Author: Sunhawk

Directions (cont.)

'I felt guilty for how long it took me to get these taken care of,' he confessed, and handed the package over. 'Sally says I am... photographically anal.'

I burst out with a laugh before I stopped to think that he might not see the humor in the tag that Sally obviously did, but he grinned along with me, so I guess it was all right to indulge. I could see a hint of anticipation behind the smirk though, so I bent to folding back the brown paper wrapped around the picture.

'Oh wow,' I blurted, when the framed piece was revealed, and then kind of felt dumb for the articulate reaction.

I should have known that Chang Wufei would not just hand out snap-shots. Framed or otherwise. The basic image was indeed the picture he'd taken at my show of the five of us, but where there should have been a gallery full of people in the background, we had been artfully removed from our surroundings and a new background put in place. We stood in front of a blank wall, every shadow in place, making me doubt that it hadn't really been there, and just to the left, over Quatre's shoulder was hanging my seagull and Gundam picture. The one that Aleyah had titled 'Peace'. It made a rather striking statement.

I glanced up at Wufei and found him looking rather pleased with himself. 'Damn,' I had to ask, 'did you do that?'

He nodded and offered up a little shrug. 'Anybody can do it with the right computer program. It's just a photo editing utility.'

I snorted, carefully wrapping the picture back in the paper. 'It might make the job easier, but I'm sure it doesn't do the balance and design for you. This looks professional, man.'

His smile changed to that one he gets when he can't decide if he's uncomfortable or pleased, and for a moment I considered saying something more, but had a sudden flash of how it made me feel when Heero was insisting on telling me how talented he thinks I am. Wufei has the soul of an artist somehow; there's a creativity within him that is sharp as crystal... and its a crying damn shame that he seems to lack the ability to give form to whatever it is he sees in his head. I suppose waxing poetic about his artistry, under the circumstances, was a bit cruel. So I settled on, 'Thank you, Wufei. I can't wait to show it to Heero.'

He inclined his head in a gesture that echoed a formal bow. 'You are most welcome. I'm only sorry it took so long to finish.' Then he turned to survey the yard, gesturing along the fence row we were standing next to with a wave that seemed to brush away the topic of pictures and art and abilities. 'So what were you doing when I interrupted?'

I let out a theatrical sigh and followed his wave with one of my own, taking in the whole backyard. 'Trying to figure out what in the hell I've got growing out here?'

He chuckled and pulled his hand out of his pocket to reach out and finger one of the vines that had a killer hold on the fence post. 'Well, you've certainly got your work cut out trying to tame it again, but this looks like it's a climbing rose.'

'So the neighbor kids tell me,' I sighed ruefully. 'Yellow, if you can believe them. And they insist their mother will be quite put out with me if I cut it down. Unfortunately they haven't told me what any of the rest of this is, and frankly... I can't tell a daffodil from a damn banana tree.'

Wufei laughed at me, turning to look back toward the house and the flower beds. 'Well, you're not going to find any banana trees in this part of the country, though that may have been an apple tree by the back of the house there.'

I couldn't help blinking at him for a second before part of that statement caught up to me. 'Might have been?'

He gave me a grin that told me I was being hopeless and started walking across the lawn. 'Well, it looks dead to me,' he opined, making me look around at all the other trees within sight.

'None of them are exactly green,' I had to point out.

'But they're budding out,' he said and paused as we passed a rather scraggly shrub in the flower bed. The thing had looked dead to me too, but Wufei carefully bent one of the branches, mindful of the many thorns the thing seemed to have. 'See how it bends? There's life in it still.' Then we walked the rest of the way to the tree by the back corner of the house and he repeated the experiment. The branch broke apart in his hands. He looked it over a moment more before nodding to himself. 'Oh yes... this is quite dead. But it does appear to have been an apple tree.'

I just stared at him for a moment before exclaiming, 'How in the hell do you know that? You're as much a colony brat as I am!'

He chuckled. 'We did have plants on the colonies, Duo. Imported, perhaps, but there all the same. And it takes a bit more work to get them to actually thrive there; before the war I had been studying to be a botanist.'

I opened my mouth with the more obvious question, but then closed it again. I suppose somebody who hadn't been spending those formative years learning the finer arts of pocket to hand living, might have had the time for things like 'studying to be'. It was kind of a kick; other than that brief time at the church, when I'd been made to attend regular school, I'd gone straight from street lessons, to lessons of war. I guess I'd never stopped to realize that the other guys might have had a slightly broader range.

Wufei looked uncertain for a second in the face of my conversational hesitation, so I grinned. 'Are you telling me you can identify the supposed to be here stuff, from the... not?'

He snorted, brushing the bark from his fingers against his pants leg. 'Probably,' he confirmed, so I dragged him over to the main flower bed.

'I think it's worth saving,' I had to say when he just stood and looked at the mess for a while. He had the same sort of 'bulldoze it under' look that Heero had when he looked at the yard. Scrap and start over, that look said, and while I wouldn't argue that it would probably be easier... I had my own views.

Wufei glanced at me, his eyes telling me he wanting to laugh at what probably seemed my naiveté, but he didn't. Just knelt down, and pointed to a clump of shoots in front of us. 'These are crocuses; they're one of the early bloomers, and these right behind them look like tulips, though you've got a crowding problem here and probably won't get many flowers this year. They really need to be dug up and separated.' He paused then, his fingers seeming to reach out without his notice and he plucked a spindly something out of the ground, tossing it aside. 'You've got your work cut out,' he mumbled after a moment and pulled up another weed. At least... I hope they were weeds. He showed the new one to me, told me it was called a dandelion and that it was a 'bad thing' despite the spiffy name. It was kind of odd watching him get lost in my garden. His eyes were somehow a million miles away.

