Author: Sunhawk

Directions (cont.)

'Hello?' I said, and hoped she couldn't hear the cringe in my voice.

'Darling,' she sighed, voice fairly dripping breezy distress, 'why do you vex me so?'

I blinked at the wall and only managed a confused, 'Huh?'

There was another sigh, one that managed to convey patience of the most taxed kind. 'Pet; why have you not been in contact with Jack Lee? I thought you had an understanding of the... honor of the offer?'

'Uh... would you be mad at me if I said I forgot?' I tried, wondering if I was risking a visit from her and her little territory marking dog by telling the truth.

There was a moment that spoke of a calming breath I couldn't hear, before she said, 'But now you have been reminded... yes, pet?'

'Yes Ma'am,' I muttered, trying for contrite but probably just sounding put out.

'Good,' she clipped out, all business. 'He's expecting you at two, I've e-mailed you directions; be prompt. Ta, darling.'

She hung up before I could accept, object, or think of an expletive.

'I'm almost afraid to ask,' Heero said while I stood staring at my phone. 'The look on your face suggests... not great news.'

'I apparently took too long dealing with that commission request from her buddy,' I growled, feeling just a little irritated. 'She just... made me a damn appointment with the guy!'

Heero turned from putting the bread in the cupboard to look at me. 'When?'

'Today!' I snapped, waving my phone in the general direction of town, meaning to indicate Aleyah somehow. 'At freaking two o'clock! A little more damn warning would have been nice!'

He'd been kind of trying not to grin at me, but that made him chuckle. He shrugged and turned back to fold up the empty grocery sack to put away. 'She probably figured if she gave you any more time, you'd just find a way to squirm out of it.'

The hole I was trying to bore into the back of his head with my glare didn't seem to be getting through. I shoved my phone back into my pocket before I was tempted to bounce it off the back of his head instead. 'Your amusement is not appreciated,' I growled, and I could only imagine the grin I couldn't see.

'I'm sure Aleyah would appreciate it,' he snickered and I left him to finish putting things away by himself. Jerk.

Aleyah Winner is a woman who rather defies all convention. At the same time that she allows herself to be defined by them. She has to not just break the rules, but own them.

From the moment I had agreed to meet with her to discuss the possibilities of an art show... she'd been very firmly in the driver's seat. I'm something of a control freak. So is she. It makes for a somewhat abrasive relationship. One that the entire rest of the world seemed to find damn funny for some strange reason.

I stormed upstairs, just managing not to stomp only because I knew it would make Heero laugh at me. I utterly hate Aleyah's imperious tone of voice, and I hate even more that I can never quite work up the nerve to tell her where to shove her tone. I owe the woman too damn much, and that just made it completely impossible to defy her.

And that really pisses me off.

So, what should one wear when one is going to meet with one of the biggest names in the realm of... art connoisseurery? Connoisseurism? Snobbery?

I'm, in case it has slipped your mind, a mechanic. I own lots of jeans and coveralls, t-shirts and polo shirts. There are a couple of dress shirts, some slacks and the one tux. The tux seemed a bit much, but the coveralls... not such a hot idea. I was fingering what was probably my best dress shirt and debating tie/not tie when Solo snickered in the back of my head.

'Gawd,' he chortled. 'What a suck up!'

'Shut up,' I muttered, glancing to where he wasn't lying on the bed. 'And get your damn shoes off the bedspread.'

He just rolled over and kicked his feet up behind him, grinning unrepentantly. 'Wimp,' he jeered.

'Asshole,' I jeered right back, and he faded to nothing but the chuckle.

'Ya sure are easily impressed anymore.'

'Fuck off,' I ground out, but put the dress shirt back and just went into the bathroom to clean up. He didn't stop laughing until I had the water running and the door shut.

If the man just wanted me to damn well paint something, how I looked shouldn't have a stinking thing to do with it. And if there was a tiny little thrill to be had from the mental picture of the cow Aleyah would have over my wearing my 'I had a nice day once and I didn't like it' t-shirt... it was a bonus.

I used the main computer in the spare room to check my e-mail, finding Aleyah's message and quickly memorizing the directions. It wasn't going to be hard to find; the house actually wasn't that far from Quatre's, and that entire end of town was sparsely built up with areas referred to as 'estates' instead of 'lots'. I should have realized Mr. Lee wouldn't live in an efficiency apartment.

Heero didn't so much as bat an eye at me when I left the house without changing, but then maybe he'd figured out I wasn't a happy camper, and was going for low profile. He just quietly handed over the keys to his car, without even the expected admonishment to be careful. Once I was on the road, it occurred to me that he really had been rather subdued, and I made a mental note to make sure he hadn't thought I was really pissed at him or anything. I was mostly pissed at myself and my inability to tell Aleyah to back the hell off. And not altogether happy to have my somewhat vague and dubious 'plans' interrupted.

Or maybe I was just annoyed at being told what to do like some errant child.

At any rate, it wasn't Heero's fault, even if he had laughed at me.

The Lee estate rated a spiffy little name and everything. Had a placard on the front gate that read 'Rogers Hills' . Thing looked like bronze, but I'm not an expert and couldn't say for sure. Was probably bigger than the plaque on the Maxwell Church memorial though. Part of me wanted to sneer, and part of me wanted to be impressed. Hell... even Quatre's place didn't have its own name.

I pulled up to the gate, suddenly glad that my own car had been out of commission. Heero's isn't a BMW or anything, but mine was a good five years further away from 'new' than his was. There wasn't a gate house or any security guy or anything, and I wasn't sure at first if I should announce myself or some damn thing. Didn't look like there was anything as mundane as a doorbell, but there did appear to be a two way speaker. I was just trying to decide if I should start hollering 'hello' at the thing when it squawked to life. 'Yes? May I help you?'

