Traditions (cont)

I had to blink at them for a second. Though the words seemed strong, the tone was completely different, and I realized that their moment was over. I wondered if Heero had understood it any better than I had.

Sally sniffed disdainfully, her irritation already gone. ‘I think it would have made an absolutely perfect house-warming gift.’

Wufei snorted explosively and Heero looked at him quizzically. ‘Dare I ask?’ he murmured to his partner.

Wufei rolled his eyes. ‘She was going to bequest that damn devil-cat to the two of you.’

Heero actually managed to look alarmed, and I don’t think he was faking it. ‘Perfect?’ he asked in disbelief, looking across at Sally.

For her part, she held her ground, giving the two of them a somewhat haughty glare. ‘He is not a ‘devil-cat’. He just has a lot of personality. I think a place like this where he could go outside would be just what he needs.’

‘What he needs is an exorcism,’ Wufei muttered, trying to hide a grin.

The look of horror on Heero’s face was somewhat priceless, and I couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Sounds like you were looking for the perfect gift for the cat... not us,’ I told Sally and she sighed in defeat.

‘I thought that you, at least, would be on my side,’ she grumbled, and punched me lightly in the bicep. ‘Traitor.’

‘My therapist says I have to start with plants before I move up to pets,’ I told her in a conspiratorial voice and she laughed out loud. I like Sally’s laugh... she laughs like she means it.

‘So are you going to open the damn thing or not?’ Wufei suddenly prodded, and I could see a light of anticipation in his eyes.

Heero looked across at me, seeming to assume that I would do the unwrapping, and I wanted to squirm being the center of attention all of a sudden.

‘Well,’ I murmured, joking lamely. ‘I guess... as long as you swear there aren’t any cats in there...’

Wufei chuckled, his eyes sparkling strangely. There was nothing to be done but to unwrap our housewarming gift.

The paper came away easily, having been barely wrapped around an ungainly bundle of what felt like sticks. It took me a second to recognize what I revealed and I’m afraid I exercised my gaping fish impression. I looked up into Wufei’s dark eyes and found an obvious fondness there that set my face to flaming. ‘God ‘Fei,’ I blurted. ‘You shouldn’t have done this... it’s too much money!’

It was an artist’s easel. Solid damn black walnut from the look of it. I’d priced the things when we’d moved in, just because I’d never had a studio before, but had decided that I’d lived that long without one and I could live a little longer. And I’d only looked at the simple metal or beechwood ones. I’d never even seen one made of walnut before. It was one of the fancy French sketchbox designs too.

Wufei was just looking at me, with this weird-ass pleased smile on this face. I felt another pair of eyes on me and glanced to find Heero watching me with a similar smile. I realized suddenly that he’d known what was in that package before it had even come through our front door.

‘Seems like it’s more of a gift for Duo than a house-warming present,’ he observed drolly, but his warm gaze never left mine.

‘I thought so too,’ Sally interjected with a putout kind of sigh and fished something out of her coat pocket. She handed it across to Heero, and I could tell from the perplexed looks, that both he and Wufei had been caught by surprise by her move.

Heero took the small rectangular package from her with a rueful quirk of his lips and delicately picked the paper off it.

I recognized it immediately as some sort of framed picture and could only wonder what in the hell it was as Heero’s little grin grew into something that I could only describe as loving. ‘Thank you,’ he fairly breathed, and I was surprised that he seemed to be directing the comment more to Wufei than Sally.

Wufei, sitting beside him, leaned over to see the picture and grinned widely, looking up at Sally in surprise.

‘Well, you dork,’ she said affectionately. ‘You couldn’t give Duo something without giving Heero something as well.’

Wufei’s smile drifted a touch toward sheepish, and he gave her a slight incline of his head. An acknowledgment that she’d done good.

She gave him a scornful little sniff in return, as if to tell him she hardly needed him to tell her what she already knew, but managed to look pleased all the same.

Heero’s eyes lifted to find mine, and I was almost reluctant to take the picture from him when he handed it across.

It was of me, in case you hadn’t guessed. And I felt myself flushing to the roots of my hair as I realized it was of my near-naked self sprawled all over Wufei’s coffee-table, playing with his cat. ‘Wufei..’ I began indignantly, but he only grinned at me unrepentantly.

‘I told you I kept your ass out of the frame,’ he smirked.

‘That’s almost worse,’ I glared at him. ‘It looks like I’m buck naked!’

