are you catching that? Doesn't it just sound pretentious as all hell? I wanted to snort derisively, but it was another of those things that you should only engage in with a buddy.

In the distance, I heard Aleyah raise her voice to someone, never losing that tone she always seemed to have, but just raising the volume a notch. I wondered if the person on the receiving end were in trouble, or just out of ear-shot.

As promised, Allison's portrait was front and center, and it was framed slightly different than the other pictures that I could see. But then, it was also the only painting in the area. I wondered where the others were? In the mirroring 'room' on the other side, or in the curve of the gallery 'hall'? I use all structural terms loosely, because none of them really applied to the strange place.

I just couldn't stop looking. It was rather amazing how simply framing things turned my sketch pad ramblings into... something more. I went to take a closer look at Allison's portrait and noticed the little placard beneath it proclaiming, 'Innocence faded'. It made me blink. It made me look around again. The picture of the Gundam framed seagull was titled simply 'Peace'. The study of Toria's hands was labeled 'Competence', just as promised. Hayden's zero-g portrait was titled, 'Freedom'. It went on. The woman had an unbelievable knack for catching the point, and I have to confess that it surprised the hell out of me. I hadn't thought she had it in her. I decided not to correct the titling of Allison's portrait, it seemed rather inconsequential, and besides... Aleyah had come close enough.

While I was standing there, gawking like a damn tourist, I heard a strange little noise and turned to find the receptionist from the night before standing with a vase of flowers in her hands, staring at me rather openly. I tried on a sheepish little grin, suddenly feeling guilty, as though I'd actually lied to her and not so much? not told the whole truth. 'What?' I grinned. 'No bubble-gum greeting?'

She raised an eye-brow and for a moment, I thought she was irritated, but then she said rather haughtily. 'Never on opening night... pink would so clash with the black dress.'

I laughed, and would have retorted if Aleyah hadn't breezed into the room at that point. 'Kitten, dear, I don't want the red roses in this section. No red in here at all. Put those with that delightfully disturbing painting on the other side.'

I was looking right at the girl and saw her grimace, but she responded with a chipper, 'Yes, Ma'am!' and then Aleyah was off again. I heard a muttered, 'Kit, damn it... not Kitten.'

I couldn't contain the snicker, it was kind of weird thinking that there was something worse than Aleyah Winner not remembering your name; remembering and getting it wrong.

Kit muttered something else that might have been response to my amusement, but she was already on her way through the arched doorway, heading off to do her job. I decided I should probably just stay out of the way and so went toward the hall that would lead around the other way.

I call it a hall for lack of a better term, but you could have driven a semi tractor-trailer rig through it and still had room for a motorcycle escort, assuming you could make the curve. At its center you couldn't see the entrance into either room, and that was where I found my second painting, the one of Aleyah herself. It was rather prominently displayed dead center in the hallway and had two placards instead of just one. The title, in its elegant gold script, read simply 'Façade', and the other read, 'From the private collection of A. Winner'.

It was kind of weird to see it. I was still amazed that Aleyah had liked the dumb thing enough to want to buy it. Or... in retrospect, perhaps she simply didn't want it falling into anyone else's hands.

I was sure that the final painting would be in the exit room, spacing the three of them out evenly. I realized somewhere about then that somehow the sketches were arranged almost in chronological order. It was weird as hell to see it, because I don't date my work. I wondered how in the hell Aleyah had been able to tell.

The borrowed portrait of Trowa was hanging not too much further down the hall, its placard reading 'The Art of Balance', and also marked as part of a private collection. And just past that, I found a portrait of Wufei's cat.

I stopped, and found myself frowning at it. I did not recall giving Aleyah any of the sketches of Beowulf. I was still trying to puzzle it out, when my eye was caught by the next piece in the row. It was Beowulf in Wufei's lap.

'Son of a bitch,' I heard my voice mutter, as something rather unpleasant slipped into my brain. The night that Aleyah had come out to the house to pick up the paintings, I had also given her a sketch. Or, I had meant to give her a sketch. When I stopped to think about it... I had not seen the sketch pad it had been in, since then.

'Oh hell!' I growled and began to hurry forward, scanning the pictures as I went, trying to remember just what in the hell all had been in that damn pad.