I resisted the urge to order a Big Mac by a very small margin.

'Duo Maxwell to see Mr. Lee? I have an appointment?'

The gates started swinging open even as the voice directed me to follow the drive to 'the main house'.

The place was sprawling. Immaculate. And yeah... damn impressive. As I followed the drive winding up through the grounds, I found myself wishing I could have just a half a damn hour to talk to the guy's gardener. Any one of the hundred he probably freaking employed.

The house itself looked like something they could have used for a location shoot when they filmed Gone with the Wind. Those same adjectives came to mind; sprawling. Immaculate. I found myself dry washing my hands against my pants legs before I even got out of the car.

I had a sudden pang when the gesture made me realize I'd not even thought about wearing my gloves.

I parked the car not quite in front of the house, wondering if where I'd chosen was an ok spot, and then not able to help snickering at myself. There was not exactly a shortage of parking places. The front door to the house opened while I was still making the hike up the front walk, and I was surprised that it was Mr. Lee himself, and not some butler. Surprised as well to see the man in a pair of the ugliest plaid shorts I'd ever seen, a coordinated polo shirt, with a drink in one hand.

Guess I was glad I hadn't gone with the tux.

'Mr. Maxwell!' he called out while I was still a good thirty feet from the door, his voice even more... boisterous than I remembered from the gallery. 'So good of you to come! And perfectly on time, too. I trust Aleyah didn't give you too short of notice?'

A third surprise in less than a minute; it promised to be an interesting afternoon. With all the unattractive connotations of the word. Not only did he know I'd been called to heel, but he hadn't had a problem with that fact. Nor with me knowing it.

It was no damn wonder he and Aleyah were friends.

'Oh, she gave me almost an entire half an hour,' I quipped, making the rest of the hike and taking his offered hand when I got there. If he was going to play the up-front card, I might as well not mince with the niceties either. 'The trip might even get me out of rebuilding my carburetor, which is all I had planned anyway.'

He laughed that booming laugh, his eyes unapologetically reading the front of my shirt, and the laugh gave an extra burst of appreciation before he gestured me into the house with his drink. 'Come in, come in! Good to see you again, I trust you've been well?'

He was already walking as soon as the front door was shut, assuming that I would follow. I did, of course, and my steps echoed through the... whatever the hell we were in. What do you call those? Foyers? It was wide open and could have easily held our living room, dining room and half the kitchen with no problem. Lot of marble, and there was just no way to match Mr. Lee's long stride and still keep my boot heels from clacking loudly. He had on some kind of house shoes that gave me a pang of fear that I should have taken my own off, but the guy hadn't exactly given me a chance, so I didn't worry about it. 'Fine thanks,' I answered his polite query. 'And yourself?'

'Most excellent!' he beamed, sounding just a bit smug. 'Just got back from the links. Played eighteen holes and handed Stan his ass on a platter. He owes me a home cooked meal now. Just might kill me to eat it, but it'll be worth it to get to watch him try to find his own kitchen. Doubt the man has ever seen it.'

I was glad I was just a pace behind, so he didn't actually see my jaw fall open. 'Uh... Stan Kirby?' I managed, since there had been a pause that seemed intended for me to insert something.

'That would be the man,' he fairly chortled, leading me through a room that seemed to be a den. It was dark wood, and manly furniture, books and clutter and looked like it needed the services of a good maid. Or even a bad one. 'Knows his golf, but couldn't boil water if somebody else turned the stove on for him.' He shook his head in a way that might have been fond, or might have just been mocking. 'Twit has been beating me for years, so he didn't hesitate to take the bet. Didn't know I just spent two months in Scotland studying with Clint Stark.' He chuckled in a rather self-satisfied way.

I gaped at his back as he led me up a flight of stairs. 'Clint Stark?' I couldn't help blurting. I'm not a sports fan, but even I'd heard that name. 'The Clint Stark?'

He actually glanced back at me so I could see the wide grin. 'The one and only. And let me tell you, the man drives a hard bargain, but it was worth every penny to see old Stan's face...'

He rambled on about golf things that pretty much went over my head, but then said head was just a little bit pre-occupied with the notion of a man who could take a couple of months out of his life, fly off to another country, spend God only knows how much money... just to win a bet. A dumb bet, at that.

Somewhere in the back of my head, the old, little used businessman in me rubbed his hands together and gleefully muttered, 'oh, yeeeeeah' and began really paying attention to his surroundings. Noticed the Persian rugs on all the floors. Noticed the real wood paneling. Noticed the six mile hike that hadn't gotten us there yet.

I was very obviously dealing with a man who had actually discovered a way to grow money on trees.

We had paused before a door that I suspected might be our final destination, and Mr. Lee was chuckling at something he'd said. I did my best to grin at the joke, but I honestly hadn't gotten it.

'You don't play golf, do you Mr. Maxwell?' he suddenly said and I could tell there really wasn't much question.

'It shows?' I asked, letting the grin turn a bit wry and he laughed at me before opening the door. To an entirely empty room. Albeit a big empty room.

He gestured me inside, then followed after, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what we'd come all that way to see.

'Welcome to my ballroom,' he said, gesturing grandly with that drink again. 'Or my future ballroom.'

'It's... uhm... really big,' I opined, and stepped further into the room. There were windows and several sets of French doors down one side, looking out over a garden/patio thing that damn near had me making the gardener consultation request that had occurred to me earlier. The floor was some sort of tile that kind of looked like polished granite, but I'm hardly an expert on stonework. On the wall opposite the windows were two massive sets of wooden doors looking like they had come whole from a movie set of some sort, and between them, an alcove that went nowhere. Just an echo of the doors and I kind of wondered if something weren't meant to be sitting there. I could imagine pedestals or plants or maybe a painting hung on the wall. Mr. Lee noticed my scrutiny.

