Author: Sunhawk

Directions (cont.)

So why the fuck was I giving myself an ulcer over the whole thing?

Sitting there staring at blooming aliens, I couldn't come up with an answer. If Lee and Aleyah liked my work, then they liked my work, and they'd have to deal with the fact that it was apparently... a little unconventional.

Putting Heero's caterpillar back under the book, I dug Jack Lee's card out of the desk and went to the kitchen to give the guy a call. Assuming he hadn't jetted off to Australia for lunch or something.

I was surprised that not only was the phone picked up right away, but that Mr. Lee answered himself. I launched right in before I had a chance to second guess myself. 'Mr. Lee, this is Duo Maxwell. Do you have time to meet with me this afternoon?'

'Mr. Maxwell!' he replied, sounding both surprised and enthusiastic. But then the guy always kind of sounded enthusiastic, come to think of it. 'Good to hear from you! You've got something to show me? Wonderful! I'm free until dinner time. Come out when ever you like!'

'Great,' I hedged, carefully not admitting the 'show' part one way or the other. 'I should be there within the hour.'

'See you then!' he... enthused, and we hung up. I couldn't help shaking my head. The guy was just so damn... up beat. I wondered suddenly if life was just that damn good to him, or if he would still be the same kind of person without all the money and privilege. Had his circumstances shaped him... or did he shape his circumstances?

I went out to gather up my paints and supplies, somehow amused at the notion that Wufei would be thrilled to hear that I had actually used his easel to 'go on-site' as he'd put it, even though the odds were that I wouldn't need them. Always be prepared, right?

With that motto in mind, I stopped in the kitchen to shove a ration bar in with the brushes and palette knives and opened the fridge for a bottle of soda for the ride. Looking at the damn green bottle, so enticing, and yet so... menacing, I kind of got pissed. Stupid. I wanted a damn drink. I had bought those bottles with my own hands. I'd already drunk several others from the same carton. No one had been in my house that I did not trust.

Fuck if a guy with a hero-crush on Zechs and a freaking homophobe were going to keep me from enjoying something that I damn well enjoyed. Whether Heero thought the stuff was bad for me or not. Maybe I'd cut back someday, but it would be because I started getting fat, or developed diabetes or some damn shit... not because a bunch of lame ass would-be terrorists had made bad associations in my head.

I pulled a bottle out of the fridge, uncapped it rather ruthlessly, raised it to... something, said 'Fuck you all' and took a couple of big swallows.

And if there was some part of my head that held its breath waiting to see if anything bad would happen... it was a small part.

The bottle, recapped, went in the easel box with everything else. Ready to go, I took a moment to call Heero's office; wasn't about to disappear on him again, if he didn't just up and have a heart attack, he'd probably kill me.

It rang long enough that I was expecting the voice mail to kick in when it was picked up, but instead I got this gravely, 'Chang here.'

'Wufei?' I blurted, rather shocked to hear him. I had envisioned him still in the infirmary for some reason. 'What the hell are you doing there?'

There was the sound of air being used to indicate amusement without any real vocalization and I had to give the guy credit... he'd been practicing. Taking his condition under consideration, I allowed it to pass for his side of the conversation and bulled on. 'Are you all right? You can... uh... tap on the phone or something, one for yes and two for no? Or, is Sally there? I can talk to somebody else or call back and you can let it go into voice mail.' I retracted that one in my head the minute I said it, no harm in letting him take a note. Though there were other things on my mind then, besides Jack Lee and his commission. 'God... what did the doctors say? Oh hell, that's not a yes or no question. Uh... are you going to be...'

'Duo,' he whispered and I shut up instantly so as not to make him try and raise his voice. There was a moment of silence then; I don't think he'd expected me to yield the floor so easily, I got that ghost of a laugh again before he told me, 'I'm going to be fine. Nothing permanent.'

He was still keeping it short, I noted, but then he'd said 'going to be'. Not exactly fine at the moment. Not that I hadn't known that, but... not permanent. I was surprised with the sudden need to sit down and hoped he didn't hear the rattle of the kitchen chair when my butt hit it. 'Oh thank God...' I heard myself say, and realized too late that was probably worse than him hearing my knees go weak.

'Nothing to feel bad about,' he said gently, or maybe it was just the soft sigh of his voice that made it sound that way. I couldn't help a derisive laugh.

'Just almost killing one of the guys that are the closest thing I've got to brothers,' I said, rubbing a hand over my eyes to erase the mental image of that look I'd gotten of his throat in the ambulance. 'Oh no... nothing to feel bad about at all.'

There was a long moment before he spoke again and I felt bad for making him work so hard trying to talk. 'My fault...' he said and his voice had a thickness it hadn't held before, it made me wince with guilt.

'Don't try to talk, Wufei,' I told him. 'Your voice is getting worse. There's no sense in hashing this out. I'm gonna feel guilty, and you're gonna try not to let me and... yeah.'

He made that sighing sound again before yielding the point. 'Ok. Later.' Which meant he wasn't willing to yield the whole match.

I went ahead and told him why I'd called then, and let him take the message for Heero. We signed off, me getting a parting admonishment to be careful. I laughed and promised not to take any more 'candy' from strangers, but he didn't seem to see the humor.

I wondered what Heero was in the middle of that he couldn't answer his own phone, but hadn't wanted to ask and just make Wufei talk more. I hoped he was roughing somebody up. Which was probably pretty politically incorrect, but I just didn't care.