I passed a couple of sketches of the kids and felt my chest start to feel tight, as my fears started to solidify into reality. I passed Froggy's portrait and winced. Passed the portrait of Trowa and Quatre that I'd been working on for months and freaking cringed. Then I burst into the room at the end of the hall and had my worst fear confirmed.

'Fuck!' I blurted, almost making Kit drop the vase of flowers she'd been arranging, and stopped my almost run right in front of the framed portrait of Heero.

The one I'd done on L2. While he slept. In nothing but a sheet.

Ok, I'm not a prude or anything, but I don't go around drawing people in the nude unless they ask me to. So Heero was not... indecent. But... oh shit, but... it was a portrait so obviously drawn by the man's lover, it wasn't even funny. He wasn't indecent, but only by the grace of a couple of inches of cloth. Sprawled out and sleeping soundly, I had spent a great deal of time capturing the utter peace of deep sleep in his expression. The shaded outline of his strong arms. The deep shadow of his collarbone.

I'd spent a half a damn hour on his hair alone.

The picture was the essence of the part of Heero that was my lover. And I had never even shown it to him.

'That has to come down,' I said to Kit, since she was the only one there, in a tone I thought was quite reasonable.

'What?' she said, looking at me like I'd lost my mind.

'This picture,' I explained, oh so carefully. 'Was not supposed to have been hung. It needs to come down.'

She sat down the flowers she'd been fussing over and turned to look at me with an expression that was warring between utter disbelief and apprehension. 'I... can't do that.'

'I think you can,' I said calmly, even though my nerves were telling me to shake the shit out of somebody.

'I really can't just...' she began, starting to look a little uneasy.

'Take it down!' I snapped, the mental image of other people seeing Heero like that, making my nerves fray. The fearful look that crossed her face instantly made me feel bad, but she was finally moving to comply and I wasn't going to argue with success.

But the sound of Aleyah's voice, demanding, 'Just what is going on here?' made Kit hesitate, and I almost growled in frustration.

'Mr. Maxwell wants this piece removed, Ma'am,' Kit was quick to explain, looking at me askance, probably wanting to cover her own bases without actually pissing off the new artist guy.

'What?' Aleyah questioned, managing to sound completely scandalized. 'Darling; don't be absurd! That's one of the best works in the show, you can't take it down.'

'That one is... private,' I stammered, kicking myself for letting the woman get to me with that damn imperial tone of hers. 'I never meant to give it to you.'

'But Dear,' she said, her voice taking on just a hint of a placating tone. 'It was in the sketch pad with all the others.'

'I only intended to give you the sketch I showed you!' I blurted, exasperation getting the better of me. 'Not the whole book!'

She hesitated just a moment before bulling forward in the same vein, 'Some of your best pieces were from there, my pet... you simply can't remove them now.'

I don't really know what it was that told me... the hesitation maybe. The tone of her voice. The strange way she looked at the sketch hanging on the wall and not at me. I'm not sure, but in that moment I suddenly realized that she had known damn good and well what she was doing when she had taken that sketch pad. It hadn't been an accident. Not a misunderstanding. She had contrived with her driver, using her brash flirting and abrupt manner to keep my off balance while 'Gage' had walked right the hell out of my house with the entire contents of a sketch pad I had never meant to share.

I thought about that very hard, taking a second to turn slowly around, scanning the room and the remainder of my pictures, deciding that while I had a whole lot of reasons not to be happy... I had only one real reason to be afraid.

Heero had never seen that portrait I'd done of him, and I wasn't about to have him see it for the first time standing in a room full of strangers.

I moved past Kit, who was still standing there, frozen in place doing an admirable imitation of my deer in headlights impression, and reached for my picture. 'It's coming the hell down,' I told Aleyah in a firm voice. 'And if you don't like that fact, you can damn well take them all down. This one is private.'

When I turned to confront her, frame clutched tight in white knuckled hands, I was kind of surprised to find that the receptionist had fled the blast zone. Smart girl.

Hell... even the damn dog had vanished.