Sally laughed outright and Heero took the picture back from me while I glared at her as well. ‘Come on, M’lord,’ she teased, in a very unsubtle change of subject. ‘Take me up and show me the ‘ivy so detailed it looks real’.’

She’d caught me already off balance, and the blush just would not go away. I mumbled something that sounded vaguely affirmative and rose to lead the way up the stairs. Heero was already bent over his picture again, smiling at it in a way that was making me damned uncomfortable in front of Sally and Wufei.

Half way up the stairs I had to repress a groan when I heard Wufei start relating the story of just how he had taken that particular picture.

‘Get over it, Duo,’ Sally chuckled, not bothering to turn to look at me as she made her way up the stairs ahead of me. ‘It’s a sweet picture... the cat is very photogenic.’

‘To your right, just past the bathroom,’ I told her, ignoring the comment, and then followed her into the bedroom.

I got to see her gasp with delight and it kind of made me forget my discomfort over this whole visit.

‘Oh my God, Duo,’ she exclaimed, turning around in the center of the room to take it all in. ‘It’s every bit as beautiful as Wufei said it was!’ The look on her face told me she’d had doubts. Then she tossed me a quirk of a grin. ‘I’ve been hearing about this room for weeks on end. Frankly... I thought he was exaggerating the hell out of it.’

I wandered past her and stood by the window, hoping the morning light would hide some of my blush. ‘Well... Wufei seems to be easily impressed when it comes to artwork.’

She turned away from her scrutiny of the room and looked at me hard, one hand planted on her hip and her head cocked to the side. ‘Bullshit, if you don’t mind my saying so. Chang Wufei is not easily impressed by anything. This is damned remarkable work.’

So much for hiding the blush. I think the little flames licking off the tops of my ears gave me away. ‘He just seems to have this thing for artwork,’ I muttered, and turned to look out the window. I felt her move up beside me, but she didn’t touch me, just stood looking out the bedroom window with me.

‘That’s because he wants to be able to do what you do very, very badly... and can’t,’ she told me in a soft voice that was so full of tenderness for the man sitting downstairs that it was almost uncomfortable. I turned and glanced at her, but she was looking out at my yard. ‘There are things in his head that he just aches to put down on paper, and though he is many, many things... an artist is not one of them.’

‘Oh,’ I said brightly and saw her lips curve in a smile that was almost not there.

‘His photography helped,’ she explained simply. ‘Giving him a sort of... creative outlet... but it’s not the same.’

It put that irritating habit of his, of snapping pictures of every damn thing that moved, into a slightly different perspective and I found myself feeling a little guilty for feeling that irritation.

‘I don’t suppose you can understand,’ she said then. ‘Just try to imagine seeing those things in your head that make you create beauty like...’ she raised her hand to brush over the leaves around the window. I could almost see them moving under her fingers, ‘this, and not being able to... to get it out. Not being able to give life to the images.’

I ducked my head, and found my fingers tucking themselves into my jeans pockets. ‘I’m not so damn great,’ I grumbled, and turned to walk back out into the room. ‘I don’t understand why everybody thinks this is so... special. I just dab paint on the walls... big deal.’

She turned to lean on the windowsill and crossed her arms over her chest. ‘You really are exasperating,’ she opined to the room at large, giving her head a rueful little shake.

‘What?’ I groused and had to work to keep the deep-seated irritation out of my voice. ‘Look... I am not an artist. I’m a damn mechanic. I have had no training... no schooling. Hell; that easel downstairs is the first one I’ve ever owned. I don’t know shit about art theory or art history. I don’t know a thing about technique, or...’

She chose that moment to throw back her head and demonstrate that laugh that I normally liked so well. It wasn’t so damn attractive when it was directed at me.

‘What?’ I snapped, turning to look at her. She straightened and walked over to stand squarely in front of me, looking searchingly into my eyes.

‘You think that’s what makes an artist?’ she asked gently. ‘Wufei has studied until his ears bled. He knows more about art history and theory and all that crap, than the old masters. Do you think that makes it possible for him to draw the fields of L5? Do you think that lets him breathe life into the images in his head?’ She reached up and patted my cheek in a very maternal way and then spoiled it by saying, ‘You are such an ass sometimes.’

I gaped at her for a moment before I managed to stutter out, ‘Well, why the hell hasn’t he ever asked me? You know I’d draw any damn thing he wants!’

Her grin was a little sad. ‘Because, of all those things that Chang Wufei is... proud is one of them.’

We just stood and looked at each other for a moment, then she walked away. I waited until I heard her on the stairs before I gusted the heavy sigh. It was enough to make me think about giving up drawing all together.

