Author: Sunhawk

Warnings : Yaoi of the 1x2x1 variety, angst/sap/romance/bits of violence/moments of citrus, OOC, language, Duo POV, unrepentant use of pet-names and anything else I forgot.

Thanks to Plaiddragon for the beta read, prodding and chocolate, and Dev_Basaa for allowing me to pick her brain for medical details. Any face-saving is theirs, any mistakes are mine. Thanks guys!

Feed-back is a dream I have.

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

Directions

So, anyone surprised that I got a cell phone from Heero as a sort of congratulatory gift for my grand art gallery opening? It was a couple of days after he returned home, and he had the most sheepish look on his face when he handed it to me, but I suppose I should have expected it. Hell, not like I hadn't thought more than once during that time period that I ought to get myself one, but you know... I have to confess to a vague feeling like being tied down just a little bit more. Must have been my Spacer sense of freedom getting pinched, but I did manage to ignore it. Accepted it with quite a bit of good grace, I thought. Took me a while to get used to carrying it, but I'll even go so far as to admit it's come in handy a couple of times.

The only other 'gift' I got for my efforts, was one of those weird-ass little artist's beanies. I think there's a name for them, but damned if I know what it is. But if you stick one on a guy in the movies, the audience can immediately identify him as the artiste. It was sitting on my tool box the Monday after the opening. Still not sure who did it, or if the whole damn garage was in on it. I think they were sorry though, after I put the thing on without batting an eye and worked the whole day using a cheesy French accent. Hey... you don't grow up under the tender mercy of the Sweepers and not learn how to handle teasing. Though, to be honest, it was a huge relief to find myself dealing with teasing about the art thing, and not dealing with teasing about the evening news thing. I have no doubt that it was a conscious effort on the part of the guys, but it let me just pretend that they hadn't seen it. Made it a hell of a lot easier to deal with what could have been a damned humiliating situation.

As for the opening, it went pretty well, really. Aleyah even said so, in her quaintly caustic way. At least, I assumed that's what her declaration of 'I think you just might work out after all' meant. I didn't quite make enough for Allison's surgery, but I made a damn sight more toward that goal than I had thought I would, so I suppose I'd have to say the venture was a success. Still reserving judgment on whether it was actually worth the ulcer and gray hairs. Could just as easily have sold a kidney, and I still maintain I could have made just as much money, but that comment makes Heero look at me strange, so I sort of gave up mentioning it. I don't get him sometimes... it's not like I don't have two of the damn things.

My show ran for three weeks and I sold just over half of what was there. And I really can't tell you how I felt about that. It was this strange mix of exultant... and sick to my stomach. I had the horrid urge the day the show closed and I realized what all was missing, to track all those people down and demand the pictures back. 'You can't have it! It's mine!' I would yell, and they would have me hauled away by the little men in the white coats. It was somehow a very large shock. Especially considering what some of those pictures had been. All of the paintings sold, and I honest to God don't know where they all ended up. That pains me somehow... like I let Jensen loose on the world, all unknowing. I had a couple of bad nights because I couldn't shake the feeling that the psycho was 'out there' again. Heero noticed I was a bit twitchy, but I couldn't even begin to explain it to him... it just sounds nuts. I was very damn glad he was home though; would have been a stone cold bitch to get through those days if he hadn't been there to distract me. I have something of an overactive imagination, in case you've never noticed.

There was some consolation in that Quatre and Trowa had been able to snag the picture they wanted, and I caught the picture of Wufei and Beowulf for Sally. Quatre had worked the deal for their portrait before I had a chance to intervene, but I'd at least seen to it that Sally's was a gift. I hated when my friends paid for my work... it just didn't seem right. Sally had been thrilled, though she was still holding me to the promise of a painted version. Woman had been something of a tactician in her day, and it showed sometimes; you didn't out-maneuver Sally Po.

The Case of Flight 1410 ended up being rather anti-climactic in the end. Leslie had indeed come forward, cutting a deal and confessing. Once she talked, the other members of the crew folded one after the other. Spencer followed almost instantly, and I suspect the poor kid had been relieved that somebody else had bucked Daddy-dear so he didn't have to keep up the lies. By the time the bartender talked, even the good up-standing Captain Gray gave it up and made a full confession. Ended up charged with negligent homicide and a host of other lovely things. Lost his job, lost his license, and wouldn't see the outside of a prison for a number of years. Spencer would never own a pilot's license, but since he'd never really wanted to fly in the first place... I don't think that aspect upset him overly much. I got a post card from the guy addressed to me, care of Preventers' headquarters, with a half-assed apology. Kid really is kind of weird. I imagine Heero will know where he is and what he's doing for the rest of his life; he uses the word 'stalker' a lot when he mentions him.