Solo was lazing on the porch swing when I left, and waved me off with a smirk. That's the real problem with figments of your imagination; living in your head, they're privy to all your thoughts, even the dumb-ass ones.

I suppose I should have been planning and thinking about my 'composition' during the drive over. Maybe thinking about the things I knew about Jack Lee, but my head had gotten itself wrapped around the concept of living and was busy making comparisons and looking at patterns.

Life is change. There's just no way around that, really. Even if it's only aging. And I suppose if there was a way to stop it, it wouldn't be life anymore... it would just be stagnation. Existence.

I looked at Jack Lee and I thought... there's a guy that embraced change with both hands. Probably blew a raspberry on its belly just for shits and grins while he was at it. He struck me as not really afraid of much, not intimidated by much, not slowed down by much.

It made me wonder about his past, about his up-bringing. Made me wonder about the things that shaped him. Was that kind of... chutzpah something a person was just born with, or was it something you learned?

Most people go through life waiting for change to happen... sometimes in fear, sometimes with longing. But... life lived them.

Then there were the few like Jack Lee and Aleyah Winner who made change happen. No waiting around for them; they went out and lived life.

I pulled up to the gate at 'Rogers Hills' with the realization that somewhere along the line I'd ended up letting life live me.

Buzzed in by Mr. Lee himself, I made the drive up to the house wondering just how I'd ended up in the holding pattern I seemed to be in. Beyond the obvious answer. Could it not be said that I was healed from the accident? It had been over a year.

I climbed out of my car, easel in hand, and made the walk up the front walk of that house and thought... What the hell am I waiting for?

'Mr. Maxwell!' Jack Lee called from his front door, giving me a vague sense of déjà vu, 'Come in! Come in! I can't wait to see what you've come up with!'

And we were there already. I sighed, returning the hearty hand-shake and putting my musings aside as I crossed into the man's house.

House. Home, I corrected myself, thinking about that cluttered study he'd led me through. While a lot of the place looked like a set for the latest issue of Palaces, Castles, and Other Extravagant Abodes, it was obvious the man lived in it. It might make me feel uncomfortable, but he was right at home. The horrendous plaid golf shorts were gone, but the well-worn house slippers were in attendance. I put my focus there for a second and tried to ignore all the marble, glass and gilt.

Really... he was just a man. A little loud, a little too used to getting his way, a little rich. But still just a guy looking to hire me to do something he couldn't do for himself.

'Well, Mr. Lee,' I had to admit, once the pleasantries were over. 'That's kind of why I'm here... this 'preliminary sketch' deal is sort of giving me a problem.'

He got a hint of a frown then, the first time I'd seen that almost jovial expression clouded. 'Oh?' he prompted, tone a little guarded.

'Yeah; I don't really do them,' I told him bluntly then bulled forward when that hint of a frown started to manifest into a real one. 'But I've got a proposition for you. I'm more of a... hand's on kind of guy. Inspiration is sort of...' I waved my hands in the general direction of his entire house, 'place oriented.'

He cocked his head a little, the frown getting put on hold... still there, but seeming undecided. 'Proposition?' he asked, and I caught a whiff of the business man he had to be, in the question.

'Look,' I said, trying for a combination of earnest and professional. 'Here's my offer... you let me just go in there and paint, and if you don't like it, I'll paint over the thing and no charge. It'll be like I was never here. You can't lose, and I can stop driving myself crazy with little scraps of paper that are never going to lead me to anything of that scale.'

He was too much of a poker player to let me see whatever was going on in his head, but I could hear the interest when he asked, 'No charge?'

'Not unless you like it and decide to keep it,' I clarified, because damn it... I wasn't an artistic charity.

'And the price if I like it?' he asked, and I knew I had him when that hint of a frown vanished and his normal wide smile began to reappear. I'd intrigued him; he was just too curious to see what I came up with.

'That's between you and Aleyah,' I grinned. 'I've been given to understand I'm not to handle the financial side of things.'

He laughed out loud then, and I had a sense that had been the right response. Not just for my wallet, but for his respect, because I'd admitted where I was out of my depth.

He gave me a theatric wince, as though admitting that Aleyah would end up with a price higher than I'd have gotten for myself, not that that was any surprise, but then he brushed past all the business part. 'How can I say no to an offer like that?' he grinned, and looked pointedly down at the case I'd set at my feet when I came in. 'I take it you are prepared to start now?'

'If your wall isn't doing anything else,' I quipped, and got a loud laugh.

'Then we've got ourselves a deal, Mr. Maxwell!' he said, and swept his hand in the classic 'this way' gesture. He led me through the house on a completely different path than last time, and we arrived much quicker. It made me wonder if I hadn't gotten the scenic route for a reason. Offering me a glimpse of... what? The man behind the public face? Made me wonder if I'd missed something.

I was relieved, once we'd arrived, that the good Mr. Lee bowed himself out, leaving me with a blank wall and the reassurance that he'd 'be around' if I needed anything. I had feared the guy would fetch a lawn chair and a drink and sit down to watch me. I somehow doubted anything better than Martian veggies would have presented itself in that sort of environment.

It was just past noon and I set my easel up, putting my still cold soda on the floor under it and going ahead and pulling my ration bar out, unwrapping it and eating carefully over my palm so as not to get crumbs on the immaculate stone floor, and started staring at my canvass.