Francis had to help me resist the urge to just throw myself down on the bed and groan, ‘Do over!’

It was the sound of Sally’s amusement drifting up from downstairs that moved me to follow after her. Maybe I’d get lucky and it was something besides my discomfiture that was making her laugh for a change.

It turned out to be Heero and Wufei putting my easel together and setting it up. Sally had apparently rescued Heero from a rather detailed history lesson on the sketchbox easel design.

‘...only fair,’ I caught Sally chuckling. ‘I’ve been listening to it for the last week, ever since he finally got his hands on the thing.’

‘It is not a ‘thing’, woman,’ Wufei glared at her with an arched eyebrow. ‘It is...

‘A finely crafted piece of artist’s equipment,’ Sally finished for him. ‘I know... I know... I’ve heard it somewhere before.’

Heero chuckled at the look she graced Wufei with, and cocked his head to study the equipment in question. ‘Why is the thing made that way, anyway? What’s the point to that box?’

Wufei ran his hands over the wood almost lovingly. ‘It’s designed to be portable, for when you need to take it on location. It breaks down and everything fits inside this...’

‘Location?’ Heero asked quizzically, and if I could have seen his face from my spot on the stairs, I might have been able to tell if he were merely baiting Wufei or not.

‘Yuy!’ Wufei exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. ‘You live with an artist now; you have to understand that sometimes he will need to go where his subjects are! Not everything happens in the studio! He may...’

Sally couldn’t contain her laughter anymore, and as soon as she broke, Heero let out with a little chuckle as well, and Wufei just shut up and glared at them.

I decided it was time for me to make my reentrance and stop the conversation before things got even more surreal.

‘Hey!’ I called, resuming my steps. ‘You put it together without me!’ I was rather taken by surprise by the stricken look that came over Wufei, and quickly added, ‘now you’re going to have to show me how it works,’ before he had a chance to start sputtering apologies.

For whatever unknown reason, things had been much better between us, but there were still some issues. Most of them involving my teasing Wufei in any way, shape or form that resembled a reprimand.

He was more than happy to tear the thing down and put it back together for me, and I couldn’t help telling him again that I thought he’d spent too much. The more I looked at the thing, the more I suspected it was a piece of custom work. But I couldn’t get too upset with him; his eyes fairly glowed as he showed me all the little niceties, the little compartments and the brass detailing. He was just so damn pleased with himself that I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell him it was five times the easel I would ever need.

Nothing would do, of course, when he was done, than we go and set it up in my studio. He helped me arrange it carefully where I’d had it imagined sitting, nodding sagely and talking about the light quality on that side of the room. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I set it there for absolutely no concrete reason what-so-ever. It was a totally random choice.

When it was in place, he looked at me expectantly until the heat began to rise up my neck and I asked, ‘What?’

‘Aren’t you going to set up a canvas?’ he asked, with that damn glow on his face again and I felt almost stupid having to tell him the truth.

‘Uh... Fei,’ I muttered. ‘I don’t own any.’ My canvas, up until then, had usually been the inside of some ship.

I thought his face was going to split with his bright smile. Behind us, Sally snorted in disgust and I turned that way. ‘So you were right,’ she told him. ‘Get over yourself.’

‘I did help move them,’ Wufei told her smugly and turned to leave the room.

I didn’t need her to explain to me that he’d bought me canvases to go with the thing, though she did. With a lot of eye rolling and open chuckling. I’m not sure if at my open-mouthed discomfort, or Wufei’s almost childlike delight.

‘And I thought Quatre liked to give gifts,’ I murmured, praying that the canvases were the end of it. If he had a set of custom paintbrushes or something out there in his car as well, we were going to have to have a talk. A nice, long talk.

He was back in short order, with a bundle of canvases under his arm. A rather large bundle, I thought. He had apparently lost his freaking mind while he’d been gone, because he immediately began spouting gibberish in some foreign language that I didn’t understand. Edge wrapped. Irish portrait linen. PH balance. Galvanized staples.

I tried so damn hard not to do my gawp-mouthed fish imitation. I really did. I’m pretty sure if Trowa had been there, he’d have taken pity on me and steered them all away from me while I managed to get my head around the part where I should be grateful and not just embarrassed. I was still struggling with how much he had to have damn well spent. I don’t know shit about canvases, but I was pretty sure from the way he was talking that the ones in front of me were not the average, run-of-the-mill, starving artist type. And there were probably a dozen of them! Trowa would have distracted them while a couple of my hamsters moved in and supplied me with the appropriate lines, but Heero has never been one to run interference for me when it comes to this sort of situation.