Bobbi, the last I heard, had been 'let go' from her position, but had managed to parlay the whole thing into a stint on the talk show circuit. Leslie was the only one to keep her job. So I guess everything worked out ok, which was a pretty damn good thing considering that Heero had somewhat exaggerated his standing on the investigation team. Turns out that his hip-deep involvement was pretty much against policy, and while Une had given him the go-ahead, it had all been under the table, and had things actually gone to trial, Heero would have been in a world of hurt, because she couldn't have backed him publicly. I suspect he would have had to bow out of the trial and hope it didn't come to light. Part of why the guy had been so... on edge during those weeks. Part of why he hadn't been willing to talk to me much on the topic. We'd had words when I'd found out, but I can't say I really blamed him; not sure I could have stayed out of it either, had I been in his place. But I'd been more upset that he hadn't told me about the limb crawling, than about the actual limb.

But he is nothing if not a stubborn bastard. In the end, I'd just decided to file the whole mess away under 'worked out in the end' and tried to forget about it.

Which hadn't been easy when the phone calls had started. Bobbi wasn't the only one the talk shows were interested in. We'd finally gotten an answering machine and pretty much stopped picking up the house phone. Everybody who mattered knew to call the cell phones if they really needed to talk to either of us anyway. Frankly, I was ready to completely rip the regular phone out and be done with it. The first couple of weeks I was deleting a hand full of messages every freaking day. It took forever before the damn fervor waned a bit and then I was pretty much down to just ignoring the darling of the Rising Times; Mizz Angie Masters. I didn't even listen to the damn things anymore since the woman had tried to pull the 'I thought we were friends' shtick after a dozen or so ignored messages.

Some people just seriously don't know how to take a hint. What in hell did she think a total lack of response meant? There were days I feared her just showing up on our front porch, since that tactic had worked so well for her the first time.

That thought actually made me look past the glass in the window I'd been absently doodling on, and scan the porch. No sign of stalkerish reporters, and no sign of the mailman either.

'Duo, what are you doing?' Heero asked, and it made me jump; I hadn't known he was in the room.

'Uh... checking to see if the mail was here yet,' I told him, and hastily wiped my palm over the little rocket-ship I'd drawn in the condensation on the window before he saw it.

'I just washed the glass in the door yesterday,' he scolded, voice fading as he made his way through into the kitchen. I glanced over my shoulder to see an armful of dirty clothes and knew he was headed for the basement.

'And a fine job you did too,' I quipped, pulling my shirttail up to do a better job of polishing the glass. 'I just might keep you.'

'Oh, thank you so much...' he called back, and I think there was more, but it was lost to the basement stairs. I leaned in to blow my breath across the door glass, and gave it one last wipe to make sure all traces of my unconscious artistic endeavors were gone, when I noticed the grinning mailman on the other side.

I could have hoped for a couple extra minutes to get rid of the blush, but I'm sure the guy could see that too, so I just opened the damn door.

'Good morning, Mr. Maxwell,' he said, that grin widening just a bit, and I muttered a good morning back, trying not to tug at my shirt hem.

He handed over a good-sized stack of mail and turned to go, stopping for a second to tap at the door glass. 'Missed a spot,' he drawled and left the porch chuckling.

Maybe I should forget all the other job offers and just go into entertainment.

But I had a pile of mail to go through that probably contained what I'd been waiting for, so I forgot about him and went to the dining room table to sort through it.

Ever notice how, once you buy a house, your mail just sort of seems to multiply? All of a sudden a gold 'sucker' star must get placed on your credit rating, because everybody and their cousin's boyfriend's uncle wants to offer you a credit card. Half the junk in my hands was just that, but I was more concerned with the big envelope with the stickers all over it indicating it had come all the way through inter-colony services.

Most of what I get from Octavia comes in e-mail, but sometimes there are things that just need to be delivered by hand. I was just tearing into it when Heero came back up from the laundry room to pounce on what was left. I barely registered his own thick envelope as my treasures spilled into my hands.

There was the pre-requisite refrigerator art, a thick letter and a handful of snap-shots, along with a much smaller separate envelope with 'Mr. Duo' scrawled across it. The pictures proved to be a varied batch, starting with one of Ethan standing in front of his brand-spanking new swing set/jungle gym with a smile on his face, and I swear, the dust still settling from the workers finishing it up. There was also the whole lot of them with Trowa's sister Catherine, standing with one of the circus elephants. Devon was front and center, grinning like a loon, though Sarah was turned around looking at the elephant instead of the photographer. There were some general snap-shots with some clowns and I was pleased that it looked like Catherine had pulled out all the stops for my kids. I'd have to remember to send her something. There was another group picture that looked like it was from a school function, and then I was down to my letter.

It was newsy and full of Octavia's normal broad humor. She grudgingly admitted that I'd known what I was doing with Devon and the circus, seemed the young man had not been all that impressed when shown the normal sleeping quarters and 'mess hall' eating arrangements of those in the business. Not to even mention the elephant poop. While he'd been thrilled with the trip to the point of not being able to sleep the night before, he'd thrown over wanting to be a circus performer for going into construction. Guess he'd been quite impressed with the job the crew did putting together the jungle gym. Octavia had had to lock up all the power tools.

