Warnings : Implied yaoi, angst, OOC, language, slightly bastardized characters, and a couple of OCs, Duo POV.
Thanks to Yume Arashi for beta reading again... where would I be without you?
Feed-back is a dream I have...
And I don't own anything in this series, either.

Assumptions

I allow myself only fifteen minutes in the shower. It's a steadfast rule, self-imposed back from my days with the Sweepers. Fifteen minutes and only lukewarm water. When you walk around with hair down to your ass, people tend to resent every second you spend in the shower. It gets in their head that it must take you forever to wash that much hair and suddenly every minute you spend in the bathroom seems to multiply in their minds. And yeah; it means I have to rush like hell. It's just one of those stereotypical things that I've had to deal with for years.

I guess that's why it gets under my skin so easily; nothing drives me insane faster than being able to predict stupidity.

Maybe that's why I don't look back with any fondness on the first time the five of us shared a safe house together. I got hit with a half a dozen of those damned hackneyed accusations within days.

I am an orphan. I grew up on the streets and for some strange reason people assume because of that fact that I will eat everything that isn't nailed down. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am used to hunger in a way you only get from living hand to mouth. Sure; I get hungry just like anyone else, but my definition of hunger and most peoples are two entirely different things. Food is nothing more than sustenance. My body needs it. I don't much care after that; I'm not particularly picky about what I eat. As a child I learned how to catch, kill, skin and cook rat. You want to debate the difference between t-bone and porterhouse? I couldn't care less.

My two biggest fans in the house were pretty predictable as well. Heero and Wufei. Wufei was the one who decided to become obsessed with my use of hot water and Heero settled on nagging me about my eating habits. Both of them were reacting to the simple fact that they didn't care for me personally. I knew that, and would have thought that understanding them would have made it easier but somehow it only made it worse.

By the end of the second day I was about ready to explode. Another thing you should know about me; I have a touch of some sort of martyr complex. I am well aware of it, but when I am in the throes of a pissing contest it just doesn't fucking matter to me. I am perfectly capable of cutting off my own nose to spite my face.

The morning of the third day I woke up in full 'fuck you' mode. Sick to death of being treated like an outsider, of being accused of shit that just, plain was not true.

I wake early. Old street habit; you needed to be on the move before the marks hit the street if you expected to get any breakfast. Whether begging or stealing, the best time was in the early morning when people were heading off to work, before their day had soured, while they were still feeling good.

So on the morning of the third day, I rose early, grabbed a towel from the bathroom and walked down to the creek where I performed 'fuck you' act number one.

I stripped and waded into the icy water, bathed and thoroughly washed my hair with handfuls of clean, creek-bottom sand. I thought my balls were going to crawl up inside my body and never come back down, but when I was done I was as clean as I would have been in a nice hot shower. Fuck you, Wufei. Never touched your precious hot water supply.

Then I went scavenging in the woods for breakfast. I found some walnuts and spent the next half hour sitting in the sun letting my hair dry a little bit while I cracked them with a rock and picked the meat out. Fuck you, Heero. Never touched your precious food supply.

The other thing that people assume is that I'm lazy. Stems from my laid-back attitude, I suppose. Again, not based on any truth; you learn to do your share when you live in a gang or the gang doesn't keep you long. So after I ate, I braided my still damp hair and went in the house to find some chores that needed doing. The previous nights dinner dishes were still stacked in the drainer, so I put them away. There was enough stuff in the laundry basket to constitute a couple of loads, so I started one.

Now one thing that is true; I hate the cold. And that too is a thing that stems from my youth. Being cold makes me remember those days of having to huddle together with the other kids in whatever shelter we could scrounge. Freezing to death is, perhaps, not the worst way in the universe to go... but seeing someone do it leaves a lasting impression on a young mind.

This house had a large fireplace, and we had a fire going most evenings. Lying in front of it until I felt like a toasted marshmallow was one of the few luxuries I had allowed myself in this place with all the guys around. It didn't seem to annoy them; I think they enjoyed the comfort of the fire as well; though they wouldn't admit it. But I made damn sure that nobody else ever had to chop or carry the wood.

It was late enough that I didn't think anyone else would still be in bed, so that's where I took myself next; out to chop more wood and fill the firebox.

As I worked, I became aware of the rest of the house stirring to life. Trowa was in the kitchen, and on one of my trips in the house with an armload of wood, I noticed the smell of eggs frying.

Trowa's an Ok guy, if quiet. I passed through the kitchen to put the wash over into the dryer and start a second load and he greeted me with a quiet,

"Good morning."

