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

Connections (cont)

'It... it's just soda,' I stammered, and winced, but she didn't seem to notice, turning to make her way through the kitchen.

'Good!' she praised me, just as though I'd not been a drunkard as a personal favor to her.

'Does that happen often?' I couldn't help asking, following after her as she stopped to survey the kitchen.

'Once was too often, dear,' she said, though her attention was elsewhere, as evidenced by the slight wrinkle of her nose. 'Remind me to give you the number for my interior decorator, pet. This room... needs work.'

Despite the fact that Heero had said much the same thing, in a slightly less stilted fashion, it was hard not to take it personally. She didn't wait for me to respond, just continuing her tour and heading out the back kitchen door.

'I am counting on you, my dear,' she suddenly informed me, not even bothering to look my way, but taking a second to finally dare a sip of tea. 'My last few protégées have been... less than I'd hoped. My potter for instance, is simply too unfocused. Can't decide if she wants to create, or if she wants to be an engineer, of all things.' There was a disdainful little sniff, but it was obvious that I wasn't meant to answer, which was just as well, as I'd have probably said something about making a living. Something I didn't think Aleyah quite... got. 'And my textile artist... a superbly talented woman who has suddenly decided to delve into the world of exotic pet breeding.' A tsking sound followed that declaration as she made her way down the hall and it was suddenly just as though she knew right where she was headed. Cocotte joined us just as Aleyah took the step down into my studio. I wondered how she referred to me when she spoke to other people; her sketch artist?

I'd forgotten that I had the new paintings and the new sketch displayed on the opposite wall, and it looked for all the world as though I'd deliberately placed them to catch her eye as soon as she entered the room. I felt kind of foolish, though it had been a complete accident. I stopped on the step and took another swallow of soda as I watched her for a reaction. There wasn't one for a very long time, and I was just starting to sweat, thinking that I'd either seriously pissed her off, or else the paintings weren't at all to her liking when she said, so quietly that I'm not sure she meant for me to hear it,

'Oh, I begin to think that you don't disappoint in anything you do.'

I opted to pretend I hadn't heard, because my half-functioning brain could not come up with a single, solitary response.

I noticed the dog sniffing around the base of my new easel and went that way to encourage the animal to go investigate another part of the room. That mission complete, however, left me standing fairly close to Aleyah, and I couldn't help glancing over to try and catch her expression. Enthralled was the first thing that popped into my mind, and I felt myself blushing. I had expected the same sort of rushed perusal that she had given my work at Quatre's, and I wasn't at all sure what to make of her reaction.

She looked at me, sipping her tea for a moment, as though collecting her thoughts, something I'd not seen her do before. Aleyah's thoughts always seemed to be completely collected, organized and ready for firing. 'I am going to bend a personal rule of mine, dear, and accept anything you have to give me right up until the night before the show. These are... more than I dared hope.'

'Even the... uh... I mean...' I began, my own thoughts completely unorganized and uncollected.

'Especially the 'uh I mean',' she smiled, cutting me off and making me all the more flustered. 'I shall be buying this one myself, so you may rest assured that you have at least one sale.'

I blinked at her and looked again at her portrait. 'I can't take your money after everything you've done. If you really want the thing... it's yours.'

I got the most outrageous burst of laughter from her, a sound that made me grin despite myself mostly because it was the first laugh I'd heard from her that sounded completely honest. 'Oh, darling!' she said when she could. 'I can see why you need me; you are so not the business man. Please, pet... the night of the show, leave all the tedious details to me, or you shall die a penniless pauper.'

I snorted, and ducked my head, some part of me wanting to argue with that assessment and not wanting her to see that in my eyes. Though, I had to admit there was some bit of truth in what she said. I'd never known how to go about setting a price for my artwork. Even when I was charging to paint murals for people, I'd only starting doing it to try and deter them from asking, I had been getting far too many requests prior to that. Now, sitting down to haggle over the price of a salvage job, and we were talking a different Duo Maxwell.

I wondered about that rather suddenly, standing there staring at my art patron. Wasn't salvage work just another talent? Why, in my own mind, was it acceptable to set a price for those skills, but not so much to set a price for my art skills?

It was one of those moments of sharp clarity that left me feeling unsettled, so I simply nodded and agreed. 'You're the boss,' I quipped and her smile got a little... scary.

She gave me a long look and almost purred, 'Yes... and I like it that way.'

Had I been taking a drink, I would have choked. Though I think she got the gist of my discomfort without the sound effects. She took a sip of her tea to hide a demure little smile, though it more accented, than hid it.

I decided to change the subject, and pointed to Allison's portrait. 'If there's some sort of... of centerpiece for the show... that's it.'

She moved a step to her left, taking her away from me a bit, and studied the picture. 'It will make for a dark theme, pet,' she told me in a tone of voice that was considering. 'This one is very... affecting.'

'But it's the focus, none-the-less,' I heard myself say, and wondered if I could get away with refilling my mug of soda. She gave me an appraising look that rivaled some of the ones that she'd been giving my work.