He stood up, taking a step back and looking the bed over like he could see the damn thing in full bloom. He smiled wistfully and gestured toward an area that had barely started to sprout. 'You've got daises in there too, I'm surprised they didn't take over the whole bed without anybody doing maintenance. They can... can carpet an entire field if you let them run wild. It's quite impressive. And beautiful.'

There was something very damn odd in the air and I seriously didn't want to disturb it, so I just nodded, watching him look at something that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I wasn't seeing. I couldn't judge from his expression if I should be sorry for making him think about... whatever it was, or not.

He blinked after a second and seemed to shake himself free, I caught a glance in my direction, but I tried to pretend I hadn't noticed his side trip.

'It's a complicated layout,' he told me then. 'If I'm reading it right. The flowers are chosen so that something will always be in bloom; I'll bet it was beautiful a dozen years ago. But I don't know Duo... it had to have been a hell of a lot of work.'

I snorted and shook my head. 'So Heero keeps telling me. Repeatedly.'

He chuckled and turned to walk a few paces back toward the front of the house, gesturing toward a patch of green. 'That's just grass and if you don't get it dug out of there, it'll take over this whole section.'

'I'm seeing a trip to the Home Depot in my future,' I sighed, and wondered just what all I would be needing. A shovel, at the very least. Though... maybe they made something smaller for hand work. And a rake, maybe, would be a good idea for all that crap I needed to clean out of the way. 'Hell,' I told him as it occurred to me. 'We don't even own a lawn mower yet.'

Wufei laughed at me the way relieved single women laugh at women with kids as they're trotting off for a night out with the gang; with a hint of smugness in it. 'Want me to make you a list?'

He was joking, but I jumped all over it. 'Could you? I don't have a damn clue, and I'd just as soon not make fifty trips, despite what Heero says about my desire to live there.'

Wufei snorted, looking like he believed Heero's version and not mine. 'Isn't Home and Garden one of the last, unexplored departments for you?'

'Smart ass,' I grumbled, making him grin. 'Admit that you are jealous of my excuse to buy cool power tools.'

'Hardly,' he replied. 'If I want to play with macho toys, I work on my bike.'

'Totally not the same,' I quipped, following him up the walk. 'You have not lived until you've eeled your own drains.'

He laughed and stopped to do the bendy thing with another shrub. 'I think I'll pass, thank you. That's why I have a landlord.'

'Too good to get your hands dirty?' I teased and he gave me a look that managed to convey derision quite nicely.

'Or too smart,' he returned.

'Ouch,' I acknowledged the score, and we walked on around to the front of the house. I dropped down to sit on the front step, my picture resting on my knees, while Wufei stood looking out across the yard at my tangle of wanna-be rose bushes.

'It is nice out here,' he finally admitted, tilting his head back to look up at the darkening sky. 'You and Yuy chose well.'

It pleased me in an odd way, and I couldn't help but grin up at him. 'You should just go ahead and ask Sally to marry you, and you two get yourself one of these house things.'

It surprised a snort out of him and he shook his head with a dark chuckle. 'Somehow, I have trouble seeing that.'

'Come on, man,' I cajoled. 'Mrs. Chang Wufei? Two point five kids? You could grow your own yard full of daisies?'

It was just bullshit talk; banter without substance and I was surprised when I saw him wince. I'd needled him about a lot of things since I'd come to live with Heero, and I was sure Sally had been on the list before. I wondered what I'd said that had been any different than a dozen other times. Wondered what line I'd crossed that I hadn't known was there.

'Wufei?' I asked gently. 'I'm sorry... I was just kidding. Working in a garage, I guess I've gotten used to... that kind of shit. I didn't mean anything.'

He seemed a bit surprised that I'd picked up on his unease and he ducked his head. 'Nothing to apologize for,' he replied, but there was a tension there that told me different.

'No,' I argued, not really wanting things to be uncomfortable between us again. 'Your relationship is none of my business; I shouldn't have...'

'Duo,' he cut me off. 'It's not your fault. Seriously; you have nothing to be sorry for. You had no way of knowing about... about my history.'

I just looked at him in a way that was probably expectant, though I wasn't sure if I should ask, or just nod, or maybe just ask for a do-over. He sighed and looked back up at the sky, jamming his hands in his pockets while he seemed to collect his thoughts.

'Wufei...' I began, feeling like I was prying and suddenly wondering about his strange lapse in the side yard.

'No,' he cut me off again. 'I probably should have told you before now. The others know. It's... really not that big of a deal, but I'm... a widower.'

I gawped and I winced, and then I blushed furiously, remembering the Missus line. Then I started trying to stammer out another apology. Wufei laughed at me.

'Knock it off,' he grumbled, sounding oddly affectionate, and settled on the steps beside me. 'It was a long time ago. Before the war.'

'Before the war?' I couldn't help blurt. 'But how in the hell... I mean...'

He chuckled again, glancing at me just for the expression of shock, I think, before looking out across the street. 'Arranged marriage,' he explained. 'We were... hell, we were just kids. Just fourteen. Her name was Meilan... called herself Nataku, the strongest of the Long clan.'

He got quiet for a second and I knew the feel of memory blowing on the wind and waited respectfully for him to come back. I resisted the urge to glance toward the porch swing, wondering if my ghosts might have met Wufei's ghosts on some plane or other.

'She and I were too different in attitude, and too alike in temperament, I think,' he said at length. 'It was not a union either of us welcomed. Then the Alliance came and... well...' he shrugged and I remembered his original claim of 'widower' and made a sound of understanding, to spare him the telling. 'She was... beautiful, and strong. And sometimes it pains me that we never had a chance to grow up enough to understand each other, until it was too late.'

'I'm sorry,' I said softly and thought to reach out to him, but Wufei is Wufei and it would have felt weird without him making the offer. He tilted his head in thanks, a gesture that accepted the words as well as the touch left unmade.

'It was a long time ago,' he said, simplifying things. It was in me to object, but I understood how sometimes distance was the same as the passing of time. There were things for me too, that were long ago... but not.

