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

Connections (cont)

I blinked for a second at the reminder, and had to grin at him, though I doubt he missed the faint blush. 'Oh... yeah,' I said simply and left it at that, heading for the stairs.

I suppose if he hadn't been so concerned that I was drunk, I might have gotten away with moving Fuzzy-butt and the alarm clock back to our room while he finished locking up, but as it was I don't think he trusted me on the stairs.

I knew my trained observer lover had only missed their lack the night before due to our... conversation, so I didn't bother trying to hide it as I trudged down the hall to the guest room to retrieve them.

He watched in silence while I plopped Fuzzy back in his place on the dresser, taking a moment to straighten his little pilot's wings, and then settled the clock back on the bedside table. I didn't really see that there was anything to talk about, so I just started undressing for bed and after a few moments, Heero followed suit.

We climbed into bed together almost on auto-pilot. He was thinking so damn hard I could almost feel the vibration of it. And I was just... feeling.

I was taken a bit by surprise by how much I wanted him.

He waited until he had me curled against him, head pillowed on his shoulder, before he quietly asked, 'why... were you sleeping in the guest room?'

I took a breath and let it out in a gust, thinking about phrasing, thinking about how lame any sort of explanation I could make, was going to sound. 'I... didn't miss you quite as much in there...' I finally ventured.

He was quiet while he thought that over, his fingers playing almost absently up and down my arm. I blinked as he unknowingly traced over a bruise that those fingers matched perfectly. I was thankful we'd undressed in the dark and was a little appalled that I'd forgotten about it... it had been pure dumb luck that Heero had flicked the lights out when he came into the room.

'Duo-love,' he began, but then hesitated.

'Plain speaking,' I prodded, though I doubted I was going to like whatever he was going to say. Still... better to just get it the hell over with.

He sighed, a rueful little sound, and wrapped his arms around me for a moment, squeezing tight. 'I'm afraid that you're having problems staying by yourself and won't tell me,' he finally blurted.

I had to chuckle, though I doubt there was much of humor in it. 'I'll probably always have problems being alone, but it's not so bad I can't deal with it.'

He hesitated again, giving me a feeling that there was something he wasn't saying. 'I just don't like thinking of you... upset... with no one here. You know it would be all right to stay with Trowa and Quatre until I get back.'

'Heero,' I grumbled, feeling myself getting tense. 'I don't need a damn babysitter; we've been over that. I can handle it. I just want...'

It was my turn to hesitate, unsure which of the million things to mention, and he prodded at me. 'What do you want, baby?'

It irritated me, that name, and spurred my mouth to act without me. 'I want Jock to not be dead. I want another chance to not fail him. And barring that, I want my damn ship back so I can at least fulfill his last wish. But I can't have any of that, so what the hell does it matter?'

He rolled up on an elbow, hovering over me in a dark that wasn't complete, reaching to brush his fingertips over my cheek. 'It's killing me... thinking about you needing that music... needing to hide out in?'

I blushed and wondered if he could feel the damn temperature change in my face. 'I wasn't fucking 'hiding out', Heero. I just... you know; missed you. A lot. And I could smell your scent on the sheets, and... it just made it...' Hard. Bad choice of words, that. 'uncomfortable,' I hedged and was starting to wonder just how dense one man could be.

He finally made a sound of understanding, but it held a note of amusement too, which rather served to make me want to deck him... if I hadn't already been wanting to do something else with him a little worse. 'Will you stop fussing and just damn well make love to me already?' I heard myself blurt and decided that he might be right about me being a just bit under the influence.

He leaned down to kiss me, and it felt like my whole body was rising to meet him, I was reaching, tugging at him, wanting him on top of me, wanting to feel his hands on me. The week of isolation and frustration and depression was reaching a boiling point inside me, and need was all I was thinking about. Until Heero's lips brushed over mine in an almost chaste, dry kiss.

I faltered, suddenly unsure of myself, my questing fingers telling me that he'd come to bed with his underwear on. I felt... a strange 'wrongness' and then I heard him say, 'Duo-love, please... don't.'

There was some evidence of his... interest, and it confused me. I let my hand stroke up his side, but the fire was already fading in the face of his words. He caught my hand in his and held it.

'Please,' he said again. 'Duo... you're drunk...'

And wasn't that just a splash of cold water in the face? I withdrew my hands. Withdrew... the rest of me. God; of course, I must reek. He must be disgusted with me. After all the resolve I'd had about alcohol, after all my fears of turning out just like Jock and Neo... look what I'd done the first time I was presented with the opportunity.

'God, I'm sorry, Heero,' I told him. 'I didn't even think about it... I should have at least cleaned up.' I pushed away and I think I caught him by surprise, because he let me go.

'Please?' he murmured, sitting up and watching me retreat, but I wasn't sure what he was asking.

'It's all right,' I soothed, trying to make it sound light. 'I must reek like a... damn bar. You should have said something.'

'That's not what I...' he began, but I was half way out of the room and I didn't wait for the rest.

Bathrooms are a rather nice sanctuary, don't you think? Once you get the door shut and the water running, you could be a million miles away from whatever the hell you're running from and wouldn't know the difference.