I figured out how flustered I looked when Heero actually did pull a Trowa move, coming up behind me and laying a hand on my shoulder before speaking. Much later I would figure out that he’d used the contact to judge my level of tension, and must have found it to be pretty high.

‘Sally,’ he chuckled, his fingers giving me a little squeeze. ‘I think you need to get Chang out of the house more often; he’s spending too much time in those on-line art shops.’

‘You see?’ She countered. ‘That cat wouldn’t have been such an awful idea, now would it? At least I would have given it too you without the three hour history lesson!’

Wufei seemed to sense something in their sudden joint attack and the near fanatical light in his eyes dimmed to something a little easier to deal with. He turned to Sally with that disdainful little smirk he has and said, ‘It would take more than three hours to relate the history of that devil-spawn cat and the list of what he has destroyed.’

‘Silly boy,’ Sally purred. ‘Like I would tell them that!’

Both Heero’s hands were settled on my shoulders, and he was kneading at tight muscles ever so slightly, being careful to avoid that place that was still a little tender. Just pointing out to me how uptight I was, I think. I made a conscious effort to relax, though it didn’t help matters much when I glanced back at the easel only to find it aswarm with agog little hamsters, pointing out to each other the fancy details and passing banners back and forth guessing at how much it all cost.

I imagined that as soon as the shock of the whole thing wore off, I’d be getting a visit from guilt beast as well.

Sally had said something I’d missed, and Wufei chuckled evilly. ‘You should have named it ‘Killer’ or ‘Satan’, not ‘Fluffy.’

‘There’s your problem, Sally,’ I interjected, making an effort to set my embarrassment aside. ‘You have to stop naming them with girly names... they’re just rebelling against the stereotype.’

It won me a more solid squeeze of Heero’s hands in open encouragement, and a sharp laugh from Wufei. It also got me a glare from Sally. ‘Yuck it up, Maxwell,’ she smirked at me. ‘Christmas is coming.’

If Heero felt me stiffen again at that implication, he didn’t give me any sign. ‘You wouldn’t dare,’ he told her sternly.

‘Continue to mock me and find out,’ she smiled at him benignly.

Maybe Wufei just didn’t want to take sides between his partner and his girlfriend over the whole cat issue, because he suddenly seemed to decide they’d been there long enough. ‘If you still want to indulge your ridiculous holiday traditions and go murder an innocent pine tree, we need to get going.’

Sally sighed in mock exasperation, turning to glare at him, both Heero and cat forgotten in light of this new topic. ‘You certainly know how to kill the holiday mood.’

‘Did I not agree to help you in your desecration of the poor tree’s corpse?’ he asked in wide-eyed innocence.

‘Chang!’ she warned, but her eyes spoke more of amusement than irritation.

Then somehow, and quite suddenly, Heero had left my side and was escorting Sally off to get their coats. I found myself completely alone with Chang Wufei for the first time in a long damn time. I tried not to be angry with them. Tried to see it as a courtesy and not a manipulation. I could hear them commiserating with each other as they went down the hall about that ‘exasperating man’.

Wufei seemed rather taken by surprise as well, and for a moment I thought he would simply follow them out of the room, but then he seemed to suddenly understand their exit and he turned to look at me again, a strange little almost-shy smile tugging at his lips. ‘I am sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable, Duo,’ he said.

I ducked my head and didn’t meet his eyes. ‘You just shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble...’ I began, but he cut me off.

‘It is never any trouble to give gifts,’ he told me solemnly, a hint of some strong emotion behind the almost formal words. ‘Especially not to friends.’

The line made my eyes flick up to look at the side of his face, despite the fact that the black eye was long faded and gone. ‘It’s just so much, Fei!’ I found myself blurting, and immediately felt my face flame.

His smile then, was some kind of bastard mix of indulgent and amused, and before I knew what was happening, he’d taken the few steps necessary, and pulled me into a tight hug. ‘Never enough, Duo Maxwell,’ he whispered next to my ear. ‘Never enough.’

It had been a long damn time since I’d found myself where I found myself then, and I’m still not sure if it was the feeling of having my best friend back, or his words that made the tiny chill run up my spine. ‘Thank you,’ I finally managed to tell him. What I should have been telling him all along. ‘It’s beautiful.’

‘You are very welcome, my friend,’ he replied in a tone of voice that was very like a caress. There was a moment, then; a very odd moment that should have been uncomfortable but somehow wasn’t.