He was quiet for a long moment, while it slowly grew darker around us, before he softly said, 'She died in that field of daises.' An explanation of the mood, and the trigger, and then he was done. He pushed to his feet with a gust of breath, dusting the seat of his jeans and turning to look down at me. 'I apologize if I've spoiled your evening.'

It made me want to laugh, but that seemed highly inappropriate, so it came out as a choked little noise that made him quirk a lop-sided grin. 'Thanks for the picture,' I told him and he nodded again, turning to start down the steps. He stopped at the bottom, looking back up at me and there might have been something in his expression that understood the irony of his next words.

'Duo, I haven't exactly shared this with Sally...'

I wanted very damn badly to mock a member of the Whole Truth Squad, and I might have, if the mood had allowed it, but instead I just raised my hand in farewell. 'I understand,' was all I said and he drove away.

I did snort then, because of the pure hypocrisy factor. Though, I suppose they'd always claimed that honesty thing was between the four of them and Sally must not have been a card carrying member of the boy's club.

But wow... what a bomb for him to drop. Married at fourteen freaking years of age and not even to someone you got along with? Interesting system... glad I wasn't a part of it.

I stood up myself then, because spring might have been in the air, but it was still pretty chilly at night, and made my way into the house.

My plan had been a soda and a ration bar for dinner, so I went to fetch them, deciding that I still had enough time to check my e-mail before Heero got home. I left Wufei's gift sitting on the kitchen table and took dinner to the living room where my laptop sat on the coffee table.

It's funny; once upon a time I'd lived on the computer. E-mail was pretty much the only way to stay in touch in the trade, especially when you're in a line like salvage; you don't really have regular routes or what you'd call ports of call. You might be shuttling between colonies, sitting in dock waiting on work, or... you know; spending weeks heading out into the dark on some hare-brained job. You just never knew. So it used to be nothing for me to check on my mail a dozen times a day, if I was where I could connect to the 'net.

Now, checking mail is more like a weekly event. Answering said mail... sometimes not quite so frequently. It's really a wonder anybody still bothers with me. It's a thing that nags at me when I let myself think about it. And has become a major chore since I let it pile up so much. Usually takes hours of intense effort.

E-mail, for the record, is a very strange psychological thing. How can something like the little orange 'new' flag make such a difference? There's such a moment of happy anticipation when the mail has that little flag. But that same message only carries the weight of guilt after that little spot of orange is gone. They should do a study on that... the psychology of effects of flags on the human psyche. Or, how my inbox is like a Jewish mother.

I sat down with my soda and my dinner and prepared to face my guilt.

Sisyphus greeted me when my laptop booted and I considered, not for the first time, changing my wallpaper and doing away with the poor guy... he really seemed to bother Heero with his perpetual rock rolling gig. And I suppose if I was honest with myself, life had changed enough for me that I didn't feel quite the affinity I once had. But a few minutes reflection didn't bring any appropriate replacement wallpapers to mind, so I abandoned the idea for the likely stall tactic it was and opened my e-mail.

Howard is an absolute wonder; it never ceases to amaze me when I get a message from him, that the guy is still hanging in with me. I had probably gone six months or more after the accident, barely responding to his messages, but I had continued to get one of his long, newsy letters as regular as clock-work. It had been something of a touch-stone for me through that time, even though I'd not managed much in return. I tried to do better in the communication field lately, but it really takes a good chunk of time to respond to something like that the way it deserved, and I'm afraid it sometimes still took me weeks to get around to it.

His latest e-mail had already been sitting in my in-box for over a week. It had come full of anecdotes about all the guys, Sweeper stories, and family stories, and news about the trade. At first that news had made me uncomfortable, making me feel like Howard was trying to pressure me into coming back, but after awhile I'd figured out he was just trying to keep me in touch with a part of my life that might have been closed off to me, but wasn't actually gone. I had tried for a long time to just deny its existence; feeling like it would be easier to just sever the ties. It had taken a while to come to grips with the part where there had been more between me and certain people, than a job and a way of life. Not being in the trade anymore had not made me care any less for Howard and Kurt, Hayden and Toria... I had just had to get my head around the fact that it worked both ways.

Good thing I have patient friends.

I suppose if nothing else, when I look back on my accident, I can at least say one thing; I saved Howard's business. I don't know just what the hell was in that data I flashed back to base, but the price for it had been enough to keep the Sweepers' heads above water, and had eventually led into a government contract that had turned things around. They were doing fine now, and Howard and Kurt had both sworn to me in independent e-mails, that they wouldn't be if it hadn't been for the Londonderry haul.

A fair trade? On a good day, I can admit that it was. And the bad days were few and far between anymore anyway.

I pulled up my reply to Howard's message and worked on it a little more; those things take a bit of pondering sometimes, you know? People really don't have any interest in listening to you whine, though at least that part was getting easier. After getting out of the hospital, while I was still stuck in a wheelchair, there wasn't much else to work with. I guess that had started the downward spiral of non-communication, when I stopped to think about it, and that was something that I was still fighting, though it was getting easier.

I told him a little about the house and neighborhood. Told the amusing story about the morning I had seen a deer in the backyard through the upstairs window. Had about given Heero a heart attack when I went pounding through the house to grab a sketch pad before he realized there wasn't any danger. After I sketched the deer, I sketched him too; half dressed, leaning in the doorway of my studio with his gun dangling from one hand, his other up over his face, almost hiding the bewildered smirk. I don't bother to title my work, but in my head that one is called 'God save me from him'. I almost wrote it on there, in one of those little fluffy thought balloons, but didn't want to spoil the picture. I might even show it to him one of these days.

I actually got to the end of Howard's e-mail that night, answering all his questions and sending it off with a sense of accomplishment, though I knew it wouldn't last. Damn old guy must live on the internet in his old age; I knew he'd have a reply off to me in a matter of days. Which I would be delighted to see... until it wasn't orange any more.