I swear, Octavia was born in the wrong century, and while she handled e-mail just fine, she really took to it when she got to write out real letters and they were always longer and more forthcoming. I was told about the couple that had been in looking to adopt, though she wouldn't speculate on chances or interest. She let me know, in her usual blunt way that she'd managed to keep any of the kids from seeing the newscasts before they had died down, and I was achingly relieved to know my status in their eyes probably hadn't changed. I much preferred being the on-again off-again ship's Captain hero, rather than the notion of becoming the fairly wimpy gay guy who all but sobbed on the evening news over going out-ship. Kind of hard to maintain your alien grappling reputation if people know you have vacuum-phobia. She told me that the new kid seemed to finally be settling in, and thanked me for working with Allison, who seemed much less the budding recluse since my visit.

Then she explained the school picture. Seemed Allison's class had gotten together and held a fund-raiser for her.

I pulled the picture out of the stack and looked at it again, with that new knowledge. Allison was right down front, and while her hair swept over her face on one side in a manner that made me think of Trowa, there was a tiny little smile on her face. The new kid, Mark was hovering on one side, looking a little belligerent and almost... protective. Sarah and Zinia were on the other, grinning happily and mugging for the camera. Allison was clutching a big plastic container to her chest and you could see that it was full of coins and bills. I just blinked at it for a minute, trying to process the words in my letter.

'Between what you gave me, the school fund-raiser, and the bits of public donations that we get, Allison has enough for her surgery,' it said, and I had to go back and read it again. Enough, it said. There was enough.

'Duo?' Heero asked, and I glanced up to find him looking at me in concern. 'Is something wrong?'

I just shook my head, not trusting my voice, and laid the letter down to point at the appropriate paragraph. I watched his eyes widen a bit as he got to the pertinent part and when he looked back to meet my eyes, I knew I was grinning like I'd just been handed my drink order and it had come in the Holy Grail.

'They have... enough?' he asked, just as though he hadn't read the same thing I had.

I nodded again and had to tell him, 'We did it.'

He just smiled and pulled me into a hug. 'I'm so glad,' he murmured into my ear and I squeezed him tight, wishing I could give a hug to Allison too.

We did it, echoed in my head, but you know... it didn't bother me somehow. I had thought it was going to, not being Superman and doing it all myself, but in that moment... reading those words... the fact that it was going to happen was all that mattered. That tiny little smile on Allison's face, a mere shadow of her old smile, peeking out and hinting that it might come back full blown one day... was all that mattered.

I can't say there wasn't a tiny bit of sting over not being able to handle it, a thing that at one time would not have even made me blink, but it wasn't anything more than that. Just a twinge, and a memory of more lucrative days. Guess I'm not too stubborn to learn. Sometimes.

I suddenly became aware that Heero was holding me somewhat awkwardly. I remembered his own package and realized that he had something in one hand.

'And what did you get?' I asked, drawing back to try to see what he was holding. The smile he got then made me not sure I wanted to know. It was a wicked little smirk, pleased as hell with himself and hinting that I wasn't going to be a hundred percent thrilled with whatever it was. 'What?' I asked that look, in a more guarded tone.

'A gift from Aleyah,' he informed me, and let me go to reveal it. At first glance, it looked like just a black portfolio type thing, but then he opened it up and I found myself staring at... me. A dozen little mes. 'She promised me the proofs from your portrait sitting,' he informed me, and if I thought I'd been blushing when the mailman had caught me spit-polishing the front door with my shirt... should have seen me then.

I am not overly fond of looking at pictures of myself. Honestly, I don't think I'm alone... I don't think most people are. I'm not all that self-conscious of my looks... other than a few small aspects, but it just makes me feel kind of weird. Wufei's everyday snap-shots seemed bad enough, but the spread I was looking at seemed like a hell of a lot of work and effort to make for a guy like me. I really had not been aware of just how many pictures Jacques had taken.

Heero was somewhat inordinately pleased.

'Stop smirking,' I grumbled, but of course that just made him smirk harder.

'Can't help it,' he smiled. 'What are the odds you'd have ever done something like this under any other circumstances?'

'Slim to none,' I growled and he chuckled.

'Then I am fully justified in my smirk.'

'Asshole,' I said, trying not to look at all the artistic black leather and the glow of studio lighting that he held in his hands.

'Go back to your letter,' he told me, closing the portfolio and giving me a quick peck on the cheek. 'I'm going to go find someplace to display this.'

I couldn't contain the groan. 'Display? Heero, come on...'

'I'm married to a beautiful man,' he teased, that smirk back full force. 'You can't blame me for wanting to show that fact off.'

I had figured out, given enough time, that Heero delights in making me squirm with comments like that, but damned if I've found a way to stop squirming. 'I'll blame you if you put that damn thing anywhere but upstairs,' I warned, and he actually laughed as he left the room.

'I suppose that means you'd rather I didn't put it on the living room mantel?' I didn't bother to answer him, but made a point of listening until I was sure that wasn't where he'd headed.

Another one of those things I should have seen coming, I suppose, but somehow I never did. I could admit to myself if to nobody else, that Jacques was an excellent photographer and what Heero was holding in his hands on his way upstairs, were probably the best pictures of me that had ever been taken... but that didn't make me any less uncomfortable with them. I sighed and went back to my letter.