It crossed my mind to offer him my meager talents in whatever it was he wanted to see on canvas so badly. But I was afraid that he would think Sally put me up to it, and I understood somehow that when the time came for that gift... it had to be a pure offering. There couldn’t be any taint of... obligation to it. No cloud over the motivation. I opened my mouth, the proposal on the tip of my tongue... and then closed it again.

He too, seemed about to speak of something, but then thought better of it.

‘Those two are entirely too quiet for my taste,’ he finally ventured, drawing away. ‘I think we’d better figure out what they’re up to before we find ourselves involved in another of the woman’s insane holiday traditions.’

‘What’s this ‘we’ shit, Kemosabe?’ I quipped. ‘She’s your girlfriend.’

He turned to give me that raised eyebrow look as we made our way down the hall, and snorted softly. ‘Be careful, Maxwell,’ he muttered. ‘Last year she tried to organize a Preventor’s caroling group.’

‘It would have been good for morale!’ Sally called out from the living room and Wufei flashed me a bright grin.

‘Uncanny hearing, that woman,’ he snickered. ‘Until you’re actually trying to talk to her.’

‘You know,’ we heard her address Heero. ‘I was just thinking that a second Christmas tree for the bedroom would be really nice.’

Heero murmured something in reply that I didn’t catch, not that it really mattered, because the conversation was between Sally and Wufei.

‘I give!’ Wufei called, and when we reached the living room, she was wearing her coat and a rather smug grin.

‘I thought you might,’ she said demurely, holding his coat out to him.

He went to take it from her and something passed between them, some communication, and Sally smiled at him affectionately.

Wufei shrugged into his coat, and turned to give us a long-suffering sigh. ‘We really have to get going; I’ll be lucky if she manages to find ‘the perfect tree’ before nightfall.’

They left the house, bantering in that vein and we stood in the doorway and watched them as they walked down the front steps and made their way to Wufei’s car. He opened the passenger door for her, ever the gentleman, and something was said. The teasing seemed to fall away, and Sally looked up at him, a dazzling smile breaking across her face. His expression went kind of soft and oddly tender, and she suddenly threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. I got a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach about what had made her so happy for him, and that was when we decided we were intruding and quietly shut the door.

Heero was still carrying his little framed picture, and when the door was closed on the scene in our yard, he turned me around and planted a kiss firmly in the center of my forehead. ‘I am truly and deeply sorry,’ he told me solemnly, though the glint in his eyes said otherwise.

‘For what?’ I asked in confusion.

‘For telling Wufei that I would love to have more pictures of you,’ he informed me, moving off before the urge to deck him quite had a chance to take root.

‘Heero!’ I groaned. ‘You might as well have painted a target in the middle of my chest!’

He was heading for the stairs, and turned to glance back at me, smiling warmly. ‘I know,’ was all he said.

I groaned again, imagining Wufei stalking me like some kind of damn wild animal in the months to come. ‘Asshole,’ I muttered, but if he heard me, he didn’t respond.

Outside, I finally heard Wufei’s car start and I listened to them pull away. When Heero didn’t immediately reappear, I found myself wandering back toward the backroom. Toward my studio.

The easel, with its unbelievably stark white canvas, seemed... very large. Almost accusing in its blankness. I went and stood in front of it and tried to imagine applying paint to the pristine surface. The things that I paint and draw usually move behind my eyes when I look at the face of whatever I am preparing to work on. But the new canvas seemed so... blank. So perfectly... white. Nothing moved across it, and when I tried to imagine swiping a brush there, it seemed... almost sacrilegious.

Well, this was sure as hell going to be a change of pace.

While the mere presence of the easel seemed to dominate the room, the canvas felt so... limited. I wondered how in the world you could scale your mental landscapes down to such a small area. Yeah, I know that sounds like a contradiction... get over it.

‘The picture of the artist at work,’ a warm voice almost purred, and Heero moved to circle my waist with his arms, settling his chin on my shoulder to scrutinize the canvas with me.

I tried not to jump; amazed for the millionth time at how he could just suddenly appear at my side without my knowing he was near. ‘I don’t think staring at it constitutes ‘work’,’ I chuckled.

‘So... the picture of the artist in the throes of creative... preliminary... stuff,’ he teased, turning his head to nuzzle lightly at my ear.

I snorted and let my head drop back against his shoulder. ‘Stuff? That being the technical term?’

He murmured something neutral and dropped the thread. ‘So... just what do you see there?’ he prompted, sounding genuinely interested.