While I'd been typing, I'd gotten two new messages, totally erasing my 'one up' on the in-box score. One from Quatre, copied to all of us pilots, asking about the next dinner, and one from Toria. The dinner message I left to Heero; he knew my taste in restaurants, and opened Toria's with a strange mix of anticipation and dread. Her last message had been not long after the gallery opening, and more to the point, the broadcast of my walk on the wilder side of shuttle repairs. It had been an embarrassing mix of mothering and ribbing. Something only Victoria Brannigan can manage.

I was a bit surprised when I opened it, to find it was from Hayden. It was far from the first time, but he generally left communication up to his wife, something I've noticed a lot of married guys do.

'Hey buddy,' he wrote, and I could almost hear the rumble of his deep voice. 'Thought I'd spare you any more of Torie's jokes and update you myself. Don't listen to him, Duo! I am not nearly as crude and unsubtle as he says!! Well, I'll try to spare you Torie's crude and unsubtle jokes, but you know how it is. You love me anyway, don't you Duo?!'

I blinked at the screen, absently munching on my ration bar and trying to decipher the message. I couldn't help the mental images of Hayden attempting to type and Toria climbing all over him to get to the keyboard. It made me smile, and then it made me melancholy, and then it made me think about beer and bars and flight schedules and I couldn't help but shake my head. Wondered if I'd ever manage to look back without feeling the bite of loss.

'The point here is that we're finally going to make it dirt-side if the schedule holds, the end of next month. We'd love to see you and do some catching up. Maybe plan a dinner at McMurphy's? You can even bring that grumpy boyfriend of yours, buddy-boy! We'll drop you a line when it gets closer to the time and we'll see what we can arrange. I wanna see his damn house! Duo, I wanna see your damn house! Don't you erase that again, Hayden Brannigan, or you'll be sorry!

Ok, if it's not too much trouble, maybe we could catch a cab out to your place, but only if you want to invite us, Duo. Don't let Torie's whining get to you. I do not whine! I'm going to sign off now, before this deteriorates any further into gibberish. We'll talk to you later. We love you, buddy-boy!'

Letters from Hayden and Toria always left me unsure if I should be snickering helplessly or changing my address.

I had hooked up with Hayden right after the war, and we'd been fast friends by the time we'd met up with Victoria. It had been a period of time when I think I'd been feeling a bit of... I don't know... a certain lack in my childhood? I guess I'd just started to understand how much I'd missed out on, for many and various reasons, while I was being raised to be one of the saviors of the known universe. Working at a real job for the first time ever, hanging out with Hayden in our off-hours, and planning our futures had kind of given me a taste of what life was probably like for most normal people my age. We'd had such plans; schemes really, and dreams, and all manner of wild ideas. I guess, by the time we'd run into the psycho Grace sisters, I'd been primed to really break loose.

Those had been some wild damn times. Not much more than a year, I suppose, when you got right down to it, but we'd crammed a lot of crazy shit into that time. Before the 'I do' part and the separate ships part. Though even after, when we met up, we had something of a rep around the trade. There is, for instance, a bar on L3 with the dubious name of Zenith's Edge that... well... let's just say we're not allowed in there ever again. I hadn't known a business could take out a restraining order. Though maybe they call it something else.

I've a certain amount of pride in the fact that there's a hand-printed placard on the front door of the place now, that says there are no hedgehogs allowed.

It's kind of a wonder that we came through most of that wild-oat period relatively intact. Even our reputations. Hell... especially our reputations.

I sipped at my soda, feeling the fizz of the carbonation on my tongue, and thought about different kinds of bottles. Ones with beer in them. We'd gone through more than our fair share of them. Sitting there, looking at that screwy two-person message on my laptop screen, I was struck with a sudden thought.

Is that how guys like Jock started out? Surely the man hadn't gone out the day his lady left him and taken his first drink? When did drinking go from 'just for fun', to a necessity? At what point did it stop being about cutting loose a little, and about just getting through the day instead?

How close had I come to being one of the fallen? What had kept me from turning to the bottle after Hayden and Toria had married, pooled their resources, and bought their own ship? I suppose there had been a bit of maudlin drinking at that point. I told Toria that I hadn't had a problem with them going off and leaving me to my own devices, but I gotta admit there had been a brief period where I'd resented the hell out of it. Hayden and I'd had all manner of plans and... well... being the third wheel ain't no damn fun. It hadn't lasted long; I'm not one to hide from what I'm feeling. Not overly much, anyway. And I knew the resentment was my problem, and not theirs. Linked as it was to that ages old abandonment thing. So I got over it. Toria had always treated me almost like Hayden and I were brothers, and that had made it a bit easier.

After that, after I got my own ship and set out solo, there had been some damn dark days. I'd been pretty stinking lonely, really. The job had kept me moving about as damn fast as I could move... but no matter how hard you work at it, there's always some in-between time. Always time enough to brood. And think. And wonder. And wish.

But, getting back to that drinking thing, what makes one guy an alcoholic and the next guy... not? I'd like to think I'm just not that damn stupid, but is that all there is to it? Neo didn't strike me as a stupid man either... but there he was.

I shut down my e-mail, deciding that I probably wasn't in the right mood for it anymore. Sisyphus was there to greet me, as always, when the desktop was uncovered and I wondered if the poor guy needed a drink. Or was that just the dumbest damn thought ever?

Hell, maybe drunk, the guy could get the damn rock up the stupid hill?

I decided right there that when I went to hell, I'd take along a six pack and some C4. We'd blow the fucking hill up and toast the devil with the beer.

And then I decided it was high time I removed that particular image from my daily life. A quick and rather random search on the net yielded a lovely grinning version of the Cheshire cat and I retired Sisyphus for the foreseeable future.

'Take five, Sis... you've earned it,' I muttered and that was about when I heard Heero at the front door.