There was really only one word that came to mind; ouch.

A couple of things here; I can't really say that Heero had ever denied my... advances quite that way before. And there sure as hell hadn't ever been anyone before him to do so. I can't imagine that a man is ever in a more vulnerable position than when he has just asked his lover to... well; you know. That had been my first real experience with... that sort of rejection.

And though the rational part of my brain could perfectly understand his lack of interest in a drunken sot... it had still hurt.

Second thing. I don't feel things with my hands all that well. So when I happen to touch my own skin, it feels... odd. Almost like someone else is doing it, because I feel where I'm touching, but I don't feel with my fingers. So I don't. Touch myself, if you get my meaning. So my outlets are... limited.

Hence the cold showers and the morning jogs for the last week.

It was kind of late to go jogging, so once I was locked in the bathroom, I turned on the cold water and proceeded to finish the job that Heero had started with his words.

It really didn't take all that long to erase the last of any desire that had survived getting resoundingly rejected, but I stayed under the harsh spray for awhile, because I just wasn't sure what else to do.

It made a nice little capper on a long, hard week.

I wasn't mad at him; far from it. I was embarrassed. I guess I should have known better than to try to take Heero with me into my old world. I should have realized that it would not work to try integrating the two... stages of my life. God, that sounded like I was some little kid; don't worry... he's just going through a stage.

Wonder when I was going to grow out of this one.

I'd not been some party animal, during my years as a salvage man. Not been some loose canon, or faltering alcoholic. But I'd had friends, and we'd done things, and it had helped me forget that in between times I was a rather lonely little man. Had helped me forget how hollow I had felt sometimes.

And if most of my old life had been erased and eradicated? so had that hollowness. Had it been a fair trade? I suppose I would have to say yes, since I would not trade it back if given the chance.

Maybe my mistake was in not making a clean break from it? But... those were people I cared about; how did I just turn off that caring and move on?

It's weird sometimes, when I think about my life, there really have been stages, and the transitions have never been easy. And you sure as hell couldn't miss them. The plague... the massacre... the war... the accident.

When whatever wayward God it was who was not all that fond of me, decided it was time for me to make a change... he didn't fucking fool around.

I got out of the shower when I realized that there were body parts that had started to lose feeling, and not only was all trace of arousal gone, but so were my balls.

I brushed my teeth until my gums bled, and used mouthwash too, then on a whim took a moment to drink a couple of glasses of water. Not that I thought I'd drunk enough to be hung-over in the morning, but I hadn't thought I'd drunk enough to qualify as intoxicated in the first place. The evidence of my running off at the mouth said otherwise... and apparently so did Heero.

And then I was left trying to figure out what to do next. I wasn't all that crazy about facing Heero right away for the pure awkwardness factor, and it probably wouldn't be a great idea for the ice-cold-Duo factor either. I had no clothes with me, so I wrapped a towel around my waist, turned out the bathroom lights and did my best to slip silently downstairs.

I had been a little surprised when we'd moved in, just how difficult it was to move around without making noise. It was an old house, and there were more damn creaky boards and slightly stiff hinges than you could shake a stick at. I had no doubt that if Heero were still awake, he was well aware that I had left the bathroom and was on the prowl, so I made a stop in the kitchen first, opening the refrigerator to explain my wanderings. I shut it again without actually finding anything, but the noise was all that really mattered to me right then. I just wanted a bit of space, which was seriously screwed up when I stopped to think about it, considering how much I'd wanted Heero back with me all week. I had to stifle a morbid little chuckle as I made my way to my studio.

Suppose I could take one last look at the paintings I was preparing to hand over to Aleyah. It was, after all, technically Friday at that point, and she would be out that afternoon to pick them up. I wondered again what she was going to think of them, particularly her own portrait. Wondered if they would meet her expectations.

And that reminded me of the more recent sketches she had asked for and I had to sigh. My sketch pad was still lying on the couch where I'd left it and I wandered over to look down at it. Did the picture sting a little less in light of Heero's having shared a piece of his own history with me? I'm not sure I can say. My emotions get tangled up in the pictures when I create them, and I can't always separate out what I was feeling at the time, from what I feel when I look at them later. Looking at it still made my chest feel tight, so who's to say?

I had to admit to myself though, looking at the thing with slightly fresher sight, that it was another self-portrait. It might not be so obvious to someone else, but I think I know my own face when I see it. Though... it was hard to imagine that the open, eager child I was looking at had ever existed inside the smart-ass brat I remembered being.

Was this the child that Sister Helen had hugged and claimed to love? Was this the child they had hoped to save from the streets?

I couldn't ever remember being that... young.

I suppose it was only natural, with Heero having talked to me about his days in training, and all the stories at Jock's send-off about the past, and the military, and... regrets, that I would end up thinking about my own past. My own regrets.

How far back could I follow my string of wish-I-hadn'ts? Could you count my parents? I regret not knowing who they were, I regret not knowing why they abandoned me. But does that count as a personal regret? Maybe you could only count the stuff that you did or didn't do on your own. I couldn't even dredge up a memory of anything that even resembled a mother, I don't see how she could count on the debit side of my karma.