It was somehow not as big and intimidating on a second viewing. Guess it had gotten a little larger than life in my head. I tried to imagine filling the space and still didn't have a clue. I squelched the disappointment with a nervous chuckle. I knew it wasn't going to be as easy as walking up to the wall and having it tell me the inner workings of Mr. Lee's head.

I turned and really took the time to look around the room and out across the garden without the weight of the owner's gaze on me, full of the expectation of reaction. I could imagine women in glittering gowns wandering around on the arms of men in expensive tuxedos. Could see servants with trays of exotic drinks and frou-frou finger-foods or... what was the word? Hors d'oeuvres? I wondered if there would be an orchestra for dancing? Mr. Lee did not strike me as the type of guy who would cut corners or skimp. I looked up at the structure of the room and realized that there would probably be flower arrangements and lights and all manner of elaborate decoration.

All stuff that was going to give my poor little mural something to fight with.

I almost snorted... when had it become little? I suppose the alcove wasn't as big as some of the bulkhead art I'd done, but it still wasn't anything to sneeze at. Perspective, I suppose.

I turned my back on the garden and went to examine one of the flanking doors. They really were impressive. Looked to be solid as... well, oak, if I didn't miss my guess. Banded with some sort of black metal and looking very dramatic. Beautiful things, really. Art in their own right and it made me think that if the setting were mine, I'd probably do nothing more than set a pedestal in the alcove with some flowers or something, and let the doors be the focus.

But it wasn't my space and Mr. Lee wanted a mural. And more importantly, my patron wanted Mr. Lee to have a mural. Or have whatever he wanted, I suppose.

I walked back over to stand in front of the space, stooping to pick up my soda for a drink. If I painted a mirror image of the garden, I could give the illusion that the room was almost completely cut off from the house, sitting in the middle of an elaborate grounds far away from civilization. I thought that illusion might appeal to Mr. Lee.

I pulled a brush out of my supplies and stroked the dry bristles over the wall, letting color fill my mind in its wake, letting lines flow and fade, enticing the muse of creativity to step up to the damn plate.

A path that went this way... an urn here... a tree there. Flowers. Color. Sky. Light. I could see a winding cobblestone path leading down a few garden steps, curving past a stone bench. Perhaps a frog in honor of those tadpoles in the water glasses. Those famous roses everywhere, filling the whole garden with rich color. I could almost smell them, could almost feel the velvet of the petals under my fingers. I could make it the most perfect of settings. There would never be bugs there, or draught or blight. A rose that would never fade.

Those roses were in my mind's eye when I put paint to pallet and began.

I blocked in the steps and wondered where Heero was. Hoped that they'd gotten something useful out of the man from the deli. The one he'd said they thought was ready to talk. I wanted to believe that the case was wrapping up, but there had to be solid evidence of that before the Preventers dared let their guard down.

I rough shaped an urn, the thought of Preventers making me wonder about Wufei. I was going to have to make a point of going to see him. Getting to talk to him had helped, knowing he was out of the hospital and back on the job, but I didn't think I was going to be able to shake that image of him coughing and sucking for air, until I saw him myself. All his reassurances aside... there are some things you just have to see for yourself.

Stepping back for a moment to survey my progress, I had to grin. Everything was pretty much blocked in with the same color, more a map than anything, and I suppose it counted as that 'preliminary sketch' I'd been grousing about. I bent to pick up my soda bottle, taking a drink and turning for a moment to look out across the garden to judge how much time had passed. I wanted to get far enough along in one go that Mr. Lee could make a judgment, even if there was no way I could get the whole job done.

Movement in the garden drew me to step over closer to the nearly continuous wall of French doors. I was kind of surprised to see Mr. Lee out among his plants, dressed in another pair of those God-awful plaid shorts, in red and white this time, and a bizarre smock that I almost wanted to call an apron, over a shirt that had seen better days. If I hadn't known him, I would have thought he was the gardener of the place. His back was to me, half way across the garden anyway, and I watched him for a moment as he lovingly settled some sort of plant into a planter. I guess that answered the question of just how much involvement he had in the landscaping.

For a moment, it actually crossed my mind that the man had gone out into the garden where he could catch glimpses of what I was doing, but really... it's not like he couldn't have just come into the room and watched if he'd felt like it. It was his house, after all. And I think we've established he's not exactly a shy sort.

But besides that, he seemed totally absorbed in what he was doing. I watched for a moment, sipping at my dwindling drink as he settled the plant just so, pinching at the leaves and pressing the soil down around the base. Seemed to know what the hell he was doing, though I suppose that shouldn't have been a surprise. I turned away before he caught me watching, setting my bottle back on the floor and taking up my brush again.

The rose bushes would go just there, maybe with some white flowers as accents around the base and...

I glanced back over my shoulder, looking at the over-all design of Jack Lee's garden so that mine would echo and compliment, and that's when it hit me.

My garden.

Anything that I painted would only over-shadow the real thing. I didn't have any of the limitations of reality. I could make rose bushes as tall as I wanted them to be. I could make them lusher than nature intended. As vibrant in color as my paints would allow. I could make plants that never died, never lost their blooms, never suffered a winter, forever in the golden rays of a clear, sunny day... and it would be the worst decision I could make. That garden was obviously Jack Lee's pride and joy, and painting competition for it was just not going to work.

I sighed, picked up my palette and began 'erasing' lines with white paint, regretting the lost hour.