He came in looking irritated and I had a second of wishing I'd gotten rid of the evidence of my dinner, before he grumbled, 'Duo... for God's sake, we have a security system for a reason; would it kill you to keep the damn door locked?'

I rolled my eyes, unsure if I should be relieved that he wasn't going off about the ration thing, or just frustrated that we were going to beat the door thing over the head again. 'I'm kind of sitting right here, man,' I quipped, not for the first time. 'I don't think anybody was going to sneak past me.'

'That's not the point...' he began, but then shook his head, giving it up. Made me wonder why... he's not usually so quick to abandon that particular argument.

He did lock the door rather pointedly though, before coming over to drop down on the couch beside me. I saw him notice my new, grinning mascot as he loosened his tie.

'Dinner not go well?' I ventured when he let out a somewhat tired sounding sigh.

'Oh,' he said, a hint of frustration coloring his voice, 'the whole point of it is supposed to be to catch up with each other, but sometimes Relena has trouble... leaving the office at the office.'

I raised an eyebrow, finding that hard to picture. 'Relena?' I had to ask and he quirked me a little grin.

'Yes, Relena,' he assured me. 'She really does take her duties seriously. With the council meetings next week, I swear Relena wishes she could draft me back to her personal security detail. It was almost all she could talk about.'

'But the Preventers are handling security at all the major functions anyway,' I said, confused by what her issue could be. How much more 'involved' could she want Heero? He was freaking in charge of security as it was.

'Yes,' he sighed. 'But I don't answer to her, I answer to Une...'

I couldn't help a snicker. 'Une's bulldogs?' I teased, trying to remember where I'd heard somebody talking about that. 'I remember something about the local force being kind of peeved about it. But it's tradition, right? You guys always...'

Heero was looking up at me with a rather... interesting expression on his face. 'Where did you hear that?' he asked kind of carefully, and I instantly knew it wasn't a term he was overly thrilled with. Or hearing used so openly.

'Uh...' I floundered, and couldn't help the sudden grin when it hit me where I had heard about it. Or read about it, to be more accurate. 'The latest issue of The Hellbound Beavers?'

I should probably not have snickered at the somewhat pole-axed look that came over him then. 'Please tell me you're kidding?'

'Sorry, man,' I soothed, 'but I've been trying to tell you for ages that the Beavers have their... uh... paws on the political heartbeat of the entire Earth Sphere.'

'Duo,' he said, voice rather flat. 'It's a comic book.'

'Actually,' I had to correct. 'It's considered political satire. Pretty timely satire too. Hell, the Beavers were lampooning the engagement of that eighty-something congressman to the former call-girl last month, before the bride-to-be had time to show the ring to her girl-friends.'

He leaned back, slumping down until his head was resting on the back of the couch. 'Une is going to be furious,' he groaned. 'She's been trying to keep a lid on the tension between the departments all month.'

'Well,' I ventured, 'there's no saying you have to tell her.'

He rolled his head to the side and gave me a look that seemed a touch disdainful. 'Don't you think she'll find something like that out?'

'To my knowledge she never saw the split-personality issue,' I muttered and rose to clean up my dinner mess. Or tried to. I was brought up short when Heero reached out and grabbed my shirt sleeve.

'Excuse me?' he asked, and I just sighed and sat back down, pulling my laptop over and launching a browser window.

'Here,' I said, pulling up the Beaver homepage. The little flat-tailed guys had started out as a web-comic and they still maintained the page as a gallery even though they'd gone 'big time' and hit real print. The picture of Guido the Beaver with his hair buns and glasses, sporting the spiffy military jacket with the shiny epaulets and waving a pistol... I understand is one of the site's most popular wallpaper downloads.

For a moment, looking at Une as beaver, I regretted my Cheshire cat decision, but the look on Heero's face kinda made me think I'd probably made the right choice after all.

'Oh my God,' he breathed, rather wide-eyed and staring, and there was a tiny moment when I think some part of him wanted to laugh so bad it hurt, but he wouldn't let it out. 'That's... that's...' he floundered and I couldn't help grinning.

'Pretty accurate, I always thought,' I supplied, but he didn't seem amused.

'Duo, she's our boss,' he scolded, not quite able to tear his eyes off the image.

'Nothing is sacred to the Beavers,' I intoned solemnly, and managed to escape while he poked half-heartedly at the gallery of 'classic' covers. At least it served to distract him from getting on my case about my dinner. And the locking up thing.

'Oh hey,' I called out from the kitchen. 'Pull up my e-mail while you're on there. Quatre sent us a message about the pilot's dinner.'

I heard a grunt in return and something that sounded suspiciously like 'Khushrenada' but I couldn't remember if His Excellency had ever been on the receiving end of a Hellbound skewer or not. Heero was fairly quiet after that while I worked around the kitchen tossing wrappers and bottles and restocking the soda in the fridge. But when he spoke next, the tone of his voice had changed and I had a feeling he wasn't still looking at satirical aquatic mammals.

'Duo?' he called and I stepped back into the living room to find him looking at my laptop like he'd just found that I had been downloading something distasteful. Not that I had, but the look was the same. He glanced up when I came into the room and nodded at my system. 'You appear to have new mail.'

I sighed a bit heavily and went to sit down next to him. 'God, did Howard reply already? The old fart couldn't even give me a day?' But it wasn't Howard's e-mail address that was sitting there blinking at me.

'Angie freakin' Masters?' I snapped, not quite able to believe the woman had invaded yet another part of my privacy. 'How in the hell did she get my damn e-mail address?'

'I'm starting to think we need to take out a restraining order,' Heero said, and his tone was sharp. A little angry. 'This is getting to be ridiculous.'

'Can you do that against a reporter?' I had to ask, because it seemed like if it was that simple, a lot of Hollywood types would have restraining orders against the entire profession.

I debated just deleting it, but then decided I wanted to be sure it wasn't just a fluke, and pulled it up in preview. My system warned me of a return receipt and I quickly rejected it. The message was definitely aimed at me, was definitely from my own personal Lois Lane, but was also a little vague.