So I guess that made Froggy my first big regret. That I hadn't done something other than what I'd done that day. He might have lived if I'd gotten more insistent. He might have lived if I'd raised a stink. He might have lived if I'd stayed with him instead of running. Despite what Solo had told me at the time.

It hit me with a sudden almost crippling pain that I'd forgotten him when I'd grown to manhood and struck out on my own. When I'd painted my line of ghosts aboard my ship, his portrait should have been first in line, but it hadn't been.

'Damn,' I muttered to thin air, appalled at myself. How could I have forgotten?

'I tol' ya,' Solo grumbled from somewhere above me. 'He made his own damn decision. He don' count as one'a yours.'

'So does that make you my first real regret?' I asked, imagining the disgusted roll of the eyes he would have given me.

There was a snort, and for a moment, I thought I saw him lounging on the couch. 'So now I'm a regret?'

'I let you die,' I informed him. 'In case you missed that part. Can't I regret your death?'

He laughed and solidified enough to sneer at me. 'Ya didn' let me die, Rat-boy? the plague got me if'n I remember right.'

'But I was...' I began, and he snorted, vanishing from sight completely.

'What'n fuck is with you tonight?' he groused and sounded for all the world like he was right at my elbow.

'Heero says I'm drunk,' I explained, eyes on my row of finished portraits.

'I seen ya drunk afore, kid,' Solo laughed. 'Ya ain't drunk.'

'I know,' I agreed with nobody, and took my sketchpad to lean with the line of paintings. Seemed like a hell of a lot of new art for just a week, at the same time that it didn't seem like much to be offering the woman who was sponsoring this whole mess.

'So,' my talkative ghost asked. 'If'n Froggy don' count and I don' count... what's yer regret?'

I snorted and turned to find him perched on the counter down the way in a patch of moonlight. 'Don't be an ass, King-rat... you know.'

'I was dead by then, remember?' he chuckled and I had to look to see the smart-ass grin because that was one of the things about him I missed the most.

'The church, you fucker,' I snapped. 'And don't act like you don't know it.'

'Seems t'me that those rebels were the ones--' he began, his tone as irritating as I'd always remembered it.

'That's enough,' I growled and stared right at him until the moonlight was only moonlight again.

In the realm of bad karma, I was pretty sure that Froggy and Solo counted against me every bit as much as the rest of it. Maybe there had been some balancing when I'd stolen that serum. Maybe there'd been some balancing when I'd held what was left of the gang together after Solo had died. But what in the hell would ever balance what had happened at the Maxwell church? My helping to win the war? But when you looked at all the things I'd done in the course of that war, the debit side was stacked pretty heavily against me.

God... I just couldn't stop thinking tonight. It felt like my thought processes were as convoluted as a bad stretch of mountain road; too damn many switchbacks and a long drop on either side. Maybe Heero was right; maybe I was drunker than I thought I was.

Or maybe I was just a naturally depressing individual.

I put a blank canvas on the easel, deciding that it wasn't likely I was going to be able to stop the hamster on the wheel in my head for awhile. Maybe I could put the nervous energy to good use and something nifty would appear on the canvas in front of me in time for me to give it to Aleyah when she came.

Or maybe if I sacrificed one of the pristine, white canvases to the Gods of paint, little elves would come and paint something for me.

Hey... you never know.

Five minutes of staring produced nothing but memories of flames and broken glass that made me shiver, so I went to get the afghan from the couch, wrapping it around my shoulders to join my attire of... towel. I suppose standing in the cold back room wasn't exactly the most stellar idea I'd had all day, and considering the day, that was saying a lot. Perhaps if I was going to make a habit of these nighttime romps through the land of ancient nightmares and lost dreams, I should stuff some clothes away in one of the cabinets. I would have given a lot for a pair of pants and a sweater at that point.

I couldn't help sighing as I thought about going back upstairs and joining Heero. I wanted to. A great deal. He would be warm, and he would take me in his arms and hold me until I was warm too.

But I just wasn't quite ready to let go of the hurt feelings and I knew that if I went back up before I was, that there would end up being words and I would make a fool of myself again.

I found myself going over to stand in front of the mural I'd done for Heero. His Christmas present, I'd called it. It didn't seem like much when I held it up against what he'd done for me, but... he seemed to like it. I looked at the stars through the window that wasn't a window and wondered again about the things hidden between those stars. Wondered about the things that were not hidden between those stars.

Heero had wanted to know about the things that I used to think about so hard back during my days of convalescence and the months after. I had put a lot of junk in that painting, but had been surprised when I'd realized that the kids weren't part of it. I wondered about it, but didn't have an answer. Maybe I just hadn't been finished when I'd realized what I'd done and panicked, thinking Heero would be angry with me for painting on the wall. They certainly should have been there; failing them, failing to send support money to the home, had preyed on my mind as much as any of the rest of it during that time.