There wasn't much more, some details on the scheduled preliminary doctor visit for Allison, but nothing on when the actual surgery would happen. I turned my attention to the little card addressed to 'Mr. Duo' and found it to be a thank you note from Allison.

'Dear Mr. Duo,' it began. 'Mrs. Octavia says that you sent money to get my scar fixed. Ethan says you got the money from fighting space pirates. I hope you didn't get hurt. Is it ok to pay the doctors with space pirate money? Mrs. Octavia says she thinks so, but I wanted to make sure. When my scar is all better, Mrs. Octavia says we'll send you pictures. I drew you a picture of what it will look like for now. I miss you, will you come at Christmas again next year? Anyway, thank you for the space pirate money. I hope you like your pictures. Love, Allie-cat.'

I grinned, imagining the good Mrs. Octavia diligently sitting across the table from Allison while she wrote that, spelling 'pirate' for her and trying not to laugh. Bet the woman chuckled all the way to the post office. I shook my head. Ethan and his obsessions. Guess my rep was still intact after all.

I unfolded my pictures and found the usual assortment of unicorns and cats, plus one glowing self-portrait. It was Allison in that the little girl in the portrait had blond hair and blue eyes, beyond that... it could have been just about any girl of that same description. Hell... could have been any long-haired boy of that same description. The child is barely seven after all. The important part was how the hair was out of the way and the girl was smiling brightly and there weren't any funny marks on the face that might have been a child's interpretation of scars. I decided it was a fine replacement for the current piece of refrigerator art; I'd long since stopped needing the inspiration of the Super-Mr. Duo picture, and thought it might be nice to have something in the kitchen that didn't just make me feel guilty when I looked at it.

I swapped the pictures and took the swappee and the extras to my studio to file with the rest of them. Someday, when the kid was a famous artist and having her own gallery shows, I'd proudly pull out my originals and embarrass the crap out of her.

It occurred to me then, that Heero was being a little too quiet for my own good, so I headed that way next.

From the very top of the stairs, you can see into our bedroom just a bit. Just a sliver, from that angle, of the end of the bed. That's where Heero was sitting, the portfolio in his hands and it was the look on his face that made me stop and just watch him for a minute. I knew what he was looking at, so I knew what the expression was for, and it made me feel... very odd. Warm. Good. Weird. Squirmy. The man looked positively tender; there was no doubt he liked what he was seeing, and knowing that he was seeing me... was kind of mind-bending. His expression was the kind I wanted to steal away into artist's memory and capture later on paper. There was the ghost of a genuine smile, not the teasing smirk he'd been giving me downstairs. There was a shine in his eyes that spoke of things I didn't dare catalog, but made heat wash through me all the same.

I know he loves me, but sometimes it's kind of hard to believe in the other parts. The parts where he really did think I was worth... a look like that.

It was too creepy just staring at him, so after a minute I took a step and hit that squeaky board at the top of the stairs. He looked up and smiled a welcome, holding out a hand for me to come and join him. I went and took it, and he pulled me down beside him. I was surprised to find one of those decorative storage boxes on the bed. It looked... kind of old.

'I know you hate hearing it,' he told me quietly, all hint of teasing gone. 'But you really are a damn fine looking man. When I look at this, it... amazes me that you're with me.'

I couldn't help but snort derisively and just shook my head in exasperation. I waved a hand in the general direction of the stuff beside him, ignoring the compliments for lack of the proper words to accept or deny them. 'What's all this?'

There was a soft sigh, and the smile grew a touch wry. 'There were extra prints that didn't get put in the actual portfolio. I was putting them away,' he explained and I was glad that it seemed like he was going to let things go. I thought about that word 'away' and nudged at the lid of the box, wondering what was in it, because I knew his pictures were in a different box in the closet of the spare bedroom. I blinked in some surprise when I saw a copy of those dumb little flyers Aleyah had printed for the gallery opening lying on top.

'Uh... Heero?' I had to ask, suddenly a little apprehensive about just what was in that box, and he looked a bit sheepish. Instead of speaking though, he just slid it into his lap and began to pull things out. It only took seeing the copy of a certain issue of the Rising Times and the clipping from the arts section of the newspaper about my gallery opening to know just what the box was.

'Are you just trying to embarrass me to death today?' I asked, and he chuckled, looking just a bit embarrassed himself.

'Not alarmed by my stalker tendencies?' he teased and I saw that the contents of the box weren't limited to... current events.

My eyes widened just a bit when I saw the program books from every Zero-Gravity expo I'd ever entered. 'Uh... I'm starting to be.'

His embarrassment was giving way to amusement and I couldn't help reaching into the box with him to sort through the contents. 'God, you really are a stalker!' I blurted when I ran across a newspaper clipping of the title transfers from back when I bought my ship. 'Jim Bama to Duo Maxwell, register 'Maxwell's Demon', it read right along with the dozen or so other transfers for that month. It was surreal, but not as surreal as lifting out that last clipping and finding Jensen's face looking up at me from a scrap of torn off paper in the bottom of the box. I recognized my own work, but... what the hell? It took me a long moment of blinking before I could figure out where in the hell it had come from. I remembered a kitchen table in a run down old house, sitting with Heero and Quatre and laying out plans. 'You... saved that?' I had to ask, and knew I sounded utterly incredulous.