'She's fishing,' Heero muttered.

'Yeah,' I had to agree. 'So maybe she'll go away when she doesn't get a response.'

Heero snorted and I had to agree with his doubts. I sometimes wondered if the woman would still be trying to get an interview when I was six feet under. I could imagine her digging me up and knocking on my casket. Or following my ashes out to where ever Heero chose to dump me.

I started to delete the e-mail, but then decided to file it. Never knew... might need it to prove stalkerish tendencies if we really did have to apply for some kind of 'get the fuck away from me' order.

I suppose I should be happy she hadn't yet made a personal appearance.

I moved on to Quatre's message then, getting back on track and trying to put the pushy reporter out of my head.

'It's our turn to choose,' Heero stated, though he hardly had to, since we were both reading the same thing. 'Where do you want to go?'

I shrugged and reached out to tug at the loosened tie around his neck. 'I don't care as long as it's not as upscale as where ever you went tonight.'

He smiled and shook his head. 'No, it was very much not your style. The menu was even in French, I wasn't a hundred percent sure what I'd ordered.'

I grinned at him. 'Was it at least edible?'

'It was an excellent restaurant, but not very... relaxing,' he smiled, leaning over to kiss me on the cheek. 'I'm going to go shower. We can decide on someplace and let Quatre know later.'

He climbed the stairs and I spent another moment considering Guido in drag for my wallpaper, before dismissing the notion. Would probably be like tempting fate... with my luck, the damn woman would find out somehow, and go through with that shooting at dawn thing. Though I went back and killed some time while I waited for Heero, browsing through the Beaver gallery; there really are some classic pieces in there. And there really was one of Treize Kushranada; a somewhat unflattering pose that involved wine glasses and rose petals and a jaunty little wave to the 'camera'. They'd even put the spiffy little sparkle on his buck teeth. I shut down the laptop when I heard Heero turn the shower off.

I was on my way through the house, shutting off lights and checking the locks when I remembered that Heero had put some laundry in, so I decided to go down after it; it should have been the last load.

The basement is kind of a weird place. I'd never really been in a house one before, well... not where the building above it was still intact. There's a fairly big difference, by the way, in the whole atmosphere. Ours is kind of... uninviting. It's not finished, just bare cinder block walls and concrete floor, and not really what you'd call a full basement. There's one big room under the main part of the house, a smaller room off that where the furnace is, and a kind of crawl space under the back part of the house. It doesn't really creep me out, but... it kind of creeps me out. There's really nothing down there but the furnace and the laundry and a lot of cobwebs. The lighting is kind of crappy and I keep swearing we're going to wire in some more fixtures, but it's sort of low on the priority list.

There was indeed a dryer full of towels and I dumped them in the basket to take upstairs to fold, reflecting that a counter wouldn't be a bad thing to install when we got around to working on the basement. Would be nice to be able to fold things without hauling them up to the couch.

Turning toward the stairs, something made me stop for a moment. Some... movement, barely caught out of the corner of my eye. I'm pretty embarrassed to admit that my heart about jumped out of my chest and ran up the stairs without me. Slowly, I set the basket down on the steps and then moved carefully toward the area that had gotten my attention. Intellectually, I knew damn well there was no way in hell there could be anything in our basement, but... well... cheesy horror movies aside, I had seen something move. A couple of steps and it happened again, letting me focus on it once I knew exactly where to look. The window. There are a couple of them; narrow little things that are so sealed with paint they probably hadn't been opened in years. Not that that kept Heero from having them wired when the security system had gone in.

I continued to advance, not sure what to think. Was someone outside trying to break in upstairs? Was I seeing them walk around in... I had to think to orient myself to what was outside in that area... in the daisies? It gave me a twinge about the earlier argument over locking up.

The light in the basement was not particularly bright, a single bulb over by the washing machine. The window was behind the stairs. There was a strong possibility that I hadn't been noticed. A person would have to get down practically on their belly in order to see inside the house, and the windows weren't exactly what you'd call pristinely polished.

I crept forward, not making any sudden moves that might attract attention, keeping to the shadow of the stairs and not taking my eyes off the window in question.

Slight movement, but nothing I could identify, as I had my own problem with the dirty window. I ducked low under the steps, brushing cobwebs out of my way and suddenly the movement came again, and there were two eyes staring at me, bright green and unblinking.

I managed to refrain from yelping in surprise. I did not, however, manage to keep from jerking back, which sort of led me to bashing my head on the underside of the stairs, which elicited the yelp anyway.

I heard Heero coming down the stairs even as I was extricating myself from under them. 'Duo? What's wrong? Are you all right?'

'Jesus!' I blurted, rubbing the back of my head, mind still trying to process what I knew I'd just seen. 'Screwy damn eco-system!'

Heero managed not to kill himself getting around the laundry basket and had me by the arm pulling me toward the light, trying to decide if he should be amused or concerned or calling an ambulance. 'What are you talking about?' he demanded, forcing my hand away so he could get a look at my head.

'Rat!' I told him, despite my vague doubts. 'Biggest God damn rat I have ever seen in my life!'

He instantly forgot about my head and turned to look toward where I'd been. 'Down here?' he asked, voice not a happy one. 'In the damn house?'

'No,' I assured him, stepping back to look toward the window again. 'Outside... looking in through the window.'

'A rat?' he had to question then, looking at me doubtfully. I saw the flick of his eyes toward where I was still holding the back of my head, feeling a small lump forming.

'I didn't hit my head that damn hard,' I growled and dragged him back with me. Sure enough, once we were close enough, there was the wink and blink of those glowing eyes again and I could make out its snout as it sniffed around the edge of the window. 'Does that look like my imagination?'

I was surprised when he just chuckled at me. 'No, it looks like a possum.'

'A what?' I asked, staring at it and not able to shake the 'rat' impression. 'You mean to tell me these things are normal?'