‘Uhmm... a snow storm?’ I ventured and he chuckled. ‘I wasn’t really thinking about painting,’ I relented, when he didn’t respond, telling me he was still waiting for me to seriously answer his original question. ‘I just can’t believe he did this, Heero. Do you realize how much he must have spent? I think this thing was custom made, I’ve never...’

His laugh then was a little bit... rueful. ‘I probably know as much about where it came from and what it cost as Wufei does, love,’ he informed me. ‘I’ve been hearing about it ever since he decided he wanted to get it for you.’

I straightened and turned to face him. ‘Heero, you shouldn’t have let him...’

He cut me off with a sigh. ‘Like anyone can stop Chang Wufei from doing what he damn well pleases,’ he chided, but then his expression grew serious and he reached to brush his fingers along my cheek. ‘Besides, concentrating on it helped him... get past the guilt of... what we did. He’s been tearing himself apart over that. Don’t begrudge him this... little excess.’

I looked away from him, turning my eyes back to Wufei’s gift. One of the hamsters had left a little price tag tied to the thing with a whole lot of damn zeros on it. I resisted the urge to reach out and take it off. I sighed, trying to see past the overindulgence to the thought behind it. All I got was a vision of Wufei’s face, his eyes bright and shining with hope, looking at me with open affection. I sighed and the little price tag finally faded away.

‘He can be... such an idiot, sometimes,’ I said, reaching to run my fingers along the rich, dark wood. ‘I forgave him months ago; he knew that. He didn’t need to do this.’

Heero chuckled, his hands dropping to catch me by the belt loops and pull me close. ‘He just needed to forgive himself,’ he said softly. ‘Now give me a kiss, I need to get going.’

‘Going?’ I echoed, and noticed for the first time that he’d changed to go out.

His lips quirked in that little half smile he has. ‘I have a lot of arrangements to see to, if we’re going to make L2 before Christmas.’

I blinked at him for a second while my Spacer’s brain translated ‘arrangements’ from refueling and flight plans, to tickets and hotel accommodations. Then I gave him his kiss and he was gone, leaving me with reassurances that he’d be a while.

The house seemed... very large, and very quiet, with only me in it.

You thought I was over that? Not entirely. It’s not as bad as it was, by a long damn shot, but I still feel it. It’s not the choking pressure it once was, but it’s still there. More of an itch now. If someone were to ask me, I wouldn’t say I was afraid to be alone anymore, but I wouldn’t be able to say I was comfortable with it, either.

Which, I suppose, is kind of ironic coming from a guy who used to spend all his time alone and not think all that much of it. Oh, I was lonely all right, back then. But there’s a difference between ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’. You can be lonely in the middle of a crowded room. They might stem from the same root word, but they’re two entirely different things.

I have not been alone all that often since the accident. For a long time, it was a conscious effort on the part of the entire world, as near as I could tell. Me included. But time had faded the shaking anxiety attacks and really, there just weren’t any major visible signs that it still gave me a twinge now and again. So Heero had relaxed his diligence and I occasionally got left to my own devices. There is always this strange moment of... relaxing. Some odd, old part of my brain that breathes a sigh of relief and melts into that thing called ‘solitude’ that used to be the heart of my existence.

It usually lasts about four point five minutes. Then the silence rolls up like a wave on the beach and smacks me in the face with icy cold water. Not... a tidal wave anymore; just enough to let me know that it’s there. Just enough to let me know that I’m not quite altogether normal. Yet. Have to keep remembering to add that ‘yet’.

This time was no different, and within five minutes of Heero leaving, I had my music on and the stereo jacked up so I could hear it just about anywhere in the house. Could I have gotten by without it? Yeah... I’d have been a little twitchy by the end of the day, but I could have. Was I ashamed to admit that I’d just rather not? Yeah... that too.

I spent a bit of time straightening up, putting the breakfast dishes away, things like that. There didn’t seem to be much point in finishing the care package for the kids; it would all have to be repacked into our luggage now anyway.

That gave me a pang of... something. Made me stop and think about what I’d agreed to do. About... what was going to happen. Not a thing I needed to be dwelling on there in that empty house.

I went to find more busy work and ended up back in the studio, staring at the blank canvas again. I tried to make shadows move across the blankness of it, but nothing much happened. I thought about trying to paint something for Wufei, but really... there was obviously something in his heart that needed to come out, and I wouldn’t be able to figure out what that was without hearing his voice. Listening to him tell me about this image that seemed to be haunting him. I wondered about it. I wondered how soon I would dare approach him over it. Now that I knew about his dream of painting something from his past, I kind of itched to ask him about it, but I was truly afraid he would think I was offering out of a sense of obligation over the gifts. Best to wait and see if opportunity would come knocking. You don’t always have to go hunt the little bugger down; sometimes it really did come knocking on its own.