'Exactly,' he grinned and walked over toward the recess. 'Cries out for a mural, doesn't it?'

If it did, it was in a muted kind of way. Didn't cry out the way an austere bulkhead did. His wall had so much to compete with, that frankly... the space barely whispered. I stared at it for a moment, but the only thing that danced across it were pale washes of color echoing the gardens outside. I turned around and looked that way. 'It's got a lot to fight with.'

He grinned widely, turning with me to look across the patio. 'I like your eye. You see the challenge.'

'What do you have in mind?' I had to ask, not at all sure the job appealed, but curious all the same. 'Do you mean to...'

He cut me off with a weird little tut-tutting sound, like I was trying to cheat on the final or something. 'I don't intend to steer,' he told me. 'I want to see what you come up with.'

I turned to blink at him uncertainly, wondering if he'd maybe gotten too much sun on that golf course. 'You're just going to let me make something up?'

He laughed that unashamed laugh, taking a swallow of his drink, the first I'd seen him take. I wondered idly what was in the tumbler. 'I want to see what you've got, young man!'

'Sounds like a test,' I blurted before I could stop myself, and I could tell I took him by surprise.

Damn well took me by surprise though when he just took another sip of his drink and said, 'You're every bit as perceptive as Aleyah said.'

'What?' I began, but he cut me off again.

'Let's just say I'd like to see how you handle yourself,' he chuckled, and damn well winked at me. I turned back to look at the alcove to hide what felt like it might turn into a blush. Had the man just hinted that this entire situation was simply a job interview? That sort of implied that he considered this one... a freaking area that would require the use of a step stool and paint by the palette full... to be small. What in the hell was the real job then? Painting his damn house?

George appeared and began quietly pacing off the size of the niche in little hamster strides, probably trying to get me back on track. He lost count around thirty, and I didn't have the heart to tell him I wasn't sure what a hamster step equaled anyway. He faded without protest, intimidated by all the open space, I think.

I walked further out into the room, to get the distance to see the bigger perspective, maybe a little intimidated myself.

'Can I at least ask what the room will be used for?' I ventured and he laughed at me outright, just standing back and watching me look around.

'It's a ballroom, Mr. Maxwell,' he informed me. 'There will be balls.'

I'd seen those. Balls were parties that weren't really meant to be fun. They were all about the showing off and the talking of things political. They looked a lot like parties from the outside, but if you let one fool you and lure you in... it didn't take long to figure out the difference. Funny... Jack Lee had not struck me as the kind of guy that would suffer through the like.

'So, there won't be much else in this room?' I asked, pacing back to what would be my 'canvas'. 'No real furniture?'

He'd crossed his arms, seeming to prop his drink arm up, and shook his head. 'A few side tables, I suppose, but balls are for dancing and mingling and the consuming of expensive wine.'

I snorted before I had a chance to stifle it and turned from looking at the wall to look out the windows again. 'And this mingling stuff happens in the evening?'

That one took him by surprise and he looked like he might be trying to hide a smirk behind the glass. 'Mostly.'

I nodded and paced across to the windows themselves, taking a look around and orienting myself. The setting sun would be coming in the windows at a bit of an angle, the patio oriented more toward the south-west than true west.

The patio itself was some sort of cobble-stone and not just concrete. There was a vaguely Greek tone to the décor, though nothing as blatant as statuary. There were some urn type planters though, that had a certain shape that left an impression more than anything. The things were already cascading with flowers, and while I wasn't exactly a landscaping expert just yet, I knew from my own yard that it was a bit early. So the team of gardeners had gone to some extra effort to achieve the look. I wondered what the garden would look like when it was fully 'in season'.

'May I?' I asked on a sudden whim, gesturing toward the outside doors, and Mr. Lee fairly beamed at me.

'Certainly!' he said, and led the way outside. There was an odd air of pride about him, and I realized that the man didn't just dump the job entirely off on those nameless workers. He had a hand in things somehow, even if it was only at the design level.

He let me walk around, answering questions when I asked them, but never volunteering. He was delighted when I noticed things like a small stone rabbit peeking out from under a shrub, but I could tell he wouldn't have pointed it out if I hadn't seen it.

There were a lot of those sorts of touches, from glass and wire dragonflies staked among the vines, to colors designed to unconsciously lead ones path.

Subtle, was the word that came to mind, and it surprised me coming from a man I'd been thinking of as 'boisterous' since the day I'd met him.

He watched me following a series of planters with my eyes, that seemed randomly spaced but whose flowers were graduated in shades of purple. The darkest near the house and the palest out in the garden somewhere. 'I knew you were the man for the job when I saw that portrait you did of Aleyah,' he informed me, his nod approving and I was rather surprised that he'd realized just from watching me that I'd noticed the design. 'Have me all figured out yet?'

I couldn't help an aborted little laugh, 'Not quite, sir,' I hedged and made him laugh in return.

'Good,' he grinned, saluting something I couldn't see with his drink. 'Can't have all my secrets revealed. You're an observant man, Mr. Maxwell. I look forward to seeing what kind of design you come up with.'

It was a dismissal as subtle as the garden around us, but I didn't miss it and nodded. 'Do you have a dead line?' I asked, getting back to business.

'No rush,' he told me, waving dismissively and turning back toward the house. 'I'd like to have the work done before it's too hot though. Hate to go to all this effort and nobody get to see it.' It made me wonder again just how much of the actual gardening he did, but in case it wasn't much... it seemed too rude to ask.