'Well,' Heero soothed, the amusement more apparent in his voice, 'not all that common I suppose, but as close as we are to the woods... it's not really surprising.'

'Then...' I began, but Heero cut me off with a shake of his head and a tug on my arm.

'Come on upstairs where I can look at your head better,' he said and ducked back out into the basement proper. I followed with one last look at our visitor. Still looked like a rat to me, but I suppose I was hardly an expert on the local wildlife.

When we got up to the kitchen though, Heero sat the laundry down on the kitchen counter and instead of going for the first-aid kit, went for the flashlight. 'Come on,' he smiled and led me through the house to the back door. 'They're relatively harmless,' he told me as he turned off the alarm before opening the door. 'But we probably want to discourage it from hanging around anyway.'

The thing was still poking around right where Wufei and I had been poking earlier, and it looked up at us when the flashlight beam fell on it. I couldn't help but laugh. 'That is the ugliest damn thing I have ever seen,' I whispered and Heero chuckled softly along with me.

'A face only a mother could love,' he responded, and the possum must have decided that he didn't like being in the spotlight, because he turned and began this ungainly waddle across the yard, heading for the dubious cover of the rose bushes. I couldn't keep from laughing out loud as his backside bobbed around. Not just ugly, but kind of ill conceived too.

I turned to Heero to voice that thought and found him smiling at me. I realized we'd come out not so much to chase the critter off, but to give me a chance to get a better look at it. Maybe he'd just wanted to share the joke, or maybe he'd been worried that I'd have dreams of giant rats or something if I didn't see it for myself.

It made me look past him at the backyard with a slightly new perspective. I wondered what else might be wandering around out there? What other creatures of the night might be sitting out in the shadows, waiting quietly for us to go away. It gave me weird thoughts of night goggles and motion sensor triggered cameras. Made me think of fairy tales and... oddly, Rudyard Kipling.

'I don't think I like that look in your eye,' Heero grinned and steered me back toward the house. 'I'm not buying you a pith helmet.'

I blinked, where he couldn't see, at how well he could read me. 'Oh come on, doesn't it make you wonder what else is living in our backyard?'

'I'm hoping none of them are actually living here,' he dead-panned, 'but just passing through.'

I contemplated that 'them' and felt the weight of non-existent eyes on us. Imagined a veritable Noah's ark of critters lined up at the edge of the distant woods, watching and waiting patiently for us to be gone so they could take back the night. I had to glance out through the windows while Heero reset the alarm, but of course I didn't see anything.

I thought for a brief moment, of taking up a pencil and sketch pad and trying to capture that snicker inducing, wobbling walk, that God-awful ugly tail. But thinking about the form and shape made something else jump to mind. 'Hey Heero?' I asked. 'Where does the term 'playing possum' come from? Do those things really fall over and play dead?'

He gave me the look that tells me I've made a mental leap in a direction he hadn't anticipated and he snorted, nudging me toward the kitchen. 'Never seen it, but yes, it's evidently a defense mechanism for them. They supposedly can look quite convincingly dead.'

I blinked at the images as they clicked into place in my head. 'Ray isn't a rabbit!' I blurted, and I swear I heard his mental gears strip.

'Pardon me?' he asked, following me into the kitchen and just staring at me for a minute.

'I never got the joke before!' I exclaimed. 'Ray is a side character in the Beaver's universe; he's supposed to be a rabbit. Everybody acts like he's a rabbit, but I always wondered, because he doesn't look a damn thing like a rabbit, but he falls over 'dead' every time something happens, and I just realized he's got to be a possum, and that totally makes the entire budget cut story arc make so much more sense! It's actually a...'

I stopped when I realized he was grinning at me like Trowa grins at cheesy monster movies. When the heroine is screaming at the same time she's trying to help the poor sap in the suit hide the seam?

'What?' I grumbled, caught off guard by the look in his eyes.

'You,' he told me, reaching out and snagging one of my belt-loops, 'are damn sexy when you are all animated and... geeky.'

I snorted, and followed my belt loop further into his personal space. 'Geeky? That doesn't sound good, Yuy.'

He let go of my pants and wrapped his arms around my waist to pull me even closer. 'Oh yeah... it's good. It's very good.'

'Good?' I prodded, draping my own arms around his neck and tugging on a lock of his hair. 'Good how?'

'I want to wrap you all over me, good,' he told me in that growly voice that always makes me tingle. 'I want to take you upstairs right damn now, good.'

He was already looking decidedly dark eyed and aroused, and I smiled lazily in return. 'Then what are we still doing down here?'

'Checking your head,' he murmured, but it was my earlobe he was checking with the solicitous tip of his tongue.

'Doesn't even still hurt,' I replied, leaning down and grazing teeth gently against his collar bone. He responded by hauling me bodily from the floor, hands shifting under my thighs in a move that left me no choice but to do that wrapping thing he'd mentioned.

'You're sure?' he had to ask, but his lips on mine didn't even let me answer. I thought sure as hell he was going to dump both our asses down the stairs trying to climb with my legs tight around his waist, but he's always been something of an unconscious show off with that strength of his. Had me pretty damn aroused too, by the time we reached the top of the stairs.

I thought it was going to be one of those hard and fast nights, but somehow ended up being not. Ended up being languid and slow; him on his back, me straddling his hips and making it last. Just making it feel good for awhile. Dancing near the edge, but not letting each other fall. Unhurried... indulgent... wonderful. Taking the time to explore; to enjoy the simplicity of a hand resting on a hip. Of the brush of fingertips down the length of an arm. The sound of shared words. The heady, intimate scent of too warm skin.

We lasted until something I did, some arch of my body, some movement... some sound... made Heero find the need, made him reach for the rhythm and we were down to the 'Godyes!' part. Down to the panting and grasping and incoherent words part.

And then down to the lazy arguing over who had to get up to go for the tissues part.