'Are you a father, dear?' she suddenly asked and I'm afraid I sputtered and then freakin' laughed right out loud. 'I'll take that as a no,' she said, not waiting for me to reply more than that. 'You do children extremely well, is why I asked.' Her attention went to the portrait of Jensen then. 'I shall amend that... you do expressions extremely well.' She reached out and picked up my sketchpad and gave the portrait there a small smile and sighed. 'You are obscenely talented, you do know that? There should be some sort of regulatory law against people like you.'

When I do my carp gig, you kind of have to look to get it, and when she finally turned toward me to further enjoy the show, I saw her notice the wall behind us. She blinked past me for a second and then an oddly irritated look came into her eyes. I was completely dismissed as she made her way around me to go look at Heero's Christmas present.

'Darling,' she chided as she studied the thing. 'Had I only known about this earlier, I could have arranged a print in time for the opening.'

'You can't!' I blurted, somewhat aghast at the idea. 'That's Heero's... it's private.'

'Art should never be private, pet,' she said firmly, sounding for the first time like the older woman she was. 'Art isn't art until it's shared. The painter creates... but the viewer fulfills.'

'I shared it with Heero,' I found myself telling her, her attitude rubbing me just a bit the wrong way. 'Some things are... best left where they are.' It sounded lame, but no way in hell was I going to give the woman the verbal opening of what I'd intended to say. God only knows where she'd have gone with some things are best shared only between two people. I'm slow sometimes, but I'm not stupid.

She seemed to sense that I hadn't said what I'd meant to, and turned to smile knowingly at me. 'Then I suppose I should take what you have to offer and be going,' she said, giving me a look that made me wonder if I'd pissed her off. 'Be a love and go out front and fetch Gage.'

'Pardon me?' I asked, blinking stupidly and wondering if she would be throwing me so damn bad if I wasn't feeling like my brain was running on fumes.

'My driver,' she clarified, turning back to the mural on the wall and dismissing me completely. It was a weird feeling to be dismissed out of my own studio.

She had a driver?

When I went out front, I discovered that she did indeed have a driver. He looked every bit the part of the clichéd, indulgent rich woman's boy toy. I could imagine that his resume had consisted of some beefcake photos of him shirtless, sprawled across the hood of some expensive car. I wondered if his name really was Gage, or if she'd picked it for him. Or if he'd chosen it the way actors choose stage names. I was miserably uncomfortable leading the guy through my house.

'Madame?' he inquired when we were in his employer's presence and she turned to give him a smile that was just a bit... I don't know, but I was left thinking of the looks she'd given some of my sketches.

'We have paintings to transport,' she told him and that seemed to be enough. I stood and watched, feeling like they didn't really need my company at all, Gage quickly took the paintings in hand, and it gave me a decidedly strange flutter in the pit of my stomach, seeing him walk out of my studio with them. I almost felt like I should stop him.

Aleyah moved from Heero's picture to the half finished painting of the church and I felt myself blushing, just as though she could somehow see the strange circumstances under which the thing had been born just from looking at it. She raised one of those delicate eyebrows at me and made a gesture as though she would tap the wall in front of her. 'This is fresh, dear. If you're going to express that artistic talent of yours this week, please do it on canvas so that I can make use of it.'

'Yes Ma'am,' came out of my mouth and the blush escalated back up to flash-fire level. She laughed in delight, but then Gage appeared in the doorway and sketched her a faint bow.

'The car is loaded, Ms. Winner,' he informed her and she made a noise that seemed to indicate that she was pleased. She turned to me then, and I found her handing me a card that had come from I know not where.

'This is the address of the gallery, my dear,' she told me, her well-manicured fingers managing to brush over the back of my hand somehow, as she left the card with me. 'The show will open precisely at seven on Friday night. I will need you there no less than an hour before.'

The whole thing seemed very real in that moment. I muttered some acceptance of the information and looked at the card so that I didn't have to look at Aleyah or her stud of a driver. The card was tasteful and elegant and done in gold ink. I distinctly remember wondering what the things cost to have printed.

'Come along, darling,' Aleyah said and it took me a moment to realize she was talking to the damn dog. Cocotte came running from behind the couch and I watched as the three of them went up the step into the hall. I followed only because it seemed the thing to do.

The woman's parting shot was a light laugh and an admonishment. 'And do not wear those ungodly Preventor's colors, darling. They don't suit you at all.'

I stood on the porch and watched as Gage handed both Aleyah and Cocotte into the car and then drove them away. I stood on the porch while my brain adjusted to the fact that I was actually going to be having an art gallery opening. I stood on the porch until my hands began to ache with the cold. I stood on the porch and tried to convince myself that I could get through the whole thing without Heero. I stood on the porch and thought about music, because I was beyond denying that I needed to have it.

When I'd settled on my hammered dulcimer, I left the porch and went back in the house. I locked up. I queued the music. I turned out the lights and went up the stairs to our room where I laid the hell down to go to sleep thinking about the fact that the woman called the dog by the same pet names she used for me.

Going to bed that insanely early, I had fully expected to wake at an equally insane hour of the morning, and was surprised as hell when I slept right past sunrise the next day. Heero would have told me it was a sign of how emotionally exhausted I was, and would have endeavored to keep me in bed for a few more hours. Which led to thoughts that made me get the hell up to escape.