'Shouldn't be a problem,' I assured, thinking of some of the other murals I'd done. Then I wondered if I shouldn't make a point of slowing the hell down... my speed seemed to take a lot of people by surprise. Maybe the time I took would factor into the rate I could charge? Or... would speed be a bonus and I could charge more?

I reflected, as I followed him back through the house, that I should probably leave the money angle to Aleyah.

'Think you might have some preliminary sketches done by next week?' he asked, and it made me blink uncertainly. Sketches?

'I think I can have something... outlined,' I ventured, hoping I didn't sound too surprised.

'Wonderful!' he exclaimed, and I suspect, if both his hands had been free, he'd have clapped them together. 'I look forward to seeing what that... as Aleyah calls it... fertile imagination of yours comes up with.'

Me too, I almost said, but thought better of it at the last minute. 'I'll be in touch,' is what I managed, pleased that it actually sounded like I knew what I was doing.

He stood in the doorway and watched me to my car, and I realized that I'd never seen another person in that huge freaking house, the whole time I'd been there. No butler, no maids, no gardeners, no wife. Not even a dog. I wondered if they all had the day off, or if the guy really somehow managed all by himself.

Glancing back at the massive damn place in the rearview mirror... I just shook my head and chuckled. Hell, the guy would have to have help just turning the damn lights out at night, and locking up.

I couldn't help thinking that there was a whole circle of society out there that was just... really weird. And Aleyah Winner, apparently, rubbed elbows with them all. I wondered idly just what I'd be able to charge the man for the job. I used to either barter for the jobs I did for fellow ship owners, or else charge them a couple of hundred, depending on the subject matter as much as the scope of the job. But I couldn't help remembering what Heero'd reported the carpet layer guy had said... that the job I'd done in our bedroom would have been worth a thousand easy. I found myself looking around the grounds as I drove down the driveway, and wondered if I could actually get away with charging the man a thousand? There was a lot I could do with that kind of money; get the kitchen remodeling job done for Heero, for one thing. Or even just make a couple extra house payments.

Or did I want to get too crazy on what looked like nothing more than a test run? If the test was something that size, did I even want to know what the real job was? I kept seeing all that blank space in my head and trying to figure out what should go there. I'd never really had anybody leave it up to me before; people usually had a pretty good idea how they wanted their space decorated, and I'd always been able to fill in the blanks because I knew the person. I didn't know jack about Jack, to be blunt. Or... very little about Jack. He was a bit larger than life, was held in some regard by the not easily impressed Aleyah, appeared to have more money than Relena and Quatre put together, and liked to golf. Or bet. Or thrash his friends. Maybe all of the above.

The gates at the end of the drive opened as I approached them and I wondered if there was a sensor, or if Mr. Lee was manning the switch back at the house. I found myself turning the wrong way for home and accepted the notion to swing by Trowa and Quatre's place as a decent idea. At the gallery opening, Quatre had appeared to know something about the mysterious Mr. Lee, after all. When in doubt; research.

I was parked in their driveway before it dawned on me that just showing up unannounced was probably pretty rude. So I pulled out my cell phone while still sitting in the car, punching in Trowa's number and musing that the house was big enough that were they busy... they might never even know I'd been there if I just drove away.

Trowa skewered that notion when he answered his phone with a dry chuckle. 'I know it's been awhile, Duo, but do you really need directions up the front walk?'

I snorted. 'Just giving you the option of sending me on my way if you're busy.'

There was a derisive little noise. 'Haven't you been told before that we are never too busy for you?'

'Yeah,' I replied. 'But I always assumed that you were just being polite.'

Up at the house, I saw the front door open. In my ear, Trowa sighed. 'Just get in here, because I feel really stupid talking to you on the cell phone when I can see you.'

I laughed at him, but snapped my phone closed as I got out of the car. Trowa leaned in the doorway while I made the walk up the drive.

'Hey,' he said when I got there, and stepped aside so I could enter.

'Where's your blonder half?' I grinned up at him, eliciting a snort.

'In the office,' he replied, looking a little surprised. It wasn't a look I'd have probably noticed if I hadn't been watching for it. While I doubt Quatre and I would ever start... I don't know... going antiquing together or anything, I had been putting some effort into things. But it still seemed to take them by surprise whenever I sought Quatre out specifically.

He led me through the house to the little office I'd thought was so cozy when I'd stayed with them. I'd not realized that it was Quatre's actual home-office when I'd invaded it, or I'd have probably invaded someplace else. Of course, that was probably why he'd not let me realize.

I entertained myself keeping in perfect step with Trowa as we made our way down the hall, until he noticed, and began deliberately varying his stride. By the time we got to Quatre, I was all but snickering and Trowa was just trying not to roll his eyes at me.

The Winner heir, and pride n' joy was hunched over his laptop, smacking the keys with a little more force than was probably deserved by the poor machine, and didn't actually seem to notice that the entrance into his inner sanctum was a party of two.

'Trowa,' he said without looking up. 'Would you visit me in jail if I actually nailed Representative Rackham's ass to the wall of the convention center?'

I couldn't contain the snort of laughter, or I would have stayed quiet to see what else he might have said. 'Don't know about Trowa, but I'll come down and bring you chocolate bars to use for barter.'

I thought he was going to knock the laptop off the desk whirling around to look at us. His face was so red, I couldn't help laughing out loud and even Trowa chuckled softly. Probably less inclined to belly laugh at the guy he sleeps with.

'Did I mention we have company?' he said drolly and got a scowl that just wasn't at all intimidating coupled with the blush.

'No, you did not, dearest,' Quatre grumbled, voice tinged with a tone of and you're so going to hear about it later.