The Plutonian cabbages were looking better by the minute.

It ended up being a long damn afternoon, I had a period after that of totally doubting my offer, and thinking about what an idiot I was going to look like when Mr. Lee came back and I was still standing there staring at a blank wall, scratching my head. Nothing breaks your concentration quite like the fear of looking stupid.

There had to be something I could do with anti-gravity and golf and dumb bets and roses... right?

I remember looking out across the garden to make sure the guy was still out there and I wasn't in any danger of him walking in and catching me beating my head against his wall. He was standing there in those ridiculous shorts, wearing some sort of... I swear to God... clogs, with his apron on, and I just wanted to laugh.

And that was the moment I settled on my design and I turned back to work with a grin. What the hell... he'd love it, or he'd hate it, but at least it would be off my plate of things to do. If nothing else, it would probably keep Aleyah from ever volunteering me for another commission for any of her friends.

I managed to hit that zone after that, while the day wore on around me. Somewhere in there, Mr. Lee left his garden, the sun moved across to shine warmly in through all that glass, and under my brushes, a mural began to take shape.

They tell me I work fast, but even I wasn't up to filling that space completely in just half a day. For one thing, I would need a ladder to reach all the way up to the top of the arch, but I concentrated on the center, making the design understood, so that I could get across the point. I let the edges go in order to incorporate some finer details, making sure the potential would come across. By the time I heard my host coming back into the room, I still had a long way to go, but I was well satisfied with what I had.

The timing was pretty perfect, really, as I'd done the lighting in the painting to match the time of day that Mr. Lee had claimed the room would be in use, and we were just about there. The sun slanting in across the floor in near perfect synchronization. I couldn't have picked a better unveiling, short of actually having the thing done.

I stepped out of the way, turning to greet Mr. Lee, intending to let the thing speak for itself and was pretty damn surprised to find him in the company of my patron. My somewhat... unhappy looking patron.

'Mr. Maxwell!' Aleyah gasped, staring at my handiwork with a mixture of shock and embarrassment on her face. 'What in the world?'

She was... disappointed with me, I could tell, and it was kind of a shock how much it bothered me. It gave me the sudden urge to rush to explain myself, when I had not intended to. Had intended to just let the image explain itself.

But then Jack Lee started to laugh as loud as I've ever heard him, and Aleyah's look went from bordering on pissed, to... kind of confused.

'It's delightful!' he roared, coming over to look closer at the details, before stepping back to get more of the over-all feel. 'Mr. Maxwell, you are a man after my own heart! It's going to be perfect! I can't wait!'

Aleyah had gotten control of her expression, and had gone for a neutral sort of bemusement, but Lee wasn't fooled at all.

'She doesn't get it, Mr. Maxwell!' he crowed and I thought the guy was going to bust a gut, he was laughing so hard. I didn't touch that with a ten foot pole; wasn't about to accuse Aleyah Winner of 'not getting' anything. Jack Lee might get away with that, but I didn't think that I would.

I just stepped away to deal with my paints and brushes, pretty much deciding that I was done for the day, and let them look. And Mr. Lee chortle and rub his hands together in glee.

I went with the tadpoles... figuratively speaking.

I did not know Jack Lee all that well, but even in the small amount of time I'd been around him, I knew that he was a man who loved life, and prized laughter... and adored a good practical joke like none other.

So I painted... was in the process of painting... him a practical joke. Once it was finished, and in the proper lighting, that alcove was going to become another doorway into a sumptuous and elaborately detailed... bathroom.

Aleyah continued to not get it until Mr. Lee pantomimed plowing into the wall trying to walk through a doorway that wasn't. Or... maybe she was just pretending not to in order to let Jack have his joke. I really wasn't sure; she certainly seemed oblivious enough, but I had trouble believing she was that... slow.

Even Coquette, sitting politely at heel, seemed to roll her eyes.

'Jack,' she scolded. 'That's almost as bad as those dreadful... fish!'

'Tadpoles, my dear,' he corrected distractedly, studying the layout and details.

There was the edge of an oak, iron banded door mostly open, but matching the real ones. A step down, then a marble and tile bathroom modeled slightly off the one they called 'mine' at Quatre and Trowa's place, because it was the most elaborate bathroom I'd ever seen. There was a slightly Greek flavor to the décor (fake décor?) with a stylized frog theme that was tasteful while giving a nod to the previously immortalized tadpoles. I'd topped it off with a vase of freshly cut Jyp-C roses on the vanity.

I didn't know if I'd won the 'bigger commission', but I'd certainly won the current one; Mr. Lee couldn't stop pointing and laughing and pointing some more.

'Look at the detail, my dear!' he was exclaiming to Aleyah, spotting how I'd cocked one of the towels just slightly, to make it look a little less picture perfect. 'And it's not even finished!' he said, turning toward me, grinning from ear to ear. 'Do you think it will be done by next weekend? I have a dinner party planned and it would give me a great deal of pleasure to... unveil it then.'

Aleyah made a noise that was supposed to convey quiet disgust, but Mr. Lee ignored her.

'If you don't mind me working in the evenings after work,' I told him. I reflected after the words were out of my mouth that I should probably have figured out exactly what day it was before agreeing to anything, but it was too late then. 'Uh... barring kidnapping or anything.'