I decided, since I wasn't getting anywhere with the blank canvas, to remedy that. I ditched the afghan and fetched my paints, trying to decide just how I wanted to go about adding to the picture. There was room... though there was a window frame in the painting, it did not contain, but overlay. There were no walls, and the field of stars and memories, thoughts and doubts were bound by nothing but the edges of the 'canvas'. Me, Heero and the window suspended in the middle of nothing and everything.

I didn't think I wanted to add them all... it would disturb the balance. The incidents of my life were represented in the picture, but I'd not really given precedent to any one thing. Solo was there, symbolizing a lot of years of my life. Standing in for all the other children of my youth, standing in for a life on the streets of L2. Standing in for the plague and all its attendant horrors. Deathscythe there as token of an entire war. The tiny portrait of Jensen embodying a whole truckload of deep-seated fears.

It was a little sad to realize that my entire life at Maxwell church, from the moment I knocked Father Maxwell on his ass running from a fruit vendor in the streets, to the night the church burned down, was present only in a scattering of shattered glass.

It seemed... unfair, somehow. Seemed as though I had cheated in the telling of the tale. The biggest mistake of my entire life, the mistake that had cost sixty-four people their lives, and all that was left of it was a dusting of pretty bits of glass...

That didn't seem right. Not at all.

I was moved to fix it. God only knows why, I've never understood what wakes the need in me to paint, and I'll always wonder about the timing of it. Could the 'muse' ever wake first thing at the beginning of a three day weekend? No... it has to wait until the wee hours of a work night, or when I'm so sick I pass out afterward.

Or when I ought to be headed back to bed to apologize to my lover who was probably lying awake somewhere over my head worrying himself sick about me.

But what I think never seems to matter, and I found the big brushes in my hand, and the gray paint mixed on the palette without ever really consciously deciding I was going to. Father and Sister deserved better than what they'd gotten from me, and I could not hide what had happened behind those shards of broken glass. I had painted my shame and my horror, my guilt and my confession on the walls of my ship once; erasing it had not erased the memories. Erasing it had not absolved me of what I'd done. The blame for all those deaths had been on my head, and I could not deny that. It was time I put it back, here in my new home.

It was cold there in the studio, the air made colder because I'd never really warmed up from the shower. But... I really wasn't feeling it. Wasn't feeling much of anything, the way I do when I'm consumed with the need to make something appear where nothing had been before. There is some connection that happens between hand and eye and memory and I don't have to think, can't really think, I just have to let it happen almost as though it's just flowing through me. Almost as though it has nothing to do with me.

I painted the walls and the steps of the church, the big stone blocks just the way I'd remembered them. I painted the great cross that had been atop it, somehow one of the last pieces to fall. I painted the huge wooden doors, banded with metal... and then I found the yellow paint. I found the red paint. I put them on the palette and though I could barely see what I was doing for some reason I refused to acknowledge, I prepared to paint the end of my childhood. The end of everything. I painted the place I remembered as a home... as a sanctuary... as one of the few places I'd ever felt safe. And then I prepared to burn it to the ground.

Warmth suddenly enveloped me. Surrounded me and held me still.

'No, baby,' Heero's voice, tight and distraught, whispered to me. 'Don't. Make it whole. Make it the way it was... not the way it ended.'

I was trembling; shivering, and not sure if I had been before he had found me and caught me in his arms. He was the soul of warmth and shelter and I listened to the rumble of his words, caught by the sound of his voice.

'Don't bring that pain into our home,' he told me, sounding so sure of himself, so commanding. 'Remember it the way it was. Remember when you were happy there. When it was whole and beautiful. Remember the people who loved you...'

More. He had a lot to say to me, but after awhile the words didn't really matter, and the trembling didn't really matter, and what I had thought I was painting didn't really matter.

I remembered that I had wished I could take Heero to that place that had been my home, however briefly. I remembered that I had wished that Sister Helen could have met him, that Father Maxwell could have shaken his hand and blessed him. I remembered that I had wanted to share that tiny year's worth of security with the man I loved.

I let Heero guide me, I forgot the bitter muse that had started me down the path I was on, and I let Heero take me down a new one. I let him hold me while I worked and I let his voice guide the broad strokes of my brush, and all those places where I had left room for the flames and the smoke, we filled with solid stone. The hole I had left where Father's stained glass window had been, we filled with brightly colored pieces of glass until the pictures it had formed were there again. We repaired the wide front steps until they were not cracked and broken. The doors we opened wide and the light inside the church was the dance of sunlight through Father's window and not the dance of flames.

And finally, he held me steady while we brought Father and Sister back from the dead and we let them stand in the doorway, hands outstretched in invitation. For the first time since that night, I let myself remember the way that place had looked in the light of day.

Heero's voice never stopped, guiding me through it until the deed was as done as it needed to be, and brush and palette fell from stiff, cold fingers. I turned in his arms, vaguely aware that it wasn't dark out anymore, and found myself being lifted. Cradled against his warmth, and carried. I didn't fight it, I felt the exhaustion of a hellish day and an equally hellish night overtaking me and just let Heero take over. I was cold and my muscles were cramped, I was tired and a bit confused, and having him take me someplace warm where I could rest was not such a horrid thing.