Aleyah was giving me that level stare that I had no doubt would have made rabid dogs bow, scrape, and apologize for disturbing her. 'Mr. Maxwell,' she gritted, pronouncing each syllable distinctly. 'You simply can not come in here at this stage and begin tearing down artwork. This display took hours of--'

I think, in some way, I saw that sketch as threatening my relationship with Heero. I really had no way of knowing how he would react, not only to seeing it, but knowing that other people had viewed it as well. It was a personal thing; like I kept trying to tell the woman. As well have hung a picture of the two of us making love. It was that damn intimate. And while I would sacrifice a lot in order to obtain my goal of helping Allison, I would never sacrifice Heero.

'Don't stand there,' I growled, cutting off her prim little diatribe, 'and pretend that you didn't know damn well you were taking more than I intended to give. This portrait is something extremely personal, and I will not leave it up here for the whole damn world to gawk at. Now, if that pisses you off, feel free to cancel this whole fucking thing, I'll find another way to get what I need.'

Some small voice in the back of my head wondered idly if getting to see Aleyah Winner blush was going to be worth being murdered in my sleep at some later date.

Cocotte returned from God knows where, and planted herself between me and her mistress, looking for all the world like she was thinking about biting my ankle. Since I couldn't decide which of the two of them to glare at, I turned with my picture under my arm and stalked out of the room. I wouldn't feel safe until the damn thing was locked in the trunk of my car, well out of the woman's reach. Though I felt like some kind of damn thief, striding down the sidewalk with it clutched against my side, doing my best to block the actual picture from view. Later I would let myself think about the pictures I'd abandoned in my efforts to protect Heero.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I settled the frame in my trunk, still half expecting Aleyah to send big, burly men after me to retrieve it. Though I found myself giving it one last lingering look as I closed the trunk lid. Made me miss Heero with a rather sudden, sharp pang.

God, how I wished he could have been there.

I took my sweet time walking back, not really in a hurry to deal with the fallout of telling off the woman who was sponsoring my foray into the art world. I imagined the rest of the evening wasn't exactly going to be pleasant. When I approached the gallery door, it opened for me again and I all but cringed, waiting for Aleyah to rip me a new one, but it was Kit who had been watching for me. She gave me a wide grin and gestured me inside with a flourish of one hand.

I opened my mouth to ask where Aleyah was, but then I heard her voice coming from the room with the now empty spot on the wall.

'A little more to the left, Jennifer dear,' she was saying, her tone one of supreme patience. 'And then move those flowers over to balance.'

There was a mumbled, 'Yes, Ma'am,' from someone I didn't recognize, and then the sound of movement, and the sound of heels on tile. Then a rather heavy sigh.

'It will have to do, I suppose,' Aleyah said, sounding quite put out, and then I heard her walking away. 'Artists are a temperamental pain in the ass,' was her parting comment, and I thought Kit was going to hurt herself trying not to laugh.

A brunette appeared in the doorway to the exit room just long enough to share a grin with Kit before presumably going back to move the flowers in question. She was wearing a black dress just like her partner in crime and I understood it was a uniform of sorts.

I decided at that point, that I should probably just stay the hell out of Aleyah's way until there were enough people around to ensure that she couldn't kill me without witnesses, and headed back into the first gallery room.

I found myself standing in front of Allison's painting, just letting myself remember what it was all about. Reminding myself why I was there... why I was letting this woman make me crazy.

You know... I've thought more than once that it had been a really good thing that Oz interrogators had never found my Achilles heel. Pain I can take... just don't embarrass me. Public execution? I laugh in your face! Now... threaten to dress me in a pink tutu and then execute me... and that just might get you what you're after.

But I will bear a lot for the people I care for, and in the grand scheme of things, I didn't suppose this was so much to have to bear.

I detected a certain increase in the tension in the air, a kind of expectation, and when I glanced at my watch, saw that it was seven, and time for the floor show to begin. There was a sense of bustle somewhere in the background and I imagined a legion of black-dress clad young ladies lined up for inspection before being sent off to their stations.

Someone cued some music and I was surprised to hear a Celtic flavor. Reminded me a bit of my night music, and I wondered how it had been chosen. If Aleyah had asked someone, and who that someone had been.

And then I heard that tone that announced the front door, and one of those young ladies delivering their line, 'Good evening, and welcome to Expressions?'

'Don't you worry, Alley-Cat,' I whispered to nothing but paint and canvas. 'We'll make things right even if this doesn't work out. I promise.'