'Down, boy,' I scolded. 'I promise not to tell sis you used the 'A' word.' Then, more to defuse his embarrassment than a serious desire to know, 'Who's this Rackham guy and why are you threatening to crucify him?'

Quatre snorted, giving Trowa one last, totally ineffective from the look of it glare, and turned my way. 'The senate representative from L4. The man insists on acting like we're bosom buddies because our families come from the same colony cluster. He's been buttering me up for weeks and I couldn't figure out why. Well, he finally got around to messaging me... he's expecting to stay here during the council meetings.'

'Over my dead body,' Trowa informed the room at large, in a quiet voice that he could have used to discuss the weather.

Quatre just made a rude noise and shook his head. 'Yours and mine both.'

'Why in the hell does he want to stay here?' I had to ask, interested despite myself, imagining Quatre playing host to some boring politician, who would wander around the mansion in his bathrobe in the evenings, expecting to be entertained.

There was a look exchanged, a questioning eyebrow raised and a faint shrug, it made me wait patiently instead of making the speculative comment I'd been about to.

'There are a couple of rather... sensitive items up for vote this session. People are anticipating trouble. Several groups have already applied for permits to picket the convention center.'

It took me a second to roll that around to the obvious implication and I couldn't help grinning. 'So this guy trusts your security more than the Preventers?'

Trowa shifted, crossing his arms and leaning in the doorway. 'Apparently we fall into the 'colony born' category, which somehow makes us... more trustworthy or something.'

'But half of the Preventers are...' I began, but stopped at the almost unconscious shake of Quatre's head.

'But they're 'sell outs', don't you see?' he explained, managing to put in the quotes with just a disdainful twist of his voice. 'Rackham is...'

'Old school?' Trowa provided helpfully and drew a wry chuckle from Quatre.

'I was going to say 'old fart', but I suppose that works too. At least the man is in his final term. It's time for some younger blood in the L4 house, to be frank.'

'Well, if you let him stay here,' I quipped, 'don't put him in my room. I don't want some 'old fart' sleeping in my bed.' I shuddered theatrically and drew a delighted laugh from Quatre.

When he had it toned down to a warm smile, he seemed to brush the whole council/politics unpleasantness aside. 'Don't worry; I have no intention of inviting that man into my home. Now tell me... what brings you all the way out here?'

'Technically,' I had to correct, settling myself on the corner of his desk. 'You're 'in' and I'm 'all the way out', but let's not quibble. I came to pick your brain.'

He blinked at me, managing to look uncertain. 'Pick my brain? That sounds... unpleasant.'

'I promise not to use a fork,' I assured him, waving a hand dismissively. 'But you know this Jack Lee guy?'

I think the fork comment took him a minute, because there was a delay while he decided if it was relevant to the question before responding. 'I know of him, more than I know him,' he confessed, 'but we do tend to end up at the same functions on a fairly regular basis.'

'Ah!' I grinned. 'That means you both know him! Great; good to get multiple view points. So... what can you tell me about him?'

Trowa shifted his stance against the doorframe and tucking his hands in the pockets of his slacks. 'What? Are you thinking of dating him?'

'Ew!' I blurted, recoiling from the mental image that brought up. 'I'm a marri... I'm not into that kinky 'daddy' stuff, so just don't go there.' My face felt warm from the almost slip and I bulled forward, hoping to move on before the sly little smirk on Trowa's face turned into something more... verbal. 'I finally got around to talking to him about that commission he wants done and it turns out it's some kind of... of... test, or something. He won't tell me what he wants done... I'm just supposed to work up some suggestions or some damn thing.'

'Test?' Quatre said, expression going from quizzical to full out confused.

I found myself vacating the edge of his desk so that I could do the exasperated hand gestures without knocking something over. 'He's got this big-ass ballroom and there's this... this stupid dead space. It's like a recessed thing that goes nowhere and he wants a mural in it, but he won't tell me what in the hell he has in mind, and somehow or other the whole job seems to be a... a... trial run! He's got some bigger job in mind, but he won't tell me what that is either, but apparently if I'm a good little artist, I'm in the running for the other thing. But I've always known the people I did paintings for and I don't know shit about this guy or what he likes. Hell! I don't even know where all that obviously substantial amount of money comes from!' I stopped for a breath and on a sudden thought had to ask, 'He's not some kind of... of... black-market millionaire or anything, is he? Because I seriously can't work for some guy who's selling used body parts or something.'

Quatre started laughing first, but I caught a dry chuckle coming from Trowa's direction as well. I opened my mouth to inform them I didn't find myself all that damn amusing, but my cell phone gave out with that little chime that told me I had a text message and I settled for just glaring at them while I pulled it out to read Heero's quietly understated little 'Ok?'

I let them settle down while I keyed a response, 'With T&Q. Home soon.'

'No,' Quatre told me when he saw he had my attention again. 'Jack Lee's money does not come from illicit organ donation. At least, not as far as I know. His great-grandfather was one of the original investors when the science of the anti-gravity field was just a lot of wild theory.'

'The family stood firm in the face of a lot of ridicule, actually,' Trowa chimed in, and it didn't take much imagination to understand that part. Turning gravity off and on with a switch? I'm sure Christopher Columbus had felt that same sort of derision from half of Europe as they snickered behind their hands over his impending doom at the edge of the world.

I wondered how that part fit into Jack Lee's lifetime. He didn't strike me as being in any way a bitter man, so maybe Gramps had gotten to the 'raking in the cash' part before he came along. I'd have to look up a little history when I got home.

'Ok, so he's not in some sort of mafia,' I conceded. 'But what's he like? Other than seeming to have some sort of weird rivalry with Stan Kirby?'