Mr. Lee laughed at my 'joke', though Aleyah and Coquette just looked further annoyed. 'Excellent!' he beamed, and I was put in mind of a kid about to get the keys to the candy store. With no adult supervision. I wondered if that's why the guy didn't appear to be married... nobody around to tell him no. 'Wait here a moment, young man. I'll be right back.'

With a last glance at the work in progress and another, almost evil chuckle, he left us standing there. I tried to busy myself with my easel and empty soda bottle, but I needn't have worried; as soon as Jack Lee was out of the room, Aleyah's look of disgust was gone.

'You are a wonder, darling,' she informed me with a smile that made me want to take a step back. 'I shouldn't have doubted. You couldn't have won Jack over in a... more appropriate way.' Her gaze flicked in the direction of the mural and I could tell she appreciated the job, at the same time she thought the idea was nothing less than childish.

I sighed and almost confessed how close I'd come to blowing it, but then thought better of it. 'Didn't mean to scare you,' I dared, and she made that 'pooh-poohing' noise she can manage to make sound elegant at the same time it leaves you feeling laughed at.

'Nonsense, dear,' I was told. 'Jack enjoys his little... games. I don't begrudge the man his entertainment.'

I reflected that the truth of that probably depended on who ended up being the butt of that entertainment, but didn't pursue it. Somehow, I just couldn't see even the great prankster managing to make Ms Winner look foolish, and I kind of didn't want to know about it, if it had ever been otherwise. Being friends with Jack Lee was probably akin to living in a minefield.

Coquette, who had been on her utterly best behavior, trotted over then to look up at me, cocking her head as if smirking. I couldn't help lifting my easel box off the floor to keep it... out of range, but otherwise resisted growling at the beast. Bet she wasn't allowed to... anoint Jack Lee's damn house. When I looked up from glaring at the dog, Aleyah had stepped closer too.

'You did your patron proud, my dear,' she said, voice a little low, as though it wasn't something she wanted to risk anybody over-hearing even though nobody else was in the room. 'You chose just the right tack.'

'So does that mean I got this other mysterious job?' I had to ask, because I knew darn well she knew about whatever it was. I watched her expression carefully, for whatever clue I could catch, but she didn't let anything show. Just gave me that neutral, polite smile of hers.

She tossed me a bone though, turning back to look at the mural while she told me, 'Definitely in the running, pet.' She hesitated then, glancing casually down at Coquette, using the dog's ears I realized, to judge if Mr. Lee was on his way back. 'It was a clever opening volley, dear... but there must be follow-through to win the war.'

She didn't give me a chance to reply, just turned and walked away, Coquette following along at heel. I wasn't sure for a moment if maybe I was supposed to follow too, but then Jack Lee was bustling back into the room and the conversation was obviously over.

I realized through that little exchange that Aleyah wanted very badly for me to get the bigger job. Had probably put my name into the figurative hat. I was just left wondering if it was because she truly felt I was the right person for whatever the job was, of if it would just be a feather in her cap because I was one of 'hers'.

I somehow doubted I would ever know.

'My home is open to you whenever you need it to be, young man,' Mr. Lee was telling me, handing me an envelope in a distracted sort of way while he went back to looking at the mural. I wondered if the guy had thought about installing hidden video equipment to capture the intended moments of... humor, but decided not to mention it.

I took the envelope but then wasn't sure what to do with it. I assumed it was my payment, or down payment, or retainer or something that involved money, and I was dying to look, but didn't know if that would be... rude. I ended up just folding it and slipping it in my pocket.

Was that just... stupid? I was doing a job for which I did not even know how much I was getting paid. Had, in fact, not had a say in the fee. It kind of felt stupid. But I knew the value of this 'art' thing was way different in the circle where Lees and Winners rubbed elbows with Peacecrafts and... other rich people. In my circle? Hell... I'd done a portrait of a guy's childhood dog once, in exchange for half a box of ration bars.

It was a whole different world, and I knew I was better off trusting Aleyah to handle things. Even if it did make me feel, as mentioned... stupid.

I'd lost the thread of conversation and blinked when Mr. Lee's hand was suddenly stuck into my personal space and I took it, shaking on automatic and understanding it was time to go home.

'When Stanley gets here for dinner, my dear,' he was telling Aleyah, as he started to lead the way out. 'Not a word.'

'Of course not, you old reprobate,' she sniffed, and it made me wonder if maybe Aleyah was exempt from the jokes. Or was she just exempt from this one only because she'd happened to see it early? If it had been Stan Kirby who had arrived for dinner first, would Mr. Lee be warning him not to tell Aleyah?

Weird damn friendship, if you asked me. Were I around them very much, I suspect I'd develop a paranoid streak a mile wide. Ok... a mile wider.

Aleyah didn't bother making the entire trek to the front door with us, taking a side hall into... God knows where; presumably a passage that led to the kitchen or dining room or some such place. I tried to imagine what sort of dinner those three old friends would sit down to together. Somehow I couldn't see them ordering out for pizza.

'Call me next week, pet,' she told me, patting my cheek in farewell, in that weird gesture that made me feel like I should wag my tail. 'We must begin planning for your next show. Sometime in the fall, I think.'

'Show?' I echoed, and winced internally... I'd sworn to stop letting her do that to me. 'What show?'

'Mustn't let the moss grow, my sweet,' I was lectured and I got a last pat before she turned and headed through the doorway. 'Don't be long, Jack darling... I'm famished! If Stanley doesn't arrive soon, we'll simply start without them.'