I took a deep breath, girded my loins... and didn't have a clue what to do.

No one had given me a copy of the script. Hell... I wasn't entirely sure just what my part was; should I be out front greeting people? Or should I stay out of sight for some kind of 'entrance' later? Wish Aleyah wasn't so damn pissed off at me; kind of made the prospect of asking her, just a bit unattractive. In the end, as usual, the decision was taken out of my hands.

Aleyah was suddenly sweeping across the room, smiling at me just as though she hadn't been contemplating flaying me alive not fifteen minutes prior. Cocotte was tucked under one arm, looking around with bright little eyes, but just lounging there as though she were nothing more than a clutch purse. Aleyah was escorting a family in my direction, an impeccably dressed man, his equally impeccable wife and a daughter that would have been just as impeccable if it weren't for the faint aura of 'fidget' that she was exuding. No wonder, really, the dress she was wearing would have made a masochist uncomfortable.

'There you are, Darling,' Aleyah was saying, her free hand gesturing in my direction in a manner that made me step forward to meet her. 'You simply must meet my associate, Stanley Kirby and his darling wife Joan.'

It felt very much like I was being presented for some kind of strange judgment, and I tried to exude something besides the desire to go the hell home. 'Mr. Kirby,' I said dutifully, and shook the man's hand. If he thought my gloves odd, he didn't comment.

'Mr. Maxwell,' he beamed at me. 'Aleyah has been able to speak of nothing but your work for weeks.'

I was able to let the comment go, as Aleyah poohed the remark off while I took the hand of the missus in greeting. I saw the little girl, perhaps eight or nine, peeking at me from behind her mother. 'And who is this?' I asked, mildly irritated on the kid's behalf that they hadn't bothered to introduce her. She looked startled for a second, but quickly stepped around and stuck her hand out to be taken along with the adults.

Her mother opened her mouth to speak, but the kid jumped in with, 'I'm JC,' and the sigh I heard told me I wouldn't have gotten the same name from her mother. The 'J' made me wonder if she were, perhaps, named after the woman.

'I'm Duo,' I replied and shook her hand the same as I had her parent's. I saw her looking curiously at my fingerless gloves, but a tight little cough from her mother stopped whatever comment might have come.

'I dare say,' Mr. Kirby was saying, drawing my attention back in his direction. 'Our Aleyah has made quite the find in you, dear boy. You show a lot of potential.'

'Thank you, sir,' I managed, though I could detect a certain irritation coming from my patron, and I wondered about it.

'Now, Stanley,' Aleyah said in a tone of voice that was supposed to be teasing, but had something of an edge to it. 'Even you have to admit that my Duo is the brightest talent we've had in here in a long time.'

My Duo? I wondered if anybody else noticed my eyebrows trying to crawl up my forehead.

'Oh, he certainly doesn't lack for raw talent,' good old Stanley conceded with a dismissive wave of his free hand, his wife having hold of his other arm, 'but training, dear... there's no training!'

'You and your vaunted training,' Aleyah replied, laughing lightly in a way that made me shiver. 'You don't train this sort of imagination.'

Stanley raised his eyes heaven-ward in exasperation and stabbed a finger in the general direction of the seagull sketch. 'Look at this one, for example,' he commanded and led the two women over to do just that. I'm afraid I gaped after them for a minute before glancing down at JC. 'So... are they always like this?'

She grinned widely, glancing after her parents, before whispering, 'Boring,' in a sing-song voice. I got the distinct impression that I was listening to an argument that had been going on for years. I just wasn't sure how I felt about finding myself the foil in the middle of it.

JC wandered off to dutifully join her parents, though I got a backward glance that told me I might be more interesting than they were being at the moment.

'-- balance is all wrong,' I heard Stanley saying. 'The horizon line is completely...'

'Oh pish, you old fart,' Aleyah cut him off, delivering the insult with the finesse of long practice. 'Stop looking for technicalities and feel what it says!'

There was probably a lot more; they certainly looked like they were ensconced for awhile, but I began to lose the thread of their conversation as the room around me started to... fill with people.

It was something of a shock to glance around and find that I was rather slowly being surrounded by strangers. My face, already warming from the treatment I was getting at the hands of my patron's obvious rival, heated further, and I started looking for a potted palm to hide behind.