Saturdays, while attractive for the no-work issue, have their own... lack of appeal for people who don't have time through the week for all the mundane chores of life that make the world go around. Laundry, house-cleaning, marketing... boring and dull and oh-so-necessary. I normally don't care all that much for Saturdays for that reason, but under my current circumstances I can't say I was sorry for the distraction. Can't say I was sorry that I just didn't have the time to sit and brood.

And about mid-afternoon, when I ran out of my regular chores and was just beginning to worry about what I would have to do next, I found the first rather rank puddle of drying dog pee. Damn freaking animal had 'marked' every room on the first floor at some point. I was... extremely irritated.

A quick call to Mr. Ex-circus-guy Barton got me some detailed instructions on the best way to clean the messes up. It also got me laughed at, but we don't need to go into that.

So I made a second trip to the store for club soda, white vinegar and a rented portable steam cleaner. I cursed the woman and her little dog too, all the damn way home. I had an overwhelming desire to go buy myself a Saint Bernard and pay Ms Winner a return visit. After feeding the beast six jars of prunes.

But then... I've always been a bit vindictive.

Some places weren't too bad; the tile of the studio for instance, but the living room carpet was going to take some work. Trowa had admonished me about getting the smell out as well as the stain and I had a certain order to work in, starting with simple blotting with towels, followed by application of the club soda and more blotting.

I was doing pretty good, my music flowing around me, and my mind focused completely on the job at hand... until I fired up the steam cleaner.

Once running, the things work rather remarkably like paint strippers.

I have an on-again/off-again therapist. Dr. Webster. Nice lady. We'd had a long talk at some point about a thing called 'triggers'. I have a rather large array of them, ranging from burning buildings to vacuum suits.

I figured out that day that I could add paint strippers to that list. Made me feel like a total dumb ass. I mean, seriously; paint strippers? How incredibly lame is that?

But lame or not, the minute I turned the stupid thing on, my heart rate went through the roof and it was like I took a step sideways into the past. The nozzle in my hand could have been about twice the size it was, and I was applying it to the wall and not the carpet. Was stripping paint, not cleaning up piss. Felt like screaming and couldn't quite get my head around why.

When my hand finally fumbled the power switch to the off position, I was sitting on my ass on the floor, panting like an asthmatic and vaguely wondering how my ship had come to be carpeted. You don't carpet a damn space ship; what in the holy hell had I been thinking? But then the faint smell of diluted dog pee made me doubt the reality I had thought I was in and I started wondering exactly how an animal had gotten aboard, but I remembered the ocelot and decided that maybe the thing had managed to?

The upward spiral of... we won't call it hysteria; confusion, maybe? The upward spiral of upsetting confusion was interrupted rather suddenly by the sound of the phone ringing.

It rang twice before some part of my brain registered what the sound meant, I kept trying to equate it to alarms and couldn't figure out the meaning. Then I finally shifted back to the left and stuff started falling into place in my head again. I scrambled up off the floor and ran for the kitchen extension, grabbing it up on the fourth ring with shaking hands and snapped, 'Maxwell,' into the receiver.

There was a moment's silence on the other end before Heero hesitantly asked, 'Duo?'

I thought I would fracture at the sound of his voice. Half of me was almost exultant, knowing that Heero could help ground me again, but the other half was waving his arms in warning, understanding that neither of us was in any shape to be trying to talk to my somewhat protective lover. If I wasn't careful, he'd be on the next bus/train/plane back, and the case be damned.

'Yeah,' I replied, keeping it short and trying to hold the phone so it might not be picking up the sound of my still settling breathing. I took his moment of hesitation to look around the kitchen, verifying with my eyes where I was.

'Is...' he asked gently, 'everything all right?'

Iron clad cinch he knew the answer to that before he asked it, so I went on the offensive. 'No, damn it... Aleyah was out here and that damn dog of hers peed all over the house!'

'What?' he questioned, and I have to confess to a certain aggravation that he hadn't said more. I'd been hoping for a moment to collect myself while he talked. So much for plan A.

'Look, Heero,' I tried. 'Now is not a good time? I've got piss drying all over the...'

He wasn't buying plan B either and cut me off. 'Duo-love? I can hear your voice shaking, I know you well enough to know you're not that upset over some stupid mess. What is wrong?'

Well, fuck. I hadn't formulated a plan C, and that only left me with the default honesty thing. Didn't that just suck?

'I...' I began, but really couldn't quite find the words. 'I rented...' I stopped again, understanding that there was just no good way to explain myself. I took a second to just breathe and suddenly heard myself say, 'Heero... I just need you to talk to me for a minute.'

There was a long moment on his end, and I have no doubt that if he had possessed the ability to teleport, he'd have been in our kitchen that very second. 'It's ok,' he finally said. 'I'm... here.' I smiled and let myself drop down to sit in one of the kitchen chairs. 'So, you say that Aleyah was out to the house? To get the paintings, I suppose. I would have liked to have seen her reaction to her portrait. And she actually brought the dog? Trowa and Quatre talk about that thing all the time, but I never really believed that it would go in the house. I would have thought it would be better trained than that. That doesn't sound like anything Aleyah would put up with?'