Somehow, he managed to get me up the stairs, though I would have sworn I had achieved a weight that would have made that impossible. He took us to bed, though the quality of the light told me it wasn't that long until we ought to be getting up for the day. But the bed was soft, and he was warm, and I couldn't find it in me to argue. It wasn't quite time, anyway, and it would do no harm to lie together for at least a little while.

Once he had us cocooned together under the blankets and my shivering seemed to be subsiding, he caught at my hands and began to gently massage them, though how he knew how cramped my fingers were, I couldn't have told you. It was soothing.

'Better?' he asked after a little bit, and I nodded, so he settled down and pulled me in closer to him.

'I'm sorry,' I murmured against his shoulder. 'I didn't mean to start that.'

He was quiet for a minute before venturing, 'I'm sorry I didn't come down sooner.'

I thought about that, but wasn't sure how to tell him that might not have worked out all that well. But he was gazing at me rather intently and I don't think he was looking for an answer anyway. I suddenly felt awkward about the fact that I hadn't come back to bed, and wondered what he had thought. 'I didn't mean...' I began, but he shushed me.

'Never mind,' he soothed, smiling a sad little smile. 'I should have come after you. I... dozed off waiting.'

I just blinked at him for a moment; it was something of a surprise that he had understood I needed some space. I just wasn't entirely sure how I felt about it. 'I didn't set out to do that,' I finally had to tell him, though I just felt like I was repeating myself.

He seemed to consider his words carefully before he said, 'I can't say I'm thrilled that you did that on top of the day you had yesterday. But... I can't regret getting to see you like that.' And then he was kissing me. Somewhat intensely. It woke that fire in my gut that I'd worked so hard to subdue, and while part of me was moved to reach and grasp and pull him down to me... the rest of me couldn't help the hesitation. Couldn't help the doubt. I froze; too tired to deal with the conflicting signals I was getting from body and brain. Heero drew away and looked down at me questioningly. I saw his eyes cloud with sudden understanding.

'Oh God, Duo... no,' he whispered, his hand cupping my face to make sure I didn't turn away. 'Please don't.'

'It's all right,' I soothed, trying to push aside the lingering traces of bitterness. 'I understand.'

He frowned at me, his expression not a happy one, though I wasn't sure which of us he wasn't happy with. 'Damn it, love... I couldn't, not last night. Not with you half drunk like that.'

I was beyond arguing the drunk part. Hell... maybe he was right; I'd seen enough people in my time who swore they were stone cold sober, five minutes away from winning an honorable mention in the Darwin Awards. I hadn't thought I was that bad, but maybe Heero just had a problem with alcohol in general. He was in law enforcement, after all; probably gave him a harsh view of the whole issue. 'I'm sorry,' I said, wondering if I could get all my apologies out of the way before we had to go to work. 'I really had not intended to do any drinking last night. I swear... it's not something I plan on making a habit of. I promise, I won't--'

He cut me off by simply catching my chin in his hand and forcing me to meet his eyes. His gaze was very intense. Searching. 'When you give yourself to me,' he said quietly, 'it's a gift. A precious gift, and I wasn't going to accept it from you when I wasn't sure if it was you or the alcohol talking.'

I blinked, feeling a bit... slow somehow. I felt like my perceptions had been ripped up by the roots and turned around. I... hadn't looked at it that way. I guess... I hadn't really understood at all. I was rather surprised when something deep down inside me wanted to laugh with the sheer relief that he wasn't simply disgusted with me. 'I can't possibly still be drunk after all this time,' I heard myself whisper, and he smiled at me, though it seemed a bit sad somehow.

'No,' he replied. 'You can't be.'

He kissed me again, but there was still something held back between us. I couldn't quite decide if it was him or if it was me, but then he bent and began gently kissing the bruises on my biceps and shoulders and I knew what was still... not right. I felt my eyes go wide as I realized that he'd seen, and I held very still. He ghosted soft kisses along the length of the bruises, soothing them with little more than his breath, and when he had found every trace and every mark, he lifted his head and met my stare. 'Don't you ever,' he commanded, though his voice was very quiet, 'let me hurt you again. Not ever.'

I nodded tightly, not trusting my own voice, and he came back for a different kind of kiss. One that I couldn't help meeting with a choked moan.

I wanted to wrap myself around him. I wanted to flinch away from him. I wanted to beg him. I wanted to ask him if he was sure. I wanted to just fall into his embrace. I ached for his touch, but I could feel myself almost afraid to accept it.

There was pain in his eyes, but he pushed forward, not accepting my hesitation. Not allowing me to let the hurt come between us. Bringing his hands and his lips to my body and making me bear what I wanted. Making me want what I couldn't bear.

My week weighed heavily on me, the last few days coiling hot and tense in my belly, making me need him so much I was shaking. Making me want him so much that when he finally took his place between my thighs, I came just from the penetration.

Some part of me felt I should be embarrassed, but the rest was more concerned with making him not stop. Sexual need met, there were other needs still begging, and I urged him on until he finally let it become about what he needed too.

I was able to let go then, taking my pleasure from his. Finding my balance with his. Letting him make us real again. It felt like some barrier fell away from between us.