That got me to thinking about gifts and I had to gnaw on that for a little bit. I suppose I should have discussed the whole holiday thing with Heero. I had made an assumption based on stupid ideas and the time I’d been around the guys during the war. I suppose the fact that they hadn’t taken the time out between lobbing bombs and wrecking havoc, to celebrate, shouldn’t have made me presume that they didn’t now.

I felt crappy enough over the fact that I had nothing for Heero, when he was preparing to try and give me a Christmas trip to the colonies that was not going to be a picnic for him. But... did that little comment of Sally’s mean what I thought it meant? Did the guys exchange gifts? Hell; more than the guys? It would be too much to hope that if they had exchanged up until now, that they’d leave me out of it. No way would a one of them ignore me if they were buying for Heero.

But... if that were the case, wouldn’t I have noticed Heero shopping? He’d said he wanted to help me with the presents for the kids because it was something he didn’t get to do all that often. That kind of implied that he hadn’t been trading with the guys up until now. So, that should mean I was off the hook... right?

Well, except for Heero.

What do you give the man who went across a solar system to save your life? What do you buy for the man who spent a month practically spoon-feeding you? Held you while you shook, lost in memory? Called you back from the nightmares? Put your jigsaw puzzle heart back together and taught you how to make love?

A gold-watch just didn’t seem to cut it.

He was out there, making preparations to take me to L2 for Christmas. Preparations for a trip that could very well turn into a nightmare for him. God only knew how I’d react to deep space after all this time. It was a two-day trip without the scenic route we’d taken last time. He might very well end up spending the voyage with his off-his-nut lover wrapped around his neck like a python.

Not to mention the fact that it wasn’t going to be any big thrill for him once we actually got there. He didn’t know Octavia or any of the kids; he was probably going to be uncomfortable as all hell the whole time we were there.

It’s probably a good thing that Heero wasn’t home, was already out making the arrangements, because I’d damn near talked myself out of the trip just standing there in my back room thinking about it.

I sighed out loud; blinking at the canvas I’d been unintentionally staring at, and ran a hand through my bangs. How in the hell had I ended up dwelling on the damn trip, when I distinctly remember thinking that I shouldn’t think about the damn trip?

In the other room, my music that I had stupidly set for random play segued neatly into ‘Closer to Believing’ and I damn near went to shut it the hell off.

‘Don’t believe it till you’ve held it, life is seldom what it seems’

I almost snickered at the line. No... life is very damn seldom what it seems. And every time I thought I had a handle on it, it seemed to shift beneath my feet.

‘So be closer to believing, though your world is torn apart, for a moment changes all things...’

I did laugh out loud at that one, though there was very little mirth in it. Yeah... a moment is all it fucking takes. And I couldn’t help but remember my ‘moment’ out there between the stars. I’ll always wonder just what it was that hit that cable and stranded me there in the middle of no-damn where. I kind of hoped it was a big stinking rock, because it would just feel a little bit too personal if it had been some little chunk of nothing.

‘...You are windblown, but you are mine.’

And that made me shiver, hearing Heero’s voice in my head. I could almost feel him behind me, slipping his arms around me so strong and warm, and all of a sudden there were images moving across that blank expanse of white in front of me and I knew what I had to give to Heero. The thing he’d asked me for with his throat so tight with repressed emotion and his eyes alight with memory.

The painting he’d asked me for the day we’d moved out of his apartment.

I went to get my paints.

The song in the other room changed, but the melancholy mood was already set and I didn’t fight it. After all... isn’t that what Heero’d asked for? What did you think I was contemplating all those hours staring out the window at nothing? My life. My accident. My confusion. My... newfound frailty.

It was a struggle, at first, fighting to fit the constraints of the canvas. It seemed so damn small to hold the pictures in my head. I wanted to make sweeping brush strokes and paint out all the frustration and the depression that had been swirling around me so much lately. I wanted to give life to large-as-life thoughts... but kept running into the edge of the world. But as the idea began to take shape, as the shadows danced across the surface in front of me and I chased them down to give them the color that made them real, it seemed to get easier. The canvas didn’t seem quite so small and I fell into the flow of the creation. Fell into memory.