I grinned at him as I went through, "Mornin' Trowa." I glanced at the table and noticed it wasn't set for breakfast yet, "Don't bother setting a place for me, I already ate."

He frowned at me slightly, looking puzzled but I went on by without further comment. Laundry switched, I went back to the chopping block.

I had to grin at myself ruefully; should have chopped the damn wood before bathing. I was sort of negating the whole effort.

Wood chopping was something I hadn't known how to do before this safe house, and I'm embarrassed to have to confess that I almost cut my own foot off the first time I tried it. It's not as freaking easy as it looks. Three days into my new skill, it still takes a certain amount of concentration on my part to make sure the ax is splitting wood and not body parts. So I was a little irritated when Wufei came charging out the back door bellowing at me in mid swing.

"Maxwell!" He yelled and he said more, but it pretty much went by me as I almost lost control of the damn ax.

"What!?" I yelled back when I had the blade stopped and was sure that my knee was still intact.

"There is no damn hot water... again!" He stated, his hair down and dripping what must be cold water everywhere, "That God damned hair of yours... "

I cut him off, "I have not showered today." I gritted and turned away to begin picking up wood, "The washing machine is running. Turn it off."

I could feel him staring at me for a bit, but I ignored him and when I turned around to take the wood in the house, he was gone. Fuck you, Wufei.

The firebox was full enough, so I decided to stop chopping wood while I was still intact and went to get the clothes out of the dryer.

The others were sitting around the breakfast table and I got a smile from Quatre and a glare from Heero as I came into the room.

"Good morning, Duo." Quatre smiled at me as I stopped to wash my hands before dealing with the clean clothes.

"Morning, Qat." I grinned at him and he blushed. He's the only one I feel free enough with to address with any sort of nickname. I think he likes it but for some reason it seems to embarrass him.

I thought I might escape to the laundry room with no more than that but the frown on Heero's face was deepening and he stopped me before I could get by.

"The supplies are limited, we can't afford for anyone to... "

I turned away from the sink to face him. His glares are... heat personified. Mine are the soul of ice. He stopped in mid sentence.

"I didn't touch your carefully counted and inventoried supplies." I growled.

He met my cold stare but didn't back down, "Trowa said you already ate." He said accusingly.

It rankled me; thinking about them talking behind my back like I was not part of their little group, "I took care of myself. I didn't go near your precious supplies."

We stared at each other for a little longer and when he didn't have anything else to say, I turned away and went to finish the laundry. Fuck you, Heero.

I caught the dryer before it shut off and was able to hang Quatre's dress shirts before they wrinkled. I resisted the urge to just leave Heero and Wufei's clothes lie in the dryer. But I managed to make myself fold the green and black tank tops with the same detachment as Trowa and Quatre's clothes.

Anger was growling around in my gut and I decided without thinking about it that I would not touch another bite of their God damned food; I didn't care if I starved to death. Yep... spiting my own face all over the place.

I drew the line at putting their clothes away, and just stacked everything in a laundry basket and set it on the kitchen table. Let them come and get their own damned stuff.

I checked and someone else had already done the breakfast dishes, so I went to find Quatre. It was my turn to make the supply run.

I heard them in the living room and it was the low tone of their voices that made me hesitate instead of just going in.

"... walnuts? Why in the hell would he go out in the woods scrounging for food when we have... "Wufei was saying but Quatre cut him off. Someone must have noticed the pile of smashed hulls.

"Because of the way you two ride him about every little thing. What is your problem? Duo more than carries his own weight... "

"He is unprofessional." I heard Heero growl, "He is undisciplined and pays no attention to orders."

"He... "Quatre hesitated, "Has his own style. But that doesn't give you the right to be rude."

"He is a thief by his own admission." Wufei said, and I could hear the disdain in his voice.

"Oh that's so much worse than being a cold blooded killer." I heard Trowa drawl and I had to grin. The guy was quiet, but that didn't mean his tongue wasn't sharp when he decided to use it.

I think I'd heard enough to pretty much get the gist of what was going on. I went on into the room; trademark grin plastered on my face and ignored everyone but Quatre.

"There you are, Qat!" I beamed at him, "Clean laundry's on the table. You got the car keys? I'm getting ready to make the supply run."

He stood and fished the keys out of his pocket and I detected frowns forming on at least two of the other faces in the room. I was doing that anticipate stupidity thing again and could feel myself growing angry.

"Yep. Thinking about buying sixty cartons of ice cream and some cookies. You got any preferences in flavors?"

Wufei's mouth opened and then snapped shut again. Figured he'd be the one to make that assumption.