Quatre made an amused sort of sound and just shook his head. 'Jack and Stan go way back,' he smiled. 'And Aleyah too, come to think of it. What's Jack like? Uhm... loud? A little bit of a...' he hesitated on the wording and Trowa stepped in.

'Let's just say he doesn't shrink from the spot-light.'

Quatre smiled approval of the wording before resuming. 'I used to think that he and Aleyah ought to get together until I realized they're too much alike. They'd kill each other.'

I thought about that one for a second, not quite seeing it between my prim and proper patron, and the grinning, laughing Mr. Lee. My confusion must have shown on my face, because Trowa chuckled lightly. 'Two people too used to having their own way all the time.'

I snorted and had to concede the point. I was trying to formulate a question about Aleyah and Stan Kirby that wasn't just... rude, when Quatre suddenly brightened.

'I just remembered something!' he said, obviously happy to have information to impart. 'Jack's in that horticulture club. That rose society? He won some award or other a couple of years ago for some new hybrid.'

I thought about that incredible garden and wondered if there had been roses and I just hadn't recognized them. Or was it too early for roses? Something else to look up when I got home.

'He named it after his mother, didn't he?' Trowa asked, and Quatre gave him a shrug that stated clearly that he didn't have a clue.

'It was a rare color or something,' he mused, obviously never really caring before. 'I remember Aleyah was quite impressed.'

'You know, Duo,' Trowa suddenly interjected. 'Maybe you should go talk to Aleyah.'

I sighed, thinking about it. Yeah, she was probably the more obvious choice, but I had a funny feeling that talking to her would be considered 'cheating' somehow. I said as much and Quatre got his confused look back.

'Does commissioning usually work that way?' he had to ask, eliciting another exasperated hand gesture from me.

'No!' I huffed, realizing for the first time that the whole thing was kind of irritating me on some professional level. Damn man wanted something, he should just freaking ask for it. 'I've never done anything but bulkheads before, but a home is a home, and this shouldn't be any different. You ask somebody to draw something for you, you ought to damn well know what you want.'

'Well, I suppose,' Trowa said after a moment. 'That you don't have to accept the job.'

'Right,' I snorted, kind of covering up the part where that had never really crossed my mind. 'Aleyah would flay me.'

Quatre studiously aligned his desk blotter with the edge of the desk and said in his about to take names in order to kick some butt voice, 'If you don't want to take the commission, I will speak with Aleyah.'

I took a long moment to think about it. He said that as though he could actually buck the woman. As though he could say a few words and keep her from having something she obviously wanted. As though she would actually care what he said.

Silly boy.

I didn't tell him it was more an issue of me not wanting to disappoint her as any real fear of flaying. 'Don't risk it, little brother,' I quipped, but I could see him getting that stubborn light in his eye and sighed. 'No, seriously. It's... weird, but I think I'll take a shot at it. I have to admit it kind of calls to my competitive side.'

There was an odd hesitation on his part, but Trowa stepped in with a quiet, 'as long as you're not letting Aleyah bully you.'

'That is entirely too harsh a word for Aleyah. She would never bully anyone. It's more like... intimidation.'

Quatre chuckled, the moment put behind him, and I wondered about it. His protective streak showing, I supposed.

'I guess I can't help being a little curious if I can cut it,' I confessed, giving them an uncomfortable little shrug, and Trowa let out with a theatrically gusty sigh.

'Just can't pass up an opportunity to measure yourself against some lofty standard?'

'Not sure how lofty it is...' I muttered, otherwise keeping my mercenary thoughts to myself. 'At any rate, if you guys think of anything else that might help, I'd be more than happy to hear about it.'

'I can poke around a little,' Quatre said, and it made me picture half of the Earth-sphere's upper crust finding themselves being grilled about one Jack Lee.

'Don't go out of your way,' I was quick to add and heard a noise from Trowa that led me to believe he'd followed the same thought path I'd just run down.

It left an odd silence, so I took the opportunity to make my excuses, and we said our goodbyes. Trowa ended up seeing me back to the front, though I teased him about thinking I couldn't find my way.

'Hate to find you a week from now, wandering around lost,' he retorted. I was just opening my mouth to zing something back about the size of the place, when my phone chirped at me again. I pulled it out to find another message from Heero. 'Dinner?' it read, in what I imagined was plaintive text. Trowa chuckled at me as I keyed my response.

'Married, huh?' He smirked. 'So where's the ring?'

I cringed; should have known he wasn't going to let that slip of the tongue pass. 'Symbolically married,' I parried. 'Where's yours?'

I was left blinking when he pulled the chain out of the front of his shirt.

'Symbolically, of course,' he quipped, and let me touch the plain gold band dangling in front of me. There looked to be an engraving inside, but I didn't try to read it. I felt oddly touched that he'd shown it to me even if he was teasing the crap out of me for the same sort of sentiment.

'This new?' I had to ask, and the quirky little half smile told me it was, before he voiced it.

'Christmas,' he said, his tone gentling down and it made me think that maybe the ribbing had just given him an opening to show it off a little.

'Congratulations,' I grinned up at him and he snorted, slipping the ring back inside his shirt, seeming suddenly embarrassed. I'm not sure I'd ever seen an embarrassed Trowa Barton before. It was kind of weird, so I tossed an arm around him and said, 'No, seriously. Welcome to the family and all that shit.'

It made him laugh, but he returned the one-armed hug before rolling his eyes at me. He started to say something else, but Heero pinged my phone again and I glanced down to see what his reply was to my offer to pick up take-out. When I looked up again, his expression had changed and all the bantering seemed to be gone.

'I'm glad you have your own... symbolism,' he told me quietly. 'You and Heero are good for each other, I think.'