As if on some sort of cue, as the room reached a certain level of occupancy, a pair of black-dress clad ladies began circulating with drinks and hors d'oeures. Remembering Relena's party all those months ago, when one of the girls came my way, I took a glass of the champagne so that I would have something to do with my hands. Playing with the fluted stemware wasn't going to be as therapeutic as peeling the labels off things, but I suppose that would have been rather inconvenient since I was walking around anyway. What would I have done with the peelings? Stuff them in my pockets?

It was... very damn weird standing around in that place. Part of the time, it was like I was invisible. Despite the fact that most everyone that came in was holding a copy of one of the pamphlets that Aleyah had made up, they weren't always connecting me with anything. People can be quite unobservant. The amusement factor of that fact didn't last long in the face of some of the comments I was hearing though. I wasn't sure whether to die of embarrassment... or just die.

'--incredible attention to detail--'

'--unspoiled--'

'--Aleyah's latest find--'

'--DeBoye show was much larger--'

'--fantastic realism--'

It was really a good thing that I don't like champagne at all, or I think I would have gone through several glasses of it inside the first fifteen or twenty minutes. It was just horrendously uncomfortable being -- essentially -- the center of everyone's attention.

At length, I started feeling stupid shifting about the room, trying to stay out of the way and be unobtrusive. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do? Pretend to look at my own pictures? That's what everybody else was doing, so the laws of blending in dictated that I should too? but that was just too weird. So I wandered out of the main room and down the wide hall, my untouched champagne glass twirling idly in my hand.

I wondered suddenly, how often real artists had to do things like this. Supporting oneself with artwork would be a much more attractive livelihood if you never had to leave the studio. I would think this sort of public spectacle would be a hell of a deterrent for entering the field. It made me rethink the whole plan of supplementing my income this way. I was starting to doubt that it was worth it.

I wondered if Heero really would have a cow if I just went out and, say... took a night job as a shuttle mechanic? Job as a bar bouncer? Fry cook at McDonalds?

I guess that last one was out unless I could work out the logistics of a hair net. Maybe I should just reserve judgment until I got through the first night of this whole art thing.

I was almost at the end of the curved hall, having heard someone recognize Quatre from his portrait, and someone else point out that Beowulf was cute, but Beowulf's owner was cuter, when I heard a familiar voice.

A not altogether welcome, familiar voice.

'--I know the odds are against it, but the resemblance is uncanny,' a deep, cultured voice was saying and I found myself slowing to hear the conversation.

'You never know,' Noin replied to her husband. 'They say it's a small world.'

Zechs was standing smack in front of Jensen's portrait, studying it intently, Noin standing on one side, and Sally on the other. He was his usual, immaculate self, and the ladies were both dressed in damned impressive evening gowns. I was shocked, really; I'd never seen Sally in a dress before. I hadn't thought she owned one. Noin, wasn't much of a surprise, being a Peacecraft or Merquise or whatever the fuck she was now; stood to reason that she was more than familiar with dressing for the social occasion. But Sally... I was oddly pleased that she had dressed up more for my gallery opening than she had for Relena's grand get-together.

'Who was he?' Sally asked, nibbling delicately at something she'd accepted from one of the roving tray-ladies.

'Subordinate during the war,' Zechs replied with a clear sound of distaste in his voice. 'Man got transferred more than anybody I ever saw. He was a horrible discipline problem and just... a psychopath. Nobody wanted to deal with him.'

Noin frowned at the portrait. 'Why in the hell didn't he ever get discharged?'

Oh yes, that was the question of the hour, and I should have thanked her for asking it.

'Connections,' Zechs replied, and I couldn't help wanting to laugh at the irony of that little statement. 'No one wanted to embarrass the family. God... what was his name?'

'Jensen,' I heard someone say, and realized it had been me, when they all three turned to look at me. How in the hell had I ended up standing right behind them?

Sally and Noin both smiled with unmistakable delight at finding me there, while Zechs only looked surprised. 'That's it!' he exclaimed. 'You mean, it really is him?'