He was rambling and I had to smile a little wider, listening to him trying to verbally gather me into his arms. By the time he got to hypothesizing about the possibility that Cocotte wasn't house trained at home either, I had gotten my bearings and was able to chuckle softly. 'I have the distinct feeling that the dog is only allowed to indulge in that marking business at certain times,' I told him and could almost hear him breathe a sigh of relief. 'I don't remember seeing the damn dog trying to 'sign' any of the furniture at the photographer's place.'

'It really peed all over our house?' he had to ask, now that I seemed to have settled.

I sighed, thinking about tackling the living room carpet again. 'Yeah. I should have known. She just wandered all over the place while Aleyah and I talked. God, Heero... she must have hit every room downstairs. I guess I should just be glad she didn't follow Aleyah upstairs.'

'Upstairs?' Heero asked, sounding somewhat taken aback.

'Yes!' I blurted, letting the irritation take hold of me again. 'I went to make tea and when I came back the woman was damn well up in our bedroom! I can only hope she wasn't digging around in our freakin' underwear drawer!'

There was a tiny pause and then Heero said, 'Maybe you should start from the beginning.'

So I told him about the entire evening, skipping the getting home from work part since I really didn't want to get into that whole 'called in sick' thing, and kind of glossing over the slight shift I'd had in perceptions while cleaning the carpet. Not that I could skip it completely, but I did my best to make it sound... a little less psychotic.

'Are you sure you're all right now?' he asked when I was finished.

'I'm ok, Heero,' I assured him, wishing for all the world that his call had not come precisely when it had.

'I wish we hadn't had to leave so soon,' he felt compelled to tell me, and I kinda wondered if he meant so soon after the funeral, or so soon after the therapeutic paint application in the back room. Or maybe he just meant in general and wasn't thinking of anything in particular. 'If things weren't heating up...' he started to say, but then stopped and I had to repress a sigh. We were back around to that bullshit where he wouldn't talk to me about anything on the phone. I somehow didn't think that Gray had a wire tap on our house, but I suppose policy was policy, so I didn't let him brood on it.

'It's all right,' I said, deliberately misunderstanding his meaning. 'You probably wouldn't have realized what the stupid dog was doing either.' And before I could think what I was saying I had opened my mouth and out popped, 'Would you be terribly upset if I bought a Saint Bernard and spent the next week feeding it prunes in order to take it visiting at Aleyah's place?'

I could have kicked myself the minute the words were out my mouth, I had only been thinking about making small talk, about making him believe that I was fine and not lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. I hadn't been thinking about... what I should have been. But he didn't seem to take it wrong. Didn't seem to make the jump, because he laughed rather abruptly.

I heard something in the background on his end and he repeated the line, coming back to relay to me what Wufei had said. 'Wufei says that canned tuna works better. The kind in oil, and don't drain it.'

I couldn't help laughing, relieved that I hadn't brought up memories of our fight. 'Is that personal experience talking?' I had to ask, and he chuckled rather sardonically.

'Sally ran out of cat food and tried to... improvise,' he explained, and I could hear Wufei chuckling too. It felt... good to hear them.

I blinked at the kitchen wall, rather surprised to realize just how good. My support system. How wild was that? I had to really stop and think about that for a minute... Duo 'I can take care of myself' Maxwell had a safety net. An almost family, albeit a kind of weird one. Maybe it was having just taken that little slip-trip in my brain to a time when that hadn't really been true, that made it into such a revelation.

Or maybe it had been true, but I hadn't been ready to accept it.

It was an odd thought best left for another day.

'Are you sure you're all right?' Heero asked again, and it was there on the tip of my tongue to tell him a million things.

I'm just tired...

I just wish you hadn't gone away again...

It's just been a rough couple of days...

Come home...

But, 'I'm ok now,' is what I told him. 'How are you guys doing? Everything all right on your end?'

He hesitated for so long that I suspected that something major had happened on the case. Something he was probably dying to tell me, but couldn't. I decided to spare him. 'I mean... you got in ok and everything?'

There was just a hint of relief in his voice and I figured I'd made the right choice to not pressure him. 'We're fine,' he told me, with a hint of amusement in his voice. 'And there's even a restaurant in the hotel, so we aren't eating out of the vending machines.'

'Good!' I said in mock reprimand. 'Don't want you coming home wasted away to nothing.'

'Yes, sir,' he acquiesced with a somewhat lame attempt at sounding contrite. I was opening my mouth to call him on it when I heard a knock on the front door.

'What the hell?' I muttered and rose, taking the cordless handset with me.

'What's wrong?' Heero was quick to ask.

'Somebody at the door,' I told him and expected to get the standard lecture about being careful. I was surprised when he just asked if he should let me go.

There was no mistaking the silhouette I saw through the window and I told Heero as much. 'It's just the guys... hang on a second.'

I opened the door and was greeting by a pair of somewhat sheepish grins. 'Truce?' Trowa asked, brandishing a couple of bags of Chinese take-out.

'Truce?' I echoed confusedly. 'For what?'

'Well,' Quatre said, ducking his head and looking a bit embarrassed. 'It was my sister who came into your home and... uh...'

'Christened it?' Trowa suggested when Quatre floundered, and got an elbow in the ribs for his trouble.

On the phone I heard Heero chuckle. 'I hear you're in capable hands,' he told me, sounding more than just a bit relieved. 'I'll leave you to your guests and talk to you tomorrow if I can manage it. I love you... you know that?'