It made me duck my head and I took a moment to work studiously at putting my phone back in my pocket, hesitating on the first couple of things that came to mind. Trowa took hold of the base of my braid and gave me a half-hearted little shake. 'He's as happy as I've ever seen him,' he told me simply.

It made me look up at him, heat rising to my face. 'You pulling Heero's mind reading trick now?'

He gave me a wry little grin. 'Who do you think taught it to him?'

I answered his grin with a distracted curve of my lips, but couldn't help poking at the subject. 'Is he really? Because sometimes... sometimes I just feel like I'm gettin' more out of this whole thing than he is, you know what I mean?'

He made a sound that was derisive, but then his mirth faded and he gave me a thoughtful look. After a moment, he glanced in the general direction of the room we'd left behind and gave out with a soft little sigh. 'Yeah... I guess I do know what you mean, but you're wrong. Heero was... a very lonely person those years that you were gone. You've turned his regimented little world upside down... it's good for him.'

'Nice to know I'm not the only one up-ended,' I retorted, and he chose to see the humor and not the possible underlying bitterness; laughing lightly.

Then as quickly as we'd staggered onto the subject, he wandered off. 'You know... Jack Lee is every bit as faceted a personality as Aleyah; don't make the mistake of taking him at face value.'

I made my own little derisive noise, but was more than happy to follow him to the less uncomfortable topic. 'I have yet to figure out even that much. The man is...'

'Over-whelming?' he supplied helpfully and I nodded.

'Don't let him get to you,' he advised. 'You're talking about a man who reportedly put tadpoles in all the water glasses at his last dinner party.'

I blinked at him for a second, trying to imagine the scene. 'Don't tell me...'

Trowa grinned, almost as pleased to deliver the line as I'm sure Mr. Lee had been. 'Frog in your throat?'

I groaned. 'Oh God... what have I gotten myself into?'

'Nothing you can't handle,' he told me, giving me that strange feeling like I'd somehow been led to the line.

'Sure as hell hope so,' I muttered and took a step away. 'I should probably be going before Heero starves to death.'

I got a look that told me he knew I was just evading, but he let me get away with it. I took a step off the porch and hesitated on a sudden thought. 'Uhm... you'll keep Quatre from actually having Mr. Lee investigated or something, right?'

His laugh was more ironic than anything else, letting me know that I probably wasn't too far off base. 'I'll at least keep him from trying to bribe employees into going through the man's trash.'

'I'm going to take that as a joke,' I informed him, probably looking a bit wide-eyed. 'And you are not going to disillusion me.'

'I'll just say goodbye then,' he smiled drolly and we parted ways on that note.

Once in the car and on the road, I went ahead and called Heero, because texting can be handy, but I find it to be a pain in the ass. I can talk and drive; the authorities frown on you keying and driving.

'Everything go ok?' he asked, when I'd gotten him on the line.

'As typically 'ok' as anything goes for me,' I chuckled. 'It took so long because I stopped off at Quatre and Trowa's to see what they could tell me about my new employer.'

'You got the commission?' he asked and there was this strange little lift to his voice that made me really stop and reflect on that.

'Guess I did,' I replied. Though, thinking about it, I'd not really stopped to see the 'maybe' aspect before. It actually made me feel kind of foolish; it had never occurred to me that it wasn't already a done deal. Nobody had ever asked to talk commission before, who hadn't already fully intended to hire me.

Made me feel kind of unintentionally arrogant.

'What does he want you to do?' Heero asked and I repressed the snort because I know how that sounds over a phone.

'Good damn question. I'll tell you about it when I get home,' I told him. 'You have anything in mind for dinner?'

'Whatever you like is fine,' he assured, but then amended. 'Though not pizza, if you don't mind. Wufei and I had it twice last week.'

'Think I'll just get sandwiches then,' I decided, thinking about what was on the way home. 'Fish, chicken, or hamburger?'

'Chicken,' he decided after a moment. 'And a salad if you stop somewhere that has them.'

'Roger,' I grinned and he didn't bother to repress the snort. It sounded like a wuff of air in my ear. 'Home in a bit.'

'Be careful,' he told me, his usual sign-off, and we hung up.

Heero's car has an actual radio that functions, and I turned the volume back up once I was off the phone, humming quietly along with the song that was playing.

I let myself think about that tone that had been in Heero's voice when he'd realized I was doing the commission, and had to admit to myself that he'd sounded just a tiny bit... proud? Maybe? If it wasn't just wishful thinking. It made me feel a strange mish-mash of embarrassed and warm and... lame for liking it so much.

Though I sure as hell hoped I didn't end up screwing the whole thing up by not managing to come up with something for the job. So far, I had nothing but a vague notion that involved a Greek garden with lots of flowers. And that just seemed too mundane for the indomitable Mr. Lee. Somehow, the mural was going to have to be something really... special. Not just flowers, but... special flowers? Maybe those roses that Quatre had mentioned? A whole landscape of those roses? Or was that just too damn obvious? If not the roses, then what? Some kind of alien flora? A hamster on the dashboard ran through a quick slide show of weird vegetation and I banished him when he got to the Venus fly-trap pun.

I arrived home with dinner in hand, barely remembering going through the drive through, and praying I hadn't ordered something Martian.

When I walked into the house, Heero wasn't immediately in sight, but the dining room table was set for two. I couldn't help a roll of the eyes at the plates and silver-ware; Heero is the only guy I know who feels compelled to put fast-food on a damn plate. Isn't the whole point of ordering out to avoid the clean up? They put everything into those convenient little containers... why not use them? I was setting my own plate off to the side when I heard Heero come through from the kitchen.

'Barbarian,' he sighed and I grinned at him.