Honest to God? I didn't know what to say to the man. The first thing that popped into my head ran something like, yeah, you fucking asshole? that would be the man that your wonderful military empowered with their blind eye into becoming a serial killer. But, it wouldn't quite come out my mouth with Sally and Noin standing there smiling at me like that. But, my God... I just couldn't get past that statement. That Oz, Romefeller, whatever the fuck they had been calling themselves at that point? had just shipped the son of a bitch around from base to base, from assignment to assignment, effectively making it possible for him to 'hit and run' as it were. I think my mouth opened and closed three or four times, but I couldn't figure out how to politely tell the pompous asshole just what his oh-so-wonderful fucking military had?

And that was the point where a warm and solid hand settled on my shoulder and Trowa and Quatre were suddenly there, and it was unbelievable what a difference it made that I didn't feel outnumbered anymore. It let words finally come staggering out. 'Yeah... his name was Jensen.'

Somehow, my nearly irrational anger had not made its way to my face, and people around me didn't seem to have a clue that I felt like spitting on Zechs' perfectly polished shoes.

But then Trowa's hand tightened ever so slightly and I wondered if maybe there were at least a couple of people who understood what I was feeling.

'Where on Earth did you know the man from?' Zechs was asking, and I thought I would choke.

Before I could decide how in the hell one went about answering a question that on the surface seemed so simple, yet ran so complex, Quatre smoothly replied. 'We happened to cross paths during the war.'

I looked his way and found that his expression, while well schooled, held a hint of my anger around the edges. Zechs missed it, leaning in to look at the portrait again. 'I remember wondering where he ended up,' he mused. 'Hadn't thought of him in years.'

There was something about the man's almost idle, totally unconcerned curiosity that was just squeezing at my guts, and I felt... things wanting to spiral up and burst from my throat. Scathing things laced with a lot of swear words.

Trowa's other hand landed on my other shoulder, and his fingers dug in, testing my level of tension, I suspect. The pressure of his grip buying my silence.

Unfortunately, that left no one available to buy that same silence from Quatre. Though, I'll admit he delivered his message in a much more civilized tone of voice than I probably would have managed, 'Oh, I imagine he ended up in Hell. That's generally the final destination for serial killers.'

Behind me, Trowa sighed in exasperation, though I doubt anyone heard him but me. It was funny to watch Zechs turn abruptly to look at Quatre at the same time that Noin and Sally were whirling around to look at the portrait with renewed interest.

'Pardon me?' Zechs said, arching an eyebrow.

Quatre was carrying one of those fluted champagne glasses too, and he took a small sip before clarifying. 'I said, I'm quite sure he's gone to Hell. That was generally what happened to those who tried to go against our God of Death.'

My face did something interesting, but from the inside I couldn't really tell if it was a blush or a blanch. I just know if felt really odd.

'Your Jensen was a clever man,' Quatre continued, looking past Zechs at the portrait with those red roses next to it. 'Quite took advantage of the opportunities offered him by a corrupt military.'

'He wasn't my anything--' Zechs began, looking confused and almost like he wanted to take exception to what Quatre was saying, but didn't quite know how to justify getting pissy when confronted with that conversational tone of voice.

'Oh,' Quatre replied, that tone turning to the purr of a man about to score a major point. 'Jensen belonged to everyone whose apathy allowed him to become a rapist and murderer.'

'Duo,' Trowa suddenly interjected, the picture of a man throwing himself on a verbal grenade. 'Quatre and I wanted to talk to you about one of the portraits down the hall.' He gave me a nudge, and I was more than happy to be led to safer ground. He snagged Quatre as we went by, and steered the both of us away from a still staring Zechs. 'Please excuse us,' Trowa tossed over his shoulder, and waited until we were through the doorway before smacking Quatre lightly on the back of the head.

The grin that Quatre gave him was anything but contrite. In fact, it bordered on smug. 'The pretentious jerk just needs a reality check every now and again,' he muttered, and brought his champagne glass up to hide the smirk.

'Quatre,' Trowa warned, giving his partner a look that didn't seem to have any affect at all.

'What?' Quatre said, glancing back as Trowa brought us to a stop out of the flow of people. 'Tell me what he said didn't make you want to deck him too?'

'This is not the place for a scene,' Trowa sighed, though he sounded like he was merely going through the motions. I think he knew it wasn't going to make any difference, but somehow had to uphold his position as the peace-keeper.


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