I could see Heero out of the corner of my eye, on the verge of speaking and I took a shot, "And who had the 'Hi! I'm a Gundam pilot!' t-shirt last... I can't find it."

He growled and glared at me, "Baka." he gritted and I grinned; two for two. I was on a roll.

I turned to leave and called airily over my shoulder, "I'll try to be back before the end of the week!"

That should just about cover it. I stopped in the kitchen and took a quick inventory of what we had and what we needed and took the supply money out of the jar on the windowsill.

This was, perhaps, not such a bad idea. It would do me good to get the hell away from here for a little while.

I was cursing the luck that had put me in this situation and starting to fervently wish that I'd get an assignment just to get me out of it. I do not usually have a problem getting along with people. I think I'm a pretty easy-going guy; I normally can manage to put people at ease enough that I can make a connection.

Somehow, no matter what I did with this group of guys I just seemed to irritate them. Now in all fairness; Trowa and Quatre didn't seem to mind me all that much, at least they were polite. I seemed to have earned a little respect from Trowa and I think Quatre might have actually half way liked my company. It was the other two; the brothers Grimm. It didn't seem to matter what I did; I drove them to distraction. With Wufei... at first, it had been almost fun and I have to admit I spent a little time baiting him just because it was so easy. But Heero... that one got to me. There was something about him... something behind those incredible dark blue eyes. Yeah, stop your damn snickering; I fell for the son of a bitch the first time I'd made eye contact. Get off my back; I'm well aware of what a ridiculous thing it was to do, but where my heart chooses to pin itself is something I've never been able to control.

So every one of those 'bakas' cut like a damned knife.

It is approximately eight miles to town by the road. If you were to walk down the side of the mountain, I imagine it probably wasn't much more than two. The car is an old beater, an ugly, flat, primer green but runs Ok. I'd spent a little time on it when we'd first gotten here so at least it didn't burn oil any more. It looked like the kind of car you would expect any average guy our age to own.

The road down the mountain is a nasty little switchback thing, winds to hell and back before coming out in the small town at the bottom; Foxdell, I think it's called. There is a place about two miles from the house where you can pull off without being in danger of getting creamed by anything else on the road. Not that anything else had a reason to come up this way.

I pulled off and parked, got out of the car and sat on the hood for a little bit. Wouldn't do to go down among the civilians as wound up as I was. I just sat and listened to the birds for a few minutes, something I'd never heard before coming to Earth and tried to shove it all out of my mind. This would not last forever, I'd been a lone operative before coming to Earth and this 'partnership' thing would end eventually and I would go back to being a lone operative again. Somehow, it didn't make me feel any better. I guess my problem was that, in my head, I could visualize what this could be like. We were five of the most unique individuals in the damn solar system. We should have more in common with each other than with anyone else alive. It would have been nice to be able to talk to these guys, to have a true partnership where we watched each other's backs. I snorted softly; apparently not down this road.

"Just stop feeling, Maxwell." I muttered to myself and climbed down. This wasn't doing me any good; I was so uptight I was feeling vaguely nauseous. I had to stop letting them get under my skin. And I had to admit to myself the date wasn't helping matters much. I just didn't want to think about that right now. I got back in the car and finished the drive.

Foxdell isn't anything to write home to Mom about; there's a general store kind of thing, a little bed and breakfast that didn't look like it had seen a guest in months, a gas station, a little mom and pop restaurant, and maybe a dozen houses. I suspect there was an 'in season' to this area and we just weren't in it; too late in the year.

The car was a little low on gas, something that goes against my 'be ready for anything' nature, so I pulled into the station first.

I had to grin; the pump was so old it didn't even have a digital display. I watched a guy with the name 'Bill' stitched on his pocket come strolling out of the station and I wondered if these people even knew there was a war going on.

"Morning!" I called cheerily to Bill.

"What can I do ya for?" He grinned back and the absolute banal chitchat was a more than welcome relief.

"Fill 'er up." I told him and popped the hood to check the oil, though I had just done it a couple of days ago.

He moved around the car and pulled the hose down, sticking the nozzle in the tank and latching the trigger before coming to look under the hood with me. I noticed that he hadn't had the pump locked. I shook my head; gotta love small towns.

"You got a rag?" I asked him companionably and he pulled the one out of his back pocket and handed it over as he leaned down to look at 'my' engine.

"Thanks!" I enthused and proceeded to check my oil, grinning happily when it showed normal, "Damn! I think I finally got that leak fixed!"

He perked up immediately, "Got oil problems?"

"I did." I told him as I put the dipstick back, "Stinking thing was going through almost a quart a week."

"No shit?" He raised an eyebrow.