Coquette stood for a moment, looking up at me and I felt this weird kinship... like the animal was recognizing me as a pack mate because the alpha female patted me too, then she trotted off after her mistress.

Jack Lee gave a low chuckle, and I wondered if he hadn't gotten the same sense, but he simply began leading me through the labyrinth of his house again. I actually felt like I might find my own way after a few more trips, if the guy would stick to the same damn path twice in a row.

He opened the front door for me when we got there, and we had to stop and do the handshake thing again. I suddenly realized that I hadn't thought to wear my gloves and I had a moment of thinking to snatch my hand away from his, but if he noticed anything odd, he didn't give any sign. His expression did something odd though, not that he lost his usual wide grin, but there was a slightly different intensity.

'Tell me, Mr. Maxwell,' he said. 'Was that what you had planned when you came here today?'

It was in me to lie and tell him some story about knowing all along, and needing the impact of the actual picture to sell the idea or some damn used car salesman thing, but when I opened my mouth a sheepish little voice admitted, 'I didn't have a clue what I was going to do, sir.'

He laughed in a wry kind of way. 'Took guts, young man,' he told me, then sobered; it was weirdly intimidating... I didn't think I'd ever seen the man really serious before. 'I'll be honest, I wasn't sure about you. You have the talent, but what you lack is a belief in your own ability. Makes you timid. Timid won't get you far in this business.'

I knew I was turning red, but had to ignore it; wasn't a moment for stammering and staring at my feet. 'I'm much less timid sitting in a pilot's seat, sir, but this art thing is still kind of new.'

He laughed more than the joke warranted, and clapped me on the shoulder... kind of a macho patting thing, I guess, but then zinged me with a parting shot. 'Oh, I don't think you're as new to this 'art thing' as you are new to relying on it.'

I wasn't even sure how in the hell to take that, so I settled for a laugh of my own and took my leave with another reassurance from him that any time would be fine to come back and finish up.

The glee with which he voiced that actually made me start to feel just a bit guilty for all the embarrassment I was in the process of aiding and abetting.

I would have felt worse if I wasn't actually starting to see the humor in it.

It was well after dark by the time I was on the road and I had time finally to regret the loss of my cell phone. I imagine if I'd still had one, I would already have gotten a call from Heero. I thought about stopping and using a payphone, but decided in the end to just keep going; that time of night there wouldn't be much traffic and I should make good time anyway.

I drove with the windows down and the radio on, such as it was, listening to it fade between stations, blending some sort of new age synth with something that might have been jazz. It was... oddly soothing depending on which station was dominant.

I wondered about the dinner that was going on in the mansion I'd just left, and about the dinner conversation. Would they be making a decision about the as yet unnamed commission? Stanley Kirby hadn't seemed like my biggest fan, and I wondered how much say he would have in the hiring process. I was sure it was between the three of them, being co-owners of Expressions, and all. I just wasn't sure if Mr. Lee would hold off until after the unveiling of his latest practical joke or not. Had that 'test' been simply for him to make up his own mind, or was it a bigger test?

I had a sudden dread that Mr. Kirby would get taken in by the joke himself, and would end up hating me for his public embarrassment and my shot at the prize would be blown to hell.

It was a strange sort of feeling, because up until that moment I hadn't even been sure I wanted the damn job, whatever it was. But feeling that sudden alarm, I realized... I did. Not even knowing what the commission was going to be. Maybe it was just wanting to keep Aleyah happy. Maybe it was feeling like coming through for her would in some way pay back all that I owed her. Hell, maybe it was just my basic competitive nature coming through. I just knew I wanted to see what the big deal was, and I wanted to take a shot at whatever in the hell kind of job needed a pre-job in order to get it.

The notion sort of fit in with the totally surreal rest of the week.

When I pulled up in front of the house, I wasn't surprised to find Heero sitting on the steps in the dark waiting for me. Guilty, but not surprised.

Making the trek up the front steps, I could fairly see the tension ebbing out of him. I sat my paints down on the porch and dropped down to sit beside him with a gust of a sigh.

'Hey,' I said, leaning into his shoulder and tilting my head for a quick kiss. 'Sorry it took so long.'

He took a deep breath and let it go. 'It's ok... I figured you ended up painting when I found your easel gone.'

I reached out and snagged one of his hands to hold in mine, understanding from that inadvertent admission that he'd either been pacing the house, or actively looking for clues. 'When did you get home?' I asked.

'About dinner time,' he confessed. 'There's take-out in the fridge we can heat up later.'

'Sounds good,' I told him and leaned my head against his shoulder while he rubbed his thumb over the back of my hand and finished the job of putting his anxiety away. 'So how'd things go at the office?'

'Good,' he said, almost sounding surprised. 'Goddard was pretty shocked when he found out about the bomb. It didn't take much pressure after he found out we had Simcoe, to get him to cop a plea.'

'Please tell me he'll still do time,' I had to ask and Heero snorted.

'He's still looking at kidnapping charges, but right now he's just trying to get out of being an accessory to attempted murder.'

'Good,' I grumbled, seriously not liking the idea of any of them walking.

'Goddard and the other one... Hardy, have been involved with these 'Sons of Adam' for years, but have no record of any sort of...'

'Psycho behavior?' I supplied and Heero chuckled at the same time he let go of my hand to slip an arm around me.

'Yeah,' he confirmed, and kissed the top of my head. 'A couple of citations a few years ago for involvement in some protests that got a bit out of hand. But nothing even close to this.'