'That was the first time I'd ever seen you draw,' he told me. 'I couldn't believe how you just sketched it out... you weren't half paying attention to what you were doing.'

It was really kind of a kick seeing something like that, knowing what it said, that he'd hung on to the dumb thing all those years ago. I mean, we'd talked about how we'd both been attracted even back then, but seeing such physical evidence of it was kind of... depressing, actually. Made those long lonely years seem so... wasted.

'Where the hell did you get those program books?' I asked, so that I didn't have to think about the other. 'I know damn well you didn't even know about them before Christmas.'

He ducked his head and I'd swear his cheeks pinked just a bit, but I couldn't be sure. 'I found them on the internet after I saw Spencer's copy,' he admitted and then looked up at me through the fall of his bangs. 'You going to autograph my copies for me?'

I snorted and elbowed him in the ribs, rolling my eyes and choosing to ignore that crack too. I picked up the flyer from the opening and turned it in my hands. I never had had a chance to look at the dumb thing. The picture Aleyah had chosen for the front made me look like one of those brooding artist types, and I wondered what my sitting down on the floor in the middle of the show to draw cat butts with a little kid had done to the impression she'd been trying to foster. Hard to look dark and brooding when you're playing with crayons.

Under my picture on the front of the flyer the opening line read, 'Artist, Gundam pilot, ship's Captain, dancer... Duo Maxwell is a multi-talented...' and that was more than enough for me. I tossed it back into the box and looked around the room for some change of subject, but Heero was quiet and I ended up glancing his way to see why.

He was just sitting and looking at me much the way he'd been looking at my portraits earlier. All it took was meeting his eyes for the box to be set aside and all his attention to be focused on me. We don't indulge in the middle of the day all that often, but there was no denying the heat of his touch.

We spent the next hour trying not to kick the box off the bed. I think he'd given up trying to tell me in words what he thought, and it's funny how that sort of thing is a little easier to accept through touch. I let him tell me without words, and for that little while it was almost something I could believe.

And with that box a presence on the bed with us... there were a few things I needed to tell him too.

Turned out there was something he needed to tell me that he couldn't get across in our wordless manner though, and sometime after we'd basked in the afterglow and were down to the looking for socks part, he blurted, 'Duo... Relena is coming out to the house this evening.'

'What?' I asked, stopping with my jeans pulled half way up my legs to stare at him.

'It's our dinner night, remember?' he asked, attention studiously on putting his box of mementos away, though his careful tone of voice belied any casualness. 'She's been asking to see the place.'

'And you thought it was a good idea to wait until the last minute to mention this... why?' I asked, pulling my pants the rest of the way up with a bit more... firmness than was probably necessary.

'To uhm... avoid getting glared at for any longer than necessary?' he ventured, sparing a glance my way out of the corner of his eye.

I snorted and threw his shirt at him. 'Watch me laugh,' I grumbled. 'Now get your ass down stairs and wash the damn breakfast dishes.'

He caught the shirt and dared quirk a grin at me. 'Are you seriously going to run around cleaning house now?'

'No,' I growled. 'We are seriously going to run around cleaning house now. I am not going to have the Queen of Sanc coming in here to find my carburetor in pieces on the kitchen table.'

'She's not the...' he began, but I cut him off.

'Dishes, Yuy,' I commanded. 'And dry the damn things too.'

'Sir, yes, sir,' he grinned and ducked out before I could throw something more than his shirt at him.

'And don't you forget it!' I called after him and heard his laughter drift back up the stairs.

Have I mentioned that sex turns the man into a comedian?

We are not slobs by any means, but we are two guys living in our own space and there are just things you don't want somebody like Relena Peacecraft thinking about you. So the laundry on the couch in the process of being folded, needed to be not in the process anymore, the dishes needed to be put away, the work in progress on the end of the kitchen table needed to find a new home. Toilet lids needed to be put down. I would have suggested that I needed to find someplace else to be, but I didn't figure it would wash. Besides... with my carburetor currently shoved into a cabinet in the back room instead of under the hood of my car... I was kind of stuck.

I suppose it sounds like I hate Relena, and that's not really true. We're just not exactly each other's biggest fans. Too much water under the bridge, I guess. She spent too much time thinking I was the King of shitty attitudes and I spent too long thinking she hated me for reasons other than why she did. Or... disliked me strongly.

First impressions are a hard thing to shake. And it's not really something you can consciously go out and do. You can't grab somebody by the short hairs and force them to look at you differently. It takes time. You have to prove it, I guess, and that's only something that happens over a long stretch of not acting the way the other person expects you to. So I still had the urge to cover my balls whenever I was around Relena, and she probably had her own urges. Maybe to lock up the good silverware, I don't know and I'm not asking.