"No lie." I confirmed and handed him the rag back, "Took me forever to find it; had a crack in the manifold."

He made that little noise you make when you're being sympathetic.

He wiped his hand on his pants leg and stuck it out, "I'm Bill." He informed me.

"Hi!" I grinned at him and took the offered hand, "I'm Max."

God; why couldn't it be this easy with stoic, anal-retentive Gundam pilots?

I put the hood down and we leaned against the car and talked engines for a while. Then he asked me the standard questions; what was I doing in these parts? Gonna be around long? The kinds of questions that people just ask in semi-polite conversation. The kinds of questions that make Heero start looking for someplace to hide the bodies.

So I told him about the camping trip that I was on with a few of my 'friends' and that we'd probably be around for a couple of days unless the weather turned bad or we got bored.

He told me where to go to do some fishing and I asked him what was good to eat at the restaurant.

By the time I left, he would have asked me back to his house if I'd said I had no place to stay.

Why couldn't it be this simple with Heero and Wufei?

When I got to the grocery store, it appeared deserted at first but when I walked in and the little bell over the door rang, a girl's voice called from the back room.

"Is that you Bill?"

I had to grin again; small towns.

"Uhmmm... no." I called back, "Sorry."

The voice of a total stranger was enough to bring the young lady out of the back room, wiping her hands on a towel.

She was shorter than I was by a good head, wearing one of those cotton dresses that I think of as 'granny dresses' over a turtleneck, the sleeves of which were shoved up to her elbows. She was probably my age, but seemed like a kid to me. She grinned with pleasure when she saw me, tilting her head to the side to look me over and having to sweep her short-cropped, brown hair out of her eyes.

"Nope." She confirmed for me, "You're not Bill."

I grinned back, "Not when I last checked."

She giggled and her nose wrinkled up and I was put in mind of a puppy. God; she seemed so damn young.

"New or just passing through?" She asked, finishing with the towel and flopping it across her shoulder.

"Just a tourist." I told her and finally turned to find one of those carrying baskets.

"Too bad." She said and I turned to find her smirking openly at me.

Ok; maybe not so young.

"I'm Paige." She ignored my moment of stunned reevaluation.

"Max." I told her.

She regarded me for another moment and then flicked her fingers to take in the store in general, "Go ahead and shop." She told me, "Just holler when you're done; I'll be in the back room."

She turned away and left me alone to wander through the aisles. I had to shake my head; this was the strangest little place. I had to resist the urge to ask her if she'd ever heard of a thing called a 'mobile suit'.

I picked carefully through what was offered on the shelves, trying to imagine each item passing Heero's inspection. Nothing that would perish quickly; dry goods, canned goods. With an eye toward food value. I'll never understand why they don't just lay in a supply of the military issue rations and do away with all this crap.

I got flour and corn meal, rice and oatmeal. Some eggs only because I had figured out from watching Trowa that he used them in a lot of the stuff he cooked. Salt because I had noticed we were almost out.

I was cautious of the price, picking over things and comparing volume, doing the math to see where I was getting the most for the dollar. That was another one of the Duo Maxwell myths that got on my nerves; why in the hell would you think that someone who had grown up sometimes going without food for days at a time, would be frivolous with their money? Gimme a break; if there was anybody in our little group who was more likely to overpay for supplies it was Quatre. I'd be willing to bet that until the war, he'd never even seen the inside of a grocery store. That's what people like the Winner's had servants for.

By the time I had my selections on the counter, I was feeling bitter again and had to sigh at my own frame of mind. I should have known I'd be this way today of all days.

There was a sharp clang from the back room and I flinched into a crouch without thinking.

"You damn piece of junk!" I heard Paige growl and I rose and walked toward the back room; curiosity peaked.

I got there just in the veritable nick of time.

'"Stop!" I shouted and I think I scared the crap out of her, but she froze just a moment before she stuck the wrench she was holding into a very bad place.

I strode across the crammed little storage room and jerked the power cord out of the wall, "Didn't anybody ever tell you to unplug major appliances before you dismantled them?" I drawled.

Her eyes flew wide and I was a little surprised to see that she understood what she had almost just done, "Ohmygawd!" She breathed, "I forgot I plugged it back in to test it!"

She sat back on the floor in a very un-lady like pose and blinked up at me.

"My God; you just saved my life."

I wanted to laugh; the last young lady who's life I had saved had bitten my head off for my trouble.

"What," I asked, by way of a change of subject, "were you trying to do?"

She stuck her lower lip out and gusted a breath up to blow her bangs out of her eyes, "Trying to get this demonic piece of... crap running again before we lose three hundred dollars worth of frozen food."