'And Simcoe?' I wanted to know, looking out across the street in front of us and remembering the sullen look on the guy's face while he'd lain on Darlien carpet and bled all over the place. 'I know damn well he didn't believe a bit of that crap he was spouting.'

'Oh, he was completely using them,' Heero confirmed, the arm around me tightening for a moment and I wasn't sure if it was a protective tendency or if he was just getting pissed thinking about Simcoe.

'He lived then?' I asked, trying to sound like I cared, and Heero snorted.

'I wasn't about to kill the son of a bitch until we had some answers out of him,' he told me, confirming that he was indeed the one who'd taken the guy down. I'd figured, but there had been a lot of hardware waved around during the incident, so I hadn't been positive.

We sat for a little bit and watched the clouds drift across the face of a waning moon, listening to the crickets. Guys like Simcoe and especially Dietcoke... what'd Heero call him? Hardy? Made me wish bad things about 'human rights'. I'd like to go in and thoroughly thrash the guy without ending up in jail myself.

Funny how police brutality doesn't look the same from the other side.

I decided not to share that thought.

'How's Relena doing?' I asked instead, and found that... oddly; I kind of actually cared.

Heero chuckled right out loud, and there was an ironic tone to his voice when he told me, 'Better; Zechs went the hell home.'

I opened my mouth, not even sure which of the dozen or so snarky comments was going to come out, but then bit my tongue. Heero's chuckle faded down to something that held hints of warmth, and he kissed the side of my head. I could feel the smile. It was kind of reassuring that I hadn't humiliated the crap out of him.

But then he sighed. 'They're resuming the summit meetings tomorrow...'

'And you'll be reporting for duty bright and early,' I finished for him and there was another sigh.

'Yeah... fraid so.'

'We probably ought to stop just sitting here then,' I prompted and he gave me a squeeze, leaning in for a real kiss.

'Probably right,' he admitted then and I stood up, offering him my hand. He took it and I pulled him to his feet, stopping to pick up my easel case with my free hand as we headed in.

'Can we take some vacation time when this is all over?' I quipped and it made him chuckle again.

'You want to go somewhere?' he asked and I rolled my eyes, though I doubt he saw it in the dark.

'Hell no!' I grumbled, waiting while he locked the front door and set the alarm. 'I don't even want to leave the house! No police work, no grease, no paint, no hysterical screaming... just for a couple of days.'

He smiled, leading the way through the dining room into the kitchen. I left my paints on the dining room table and followed him, moving to get plates while he pulled little Chinese take-out boxes out of the fridge.

'Hey,' he suddenly asked, putting the first of the boxes in the microwave. 'You didn't say... how did things go at Mr. Lee's?'

I rolled my eyes, realizing that again, he probably didn't see it because his focus was on setting the timer. 'Weird,' I said. 'That word that seems to be defining my life lately.' I moved past him to get our drinks and he turned to give me an expectant look.

'So, did you pass this... test?' he asked, and he seemed kind of... hopeful.

'I don't have a freaking clue,' I had to confess. 'Mr. Lee liked the mural, but I think it's like a popular vote kind of thing, or something. Aleyah was there and was giving off this weird vibe like she was quietly rooting for me. Or... something. Oh, and I'm afraid I'm going to be spending every free moment at the Lee estate until the damn thing is finished, because Mr. Art Connoisseur wants to unveil the dumb thing this next weekend and... uh... Heero? What day is it?'

He just blinked at me for a moment and I could tell... he wasn't a hundred percent sure either. 'Friday,' he finally said, and there was a hint of a question in it, even if he really didn't want to admit it.

'Fuck,' I muttered, staring at him. 'I wonder if he meant this weekend or next weekend when he said next weekend?'

'Guess I know where you're going to be tomorrow while I'm stuck back at the convention center,' he grinned and I almost groaned. A little bit of Jack Lee went a long way and quite frankly, I could have used a few days off. The timer went off then and saved me from having to voice that. Heero turned to pull what smelled like sweet and sour chicken out of the microwave and I went back to pouring drinks.

'I suppose I might as well get the stupid thing done,' I sighed going to the table with our glasses. Heero stuck something else in the microwave and brought the hot boxes to the table so we could get started.

'Ok,' he had to ask. 'Is that just you being... you, or is there something about this painting that is bugging you? You've called it both stupid and dumb in the last five minutes.'

We sat down across from each other and I just sat staring at him for a minute. It was kind of stupid, but I almost didn't want to tell him.

'Duo?' he prompted, pausing in dishing up his chicken to look at me with a hint of confused concern in his expression.

I sighed and gave it up. 'It's... just embarrassing,' I admitted, and of course had to tell him the whole sordid story. From extraterrestrial foliage to kindred dogs. He was laughing so much I think his food got cold. Though I have to admit, once I got him going, I probably made things a little bit more interesting than they actually were... not like I really knew what had been going through Coquette's little doggy mind. But... I like it when he's all focused on me, and obviously enjoying himself. He gets this kind of warm look in his eyes that's just all... I don't know, but it makes me feel all goofy inside.

By the time we were done with our dinner, he was definitely giving me that look, and I could tell it wasn't going to take much to ease that look right on over into another one that was equally as focused, but in an entirely different way.

We rose to clear the table and he caught me by the trash can to pull me in for one of those 'testing the waters' kinds of kisses, but when his hand settled on my hip he suddenly stopped.