And yes, damn it, despite Solo snickering in the back of my head for five whole minutes, I ended up dusting the bedroom with a bit of furniture polish just to try to cover up the smell of sex. Last damn thing I wanted to think about was the Princess of Pomp speculating on what went on in our bedroom.

Her driver brought her promptly at six, escorting her into Heero's care like the changing of the guard, and I suppose it was something of that nature. The guy was as broad in the shoulder as I was tall, I swear to God, and so obviously more than just a driver, as evidenced by the tell-tale bulge of a weapon under his coat. Relena's days of getting away with Paragon driving her around ended when she became higher profile than the Pope, I guess.

I wondered sometimes just how many security people had heart attacks over her little excursion with us to L2. But that leads to me wondering if she had slipped her leash only to keep the number of people exposed to my painting, down to a minimum. And, of course, that just brings me around to remembering what happened to those paintings, so I don't do a lot of speculating on the subject.

I resisted the urge to glance around the living room one more time as Heero saw her in; fearing we'd left bits of laundry on the couch or something. Would be just my luck to have the woman find a pair of underwear under the coffee table.

She looked around in open curiosity as she came into the house, nodding to me distractedly and I belatedly wondered about my own appearance, cringing slightly when I remembered I was wearing my 'I'm lost, but I'm making good time' shirt. My only consolation was that it wasn't the Hell-bound Beavers shirt.

'Evening, Relena,' I ventured and she smiled in a tentative way. That pretty well describes our relationship... tentative.

'Hello Duo,' she responded, turning toward me for a moment, and I could see her trying not to look at my chest to read the shirt. Maybe in polite company you're not supposed to read people's slogans. Or maybe it's a girl thing... they don't want us looking at their chests, so it's only fair if they don't look at ours? She turned away fairly quickly, going back to casing the joint... uh, I mean, looking around.

'It's very nice,' she said finally, clutching her little purse in front of her and it made me wonder if it was just to give her something to do with her hands.

'Nice?' Heero teased, smiling broadly at her. 'Is that the best you can come up with about our dream house?'

'As much as you've been talking about it, Heero,' she shot back, 'I was expecting something more along the lines of the Linderhof Castle.' But then she looked a little shocked at herself and I caught the flick of her eyes in my direction.

'That musty old relic?' Heero grinned, missing, or choosing to miss the look. 'Nice, but it doesn't have a porch swing.'

'Well yours didn't look like it was safe to sit on!' she responded and followed as Heero waved her toward our little dining room, obviously giving her the tour.

'Half the chairs in your sitting room don't look safe to sit on,' he needled and made her laugh.

'Those are antiques,' she replied in what I hoped was mock affront. 'I would certainly hope you wouldn't sit on them!'

I trailed along behind them, feeling oddly like a third wheel; I'd never really heard them banter like that before. It was a little easier to see how they could actually be friends when Relena wasn't so busy being... so stiff. But then, I suppose I was the element that led to her unease.

There were comments about the dining table, and exclamations over the bay window, and when we got to the kitchen, they'd teased enough that she felt free to mock the little flower decals on the cabinets. I wasn't really tracking the conversation as much as I was watching them together, so it kind of took me by surprise when I realized I was about to be abandoned.

'You promised the new French place, Heero Yuy,' Relena chided, waving a finger at my partner. 'And don't you try to back out of it!'

'I thought you meant the new restaurant on Hampton,' Heero replied, and I couldn't tell if he was just baiting her or not.

'Hardly!' she responded, looking like he'd just suggested they drive through McDonalds.

Heero sighed then, waving a hand at the Dockers and polo shirt he was wearing. 'Well, I certainly can't go dressed like this!'

She gave him a disdainful little sniff that was more of the teasing... I hoped. 'I doubt they'd let you in, so go change, our reservations are at six.'

Heero at least had the decency to give me an apologetic little smile as he slipped past me. Great. Have I ever mentioned that I don't own an etiquette hamster? I've got one for words not good for polite company, one to keep my foot out of my mouth, and one to deliver life lessons, but a social director hamster? Of course not; that might actually come in handy.

'French place?' I tried gamely, and she leapt on it like a cat on a chocolate dipped mouse.

'Oh, it's gotten wonderful reviews,' she gushed, and I wondered if she hadn't stopped to realize that Heero changing was going to kinda force the two of us to interact. 'Just opened last month and already had a write-up in Gourmet on the Town.'

I assumed that was some magazine for people who didn't know how to decide for themselves where the good restaurants were, and figured that Heero and I would probably never be eating there together. 'Sounds nice,' I managed, though I was thinking it sounded expensive. And pretentious. I wondered what would happen if Heero ever took Relena to McMurphy's? Wondered if he ever got to pick the restaurant.

But then I remembered Relena and Toria, and decided that there really was no knowing how it would go. Well... not as long as she wasn't wearing the pastel power suit she currently had on. 'Want to see the rest of the place?' I asked, since neither of us could seem to think of another thing that needed to be said about French restaurants, and Relena agreed just a little too quickly. Guess she was as uncomfortable as I was.