Afterward, he had to verify the reports about my head, with the gentle stroke of his fingers through my hair, before spooning up against my back.

I lay and teased the back of his hand with the tuft of my braid for awhile, thinking about comics and politics, about wallpaper and bulldogs, about rabbits and possums. Until he twitched and pinched me, grumbling in my ear. I switched to the inside of his wrist then and he entwined our fingers to make me stop, nipping at the back of my neck when I chuckled at him.

'Don't start something we're too tired to finish,' he muttered and I subsided, settling into his arms. Wishing my thoughts would settle as easily. 'What are you thinking about so hard?' he finally asked.

I sighed. 'Sorry; maybe I should just get back up so you can get to sleep.'

It made him snort and pull me closer into the curve of his body. 'Why are you not tired? You should be too worn out to be thinking this hard.'

'Especially since you made me do all the work,' I groused, and got my butt smacked for my trouble.

'Answer the question,' he commanded, palm resting against my hip in open threat. I reached to take his hand again, and chuckled at him.

'Weren't you the one who said not to start anything?'

'Well, we're awake anyway,' he complained, but I could hear the smile. 'Now tell me what's running through that head of yours that won't let you get to sleep.'

I didn't even try to lead him down the path of Beaver to rabbit to possum to flower garden to daises to dead people. 'Did you know Wufei was a widower?'

There was a moment of silence that spoke of a confused blink. 'What?'

'Wufei was out this evening,' I explained. 'He brought our copy of the picture he promised us from the gallery opening. He was helping me in the yard and we got to talking and he told me about being married.'

There were a quiet couple of minutes while he stumbled his way through the statements to the question again, before he told me, 'Yeah. He told me about it a long time ago.'

'Wish you'd told me,' I couldn't help complain. 'I kinda... put my foot in it.'

'Sorry,' he said. 'I never even thought about it. It was years ago and he never talks about it.'

I squirmed until he let me turn in his arms where I could look at him. 'I can't stop thinking about it,' I confessed. 'I mean... God; they were just kids! How in the hell could you marry little kids off like that?'

He couldn't help smiling at me amusedly. 'Duo, how in the hell could you stick those same 'little kids' in Gundams and send them off to war? Age is...' he shrugged. 'You know.'

I guess I did, but it still seemed... weird. But I suppose he was right; giving a fourteen year old an instant wife probably wasn't any worse than giving them a license to kill. 'Wufei was just so... calm about it. When he talked, he was all... tight. And... and... controlled. But there's this dark pain there. He's so... so...' I struggled with it until Heero sighed and kissed my forehead, pulling me in against his chest.

'I know,' he said simply.

'Do you think that's why he and Sally seem kind of... stalled?' I asked.

There was a heavy sigh and his hand rubbed gently up and down my arm, as though to comfort. 'I wonder sometimes. There seems to be something that he can't quite let go of. I don't know why Meilan and not... the rest of his family; they all died when the colony self-destructed, but there seems to be something about her that just eats at him.'

That didn't make sense when I thought about it, and told him so. 'But Wufei said she died in a field of daises. How could he know that if she died with the rest of the clan?'

'What?' Heero asked, drawing back to look down at me. 'He never said anything about that to me.'

For a moment, I wasn't sure if the tone of his voice was simple surprise, or if there was a touch of hurt there. 'It was the daises in the side yard that sort of led to my... putting my foot in my mouth,' I explained. 'I think he was just letting me know what triggered the memories for him.'

He was quiet for a minute and I could almost hear the gears going around as he replayed whatever conversation he'd had with Wufei in his mind. 'I guess he never came right out and said. I just assumed.'

I laid my head back on his chest and he curled his arm around me. 'I'm sorry,' I had to say again. 'I don't know why I can't stop thinking about it. I didn't mean to keep you awake.'

He rubbed his cheek against the top of my head, his arm giving me a little squeeze. 'I understand. Wufei can be very... self-contained.'

I grunted, and had to think about that. Had to think about wanting to reach out and not knowing how to get around that odd shield of... calm? I wasn't sure quite what to call it, but it seemed to hold the world at arm's length when Wufei wanted it there.

It made me remember times of stumbling and falling into Chang Wufei's support. I found it infinitely sad that somehow I couldn't seem to support in turn. Was the lack in him? Or in me?

I must have sighed rather heavily, because Heero squeezed hard. 'Don't,' he scolded.

It made me lift my head to give him the raised eyebrow look. 'I'm so easy to read?'

He smiled gently. 'Not so easy anymore; your moods are becoming much more complex, but there are some patterns I can't mistake. Wufei is just a very proud man, is all. Don't try to make that your fault.'

I chuckled as he proved that he really could read me sometimes and just laid my head back down. 'Go to sleep,' I commanded and he snorted, but subsided. I just stayed still after that and let him drift off, though my own thoughts kept me up a while longer. My imagination painting scenarios and making me wonder. And picking at that 'complex' comment when I grew tired of trying to unravel Wufei's past.

Saturday is 'chore' day, reserved for trips to the market and wildly interesting things like vacuuming and toilet scrubbing. I'd planned to spend the majority of the day finishing the rebuild job on my carburetor. While I wasn't outrageously fond of the car, it had its uses, and it had been out of commission for almost a week.

So we had gotten up that morning with the agenda of market, miscellaneous errands, cleaning, and car repairs. Our agenda had not taken Aleyah Winner into account.

Most things in life do not take Aleyah Winner into account, come to think of it, but I suppose that's beside the point. At any rate, I had not counted on her mid-morning phone call or the subsequent addition to my day.

She caught us between the grocery run and a trip to the dry cleaners, so I was standing with a head of lettuce in my hand in front of the refrigerator when my cell phone rang. I pulled it out and Heero leaned around me to put a gallon of milk away, glancing at the display I was staring at in open trepidation. He only smirked at me, taking the lettuce from my hand. I sighed and flipped the phone open.

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