'Yeah,' I stumbled, feeling weirdly embarrassed. 'I... uh... you know,' I finished lamely and felt like an absolute asshole, not being able to say it in front of the guys.

But Heero just chuckled at me again. 'I do know,' he replied warmly and then we hung up.

The guys followed me into the kitchen when I went to hang the phone up, with what was apparently going to be our dinner. I got out plates while they unbagged it and then we took it all into the dining room to the much larger table to eat.

Trowa wrinkled his nose as he sat down. 'God Duo... how did you not notice the smell last night?'

I snorted, dishing myself up some noodles. 'I went straight up to bed after she left, and I think I'd just been in it so long that I didn't notice it today until I'd left the house and come back in.

Quatre looked very damn uncomfortable. 'Duo, I am really sorry...'

I stopped him with a fork waved in front of his face. 'You are not your sister's keeper. Not your fault.'

'Well,' Trowa grinned. 'Since it's not likely that Aleyah will be coming back with a steam vac... the least we can do is help you clean it up.'

I stilled for a moment, at the abrupt mention of the machine that had caused me to jump mental ship, and I wasn't sure if I covered it quick enough or not. 'Y- you really don't have to do that. I told you? I don't hold you guys responsible at all.'

Trowa gave me a rather level look, and I wondered about it? I really hadn't done much more than pause in speaking. But all he said was, 'Quatre will never be able to sleep tonight if you don't let him help.'

'Hey,' Quatre responded, giving his partner a raised eyebrow look. 'What do you mean me? I thought we came to help?'

'She is your sister,' Trowa told him blandly, plucking shrimp one at a time out of the carton.

'But she likes you better,' Quatre accused mockingly and Trowa grinned at him unrepentantly.

'Only because I flirt with her in French, my love bug,' Trowa said haughtily; Quatre might have replied to that if I hadn't distracted them both by snorting soda out my nose. Love bug?

There was back thumping and much mocking laughter from Trowa as I stumbled into the kitchen to rinse my face and clear my sinuses. I was struck again with that feeling of... of... camaraderie? Support? That I had felt while on the phone with Heero and Wufei. I just knew that despite the irritation of my abused nose, it felt good to have them there. It felt good not to have to face the horrors of the wet vac all alone.

The evening played out much as you would have thought. We ate, we cleaned, Trowa and Quatre doing their best to keep me laughing. It made me less irritated with Aleyah. Made me stop thinking about the Saint Bernard project. Made me stop thinking about drop-kicking Cocotte into the middle of next week. Helped me keep my mind off the fact that Heero was going to be gone for an indeterminate amount of time. Helped me not think about the gallery show at the end of the week.

It made it easier to get through the rest of a day that might have been... a bit difficult otherwise.

And if Trowa somehow ended up wielding the steam cleaner after that, I certainly wasn't going to argue. It was an easier job than getting down on one's knees with the vinegar and towels after all; not like I was sticking him with the hard part.

Quatre spotted the new mural when we got to the back room, and of course I had to submit to some questioning over it. I wasn't sure if the look I got from him after my short-form explanation was sympathetic or not, and I chose to ignore it. That was an area where I was just a bit raw yet, remembering how I'd meant the painting to look, and also remembering Heero's husky voice guiding me in a different direction. He didn't push overly much about it, seeming to understand that it was something I felt rather strongly about, and it wasn't long after that that we deemed the mess cleaned up and they were preparing to leave.

Quatre just couldn't seem to stop himself from hugging me, his grip almost fierce and hinting at some underlying emotion that I wasn't sure I understood. Trowa, as usual, was more subdued, simply giving my braid a tug and smiling in a way that told me to call if I needed anything, without having to fill the air with the words. I stood on the porch and saw them off and then went in to shower. Nothing quite like cleaning up piss to make you feel the need of some soap. I was rather comfortably tired by the time I was done, and again made an early night of it, going to bed as soon as I'd locked up and cleaned up the dinner mess.

It wasn't until my eyes opened to the first faint hints of morning light, that it occurred to me why they'd come. I think the clues had lined themselves up in my dreams and the first solid thought I had on waking was, Heero had Wufei call Trowa.

That was why Heero had been so blasé about someone coming to the door unannounced. That was why Trowa took over the steam cleaner without asking, when he was not normally one to take the easy job when there were other choices; he's not a slacker. That was the unidentified feelings I'd been picking up from Quatre; protectiveness.

I just laid there and thought about the evening, and you know? I really just didn't know how I felt about the whole thing. It was weird thinking about that... connection. Thinking about Heero, scared by my tone of voice, signaling Wufei who went aside and called Trowa, who grabbed Quatre and came running to... my rescue? I didn't know whether to be embarrassed or... warmed. I could see the threads of connection between the guys and it was damn strange to see that they extended to me just as strongly. It was hard to believe after all the years I'd not been a part of their lives, that they could take me back into their brotherhood so easily. But I didn't think it was just my relationship with Heero that bound me to them; not the way we seemed to be. Sally's relationship with Wufei made a connection too, but it wasn't quite the same. Not that I could have explained the difference, and not that I'm saying if she and I were both drowning, that Wufei would save me instead of her. It was just? different. Because of what we were? Because of what we'd gone through together? Because of where we'd come from? I really don't know.