I was as surprised as he was when his slow and gentle rhythm woke the beast of desire in me a second time, and he took me over the edge again.

After that, things got a little hazy. I remember there being a rain of kisses that I couldn't meet for the panting. I remember telling him that I thought he'd turned me to jelly. I remember him whispering words of love against my skin.

And then I don't remember much of anything else.

The asshole called me in sick to work. He might have gotten away with it too, if he hadn't come back to the bed on his own way out, to whisper to me some more. He thought I was too far gone. Thought that the day and the night and the sex had left me too exhausted to wake. I did miss some of it, but when his voice got... intense, it brought me to awareness again, though I didn't let him see it.

'... I won't let that son of a bitch hurt you any more, love. I'll stop him... I swear it. He'll pay for what he did. Just rest now... I'll be home as soon as I can?'

Then he kissed my temple and left the room. I waited until I heard his car start before throwing my ass out of bed and scrambling for clothes. Damned if I'd miss work because of a little lost sleep.

The whole thing made me wonder though, just how much Heero talked to me while I was asleep. He had not seemed the slightest bit self-conscious about it. It made me feel decidedly unsettled; I would not have believed I could sleep through something like that, but the evidence suggested that I had in the past.

A shower was not an option in the short amount of time he'd left me, so I just washed up enough to make sure I didn't stink of sex, jerked my clothes on, and ran out of the house with the corner of a ration bar package clenched in my teeth, as I buttoned and snapped.

I was pleased that I got away soon enough that I didn't even have to do more than bend the speed limit to get to work on time, though I pushed the fifteen minute rule down to the final seconds. My triumphant grin when I got clocked in on time vanished when I turned to find Griff standing in his office doorway, hands on hips, glaring at me for all he was worth. I tried a cocky grin and a wave, but it didn't wash.

'Maxwell!' he hollered. 'In my office!'

Some small part of me was relieved that he at least wasn't going to yell my personal business across the garage, but the larger part couldn't help muttering, 'fuck,' under my breath. Had Heero been around, I would have had more than that to say to him. The man truly needed to get over treating me like he was my damn mother.

'Yeah, boss-man?' I inquired with my best innocent look once I was inside the inner sanctum.

'Yuy called in this morning and left a message that you weren't comin' in,' he growled and peered at me while he talked, in a way that made me want to squirm.

I passed up the first couple of things that came to mind, because not only were they too smart-ass, they would have revealed just a bit too much information about my home life. 'I got better,' I quipped instead and put the ball back in his court without telling him shit.

I got the expected frown. 'Don't be a smart-ass, Maxwell,' he ordered. 'If you're sick, I don't want you in my garage.'

'I'm not sick,' I sighed, knowing I had to have some kind of explanation for the call from Heero. 'I... wasn't feeling too good last night, but it must have been one of those twelve hour bugs, because I feel fine this morning.'

Griff looked at me doubtfully and I met his gaze unblinkingly because half of getting somebody to believe something that isn't altogether on the up and up is to be able to maintain eye contact. 'You don't look so great,' he finally growled.

'Well,' I replied, turning on a grin. 'I was up kinda late worshipping at the porcelain altar.'

'Too late?' he said suspiciously and I snorted a laugh.

'I wouldn't be here if it was,' I assured him, and I got a rueful shake of his head for my trouble.

'Ok, kid,' he finally conceded. 'But if you pass out on me again, I'm dockin' your damn check until you come to.' I laughed and turned to leave, thinking we were done, but he stopped me. 'Wait a minute, Maxwell.'

I hesitated, wondering if Heero had said something more that I didn't know about. 'Yeah?' I prompted and was surprised when Griff looked kind of uncomfortable.

'Listen,' he began with an almost resigned sigh. 'I just wanted to say that you're probably the best body man I've had in this shop, and I'd hate to lose you. You work harder than any two of those yahoos out there.'

I'm afraid I gaped at him, despite all my recent resolve to give up the fish imitations, trying to switch tracks to this new topic. Or was it a new topic? Was I being warned that my job was in danger? 'Did I do something wrong, Griff?' I asked, not sure what in the hell he was on about.

He snorted and rubbed at the stubble on his chin. Griff's the only guy I know who has five o'clock shadow a half an hour after he gets to work. 'Hell no, kid. I'm just saying that there's talk that you've... had a couple of other offers and I'm just gettin' my bid in, I guess. If money's an issue, we can talk.'

I went from the fish imitation right straight into the deer improv act. 'What?' I asked, wincing when I almost squeaked. 'Who?'

Griff gave me a little self-satisfied smirk. 'I may just be the chief mechanic, but I still been around a long time, I have my sources. Rumor has it that you've got... options around here.'

It so echoed what Commander Une had said to me, that I had to wonder if he'd heard it right straight from the horse's mouth. There was a chair on my side of Griff's desk and I was rather surprised to find myself suddenly sitting in it. 'Damn, Griff,' I blurted. 'How the hell wide spread is this? I haven't even told Heero a damn thing about it yet.'

He did this kind of slow blink at me, then came around to push his office door shut before going to sit down behind his ridiculously clean desk. 'Don't know that I can say, kid,' he told me. 'I ain't heard it on the floor yet.'