I hadn’t painted like that in a long time. Not since my ship. The job I’d done in the bedroom wasn’t the same. It’s the difference between... a handshake and making love. The difference between a glass of tap water and a goblet of three hundred year old scotch. Suffice it to say that it just wasn’t the same thing.

And not having done it in so long, I got lost in the passion. I got drunk on the scotch. I did the thing where I forgot everything but the image. The rest of the house could have burned down and I wouldn’t have noticed. Nothing mattered but capturing that picture and it might have been more intense because it was for Heero. I’d never really painted for him before. And this was supposed to be his gift. Some part of my heart wanted it to be perfect. Some small part that wasn’t completely subverted by the art.

It was... a very long time. When I blinked back to the real world, that was my first vague thought, spawned by the quality of the light. Damn; it’s late.

The next thought wasn’t quite so vague and came bursting out of my mouth in explosive consternation. ‘Shit!’

What I was facing was not my little rectangle of ‘Irish linen’, but the wall of the studio, and the picture before me was not twenty by twenty-four, but damn near life-sized. ‘Son of a bitch!’ I growled, just because the first expletive hadn’t really felt strong enough. I could not damn well believe that I’d just painted all over the stupid wall like a little kid left alone with a box of markers. Heero was going to kill me.

It came to me of a sudden, that we still had cans leftover of house paint and that I could fix this in a matter of minutes. I whirled around, franticly trying to remember where we’d stored the half empty cans, almost dropping my pallet, muttering curses under my breath... and found Heero curled in the corner of the old sofa watching me intently.

Oh crap.

‘Heero?’ I blurted, trying to keep the rise out of my voice. ‘I am so sorry... I’ll go get the house paint and fix this right now! I don’t know what happened... I...’

His expression did this very odd little dance, and he rose from where he’d been sitting to come and take the pallet away from me before I dumped it on the floor. ‘Don’t you dare touch it,’ he breathed, setting the paint and brush aside. Then he moved past me to go stand in front of my little brain dump. I watched him in confusion for a moment; surely he couldn’t be pleased with me painting on the damn walls? This wasn’t a ship, for God’s sake... it was a house!

He was quiet, just standing there studying the mural, and I began to get uncomfortable. ‘I’m sorry,’ I tried again. ‘I didn’t mean...’

‘Don’t be,’ he almost whispered, sounding almost reverent. ‘Why do you think I insisted this room be painted white in the first place?’

I blinked at his back for a moment and then turned to look at the canvas still sitting on the easel. There was the ghost of the window frame blocked in and nothing more. I’d obviously abandoned it for the more familiar surface quite early.

‘You,’ I stammered, ‘meant for me to do that?’

He did turn to look at me then, holding out his hand and asking me to come join him. ‘I had hoped,’ he smiled and wrapped me up in a tight embrace when I came to stand with him. ‘I wanted this room to be... yours. And I’d hoped you’d feel comfortable enough here to fill it with your visions.’

He turned back to look at the wall, his arm around me and squeezing tight. I turned with him, head resting on his shoulder and we just looked for a bit.

I’d done his request one better. We were both in the picture. I was standing more or less where he’d wanted me, though the window was a lot bigger than it’d been in reality. But Heero was there with me, standing behind me, his arms around me. My support and my ground. My anchor and my center. I was leaning into him and we were looking out the window together.

It wasn’t any damn apartment parking lot out there. Wasn’t even a regular old sky. It was kind of like one of those ‘find the hidden objects’ pictures; only the objects weren’t really hidden.

The window opened onto a star field of rich milky color, and peppered across it was... a lot of damn shit. All those things I’d thought about all those times of staring out through that glass.

My Lady Demon was there, and Deathscythe, and the Londonderry. All things that looked perfectly at home in that sea of bright stars. There was the debris from the asteroid belt, from the wreck of that other salvage ship, dancing attendance on my little fleet. But there were other things too. There was Solo’s face, formed from the stars, blended in so well that I almost didn’t see it. There was a flame, feeding on God only knows what, flickering at the fringes of those memories. There was a man in a great-coat striding purposefully through the blowing stars that were almost like the snow I remembered from that night. Shards of a stained glass window. A wandering butterfly. Then I saw Heero’s face, not far from Solo’s. And Wufei’s. Quatre and Trowa as well; all made from the pure, clean light of the stars.

I had a feeling we could stand there looking at it for the next hour and not see it all. I marveled at the damn thing and couldn’t help wondering, ‘what the hell time is it?’

‘Almost midnight,’ Heero told me, voice hushed and darn near awed.

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