I got tired of puzzling it out, and for the first time that I could remember since I'd been an invalid in Heero's apartment? I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Sunday was like this strange little vacation; the pressure of producing art-on-demand was gone and I almost didn't know what to do with myself. I fiddled with the new mural for a few hours, just filling in some of the background, but didn't finish it. I took the steam cleaner back to the store. Changed the sheets on the guest bed since I didn't figure it was going to be a good idea letting Heero catch me sleeping there again. Cleaned out the refrigerator. Busy work, all of it. Just keeping myself moving so that I didn't start thinking.

That would, in fact, pretty much describe most of that whole week. Just moving. Moving as fast as I could to go nowhere. Any time spent not keeping my mind occupied, resulted in ulcer inducing brooding about what I was facing at the end of the week.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Ex-Gundam pilot terrorist, a guy who had infiltrated more damn military installations during his short career than you could shake a stick at, a guy who had spit in the general direction of the executioner when faced with public execution... was trying not to shit his pants over an art gallery opening.

It's human nature, you know, to be apprehensive in the face of the unknown. And dear God, but this was certainly the unknown.

When you create, whatever you create, you are putting a small piece of yourself into it. Doesn't matter if you are knitting hats, or painting portraits. Doesn't matter if you are crafting dolls, or carving wood. Each piece contains just a tiny sliver of your soul, and it's a damn scary thing thinking about tossing that out there for the general population to see. Like each and every one of those paintings and sketches were my children, and I was letting them go out into the wide, mean world alone.

If you don't get that part... I can't explain it any better. Maybe it's just something you have to feel for yourself.

So it was a week of tightening the screws. Each day that brought me closer to the oncoming freight train that was Friday, wound me just a little tighter. Apparently made me a little less easy to live with. By mid-week, I think if there were such a thing as enforced vacation, Griff would have sent me the hell home. I remember at one point wondering if maybe it wasn't for the best that Heero was clear of ground-zero, safe from my nerves.

By the time Thursday morning dawned, I was probably at my worst. Sleep had become somewhat elusive about mid-week, just adding to my joy. If I'd been a coyote, I'd have gnawed my own leg off to get the hell away from the trap I felt like I was in. Starting my mornings staring at Allison's portrait of me was no longer enough; I had to revisit it several times a day to keep in my head just why I was going through with the whole thing. I felt so damn... arrogant, it wasn't even funny.

And just to add insult to injury, the Gray situation, or as the media was calling it, 'The case of flight 1410', was coming closer to its impending trial date so the coverage was heating up. It wasn't helping my tension much to hear Gray's lawyer talk about what a poor, unfortunate man the good Captain was, on the drive to work each morning. Not that I could not listen; old instincts said that forewarned was forearmed and since Heero wasn't telling me much, I had to get my information from somewhere.

Though there was a side-benefit in that all the guys at work assumed my attitude was coming from the trial, so I at least had an excuse for being short-tempered and pissy. Even if Guilt-beast did trail me around the garage giving me a hard time about it. It wasn't right to take my bad couple of weeks out on those around me, but knowing that, and acting on it were two entirely different things.

By Thursday, Griff was throwing body-work at me like there was no tomorrow. It was a hard, physically demanding job that let me beat the hell out of large metal parts with a rubber mallet and run loud power tools that kept people from trying to converse with me. I'm sure it was all part of his master plan of keeping me occupied. I had noticed early in the week that the radio that normally played all day long, had been shut off. There was a little 'out of order' sticky note taped to the front, but I suspected the guys were just trying to keep me from hearing trial news all day long.

And what a sad little commentary it was that my sour mood and nausea were driven more by the gallery opening than the thought of having to testify against Gray. I think that said something very telling about my psyche, but I wasn't sure just what. It hardly seemed worth making an appointment with my therapist just to find out.

I was sanding out a section of fender in the middle of the afternoon when I became aware of somebody staring at me. I was instantly a bit irritated, I'd managed a level of concentration that had been eluding me for days, and I wasn't thrilled to be pulled out of it. Then I looked up and found Sally standing there, and couldn't help a momentary mental flinch as I remembered the last time she had come down to the garage to see me. I turned off my grinder and her smile widened a bit.

'You have a disgustingly dirty job, Duo,' she teased, and I made as though I was going to shake bondo dust all over her, making her yelp and take a step back. 'Don't you dare, mister!' she warned. 'I have a cat and I'm not afraid to use him!'

'I've been threatened with that devil-beast before,' I informed her haughtily. 'Heero would have your scalp if you tried to off-load it on me while he's gone.'

She sighed theatrically and planted her hands on her hips, eyeing the grinder suspiciously. 'Maybe I'll just abandon the damn thing on your front porch then,' she grumbled, and I had to chuckle.

'What's it done now?' I asked.

'Only cost me my entire last paycheck when I had to take him to the vet after he ate part of a skein of angora yarn,' she huffed, looking greatly put out about the loss of the yarn.

'Yuck,' was about all I could manage without bursting out laughing at the mental image.

'You have no idea,' she grimaced. 'I walked into the room just in time to see the end of it disappear into his vicious little mouth like he was sucking down spaghetti.'