Short of showing her the basement and the bathroom, all that was left on the first floor was my studio, so we went there. It's really not all that much to look at. Windows, cabinets, counters, the couch from the old apartment, and my easel.

'So where are these murals Heero told me about?' she asked.

Oh yeah... and those.

'Uhm, on the inside wall,' I muttered, kind of appalled to think about Heero talking about them to other people. Both of them were kind of personal things. It made me wonder just what in the hell he'd said. Surely he hadn't said anything about how they'd come into being? My face flamed just thinking about that possibility.

I had been stark naked while doing the second one. Heero had come into the room and I'd done part of it with him pressed to my back, whispering encouragement into my ear. No... I seriously hoped nothing had been imparted about the execution.

Thankfully, Relena had already caught sight of the paintings and wasn't paying any attention to the state of my expression.

'Oh!' she exclaimed, seeing the church one first. I'd finished the thing since that first night of strange conception, at least, and I could see her looking it over with an eye for all the details. She frowned after a second and said, 'I don't recognize any of...' but then her expression cleared and her eyes went wide. 'Oh,' she murmured. An altogether different kind of oh than she'd used when she'd first seen it. 'This isn't... ' she began, but dropped that quickly and I realized she freaking got it. Or at least the obvious parts. It surprised me at the same time that it reassured me that Heero perhaps hadn't said more than he should have about things that shouldn't be shared. 'Is this...?' she had to ask anyway and I nodded to stop her from floundering around any more.

'The Maxwell church,' I confirmed and hoped she'd drop it.

She just nodded and turned back to look at it again, and it's probably kind of sad that I held my breath, waiting to see if she paid any more attention to Mary and her owner than she did any of the other kids. She stood out just a bit, in her finer clothes and fancy hat, but Relena didn't pick up on it. I am not a hundred percent certain if Heero has told that piece of his past to anyone else but me, and I'm a little ashamed of the fact that I kind of hoped it had been a thing just between us. A balance, perhaps, with the things I'd told him about my own past that not another living soul knew.

It's probably pretty twisted that somewhere inside I hoped those sorts of dark secrets were only between us. I didn't really need that sort of confirmation of Heero's love, but... well... I'm selfish, I guess. He shares so much history with everyone else; I wanted things that were just for me.

Then she turned her steps to the other side of the room and I was taken with the urge to trip her.

It was her turn to blush; the central and more obvious part of that portrait is Heero with his arms around me, after all. Or me, really, since that was what Heero had asked for me to paint. The part where I got to be in his arms had been a bonus. She said something inane and I said something inane back and then I could tell she was playing the Where's Waldo game, as she found all the little bits that aren't as obvious as the main part. I doubt much of it made sense to her, though who knew? She'd picked up on the church thing faster than I'd thought she would.

With a start, I wondered if she'd looked the story up. I'd told her to, standing in front of the memorial, if she wanted to know more. I chose not to ask.

When she spoke again, it was totally out of left field. 'I went to your show,' she informed me without looking away from the wall, face still faintly pink, or pink again, I couldn't tell. 'Everyone was talking about it.'

'Oh?' I managed, not sure I wanted to know what she thought.

'It was very impressive,' she ventured and I thought she might be looking at me out of the corner of her eye.

'Aleyah did a really good job,' I agreed and she burst out with a weird little giggle that lurched into unladylike when she tried to stifle it and failed.

'The paintings!' she had to clarify, looking at me a little more obviously. 'The pictures were impressive.'

My turn to blush and I found myself wondering if Heero was taking a damn shower up there. 'Oh. Uh... thanks.'

She laughed a little more freely and shook her head. 'Heero is right; you are very modest.' She, perhaps, realized that my thinking up something to say to that was unlikely, so she didn't wait for me to try. 'Though now I'm kind of sorry I made you make that promise.'

'Promise?' I prompted, opting to skip over the whole talent thing. 'What promise?'

'Not to make me the subject of any more paintings,' she said, just a little bit slyly, and I blinked at her for a minute, trying to remember just when said promise had been made. Aboard ship, I realized, standing under the only portrait I'd ever done of her... the one that had caused me so much trouble. The one I'd destroyed. It took me a second to get past that part to hear what she'd just said.

'You want me to paint you?' I blurted, appalled at myself for sounding so shocked and so eager at the same time. It wasn't something I'd ever expected to hear her express an interest in, but I couldn't help think that it might actually ease things between us. That would make Heero a very happy man. I knew it was something that bothered him; that his lover and one of his best friends didn't get along all that well.

I think my reaction took her by surprise and she looked away again, back at the wall. I think she was noticing my Gundam, but couldn't be sure. 'Well,' she ventured after a moment. 'I was perhaps a little hasty in ruling it out.'

It kind of made me want to laugh when I thought about it; it sounded damn shallow somehow. But looking at her, I'm not sure it was. Which probably sounds weird, but was the truth. Maybe because she didn't seem to get how it sounded?

'Well, they say it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind,' I said, wincing when it sounded lamer than it had in my head.