The 'floor' being the garage itself, which was a good sign since Griff's 'boys' were some of the biggest gossips in the organization. 'Jesus... do you have any idea what kind of brick Heero would shit if he knew Une's got a gun and badge with my name on it?' I said before I had a chance to think about it. His aborted snicker made me think about the words and I blushed to the roots of my hair.

'I can guess,' was all he said before moving on. 'Though... I heard that wasn't the only offer you got.'

I rubbed a hand over my face, trying to coax the heat out of my cheeks. 'That guy... what's-his-name Jones, wants me in his bullpen of sketch artists.'

Griff leaned back in his squeaky chair and for a moment I got caught up in how much it reminded me of Howard's old desk chair, right down to the duct tape on the arms. I wondered if Griff and Howard knew each other. 'He's a bullpen of one, kid,' Griff informed me. 'And rumor has it he's salivating over you pretty bad.'

I gave up on getting rid of the blush. 'What?' I stammered, feeling oddly like I ought to start wearing a damn wedding ring or something, though I knew that wasn't what he'd meant by salivating.

'I heard the Commander had to sit on him to keep him from coming down here after you,' Griff told me with a grin that was bordering on sadistic, as he watched me squirm.

I had to think about that one for a minute. I suppose I really had left that whole damn issue hang. Both Jones and Une. I hadn't really had two damn minutes since those offers had been throw in my face to give either of them any consideration. When I didn't reply immediately, Griff gave me a slightly more serious look.

'You know, Duo,' he said, leaning forward and putting his elbows on his desk. 'I said I didn't want to lose you, and I don't. But I ain't gonna hold you back either. If money's the issue, I could maybe compete with Jones... but I can't hold a candle to an agent's position and we both know it.

I couldn't help the sigh, suddenly feeling like some kind of all you can eat buffet. When in the name of God had I become so fucking popular? 'I'm not going anywhere for awhile, chief,' I reassured him. 'I don't have a damn clue what I'm going to do... I haven't had two seconds to think about it... but you'll be the first to know once I decide.'

'Right after Yuy?' he grinned and I think it was purely so he could watch the blush come back.

Never being one to like not being able to give as good as I got, I grinned back. 'Hell... depending on what I decide, you might just get told before him.'

It got me a laugh and I decided we were done and stood up to leave. He didn't stop me that time, just waiting until I was half way across the bay before yelling, 'And tuck your damn shirt in!' I turned and flipped him off, and he laughed louder.

I spent the entire day concentrating on only one thing; not dropping any tools. Dave could find his entertainment elsewhere.

I did actually take the time for lunch, walking over to the Andover as much for the exercise as the food, hoping the fresh air would help wake me up. I was truly dragging by then, and when I stopped to buy my bottle of soda on the way back, it was more of a necessity than an indulgence.

I drove home that night with all the windows rolled down to make sure I didn't fall asleep at the wheel, a hamster riding shotgun with a little sign that informed me I wasn't as young as I used to be.

It was disheartening to let myself into an empty house again so soon, almost as though Heero had never been home. In that moment of swinging the front door open to dead silence... I missed him almost painfully.

Having Heero notice that I needed something to fill the quiet had made me feel... uncomfortable about it, and I tried to do without as I moved around the house, picking up and putting away in preparation for the arrival of Ms. Winner.

We are not slobs by any stretch of the imagination. With Heero, I think it's just his nature; he's always been the most organized soul I think I've ever met. With me, it's left-over spacer mind set. I half expect my things to come floating through the air at me later, if they aren't secured. So there wasn't stuff lying all over the place or anything, but somehow trying to imagine what Aleyah was going to think, was making me hyper-sensitive. I probably would have run the vacuum cleaner if I'd thought I had time.

Besides, as long as I kept moving I didn't think I was in any danger of falling asleep on my feet. By that time, I'd been going for something like thirty-six hours, give or take, and was flat running on empty. If it wasn't already the last day that I'd been given as my dead-line for having the paintings done, I'd have called Aleyah and begged off until the next day. I wasn't sure my brain functions were up to dealing with the woman.

Five minutes before she arrived and much too late to do anything about it, I had a sudden fervent wish that I'd called Trowa so that he could have come out with her.

My hind-sight is damn near perfect.

I had just discovered the towel I'd been wearing the night before in the middle of the studio floor when I heard the car pull up, and I hastily threw the thing into one of the many empty cabinets, not really wanting to explain it.

'Help me,' I muttered to the open air, half wishing that Solo would pop up and at least get my back, but sleep-deprivation has always made him scarce. I guess I'm just not good company when I'm groggy.

I took one last glance around the studio and then headed for the front door to greet the woman.

I should not have been surprised when I opened the front door and that damn dog darted in ahead of her, but I was. I kind of followed it with my eyes, blinking with the sudden realization that I didn't have a Trowa to run interference for me. But then Aleyah was bustling in after the animal and I forgot about it.