I did laugh then, though the idea was more disturbing than anything. She waited me out, doing her best to look as though she had no idea what I found so funny. 'Tell me you didn't come all the way down here just to tell me your gross cat story?'

'My cat is not gross,' she quipped. 'And no, I came down here to find out if you need a ride to the show tomorrow.'

I gaped, ok? And then I just kind of blinked at her. Remember that thing I mentioned about always being taken by surprise? Flat fucking footed.

'The show?' I managed, and thought she would snicker herself to death.

'Yes, M'Lord,' she grinned at me, changing tone. 'You do recall? You have an art gallery opening? Sponsored by the illustrious Ms. Aleyah Winner? Or did it slip your mind?'

'Hardly,' I growled, frowning slightly despite my best effort. 'How did you?'

She actually went so far as to roll her eyes at me. 'The invitation was something of a give away.'

Invitation? There were invitations to this thing? My brain disengaged from my surroundings for a moment while I tried to fathom that.

'So?' she prompted and smirked out-right at my blank expression. 'Do you?'

'Uh... no, I'm fine,' I finally told her, still trying to get my head around the notion that there would be people at this thing that I actually freakin' knew. I wasn't sure if that made it better, or worse. I suppose it depended on whether the opening was a success or a bust. Public humiliation was bad enough stand-alone. 'But... you don't have to go... I mean, I wasn't expecting...' I floundered, not sure how to tell her that I hadn't expected anybody to waste their time on it, without sounding like she wasn't welcome. But she only quirked me a grin that bordered on wicked.

'I wouldn't miss it for anything short of a half-price sale at Baskin-Robbins.' And she actually reached out and patted my cheek.

I snorted, unsure if the gesture was mocking Aleyah on purpose, or not. 'I don't think it's going to be anything to write home about,' I had to tell her.

'It does not surprise me that you think that,' she said, 'but I shall reserve the right to judge for myself. It isn't every day that someone I know opens at Expressions.'

I sighed and rubbed a hand over the back of my neck. It felt gritty. 'If you say so,' I conceded doubtfully. 'But it's just the same shit... only in pretty frames.'

She burst out laughing then, shaking her head at me as though I were just too ridiculous to talk to. 'I'll see you tomorrow night, Duo.' And she walked away, still chuckling.

It was probably a good thing it was near the end of the day by then, because what little concentration I had was blown right straight to hell.

The hamsters in my head got on their wheels and started running for all they were worth. Offering me a plethora of possibilities that rather left me thinking about running the hell away from home. It certainly put a different spin on things, thinking about having people there that I knew. Opened up whole new avenues in the area of total humiliation. Bad enough to look like a... a... clueless newbie in front of strangers.

I lost two knuckles and screwed up the patch job on the fender before quitting time. It was oddly disconcerting to be glad it was the end of shift, at the same time I was sorry to be that one step closer to Friday.

Both Giles and Griff looked like they wanted to speak to me as I passed them on my way to the time clock, but neither of them managed to come up with anything. Or maybe it was the part where I utterly refused to make eye contact and just kept on walking. It probably would have just been something reassuring about the investigation, and I really wasn't all that interested. They couldn't tell me anything I wasn't hearing on the news each night, so why bother? Besides, it really wasn't what was bothering me, despite what they thought.

I suppose that sounds strange. But really? I just wasn't all that worried about the flight 1410 fiasco. Maybe I should have been, but there was some part of me deep down inside that had been listening to all of Heero's promises and just? well? just damn well believed in him. If Heero said that he would stop Gray, then Heero would stop Gray. It sounds stupid and naive as hell, but it's the truth. I just had mentally relegated the whole thing into the realm of 'Heero will handle that'. It was like some division of labor. I generally gathered the trash and took it out, and Heero did most of the vacuuming. I did a large chunk of the cooking, and Heero took care of the clean-up most of the time. It was like that. Heero was just handling the psycho murderer-wannabe.

Or maybe I just didn't have enough hamsters to cover the gallery opening and the trial.

I had fully intended to stop and pick up a pizza or something on my way home from work, but somehow just couldn't think of anything I felt like I could stomach.

Half way to the house, it actually crossed my mind to wonder if we still had those stupid la-la land tranquilizer patches that Heero had gotten from the clinic for the trip to L2. I had a funny feeling that I wasn't going to be getting much sleep. Though... maybe I'd look the part of the starving artist if I showed up at the gallery with dark circles under my eyes.

The solitude and quiet was a damn palpable thing when I walked through the door that night. Not that it hadn't been getting to me up until then, but I guess I just had too much to think about at that point. I turned on the television, as had become my habit, just to catch part of the news, but they were already up to the sports, so I wandered into the kitchen for a soda. It tasted clean somehow, going down, cutting the dust from my throat, and I decided to go on up and get my shower. Bondo dust is damn fine stuff and just gets everywhere.

I took extra long cleaning up, just because it gave me something to do, indulging myself in soaking some of the stress away. At least... as much as I could. Washing your hair does not really take a lot of brain power, so it still left a lot of time to think.

I wondered who in the hell all knew about this stupid thing. I wondered who might actually show up. I wondered what in the bloody hell I was going to wear. I wondered how long I was going to be obligated to stay. I wondered if Cocotte had been trained not to pee in the gallery.