'Plates are too ridiculously high-class for Mr. Bucket chicken,' I informed him and he just shook his head, noting the lack of drinks and stepping back into the kitchen to fetch some.

'You better be bringing me a soda, Yuy,' I called after him. 'I've had a rough day.'

He muttered something from the depths of the refrigerator that I couldn't make out, but didn't really have to, in order to get the gist of it. Not really wanting to hear another lecture on the total lack of nutritional value of my beverage of choice, I decided to change tracks before he could really get started.

'So, in theory, if there was any possibility of plant life on Mars... prior to any terraforming, I mean... what do you suppose it would look like? Native Martian vegetation, so to speak.'

There was a sudden total lack of sound from the other room. I took it to mean that I'd not only changed his track, but derailed it. I tried for an inquisitively innocent look, but couldn't quite lose the grin before he stepped back into view.

'Martian... what?' he had to ask, holding a soda in one hand and a glass of his tea in the other.

'You know... foliage that would grow on Mars?' I quipped, taking my soda from him for a long swallow before moving to sit down. He followed suit after giving me a look that begged to be reassured I hadn't lost my mind.

'We are not landscaping the yard in early Martian,' he said, settling across from me and pointedly unwrapping his sandwich to arrange it on his plate.

'You're washing that,' I grumbled, spreading my own sandwich paper out in lieu of a plate. 'Not the yard. The commission.'

'You do this on purpose,' he groused back. 'And don't think I don't know it.'

'Do what?' I asked innocently and I think he might have tried to kick me under the table.

'Make me insane with the vague topics and rabid subject changes,' he said while sparingly drizzling the dressing on his side salad.

'I never changed the subject,' I said. 'It's been the same one since I got home.'

He gave me a doubtful look. 'So you're telling me that Jack Lee has commissioned you to paint extraterrestrial plant life for him?'

'It's as much a possibility as anything else since he won't freaking tell me what he wants,' I complained and got a 'look' before Heero told me to start from the beginning. Which I did. And when I was done, I couldn't decide if he was just more confused than when I'd started or not.

'A test?' he finally asked. 'For what?'

'That would be the question of the hour,' I told him around a bite of sandwich. 'Or the second question of the hour. The first being what in the hell do I do for the actual test to get to round two.'

'You make it sound like a game show,' he chuckled at me, and I took his amusement to mean he didn't really seem to understand the need for nervousness.

'It feels like a game show,' I grumbled. 'One I haven't been given the rules to.'

'You'll do fine,' he assured me, and there was such a tone of unconcern that I had to stop chewing just to stare at him. He met my gaze with an amused little smile and I swallowed.

'You do understand that I'm going to stress and worry about this until I figure something out... right?' I asked and got a dry chuckle.

'Of course,' he assured me. 'It's what you do.'

'Asshole,' I muttered, and took a couple of long gulps of my Mt. Dew. His smile spread wider.

'And I'll make sure to keep your soda well stocked. In the bottles. With the peelable labels.'

I freaking gaped at him, kind of forced to notice that the label on my bottle was already loose on one side. I hadn't even noticed picking at it.

'But you also realize that this... this... weird smug attitude of yours is just going to lead to a pissy attitude from me?'

He stuck a forkful of his salad into his mouth, making me wait while he chewed and swallowed. 'Yep. That would also be what you do.'

'I'm gonna hurt you before this is over,' I muttered, but he just couldn't seem to get that damn look off his face to save him. We shut up and ate then, but I couldn't stop thinking about his weirdness.

It sort of came off as smug, like I'd said, but it wasn't really that. It was like he just... believed in me. Like there wasn't any doubt in his mind that I would pull some damn genius idea out of my ass at the last minute and it would all work out in the end. Pardon the pun. But... what the hell gave him that belief? With all the mistakes I'd made, and all the wrong choices; what made him so freaking sure of me?

'Slow down,' Heero said, and though he delivered the line with a light chuckle, there was a hint of concern in his voice.

'What?' I asked, looking up, startled to find that hint mirrored in his eyes.

'You just went from irritated to pensive in... about five seconds flat,' he told me gently and reached across the table to brush a finger-tip across my knuckles where my hand curled around my bottle of soda. 'What is it?'

'What gives you such faith in me?' I blurted, before I had a chance to think about it and maybe not say it. Because I really did want to know. Only... not.

His finger stilled on the back of my hand and he gave me a funny, cocked-head look. 'You really willing to hear it?'

It sounded like a trick question with the odd wording, so I didn't answer immediately, taking a minute to just stare at him, puzzling it out. He either decided to take my silence as an affirmative, or decided he didn't feel like waiting for me. That finger moved, hooking at my hand and making me let go of my soda so he could take my fingers in his.

'I've told you until I'm blue in the face what a beautiful, talented, amazing man you are,' he said, and I was instantly beet red in the face and looking at the remains of my dinner instead of at Heero. I heard him sigh.

'And you can't hear me,' he said, somewhere between resigned and exasperated. 'But that's not where my faith comes from anyway. I know you, Duo,' he continued, voice getting firm. 'You don't quit. No matter what.'

I frowned darkly at the bits of bread and chicken in front of me, thinking about the biggest 'quit' there ever was. The one that made a ship's owner into a mechanic. The pilot into a ground-bounder. His fingers squeezed tight around mine until even my damaged nerves acknowledged the pressure and I had to glance up at him.

'You did not give up,' he told me fiercely. 'You've gone back and faced your fears time and again. Life is change, and you've rolled with every damn change that's come your way. Maybe you aren't where you thought you'd be, but you're still standing, and still coping, and still...'

'Tilting at windmills?' I supplied inanely, embarrassed and uncomfortable and fervently wishing I hadn't started us down the path he was on.

[back] [cont]