I turned a critical eye in the direction of the offending piece of equipment, it didn't look that complicated, "Mind if I take a look?"

"If you know anything at all about refrigeration units,' She replied, holding the wrench out, 'Go right ahead."

I took hold of the huge chest freezer and pulled it out from the wall before taking the wrench from her.

She grinned up at me, "Oh well... go ahead; cheat."

I smirked back and bent to work, "Nothing like a little brute strength."

She giggled, "I like brutes."

I jerked my head up to look at her and couldn't tell if she was flirting or just teasing or what the hell. I flushed and I thought she would collapse on the floor laughing her ass off.

"Watch yourself." I tried to glower at her, "I could be a wandering ax murderer."

Her face ran through a strange little series of expressions until I laughed at her and she giggled some more.

"Got a flashlight?" I asked and she got up off the floor to go get one.

It took me most of the next half an hour and she sat perched on a box and prattled on while I worked. She had a sharp wit underneath the giggling exterior and actually laughed at some of my jokes. I found that I was kind of enjoying myself. Just having a nice, normal conversation without anybody getting in my face about something I hadn't done anyway.

We found that we both liked some of the same music, though she didn't have a clue what a hammered dulcimer was and I had never heard of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. She was working here in her uncle's store until school started again, would be going off to college in another couple of weeks. Was going to major in the arts, though her father insisted that she carry a double major so that she'd be able to get a 'real' job when she finished school.

My 'Max' persona comes with a fairly complete background and I explained about being on the big getaway camping trip with some of my buddies before we had to get back to the grind of school. Told her about how we were all saving our money and next summer we were going to go to Europe and hike across Great Britain.

She asked about my hair and I told her my rock star joke.

I asked about the granny dress and she told me her laundry joke.

Then I plugged up the freezer and fired it up and was rewarded with the sound of the compressor kicking on.

She squealed and practically threw herself off the box and hugged me.

"Paige." I said as I untangled her, "It's not that big a deal."

She backed off at the first sign of my discomfort and I decided that she was just one of those people who hugged at the drop of a hat.

"Are you kidding?" She yelped, "You just saved the store over three hundred dollars in merchandise alone! Not to mention the cost of getting a repair man out here!"

I grinned down at her, "Well I wasn't doing anything else."

Though that made me think about the time and I realized I'd better get my ass back up to the house before the guys decided I'd been captured and came to kill me to keep me from talking.

She seemed to suddenly realize how long it had been herself and fairly dragged me back out to the front counter to ring me up, "I'm so sorry!" And then she got a good look at the pile of supplies I had sitting there and quirked an eyebrow at me, "Yuck; this is what you guys are eating?"

"I laughed, "Well... none of us is what you would call gourmet chefs."

"That's it!" She suddenly beamed and grabbed my arm to haul me back toward the back room again, "I need to give you something for going to all that trouble!"

I had a surreal, damn scary moment before she let go of my arm and stopped to pull open the freezer I had just repaired.

"All of this would have spoiled if you hadn't gotten this running; it takes two days to get the repair guy out here. Take whatever you want."

She looked up at me expectantly and I opened my mouth to protest and then shut it again. It wasn't an awful idea; maybe bringing back something special for tonight's dinner would help smooth things over with the guys. I looked into the compartment and then looked at Paige.

"You sure?" I queried and got an enthusiastic nod.

I looked again. I thought about each of the guys and made a couple of careful selections.

"That's all?" She asked, looking surprised and I had to laugh.

"Well... " I hesitated, "I was thinking some fresh vegetables would go good with this."

She got them from the supply in back; the freshest thing in the store.

We made our way back out to the front counter and on the spur of the moment, I snagged a bottle of soda out of the cooler. One tiny little indulgence, damn it; it had been a long day.

She rang things up and when I told her to ring the soda separate, she just grinned and winked and stuck it in the sack.

I sighed and tried to object, but she just waved a hand at me, "The way I look at it; I still owe you something like two hundred and seventy bucks."

She helped me carry the sacks out to the car and we exchanged goodbyes over the hood.

I headed back toward the safe house feeling a little better; I thought I'd done Ok with the supplies and I'd managed to score the makings of a really good meal for free. All it had taken was a little of my overly free time and the exertion of a little mechanical ability. It wasn't even all that late; I'd be back a good couple of hours before Trowa started fixing dinner. Maybe the meal would serve to lighten things up a little bit; maybe I would be able to spend the evening with a little pleasant company. Would be able to immerse myself so much that what day it was would stop nagging at me.

[cont]