She looked hopeful and embarrassed, and a little bit wary all at once. I wondered for a moment how she did the politician thing with a poker face that bad. 'It would depend on the... subject, I suppose,' she said demurely, suddenly seeming to back off the idea. Maybe she was remembering the portrait that had pissed her off so much, too. She blushed hotly all of a sudden, and I realized I'd been staring at her with an artist's eye, studying the lines of her face and the sweep of her hair.

I looked quickly away, struggling for something to say, but was saved when Heero appeared in the doorway, Dockers discarded for dress slacks and a button down shirt. He'd even put on a tie and I couldn't help grinning at him. 'Must be one hell of a restaurant!'

There was a very strange moment then, pretty uncomfortable really, though I hadn't meant it that way, though maybe it was just left over from the previous uncomfortable moment. Heero stepped in, making it all right again, smiling broadly and telling me in a stage whisper, 'it's ok; it's Relena's turn to buy.'

I was relieved that they had to leave then, to make their reservations, because I'd had enough conversation with her Highness for one day.

Though I wish Heero hadn't had such an expectant look on his face, assuming that I would see them off. Honest to God; I've never particularly minded Heero and Relena's nights out; they're friends and I had wanted him to maintain that. But you know... I'd never had to stand and wave them off before. He usually just took off, something happened that involved food, and then he came back later. She'd never come over to our place before, either the house or the apartment. And I... well... much as I don't like to admit it...

God. I was jealous green, ok? They looked so fucking good together, walking down the steps. And he opened the door to the car for her, they drove away together and I had a moment of wanting to call them back. Then I stood there and laughed out loud at myself, because the whole evening had just been surreal with a capital weird.

'He is gay, y'know,' Solo chuckled from his favored spot on the porch swing.

'Yeah,' I replied without having to look at him. 'That would be the only thing keeping me from chasing the car.' He laughed louder than I had. Well... to my ears, anyway.

My, but sometimes life has this tendency to make you see things about yourself that are just... not all that attractive.

I wandered off the porch, idly trying to find a way to justify the weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, but there really just wasn't. They hadn't done a damn thing out of the ordinary... it was just my lame insecurity kicking in.

I picked my way around the side of the house, looking at the flower beds and noting where things were starting to poke through the soil. Just meandering and doing my best to shake off the image of them going down the front steps together.

Spring, as they say, was in the air, and I could already tell there was going to be a lot of work to be done around the yard. The fall winds had left leaves and bits of debris tucked into all the nooks and crannies around the foundation. The winter snows had compressed and apparently turned it all into a soggy mat that wasn't going anywhere on its own. I poked at a mass of it and decided it was nasty, and would require tools to clean up. Maybe even a ten foot pole. There seemed to be things living under some of it that I had my doubts about. Bugs were a thing that a space brat like myself had a real hard time adjusting too. Finding one in the house, especially of the eight legged variety, always left me feeling like battening down and venting the whole place to the cleansing wash of space. Not exactly an option anymore.

There were flower beds, ornamental trees, and small shrubs all around the house, but particularly on the north side. Raised beds that even I could tell had once had a rhyme and a pattern. Time had broken that pattern, wearing at it, adding things to it that weren't meant to be there. I wondered if it was something we would ever be able to sort out, or if it would be easier to tear it all out and start over. I found that notion to be terribly unattractive; as nuts as it sounds, it would feel like I was letting the former owner down. Seeing the tiny green shoots rising bravely out of the ground in obvious clusters, I could almost see the woman lovingly planting them there. I somehow just knew that her plan would be something to see, if I could just manage to figure it out.

I think it amused Heero no end, watching me research flowers and shrubs on the internet, but I had vague hopes of returning the property to... I don't know; some former 'glory'? Some imagined former glory?

I really couldn't explain it to him, but I just had a feeling that once upon a time our house had been something to see. And it offended something deep inside me to think that the beauty would die with the woman who conceived it. I wanted, somehow, to do her proud.

I had given up on the things I thought were flowers and had gone to look at the mass of brambles the neighbor kids assured me were roses, when I heard a car coming. Ours is a dead-end street, so we don't get much in the way of passers-by, just the occasional poor lost soul turning around, so I made the effort to walk where I could see past the porch. I was surprised to see Wufei's car pull up in front of the house.

I stood where I was and let him come to me, which he did with a smile, climbing the steps and taking the long way in order to stay on the little walk until he had to step off into the grass to join me. 'What brings you out to the boondocks?' I asked, though I already suspected it had to do with whatever the package under his arm was. His smile widened a bit.

'Would you believe me if I said I was just in the neighborhood?'

'Only if you tell me you're a close a personal friend of the Rubin's, because there is not all that much else in this neighborhood,' I laughed and he just shook his head, falling into step with me as I resumed my trip to the fence row.

'Well, I was on this side of town at least,' he amended, his free hand finding its way into his jacket pocket. 'And I thought I'd take a chance on finding you at home. I wanted to drop off your copy of the group picture.'

Almost, I made some crack about it being a day for pictures, but then realized I'd have to explain myself, which would lead to actually having to show him the portfolio... so I refrained. 'You didn't have to make a special trip out for that,' I had to point out and his smile changed to something with a sheepish air.

[cont]