And then you know what came to me, all of a sudden? Recon.

That's what I would have done during the war in a situation like this. It was the apprehension of the unknown that was making me crazy... why not go scope the damn place out? Why not take some of the unknown factor away?

I got out of the shower, dried, did my hair and dressed in my black dress pants and a generic polo shirt. Not exactly puttin' on the Ritz, but hopefully at least passable.

I'd memorized the address from the card Aleyah had given me and took off as soon as I could get out of the house. Even getting to see the neighborhood and the general lay of the land would help, but if I could get there before the gallery actually closed? all the better.

And yes, at some point during the drive back into the city, it did occur to me to wonder why in the hell I hadn't thought to make the trip sooner. I think for the same reason you don't always realize that the dead cat at the side of the road is really just a scrap of some trucker's shredded tire? you're too busy trying not to look at it.

If Jacques' place was 'trendy', Expressions was... elegant. It was located in the downtown area with a clothing boutique on one side that looked like the scarves probably cost more than one of my pay checks, and an antique and out of print book place on the other. The whole neighborhood screamed 'money' in a loud, but tasteful voice.

And yeah, you bet your ass I parked two blocks over and walked. I felt underdressed just walking down the sidewalk.

The building itself wouldn't have needed a sign, the whole damn design somehow managed to radiate 'Art' with the capital A. There was no doubt that it had been built expressly to be what it was; the building was something of a work of art in itself and I found myself lingering in front of the book store, loathe to actually go near the place.

I moved along when I realized the clerk inside was donning a pair of white gloves in preparation of showing an old leather bound book to a customer.

I wasn't sure whether I was happy or not when I found that the gallery was still open. It took a moment of loin girding to convince myself that it was ok to just walk in. Intellectually, I knew it was just a business, but there was something about all that glass, steel and imported looking marble that was intimidating as hell.

There wasn't any tinkling bell when I finally opened the door, but a strangely melodic tone that sounded softly in the distance. There was a receptionist type counter and a young woman was slouched there, attention on a book of some sort, and the most incongruous pink bubble gum bubble expanding in front of her face.

At the sound of the tone, I thought she was going to have a heart attack, and between trying to straighten up, hide the book and get rid of the gum... she managed to pop the bubble. All over her face. As a last resort, she just turned her back to me while she cleaned herself off, and I heard a muttered, 'Well, fuck?'

Nothing in the world could possibly have put me at ease in that damn place faster than that had. It was a good thing she turned her back, because I thought I was going to hurt myself trying not to laugh out loud. The sudden release of tension was just about to put me on the floor.

Though the color of her face when she finally turned back around, rather took the humor out of it. Despite my initial knee-jerk reaction, I don't normally find other people's humiliation amusing. Well... unless that other person is Dave. Or Smitty. Or maybe?

Ok; never mind.

'Hi,' I said, feeling bad for the poor kid, and tried to smile engagingly.

She ducked her head slightly, letting her oddly streaked hair swing down in front of her eyes, but it did little to hide the raging blush. 'Uh... hi,' she managed. 'Welcome to Expressions.'

I couldn't help grinning at her attempt to fall back on what must be a rote line. 'I hope you don't have to do the bubble gum greeting for everybody who comes in,' I said, hoping she had a sense of humor.

She didn't disappoint, laughing loudly and giving me an exaggerated little drop curtsy. 'Nope. Once a day performance, and you were the lucky customer of the day!'

I laughed in return and hoped that there wasn't anybody else in the place; I had a feeling that it was normally quiet as a library. I glanced around and was struck with a strange urge to smooth my hair and check to make sure my shirt was tucked in all the way around. 'So,' I prodded, not sure how much time I had before the gallery closed. 'I've never been to an art gallery before... just how does this work?'

The girl made a face and quirked a wry grin. 'Just think of it as a museum... only not old.' She came out from behind the desk then, her earlier embarrassment set aside and a certain hint of enthusiasm showing in her voice. 'You came just in time if you're here for the DeBoye show, it closes tonight. We have a new artist opening tomorrow.' While she talked, she lead me to a small table that I had missed seeing near the front door and picked up a pamphlet from an artfully arranged display of the things.

I took it when she offered it to me, staring at the picture of a woman on the front, smiling bemusedly back at me, face framed by a cloud of unruly dark hair. I didn't need to presume I was looking at the aforementioned Ms. DeBoye, since her name was printed beneath the picture. I missed some of what the receptionist was saying while my mind tried to catch up with the fact that somewhere there were flyers just like the one in my hand, only with my name and picture on them. I skimmed the text, noting the American Indian decent and the claim to a husband and two small children. I couldn't help wondering what my own damn pamphlet said, since Aleyah had never asked me any of the kinds of questions that were answered in the one I was looking at. It gave me a chill of uncomfortable foreboding. I hoped the woman hadn't just made crap up.

I realized that the flow of words sweeping around me had faltered and I blinked, catching at the last word I could dredge up. 'Mr. Lee?' I prompted, and she was off and running again.

'Yes, Mrs. DeBoye was sponsored by Jack Lee,' the girl informed me. 'He co-owns the gallery with Aleyah Winner and the Kirby's. The artist coming in tomorrow is one of Ms. Winner's.'

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