'Darling!' she gushed, looking as fresh and energetic as though it were first thing in the morning, and not headed toward evening. 'What a quant little house! It's so... rustically cozy!' Then she kissed me on the cheek in a gesture that claimed familiarity we really didn't share. I found it annoyed me, but was too busy being amused by her defining my house as 'cozy' when all our other friends had questioned our desire for such a large place, to let it get to me too much.

Perspective, I suppose, is everything.

I managed a stammered, 'Thank you,' that made her laugh that weirdly delighted laugh that makes me feel like I've said something stupid. Then I stared at her, not sure what to do next, until she laughed again.

'This is the part where you invite me in and offer refreshments, pet,' she said, and patted my cheek.

Spontaneous human combustion is the supposed process of a person catching fire due to some heretofore unproven internal chemical reaction. It is a process that most scientists are somewhat skeptical about, and I have apparently made it my life's work proving not only its existence, but attempting to demonstrate it at every available opportunity. I have yet to actually generate flame, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time at the rate I'm going.

'Tea?' I croaked out and got another of those lilting laughs.

'If it's not too much trouble, dear,' she told me airily and moved on into the living room to look around, dismissing me to my task of brewing, just that fast.

So I took myself off to the kitchen and proceeded to put water on to boil.

Out from under her gaze, I wondered, not for the first, nor for the last, time what it was about the damn woman that threw me for a loop so bad. Was it her station in life? Her attitude? How much I was going to come out of this feeling like I owed her? Or just the way she treated me? I have discovered within myself over the years, an inability to deal with women of a certain age. With older women, to be quite blunt. But... Aleyah, despite falling into the proper age group, didn't give me that same sort of feeling. And maybe that's what was throwing me. She was old enough to be my mother, but still flirted unrepentantly. I didn't quite know what category she fit in. Where to file her, so to speak.

I tried to dredge up the arrangement that Quatre, or rather, Quatre's cook had produced when Aleyah'd had her meeting with me at Trowa and Quatre's place. I was already at a disadvantage because we didn't own one of those china tea sets. We used mugs and just heated the water in a metal tea kettle. And there wasn't any way in hell that I could come up with anything like those little shortbread cookies that Quatre had provided unless Ruthie showed up in the next five minutes selling the Girl Scout cookies I'd suspected I'd be buying one of these days.

Cocotte snuffled her way through the kitchen while I was waiting for the water to heat, coming in the dining room door and going out the back hall door, stopping to look up at me in an oddly solicitous manner. If a dog could say, 'excuse me', she would have. When the tea kettle whistled, it made me jump and I forgot about the dog.

I'm not much of a tea drinker, though I've learned to manage it sometimes since coming to live with Heero. He's a big one for using different blends for easing everything from upset stomachs to stress. Aleyah had not specified flavor, but I remembered that Quatre had served a green tea with a mint flavoring, and I was somewhat exultant to find that Heero had some that looked like it would fill the bill.

For myself I poured some damn Mt. Dew in a mug and hoped she wouldn't look too close. I really needed the caffeine, and stress or no, I didn't think I could handle the tea.

I was somewhat surprised to come out of the kitchen and not find Aleyah sitting on the sofa. I was down right shocked when she responded to my call... from up the freaking stairs.

I just stood staring up at her as she made her way down, trying to think of a tactful way of asking her just what the fucking hell she thought she was doing, but she was smiling at me delightedly and acting as though it were nothing at all to go prowling around other people's homes uninvited. And who knew; maybe for Ms. Winner, it wasn't.

'I gave myself the short tour, darling,' she informed me. 'I simply had to see that bedroom my dear brother can't stop talking about. It is everything he said and more. You are just deliciously talented at everything you chose to do, aren't you?'

Try getting pissed off and in somebody's face after they've delivered a line like that to you.

'Well,' I managed, handing her the mug of tea as she reached the bottom of the stairs. 'I'm not much of a cook, though I suppose I haven't killed anybody yet.'

'A true sign of success then,' she responded, taking the mug without so much as a raised eyebrow. I was grateful that she didn't make a fuss over my lack of... social preparedness, at the same time that I was still struggling with the irritation of finding the woman poking around my house.

I stepped away with my own mug, giving her the space to return to the living room, but her curiosity apparently wasn't sated yet, and instead of going to sit on the sofa, she looked over my shoulder and then headed for the dining room. I had little choice but to follow.

'Such a lovely little place,' she said, just seeming to make noise as she satisfied her somewhat overwhelming nosiness. I imagined her as a child, before she had become so prim and proper, poking her fingers into every damn nook and cranny that came along. She stopped in the dining room to turn and look at the bay window, giving it a smile as though she saw something there that I didn't. She was still cradling her tea mug in her hands and I suspected I'd gotten it too hot.

Cocotte trotted in as though checking to make sure Aleyah was still there, gave a little wag of her tail and then trotted back out again. I took a couple of swallows of my soda and when I lowered the mug, Aleyah was giving me an odd look.

'That is not tea, unless one of your talents is maintaining a straight face while burning your internal organs,' she said, never really losing that weird, calmly amused tone to her voice. 'Please tell me you aren't a drunkard. I simply can't deal with another artist who shows up opening night too intoxicated to stand.'

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