'What's this?' he asked, poking at my pocket and making something crinkle.

'Crap,' I muttered, dumping my trash and digging into my pocket to fish out Mr. Lee's envelope. 'I completely forgot!'

'What is it?' Heero asked, stepping back to give me the space to pull the paper out and fold the envelope flap open.

'I... am not entirely sure,' I said sheepishly. 'Payment? I'm not even sure if it's full or...'

Then the check, because that's indeed what the envelope contained, was in my hands and all other coherent thought just sort of went for a roller coaster ride to the Bahamas with all my hamsters along for the trip.

I'm not even sure how I ended up sitting back in the chair with Heero squatted down in front of me looking just about as shocked as I felt.

I had totally made the right call letting Aleyah The Business Goddess Winner do the haggling.

Heero didn't even try for anything reassuring, just knelt there holding my hands that were busy holding that scrap of paper. If somebody else had walked in at that moment, it would probably have looked like we were saying a prayer over it.

Homage to the God of Finance?

The thought brought a hysterical little snicker out of me and I tore my eyes away from the line of zeros that was about five times what I'd hoped for, and looked up at Heero. 'So... about that kitchen remodeling job you wanted...'

He had seemed willing to share my hysteria for a moment, but the comment made him sober. 'Are you sure that's what you want to do with it? I mean... you've said before that you're fine with the kitchen the way it is, and that's your money...'

'Dumb ass,' I snorted and used the check to swat at him. 'What's mine is yours and all that crap. I promised the kitchen would come first and we've been putting it off too long as it is.'

He tilted his head to avoid the brush of paper, giving me that cocked-head, appraising look. 'We could... send it to Octavia?' he had to prod, knowing how much it bugged me to not be contributing what I once had to the home.

'She'll get a share,' I smiled, appreciating the careful assurance that he didn't mind my odd views on charity. 'I doubt it will take the whole thing to have the kitchen done.'

He gave me a nod, accepting without question however I chose to allocate the funds, and rose from his crouch. 'Come on, it's not something that needs to be decided right now... we really need to be getting up to bed.'

I glanced back down at the check in my hands. 'Ok, just... give me a minute?'

He smiled and bent to kiss me. 'Sure; I'll just go lock up.'

There was a hesitation then, as he glanced at the check once more before giving me a long look that spoke of things I was a little afraid to name. He started to say something else, but then just smiled, kissed me again and left the kitchen.

I let out a breath and carefully laid the check out on the table, smoothing it flat and counting the figures again. George crept out from behind the salt and pepper shakers, sidling up to the piece of paper as though it might bite him. He looked at it too, but didn't have a banner that read 'pretentious', and so just went back into hiding.

Or maybe he just couldn't spell it.

But yeah. I was in possession of a check that was worth more than I made at my day job in months, and I'd gotten it for painting a picture of a bathroom in a guy's fancy ass ballroom so he could make fun of his friends.

I'm not an idiot; I wasn't about to toss the check or something stupid, but I couldn't help wonder... is that really what I wanted to be doing for a living? Is that what I wanted to become? Gundam pilot... Ship's Captain... Mechanic... what? Artist for hire? Was that really the path I wanted to head down? And if so... where did it lead?

It felt like, somehow, I was standing at some sort of cross-roads and it was high time I chose a direction. And while the numbers staring me in the face were damn freaking attractive... just what the hell was down that path?

There were ghostly eyes upon me and I couldn't help whispering softly, 'What do you think, old friend?'

Solo grunted in return, his voice close though he chose not to show himself. 'What do I think? I think yer too damn old to be worrying about what ya wanna be when ya grown up.'

I chuckled. 'Point,' I agreed, and picking up the check, rose to go turn off the kitchen light before heading upstairs. 'Guess we'll see what this big deal job is first.'

I made my way out of the kitchen in the dark, hearing Heero moving about in the bedroom above me, but something made me glance back at the last minute. Solo had deigned to appear and was standing there next to the chair I'd just vacated, looking up at the ceiling just as though he could see Heero through the intervening structure. The dark was, as usual, no hindrance to seeing him since he was really just in my head anyway. So I could see the bright clarity of his eyes when he turned my way just the way I remembered it when he was alive. There had always been a sharpness in him that spoke of a wit and intelligence that frankly... was a crying shame had never had a chance to grow. More potential lost. More chances ungranted.

He snorted, rolling those eyes at me, but wouldn't be baited.

'You know I'm proud of you too,' he said and it made me smile. I leaned my head against the doorframe for a moment and stood looking into the empty room.

Almost, I admonished him not to name that feeling that was such a fragile thing sometimes, but... he wasn't really there, and he hadn't really said it. The echoes were only inside me, a feeling naming itself.

'Yeah,' I whispered aloud anyway. He would have been, the Solo of all those years ago. He would have laughed like a loon about rich folks and stupid, and could have stretched that kind of money to feed the lot of us for... a damn long time.

There would be a new kitchen and there would be money sent to my kids and maybe it was time I picked another author and started reading again. Started sending the kids books again.

Or maybe there'd be enough to have my car painted.

There'd be time to figure it all out.

I went up the stairs and put the check on my dresser under Fuzzybutt where he and Solo could keep an eye on it... and went to join my husband in bed.

Whatever the future was bringing, whatever road I ended up on... I just knew I didn't want to be my own lost potential.